GCHQ had a 30-year ‘whites only’ rule for hiring staff, says new book


GCHQ had a ‘colour bar’ on employees for nearly three decades, a new history of Britain’s eavesdropping agency reveals.

The ban on hiring non-white staff was in place from the 1950s until as late as 1980.

The revelation is made in a ‘warts-and-all’ official history of the spy agency, which also tells how ‘major mistakes’ made in the 1930s left the country wide open to enemy codebreakers at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Behind The Enigma claims to reveal previously unknown details about GCHQ, which works alongside MI5 and MI6 to tackle cyber crime, terrorism, and state threats and attacks.  

Published tomorrow, author John Ferris’s book reveals never previously known details about Government Communications Headquarters, which works alongside MI5 and MI6 to tackle cyber, terrorist, criminal and state threats and attacks.

It also tells how failures in British signals security in World War One contributed to tens of thousands of UK deaths at the Battle of the Somme, due to German interception of British military messages on field telephones. 

Established on November 1, 1919 as a peacetime ‘cryptanalytic’ unit made up from staff from the Admiralty’s Room 40 and the War Office’s MI1(b), GCHQ personnel moved to Bletchley Park during World War Two where they decrypted German messages (pictured)

The intelligence service commissioned the first ever authorised history as part of its efforts to open up more to the public as it marked its centenary year.

Mr Ferris, a professor of history at the University of Calgary, was given ‘unprecedented access’ to GCHQ’s archive and policy files, examining around 16 million artefacts, many of which were previously classified and have never before been made public.  

Speaking to the PA news agency, he revealed that he was not allowed to view any information on diplomatic communications or intelligence after 1945, and also information on technical issues which could be relevant still today.

 Mr Ferris said: ‘I think it is essential that I did a warts and all account and GCHQ, to its credit, was willing to let me do that.

‘So if you look at the things I’ve found which they wish hadn’t happened. For example, there is a ‘colour bar’ in employment in GCHQ in the 1950s and 1960s.

‘In other words if you’re not Caucasian, they don’t want you in. And they take active measures to avoid hiring you.

‘And, by the way, that’s what all British security and intelligence organisations do at the time.’ 

John Ferris has provided a 'warts and all account' of the security agency's 100-year past, outlining its secret successes and failings, when he was selected to write the book

Behind the Enigma reveals never previously known details about GCHQ, which works with MI5 and MI6 to tackle cyber, terrorist, criminal and state threats and attacks

John Ferris has provided a ‘warts and all account’ of the security agency’s 100-year past, outlining its secret successes and failings, when he was selected to write the book

He described a ‘mixed’ picture on job opportunities for women and people from BAME backgrounds.

But explained by contemporary British standards, among white men of all classes, GCHQ’s personnel was diverse, especially for managerial positions.

He said his research showed GCHQ was ‘surprisingly diverse’ for working class men and, ‘in many ways astonishingly open to working class men’, compared to other Government departments and agencies who would typically hire university graduates.

According to the book, while it was possible, few non-white staff would have applied at the time as ‘racism would likely have constrained the chances of any who did apply’. The rule was in place until around 1980, and eventually abolished. 

Mr Ferris said there were ‘many things that GCHQ does that they’ve not done well, or in hindsight they would be unhappy about’.

‘In the 1930s, the British make major mistakes in their coding systems, which means that when the war breaks out actually they are very vulnerable to German and Italian code breakers,’ he said.

‘And they suffer some losses as a result. It takes the British a couple of painful years to overcome those weaknesses.’  

The book also sets out how GCHQ’s work influenced some of the major international incidents of the last century, including the Cold and Falklands wars.

Mr Ferris told how GCHQ did ‘extremely well’ in its Cold War efforts on ‘very limited budgets’ and described the Falklands as an example of where GCHQ ‘most affected British policy’.

He added: ‘In the Falklands conflict of 1982 I’d say that GCHQ was fundamental to British victory. 

The book also sets out how GCHQ's work influenced some of the major international incidents of the last century, including the Cold and Falklands wars (pictured, a Sea Harrier being refuelled and rearmed on the flight deck of the carrier HMS Hermes)

The book also sets out how GCHQ’s work influenced some of the major international incidents of the last century, including the Cold and Falklands wars (pictured, a Sea Harrier being refuelled and rearmed on the flight deck of the carrier HMS Hermes)

‘Without GCHQ I don’t think the conflict could have been won. Really it was one of the necessary things for victory.’

Established on November 1, 1919 as a peacetime ‘cryptanalytic’ unit made up from staff from the Admiralty’s Room 40 and the War Office’s MI1(b), GCHQ personnel moved to Bletchley Park during World War Two where they decrypted German messages, most famously by breaking the Enigma code.

The agency’s best-known former member of staff was Alan Turing, the wartime code-breaker and pioneer of computer science who had a ‘fearless approach to daunting problems’.

The organisation rarely speaks publicly about its work and its existence was not publicly acknowledged until 1983, although it has tried to be less secretive in recent years.

In 2016, it became the first of the country’s spy agencies on Twitter and has since joined Instagram.

Last year, to mark its centenary, it revealed the locations of five formerly secret sites it had been working from during the Second World War and the Cold War. 

The book talks of how a GCHQ employee in 1945 discovered through Sigint – intelligence gathering by interception of signals – that his son had been killed in action, but he was not allowed to discuss his son’s death with his wife.

Mr Ferris described how his research showed staff were bound to a life of secrecy, but were used to it.

He said: ‘They all internalise this idea that they should not talk about what it is they do. And not even tell members of their family and they simply get used to it.

‘You have mathematicians who make a discovery which is five or 10 years ahead of what any civilian mathematician does and yet they can’t publish it.

The book also reveals how failures in British signals security in World War One contributed to tens of thousands of UK deaths at the Battle of the Somme, due to German interception of British military messages on field telephones

The book also reveals how failures in British signals security in World War One contributed to tens of thousands of UK deaths at the Battle of the Somme, due to German interception of British military messages on field telephones

‘Now for most mathematicians that would be very frightening, horrifying, but they are used to the idea.

‘They see themselves really as being given the opportunity sometimes to use leading-edge kit to do fascinating work. They are willing to live without getting the personal credit.’

He also described the GCHQ’s union ban in 1984 as ‘tragic’ because it affected a third of the organisation which worked in intercepting foreign communications.

A promotion in such roles was ‘virtually impossible’ and there were strikes in a bid for better conditions, but GCHQ decided a union ban was needed over fears walkouts could affect national security and to ensure they could maintain long-term co-operation with the Americans.

The staff had no choice as they could otherwise be faced with job losses.

In a foreword to the book, GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said the Mr Ferris’ narrative ‘shows us as an organisation set up to collect and analyse intelligence and with an amazing track record of shortening wars, countering hostile states, thwarting terrorist attacks and disrupting serious criminals’.

He added that the agency’s future success will be ‘assured if we retain and recruit a diverse mix of minds. This history shows that when we do, anything is possible.’

Behind the Enigma is published tomorrow by Bloomsbury, priced £30.   

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