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Authors: Hector C. Bywater,H. C. Ferraby

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Strange Intelligence: Memoirs of Naval Secret Service

BOOK: Strange Intelligence: Memoirs of Naval Secret Service
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Hector C. Bywater

‘Say from whence you owe this strange intelligence.’

, Act I, Scene iii


one of the best British secret agents operating in Germany before the First World War. Mansfield Cumming, the founder of what would become MI6, had been desperate to recruit an agent he could trust to get him intelligence on German naval preparations for war. He found him in Bywater – a 27-year-old British journalist based in Dresden who wrote on naval matters for a number of US newspapers and journals.

The first attempt at recruitment appears to have taken place in early 1910, but was initially blocked by the War Office, which was trying to protect its own agent in Germany – an Austrian who had provided good reports on Russia but, perhaps unsurprisingly, was less keen to report on German preparations for war. Cumming finally got his man more than eighteen months later, after skilfully playing naval intelligence off against the War Office.

Bywater appears in British secret service accounts as a ‘fixed agent abroad’, with the designation HHO, or sometimes H2O – a typically Cumming-esque play on his name. He travelled
around Germany mapping out defences and using his role as naval correspondent of the
New York Herald
as an excuse for talking his way into dockyards and naval installations in northern Germany. His experiences were written up originally in a series of anonymous articles in the
Daily Telegraph
in 1930 and, a year later, in
Strange Intelligence
, which was co-authored with the
Daily Express
journalist H. C. Ferraby.

Bywater gives one of the better descriptions of the inside of Cumming’s first office, housed in part of his own apartment in Ashley Mansions, Vauxhall Bridge Road. ‘The apartment, airy, is furnished as an office,’ he writes:

Its most conspicuous feature is a huge, steel safe, painted green. The walls are adorned with large maps and charts and one picture, the latter depicting the execution of French villagers by a Prussian firing squad in the war of 1870. There are three tables, at the largest of which sits a man, grey-haired, clean-shaven, wearing a monocle. His figure inclines to stoutness, but the weather-tanned face, with its keen grey eyes, stamps him as an out-of-door man. He is, in fact, a post-captain on the retired list of the Royal Navy. Let us designate him as ‘C’.

Cumming was in fact genuinely designated ‘C’, initially as the first letter of his surname but eventually standing for chief – the head of the secret service. Both titles have been inherited by all of his successors in MI6, with ‘C’ the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s ‘M’ in the James Bond books.

Having been recruited by Cumming, Bywater’s first important mission was a visit to survey the defences on the North Sea island of Borkum, described in the series of
Daily Telegraph

On island, three hours, with crowd of trippers, but large part of it Sperrgebiet [prohibited zone], sentries with fixed bayonets and plenty of barbed wire. Persistent reports have been current that Emden is being developed as a naval base, but am unable to find any sign of this. Barracks are being enlarged, however. Borkum defended by twenty guns of various calibres, from 24cm downward, and including several 15cm high-velocity pieces on field carriages. I find in Emden a general impression that, in the event of war, Borkum will be one of the first objectives of the British fleet.

Since a scandal in which two British spies had been arrested on the island, it had been dangerous for any foreigner to visit as an individual,

But the Ausflüge [excursions] from Emden provide one with an opportunity to cross to Borkum as one of the crowd, and in comparative safety, so long as German-made clothes are worn. Next to Norderney, by Norddeutscher Lloyd Seebäderdienst steamer from Bremen. Make a careful survey of the island, and find no traces of the fortifications that had been reported as being in progress. This report came from R in Hamburg. This is not the first fairy tale he has told, and henceforth his reports will be suspect.

Bywater described how he managed to get on board the battlecruiser
Von der Tann
, which was anchored off Hamburg. ‘I determined to visit her, though the risk was considerable,’ he wrote, resisting any false modesty:

By a stroke of luck, I found that a local shipping man, to whom I had a letter from a mutual friend in Berlin, knew several officers of
ship, and had visited them on board. He was going again and, by very tactful manoeuvring, I got him to invite me to accompany him. We went across in a launch, but on arriving at the ship’s ladder I remarked to my companion that, being a foreigner, I might not be welcome on board. He then spoke to the officer of the watch, who was one of his friends, explained who I was (or, more strictly speaking, who he thought I was), and I was promptly invited to come up. We spent two hours in the ship, and saw nearly everything, except the inside of the gun turrets and the engine room. I memorised all the important details, and subsequently wrote an elaborate report on the ship. This was the first German battlecruiser to be personally inspected by a British secret service man.

Unlike the
Daily Telegraph
articles, the identities of many of the British spies carrying out the missions in
Strange Intelligence
are disguised, but a number of these were carried out by Bywater himself and written up by Ferraby in a way that even Fleming would have admired.


Michael Smith

Editor of the Dialogue Espionage Classics series

April 2015


a partial record of British secret service work in the sphere of naval investigation, not only during the Great War, but also in the critical years preceding the outbreak.

Consisting almost wholly of material now published for the first time, it throws a flood of light on a subject that has hitherto been shrouded in obscurity.

The chronicle is necessarily incomplete, for much of the truth about secret service is hidden away in official archives that are never likely to be opened. In preparing our narrative we have scrupulously refrained from divulging any information that could be considered confidential.

Although compiled solely from facts, the story unfolded in these pages will not be found lacking in dramatic interest. Were any justification needed for British secret service operations in Germany before the war, it would, we think, be furnished by this book. Those operations were, indeed, an indispensable
measure of self-defence, thrust upon us by the imminence of a great national peril.

We have been at pains to respect the anonymity of the men whose methods and achievements are here described.

To the editor of the
Daily Telegraph
, our thanks are due for permission to draw upon the articles on the secret service that appeared in that journal during September 1930.


Hector C. Bywater & H. C. Ferraby



afternoon in 1910, five men were gathered round the table in the First Lord’s room at the admiralty. The First Lord himself, the First and Second Sea Lords, the director of naval intelligence, and a high official from the Foreign Office formed the company. The FO man tapped a document that lay before him:

As you will observe, gentlemen, the paragraphs of this letter from Berlin, which I have just read to you, relate to a subject that is more within your province than ours, but the writer obviously believes them to be of importance, and as my chief shares that view, he requested me to bring them to your notice at once.

The First Lord nodded. ‘We are most grateful,’ he said. ‘I only wish the writer had been more explicit. May I have it for a moment? Thank you.’

He read aloud from the blue foolscap sheet, covered with the spidery handwriting that any member of the diplomatic corps would have recognised at a glance:

I was rather surprised to read the admiralty reply to those questions in the House of Commons last week as to the progress of German naval building. The information given does not tally with that which reaches me from various sources, and I have drawn the naval attaché’s attention to the discrepancies. He tells me, however, that it is quite impossible for him personally to investigate the matter. He is not encouraged to visit the German dockyards, and whenever he does so he is always very carefully shepherded, and allowed to see only what his guides care to show him. Direct inquiries at the Navy Office lead nowhere. Grand Admiral von Tirpitz and his staff are bland but uncommunicative. It makes me wonder whether our admiralty people are really in touch with what is going on here.

R------, of the French embassy, told me last night that Tirpitz has lavishly financed Knapps’s experiments with a new Diesel engine, which promise to revolutionise submarine propulsion. He also gave me some account of recent gunnery and torpedo exercises in the Baltic of which our naval attaché had heard nothing. He added that the Germans are undoubtedly spending money like water on various forms of naval research. All this is vague enough, I admit, but I should feel more comfortable if I could be sure that our naval people were fully informed of what our German friends are doing. I know we have a naval intelligence service, but does it extend to Germany, where it would seem to be most needed? You may perhaps think it worthwhile to pass this on to the admiralty.

The First Lord turned to the ruddy-faced sailor who sat beside him. ‘What exactly is the position as regards getting news from Germany?’ he inquired.

‘Just this,’ came the prompt answer:

We are almost entirely dependent on the naval attaché’s reports and such news as Tirpitz chooses to give the German press, which is precious little. Then we get reports from L------ in Brussels, and occasionally from the two very dubious agencies in the same city, which make a business of prying into the military secrets of all the big powers and selling information to the highest bidder. The stuff I have seen from this source struck me as being highly suspicious and probably worthless. The fact is – and the director of naval intelligence will confirm this – we have no means at present of obtaining trustworthy news from Germany.

The First Lord frowned.

Isn’t that rather serious? If the Germans really wanted to spring a big naval surprise on us, apparently they could do so without our having the slightest warning. It seems to me we are groping in a fog. Why is it not possible for us to organise an intelligence system in Germany?

His glance rested on the director of naval intelligence. ‘Well, sir,’ said that officer:

There are certain obstacles in the way. In the first place, the Cabinet, I understand, is averse from any action being taken that might give colour to the German accusation that we are
espionage in their country. For some time past they have been suffering from an epidemic of spy fever, and several quite harmless British visitors have been arrested on suspicion. Secondly, the funds at our disposal are too meagre to permit of our building up a really efficient intelligence service over there. Thirdly – and this is the greatest difficulty of all – granting that we had official sanction and increased funds, we should be hard put to it to find the right kind of agents. Naval officers are out of the question. They would be marked men from the moment they crossed the German frontier. We should therefore have to employ civilians, who must not only be British subjects of good reputation, but must also have an exceptionally wide and thorough knowledge of naval affairs, particularly on the technical side. If the right type of man were found, it might be possible to put him through a course of training, to teach him what to look for and to evaluate the significance of what he saw; but all this would take time, and I, personally, think the matter has become one of great urgency.

The First Lord nodded.

Yes, I quite see the difficulties. As for official sanction, I am willing to take the responsibility of giving you that. I shall, of course, consult certain of my colleagues, but I do not think there will be any trouble when the gravity of the position has been explained to them. If any of our agents in Germany were unfortunately caught, they would, I presume, be disavowed by your department. That, I understand, is the recognised procedure in such cases.

‘You may take it, sir, that His Majesty’s government would not be implicated under any circumstances,’ the intelligence officer assured him in a rather dry tone.

‘That is quite good enough.’ The First Lord rose, and chairs were pushed back from the table. The Foreign Office man accepted a Corona and took a cordial leave. The naval men drifted towards the door, but were recalled by their political chief.

‘Just a moment, please,’ he said. ‘I hope everything possible will be done to repair the deficiency in our intelligence service we have just discussed, and I would like to be kept apprised of any progress that is made – but,’ he paused significantly, ‘unofficially, you understand?’

‘Perfectly,’ murmured the First Sea Lord.

Out in the corridor he took the intelligence officer by the arm. ‘Come to my room and talk it over. I have an idea, and I believe you have something up your sleeve, too.’

* * *

The next scene takes place twelve months later.

It is laid in a room on the upper floor of one of those imposing blocks of residential flats overlooking the Thames Embankment, which commemorate the misguided genius of Mr Jabez Balfour. The apartment, large and airy, is furnished as an office. Its most conspicuous feature is a huge steel safe, painted green. The walls are adorned with large maps and charts and one picture – depicting the execution of a group of French villagers by a Prussian firing squad in the war of 1870.

There are three tables, at the largest of which sits an elderly man, grey-haired, clean-shaven, wearing a monocle. His figure inclines to stoutness, but the weather-tanned face, with its keen grey eyes, stamps him as an out-of-door man. He is, in fact, a post-captain on the retired list of the Royal Navy. Let us designate him as ‘C’.

At a smaller table is seated a very different figure.

Tall, spare and dark, with aquiline features, his soldierly bearing betrays him for what he is – an officer of the Regular Army. This is ‘F’, perhaps the most capable intelligence officer of his generation. He is a linguist of the first order, his mind is a storehouse of naval and military knowledge, and his memory rivals that of ‘Datas’. Against his inclination, ‘F’ was seconded to the intelligence service from a Highland regiment some years before the time of which we are writing. It was put to him as a matter of duty, and he knew no other mistress.

The third occupant of the room is ‘C’’s secretary, an incorrigibly cheerful soul who works fourteen hours a day for the pittance that a grateful country bestows on its devoted civil servants in the humbler grades.

This room is the clearing-house that deals with all despatches and reports that refer in any way to the naval armaments of foreign powers. Here they are subjected to expert scrutiny, which, more often than not, discovers fiction masquerading in the circumstantial guise of fact. No report, from whatever source it may come, is accepted at face value, for the most conscientious agent is sometimes deceived; while to agents less scrupulous the temptation to concoct news when the supply of genuine data fails is sometimes irresistible. It is of the utmost importance that counterfeit information should be detected in the first instance, since
otherwise it may well mislead our naval authorities on matters of vital moment, to the grave detriment of the national interests. Moreover, the funds available for intelligence purposes are much too limited to allow any margin for waste. In the case of ‘freelance’ agents, payment is made on the basis of results, and no money changes hands until the intelligence department (ID) experts are satisfied that full value has been received.

Nor is it only against the dishonest purveyor of information that the ID scrutineers have to be on their guard. There are subtle brains at work in the intelligence bureaux of foreign admiralties, and these are not infrequently invoked to draw a red herring across the trail. Spurious diagrams of new warships, bearing all the signs of official origin, faked maps of fortified coastal areas, and even ‘highly confidential’ textbooks purporting to give details of guns, torpedoes, and signalling codes – all these were carefully prepared and circulated for the express purpose of hoodwinking the British Admiralty. A silent duel of wits between the most highly skilled experts on both sides was thus always in progress. Occasionally, of course, we got the worst of it, but on balance the British ID men more than held their own, as will be demonstrated in a later chapter.

The silence in the room is broken by ‘C’, who looks up from the papers over which he has been poring for the past hour.

‘There’s no doubt about it,’ he exclaims:

This stuff from ‘X’ is absolutely genuine. I have checked it with every scrap of information we have got. The details we knew to be correct are repeated both in his map and in the report, while practically every item we were doubtful about is either omitted or given in a different version. I’ll stake my reputation that ‘X’ has
the goods this time. If so, Borkum is not half such a tough nut as we’ve always been led to believe.

His subordinate walked over to the chief’s desk and looked at the papers.

That’s just what I told them across the road two years ago, you remember, sir? When I was at Emden I could find no trace of any really heavy stuff having been shipped to Borkum, and Moller, who used to send us in good reports from Delfzyl, always swore the 28-cm howitzers were the biggest guns on the island. ‘X’ repeats this, and also mentions the 10.5-cm mobile guns for which we suspected those new roads were being made.

He picked up the map that had so intrigued his chief. Drawn by an unpractised hand, it nevertheless showed very clearly all the salient features of Borkum, that small island off the Friesland coast, which, at the time of which we are writing, was regarded, rightly or wrongly, as one of the strategical key positions of the North Sea. That the seizure of this island by a
coup de main
, immediately after the outbreak of hostilities, was an essential part of Lord Fisher’s plans for dealing with the German menace, is now common knowledge. Germany herself, foreseeing this rather obvious opening gambit, had begun to fortify Borkum in 1909.

The sketch map prepared by ‘X’ showed the site of each battery, with the number and calibre of its guns; the location of all magazines, bomb-proof shelters, and observation posts; the positions prepared amidst the sand dunes for the mobile 4.1-inch high-velocity guns, which were to supplement the fixed defences, and the narrow-gauge railway and paved roads that
had been made for the transport of troops and material. Other details indicated were the main and emergency wireless stations, the secret telegraph and telephone cables leading from garrison headquarters to the mainland – as distinct from the ocean cable lines that traverse Borkum – and, indeed, every feature of the entire defensive system. Accompanying the map was a long report on the arrangements made by the German military authorities for reinforcing the garrison of the island at short notice by despatching troops and war material from Emden.

While this was considered by the ID people the best piece of work that had been done by ‘X’ during the first eight months of his intelligence activities in Germany, he had been highly commended on previous occasions for the accuracy and completeness of his reports. These had dealt with,
inter alia
, the progress of naval construction at the principal German shipbuilding yards, new defences on the North Sea and Baltic coasts, and recent developments in guns and torpedoes. Only rarely did ‘X’ guarantee the absolute accuracy of his information, yet in the main it was subsequently verified and passed as reliable by admiralty experts. Thus, for eight months our authorities had been kept well in touch with all important naval developments in Germany, and there seemed every prospect of still better results when ‘X’ had warmed to his work. Also, there were other agents from whom useful reports had been received.

No longer, therefore, were we groping in a dense fog. Much remained hidden from our ken, it is true; but the screen that surrounded the German dockyards and arsenals had been pierced in several places, and the glimpses thus vouchsafed enabled us to form a pretty clear impression of the whole scene.

To the post-war generation ‘the German naval menace’ is a
phrase of little meaning, recalling at most a page of semi-ancient history. Twenty years ago, however, it possessed a very real and sinister significance. For more than a decade, Germany had been enlarging her fleet, at first by gradual stages, but latterly at ever-quickening
. An immense war armada was being created, for an ultimate purpose of which there was never any serious doubt. The building of this fleet could only be construed as an overt challenge to the maritime supremacy of Great Britain, and for at least five years preceding the war it was accepted as such by all our national leaders, save for a purblind minority who chose to ignore the most positive and conclusive testimony. As far back as 1900, when Germany’s first ambitious naval programme was launched on the crest of a wave of Anglophobe propaganda, Admiral von Tirpitz made candid avowal of its aim. In the preamble to his bill he enunciated the doctrine that Germany needed a fleet of such dimensions as would command the respect of ‘the mightiest naval power’, the more so in that this power, having vital interests to protect overseas, would at no time be in a position to concentrate its strength in European waters. Therefore – and the implication was as clear as words could make it – the projected German battle fleet would have more than a sporting chance of defeating the strongest British force ever likely to be encountered in the North Sea.

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