Q&A

U of C prof selected to write authorized history of British intelligence agency

A University of Calgary history professor has been asked to write the history of a the British signals intelligence on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.

'For a Canadian to be asked to write an authorized or official history of the British is unusual.'

University of Calgary History Professor John Ferris has been named the authorized historian in chronicling the history of its British communications intelligence agency (Government Communications Headquarters). Ferris stands next to an Enigma machine, a type of enciphering machine used by the German armed forces to send messages securely. (Riley Brandt)

University of Calgary history professor John Ferris spoke to The Homestretch Tuesday about being named the authorized historian of the British communications intelligence agency, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019. 

Below is an abridged version of that conversation:

Q: How do you feel?

A: It's an honour — and also [I feel] quite surprised. For a Canadian to be asked to write an authorized or official history of the British is unusual. [I'm] very pleased in the sense that I'll be the first person to see a lot of the material — and the first to write about it. Pleased in the sense that I spent a lot of my adult life trying to understand exactly what signals intelligence is — and now I finally can. And explain it to people.

Q: Did you come to them, or did they come to you?

A: They came to me.

There are very few people who work in the history of signals intelligence and even fewer who work in the British case. I've been going after documents that were hidden since the early 1980's — so in other words, going on 35 years — so when they approached me, I knew the topic better than anybody else did.

Q: What have you discovered?

A: What I've discovered is that signals intelligence is a normal function of every major government really, since at least 1914. We didn't know about it because during the Cold War, signals intelligence agencies tried to keep it quiet. They believed that if people knew what they were doing, they would actually make it harder for them to do their job.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Anglo signals intelligence agencies increasingly have concluded that if people don't know what they do, they would be increasingly suspicious of them. So in other words, some degree of openness is necessary for them to do their jobs.

And they also believe — and I think they're quite right — that they've done quite a good job that people would be happy to hear about.

University of Calgary historian John Ferris, who's writing the authorized history of British communications intelligence, says, "What wins wars are men, populations, economics, leadership — intelligence is a high secondary factor." (Ellis Choe)

Q: What have you been looking at specifically?

A: What I've been looking at is, First of all, how government communications headquarters was created. What role it has in the government — and how that role has expanded between 1919 and the present day.

In fact, signals intelligence agencies have been one of the big boom areas for government security organizations since 1945. They were around all the time.

For any major power, the single most important piece of intelligence you get is signals intelligence, whether it's in peace or war — and only naive people think that gee, it shouldn't be done — because if you don't do it, that isn't going to stop anyone else.

Q: What does your work involve on this project?

A: Essentially, what I'm being asked to do, and what I'm being allowed to do, is to write the history of GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters] from really its beginnings in the First World War to the end of the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War, there isn't much I'm being allowed to see.

I'm also looking at how it affected policy. For example, the biggest things they're giving me are the signals intelligence records for the Cold War for NATO and the Warsaw Pact — and basically what that means is we can suddenly get a very clear picture of how it is western countries were gathering intelligence on the Soviets during the Cold War that helps destabilize it.

Q: What role did Enigma play in all of this?

A: I'm one of those who thinks we tend to overrate the significance of Ultra in the Second World War — by which I mean, in the [2016] movie [starring Benedict Cumberbach], it's actually presented as the decisive war winner.

What wins wars are men, populations, economics, leadership — intelligence is a high secondary factor.

And here what I'd say is that the Anglo-Americans — us — ended up creating the most sophisticated signals intelligence organizations on earth.

But — the Germans were [also] good. And because the Germans gained immensely against the Soviets, from signals intelligence, we have to be very careful about saying we're the only ones who win. But without question at the minimum, it [communication intelligence] saves tens of thousands of lives — and at minimum, hastens the end of the war in Europe.

In the Pacific, what [intelligence] the Americans get may be [even] more significant.

During World War II, top secret work was conducted at Bletchley Park, to crack the German enigma code. Many believe those efforts marked a turning point for the Allied forces and saved tens of thousands of lives. The British communications intelligence agency was involved in that operation and many others. Next year the history of signals intelligence will be chronicled in a new book to mark the agency's 100th anniversary. The University of Calgary's John Ferris will author the book and joined Doug Dirks in studio. 7:59

With files from The Homestretch

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca