William Reginald Hall, the second child and elder son of Lieutenant William Henry Hall and his wife, Caroline Elizabeth, was born in Salisbury, on 28th June 1870. At the age of fourteen Hall he became a naval cadet. In 1890 he was commissioned as a lieutenant. In 1894 he married Ethel Wooton. They had one daughter and two sons, both of whom followed their father into the navy.
According to his biographer, Eunan O'Halpin: "An instinctive seaman, Hall excelled in his chosen specialism of gunnery, and was promoted to commander in 1901. Although a strong disciplinarian, he understood the pressures of life on the lower deck and he built a reputation as an innovative and humane officer. He introduced considerable improvements in the living environment of the sailors under his charge, thereby earning the disapproval of some navy traditionalists. Such carping meant nothing to Hall, a determined and forthright man whose mannerism of frequent blinking earned him the enduring nickname ‘Blinker’; it is said that the trait, in combination with bushy eyebrows, a piercing stare, and conspicuous false teeth, worked wonders in negotiations, confrontations, and interrogations."
In 1913 he was appointed as captain of the new battlecruiser HMS Queen Mary and saw action at the battle of the Heligoland Bight in August 1914, but in October he was recalled to the Admiralty to become director of Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy (NID). According to Richard Deacon he "was able to reap results from the deciphering system set up by his predecessor" Vice-Admiral Henry Oliver. Deacon goes on to argue: "Hall had a genius for talent-spotting among civilians, so there was an incongruous assortment of individuals in the NID during his time - academics, a director of the Bank of England, a famous music critic, a well-known actor, a publisher, an art expert, a world-famous dress designer and a Roman Catholic priest."
The First World War was the first conflict in which intelligence tools such as code-breaking, direction finding and traffic analysis, and aerial photography were widely used. Hall was quick to establish the importance of getting hold of German codebooks and gave orders that whenever a German vessal sank in relatively shallow waters, that dredging should be carried out to see if these books could be located.
In November 1914, Hall received reports that the German authorities were using the postal system to communicate with agents in Britain. He brought this to the attention of Vernon Kell, the Director of the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau. Hall insisted "that all foreign mails are opened and that no secret messages gets through". Hall was told that the government was unhappy even with the existing level of censorship. Hall then went to see Winston Churchill, who agreed to provide £1,600 to fund this new system of censorship.
Three weeks later, the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, discovered what Hall had done. McKenna had a meeting with Hall and told him that the penalty for tampering with the Royal Mail was two years in jail. However, when Hall explained the problem he gave permission for the opening of letters to continue and funds were found to employ 170 men to open letters that had been posted abroad.
At the start of the war, James Alfred Ewing, was in charge of the code-breaking department Room 40. Hall's relationship with Ewing was poor and according to Eunan O'Halpin it was only when "he retired at the end of 1916 that Hall was able to reorganize and develop the office into an effective intelligence centre for both naval and diplomatic purposes." When the important German spy, Franz von Rintelen, was captured and intergorated by Hall he was astonished to find that NID had full knowledge of all the various routes the Germans used for sending telegrams to America. He later recalled: "There were five such routes but none of them in the end was secret, and they all led to Admiral Hall."
In his book, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985) Christopher Andrew has argued: "Room 40 contained probably the oddest collection of people ever to work in the Admiralty. Together they provided better intelligence than ever before in British history. Their greatest achievement was to make surprise attack impossible. Until Room 40 got into its stride, the Grand Fleet, based inconveniently far north at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, was forced to spend most of its time sweeping the North Sea for an enemy it failed to find, continually fearful of being caught off its guard. But from December 1914 until the war was over no major movement by the German Hochseeflotte - save, briefly, in 1918 - escaped the notice of the cryptanalysts."
Hall worked closely with Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, who was very concerned about the activities of the Irish Republican Army, that had been established in November 1913. Thompson later admitted that it was one of his agents, Arthur Maundy Gregory, who told him about the homosexual activities of Sir Roger Casement. "Gregory was the first person... to warn that Casement was particularly vulnerable to blackmail and that if we could obtain possession of his diaries they could prove an invaluable weapon with which to fight his influence as a leader of the Irish rebels and an ally of the Germans."
NID discovered the plans hatched in the United States between German diplomats and Irish Republicans. Hall passed this information to Basil Thomson and on 21st April 1916, Casement was arrested in Rathoneen and subsequently arrested on charges of treason, sabotage and espionage. As Noel Rutherford points out: "Casement's diaries were retrieved from his luggage, and they revealed in graphic detail his secret homosexual life. Thomson had the most incriminating pages photographed and gave them to the American ambassador, who circulated them widely." Later, Victor Grayson claimed that Arthur Maundy Gregory had planting the diaries in Casement's lodgings.
Hall was chosen to join Basil Thomson in the interrogation of Casement. Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has argued: "Casement claimed that during the interrogation at Scotland Yard he asked to be allowed to appeal publicly for the Easter Rising in Ireland to be called off in order to 'stop useless bloodshed'. His interrogators refused, possibly in the hope that the Rising would go ahead and force the government to crush what they saw as a German conspiracy with Irish nationalists." According to Casement, he was told by Blinker Hall, "It is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out.''
Eunan O'Halpin has argued: "Doubts about his reputation arise in three respects: his propensity to take unilateral initiatives on foot of diplomatic and political intelligence produced by Room 40; his frequent disinclination to place intelligence in the hands of those departments best placed to judge it; and his involvement while a post-war politician in anti-government intrigues drawing on his old intelligence connections. Like many able intelligence officers, he sometimes succumbed to the professional temptation of manipulating good intelligence in order to influence the decisions and actions of the government which he served."
In January 1917, the German Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded telegram to the German minister in Mexico City. This instructed the minister to propose an alliance with Mexico if war broke out between Germany and the United States. In return, the telegram proposed that Germany and Japan would help Mexico regain the territories that it lost to the United States in 1848 (Texas, New Mexico and Arizona). The telegram also disclosed Germany's intention to resume unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic.
The Zimmermann Telegram was intercepted and decoded by Room 40. Eunan O'Halpin has pointed out: "Hall's problem was how to bring this into the public domain without disclosing its true source - or, more correctly, sources, as it had been sent by a number of routes - and the means by which it had been obtained, to either the Americans or to the Germans, and without letting the Foreign Office queer the pitch. Hall consequently kept the telegram to himself for almost a fortnight before informing the foreign secretary, and he told the United States embassy about it only on 19th February (taking care naturally to conceal the sensitive fact that Britain was reading United States diplomatic traffic)." This telegram was shown to President Woodrow Wilson on 24th February. The eventual publication of the telegram in the United States, and German confirmation of its authenticity, had a profound effect on American opinion and played an important role in the United States joining the war.
Hall was deeply concerned with the impact of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The following year he joined forces with George Makgill and John Baker White to establish the Economic League, an organisation dedicated to opposing what they saw as subversion and action against free enterprise. It also worked closely with MI5 to blacklist workers who they suspected of association with certain left wing groups. Hall also helped Makgill to set up the Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB). According to the author of Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009), it was "financed by the Federation of British Industries and the Coal Owners' and Shipowners' Associations, to acquire intelligence on industrial unrest arising from the activities of Communists, Anarchists, various secret societies in the UK and overseas, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and other subversive organisations."
Hall, a member of the Conservative Party, was elected as a member for the Liverpool West Derby in the 1918 General Election. In 1921 a Secret Service Committee of senior officials was instructed to make recommendations "for reducing expenditure and avoiding over-lapping". In its report published in July, the Directorate of Intelligence, was criticized for overspending, duplicating the work of other agencies and producing misleading reports. Sir William Horwood, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, joined in the attack and sent David Lloyd George a memorandum denouncing "the independence of the Special Branch" under Basil Thomson as a "standing menace to the good discipline of the force" and that the Directorate of Intelligence was both wasteful and inefficient. As a result of these complaints Thomson was asked to resign.
Hall took up Thomson's his case in the House of Commons. On 3rd November 1921, Hall declared: "There is no man who has been a better friend of England than Sir Basil Thomson". He went on to argue that his downfall was due not merely to his "open enemies", the Bolsheviks, the Russians, the extremists" but to a secret plot that involved the Labour Party.
Hall lost his seat in the 1923 General Election. The Labour Party won 191 seats and although the Conservatives had 258, Ramsay MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become Prime Minister. As MacDonald had to rely on the support of the Liberal Party, he was unable to get any socialist legislation passed by the House of Commons. The only significant measure was the Wheatley Housing Act which began a building programme of 500,000 homes for rent to working-class families.
Reginald Hall, like other members of establishment, was appalled by the idea of a Prime Minister who was a socialist. As Gill Bennett pointed out in her book, Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009): "It was not just the intelligence community, but more precisely the community of an elite - senior officials in government departments, men in "the City", men in politics, men who controlled the Press - which was narrow, interconnected (sometimes intermarried) and mutually supportive. Many of these men... had been to the same schools and universities, and belonged to the same clubs. Feeling themselves part of a special and closed community, they exchanged confidences secure in the knowledge, as they thought, that they were protected by that community from indiscretion."
In September 1924 MI5 intercepted a letter signed by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, and Arthur McManus, the British representative on the committee. In the letter British communists were urged to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Hugh Sinclair, head of MI6, provided "five very good reasons" why he believed the letter was genuine. However, one of these reasons, that the letter came "direct from an agent in Moscow for a long time in our service, and of proved reliability" was incorrect.
Vernon Kell, the head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson the head of Special Branch, were also convinced that the letter was genuine. Kell showed the letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister. A copy was also given to Reginald Hall, who leaked it to his friend, Thomas Marlowe, the editor of the Daily Mail.
The letter was published in the newspaper four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of MacDonald and the Labour Party. In a speech he made on 24th October, Ramsay MacDonald suggested he had been a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?"
After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter and that Major George Joseph Ball (1885-1961), a MI5 officer, leaked it to the press. In 1927 Ball went to work for the Conservative Central Office where he pioneered the idea of spin-doctoring. Later, Desmond Morton, who worked under Hugh Sinclair, at MI6 claimed that it was Stewart Menzies who sent the Zinoviev letter to the Daily Mail.
In his book, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009), Christopher Andrew argues that on 9th October 1924 SIS forwarded the Zinoviev letter to the Foreign Office, MI5 and Scotland Yard with the assurance that “the authenticity is undoubted” when they knew it had been forged by anti-Bolshevik White Russians. Desmond Morton, the head of SIS, provided extra information about the letter being confirmed as being genuine by an agent, Jim Finney, who had penetrated Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Andrew claims this was untrue as the so-called Finney report does not make any reference to the Zinoviev letter. Finney was also employed by George Makgill, the head of the Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB).
Christopher Andrew also argues that it was probably George Joseph Ball, head of B Branch, who passed the letter onto Conservative Central Office on 22nd October, 1924. As Andrew points out: “Ball’s subsequent lack of scruples in using intelligence for party-political advantage while at central office in the later 1920s strongly suggests” that he was guilty of this action. The following day, someone phoned Thomas Marlowe, the editor of The Daily Mail, with information about the Zinoviev letter. According to the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985), the man who made the phone-call "was almost certainly" William Reginald Hall.
Eunan O'Halpin has argued "He (Hall) was instrumental in the intrigues surrounding the publication by the Daily Mail, at Conservative Party prompting, of the Zinoviev letter during the October 1924 general election campaign, an affair calculated to destroy Labour's chances by portraying it as soft on Bolshevism. While its impact on the election is debatable, this plot undoubtedly involved the use of intelligence channels to discredit the government, and Hall stands indicted for his participation."
Hall was returned to the House of Commons as member for Eastbourne following the 1925 by-election. In March 1927, Hall was introduced to George Monckland, a Lloyds underwriter. He told Hall that a friend of his, Wilfred Macartney, asked him to find out about shipments of arms to Finland from cargo documents lodged with various insurers. When he carried out the task he was given £25 and told the information had been given to the Soviet Union. Hall passed this story onto Vernon Kell, the head of MI5.
Guy Liddell was asked to investigate Macartney to see if he was part of a Soviet spy ring. Liddell gave Monckland a RAF manual that was about to be updated. He was asked to pass this onto Macartney. Special Branch agents claimed that they had observed this manual being passed onto Soviet officials attached to the All Russian Co-operative Society (Arcos). Basil Thomson, the head of Special Branch, had a meeting with William Joynson-Hicks, the Home Secretary, on 11th May 1927. Thomson told Joynson-Hicks, that he believed that the Russians were in possession of a secret RAF document. He proposed a massive police raid on the Soviet Trade Delegation with a warrant issued by a magistrate under the Official Secrets Act (1911).
The following day a raiding party that consisted of about 100 uniformed policemen, 50 Special Branch officers and a small group of Foreign Office interpreters, entered the offices of the Soviet Trade Delegation and the All Russian Co-operative Society. In the basement they discovered a specially protected room with no handle on the door. Eventually the police managed to force an entry and found two men pushing documents into a blazing fire.
Nigel West, the author of MI5: British Security Service Operations, 1909-45 (1983) has argued that by reporting Monckland's story he was responsible for "one of the great pre-war intelligence coups." He added that this enabled Guy Liddell to "expand his growing pile of dossiers on political extremists and Communist front organizations." On 26th May the government announced that diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, which had originally began by the government of Ramsay MacDonald, would be severed.
Wilfred Macartney was arrested on 16th November 1927. He was charged with offences under the Official Secrets Act (1911) and was held at Brixton Prison until his trial at the Old Bailey in January 1928. The main evidence against Macartney was provided by George Monckland. Macartney's defence team argued that Macartney was a part-time journalist looking for information for articles. Macartney was eventually convicted of various charges under the Official Secrets Act including "attempting to obtain information on the RAF" and "collecting information relating to the mechanized force of His Majesty's Army". He "received ten years, to be served concurrently with a further sentence of two years' hard labour."
In the autumn of 1916, Basil Thomson concluded: "There is certainly a danger that from lack of coordination the Irish Government may be the last Department to receive information of grave moment to the peace of Ireland". Though Thomson failed to mention it, the Irish government had already been denied intelligence "of grave moment" on the eve of the Easter Rising a few months before. The chief culprit was "Blinker" Hall. Until the United States entered the war, the decrypted telegrams exchanged between the German foreign ministry and its Washington embassy gave Hall access to some of the most important Irish intelligence, enabling him to follow in particular attempts by the Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement to obtain German assistance for an Irish rising. Through the intercepts Hall gained advance knowledge that German arms were to be landed in Tralee Bay in the spring of 1916 and that Casement was following by U-boat. The steamer Aud, carrying German munitions, was duly intercepted by HMS Bluebell on 21 April 1916, ordered to proceed to Queenstown and scuttled by its German crew just as it arrived. Next day, Good Friday, Casement was captured within hours of landing in Tralee Bay.
Hall, probably fearful of compromising Room 40, failed to give advance information to the Irish government in Dublin Castle. Its only warning came on 17 April in a letter to the army commander, General Friend, from General Stafford in Cork who had heard the news "casually" from Admiral Bayly at Queenstown. The commission of enquiry into the Easter Rising later described this failure of communication as "very extraordinary" but offered no explanation for it. Even when Casement arrived in London on Easter Sunday to be jointly questioned by Hall and Thomson, Dublin Castle was not properly informed about his interrogation. Casement asked for an appeal by him to call off the planned rising to be made known in Ireland, better still that he be allowed to make it himself in Ireland and "stop useless bloodshed". Hall refused, possibly in the hope that the rising would go ahead and force the government to respond with the repression he thought necessary. Casement alleged that he was told by Hall: "It is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out". An appeal by Casement would not in any case have deterred the seven-man military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood from going ahead with their Dublin rising on Easter Monday. Dublin Castle can scarcely be blamed for being caught unawares. Even Eoin MacNeill, chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers (the forerunner of the IRA), who had tried to call the rising off when he heard of Casement's arrest, was taken by surprise when it went ahead."
Hall continued to allow himself an outrageous freedom of action during the preparations for Casement's trial. To undermine sympathy for Casement, particularly in the United States, and prejudice his prospects of a reprieve, he secretly circulated to the American embassy and around London clubs lurid extracts from Casement's diaries containing records of numerous payments for homosexual services, enthusiastic descriptions of "huge", "enormous" genitalia, and details of exhausting sexual marathons with "awful thrusts", "much groaning and struggle and moans". Dr Page, the American ambassador, read half a page and declared himself unable to continue without becoming ill. Hall also offered Ben Allen of the Associated Press extracts from the diaries for exclusive publication, but Allen turned them down. "Bubbles" James, who was shortly to become Hall's deputy, later acknowledged that his action might be thought "not entirely to his credit", but "he would not stand aside when a traitor might escape his just fate through the emotional appeals of people who did not know the gravity of the offences". Though prey to what even a sympathetic biographer has called "almost pitiable" sexual obsessions, Casement was an idealistic convert to Irish nationalism of proven courage who went to the scaffold on 3 August with, in the words of the priest who walked with him, "the dignity of a prince". Ellis, his executioner, called him "the bravest man it ever fell to my unhappy lot to execute".
Casement claimed that during the interrogation at Scotland Yard he asked to be allowed to appeal publicly for the Easter Rising in Ireland to be called off in order to "stop useless bloodshed". His interrogators refused, possibly in the hope that the Rising would go ahead and force the government to crush what they saw as a German conspiracy with Irish nationalists. According to Casement, he was told by Blinker Hall, "It is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out.''
Casement begged to he allowed to communicate with the leaders to try and stop the rising but he was nor allowed. On Easter Sunday at Scotland Yard he implored again to be allowed to communicate or send a message. But they refused, saying, it's a festering sore, it's much better it should come to a head.
The "political bomb" which thus exploded beneath MacDonald's unwary feet was detonated by the Daily Mail. But the bomb was planted by others. Thomas Marlowe, the editor of the Mail, first heard of the letter's existence on the morning of 23 October from a telephone message left the previous evening by "an old and trusted friend". The "old and trusted friend", was, almost certainly, Blinker Hall. Hall's action was entirely consistent with his earlier career. As DNI during the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, on his own authority and without the knowledge of the cabinet he had sent secret emissaries to Constantinople with authority to offer up to £4 million to secure the passage of the British fleet.
In late March 1827, an acquaintance of Macartney's, a young insurance broker named George Monkland, made contact with Admiral "Blinker" Hall, saying that he had "come across something curious which he thought would be of interest to the British Government": a lunch was arranged on 29 March with Hall and the former Deputy Chief of SIS, Freddie Browning, who still maintained an active interest in Intelligence matters. Monkland handed over a document - described by Desmond Morton in his statement as "a most intricate and exhaustive questionnaire on the Air Force of Great Britain"; Admiral Hall, on Browning's recommendation, passed it not to MI5, but to Sinclair, who gave it to Morton. The latter, according to his own account, immediately recognised the document to be "the work of an expert" and considered that it "could only have had origin in the Government Offices of a foreign power", probably Soviet Russia; an assessment that was confirmed by the Air Ministry, though they thought it was "so complete that [it] must have been compiled by the united efforts of several experts".
Morton lost no time in making contact with Monkland according to the procedures suggested by Browning, using "emerald" as a code word and introducing himself as "Peter Hamilton". Morton said he adopted an assumed name because he "could not discover any mutual acquaintance" with Monkland, providing confirmation that it was his practice only to use an alias when dealing with contacts outside the Establishment "circle", or (as in the case of Makgill) when any meetings or correspondence were likely to extend to "outsiders". Morton and Monkland met for the first time the next day, 30 March 1927. Their encounter was the first of many contacts in the next eight months, during which period Monkland acted as an intermediary between "Peter Hamilton" (who also used the codename "Sunfish") and Macartney, in an attempt to get the latter to incriminate himself, and in the process lead SIS to further Soviet agents and operations.