Room 40: British Naval Intelligence, 1914-1918
by Patrick Beesly. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982, U.S. edition 1983, xiii + 338pp with maps, photographs, index, $15.95, ISBN 0-15-178634-8.
Reviewed by Arthur S. Ward
In this book, Patrick Beesly, a veteran of the Naval Intelligence Division of the British Admiralty, tells the story of Room 40 -- the office of British Naval Intelligence during World War I. Drawing upon hitherto unpublished material, he sheds new light on such events as the abortive Dardanelles campaign, the Battle of Jutland, the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, the Zimmerman Telegram affair, and the defeat of the German U-boats. The American edition includes an important revision from the first edition published in the UK: Beesly amended his views of the sinking of the Lusitania, concluding that a conspiracy lay behind the tragedy.
Before the end of 1914, the British captured all the German naval codes. At the head of British Naval Intelligence was the legendary Admiral "Blinker" Hall, described by U.S. Ambassador Walter Hines Page as the "one genius that the war has developed ... all other secret-service men are amateurs by comparison." After the war broke out in August 1914, an extraordinary band of amateurs was assembled-clergymen, stockbrokers, bankers, naval-school masters, university professors-who managed to read the early German naval codes and their replacements over the course of the war.
While the German Navy was smaller than the Royal Navy, the Hochseeflotte had the advantage of being able to choose its moment for a sudden raid and could have inflicted some sharp defeats on isolated British forces if plans had worked out as intended. Thanks to the work of Room 40, however, the Germans were never able to achieve the element of surprise, upon which their naval strategy depended. Indeed, after Admiral Scheer launched an ineffective sortie east of the Dogger Bank on October 18, 1916 (during which operation one of his cruisers was torpedoed), the High Seas Fleet did not attempt to put to sea again until April 1918.
Many readers will find Chapter Seven, "Lusitania: Foul-up or Conspiracy?" of particular interest. Beesly was able to consult a number of files relating to the sinking of the famous Cunard Line passenger steamer released to the Public Record Office after 1976. Yet the British government continues to withhold pertinent records from the public view. As the author points out, "The very unsatisfactory nature of the official enquiry held in June 1915 and the refusal then, and for the next sixty-six years, of the British authorities to disclose all the information in their possession, has only succeeded in fueling suspicions ... German and American records are also remarkable for the absence of certain papers which once existed but which can no longer, apparently, be produced."
From what Beesly has been able to discover, Room 40 was aware that a German submarine was in the area through which the Lusitania was to sail on the last leg of her journey from New York. She was carrying a supply of munitions, "in common with other fast Cunard liners ... ordered principally from the Bethlehem Steel Corporation." The munitions were stowed on the lower orlop deck below the bridge and just forward of the foremost bulkhead of the four boiler rooms. This was the exact point where U-20's single torpedo struck and where a terrific second explosion tore apart the ship, with such appalling loss of life. The Lusitania carried a cargo of dangerous munitions, contraband according to the rules of war then in effect. Even after the sinking of the Lusitania, the British continued to ship ammunition aboard passenger liners.
What concerns the author is that the British, knowing a U-boat was prowling in the area where the Lusitania was sailing, failed to divert the ship to another, safer route, or failed to provide a destroyer escort for the passenger liner, as they could have easily done: "Nothing, absolutely nothing was done to ensure the liner's safe arrival," Beesly notes. On the basis of the evidence available to him by the early 1980s, Beesly was "reluctantly driven to the conclusion that there was a conspiracy deliberately to put the Lusitania at risk in the hopes that even an abortive attack on her would bring the United States into the war. Such a conspiracy could not have been put into effect without Winston Churchill's [at the time Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty -- ed.] express permission and approval." Beesly's research thus supports the conclusions reached by Colin Simpson in his earlier revisionist work on the topic, The Lusitania.
Room 40's decripts enabled the Royal Navy to intercept the German blockade runner, Libau (disguised as the Norwegian vessel Aud), on April 20,1916, at Tralee Bay on the west coast of Ireland. Libau carried rifles, machine guns, ammunition, and explosives intended for the Sinn Feiners. Had the Irish received the weapons, the success of the Easter Rising would still have been in doubt, but the fighting could have been more serious than, in the event, it was.
The author explains the role that Room 40 had in the defeat of the U-boats. With the establishment of the convoy system, it was possible to alert ships to the presence of U-boats, and either reroute them or send destroyers out to ward off enemy submarines. As Beesly remarks, "neither in World War I nor in World War II did British intelligence win the U-boat war, but in both cases it certainly shortened it."
Room 40 is a well written narrative, containing information of interest to Revisionists. Still available in hardcover in bookstores, readers' may be able to find copies on sale tables, as this reviewer did recently.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1986 (Vol. 7, No. 1), pages 119.
About the Author
Arthur S. Ward holds a doctorate in history. He teaches courses on the history of modern Europe and the Middle East, and is a specialist in military history. Dr. Ward is the co-author of two books and has published numerous articles and reviews.