By Dr. David A. Charters
Professor of Military History (retd) and Senior Fellow, The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton
When the first edition of Scarlet to Green was published in 1981 the academic study of intelligence, which has consumed much of my career, was in its infancy. The Ultra secret had been revealed barely seven years earlier, and the first volume of the official history of British intelligence in the Second World War had preceded Major Robert Elliot’s tome by only a couple of years. There were no academic associations for the study of intelligence and no journals dedicated to it. It was, at that time, as noted intelligence historian Christopher Andrew later described it, the “missing dimension” of modern historical studies. So much has changed in the ensuing thirty-seven years that the earlier period is scarcely recognizable, even to those of us who were embarking on the field at the time. And it is for these reasons that Scarlet to Green stands out. It was a pioneering work in an almost neglected field.
Pioneering historians are not necessarily forgotten, but their place in the pantheon tends to fade with the passage of time and the accumulation of newer work. Thus, it is important to occasionally remind ourselves of their signal accomplishments, and this book is no exception. Indeed, one could easily say that in Major Elliot’s case this reminder is long overdue. I met him only once and briefly at that, so cannot claim to have known him or presume to speak for him. But I am sure he would agree that this occasion – marking the 75th Anniversary of the activation of the Canadian Intelligence Corps and the moment of its contemporary reactivation – is a most appropriate moment to reissue his book. I am not going to attempt to summarize what is in the volume; that is readily apparent from the table of contents. Rather I intend to reflect on what his project represented, from the perspective of an intelligence historian.
First, one cannot fail to be amazed at the scale of the task Major Elliot set for himself. He initially conceived a 200-page history suitable for soldiers and civilians, a popular history that would lay the foundation for a much more ambitious project. The latter would trace Canadian military intelligence history from the time of Wellington’s ‘Guides’, through the two world wars, to the place of intelligence in the modern Canadian Army on the eve of Integration/Unification: a span of almost 150 years! It would cover organization, training, command and administration, personnel changes, intelligence support to operations (expeditionary and domestic), communications, liaison duties, field security and counter-intelligence, prisoner of war interrogation, and more. Commencing work in 1963, by 1971 he had written a 1,200-page manuscript, hardly surprising given the scope of the project. He, of course, recognized that a book that size was unmanageable and would have to be down-sized, as it was. Even so, the result was a massive tome: 769 pages, more than 400 of which were devoted to the Second World War. That part alone would have been a daunting task for an academic historian, but he saw the whole through to completion.
Second, what is equally impressive is that Major Elliot did this by himself. Of course, he received input from others, but he did the research, the writing, and the inevitable re-writing. His accomplishment is all the more impressive when one realizes that in writing the official history of British intelligence Harry Hinsley had the assistance of an assigned team of three historians, not to mention the benefit of his own experience at the very heart of the intelligence struggle, as a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park. And unlike Hinsley et al, Major Elliot was not a professionally trained academic historian.
Third, Major Elliot’s work is notable for his extensive use of original document sources, particularly for the chapters on World War Two. While this was partly out of necessity, since little had been written in published sources, Major Elliot did not scrimp on his efforts to mine the documentary record. He meticulously cited war diaries, intelligence summaries, message traffic, training materials, counter-intelligence reports, meeting minutes, private correspondence, and interviews with participants in the events. That revision of the historical record has since given us a clearer picture of events such as the Dieppe Raid and the campaigns in Italy and North-West Europe cannot be held against Major Elliot. This is the natural result of the historical process. He was working with the sources available at the time and within the commonly held historical understanding of his era. Indeed, given the paucity of original-source-based historical writing on Canadian intelligence in general and on military intelligence in particular, it is fair to conclude that when Scarlet to Green was published Major Elliot was ‘ahead of the curve’ and fully deserving of his status as a pioneer in research on Canadian intelligence.
Finally, the sheer size of Major Elliot’s volume is due in large measure to his intention to tell the military intelligence story at both the level of higher command and “down in the weeds”. This also allowed him to tell it ‘warts and all’. He drew attention to the ‘growing pains’ during the early years of World War Two: the initial lack of trained personnel, and the problems of retaining them once they had been trained; disputes over control of intelligence tasks and their associated units; gaps in language skills; security breaches; intelligence sharing problems; inconclusive or inaccurate reporting; and lack of timely dissemination of information. All of these issues will be familiar to today’s military intelligence professionals and to scholars of the subject. At the same time, in every theatre of combat there were numerous examples of initiative, improvisation, and adaptation ‘on the fly’, which are hallmarks of the Canadian way of war. Out of necessity they also were features of Canadian military intelligence during and after the war.
Scarlet to Green was a remarkable work of research and writing for its time. Since its publication the study of intelligence, including that of Canada, has matured dramatically. There are now university courses, academic books and journals, associations, and regular conferences dedicated to intelligence studies. But Major Elliot’s work has not been superseded by any study equal in scope and depth. It stands as a tribute to the founders and practitioners of the military intelligence craft in its first sixty years in the Canadian Army, and remains a major contribution to the study of intelligence in Canada.