Military Intelligence – not an oxymoron!


The employment of information to have better effect on your enemy on the battlefield, or to put it another way, the use of intelligence in war, is as old as war itself. Knowledge superiority is recognised as fundamental to success in conflict.


The formal use of intelligence by the British Army has a much shorter history. Tracing it’s roots to Elizabeth I’s, chief of intelligence, Walsingham, and the adoption of the Tudor Rose as part of its iconography (and at the centre of it’s cap badge) the Intelligence Corps recently commemorated it’s 65th birthday (on the 15th July 2005), by the opening of a redeveloped section of it’s Museum. Of course, the British Army had employed intelligence officers in previous conflicts. Wellington’s "Exploring Officers", the Corps of Guides on the North-West Frontier, and a General Staff "IC Staff" on the Western Front in 1916, but it wasn’t until the dark days of 1940 that the requirement for a formally established British army "Intelligence Corps" was recognised.


Intelligence became big business in the fight against Hitler and the Nazis. It developed into individual disciplines, such as: wireless intercept or signals intelligence – used strategically by Bletchley Park, photographic interpretation or imagery intelligence – millions of still photographs were taken of the Normandy beaches for instance, and last but not least, battlefield tactical intelligence (including interrogation and security) – heavily reliant on human sources. Intelligence Corps personnel were employed in all of these disciplines, and in every theatre of operations during WW2.

Intelligence and Airborne Operations

Intelligence, and its application, was often seen however, as a bit of a novelty – a new thing; where the usual concept of intelligence was rather more - reconnaissance. Many novelty ideas proved themselves during WW2, including airborne warfare. Parachute and glider operations had been developed doctrinally in the 1930s by, 1st the Russians and then the German Wehrmacht. It was the employment of gliders and parachute troops in the Nazi assault on the Low Countries in May 1940 that lead to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill demanding that the British army have 5000 paratroopers by the end of 1940. This wasn’t feasible, but by the end of 1943, there were 2 full divisions of airborne troops (over 20,000 men), wearing the famous "Red Beret", and each division had both an intelligence staff and a Field Security Section for tactical intelligence duties.

The Intelligence Corps’ Field Security Sections (FSS) were developed from the Corps of Military, Field Security Police, which had been originally deployed in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Reporting directly to the Divisional Headquarters Intelligence Staff, their success in: developing local sources, conducting prisoner interrogations, providing security advice, all at the tactical level, ensured that each British subsequently Canadian and Polish, Division had an FSS. Each unit numbered between 15 and 20 men under the command of a captain, as the Field Security Officer.

The British Airborne Divisions were no different, with 89 and 317 FSS ( 1st and 6th Divisions respectively) deployed from 1942. Parachute and glider operations in North Africa, Italy, Normandy, at Arnhem, and across the Rhine into Germany, saw no more than 40 parachute qualified Intelligence Corps personnel - wearing the Red beret, and the distinctive camouflaged "Denison Smock"into battle. Their duties: conducting informant handling, prisoner interrogation, arrests and exploitation of captured enemy material were in direct support of the Divisional commander. Sometimes, however, the battles went against them with the need, such as at Arnhem, to act as infantry. They were soldiers first, losing a number of fallen along the way, Captain Dunbar (Sicily landings), Corporals Maybury and Scarr (Arnhem)

Re-enactment: education and commemoration

To maintain the memory of this small, gallant, band of airborne intelligence Field Security operators, and to commemorate their deeds in the various Theatres, we established a re-enactment group (with official sanction), adopting the name of 1st Airborne’s FSS – 89 FSS . The group, (based in southern England) armed and equipped for the airborne soldier and intelligence operator for 1942-5, have displayed at the major public historical events – The War & Peace Show, Military Odyssey, Campaign etc, as well as attending period shows at heritage railways predominantly in the Midlands.

The group has developed in it’s capability to represent the Intelligence Corps operator across the last 3 years. The addition of unit transport – in the shape of 2 Jeeps allows us to attend events in authentically marked airborne format vehicles. WW2 Jeeps, in airborne units, were "cut". To remove weight (essential for glider-borne operations) and allow easy access to the glider, unnecessary components were left off and panels cut to fit the Jeep into the Horsa glider

Alongside the historical events catering for the educational element of re-enactment, we have attended charitable functions for the Intelligence Corps Museum appeal. Of especial poignancy was the ability to attend the 60th Anniversary Commemorations in both Normandy and Arnhem, it was an honour to take part – particularly assisting the veterans with period transport where we could, made it far more worthwhile. The group has also been photographed for the journals of the re-enactment world, Armourer, Skirmish, as well as in Classic Military Vehicle and Military Machines International . A particular honour was the invitation from the BBC to provide background footage to accompany veteran’s reminiscences for the D Day commemoration week.

Should you wish to know more about the airborne elements of the Intelligence Corps in WW2 please see our website which also has contact details.