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“Reading the World’s Mail”: British Communications Intelligence and Economic Warfare, 1914-18

  • Natalie Zemon Davis Conference Room, SS 2098 100 St. George St Toronto, ON (map)

Date: Friday, May 1
Time: 1:00pm – 3:00pm
Location: Natalie Zemon Davis Conference Room, Sidney Smith Hall, Room 2098, 100 St. George St., Toronto, ON M5S 3G3

Title: “Reading the World’s Mail”: British Communications Intelligence and Economic Warfare, 1914-18

Between July 1914 and November 1918, signals intelligence was born. The type and number of messages intercepted every month for purposes of communications intelligence swelled from thousands of enciphered telegrams to and from foreign offices, to millions of cables, letters and radio dispatches, from diplomats, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and civilians, mostly in plain language or commercial codes. The best known element of signals intelligence during the First World War is work against the operational traffic of armies and navies, centring on cryptanalysis and traffic analysis, but overwhelmingly its largest form, and the area where it was most frequently used, lay in blockade and economic warfare. This instance also was perhaps the case in history where communications intelligence worked most fruitfully without the aid of cryptanalysis, and where open source material was most central to analysis. It is closer to the modern practice of communications intelligence than were the actions of naval and military siginters between 1914-18. This presentation addresses how communications intelligence affected economic warfare during the First World War, and victory in that struggle.

Speaker: John Ferris is Professor of History at The University of Calgary, Honourary Professor in The Department of International Politics at The University of Wales, Aberystywth, and Adjunct Professor at The Department of War Studies, The Royal Military College of Canada. He was Cryptologic Scholar in Residence at The National Security Agency, 2008-09, and Killam Residential Professor at The University of Calgary, 2013-14. He has published widely in international, intelligence, military and diplomatic history, and strategic studies. He currently is completing books on the theory of intelligence, on economic warfare during the First World War, on British signals intelligence, 1890-1919, and on Anglo-American intelligence, Japanese deception, and the outbreak of the Pacific War.

Main Sponsor: Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History

Co-Sponsor: University of Toronto Department of History