Review of Behind the Battle: Intelligence in the War with Germany 1939-1945 by Ralph Bennett (Pimlico, 1999)
The back cover blurb for Behind the Battle states: “Many recent studies have covered aspects of the military intelligence available to Britain and her allies during the Second World War, but until now no succinct and authoritative survey of the whole field has existed.” Unfortunately, this book does not provide a survey of the whole field and neither does it seem authoritative. Rather, it principally focuses on Ultra and the use and misuse of intelligence gleaned from decrypting German enigma encoded radio traffic in various theatres throughout the war. All other forms of intelligence gathering including aerial photography, the use of agents, interrogating and eavesdropping on prisoners, and Y traffic (the interception of localised radio traffic along the front line) are largely ignored and dealt with in a very cursory way. Further, how intelligence was implemented in the field is also largely restricted to how Ultra was used tactically. To be sure, Ultra proved highly useful for revealing strategic intelligence and shaping the Allied response. However, it would have been very interesting to get an overview of all forms of intelligence employed, with some detailed vignettes of particular cases and personalities. Even with respect to the analysis of Ultra the discussion tends to provide a broad brushstroke overview, rather than providing some in-depth illustrations. The focus on Ultra should not perhaps be a surprise given that Bennett worked at Bletchley, where enigma traffic was decoded during the war. That Bennett pushes the argument that the only meaningful intelligence came via Ultra, often in a very tiresome fashion, however is less forgivable, providing an overly narrow view of the many ways in which intelligence was gathered and used. If you are interested in Ultra, then you might find this book of interest; if you want a broader overview of British intelligence operations during the war then you’ll need to look elsewhere.