It's amazing that no one did anything. How in the name of heaven could this have been allowed to continue when they finally were on to him?
William Forbes-Sempill thought Britian should have allied itself with Germany and Japan.AP
In August 1941, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt held a top secret meeting on the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales to discuss military matters, including America’s then-top-secret assistance of the British battle against Germany.
Later that month, British codebreakers intercepted a communique from the Japanese with an exact, detailed account of that meeting. While the news stunned the British leader, even worse was the revelation that one of the men who passed the information along was not only a longtime Churchill associate, but a highly regarded member of the House of Lords
“The Fall of Singapore: The Great Betrayal,” a BBC documentary now airing in Britain, reveals that not only did British officials provide the Japanese with all the technology and know-how they used to attack Pearl Harbor, but that for 20 years, a distinguished British peer fed them so much crucial military information that, without his actions, the attack might never have happened.
In 1919, William Forbes-Sempill, a high-level wing commander whose father had been an aide to King George V, led a mission to Japan — then a British ally — to help them develop an air base.
But when Japan developed their own aircraft carrier several years later, Britain, at the urging of the United States, broke the alliance. Sempill took a job advising other foreign governments on aircraft sales, but also secretly continued assisting Japan.
“Sempill gave them designs of the latest aero engines, bombs and all kinds of paraphernalia that go with aircraft carriers,” says Richard Aldrich, the University of Warwick professor who discovered the formerly classified British files implicating Sempill. “But most importantly, he coaxed them down the route of naval airpower.”
Thanks to help from Sempill and another distinguished British pilot turned spy, Frederick Rutland, the Japanese carrier fleet rivaled the British in just seven years.
By 1924, the British intelligence agency MI5 was on to Sempill, having intercepted alarming correspondence between him and the Japanese, including secret details of the latest British airplane engines and discussion of recruiting other high-level Brits to their cause.
But despite their overwhelming evidence, the British not only declined to prosecute but also did nothing to stop his activities for fear of embarrassing the government.
“They were really worried about him,” says Paul Elston, the film’s director. “But the difficulty they had was, he’s a war hero, he’s at the heart of the British aristocracy, and he knows everyone — including Churchill. So there was a lack of political will to do anything about it, and it never stopped, even 20 years later.”