The Canadian-British SIGINT Communications Conference 1949-50 (London)

Views of Signals Section at Rockcliffe and Navan .jpg

"Views of Signals Section at Rockcliffe and Navan," 15 August 1946. [1967-052 NPC] PA-066008.

Canada joined the UKUSA signals intelligence (SIGINT) agreement in the late 1940s, which subsequently evolved into the Five Eyes alliance. Talks between Sir Edward Travis, Director of British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and his Canadian counterparts produced a GCHQ proposal for a Canadian-British SIGINT conference in 1949 (CDSG00054). The Canadians appreciated the need for dialogue and coordination. An allied division of intelligence labour meant that policy and budgetary decisions taken in London had implications for Ottawa, and vice versa. Canadian intelligence officers also had outstanding questions about the overall SIGINT program, such as how one hundred promised Canadian intercept stations fit into wider allied efforts. The Directorate of Military Intelligence wondered if the tripartite SIGINT program was too closely modelled on patterns of the last war, and if methods and infrastructure developed to intercept German and Japanese communications were well-suited to “Russian” signals (CDSG00055). The British proposed comprehensive bilateral talks about the whole field of SIGINT. But from the Canadian vantage point, the agenda was predominantly comprised of items which “could not be settled finally except on a tripartite basis with the Americans” (CDSG00061).

Canada’s Communications Research Committee (CRC), which oversaw SIGINT work, therefore preferred an American British Canadian (ABC) conference to bilateral discussions in London. Not only did a bilateral conference create risks of eventually “covering the same ground twice,” the Americans would “be bound to interpret” a preliminary Canadian-British conference as “an attempt to establish a common front” (CDSG00058). These points of disagreement nullified a first British proposal to host a Canadian delegation in July 1949. But the two sides eventually found common ground. The original British agenda consisted of eleven items, and the Canadians agreed that three of these could be resolved bilaterally, while a further five could be usefully explored in a Canadian-British forum. A conference date was set for January 1950.

The Canadian-British SIGINT Communications Conference was held in the Mayfair district of London, at the present-day Bahamas High Commission in the UK. Canada was represented by George Glazebrook of External Affairs, Director Edward Drake of the Communications Branch, National Research Council (now the Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s national cryptologic agency), Wing Commander E.A. Hutton of the Air Force, and Colonel W.W. Lockhart of the Army. Logistically, the conference was no small undertaking at a time when Canadian officials had to make lengthy transatlantic voyages aboard the RMS Queen Mary (CDSG00066). Upon arrival, the Canadian delegation was joined by Mary Oliver, a veteran of wartime signals intelligence work and the first Canadian intelligence Liaison Officer to London. In addition to formal meetings, the two-week conference program encompassed cocktail parties at the Hyde Park Hotel and field trips to GCHQ’s premises at RAF Eastcote and the UK Joint Intelligence Bureau, the model for a postwar Canadian JIB (CDSG00070, CDSG00073 & CDSG00074).

While formal conference conclusions have been withheld under the Access to Information Act, documents in this collection provided glimpses of its outcomes. UK intelligence officers like Travis, Foreign Office Director of Communications Brigadier General Richard Gambier-Perry, Captain E.G. “Eddy” Hastings of the Royal Navy, and Sir Kenneth Strong of JIB (London) were all invited to visit Ottawa in personal or professional capacities. Follow-up meetings were scheduled for the autumn of 1950, after the Canadian trials of new British cypher machines for top secret “Ultra” communications (CDSG00080). Finally, the Canadians were anxious to share the conference's conclusions with US counterparts, to avoid perceptions of a common front within the North Atlantic intelligence triangle (CDSG00078). It is revealing and significant that postwar Canadians responsible for signals intelligence strove to maintain equal distance from London and Washington, despite their Commonwealth ties.

The full “Canadian-British SIGINT Communications Conference 1949-50” file released by Library and Archives Canada (A-2019-03089) can be accessed as CDSG00081, albeit with substantial redactions. The documents in this briefing book shed light on the alliance politics and personal relationships that defined the formative years of tripartite Cold War SIGINT cooperation.

The Canadian-British SIGINT Communications Conference 1949-50 (London)