A Cryptologic Veteran’s Analysis of Most Secret and Confidential

Reviewed by George McGinnis

This book gives an interesting insight concerning how Intelligence was handled in the age of Admiral Horatio Nelson, British Navy. The book covers the general time frame at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth.

The British navy was, at that time, the undisputed ruler of the world’s oceans. They had the finest ships, the most experienced crews, and leaders of the ilk of Nelson.

The book gives excellent insight into how little assistance was provided to senior officers at that time. For example, Nelson had to spend many hours each day personally writing letters to the various other commands, and to naval headquarters in London. He was his own commissary, his own intelligence officer, provided his own navigation charts, and was expected to provide translation service when necessary. It was truly the time of the independent officer.

We are primarily interested in the role of the intelligence officer. Intelligence at that time involved trying to learn the order of battle of the French fleet because the two countries were at war. This was solved by paying informers, reading the French newspapers, reading letters that passed through the British post office, and intercepting the semaphore signals of the French. That country had a sophisticated semaphore signaling system from Paris to many areas of the country, including seaports. By laying off a harbor, and using a telescope, the signals could be read. There was little or no enciphered text, however it was necessary to learn the semaphore operating procedures. In some cases, raids were made on the signaling stations to destroy them or to obtain copies of the operating procedures. In addition to the above mentioned methods of obtaining intelligence, one additional system employed: Frigates, which were very fast sailing ships. They were used to intercept French ships that were suspected of carrying mail. For example, Nelson once had in his possession two mail bags of material taken from a captured French ship. The bags contained letters and other material to and from Napoleon. For his own correspondence, Nelson sometimes wrote duplicate letters and sent them via different channels expecting that one of the letters might be lost or captured.

Because he was his own intelligence officer, Nelson obtained his material by whatever means he chose and made use of it as he saw fit. Some officers disdained intelligence and made little or no use of it. Nelson was very interested in the subject and was constantly trying to learn as much as possible about the French fleet. Many of the battles he fought were assisted by the intelligence product, however in some cases he had to fight with little intelligence material. For example, Nelson began collecting intelligence for the Battle of the Nile only when the two fleets came together. Certainly not the best way to conduct a war!

An interesting book which provides an insight to the intelligence by-products of this period and how they were obtained.

Thanks to the Naval Institute Press for providing the review copy.

Publishing Information

Most Secret and Confidential, Intelligence in the Age of Nelson by Steven E. Maffeo. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2000, ISBN 1-55750-545-4, 355 pages.