September, 16, 1999
stopped twice by censor Ruth Ive from talking about a
bombing, he slammed down the phone in a
Ruth, the girl whose job was to shut Churchill up
Ruth Ive: at the age of 22 she was playing a crucial role in British security
IT WAS a brave man who interrupted Winston Churchill mid-sentence and told him to shut up, but throughout the Second World War a young London woman did just that.
Ruth Ive was 22 when she was given the job of monitoring Britain's only wartime transatlantic telephone link, used by the prime minister to communicate with President Roosevelt.
Her task was to stop Churchill, and other high-ranking members of the Government, armed forces and Royal Family with access to the crucial line, from saying anything which could bolster the Axis powers' war effort.
The line, actually a radio link, was the first Anglo-American "hotline". It was also all that was left after the Atlantic telephone cables were fractured, on purpose, to prevent German agents passing information between Europe and north America.
General Post Office scientists feared that the radio signals, which were protected only by a rather primitive scrambling device, could be intercepted and decoded by the Germans.
More than once Mrs Ive was obliged to cut into Churchill's and Roosevelt's conversations with the standard warning, comical under the circumstances, that she would have to report their indiscretion to a "higher authority".
On one occasion after she had twice stopped Churchill from telling Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden about a bomb attack on West Smithfield market, the prime minister slammed down the phone in a rage. This was characteristic, Mrs Ive explains now, of the black moods which overwhelmed Churchill during his bouts of manic depression.
Now 81, Mrs Ive joined the postal and telegraph censorship office when war broke out. From a base in the City, she had complete authority over hotline callers. Subjects they couldn't talk about included the results of enemy action, troop movements, shortages of food and other supplies, public morale and any military activities.
Sensitive issues could be discussed by setting out an agenda for each conversation, sent ahead in more secure coded telegrams. Churchill and Roosevelt could then talk by referring only to the numbered points.
Having signed the Official Secrets Act, Mrs Ive's remarkable study has gone unacknowledged for more than 50 years, save for a glowing reference from the Ministry of Information. Only now, thanks to research undertaken by her for a new documentary -- to be screened on The History Channel at 5 pm on 3 October -- can the full significance of her role be understood.
It has emerged that the Germans were indeed, right from the start of US participation in the war, listening in to the radio signals which carried the crudely scrambled conversations between Churchill and Roosevelt. Transcripts were on Hitler's desk in Berlin almost before Mrs Ive had finished writing up her shorthand notes into longhand in London.
Thanks to her vigilance and that of her fellow censors -- and the confidence with which they laid down the law to the leaders of the free world -- the Germans' greatest code -- breaking coup yielded little useful intelligence.
Website note: There is a full appendix in Churchill's War, vol. iii about Churchill's indiscretions on the transatlantic telephone, and General George C Marshall's deep concern about them. David Irving has spent twenty-five years searching for the transcripts taken by Mrs Ives and her colleagues in Britain, and by the US Navy Department at the American end; the latter were ordered sealed under presidential order by Harry S Truman, as part of the records of the Office of Censorship.