Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

What the Queen knew

`Well, at least this is better than being on the QE2' Peter Hennessy discovers just how well the secret services kept the Palace info rmed during the Suez crisis
A few years before he died, I had a conversation with Rab Butler about Suez. This arch Suez-sceptic, as we would now call him, said he hadn't been allowed to see all the files on the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956, especially those dealing with intelligence matters, even when he became Foreign Secretary seven years after Sir Anthony Eden's great showdown with Colonel Nasser on the Egyptian leader's nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company.

Our conversation turned to the Queen. Rab thought she would have had access to everything that mattered during Suez, including MI6 reports. On reflection, this did not surprise me. She was, and is, Commander-in-Chief of the country's Armed Forces and MI6is very much Her Majesty's secret intelligence service, "the last penumbra of her Empire" as one of its senior figures put it recently.

Rab, however, thought we would never know about that side of Suez as he had a feeling the papers had been destroyed on Eden's instructions. I didn't think we would either, for two reasons: even if the files had survived, there was a 100-Year Rule on royal-related material in Whitehall archives and in the late Seventies, when Rab and I spoke, intelligence material simply never saw the light of day.

This week we were both proved wrong when the file was discovered at the Public Records Office, to the "amazement" of one documents insider, who, like Rab, "thought it had been burnt". "It takes the form of a collection of special "bulletins"on "operatio n s" and "intelligence" prepared for the Queen, sometimes twice daily, between 1 and 22 November 1956 by military and intelligence analysts.

Its value extends beyond the Palace factor in high politics (something far too easily written out of recent political history thanks to tight secrecy). So far only fragments of the intelligence side of Suez have become available and any running commentary upon it, even in summary form, helps to fill out the clandestine picture.

From 5 November, for example, fears of serious Soviet involvement in the Middle East crisis are plainly reflected in Her Majesty's briefings: n "The Soviet military attache in Beirut is reported to have told a Joint Arab Command that Russia has decided to help Egypt and was examining the most efficient and least dangerous way of doing this." (5 November)

n "It is reported that jet aircraft have been overflying Turkish territory. These aircraft are assumed to be Russian reinforcements for Syria and Egypt." (7 November)

n "A large unidentified jet aircraft was detected by radar at a great height over Cyprus in the early hours of yesterday morning. It approached from the east and turned back over Famagusta. It is thought to have been a Soviet aircraft. (Scholars now believe it was an American U2.) No purpose for the visit can be established (the air assault against Egypt was launched from Cyprus) but it could have been reconnaisance, either visual or photographic. There are continued indications, as yet unconfirmed and probably exaggerated, that Soviet aircraft may be moving into the Middle East."

We know from Lady Park, who as Daphne Park was the MI6 officer dispatched from the embassy in Moscow to look "for particular aircraft and particular sites", that British Intelligence felt "considerable anxiety" about the Soviet Union and the Middle East in the autumn of 1956. As she told Channel 4 television's What Has Become Of Us earlier this month: "We were sufficiently worried about Suez ... that one of the (military) attaches and I were sent off on a long trip to particular areas of Russia, as near

as we could get, in order to see whether we could see anything unusual."

From the Queen's daily intelligence feed we can establish that anxieties began to recede three days after US pressure had forced Eden to halt the invasion with British troops 23 miles from the end of the Canal. On 9 November she was told: "Russian Black Sea Fleet activities are back to normal, and the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs have confirmed that the Russians have not sought their permission for the passage of Russian ships through the Bosphorus. In addition, it now appears from the evidence available that there is no truth in recent rumours of Russian air movements over Turkey and Syria."

Though Bulgaria had threatened to lay Soviet rockets on Paris and London if the Anglo-French attack on Egypt went ahead, there is no evidence from the royal Suez file that the government activated the contingency plan to get the Royal Family away on the Royal Yacht Britannia - which had been commissioned three years earlier, complete with post-nuclear washdown facilities, with just such a capacity. (This was its real wartime purpose, rather than the "hospital ship" cover story.)

On 10 November the Queen was told: "There is no reliable evidence from any source of the arrival of Soviet aircraft in the Middle East." Five days later GCHQ material was supplied to the Palace in a bulletin stressing "there was still no evidence from signals intelligence sources of any large-scale Soviet preparations to intervene by force in the Middle East ..."

Finally, on 20 November 1956, the Queen is assured that her kingdom is not about to be engulfed by a third world war: "Although certain Soviet units continue in a state of alert, there is no evidence either of Russian preparations to launch a global war,or of any large-scale preparation to intervene by force in the Middle East."

We now know beyond question that the Queen had grave reservations about the uses to which her Armed Forces were being put during the Suez affair. One of her private secretaries, Lord Charteris, said on What Has Become Of Us that "Suez was ... a matter which ... gave the Queen a great deal of concern. She was personally worried about it ... I think it was the basic dishonesty of the whole thing was a trouble."

There is no trace of this on the Suez briefings file, even though it turned up in the No 10 papers (as PREM 11/1163). All it contains of a personal nature is a note of 22 November in which her No1 private secretary, Sir Michael Adeane, conveys her thanksto the producers of the bulletins "for the trouble taken during the last two anxious weeks to keep her supplied with up to date information".

A number of factors have combined to make the release of the Queen's Suez file possible. First, the ending of the Cold War, which led to an easing of restrictions when policy on intelligence-related files was reviewed by the secret world in 1992. Second,the "Waldegrave Initiative" launched that same year by William Waldegrave as Chancellor of the Duchy to release as many documents as possible that had been retained beyond 30 years. Third, the reduction from 100 years to 30 of the rule applying to royal-tinged files in Whitehall announced in last year's Open Government White Paper. This led to a joint No10-Palace review of hot files. PREM 11/1163 is the hottest to be released so far.

The author, professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, is preparing a study of the No 10-Palace relationship for Harper Collins.