Thursday 28 November 2013

The Original Hackers

Last week I was delighted to meet Ruth Ive, ‘the woman who censored Churchill’, as she is styled in her memoirs.[i] As a war-time telephone censor, Ruth is probably the last person still with us who once listened in on conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt, but then we still don’t know for sure exactly who else was party to the great men’s conversations. For those who have been surprised by recent phone tapping and state surveillance revelations, it is sobering to remember that hacking has been a recognised policy since a least the Second World War.

Ruth Ive in the 1940s
when she worked in the Postal and Telegraph Censorship
In 1942, Ruth’s shorthand skills led to her being picked out of her job at the postal-censorship offices for a role monitoring the Transatlantic radio link between Britain and America. For three and a half years she worked long shifts, tucked into a small office in a partly destroyed building in St Martins Le Grand. Here Ruth listened in to conversations between the dispersed members of European royal families, a ‘rather bad-tempered’ Mme Chiang Kai-shek, and senior political and diplomatic staff including Churchill and Roosevelt, or Mr Smith and Mr White as they were known over the phone. Ruth’s job was two-fold; to note down everything that was said, and to pull the plug, literally, on any conversation that might in any way compromise the Allied war effort if overheard.

Churchill was ‘a natural telephoner’ Ruth told me over tea and sandwiches in her North London care home, ‘very effusive with Roosevelt and often unguarded in his comments’. Listening down the line, she felt that she never knew what he might say next, and she suspects that Roosevelt did not either. Their conversations might start with a description of Churchill’s dinner, or Roosevelt’s polite enquiry after his opposite number’s family, but would soon develop into often quite passionate discussions. Churchill ‘didn’t hide his emotions’, Ruth remembered. Although he was always confident about ultimate victory, ‘he did not have that clipped, buttoned-up quality’. On one occasion, when he was distraught at the devastation caused by a V2 that had landed near Holborn Circus, Ruth had to cut the line on Churchill twice in quick succession, for fear he would reveal the exact location and extent of the damage caused. And yet the PM only spoke to Ruth directly once, demanding ‘what did you do that for?’ when the line went dead unexpectedly. Ruth had to explain that this time it was her US counterpart who had cut the line on Roosevelt – something Ruth was never allowed to do herself. The only consistent thing in the calls was the way that Churchill always signed off saying, ‘Kaye Bee Oh’. Eventually, unsure how to transcribe this curious farewell, Ruth asked her boss who told her it was K.B.O. for ‘Keep Buggering On’.

The room where Churchill made his Transatlantic calls.
The outside door was disguised it as a toilet,
with a sign that could be moved from 'Vacant' to 'Engaged'
Ruth knew that all her shorthand notes on the Churchill/Roosevelt conversations were shredded once she had transcribed them and in any case, she told me, a few days later ‘no one could read them, not even me’. After the war, in October 1945, Churchill was asked to attend a US Congressional hearing with the longhand transcripts, and responded that they, too, had been ‘destroyed’. It seemed that that was end of that. Ruth married soon after the war and raised two sons and, having signed the official secrets act, she never spoke about her work listening in to the hottest British hotline of the war.

Ruth's July 1945 reference, noting that she was 'the best censor'
and 'highly recommended for work requiring tact and discretion'
Fifty years later Ruth was ‘horrified’ to learn about the existence of a German listening station at Valkenswaard, near Eindhoven in the Netherlands, where Philips electronics are based. Up till then she had imagined that her role had been little more than a necessary war-time precaution. ‘If I had had any proof [that the Germans were listening] at the time, I would have just laid down my pencil and made a run for it’ she told me laughing. Looking back, however, she has become fascinated by just who, besides herself and the American phone censor, was eavesdropping on ‘these two old men, talking to each other’.

In 2004 Ruth travelled to the Netherlands to search for the Valkenswaard listening station. Major Tony Bayley, of the British Battalion of the Irish Guards, had introduced her to members of the military team who, just after the war, had found the abandoned Dutch farmhouse that had once served as the German listening station hidden away in some woods. Sadly the building had already been stripped, and all the equipment either thrown into the nearby river or evacuated with the staff. Visiting nearly sixty years later, Ruth found the building was still standing and used as an Arts Centre, but she met ‘a blanket of silence’ when she began asking questions at the Valkenswaard Heritage Centre and other official archives. ‘You imagine that the Dutch are liberal’ she sighed, ‘it is shocking that this happened there’. However she did meet a man who remembered the high security around the building when he was a local teenager during the war.

Post-war Valkenswaard
The former German Intelligence Centre disguised as a Dutch farmhouse
The American historian, David Khan, has written about the German facilities at Valkenswaard, describing the underground bunker where the technology was kept, and the radio masts hidden among the trees.[ii] Here the thirty-five staff, all fluent English-speakers, lived in comparative luxury, with comfortable bedrooms, an on-site kitchen preparing fresh meals, and a lounge with an open fireplace. ‘Apparently, the quality of the reception was good too’, Ruth added ruefully as we spoke, thinking about her own cramped office, lack of lunches, and sometimes terribly static lines.

On her last day in Amsterdam, ‘this little man turned up on the doorstep’ Ruth told me. Hans Knap was a retired TV journalist who had written a history of official postal monitoring dating back to the end of the nineteenth century.[iii] While researching Valkenswaard he, too, had also drawn a blank with the Dutch authorities. Nonetheless Knap’s research led him to conclude that ‘after forty years of German-Dutch colonial co-operation, German engineers listened to the “hot-line” of Churchill and Roosevelt with the help of the facilities of the Dutch PTT and Philips Electronic Industries’. David Khan, who has looked at records in the USA and elsewhere, even asserts that translations of all the Churchill/Roosevelt talks landed on the Fuehrer’s desk within hours of the calls being made.

Now in her 90s, Ruth is still a woman with a mission. ‘I’ve had a lot of fun’, she told me, ‘and I’ve got very irritated and very angry…’ In a way though, she says, it did not matter that the Germans were successfully listening in. Given the coded nature of the conversations, and her own and her American counterpart’s quick action to prevent any sensitive information from being discussed, she feels sure that they ‘gained little original intelligence’ from the Transatlantic radio line. However, her memoirs tell just one side of a conversation, she explained, and she would still like to know just who these ‘original hackers’, as she calls them, were. ‘I am surprised at people now – that the authorities were so amazed by the recent hacking’, she told me as we said goodbye. ‘Why was it a scandal? We’ve all been doing it for years.’

Ruth Ive's book, The Woman Who Censored Churchill (The History Press, 2008)

[i] Ruth Ive, The woman who censored Churchill (The History Press, 2008).

[ii] David Kahn, The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet (Scribner, 1996)

[iii] Hans Knap, Forschungsstelle Langeveld: Duits afluisterstation in bezet Nederland (De Bataafsche leeuw, 1998)

Joyeux Noel

Earlier this month I was invited to contribute to a three-hour festive marathon; Channel 5’s ‘Greatest Ever Christmas Movies’ special, which was shown on Christmas Eve. As I went in to the studios, Aled Jones came out. My specialist subject was war films. War may not typically be associated with the Christmas film feel-good factor, but it led to some merriment in our house as we tried to work out whether Christmas had featured in The Eagle Has Landed, Downfall or The Hurt Locker. In the end it turned out there was only one war film among Channel 5’s festive top 40 list: Christian Carion’s very beautiful French film Joyeux Noel from 2005, about the Christmas truces down the Western Front in 1914.

The Joyeux Noel poster (2005)
Joyeux Noel is a visually stunning film, with wonderful music – not least the singing of ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘Ave Maria’ between the trenches. However it does rather romanticize this most powerful moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent episodes in modern history, the First World War. When it was released, the New York Times film critic, Stephen Holden, neatly declared that the film was ‘as squishy and vague as a handsome greeting card declaring peace on earth’. But while it is tempting to write off Joyeux Noel as purely Christmas feel-good, with a narrow focus that does little to help widen our understanding of this remarkable moment in the war, the film does prick interest in the truly extraordinary story of the 1914 Christmas truces.

Joyeux Noel is pegged around a rather feeble love story. A handsome and feted German opera singer has been drafted to the front. His beautiful wife, who hails from the same trade, has negotiated his return from the trenches for the night of Christmas Eve so that they can duet at the officers’ party. Our hero then forgoes a night of peaceful romance to dutifully return to the front, prompting his wife to follow. As far as I am aware, there are no reports of female opera singers performing at the Christmas truces, but the premise certainly provides lots of powerful cinematic and surround-sound opportunities. However, despite this, and a few other historical inaccuracies, the fundamental premise of the film, the most apparently unbelievable thing of all, is entirely true – there were a series of unofficial ceasefires down the length of the Western Front, during which the men who had been killing each other one day put down their arms, climbed out of their opposing trenches, and met in no man’s land for a day of shared Christmas peace.

German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment with men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in no man’s land, Christmas 1914
At the start of the Great War, as it was then known, there were several localized cease-fires and some fairly accepted codes of conduct among soldiers of both sides. In late 1914, the first winter of the war, 101 British women wrote an ‘Open Christmas Letter’ to the women of Austria and Germany, hoping to promote peace. Pope Benedict XV followed their lead, calling for an official Christmas truce, sadly without success.

Nevertheless, on 24 and 25 December 1914, around 100,000 troops stopped fighting along the length of the Western Front. As in the film, along some stretches of the trenches, German soldiers set up small Christmas trees, lit with candles. Carols were sung collectively by the men of both armies, and some later met to exchange uniform buttons, photographs and gifts of wine and Christmas puddings. Over the following days the fallen were retrieved and buried in peace, religious services were held and, if not refereed football matches, there were at least informal kick-arounds.

The ceasefires were not official policy, and they were not ubiquitous. In some places the peace lasted just one night, in others several days. Some soldiers were shot under cover of the truce, and along much of the front there was no cessation of hostilities at all. Most commanders opposed the truces as did, famously, one young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry called Adolf Hitler. But the truces did take place, as hundreds of letters from both sides of the front testify.

Letter from Major Hawksley, Warwick Regiment, 27 December 1914
‘The Germans were quite friendly with us’ Lance Corporal Cooper of the 2nd Northampton’s wrote home. ‘They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return.’ ‘Fancy shaking hands with the enemy!’ scribbled Private B Calder of the 6th Gordons, ‘I suppose you will hardly believe this, but it is the truth’. Despite attempts at censorship the British press were quick to cover the story, some more sentimentally than others, and many quoted the soldiers’ letters. The Times endorsed the men’s lack of malice, and The Mirror regretted that the ‘absurdity and tragedy would begin again’. 

The Daily Mirror: 'A Historic Group; British and German soldiers photographed together'
Like most of those articles, Joyeux Noel is a film with an intimate focus. It does not consider the political or military causes, or wider morality, of the First World War. At most, it hints at the later public swell of feeling to never let such an atrocity happen again, which led to the establishment of, among other organisations, the League of Nations, the Save the Children Fund, and the German Youth Hostel Association, the latter founded by a returning soldier who had taken part in the Christmas truces. There is also a poignant reference to the failure of this movement, when the Iron-Cross holding German commanding officer mentions that he is Jewish.

Essentially however, Joyeux Noel is a statement about the insanity of war, the shared horror of trench warfare and, above all, about the men who found humanity in this least human of situations. Its message, that war is dehumanising, and that even our soldiers must not be made to demonise their enemies, is sadly still relevant today. With its sentimental romance, it might not make a list of top war films, but it does Channel 5 credit to include it in their Christmas list. Films about snowmen can be beautiful and important, but war, and peace, should be remembered at Christmas too