The Origins, Wartime Experiences, and Postwar Nature of the Joint Intelligence Committee

Michael Goodman

Department of War Studies, King’s College London, London, U.K.

On Tuesday July 7, 1936, seven individuals sat around a large table in Whitehall.[1] As the clock struck 11.00, the first ever meeting of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) began. Earlier in the year, a decision had been made to create a central clearing house for intelligence: the JIC. The realization that a wider-reaching interdepartmental intelligence assessment system was needed came from the military but was channeled through Sir Maurice Hankey, the creator of the Cabinet system of government. While it might have been Hankey who converted the concept of centralized intelligence assessment into practice, the stimulus for change came from military quarters. On July 22 1935, the Director of Military Operations and Intelligence (DMO&I) in the War Office, Major General John Dill, wrote to Hankey about the need for a better system of coordinating intelligence.[2] The underlying problem was not strictly one of duplication, but of providing the best possible intelligence for planning purposes.

“Intelligence,” as it was understood at this point in the 1930s in the United Kingdom, was synonymous with the military. The three separate branches of the military – the War Office, Admiralty, and Air Ministry – each had their own dedicated intelligence staffs and communication between them was patchy at best. Intelligence was collected individually, assessed separately, and, by and large, used for internal purposes. Separate to these were the “civilian” intelligence agencies MI5 (Security Service) and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service). These were largely staffed by ex-military individuals, and the heads of both had spent their careers in the army and navy, respectively. Encompassed within SIS was the codebreaking outfit, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS).[3] Both organizations had a broader remit than mere military matters but, nonetheless, military concerns remained dominant. The third element of intelligence at this time, albeit not recognized as such, was political reporting, located within the Foreign Office (FO).[4] This was partly obtained via diplomatic channels and partly by the private networks created by the head of the FO, Sir Robert Vansittart. The net result of these three elements was twofold: that “intelligence” was far more concerned with gauging capabilities than it was intentions; and that there was little attempt to coordinate activities.

Possible ideas for a “Joint Intelligence Committee” were debated throughout late 1935. Central to these discussions and proposals throughout, Hankey was able to take advantage of his central position in the Whitehall machinery. He was the Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID), the powerful forum chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by senior Ministers. In addition, he was the Secretary to the Chiefs of Staff (COS) committee and Chairman of the Deputy Chiefs of Staff (DCOS) committee: he therefore filled a vital role in linking the ministerial, official, and military components of the government and was a powerful figure in pushing ideas forward.

In October 1935 Hankey ensured that the idea of a central intelligence committee was discussed in both the COS and the DCOS committees. From these emerged a report entitled “Central Machinery for Co-ordination of Intelligence”.[5] Fundamental to the subsequent creation of the JIC, it was disseminated on January 1, 1936. The report’s conclusion was that “our intelligence organisation requires some modification to cope with modern conditions.” The “modern conditions” referred to the duplication that was becoming increasingly problematic and common. Furthermore, it was recognized that the “eventuality of war” required an efficient intelligence system. As such, Hankey’s committee suggested that “direct and permanent liaison between the many departments” was needed. Their proposition was that the existing interdepartmental forum for intelligence on industrial intelligence be expanded and that a separate Services’ intelligence committee be created.

Much toing and froing followed, but on June 16 1936, the COS committee met to discuss progress. At the meeting Hankey proposed to “extend the functions of the Inter-Service Intelligence Committee [ISIC] in order to enable that body to assist the Joint Planning Committee [JPC] when the latter required co-ordinated intelligence.” The COS wholeheartedly approved.[6] The title accorded this new body was the “Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee.”[7]

The JIC was, from the outset, a sub-committee of the COS.[8] This positioned it firmly at the center of government, where it was drawn into the orbit of the COS planning machinery. The JIC thus had a wider scope, not only absorbing the roles and remit of the ISIC, but also acting in an advisory capacity to the JPC and the Joint Planning Staff (JPS).[9] The new JIC comprised seven representatives: six were from the military, the seventh was Desmond Morton, a former SIS officer and later Churchill’s intelligence adviser. The FO had shown interest initially in the JIC but, it would seem, wanted to see how it performed before becoming involved.

JIC members themselves were aware of this gap. Two years after its creation the then chairman, Brigadier Frederick Beaumont-Nesbitt, produced a paper arguing that “here surely is a deficiency which could and should be made good.” He recommended the existing Committee be enlarged, with the “inclusion of a senior FO representative, who would also be asked to act as Chairman.” This proposal was reinforced not only by the increasingly political content of deliberations, but also because it would stop any “vested interests” from becoming “too powerful.”[10]

The COS reaction was, perhaps, unsurprising. Any committee that reported to them, it was suggested, should not have an FO chairman.[11] Yet the general reaction to Beaumont-Nesbitt’s proposal was supportive, not least within the FO itself. Whilst such deliberations were underway the German army, in March 1939, marched into Prague and Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, promised support to Poland in the event of German aggression. Within the FO a “Situation Report Centre” (SRC) was created. Unlike the JIC, which had produced long-term strategic assessments up to that point, the SRC was designed to produce tactical summaries. By June, with the prospect of conflict looming, the FO chairman of the SRC, Ralph Skrine-Stevenson, produced a paper on the coordination of intelligence in time of war. He argued that the present system was not effective and that the FO should take an increased role. This time it hit a nerve. With rapid progress and some careful maneuvering behind the scenes, the ideas were ratified at various levels within Whitehall. The result was that on August 3, 1939 the SRC and JIC were amalgamated and the FO assumed the chairmanship, a position it would hold until the Franks Report in 1983.[12]

By 1939 the JIC had assumed several new roles. It now had responsibility for producing both short-term and long-term intelligence assessments. Furthermore, it was now accountable for overseeing all administrative arrangements relating to the intelligence machinery in its totality, and for taking the lead in highlighting any deficiencies in the existing system. However, despite producing a series of useful assessments, the prewar JIC had been hindered by its limited impact and relative aloofness.

Three events in 1940 were crucial for raising the JIC’s profile. The fall of Norway was the catalyst. Whitehall had received no forewarning of the invasion and, deeming the issue an intelligence failure, officials wanted to know why. In a subsequent post-mortem, the speed – or lack thereof – by which intelligence reports were transmitted to planners was identified as one crucial factor.[13] On May 10, 1940, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned and Churchill took over. One of his first moves was to ask who was in charge of intelligence and this, together with the failure over Norway, gave the JIC a new direction and impetus. Firstly, the sub-committee was instructed to initiate its own assessments when it saw fit (as opposed to waiting for a formal instruction to do so). Secondly, it could move closer (metaphorically not physically) to those planning the war effort.

From May 1940, the JIC accordingly began to play a greater role in the war effort. Not only did the planners begin to look to the JIC for advice but so too did the Chiefs of Staff. It was perhaps this factor, more than any other, which allowed the JIC to escape from the creative vacuum that had characterized the prewar period. Thus, by late 1940 the JIC was producing, in addition to its mainstay long-term assessments, a series of daily and weekly tactical forecasts, including:

(i) the daily 1030 summary for the War Cabinet

(ii) the daily 1600 Situation Report

(iii) the daily 1630 JIC Intelligence Report

(iv) the daily 0700 and 1800 War Cabinet Map Room summaries (the former being a summary of information on force dispositions; the latter a more domestic operational summary).[14]

The JIC’s efforts, output, and significance were assisted greatly by the introduction in late 1941 of the Joint Intelligence Staff (JIS). It comprised two teams of drafters, easing constraints on JIC members’ time, so that the JIS spent their days writing the assessments themselves. An important development in the history of the committee, the JIS remained in place until 1968. The creation of a further subordinate body, the Intelligence Section (Operations), strengthened the JIC’s role in planning, for it was designed to “collate intelligence for operational planning.”[15] By 1942, then, not only had the JIC become firmly entrenched in Britain’s war efforts, but the additions of Ultra decrypts and the entry of the U.S. into the war meant that intelligence was firing on all cylinders.

By 1942 the war had truly become a global conflict. One of the biggest questions facing British military planners was over the future direction of the war. The German army had become bogged down in Russia, yet Stalin was adamant that a new Allied western front be opened up in order to divert German resources and effort. Many of the American planners were keen to support this in the form of a cross-Channel offensive, but their British counterparts favored, and eventually approved, a move into French North Africa.

By the summer of 1942, and after acrimonious discussion, the Americans finally conceded to the British plan to invade North Africa before concentrating on northwestern Europe (Howard 1972). A JIC report in July suggested that if the Germans could be driven out of North Africa that year, then it would seriously hamper their military efforts the following year. This assessment was important for two reasons: firstly, British planners wanted to open the front in 1942, not later, and the JIC paper supported the idea that time was of the essence; and, secondly, it reinforced the belief that a successful attack in North Africa would keep open important shipping and supply routes.[16]

As planning continued for the invasion, now codenamed Operation Torch, the JIC continued to issue assessments. In addition to specific papers on how an Allied attack would affect Germany’s war efforts more broadly, the JIC also issued tactical analyses, based on Ultra decrypts and for the specific use of the planners and Force Commanders.[17] Topics included forecasts of German troop dispositions, the nature of the opposition to be expected, and suitable locations for the invasion. As the date for the invasion of North Africa approached, the JIC’s work took on greater importance, with a series of papers focused on whether or not the Germans were aware of Allied plans.[18] By and large, these various types of assessment have proven to be remarkably accurate.

In the early hours of November 8, 1942, the weeks and months of preparation were put into action when British and American forces launched a multi-pronged attack on the coast of North Africa. In the aftermath General Dwight Eisenhower, responsible for Allied forces in North Africa, personally asked for his gratitude to be conveyed to the JIC. He congratulated the Committee on the “invaluable help given,” particularly “the regular flow of information [which] has enabled planning to be kept up to date.”[19] Operation Torch was the first military plan that involved the JIC in any detailed and central way. Information provided through the JIC umbrella ensured that those responsible for strategic planning were kept abreast of the most detailed intelligence available.

By 1943 the JIC had become an integral part of the war effort. Indicating its newfound prestige, the committee had spawned regional offshoots around the world and had provided the model for foreign JICs. In London, too, it had generated a number of subordinate bodies, encompassing everything from support for operations to a special sub-committee on carrier pigeons.[20] Following the successes of Torch, the JIC was instrumental in providing the intelligence background to the planning for subsequent invasions, including the invasions of Sicily (Husky) and northwest France (Overlord).[21]

From 1943 onwards it also fulfilled a further role: beginning to plan for the postwar world. One of the problems that had beset prewar intelligence, despite the JIC’s creation, was the intermittent connectedness of the intelligence “community” and the slowness with which Germany, Italy, and Japan had become intelligence priorities. By 1943, however, the increased reputation of the JIC allowed it to proffer its own opinions in such a way that those in Whitehall took note. The initial discussion was started by its Chairman, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck. He presented his vision for a postwar JIC to Committee members in October 1943. It encompassed not just the Committee itself, but how it should become the centerpiece of Britain’s postwar intelligence machinery. This was no self-appointed task. Indeed, the instruction had come from the top, having been signed off by Sir Edward Bridges, the Cabinet Secretary.

The subsequent report offered a rare semi-official definition of intelligence. As it stated, “intelligence is, however, of high importance as a servant of those conducting military operations. It is no more. It cannot win battles, but if it is absent or faulty, battles may easily be lost.” Here was the centerpiece of their argument: not only was the JIC vital but intelligence, as a whole, would be just as crucial after the war as it was currently. In order to make the intelligence machine as effective as possible, the authors argued, “inter-departmental co-operation” was crucial. The JIC, perhaps inevitably, was the means to achieve this. Thus, “We believe that no Department, however experienced and well-staffed, has anything to lose by bringing the intelligence directly available to it to the anvil of discussion and appreciation among other workers in the same field.”[22]

Members of the JIC continued to revisit these ideas. It was accepted that prewar failings of the intelligence machine had “led to the need for rapid and largely improvised expansion under the imminent threat.” Furthermore, having now “set our house in order,” the JIC made five recommendations as to the future of British intelligence:

(a) An intelligence organisation must be centrally directed and fitted to the system of command;

(b) Its collecting agencies must cover the world;

(c) Its collating staffs must work as far as possible on an inter-service basis;

(d) All commanders must be provided with intelligence staffs able to give them the intelligence picture which they require for their tasks;

(e) London has been the focal point of British intelligence during the war and should remain the hub of the intelligence organization.[23]

The report received widespread support: the COS Committee and Bridges, in particular, were effusive in their praise. The report was important in the subsequent creation of the Joint Intelligence Bureau (reformed into the Defence Intelligence Staff in 1964) and helped install the JIC at the apex of British intelligence. A subsequent report in 1947, written by retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Douglas Evill, labelled the JIC as “indispensable.”[24] The following year, largely as a consequence, the JIC was elevated to full committee status, the chairman’s rank was raised, and, for the first time, a proper Charter was issued which outlined the central role that the JIC was designed to play:

The Joint Intelligence Committee is given the following responsibilities:

(i) Under the Chiefs of Staff to plan, and to give higher direction to, operations of defence intelligence and security, to keep them under review in all fields and to report progress.

(ii) To assemble and appreciate available intelligence for presentation as required to the Chiefs of Staff and to initiate other reports as the Committee may deem necessary.

(iii) To keep under review the organisation of intelligence as a whole and in particular the relations of its component parts so as to ensure efficiency, economy and a rapid adaptation to changing requirements, and to advise the Chiefs of Staff of what changes are deemed necessary.

(iv) To co-ordinate the general policy of Joint Intelligence Committees under United Kingdom Commands overseas and to maintain an exchange of intelligence with them, and to maintain liaison with appropriate Commonwealth intelligence agencies.[25]

Thus, by 1948, the JIC was equipped to deal with the postwar world and the onset of Cold War crises.[26]


[1] The following is based upon Aldrich, Cormac, and Goodman (2014). For more detail on the early history of the JIC, see Goodman (2014).

[2] J. G. Dill to M. Hankey, July 22, 1935. The National Archives, UK: CAB 54/3.

[3] See the HW 1 records for the wartime messages passed to the Prime Minister.

[4] The component of the FO that liaised with the intelligence agencies would become known as the Permanent Under-Secretaries Department (PUSD), its records are in FO 1093.

[5] DCOS 4, “Central Machinery for Co-ordination of Intelligence,” January 1, 1936. The National Archives, UK: CAB 4/24.

[6] Minutes of the 178th Meeting of the Chiefs of Staff, June 16, 1936. The National Archives, UK: CAB 53/6.

[8] Its prewar records can be found in CAB 56.

[9] For more see Thomas (1987, 223–224).

[10] See Beaumont-Nesbitt’s report and cover note to Hollis, December 21, 1938. The National Archives, UK: CAB 21/2651.

[11] DCOS 41st Meeting, July 14, 1939. The National Archives, UK: CAB 54/2.

[12] JIC 32nd Meeting, August 3, 1939. The National Archives, UK: CAB 56/1. In fact, Foreign Office incumbency of the chairmanship was longer than this: if those Chairmen, diplomats seconded to the Cabinet Office, are included, then the FO and its FCO successors only relinquished the role in 2001.

[13] COS(40)352, “Urgent Intelligence Reports,” May 13, 1940. The National Archives, UK: CAB 80/11.

[20] Many of these records can be found in CAB 176.

[21] Details are in CAB 81.

[22] “The Intelligence Machine”, January 10, 1945. The National Archives, UK: CAB 163/6.  Emphasis added. For a more detailed examination of this paper see Herman (2011).

[25] DO(48)21, “Charter for the Joint Intelligence Committee”, February 24, 1948. The National Archives, UK: CAB 131/6.

[26] For the postwar records see CAB 158 and CAB 159.



Aldrich, R. J., R. Cormac, and M. S. Goodman. 2014. Spying on the World: The Declassified Documents of the Joint Intelligence Committee, 1936–2013. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Goodman, M. S. 2014. The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Volume I: From the Approach of the Second World War to the Suez Crisis. London: Routledge.

Herman, Michael. 2011. “The Post-War Organization of Intelligence: The January 1945 Report to the Joint Intelligence Committee on ‘The Intelligence Machine’.” In Learning from the Secret Past: Cases in British Intelligence History, edited by R. Dover and M. S. Goodman: 11-42. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Howard, Michael. 1972. Grand Strategy: History of the Second World War: Volume IV, August 1942–September 1943. London: HMSO.

Thomas, Edward. 1987. “The Evolution of the JIC System up to and during World War II.” In Intelligence and International Relations, 1900–1945, edited by C. Andrew and J. Noakes: 219-34. Exeter: University of Exeter.

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