friends enemies


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Release Spring 2015

Friends and Enemies: The Natal Campaign in the South African War 1899-1902 

Hugh Rethman


When the Boer Republics invaded the province of Natal in 1899, the invaders could have been driven out with casualties measured in hundreds. Instead Britain was to lose nearly 9,000 men killed in action, more than 13,000 to disease and a further 75,000 wounded and sick. The war ended in 1902 with a very unsatisfactory Peace Treaty.rethman131 1

At the start of the conflict Britain’s Generals were faced with problems new to the military establishment. Shows of force did little to intimidate a determined opposition; infantry charges against a hidden enemy armed with modern rifles resulted in a futile waste of lives. Artillery could now destroy unseen targets at great range. Lack of mobility resulted in more than half the army being besieged in Ladysmith bringing with it concomitant civilian involvement. Some generals learnt quickly – others were slower and yet others still, perhaps through pride and stubbornness, refused to alter their ways and thus their men paid with their lives. The bravery and sacrifice during the campaign have been described in many books, as have the faults of the generals. But little attention has been paid to the greatest blunder of all: a failure to take proper cognizance of local advice, opinion and capability.

From the beginning, locally raised regiments demonstrated how the Boers might be defeated without incurring heavy casualties and, when they were finally given their heads, they chased the invaders out of Natal while suffering only nominal casualties.        

This deeply researched study of a key aspect of the Boer War includes, for the first time, the experiences of the inhabitants of Natal – soldier and civilian, men, women and children, black and white. Friends and Enemies is the result of years of intensive study undertaken in archives in both South Africa and Britain. It will appeal to the general reader as well as being an important and scholarly resource to students of nineteenth and twentieth century conflict.rethman130 1


The Author

Hugh Rethman was born in Natal into a family of farmers and traders whose forbears were among the province’s early settlers. He was educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown, before reading English literature, economics, economic history, and political philosophy at the University of Natal. A keen sportsman and horseman, he later moved to England where he read law at the University of Leeds. He qualified as a Barrister and practised law in both England and South Africa, and also ran a retail business in Durban. He holds a wide range of interests, but is particularly passionate about history. He has written articles on the Boer War for the journals of the Victorian Military History Society and the Military History Society of South Africa. He lives in Suffolk, England. Friends and Enemies is his first book.


A five-minute interview with Hugh Rethman

The Tattered Flag:  Thank you for your time. Perhaps we can start by asking you how you came to be interested in the history of the Boer War?

Hugh Rethman: Everyone living in South Africa has had their lives affected by the Boer War and should be interested in that conflict.

TF: Why did you choose the Natal campaign as the subject for a book? What was it that motivated you to write about it?

HR: In 1899 a substantial section of my family was living in northern Natal and they were to suffer much during the Boer invasion. My great grandfather commanded a Natal Volunteer Regiment which participated in many of the actions which occurred before during and after the Siege of Ladysmith. I first visited the battlefields in Northern Natal many years ago. I have ridden in country horse races, run marathons and ultra-marathons and taken part in cycle races around northern Natal and in the process made many friends. The place and its history are familiar to me. In 1999 the centenary of the start of the Boer War was celebrated by a rash of books on the subject. I was astonished to find that the people of Natal were being written out of their history, and resolved to correct the position.

TF:  What lessons were learned by the British and the Boers from this campaign? Was there a clear winner - and why?

HR:The British Military learned to take account of local advice and experience, and that one's position, strength and intentions should be hidden from the enemy. Training was adapted to ensure that all troops should be thoroughly schooled in the use of their weapons and in particular how to shoot straight. Horses ought only to be used for transport or when they increased mobility. The days of the Cavalry charge were over.
Politicians learned that by use of what Churchill called 'terminological inexactitudes' one's career could be promoted, and if repeated often enough their veracity would not be questions.
Though the Boers suffered defeat, the peace terms handed down by British politicians gave them a victory for which the rest of South Africa was to pay a heavy price.

TF: Did the Natal campaign have any direct and significant longer-term political, social or military effects on, or implications for, southern Africa?

HR: The lessons learnt by the military were to stand them in good stead in the latter stages of the Boer War and in WW1. The longer term political and social effects are beyond the scope of the book.

TF: How did you conduct your research for the book and how did it evolve?

HR: I created a diary for each day of the campaign. In recording my research I made a brief note in the diary of each event with a reference to the authority which provided the information. In my research I realised I would have to include the experiences of the so-called Uitlanders who in 1899 were in Natal. Many of these people were born and bred Natalians who had been employed in the Transvaal. Others such as the Australians and New Zealanders had strong cultural ties with their fellow colonials in Natal.

TF: During the course of writing Friends and Enemies did you come across any surprises or did your opinions change on aspects?

HR: I was surprised by the savagery of the Boer invasion of Natal. I knew what they had done to my family but did not realise just how extensive and universal this behaviour was. My attitude towards some British Generals mellowed. The War Office and the Colonial Office had issued a directive that the Natal Colonial Government and locally raised forces were not to be given any military information. It was the authorities in England who issued these directives who should bear the lion's share of the blame for the calamities which befell the army during the first few months of the war.I developed great affection for Generals Buller and White. Both men had tremendous organisational ability. Buller's great concern for his men and the total absence of what used to be called side makes it very difficult not to like him. The incident in which he led the recalcitrant mules onto the train says so much about his character and why he attracted such loyalty from the rank and file. In a situation where British officers barely noticed the existence of the civilians in Ladysmith, General White always considered their position and the suffering they endured. From the start he realised the capability of the local Volunteers.

TF: Many thanks for your time. Finally, any further writing projects planned?

HR: I would like to write a short book on the Kitchener's concentration camps, in reality, Refugee Camps and Hospitals. The title would be 'She Meant Well', she being the suffragette Emily Hobhouse. Most of the research has been done. For a rooinek I have an unusual connection here. One of my mother's uncles died in the Brandfort Concentration Camp, and is therefore one of the heroes of 'Die Volk'. I would also like to write a booklet about a South African who while flying a fighter in the Battle of Britain was shot down and severely burned. In fact he was the most seriously burned person to have survived the war. He underwent very painful surgery for more than three years as his face and body were reconstructed. After the war he returned to his home in Kokstad, one of our neighbouring towns. As a late teenager I played cricket against him on numerous occasions. He fielded in gloves and was, I suppose, a passenger in the team. However, he was good company and it was an honour to play with him. I last saw him in the mid-seventies so there should still be people in Kokstad who remember him. His flying and medical records should be available here.



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'Ops' can now be purchased ine-bookformat


Victory at all Costs: On operations over Hitler's Reich with the

crews of Bomber Command - Their War - Their Words

Andrew R.B. Simpson

(now available globally in e-book format from Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Overdrive, Sony & Google and other international e-tailers)

Printed book ISBN: 978-0-9555977-6-3

Ebook digital ISBN: 978-0-9555977-9-4

Read interview with the author here

'Waterstones' says of 'Ops' : 

... Hence this outstanding book, ‘Ops’. There are no wizard prangs here. This is the bomber offensive at its most authentic, vivid and compelling. Aircrew are drummed out for LMF - ‘lack of moral fibre’. They drink, they swear. Their hands tremble so much they can barely write. Elsan toilets fling their disgusting contents all over the aircraft when it dives. Former POWs talk candidly about the grasses and moles, their own people, who hung around the camps trying to make them talk...

 ...To go out night after night, knowing with bleak mathematical certainty that the odds of survival diminished every time, knowing that all it took was too much ice on the wing, or a moment’s drowsiness by the rear gunner, or a slip of the navigator’s pencil taking you over a flak belt, or a Luftwaffe ace creeping invisibly beneath you with his ‘schragemusik’, his upwards-pointing guns, to send your aircraft plummeting from the sky – to do all this, knowing all that, required fortitude on a scale we in the 21st century can barely conceive....

 ...Richard Dimbleby put it best: ‘I only wish there were some way of telling people in Britain what all these men are doing for them’. Seventy years later, Andrew R.B. Simpson has found a way. His book is among the most impressive on this subject I have yet read; it matches in print what the Bomber Command Memorial achieves in bronze and stone...    Read the full review here

Amazon reader review (5.0 out of 5 stars)

Mixing oral history and operational history, this book takes a look at the Commonwealth night bomber offensive on Germany from the perspective of the bomber crews. While higher level strategy and operations are discussed to give context, the core of the book is extensive interviews conducted with surviving Australian Bomber Command air crew.
While the author only started interviews in 2007, more than 60 years after the war, survivors made use of photos and diaries and vivid memories to leave stories that at once feel authentic, moving and appalling.
The book is organized chronologically, as the aircrew would have experienced the war, from volunteering to fight, to training, to operations, being shot down, evading capture, life in the prisoner of war camps, escape attempts and then adjusting to peace. In each segment, stories are vivid. A few examples: the nearest pub to one airbase was run by three women, hence dubbed 'The Six Tits' by the aircrew. Pilot after pilot dieing at the controls of their doomed bomber to give aircrew a few extra seconds to escape. The letters received in the prisoner of war camps from girlfriends giving the news that they'd found someone else. The stories give colour and flavour to a place and time so close to our own, yet almost incomprehensible.
Of 110,000 who joined as Bomber Command aircrew, over 55,000 were killed. Many among the survivors became prisoners of war as the grim mathematics of operations meant few veterans escaped the war unscathed. This appalling rate of casualties was well understood by the aircrew themselves. While most continued on despite this knowledge, many could not. 'Lack of Moral Fibre' (LMF), where aircrew broke down and refused to fly anymore is also discussed, with one of the survivors speaking candidly of his LMF experience.
The book is well written and engaging. While peripheral to the main story about the aircrew experience itself, the descriptions of operational history and high command controversies summarize well current consensus and provide just enough context to connect the veterans' stories.

Amazon reader review  (5.0 out of 5 stars)

A different spin on the life of a bomber crew. very comprehensive. I would recommend this book to those with an interest in the deeds of Bomber Command in WW2.

'Warfare' online magazine says of 'Ops' :

... 'Ops' is also a labour of love; running as a thread through the unfolding narrative are the experiences of Laurie Simpson, the author's father ... The story ... develops along a chronological line, covering training, life on squadron, ops, escape and evasion and life as a POW; each liberably ‘salted’ with personal accounts to make a very readable book...

...  I, for one, am satisfied and the book will be on my 'go to' shelf.'

'Classic Wings' says of 'Ops' :

This year a Bomber Command Memorial was opened by the Queen in London in what was a long overdue tribute to the loss of some 55,000 aircrew of the service during the Second World War. With much controversy post war about the effectiveness and necessity of the RAF's bombing strategy, the fact that the crews were 'doing their job' has been lost in the fog. If anyone has ever doubted that this memorial is fitting they should read this outstanding work ... this book offers a unique and extraordinary insight into arguably the most stressful operations of the last war, where men faced the probability of death without flinching from their duty.'

'Military History Monthly' says of 'Ops' :

Andrew Simpson's 'Ops' bears all the hallmarks of becoming the definitive work on bomber operations during WWII.

Read the full review here.

'Ops' has also been nominated as 'Book of the Month' by 'Britain at War' magazine.  Read the review by John Grehan here.

Andrew R.B. Simpson's compelling study of RAF Bomber Command at war was the subject of a feature by Peter Davies in 'The Times' of Saturday, 15 September 2012.   Read the article.

'The Americans would burst into tears when one of their mates got shot down, but we just used to say, Sailor's got the chop has he? That's hard luck; he shouldn't have joined if he couldn't take a joke. Let's have a pint. And had we not adopted that attitude we'd never have been able to get through it.'

simpson lauries 2nd 460 sqn crew 3 duisberg

Many books have been written about Bomber Command's war, from the highest levels of command to the experiences of the lowest WAAF, but only a few have been able to reveal truthfully the highly-charged, grim, dogged and often humorous human side of the bomber crews' experience.

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings. In reality, J.G. Magee's celebrated poem of 1941 offers a somewhat over-romantic view of operational flying in the wartime RAF. From 1939 to 1945, of 125,000 men who volunteered for operations with Bomber Command, 55,573 were killed, the slaughter being at the almost unprecedented level of 41 per cent losses. The total British Empire and Commonwealth fatalities from 1939 to 1945 were 452,000. Thus, approximately 13 per cent of all British and Commonwealth deaths during the Second World War were among bomber crews.

Based upon many personal interviews, correspondence and archival sources, Andrew Simpson's Ops - Victory at All Costs is an important, compelling and absorbing documentary record of what the men of RAF Bomber Command went through from initial training and crew formation, to descriptions of life on squadron and on their extremely dangerous and draining operations, to the numbing effect of morale breakdown.

ops web pic 2These very ordinary men were asked to take on an almost suicidal task, with slim chance of survival, and they generally volunteered for the job; a phenomenon that continued until the cessation of hostilities. After the fighting was over no campaign medal was ever struck for the air and ground crews of Bomber Command. Most had to content themselves with the Defence Medal for fighting a six-year offensive which was highly significant in the destruction of the Third Reich.

Air Marshal Arthur Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, never forgave the government for this. Such was his disgust at the lack of official recognition of the effort of his men, a task they faced up to for all this period that, when he was awarded the CGB in 1946, it caused him great distress and embarrassment, and he refused to accept a peerage. Harris felt particularly strongly for his ground crews who had to work at all hours, in often abominable conditions, to keep his vitally needed aircraft flying and, with his air crews, to win the war.

This book, written by the son of a Lancaster pilot, is the result of years of intense research. It contains many personal accounts from air crew from those that survived as well as from those that did not. The author also examines the technology of bombing and how this form of aerial warfare evolved in terms of aircraft design, navigation, bombing methods, tactics and gunnery as used in, and as deployed by, the Hampden, Whitley and Wellington medium bombers, and the Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster heavies which equipped Bomber Command's squadrons.

For anyone with a desire to learn more about Britain at war or for those seeking to understand more about the operations of Bomber Command, this book offers a unique and extraordinary insight into a momentous period of history.


'Suddenly, just after passing the Kiel Canal, there was a double explosion: the left wing was hit and the whole aircraft blown on its side. Inside there was considerable damage: the intercom system was down and the wireless antenna gone. Carter was practically scalped by shrapnel, Taylor was hit in a vulnerable spot and unable to sit down for the rest of the trip, and Weyles' wrist watch had been blown off without even a bruise to the skin...'




interview Andrew Simpson webAndrew Simpson trained as an architect and has an Honours Degree in History. A Friend of the Royal Air Forces Association, he has been interested in aviation and the Second World War since an early age. His fascination with T.E. Lawrence led to his first book, Another Life: Lawrence after Arabia, a full length examination of Lawrence's life after the First World War and his time in the RAF.

Shortly before this book was published, Andrew's father died and as a second book, he set out to record his father's experiences as an Australian Lancaster pilot in World War Two. In order to make the book more comprehensive he contacted over 300 veterans of Bomber Command and interviewed some 20 or so personally to find out more about their experiences. The sum total of this, together with archive research and personal correspondence with the sons of his father's old crews in England and Australia, became Ops: Victory at All Costs, an examination of the bomber war and all that it was like to fly on operations.


A five-minute interview with Andrew R.B. Simpson, author of ‘Ops – Victory at all Costs

The Tattered Flag: Andrew – very many thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Perhaps you can tell us what prompted you to embark upon such a major work as a book on Bomber Command?

Andrew R.B. Simpson: ‘Ops’ had its origins way back in the 1980s when I wrote an article on 460 Squadron, RAAF, for the Aeroplane magazine that was never actually published. I had a lot of talks with my father, Laurie, about his experiences in Bomber Command and as a POW, but I knew that because so many other veterans had similar experiences there was very little chance of a book being published.

I’d always been interested in writing ever since I was quite young and have, since about the age of nine, been an avid book reader. I can’t understand people who don’t read, for I feel that books enlarge the mind – a bit like travel.

If there was any inspiration for ‘Ops’ it was an American biographical war story called Flags of Our Fathers about the experiences of John Bradley’s father in the Marine Corps on Iwo Jima. Of course this was an entirely different subject, and a different theatre of war, but the type of research he was doing – interviewing veterans, using diary sources etc – was similar to what I ended up doing. The fact that it was a best-seller was incidental.

TTF: So when you eventually started writing, how did you find the process?

ARBS: The writing of ‘Ops’ was very haphazard as, initially, I had very little idea about how it was going to develop. The only real original sources I had were my father’s Service Diary from World War Two and his RAAF Flying Log Book, plus some taped conversations I’d kept. But these were hardly sufficient for a full length book. I was aware that there was a lot of competition ‘out there’, and so I felt there was, initially, little chance of it getting published.

The other main trump I had in my hand was the complete membership list of the RAF Ex-POW Association, of which my father had been the local secretary (nobody else wanted to do it). And so very early on I wrote literally hundreds of letters to as many members of this as I could.

TTF: How was the response?

ARBS: Well, of course, quite a number of them had died by then, so I kept getting letters from widows and sad relatives that only contained patchy biographical details. Of all the replies I received only one was acerbic: I was ‘besmirching the name of such great heroes for my own gain’ etc. I think the chap actually served in the medical branch of the RAF and so was on non-flying duties. Nobody else seemed to mind. But his assumption was entirely wrong: money didn’t come into my thinking at all at this stage; I simply wanted to produce a memorial to all the chaps who died, and record the great deeds they’d performed.

TTF: But did you manage to conduct personal interviews as well?

ARBS: Yes. I was fortunate that five of my father’s personal friends who lived locally were willing to share their experiences, which helped. Although many veterans sent me their own personal memoirs, there really isn’t any substitute for meeting people face-to-face, when you can get a better picture of what they experienced, and ask questions at leisure. The main problem was that time was getting short, as many of them were in their late eighties, so I had to find as many as I could before they passed on. In fact, unfortunately, five or six of them died after I’d talked to them. The other problem was a logistical one: I was restricted by geography, i.e. I could only visit those who were in limited range. Obviously the further away they were the more costly and time consuming it would be to visit them, and so I was not able to interview anyone north of Bristol really. I did make a special visit to London to talk to Les Whitton, who had written to say that he had been in Stalag Luft III with Laurie, and had known him personally. This resulted in a special moment for me; although Les’s memory was fading with age, he did know of two of my father’s second crew.

interview Ops Schrock 12 web

Andrew Simpson’s father, Laurie (third from left), with his crew at Binbrook in 1944

So, of course, the more I researched it, the more I was able to piece together a structure of sorts. Because my dad was Australian the majority of his crew-mates were from that country and, by then, all but one, Ron Searle, had died, so I really didn’t have any ‘live’ addresses. But Ron had been in regular contact and sent me a couple of lengthy emails which helped clear up some points. He had also kept a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings during the Battle of the Ruhr, which proved very useful. There was one character on my father’s second tour crew nicknamed ‘Schrocky’ whom I didn’t know much about. All I knew was that my dad didn’t really like him and that he had had a penchant for the ladies. But I knew he had originated from Townsville, Queensland and so, on an off chance, I wrote to the Mayor of the town to ask if he recognised the name. By good fortune his son, Arthur Schrock (Jnr.) was a partner in an architectural practice there and the Mayor’s office put me in touch with him. This led to quite an emotional exchange, as they were pleased someone was interested in Arthur Snr. who had died some years before. So I ended up digging up ‘ghosts’ before they all disappeared from memory. I was also able to contact one of my father’s pre-war girlfriends who gave me some insight into his character at that time. This is all detailed in the preliminary chapters of the book.

TTF: Tell me about when you came seriously to think about a book and your experience of the publishing process.

ARBS: Although I was able to produce something to send to publishers after about two years, initially I received four rejections, mainly because the material was too similar to what was already ‘out there’. Thus I became quite disheartened, and decided to print off 90 of my own A5 copies of the book and get them ‘perfect bound’. This I did, and sold them all within two weeks (all to veterans). I realised then that it wasn’t that bad. Things picked up a bit after that. I got an offer from a firm who said they were interested, but they would have published it very quickly, by the end of that year. Also my editor at The History Press (who’d published my earlier book on T.E. Lawrence) told me that the firm didn’t have a very good reputation for quality, i.e. ‘they will do it’, but it won’t be very good. That left me on tenterhooks a bit: obviously I would have accepted this if there was no other outlet.

Then I had a bit of luck. Through the RAF ex-POW association, I was contacted by a policeman who had written a book on German night fighters who wanted to talk to me about Bomber Command. I took a very rough copy of ‘Ops’ with me when I went to see him. He sent this on to Robert Forsyth, owner of Tattered Flag Press who, as I understand it, was knocked out by it. Anyway, as a result of this, I received an offer of a contract almost immediately. So I was very lucky.

interview Lancaster 460 LJS UV57CCC7

Laurie Simpson’s Lancaster photographed at Breighton during the Battle of the Ruhr in 1943

TTF: Given the highly personal link between you and the subject of the book, did you feel any sense of catharsis in the writing process?

ARBS: I suppose you could say that I tried to inject my own experiences of ‘real life’ into the book. I questioned veterans about what it was really like to live in a prison camp day in, day out with other men for long periods. Howard Pearce said he simply went into ‘a shell’ to get away from things. Relationships in crews could also be difficult: if members of a crew didn’t ‘get on’, which occasionally happened, the crew was split up and they went their separate ways. Also I’d served in the ranks of the TAVR for a short time. Admittedly this wasn’t as tough as the Regulars, but it was still pretty tough. I met a number of quite ‘hard’ people, which opened my eyes to a way of thinking I hadn’t experienced before. I realised that Hollywood and the movies tried to ‘glamorize’ things that can in reality be quite bestial and horrific. This made me question what it was really like to serve as aircrew.

There was also the question of the memoirs. Apart from interviews and archive files, my main sources were letters I received and the memoirs that many veterans had written for their grandchildren – the common sad finding is that the majority of ‘the general public’ isn’t interested in these because they are all so similar and sometimes relatively dull. I received a number of these from relations, the most notable of which were those of John Nunn, Lewis Parsons, and Derek Hodgkinson, who’d been quite high up in the command structure of the East Camp at Stalag Luft III. Many other veterans also sent me lengthy letters, such as Alec Marsh and ‘Sandy’ Rowe, and helped with my questions. I felt that if I could link the recollections in the memoirs together with other sources I would be able to produce something much more interesting, which was what happened. Also, amazingly, some veterans recorded the same event from different perspectives. There was one particular incident on 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds in 1943 when a bomb dropped out of a stationary Lancaster and exploded. ‘Sandy’ Rowe’s crew was bombing up immediately next to this and he had his own recollection of the event. But also, on the opposite side of the airfield, John Nunn’s crew was just about to take off, and he recorded his impression of it: this sort of thing happened in the text a number of times.

TTF: Andrew, very many thanks – most interesting.

ARBS: Thanks. I hope your readers enjoy it.










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Now Available

MI5 at War 1909-1918: How MI5 Foiled the Spies of the Kaiser in the First World War

Chris Northcott



‘An original and important contribution to our knowledge of the origins of Britain’s security services and probably the most detailed description of MI5’s early organisational structure available. MI5 at War provides a valuable and indispensible assessment of MI5 during its earliest and perhaps most challenging years.’

Eye Spy magazine


MI5 cover

The years 1909-1918 can be regarded as formative for MI5, an era in which it developed from a small counter-espionage bureau into an established security intelligence agency. MI5 had two main roles during this period; counter-espionage, and advising the War Office on how to deal with the police and the civilian population, particularly foreign nationals in Britain.


Kell 0000004440 Jay Robert Nash Collection

Using hitherto neglected documents from official archives, this study examines how MI5 foiled the spies of the Kaiser during the First World War, paying particular attention to the preventive measures the organisation instituted to ‘frustrate’ espionage and how its investigations to ‘cure’ espionage were conducted. In so doing, intelligence specialist, Chris Northcott, also delivers an appreciation of how MI5 saw its work as being divided between preventive measures and investigative work, providing an informative and intriguing insight into MI5’s development during its first ten years.

MI5 began as a one-man affair in 1909, tasked with the limited remit of ascertaining the extent of German espionage in Britain amidst an uncertain future. By the armistice MI5’s role had expanded considerably and it had begun to develop into an established security intelligence agency, with hundreds of personnel spread over six branches covering the investigation of espionage, records, ports and travellers and alien workers at home and overseas.


Kupferle D40096 37

This book offers an original and important contribution to our knowledge of the origins of Britain’s security services. In using the example of MI5’s contest against German spies during the First World War era, it forms a ground-breaking study of counter-espionage strategy and tactics, and it poses the stimulating question of ‘how to measure’ the effectiveness of a counter-espionage agency. It also sets out probably the mosLody via Frank Hay Queensferry History Groupt detailed description of MI5’s organisational structure available.

MI5 at War 1909-1918: How MI5 Foiled the Spies of the Kaiser in the First World War provides a valuable and indispensable assessment of MI5 during its earliest and perhaps most challenging years.





Dr. Chris Northcott was born in Surrey in 1973. He is an independent scholar who received his doctorate in History, which focused on the development of MI5 between 1909-1918, from the University of Bedfordshire. He has taught Intelligence and Security Studies at the Universities of Salford and Bedfordshire and has been published in the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. He has also written book reviews for Intelligence and National Security.

He enjoys American Football and cycling, and lives in Buckinghamshire. MI5 at War 1909-1918 is his first book.



A five-minute interview with Dr Chris Northcott


The Tattered Flag: Chris, very many thanks for your time. Perhaps we can start by asking you how you came to be interested in the world of intelligence and international security? What is it that appealed to you?

Chris Northcott: Intelligence has been described as the “missing dimension” of international relations. Until the revelations about Bletchley Park’s monumental role in the Second World War came out in the mid-1970s, historians had no idea about the impact that signals intelligence had on the outcome of the war. Since then intelligence studies has developed as an academic discipline, as scholars have come to appreciate more the role that intelligence has played throughout history. Thus, in my opinion, the study of intelligence promises to reveal more about our history. Most spy cases also seem to make good stories, and fact is often stranger than fiction!


TF: Why the First World War for a book?

CN: Today, MI5 has 3,000-4,000 staff, a budget of £300-£400 million, and a long and distinguished history behind it. When MI5 was formed in October 1909, it consisted of one member of staff (Vernon Kell), who was able to call upon the assistance of an experienced investigator (William Melville). By November 1918, MI5 employed 844 staff over six branches. I am fascinated by the fact that Kell started totally from scratch and had to develop his organisation and its methods as he learned from his experiences of countering the spies of the Kaiser.  


TF: Sir Vernon Kell was instrumental in the creation and early organisation of MI5. What is your view of him and his contribution to Britain’s wartime security?

CN: In my opinion Sir Vern Kell is a significant historical figure, who deserves to be applauded for his contribution to Britain’s wartime security. Sir Vernon was Director of MI5 for thirty years, making him the longest-serving head of any British government department during the twentieth-century. Sir Vernon was also a highly-talented man, who spoke six foreign languages, making him the most gifted linguist ever to lead a modern-day Western intelligence service. Sir Vernon always resisted any pressure put upon him to assume a role in domestic counter-subversion – he felt that it was fundamentally wrong for soldiers to spy on workers. Thus, he established an important precedent, which made sure that MI5 would never develop into a political police.


TF: Technology, threats and society have changed immeasurably since 1918, but do you feel that Kell’s core values are still reflected in the way the security services operate today?

CN: Yes, I feel that Kell’s core values are still very much reflected in the way that the Security Service operates today. MI5’s role today is still fundamentally the same as it was in 1918, to defend the realm by uncovering and helping to thwart the plots of those secretly working to harm the UK and its people. Very early on, Kell realised that in order for MI5 to be successful it needed to concentrate on becoming the central clearing-house for all information related to counter-espionage. Its role was to analyse, assess and then provide security advice based upon information provided by others, such as the police and the postal censorship. MI5 did not need to acquire any executive powers. Spies were arrested by the police, not by MI5. The key to MI5’s success was in co-operating with other departments, who either provided information or took executive action. It also seems telling that MI5 still uses the same techniques to collect secret intelligence that it did back in 1918, even if technology has advanced: covert human intelligence sources (agents), directed surveillance by mobile and static surveillance teams, intrusive surveillance by covertly entering the lodgings of suspects, and the interception of communications.


TF: What of the German intelligence services and their ‘offensive’ operations during the First World War – were they equal to their task?

CN: German intelligence performed very badly against Britain during the First World War. The quality of its agents was poor, and German intelligence never solved the fundamental problem of how to communicate with its agents in Britain without exposing them to detection by the postal and cable censorship. However, it should be stressed that intelligence from Britain was rather a secondary priority for German intelligence during the First World War. German intelligence’s main priority was for intelligence from the main battle zones of France and Russia.


TF: What was their greatest success?

CN: German intelligence’s greatest success in Britain was in their pre-war recruitment of George Parrott, a senior Petty Officer in the Royal Navy who provided copies of twenty-three classified gunnery reports before he was detected by MI5 in 1912. This intelligence was certainly useful, but not of huge strategic value. German intelligence ran a number of well-placed agents in France, Russia, and Persia, and conducted a number of successful sabotage operations at US munitions depots during the First World War. Arguably their greatest success was the assistance that German military intelligence (Abteilung IIIb) gave in helping Lenin return to Russia, which ignited the Bolshevik Revolution which took Russia out of the war in 1917. Why did German intelligence succeed in France, Russia and the USA but fail in Britain? The German intelligence officers concerned with France, Russia and the USA were not as incompetent as those concerned with Britain. France and Russia were higher priorities for German intelligence than Britain. Britain’s natural defences as an island helped to shield it from German espionage. And, MI5 was very effective.


TF: And MI5’s?

CN: MI5 was highly effective throughout the First World War era. German intelligence failed to collect any really significant information during the First World War.I am particularly impressed by MI5’s destruction of the entire German espionage network in Britain upon the outbreak of war. It was a far-sighted policy of Kell’s to wait until the outbreak of war to arrest known spies, rather than as soon as they were detected, as this paralysed German intelligence in Britain during the most crucial early days of the war. Without the communications technology that we take for granted today, MI5 and the police rounded up twenty-two German agents in simultaneous arrests across the country, at a time when MI5 only had seventeen staff. A similar operation today would doubtless involve literally hundreds of staff!


TF: What were the high points in writing the book and were there any elements of your research that surprised you along the way?

CN: I am absolutely fascinated by all aspects of the study of intelligence. When I embarked upon this study, I really wanted to learn more about the strategy and methods of counter-espionage: “how” MI5 caught the spies of the Kaiser. I also thoroughly enjoyed the human story of the many colourful characters involved in the contest between MI5 and German intelligence. Such as Theunissen who helped MI5 to entrap van der Goten and then ran off with van der Goten’s wife. I was particularly surprised to read a letter from Macdonogh (Kell’s boss) to Kell in 1910 in which Macdonogh told him that money was tight and asked him not to incur any travelling expenses until the next accounting period. I cannot imagine the head of MI5 being given such instructions today!


TF: Very many thanks for your time, Chris.



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A Box of Sand - The Italo-Ottoman War 1911-1912
The First Land, Sea and Air War

Charles Stephenson

Box of Sand Cover

This is the first book in the English language to offer an analysis of a conflict that, in so many ways, raised the curtain on the Great War. In September 1911, Italy declared war on the once mighty, transcontinental Ottoman Empire – but it was an Empire in decline. The ambitious Italy decided to add to her growing African empire by attacking Ottoman-ruled Tripoli (Libya). The Italian action began the rapid fall of the Ottoman Empire, which would end with its disintegration at the end of the First World War. The day after Ottoman Turkey made peace with Italy in October 1912, the Balkan League attacked in the First Balkan War.

The Italo-Ottoman War, as a prelude to the unprecedented hostilities that would follow, has so many firsts and pointers to the awful future: the first three-dimensional war with aerial reconnaissance and bombing, and the first use of armoured vehicles, operating in concert with conventional ground and naval forces; war fever whipped up by the Italian press; military incompetence and stalemate; lessons in how not to fight a guerrilla war; mass death from disease and 10,000 more from reprisals and executions. Thirty thousand men would die in a struggle for what may described as little more than a scatolone di sabbia – a box of sand.

As acclaimed historian Charles Stephenson portrays in this groundbreaking study, if there is an exemplar of the futility of war, this is it. Apart from the loss of life and the huge cost to Italy (much higher than was originally envisaged), the main outcome was to halve the Libyan population through emigration, famine and casualties.

The Italo-Ottoman War was a conflict overshadowed by the Great War – but one which in many ways presaged the horrors to come. A Box of Sand will be of great interest to students of military history and those with an interest in the history of North Africa and the development of technology in war.


Charles Stephenson is a naval and military historian and is the author of several books including The Admiral’s Secret Weapon: Lord Dundonald and the Origins of Chemical Warfare (2006) and Germany’s Asia-Pacific Empire: Colonialism and Naval Policy, 1885-1914 (2009) as well as numerous studies on fortifications and castles. He has been described as being ‘among the world’s leading maritime historians’ and has written articles for History Today magazine and Casemate, the magazine of The Fortress Study Group. He lives in North Wales.


A five-minute interview with Charles Stephenson, author of 'A Box of Sand'


The Tattered Flag: Charles, many thanks for your time. ‘A Box of Sand’ is an impressive work of military history in its scope and detail and must have taken considerable research. How did your interest in military history come about?

Charles Stephenson: That’s definitely the $64,000 question. I can’t answer it simply; history in general has always fascinated me, and I don’t think military history can be properly understood without taking into account the various political, social, diplomatic, and no doubt several other factors, that impinge upon it. For me context is all.

TF:      So why the Italo-Ottoman War? What was it that motivated you to write about it?

CS: For some reason it is the lesser known episodes that hold me in thrall. I seem to be drawn to what a reviewer of one of my earlier works called the ‘obscure yet interesting.’ Perhaps it is because there is so relatively little, or at least in English, on the conflict that drew me to it. I think I first set eyes on it, as it were, when writing about Gunther Plüschow, who participated in the first ever air-to-air combat over China in 1914. Whilst researching his exploits I discovered that the first combat bombing missions had taken place a few years earlier in what is now LibyaGuntherPlueschow 72. It planted a seed, as one might put it, and the desire to know more came from that.  

TF:      Do you think the war could have been averted by the involvement by other Powers?

CS: There were two, maybe three, powers that could, had the political will existed, have stopped the Italians in their tracks; Britain was one and Austria-Hungary the other, though France might also be included. However, the entire Italian campaign was predicated on exploiting the ‘wriggle room,’ as it might be termed today, between the two Great Power blocs. Neither of her formal allies, Germany and Austria-Hungary, were willing to put too much pressure on the Italian government for fear of driving it into the arms of the opposing bloc. Conversely, the British, French and Russian governments had no desire to do anything that would cement Italy’s alliance with their potential enemies.

TF:      Were lessons learned by the Great Powers from the Italo-Ottoman War?

CS: There weren’t that many to be learned. Virtually the entire conflict was asymmetrical (in today’s terminology), inasmuch as the Italians tried to fight a conventional war whilst the Ottomans and local Arab and Berber forces resisted by adopting guerrilla methodology in the main. There was no opposition to Italian naval preponderance, so with command of the sea the Regia Marina could do more or less what it liked, including an abortive attack into the Dardanelles. Whilst very minor in itself, this might have offered some pointers for potential future operations in that neck of the woods.

TF:      Did the Italians use combined arms effectively?

CS: I think so. They became adept at conducting sophisticated amphibious landings, which their command of the sea allowed them to undertake almost at will. Such operations are though inherently hazardous, even with accurate intelligence as to enemy whereabouts and strength. On several occasions ‘dummy’ landings were carried out, or at least the threat of them made, and when these drew the attention of Ottoman land-forces the real operation took place where the enemy wasn’t, as it might be phrased. Though Italian accounts are pretty much silent on the matter, it is probably the case that one or two landings were seen off. Because of the techniques they had developed, of landing only a small force to secure the beachhead before the main force was despatched, these did not though result in disasters. They also made use of aircraft, the first time this had been done in warfare, and the relative success of these very much pointed to the future. It is probably no exaggeration to say that, in terms of reconnaissance at least, airpower, both of the lighter and heavier than air variety, was very useful.  

TF:      You have written about castles and fortifications: were they used to any extent in the Italo-Ottoman War?

CS: Both sides, though mainly the Italians, constructed quite extensive earthworks in Tripoli (Libya), though of course nothing like on the scale that was to be seen on the Western Front a few years later. The art or science of fortification, depending upon how one views it, was not though much called upon during the course of the war in that theatre. The Italians generally dug themselves in around their coastal enclaves, and their enemy had not the artillery to dislodge them. The forts and batteries of the Dardanelles saw some action, and Italian naval forces were sensibly nervous of them.web 08 A

TF:      Aside from military history, you also write fiction: which do you enjoy most, as a writer?

CS: About equal I would say. They engage different parts of the brain, though since I have written only historical fiction thus far I haven’t wandered too far from my comfort zone. I’d love to do something like Lord of the Rings but don’t think I have the skills or imagination.

TF:      ‘Desert island’ time: one work of military history and one work of fiction; what would they be?

CS: Very, very, difficult, but if forced to choose I’d go forBarbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (aka 1914) and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

TF: Very many thanks for your time, Charles.


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