Cold War surveillance post

The British Empire and Commonwealth

An imperial security network

By Professor Christopher Andrew, author of "The Defence of the Realm".

In 1934 MI5’s deputy head, Sir Eric Holt-Wilson, proudly proclaimed: "Our Security Service is more than national; it is Imperial. We have official agencies cooperating with us, under the direct instructions of the Dominions and Colonial Offices and the supervision of local Governors, and their chiefs of police, for enforcing security laws in every British Community overseas. These all act under our guidance for security duties."

Holt-Wilson’s claim was essentially aspirational. MI5 was still too small to provide security supervision and guidance for an empire which covered a quarter of the globe. In the final years of peace, however, to counter the threats from Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan, the Security Service began posting permanent liaison officers to some British overseas territories. In 1937 MI5’s first defence security officer (DSO) began work in Cairo. By the outbreak of war, there were also DSOs in Aden, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Palestine and Singapore.

In the Second World War and the early Cold War the Security Service built an imperial security network almost as ambitious as that to which Holt-Wilson had aspired in 1934. At the peak of post-war decolonisation, MI5 had forty-two offices abroad, most headed by Security Liaison Officers (SLOs) with only secretarial support, the great majority in the Empire and Commonwealth. Officers who joined the Service early in the Cold War could expect to spend a quarter to a third of their careers on overseas postings. This, for many recruits, was one of the attractions of an MI5 career in an era before the invention of the package holiday had brought foreign travel within the reach of most of the British population. An officer who joined in 1949 remembers overseas postings as ‘definitely the cream on the pudding’.

The Security Service’s main concern in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War was not, as often supposed, the looming Cold War with the Soviet Union but the threat from Middle Eastern terrorism during the final years of the Palestine mandate, which had been conferred on Britain by the League of Nations in 1922. The terrorists came not, as later in the twentieth century, from Palestinian or Islamist groups but from the Zionist extremists of the Irgun and the Stern Gang, who believed that the creation of an independent Jewish state required and legitimated the use of terror against the British administration.

MI5 reported to Attlee that Irgun and the Stern Gang were planning a series of attacks in Britain, including a plot to assassinate the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. Most of the plots failed as a result of successful MI5 surveillance and the lack of support for terrorism among the great majority of British Zionists. MI5 failed, however, to prevent a bomb being planted by the Stern Gang in the Colonial Office building (now used by the Foreign Office) on Whitehall in 1947. The bomb, however, did not detonate because of the failure of the timer.

Indian independence in 1947 set an important precedent for the rest of British decolonisation. The government of Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to the stationing of an MI5 Security Liaison Officer (SLO) in New Delhi after the end of British rule. For almost a quarter of a century, relations between MI5 and its Indian counterpart, the Delhi Intelligence Branch (DIB), were closer and more confident than those between any other departments of the British and Indian governments. In other newly independent Commonwealth countries, as in India, the continued presence of an SLO became a significant, though usually undisclosed, part of the transfer of power.

Within the Commonwealth MI5’s closest liaison was with Australia. In 1948, following the discovery of Soviet penetration of the Department of External Affairs, Prime Minister Ben Chifley approved the foundation of an agency ‘similar to MI5’. He also authorised the stationing of an SLO to advise, as well as liaise with, the Australian Security Intelligence Agency (ASIO) founded in the following year. MI5’s weakest Commonwealth links were with South Africa after the election victory in 1948 of Dr Daniel Malan’s white-supremacist Nationalist Party. MI5 had no SLO in Pretoria. The Director General, Sir Percy Sillitoe, visited South Africa in 1949. Though cautious interchange of intelligence on Communist movements continued, Sillitoe told Attlee afterwards that he was strongly opposed to the creation of a South African security service on the MI5 model:

"The improper uses to which a Security Service might be put by the Nationalists might well include its employment against the Parliamentary Opposition and against those members of the British community out of sympathy with the Nationalist political programme. It would certainly be used to keep down the black races."

During the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) MI5 played an important supporting role in devising the strategy which defeated the Communist insurgency. General (later Field Marshal) Sir Gerald Templer, high commissioner and director of operations, invited both Sillitoe and the Deputy DG, Dick White (who succeeded Sillitoe as DG) on tours of inspection during the ‘Emergency’. Templer chose another senior MI5 officer, Jack Morton, as his director of intelligence. An MI5 director, Bill Magan, played an equally important role in the Cyprus Emergency.

The correspondence and telephone calls of the two main leaders of African independence movements, the Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah and the Kenyan Jomo Kenyatta, were monitored while they were living in Britain during and immediately after the Second World War. MI5 concluded that, despite their contacts with British Communists, ‘there was no evidence of Communism as it was understood in Europe’ in either West or East Africa. When Ghana became independent in 1957, Nkrumah asked the SLO, John Thomson, to stay on. Two years later, when Thomson’s term was extended, Nkrumah sent a letter of thanks to the Director General, Sir Roger Hollis. Shortly before Kenyan independence in 1963, Kenyatta called at MI5’s HQ to ask Hollis for help in training Kenyan police officers.

In most British colonies there was a relatively harmonious transfer of power to independent governments. British Guiana (now Guyana) was a notable exception. Following the election victory of the People’s Progressive Party in 1953, its leader Cheddi Jagan, whose contacts with the British Communist Party were monitored by MI5, became the first Marxist prime minister of a British colony. The SLO in Trinidad (whose responsibilities included British Guiana) reported that Jagan’s support was based not on popular enthusiasm for Marxism but on opposition to ‘selfish and high-handed’ sugar-plantation owners and other big employers.

After only a few months as prime minister, Jagan was removed from office and the governor given emergency powers. Though Jagan later returned to office, files in the PREM series in the UK’s National Archives reveal that successive British governments gave in to pressure from the White House to allow the Central Intelligence Agency to use ‘covert action’  to ensure that the first leader of independent Guyana in 1966 was not Jagan but his anti-Marxist rival, Forbes Burnham.

The stationing of SLOs in former British colonies came to an end at about the same time as the British Empire. At the close of the 1960s the Secret Intelligence Service’s responsibilities were extended to include former British possessions—a development similar to the transformation of the Foreign Office into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1968. The head of the Delhi Intelligence Bureau, with which MI5 had had a particularly long association, wrote to the DG that, ever since Indian independence, ‘uninterrupted liaison with your organisation through the Resident SLO in New Delhi ... has proved invaluable to us.’