Saturday, 4 April 2015

Universal Export: a bit of genuine tradecraft

In December 1940, British censorship examiners based in New York intercepted a letter addressed to a Mr Lothar Frederick of Berlin from someone who signed himself Joe K. The letter contained a list of shipping in New York harbour, and from this and several other clues in the letter, it was established that the sender was a Nazi agent.

The letter was passed to an MI6 officer, H Montgomery Hyde, attached to the censorship station, who in turn passed it to William Stephenson, director of the British Security Coordination, an organisation set up to gather intelligence about Nazi agents working in the US, spread disinformation, and support acts of sabotage against Nazi targets.

Censorship examiners were ordered to keep a look out for more correspondence from Joe K, which resulted in a haul of intelligence material. Many of the letters followed a characteristic pattern. Each letter usually contained a message written in invisible ink, while the visible text purported to be an ordinary business letter. Even this though in fact disguised information of interest. For example, one letter stated:

"Your order no. 5 is rather large - and I with my limited facilities and funds shall never be able to fill such an immense order completely. But I have already many numbers in stock, and shall ship whatever and whenever I can. I hope you have no objections to part shipments."
What Joe K meant was that the demand from his Nazi masters for information was too much for him to fulfil with his limited resources, but he would do what he could.

If this style of communication, full of double meaning, seems familiar to readers of the Bond novels, then that's because Ian Fleming had Bond communicate in a similar fashion.

In Live and Let Die, for example, Bond makes a call to the 'managing director' of Universal Export (ie M) to report that he "may need a bit of help with a difficult consignment", having gone "uptown to see our chief customer last night" Bond continues that "three of [the customer's] best men went sick" while Bond was there, and that Bond himself "got a slight chill". The chief customer is, of course, Mr Big and that 'sick' is a euphemism for 'dead'.

Bond makes a similar call in From Russia, With Love to report that his partner (Darko Kerim) had gone very sick; that is, he had been killed by the opposition.

In On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bond communicates with M, not as a travelling salesman, but as a repesentative of the College of Arms. Revealing in a letter something of the organisation behind Blofeld, Bond writes of the "male staff of several nationalities" and of Fräulein Irma Bunt, who has told him that "she comes from Munich". Of the Count, Bond writes of his research on allergies and their causes, and tells the addressee, Sable Basilisk, that he has suggested to the count that a visit to Augsberg might be useful.

All valuable intelligence material between the lines for those officers back home working on the Blofeld case (Operation Corona), while the Augsberg trip is a ruse to get Blofeld out of Switzerland so that he can be snatched.

The Bond novels are often dismissed as spy stories, but the fantastic plots and thrilling, fast-paced narrative do disguise genuine tradecraft. Bond's communications under the auspices of Universal Export, which have their origins in the Second World War, if not earlier, are one example.


Montgomery Hyde, H, 1962, Room 3603: The story of the British Intelligence Centre in New York during World War II

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