On 15 May 1940, five days after becoming Prime Minister, Churchill ordered the creation of a new intelligence agency to focus entirely on Germany. M.I.3’s Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth Strong, and the small staff of three regular officers that had comprised M.I.3’s ‘German section’ immediately had conferred on them the status of a full-blown intelligence department, that would henceforth be known as M.I.14. The man who had been a lone voice in intelligence circles for the best part of five years, warning his superiors of German intentions and the inevitability of another war, was the obvious choice to Head the new department. He was now tasked by Churchill with the immediate recruitment of specialist staff with expert knowledge of Germany and the methods by which to assess the new intelligence and awareness this would bring.

Strong needed manpower and that was very much in short supply. Most intelligence recruits were found via the ‘old boy network’, and this was Strong’s first port of call.  Typical recruits came from families who had served the nation for generations as soldiers, politicians, or civil servants. They tended, if they did not know one another already, to have mutual friends. Or they might belong to the same London club. When an extremely delicate, confidential job had to be done, Military Intelligence officers would pick from a pool of people they knew, or who knew people they knew. Secret service work was no ordinary job. Lives depended on it – sometimes one’s own.

Kenneth Strong, founding head of MI14. (The Crimes of the Gestapo, Amberley Publishing)

Strong eventually found an aerial photography man by pure chance. Dining one day at his London club, he was introduced to Osbert Crawford, the noted archaeologist.

As a result of this conversation, Pickering received, in double-quick time, a letter from the War Office, with a railway warrant from Southampton to Waterloo enclosed, instructing him to report to the War Office in Whitehall in two days’ time.

M.I.14 had been given subterranean basement space below the War Office and adjoining accommodation in Whitehall Court immediately behind it; a tunnel ran under the street between the two buildings. When Pickering arrived at the Horseguards Avenue entrance, he was met by the tall frock-coated Head Porter in his gold braded top hat, who made several telephone calls before summoning a messenger to escort him. He was eventually taken on a route march down a steep, narrow flight of stairs, and along a maze of subterranean, rabbit-warren-like passages.

At the end of one of these subterranean passages was a room no bigger than a broom cupboard in which was to be found a striking mustachioed figure, wearing the epaulettes of a Captain and medal ribbons from the Great War. The room was so small there didn’t seem enough room for both the Captain and his desk.  After squeezing awkwardly from behind the desk.

The War Office building in Whitehall, home of MI14. (The Crimes of the Gestapo, Amberley Publishing)

Captain ‘Sandy’ Sanderson introduced himself. A former business executive and territorial army officer, Sanderson had joined M.I.3 at the start of the war, before being seconded to M.I.14, from where he now coordinated invasion intelligence. With no other formalities or small talk, Sanderson asked Pickering what he knew about aerial photography. Pickering told him that, in fact, he knew quite a lot about it since his first Ordnance Survey assignment in Samaria, Iraq, some five years before. Since then, he had worked on a series of projects on areas of archaeological significance.

Sitting behind a paper-covered desk at the far end of the room was the man who Sanderson introduced simply as ‘the Chief’. Pickering immediately noticed that under the desk he was sporting a particularly loud and colourful pair of tartan trousers.

Sanderson and Pickering sat in silence for what seemed like several minutes, while the man in the tartan trousers drew what looked like a series of wavy lines and circles on a large buff pad of paper. Eventually he introduced himself as Lieutenant-Colonel Strong and continued with his sketching. Strong could never tell you anything without drawing a diagram, Pickering later recalled. In this case the wavy lines and circles were an introduction to Strong’s short and succinct explanation as to why Pickering had received the call to arms. 

He had been recruited to MI14’s Section G and would be assisting Captain Peter Earle in H Section with aerial photography. Section G was only but one spoke in a hub Strong was putting together in order to carry out what Churchill had decreed was to be their first and most pressing task – to find out as much as was humanly possible about German plans for invading Britain.

MI14 officer Noel Annan. (The Crimes of the Gestapo, Amberley Publishing)

All information concerning German preparations were reported in detail to the Cabinet by a special ‘Invasion Warning Committee’. Captain Sanderson, responsible for invasion intelligence, reported via Strong, to Lieutenant-Commander Denning at the Admiralty, who would be coordinating the work of the committee. It was Denning’s job not only to service the committee but to report directly to Churchill, at any time, day night, should there be any intelligence updates about the threat of invasion.

Most mornings Pickering had a rough file of material deposited on his desk from a variety of other M.I departments, naval intelligence (N.I.D), the Air Ministry, and the newly created Ministry of Economic Warfare and Weapons Production. These included production statistics, estimates of how many divisions, air squadrons, bombers, U-boats and capital ships were in place and operational at any one time, their locations and potential future movements. Frustratingly, some sources often conflicted or contradicted others, and judgement and experience were therefore called upon in such questions of reliability.

Once a week there was what was called ‘the intelligence digest’ which included copies of air photographs, prisoner of war interrogations, captured documents, reports from other MI14 sections, information from diplomatic sources, reports from businessmen abroad, stories filed by foreign newspaper correspondents, whose sources of information could often be more reliable than diplomatic sources, summaries of radio broadcasts from across the globe, and articles from specialist periodicals.

Gestapo Headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in Berlin. (The Crimes of the Gestapo, Amberley Publishing)

After the formality of working at Ordnance Survey’s head office in Southampton, he found life at MI14 more like a university common room, which perhaps wasn’t too surprising, bearing in mind the number of academics that had been recruited. Eric Birley, a professor of Classical Studies was an archaeologist and an authority on the Roman Army. Ably assisted by Lloyds underwriter Colin Tangye, he employed, in Sections (a) and (b), the same methods of card-indexing that he had applied to Roman legions, in order to build up the German order of battle and predict, as best he could, its next move. While a German invasion of Britain never came to pass, it remained one of MI14’s tasks to try and anticipate what Germany’s plans might be for administering an occupied Britain or indeed a large part of it.

MI4 acted, throughout the war, as a ‘clearing house’ for German intelligence. Whichever ever intelligence department was the origin, it came across the desks of MI14 officers. Whether it was a report on a suspected double agent from MI5, code breaking intelligence via Bletchley Park from MI6, news from Allied prisoners or men on the run behind enemy lines from MI9, or intelligence gained from German prisoners at MI19’s ‘London Cage’, it all contributed to the overall picture of what the Germans were up to and what they might be about to do next.

In this way, MI14 built up comprehensive files on the history and organisation of the Nazi Party, its leaders, the Gestapo, Gestapo intelligence techniques, methods of torture and operations, German plans for invading and controlling Great Britain, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, and those who murdered the ‘Great Escapers’, along with others guilty of war crimes.

At the end of the war, MI14 was merged back into MI3, from whence it came. Churchill’s unique understanding of the world of intelligence had paid off - MI14 had enable Great Britain to stay one step ahead in the intelligence war.

Andrew Cook's book The Crimes of the Gestapo is available for purchase now.