News Article

Sir Peter Marychurch KCMG

Last Updated: 22 May 2017
Sir Peter Marychurch, Director GCHQ from 1983-1989, has died aged 89

News article - 22 May 2017

He was born on 13 June 1927, the son of a bank clerk. He won a scholarship to the Lower School of Sir John Lyon and passed his matriculation aged 18.  He volunteered to learn Japanese but joined the RAF on VJ Day, 15 August 1945. After basic training, as there were no longer any Japanese classes, he asked to learn Russian.  He was posted to Stow cum Quay and went into Cambridge every day where he was taught military Russian by White Russian exiles under the direction of Elizabeth Hill.  He subsequently applied to study Russian at Cambridge but was turned down after she refused to give him a reference (correctly, he later thought).  

At the end of his course he was interviewed by Bill Bonsall (later GCHQ Director from 1973-1978) and Josh Cooper and found himself posted to GCHQ, then at Eastcote, and became a civil servant in the lowest non-clerical grade at the end of his national service.  He worked on Soviet Air Force targets, and spent some time at the Air Ministry interception site at Cheadle, where he became a competent traffic analyst, learning from colleagues who had worked against the Luftwaffe during the war.  He returned to Eastcote, but in 1953 was asked if he would accept a posting as an integrated member of staff at the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington.

He worked with the legendary American cryptologist Ann Caracristi in a team which aimed to give the fledgling NSA a sound traffic analysis foundation, but he also took the opportunity to get to know America.  The Senior UK Liaison Officer, Brigadier Tiltman, advanced him the money to buy a car and Peter drove to Denver, then to San Francisco and Los Angeles before returning via Chicago, Boston and New England. He also visited pre-Castro Cuba. He remained a strong Atlanticist for the remainder of his career.

He returned to the UK to work on the Soviet Naval target but was sent out to RAF Pergamos in Cyprus between 1958 and 1960. On his return to Cheltenham, he continued to work against the Soviet military, before being sent to work in the Joint Intelligence Committee staff in 1964. "Single people were cheaper to post to London", he remarked. He developed an understanding of how intelligence was used by customers in London, and used this knowledge to steer GCHQ's reporting on his return.  Ways of working inherited from the Second World War were changed as GCHQ reporting began to draw more on the deep expertise of subject matter experts and carried larger amounts of explanation and GCHQ comment than had been the case previously.

In 1969 he became head of the branch responsible for counter-espionage and counter-intelligence work. This was a post he thoroughly enjoyed: he showed that there were more opportunities for traffic analysis to contribute to this task than had been previously realised, and built close relationships outside GCHQ, particularly with MI5.  He recounted the story of a dinner he and Peter Wright attended in Washington with James Angleton of the CIA and Louis Tordella of NSA soon after the UK joined the Common Market.  Angleton and Wright were both certain that this meant the end of the UKUSA Agreement on signals intelligence (SIGINT). The GCHQ and NSA men assured them that they were wrong, an assurance that has proved to be completely correct.

Peter next moved into a post overseeing aspects of policy regarding collection, in particular ensuring that the legal base underpinning GCHQ's collection through ministerial approvals and warrants remained sound.  His success in the post led him to promotion into the relatively new Policy and Planning staff.

Peter and his wife had wanted a posting to Washington to the Senior UK Liaison officer post, but he was asked instead to be the senior GCHQ officer at the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD, now known as the Australian Signals Directorate or ASD) the Australian SIGINT organisation, then based in Melbourne.  He was popular with his Australian colleagues, because of the help and support he gave them to develop a uniquely Australian contribution to the Five Eyes partnership.

He had thought that he would not be promoted further, but was called back from Melbourne early to become Director of Planning and then Director of Organisation.  Brian Tovey, GCHQ Director from 1978 to 1983, had seen in Peter a fellow believer in the need to get strong, well-informed, GCHQ reporting onto senior customers' desks and wanted Peter on his senior team. 

Peter was responsible for developing relationships with SIGINT agencies in NATO countries.  This period, though, was also marked by his oversight of GCHQ's response to the Geoffrey Prime case, who was found to have been a Soviet agent, and to the massive controversy which this inevitably caused.

He succeeded Sir Brian Tovey as Director in 1983 and was almost immediately confronted by the January 1984 ban on trade unions in GCHQ.   Ironically, this plan had first been proposed when he had been Director of Organisation, but ministers had not thought the time was right then.  He was unrepentant about the ban at the time - previous industrial action had, he felt, damaged intelligence production against the Soviet target - though he later made clear that he was pleased to see the ban lifted in 1997 (with a no-disruption guarantee as part of the agreement).

His tenure was also marked by ZIRCON, the plan to build a British SIGINT satellite. Although ZIRCON was not a success, his time as Director saw innovative development at the cutting edge of technology become mainstream not only inside GCHQ but in joint development work with Five Eyes partners. Peter was particularly proud that he left the UKUSA Agreement stronger after his tenure.  

He retired in 1989, and was then able to indulge his passion for music; he was proud of becoming Chairman of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and played an important local role as Chairman of the Cheltenham Music Festival.

Peter had a warm personality and an easy way with people, and his ability to develop relationships made him popular and respected both with his staff and with peers outside GCHQ.  Even in his position of authority as Director he never lost his approachability nor his ability to put people at their ease.  He enjoyed the "parish visits" he tried to make on Monday and Friday afternoons, and relished talking to young analysts - to the people who, at the start of their career, were doing what he had been doing at the start of his.  

He never lost sight of what GCHQ was for, he recognised rising talent and encouraged it; and handed over to his successor a GCHQ which had as good a grip on its targets as Bletchley Park had had during the Second World War.  He is survived by his wife June, and of course is remembered fondly by many colleagues in the GCHQ family and beyond.

Sir Peter Harvey Marychurch 13 June 1927 - 21 May 2017