There can be few subjects that generate quite as much popular interest, and thus offer so much opportunity to authors, as the shadowy world of spies, intelligence, and clandestine operations.
Nigel West, a renowned expert who writes extensively about British intelligence, reveals in this book the operations of Britain’s overseas intelligence gathering organisation, Secret Intelligence Service (SIS)/MI6, from its origins in 1909 to the end of the Second World War.
The book does have a rather heavy WWII bias. Nearly 200 of the book’s 263 pages – and all of the plate illustrations (which unfortunately appear to be copies of copies) – relate to the Second World War.
This is somewhat disappointing, as it would be good to find out more about SIS’s origins before the First World War, its role in that earlier conflict, and its activities during the interwar period, especially given its mistaken focus on the Soviet Union and concomitant failure to recognise the growing threat represented by Nazi Germany. Here is an intriguing story worthy of more in-depth coverage.
This is not to say that the main body of the book is without merit. Far from it: there is much of interest, and while the book highlights a number of intelligence successes, it is the failures that are most fascinating.
There were plenty of these, including disregarding captured German plans for the invasion of the Low Countries in 1940 and, later, ignoring intelligence about Peenemünde. Then there was the Interallié episode in France and, probably most tragically of all, the Venlo incident and later Nordpol disaster in the Netherlands.
The book sheds light on how little importance British intelligence initially gave to Ultra, and how close it came to blowing the secret. Boniface was an agent invented by MI6 head Stewart Menzies as cover for the Ultra decrypts. But not only was there no way that a single agent could have been responsible for all the Ultra intelligence; MI6 lacked the credibility to be trusted due to previous intelligence bungles.
Operations during the Second World War are described geographically, with activities in various countries grouped together in separate chapters. The rationale behind these groupings is occasionally a little strange.
For instance, North Africa and the Middle East are covered in separate chapters, with the result that the sabotage of a German tracking station in Tangiers during the autumn of 1942 is described more than 30 pages before the description of Condor, the Abwehr’s attempt to insert agents into Egypt during the summer of 1942.
The book concludes with Soviet penetration of the security services at the end of the Second World War, thus nicely setting up a follow-up title. Overall, the sheer wealth of the author’s meticulous research can be challenging, and the book is probably more accessible to someone with an existing interest than to more casual readers. But the effort is worth it.
Review by David Flintham
This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.