Thursday, 21 November 2013

Naval Intelligence Redux - Room 39 Reborn

While rummaging around collecting research on the Naval Intelligence Division (NID) I stumbled upon an intriguing article on a website called FutureIntelligence.co.uk. Maybe I am just out of the loop but it was news to me even though the contents were over three years old. Traditionally Room 39 was the euphemisim for NID when it was located at the room of that number at Admiralty House on Whitehall.



Not unsurprisingly the government didn't want to trumpet the development as it was a de facto recognition that an action taken as long ago as 1965 had seriously compromised the Royal Navy's ability to operate safely. In effect, naval intelligence had been compromised.

The article revealed that the Naval Intelligence Department was being brought back to life. While the article goes on with the light hearted spin that the NID was the stamping ground of Ian Fleming during the Second World War. it carries with it a message that essentially the decision to merge the NID with other services' intelligence units had been a mistake. As I have written elsewhere, it was not the least of the mistakes made at that time as pertains to the Royal Navy. In that piece I advocated the re-establishment of a separate Naval Intelligence Division and locating it in Gosport, a traditional Navy town.

The NID was scrapped in 1965,  when it became part of the Unified Defence Staff. The article in Future Intelligence cited insiders saying the reason for Naval Intelligence’s revival was a result of a number of embarrassing incidents in the Gulf culminating in the seizure of 15 naval personnel by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway in March 2007 that first shook the Royal Navy and have now stirred them into action.

During the incident a party of sailors and marines searching a suspicious ship were detained by eight Iranian boats. The British party had got back on board their boats when the Iranians approached.


The article then cites a source as saying "It’s become pretty clear that some intelligence has to be circulated about conditions on the ground in certain places and that policy has to be looked at again in some areas.”

“The current orders to deal with an incident like that in 2007 still tell naval personnel to re-embark vulnerable craft like the open topped inflatables used to board that ship. It makes much more sense for them to stay behind the safety of bits of metal and wood.”


The source added that it would be the job of Naval Intelligence to also collect information on the likelihood of hostilities and the potential tactics used. It seems surprising that it took 45 years to realise that the merged intelligence division was not up to snuff. Moreover with my suspicious mind working I wonder just how much of the intelligence the Unified Defence Staff were working with was "Garbage in, Garbage out" with a strong element of US input (and dare I say it, control) when the US has been scarcely a paragon of military intelligence over the intervening decades. USS Cole anyone?

Recently I have been reading a thesis by Anthony Roland Wells, entitled STUDIES IN BRITISH NAVAL INTELLIGENCE, 1880 - 1945, University of Durham, the author of which subsequently became a Royal Navy Officer before going over to the US side. In summing up the between the wars situation he says: "The decline of naval intelligence was symptomatic of the lack of direction in several areas of British Defence thinking from 1919 to 1939."

He goes on to comment: "Where the N.I.D. should have shone during the inter-war period was as the main adviser to the Naval Staff, and through them
to the Board, the C.I.D., and thence the government of the day, since in theory it was the only repository of data and the independent and objective commentator, and if need be, critic of and for naval policy. This was not to be. Hence many of the decisions made at all these levels, were often based on little or no sound data, untested hypotheses, and inaccurately analysed findings of past naval actions, some of which were irrelevant to the present, and certainly the future..."


Essentially the inter-war lessons were not learnt and not only was NID sidelined, but it was in fact extinguished. 

That is until now...

Future Intelligence also reported that a spokeswoman from the MoD denied that the re-emergence of Naval Intelligence had been caused by any particular incidents but that it had happened because of an awareness of an increased need.

The spokeswoman confirmed "that 30 extra officers would not (now?) be joining the Joint Naval HQ Northwood".

“It will be headed by a Captain RN based at the Joint HQ at Northwood, Middlesex, and accountable to C-in-C Fleet through Commander Operations. The name of the Captain is yet to be announced.”


What this whole incident reinforces is that Naval Intelligence was the baby thrown out with the bathwater in 1965 (by Labour) and that decades of Labour and Tory governments kept the Royal Navy blinkered on the intelligence front in the interests of some unknown agenda (Atlanticism?). Additionally the Navy headquarters should NOT be at Northwood anyway.

I reiterate again the Royal Navy is too important to be left in the hands of feckless and negligent Labour and Tory ministers in the future, as it has been in the past, and that the Liberal Democrats should demand the re-establishment of the Admiralty and have a LibDem MP appointed as Minister (indeed First Lord of the Admiralty). 

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