Tuesday 3 November 2015

How we all learned we had to spread information

In Nelson's day, it was relatively simple. Once a fleet was at sea, it was effectively under local command. The Admiralty could judge the qualities of the admiral when they appointed him, give him a framework to work in and that was that. They had to leave him to it, for better or for worse.

The problem was similar before the First World War. Once the flagship had cast off the telephone line to London and put out to sea, the decisions would be his.

Wireless changed everything. In fact, it was just one of a number of innovations which allowed 20th century organisations to grow to prodigious sizes - but then rendered them powerless to evolve or act when the information changed. Chrysler''s invention of a hierarchical organisation, split into divisions in the 1920s and 1930s allowed the information to flow downwards rapidly, but what about intelligence from the front line? What happens when you have changing info hour by hour?

This was, arguably, the great 20th century problem. What made it such an issue in the First World War, perhaps for the first time, was only partly he enormous organisations involved - armies with a million men or more, global navies with many hundreds of ships and shore establishments.

It was fine to just send information and orders rippling down the hierarchy, but if it doesn't also go the other way - informing the centre about the grassroots, the centre gets stuck in its own delusions and everything grinds to a halt.

No, what first made this an issue was the lunchtime conversation at the Pall Mall club in London, between Admiral Henry Oliver (the Director of Naval Intelligence) and Alfred Ewing (the Director of Naval Education), about Ewing's fascination with codes.  Out of that conversation, which is supposed to have taken place on the first day of the war in 1914, emerged the attempt to listen in and decrypt the German naval signals.

And, perhaps rather to the surprise of everyone involved, when they found they could do it, it led to the development of the extraordinary Room 40 operation - decoding signals on a systematic basis for the first time in naval history.

It also created a series of problems too. How could the information be integrated with all the other knowledge that was pouring in - and used without giving away its source?

The fact that the initial failures to do this effectively, contributing to the disasters at the battle of Jutland in 1916, were eventually overcome, so that the basic lessons had been learned by 1939, were largely down to one man: Oliver's extraordinary successor as naval intelligence director, Captain Reginald 'Blinker' Hall?

One reason why I want to write Before Enigma is to tell this story, about Hall and Room 40, and the fundamental mistakes he was trying to put right - about the basic information problem - and perhaps what we can learn from it today...

There are 20 days left to contribute to the crowdfunding of the book, if you feel so inspired, or to pass it on to anyone you know who might be interested. I would be ever so grateful if you could.

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