Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Who Was "Blinker" Hall?

Captain (later Admiral) William Reginald “Blinker” Hall KCMG CB RN (1870–1943) was the British Director of Naval Intelligence from 1914 to 1919. When Hall was appointed – his health had forced him to give up the captaincy of the battlecruiser Queen Mary – the decrypting operation that would become famous as "Room 40" had already been set up by Sir Alfred Ewing. Relations between the two men, who both reported to the chief of staff, remained difficult until Ewing left the Admiralty in September 1916. Throughout the Great War, Hall was at the center of diplomatic and political intelligence; he became Whitehall's de facto intelligence coordinator, with direct access to prime ministers and senior government members. His activities included interrogation (he questioned both Mata Hari and Sir Roger Casement), running his own intelligence networks (like those in Spain and Latin America), and inspiring disinformation campaigns.

Best-Known Photo of Blinker Hall

Hall was a charismatic man and brilliant intelligence operator and politician. Author Thomas Boghardt wrote that Hall earned his nickname because “when excited…his piercing eyes took to frequent blinking.” Hall also had false teeth that clicked as he spoke, and he used these tics to overcome opponents in Whitehall debates: “When making a point, he clicked his false teeth horridly, and his icy stare and wiggling eyebrows were said to work wonders in negotiations.”

Hall and Room 40 are best known to Americans because of the "Zimmerman Telegram" episode. The British had cut the German undersea cables at the start of the war, leading Berlin to send diplomatic traffic to North America by handing encrypted messages to the U.S. embassy for transmission to Washington on U.S. cables. The cables passed through London, and Hall intercepted and decrypted the State Department’s messages; thus he found and decrypted the Zimmermann telegram, which was embedded within the U.S. traffic. To cap this achievement, Hall staged an elaborate deception so he could pass the telegram to Page without revealing that he was reading U.S. cables. Indeed, it would not be until the 1930s that the United States realized that the British had been reading its traffic (and not until World War II that the UK stopped the practice altogether).

Keeping Track of Germany's High Seas Fleet Was, Of Course,
a Major Mission of Room 40

Under Hall’s firm hand Room 40 operated with virtually no supervision from above, something that would be almost inconceivable today, when intelligence services are bureaucratized and seek to integrate their operations. Ironically, though, Hall’s success contributed to the creation of the modern intelligence bureaucracy. After the war, the British realized how valuable Room 40 had been and took steps to place it on a firm institutional footing, creating what is now GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters, which—along with NSA—is one of the world’s leading signal intelligence agencies.

Sources: CIA and World War I Technology

1 comment:

  1. Hall was earlier in his career an officer of the line in command of a cruiser I believe. Coaling was necessary every 10 days or so depending upon sailing conditions; a dirty job that the entire crew including the officers participated in. All hands were filthy after doing it. There was only so much hot water to wash with which the officers used first while the crew had to wait. Hall ordered the engineering officer in charge to remedy it so the crew could have a good wash right away without having to wait. When the engineer complained that he couldn’t do it, Hall then ordered if he can’t or won’t do it he’ll relieve him right on the spot and appoint someone who will. Needless to say the situation was soon resolved where the crew could wash right away just like the mucky muck officers without having to wait. This speaks well of a commander, one who looks out for his men, not taking no for an answer where it involves their welfare.