Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 40

Book Review

Tadeusz Dubicki, Daria Nalecz & Tessa Stirling (eds.), Intelligence Co-operation between Poland and Great Britain during World War II, Vallentine-Mitchell, London, 2005, xxiii + 586 pp., illustrations, index, hard cover, ₤55.00

In 2000 an Anglo-Polish Historical Committee was established, with the full support of the prime ministers of Britain and Poland, to set about identifying and evaluating historical records that would show the extent of the contribution made by Polish Intelligence to the Allied victory in the Second World War. The committee was made up of historians and official experts from both countries, who worked through the archives of the British Intelligence services and other archives in Britain, Poland, and the United States. The fruits of their labours have been published in a massive tome labelled “Volume I”. The thought that there might be one or more similar volumes in future seems a bit daunting, but there can be no doubting either the diligence of the authors of the 59 separate papers contained in this first volume or the extensive nature of the co-operation that actually occurred between the British and Polish intelligence services from the late 1930s and throughout the war.

To be frank, this is not a book likely much to excite Australian scholars – even those with a specialist interest in intelligence matters. In the section dealing with the operations of Polish Intelligence field stations across the globe – not just in Europe, but from the Middle East (even Afghanistan), across North Africa to the Americas (both north and south) – there is just one short chapter of three pages on the Far East. This chapter explains that very little information exists about Polish activities in this part of the world, and that the only documents found relate to some inconclusive Anglo-Polish collaboration in China and reference to activities in Tokyo which had some involvement by officials based in Manila. It can hardly be surprising that the region of closest strategic relevance to Australia did not figure large in Polish eyes.

In that area which was central to Polish interest and contribution, the European theatre of war, the most notable and valuable contributions that Polish sources made to Allied victory – the success of Polish cryptographers in breaking the secrets of the German Enigma code machine to the British, and of Polish agents in supplying information on the V-weapons program – have been well known and documented for some time. The importance of the first-mentioned achievement was acknowledged in Volume 3, Part 2, of the official history of British Intelligence in the war, the writing of which was headed by Sir Harry Hinsley more than twenty years ago. Without the Polish work, Hinsley wrote, British efforts to crack the German codes would have been delayed, and the war might have lasted longer. But in the Historical Committee’s report it is conceded by Gill Bennett, the Chief Historian of the British Foreign Office, that nothing has since been found on the Enigma story that adds to the detailed account already published by Stephen Budiansky in Battle of wits: the complete story of codebreaking in World War II (2000).

Similarly, details of the intelligence reaching Britain about Hitler’s secret weapons appeared in print in Hinsley’s Volume 3, Part 1. Again as Bennett concedes, very few original reports from Polish sources regarding the V-weapons have survived in British archives, and those that exist date only from 1944. Some references found in reports point to information being received from 1943, but it seems to be only speculation that SIS (later MI6) may have been getting reports as early as February 1941. Moreover, there is no indication whether many of the reports that began to flow from 1943 were from Polish or French sources. The first information on the construction work going on at the Peenemünde site actually came from a slave labourer from Luxembourg who escaped and smuggled details to Britain via Switzerland.

The back jacket of this volume indicates that it has been produced as part of the Government Official History series, designed to “provide a trusted secondary source for other historians and researchers while the official records are not yet in the public domain”. It has been published by Vallentine-Mitchell Publishers, who specialise in books of Jewish interest especially Holocaust Studies. It is a pity that so little care has been taken with editing and proof-reading that one finds three spelling errors in the 13 lines of the back jacket blurb – “inaugrated” instead of “inaugurated”, “Wison” when plainly “Wilson” is meant, and “shold” instead of “should”! Although the text inside the covers does not carry the same burden on such a scale, there are enough glitches littered about that suggest the editors could have been more attentive to their task. This is an aspect which detracts from the credibility of any work, let alone a volume of official history.

Chris Clark, Canberra