August 1945: British wartime prime minister Clement Attlee, seated right, with US president Harry Truman, and Stalin. Foreign secretary Ernest Bevin stands behind, centre. Photograph: Yevgeny Khaldei/Corbis
National Archives reveal plan to sow dissension among Soviet communists then kill Rommel and top Gestapos before D-Day
MI6 drew up plans for clandestine operations, including the "liquidation of selected individuals" and "kidnapping of high ranking Communist personalities" as the second world war led to the cold war, secret intelligence files released Thursday at the National Archives reveal.
The prime targets of the secret intelligence service were leading Soviet personalities. A file from 1947 entitled Covert Propaganda, listed "plants" and "fictitious indiscretions" as potential weapons.
The file notes said: "Action could be taken to discredit prominent Communist and other public figures, and to propagate dissension in Communist parties and organisations by (i) dispatch of forged letters through the post, and (ii) the planting of manufactured evidence."
Referring to the head of MI6, known, as that person still is, as "C" for chief, an intelligence officer told Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary: "C's organisation should be given a free hand to carry out such special operations as are possible in peacetime in the Soviet Union itself and in Soviet zones of Germany and Austria."
To the irritation of MI6 and military chiefs, Bevin, like the prime minister, Clement Attlee, was squeamish about what the MI6 papers euphemistically called special purposes and subterranean work.
Responding to the MI6 memo, Bevin wrote: "I have grave objections to this. We are letting loose forces difficult to control … I did not regard it too successful (sic) in the war."
Ministers later softened their opposition to such MI6 operations in Europe and elsewhere, and "licensed to kill" was not officially abandoned until the mid 1950s.
During the later stages of the second world war, the files show, MI6 drew up a list of key German figures, included senior Gestapo officers, to be assassinated before the planned D-Day Normandy landings, at the request of US officers at the HQ of the allied commander, General Dwight Eisenhower.
Field Marshal Rommel, the "desert fox" who had been defeated in North Africa but who was commanding German troops in northern France, was a candidate for assassination.
However, the plan was dropped before D-Day amid concerns it would lead to what an MI6 officer called "a wave of murderings". He warned against reprisals against civilians and allied prisoners of war held by the Germans. The officer advised: "It is likely that for every successful assassination, there will be two or three failures, as past records of these attempts show."
Stewart Menzies, who was C, agreed, as did Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, chairman of the joint intelligence committee. "Not out of squeamishness", he said, "as there are several people in this world whom I could kill with my own hands with a feeling of pleasure and without that action in any way spoiling my appetite, but I think that it is the type of bright idea which in the end produces a good deal of trouble and does little good."
But in June 1944 British agents received reports of a plot to kill Hitler and of his having been spotted in the southern French town of Perpignan disguised and fleeing to north Africa.
Defence chiefs told Winston Churchill they were "unanimous that, from the strictly military point of view, it was almost an advantage that Hitler should remain in control of German strategy, having regard to the blunders that he has made, but that on the wider point of view, the sooner he was got rid of the better".
MI6 believed the Middle East could provide fertile ground for its covert activities. In a file marked oral propaganda, it reported in 1947: "The widespread illiteracy among the people of the Middle East … points to the value of the spoken word as an effective means of propaganda. This kind of propaganda could be put across by the Moslem clergy, both Sunni and Shia, in the Arab countries and in Persia."
The MI6 noted added: "But they will need to be supplied with the compelling arguments based on a comparison of Communist tenets with Moslem and Christian principles and teaching."
C wondered whether to assign an officer after the war to the British embassy in Paris to spy on the French. He agreed to do so, the files show, in a letter which he instructed the recipient to burn.
But C wondered what cover his officer should have. After dismissing the labels of cultural attache and commercial secretary, the decision was made to call him "military adviser to the ambassador".
The man chosen for the task was AJ Ayer, who became well-known as a philosopher. Ayer did not stay long in Paris before he was replaced by MI6 and returned to Britain.