Story: Intelligence services

Page 1. Intelligence services, 1800s to 1945

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Intelligence is information, often secret, which is likely to be useful in dealing with potential enemies or rivals. All countries have some need to acquire intelligence and to keep their own secrets. Intelligence services are involved in the gathering and in the protection of information. They may spy on foreign countries and their agents or on local groups perceived to pose some threat to government or society.

The beginnings of intelligence gathering

From the earliest days of Māori settlement inter-tribal rivalry motivated tribes to spy on each other. After New Zealand became a British colony, in 1840, the government and military, and their Māori allies and enemies, all carried out intelligence operations. The British gathered information from a range of agents including government officials, interpreters and some missionaries. Missionary Carl Völkner’s spying was a key factor in his execution by followers of the Pai Mārire faith in 1865.

Detecting the German Pacific squadron

In September 1914 Clive Drummond was a radio operator at the ZLW Tinakori Hill Morse code station in Wellington. The radio operators were experienced men who could recognise the ‘signatures’ of individual Morse telegraphers. Drummond intercepted a coded message from the German Pacific cruiser squadron. Realising this particular signal was unusual, he sent it to Melbourne for decoding. As a result, the departure of troopships for the Middle East was delayed to ensure they were safe from German cruiser attack.

Intelligence in the First World War

During the First World War the New Zealand military had intelligence units at brigade and battalion level. Each battalion had a 30-man intelligence platoon.

Within New Zealand, Britains Royal Navy officially took over the Post Office’s Morse radio stations for the duration of the war. The network was used to listen for enemy electronic signals.

New Zealand in 1914 had no civilian intelligence service. A small number of Police detectives were designated to keep watch on the activities of enemy aliens (people originally from countries that New Zealand was at war with), peace activists and trade union leaders who were opposed to the war. They looked for any signs of spying, sabotage or sedition. Undercover detectives attended meetings such as British-Australian peace activist Adela Pankhurst’s anti-conscription speaking tour of 1916.

Monitoring ‘sedition’ between the wars

Political surveillance intensified in New Zealand after the First World War. Police monitored trade unionists and Irish nationalists, but from 1921 the newly formed Communist Party of New Zealand became the focus of surveillance. Police in plain clothes attended public meetings and a number of police agents infiltrated Communist Party branches.

Intelligent spies

In the Second World War the army set up a New Zealand Intelligence Corps and a number of field security sections, based in the Middle East, Europe, the Pacific, and in New Zealand itself. The senior intelligence officers attached to General Bernard Freyberg’s 2nd Division headquarters were of a particularly high calibre. They included brilliant linguist Paddy Costello, journalist Geoffrey Cox and writer Dan Davin. Later Costello, who was attached to the New Zealand embassy in Moscow, was subject to unproved allegations of spying for the Russians.

Intelligence services in the Second World War

During the Second World War the navy carried out signals intelligence work (gathering intelligence by the interception of communications) through their ‘Y’ organisation. This used the Post and Telegraph Department’s network of high-frequency direction-finding (H/F D/F) stations to monitor the movements of German and Japanese submarines and warships. With the entry of the USA into the war in December 1941, the New Zealand signals intelligence system became aligned to the American-run network.

The police continued their role of surveillance within New Zealand, watching those considered to be subversives, including ‘enemy aliens’ and pacifists. The Communist Party initially opposed what they called the ‘imperialist war’ and was among those targeted. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Communist Party shifted to ardent support for what they then called the ‘people’s war’.

In February 1941, at the suggestion of British military intelligence, New Zealand established the Security Intelligence Bureau (SIB). Modelled on the British MI5, the SIB was intended to manage internal security. Major Kenneth Folkes, a British army officer, was sent from the UK to take charge. The SIB lost all credibility in mid-1942, when convicted conman Sidney Gordon Ross persuaded Folkes that the Nazis were carrying out a sabotage and invasion plan in New Zealand. A police investigation proved that the plot was a fabrication, and Folkes was removed from his post. The police took over management of the SIB, which was disbanded at the war’s end.

How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Intelligence services - Intelligence services, 1800s to 1945', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/intelligence-services/page-1 (accessed 29 June 2017)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 20 Jun 2012