- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003

The crisis was real. Great Britain faced one of the more powerful military forces ever arrayed on the European continent, one that had laid waste to and occupied lesser powers, and even deigned to invade Russia. Political leaders in London were so distressed over the costs, in blood and money, of continued fighting that there was talk of “peace at any price” to stave off the collapse of the entire British Empire.

Then, salvation. Through tedious trial and error, an obscure staff officer succeeded in breaking codes used by the enemy in battlefield communications. In short order, the enemies’ armies were put to rout, and Britain prevailed. Yet for years the role of code-breakers in the victory remained a closely guarded secret.

Do Enigma, Bletchley Park, and the breaking of German codes in World War II immediately come to mind? Think again. The references are to the Peninsular Wars in the early 1800s, and the Duke of Wellington’s clash with the invading armies of Napoleon. Enigma (the breaking of German military codes) remained a secret for less than a decade after the Allied victory in 1945.

Only now, almost two centuries after the fact, is the untold story of how Wellington defeated the French revealed, in an astounding work of historical research, Mark Urban’s The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes (Harper Collins, $25.95, 348 pages, illus.). Surprisingly, the evidence used by Mr. Urban, a former military officer and now a military correspondent for the BBC, reposed for scores of years in the British Public Records Office, in Kew Gardens, just outside of London. It was contained in notebooks of the code-breaker George Scovell, a Wellington staff officer of modest means and background.

A veritable library of books has been written about Wellington, one of Britain’s greater military heroes. Yet not a single historian or biographer has addressed the significance of Scovell’s exploits. Indeed, Lady Longford, in her magisterial two-volume biography of the Iron Duke, devotes a scant two paragraphs to code-breaking, chiefly to report that French communications remained secret.

Well, she was wrong, and Wellington, of course, was quite content to keep the code-breaking secret. As Mr. Urban notes, “The legend of his great generalship might have been undermined, however subtly, by revelations that he had been reading his enemy’s most sensitive mail. Matters of espionage were regarded as somewhat underhanded.” Besides, Scovell was of relatively low social station, a handicap in the caste-conscious British military of the era. (He did eventually retire as a general, but no thanks to the ungrateful Wellington.)

It is not an understatement to suggest that Scovell saved the Iron Duke’s military neck. The British and French armies, each with European adherents of varying military quality, had been locked in indecisive combat in Portugal and Spain seemingly interminably. The French commanders kept in touch, with one another and with superiors in Paris, via letters carried by horse-riding couriers.

Wellington’s staff recruited local brigands to intercept the couriers. “They are complete banditti, two-thirds clad in things taken from the enemy,” a British officer wrote. “The only pay they receive is from plunder.” Scovell paid the irregulars handsomely for intercepted messages, and he struggled for months to make sense of the booty. The French helped by writing parts of messages in clear text.

Just how Scovell broke the code is too complex for summarization. Suffice to say that he enabled Wellington to know the strength and intended disposition of French forces. For instance, one intercept noted that major French units “had almost run out of ammunition, most units had lost all their transport wagons, there was widespread guerrilla activity, and the army’s pay was months in arrears.” The initiative “therefore rested in the hands of Wellington,” and he took full advantage of it. His victory at Vittoria resulted in the utter rout of Napoleon’s army — one of France’s worst-ever defeats — and its withdrawal from Spain. Waterloo soon followed, and Napoleon was history.

Histories written immediately after the war referred to the breaking of simple Army of Portugal codes, but naught was said of Scovell’s far more important work. A paragraph or two appeared in later works, but no attempt was made to evaluate the value of Scovell’s work.

Mr. Urban finally gives a remarkable code-breaker his due, almost two centuries after the fact. “The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes” is a good read, even for those of us who are happily ignorant of the mechanics of code-breaking.

In 1971, John Limond Hart had served the Central Intelligence Agency as a clandestine services officer for a quarter of a century, capped off by a stint as head of operations in Western Europe. Much of his work involved dealing with Soviet military and intelligence turncoats. As he recollects in The CIA’s Russians (Naval Institute Press, $28.95, 248 pages), “It seemed to me that none of us knew exactly why a very small minority of Soviet officials chose to work clandestinely for, or defect to, the West.”

Hart (who died in 2002) went to his old friend Richard Helms, the CIA director, and proposed a project: “Should we not make a more systematic effort to understand what led some to collaborate while others refused to consider any such act?” The question was of paramount importance: “Agents-in-place were, after all, the lifeblood of our then-highest-priority intelligence-collection program targeted at the Soviet Union, and we needed a better understanding of them.”

Helms agreed, for he also felt that penetrating the Soviet system was an efficacious means of spying. Thus Hart spent the next year studying thousands of pages of operational files and evaluations by agency psychiatrists. He wrote a long in-house report for the CIA. The published study, somewhat bobtailed for security reasons, concerns three names that will be familiar to students of intelligence (Pyotr Popov, Oleg Penkovsky, and Yuri Nosenko) and another identified only as “Mikhail.” Others he studied were “still active [and] would have been vulnerable” if discussed.

From Hart’s vantage point, the Soviet intelligence services were far from omnipotent. Consider Popov, who was assigned to Vienna by the GRU, or Red Army intelligence. He was of peasant origin and a misfit among military colleagues. Devoid of social skills, he knew no language other than Russian. Nonetheless, the GRU tasked him with gathering information on decision-making in the British, French and American military establishments — even though he “could not have struck up even the most casual of conversations” with officers he happened to meet in public places.

His ineptitude did not go unnoticed. He told his CIA handler George Kisevalter that a superior told him “that my recruiting efforts have brought in insignificant results. You can read more material in the newspapers than these agents bring in, they say.” The CIA gave Popov achievable tasks, and he flourished as an agent-in-place.

Hart concluded that the shortcomings of communism and the Soviet system were the driving motivation for agents to switch sides. He writes, “While each of the agents considered himself a ‘good Russian,’ only one of them seemed to have developed any feeling of loyalty to the Soviet state.” All of them “were fundamentally self-indulgent.” But none drank heavily; “by present-day U. S. standards, they would have been considered moderate social drinkers.” (Nonetheless, Nosenko, a KGB officer, frantically sought out the CIA and offered his services after getting drunk in Rome and having a prostitute abscond with his expense money, an episode he did not explain to superiors.)

Despite the agents’ manifold psychological shortcomings, Hart concludes that they “well might have been turned into fine citizens … had they … been liberated from the Soviet spiderweb of their day.” Thus the Soviet system proved to be its own worst enemy.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]AOL.COM.

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