Leaning on the Ottoman

Churchill's Secret War
April 18, 1997

Neutrality in global conflicts is a subject underrated by historians. But suddenly the experience of the six nonbelligerent European nations during the second world war is once again a question of controversy, especially as regards Switzerland and Sweden.

In English historiography the forgotten man in this story was also Europe's traditional sick man, but Turkey may well, for strategic and geopolitical reasons, have been the most important neutral of them all. Now Robin Denniston, in an exemplary monograph refreshingly combining accurate scholarship with sturdy commonsense, puts the very far from Sublime Porte under the microscope.

Winston Churchill's interest in Turkey was twofold. As a long-time aficionado of secret intelligence he was an avid reader of the famous BJs - the blue-jacketed decodings of enemy diplomatic intercepts -famously produced for his perusal by the Government Code and Cipher School, based first at Bletchley Park and later at Berkeley Street and Park Lane. And his love-hate relationship with Turkey was part of the "eastern complex" famously manifested in the Dardanelles debacle of 1915. In his eagerness to get Turkey into the war on the Allied side Churchill was at cross-purposes with the Foreign Office mandarins of the southern department, whose traditional anti-Turk stance, Denniston suggests, reflected the fact that top civil servants in the 1940s were invariably trained in the classics and were thus pro-Hellene almost by reflex action.

The story of British relations with Turkey during the second world war is really the story of how Churchill was baulked at every turn by a Turkish leadership determined that it would not be sucked into the conflict. After the Nazis had invaded Greece and Yugoslavia in 1941, and especially when German troops occupied Chios and Mytilene, virtually a stone's throw from the Turkish mainland, the appearance of the Wehrmacht on the plains of Anatolia was widely predicted. But Hitler, content with Turkey's benevolent neutrality, did not want to rock the boat; the result was a Turco-German treaty of friendship in June 1941 that suited both sides.

The main boat-rocking was done by Churchill, who insisted on flying to Turkey in January 1943 after the Casablanca conference to turn the screws on President Ismet Inonu. Denniston's account of the Adana conference is -intentionally or unintentionally - hilarious. Churchill played the bull in a china shop, blundering around with his franglais and generally obfuscating what should have been a straightforward discussion, since Eden and the Foreign Office men all spoke perfect French, Turkey's language of diplomacy.

The comedy was enhanced by the Turks' selective deafness. There was a rumour in the Cairo bars that the Turks all wore hearing aids which immediately ceased to function as soon as the possibility of Turkey's entering the war was mentioned.

Denniston also includes much interesting material on the fall of the Dodecanese islands to the Germans in November 1943, after yet another of Churchill's botched military operations, and on the famous spy in the British Embassy in Ankara - Eleysa Basna, codenamed Cicero - who passed on the details of the Normandy landings to Hitler (who then unaccountably ignored the intelligence).

Denniston finds Cicero's own controversial account well grounded in the BJs he has examined. His re-revisionism on Cicero is also reflected in the general conclusion - anathema to signals intelligence buffs -that the history of the second world war does not need to be rewritten significantly in the light of Enigma and Ultra. The idea that a single spy, or even a series of intercepted signals, can materially alter the course of global conflicts is shown up by Denniston in his excellent study for the egregious nonsense it is.

Frank McLynn is the author of Fitzroy Maclean.

Churchill's Secret War: Diplomatic Decrypts, The Foreign Office and Turkey, 1942-44

Author - Robin Denniston
ISBN - 0 7509 1219 7
Publisher - Alan Sutton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 208

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