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Irving risked prosecution over secrets

By Chris Hastings

Photo: Harold Wilson

WilsonDAVID IRVING, the Right-wing historian, narrowly escaped prosecution by Harold Wilson's government after being found to have unauthorised access to highly classified papers.

Documents discovered by The Telegraph show that ministers considered bringing legal action under the Official Secrets Act after the historian let slip that he had copies of still-secret documents relating to the capture of Erhard Milch, the former deputy commander of the German Luftwaffe. Files released under the 30-year rule show that in 1970 Mr Irving wrote to the prime minister asking for a series of documents to help with a biography of Milch.

In the course of his letter, Mr Irving mentioned that he already had copies of secret papers which detailed the interrogation of Milch by Allied commanders in 1945. Unbeknown to the historian until now, this revelation caused serious concern within the government.

Sunday, January 7, 2001

Although yet to write his most notorious work of historical revisionism, Hitler's War, Irving was already regarded as a Right-wing extremist. Critics claimed that his 1963 book about the Allied bombing of Dresden greatly exaggerated the number of casualties and played down the scale of similar Nazi atrocities.

There were fears in Whitehall that a biography of the Nazi general who masterminded a plan for the possible invasion of Britain would involve a similar treatment of history. Government papers show a frantic exchange of correspondence between senior figures in the Ministry of Defence and the Lord Chancellor's department.

While the government was keen to take a tough stance in the face of what it saw as unauthorised access to the information, ministers feared that a prosecution might backfire.

A draft of a letter that the Attorney General wished to send Mr Irving said:

"I am disturbed to note that you have in your possession a copy of a document in a top-secret category. This indicates that there may have been a breach of security and I must therefore ask you to return it to me and to undertake not to publish its contents."

An accompanying note outlines likely courses of action including a possible prosecution under the Official Secrets Act - but it seems the letter was never sent. A week later a briefing note sent to Downing Street warned:

"We need to bear in mind in dealing with Irving that he is the sort of man that may well seek to make a cause celebre about this."

Officials thought that Mr Irving might be bluffing and asked him for a copy of the documents. His reply dated April 1970, in which he offered to produce a copy of the 14-page document at a cost of two shillings a sheet, only caused them further concern. It convinced them he did have the papers. Mr Irving wrote:

"I am afraid that experience has taught me many sad lessons and I no longer lend people original documents from my collection. I would be prepared to supply you with a photocopy, although I cannot vouch for its quality as the document is a negative."

Mr Irving told The Telegraph that he had been unaware until now that the government had considered legal action. He said:

"I remember writing to Mr Wilson asking for the papers and I can remember them asking me for proof which I offered to supply. I never did receive any sort of legal threat, however.

"I was called to a meeting at the Cabinet Office. It was with Sir Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, and an official called Evans. They advised me to tone down some of the information in the biography. They said that some of the data I had was wrong and I would make a fool of myself. I believed them and changed the wording accordingly. I don't think I would be so helpful now."

Milch (right) together with his boss Hermann Goering drew up the first planned invasion of Britain in 1940. He advised Hitler to capitalise on the dreadful Allied losses at Dunkirk by hitting hard and hitting fast. In a now-famous exchange with Goering, he said: "I strongly advise the immediate transfer to the Channel coast of all available Luftwaffe forces. The invasion of Great Britain should begin without delay. I warn you, Herr Field Marshal, if you give the English three or four weeks to recoup it will be too late."

However, Milch's warning was not heeded and Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain, did not begin until mid-July. By then it was too late. Milch was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Nuremberg trials in 1945, although his sentence was subsequently commuted to 15 years. He died in 1986.

The government's decision to withold papers may be partly explained by subsequent revelations that Milch was one of dozens of senior Nazi officials who was of Jewish descent. Rumours that Milch's father was Jewish circulated widely in the 1930s but were not confirmed until more than 60 years later. During the past 30 years Mr Irving has often courted controversy, not least because of his unsuccessful attempts to undermine accepted notions of the Holocaust. He has repeatedly denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2000.
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