Book Review: The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery

Hi!

To most of the world, James Bond is the iconic British spy for nearly 60 years. Through the Cold War, the Drug War, and even into a post-9/11 world, he’s been reinvented multiple ways and times in books and movies and played by actors from George Lazenby to Daniel Craig. Ian Fleming‘s creation with a license to kill has dominated the popular impression of British Intelligence. But spies don’t really exist in popular media as they do in the real world.

I’m sure the British Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI-6) have had a few James Bond-like moments in their long and colorful history, but until now they’ve been hidden from public view. Keith Jeffery was granted unparalleled access to the MI-6 archives to piece together events from the agency’s beginnings to the start of the Cold War. Reading The Secret History of MI6, it was amazing just how much happened in those first 40 years starting in 1909. The real men and women who put their lives on the line to protect Britain from her enemies put James Bond’s antics to shame.

From the beginning, there was a conflict between the need for military intelligence, upon which wartime strategies could be formed, and foreign intelligence, upon which political and international policy decisions could be based. These interests were not always at odds, but the groups collecting the intelligence often sought to protect their sources at all costs, even from other agencies working on the same side. This reluctance to share actionable intelligence in a timely manner often hampered good decisions to be made by those in power. But Commander Mansfield Cumming hoped to change that culture of mistrust and offer a better solution.

Throughout the build up to the First World War, it was a matter of gaining the trust of the agencies depending on intelligence reports while building a network of field agents and informants that could reliably get a more complete picture of what was going on. Many of the same challenges of mistrust and information sharing existed for the next forty years as well. And always it was a balancing act between the need for information, the need for secrecy, and the safety of all assets involved.

The book provides a detailed accounting of many of the trials associated with developing the tools and techniques of spycraft – from learning how to record and transmit or transport reports from the field back to headquarters to finding cover identities and companies with which to hide assets in plain sight. Even the Import/Export business used by James Bond’s MI-6 was first used by the real MI-6 long before World War I!

Though the text does get dense and mired in detail at times, I honestly think Jefferey’s book should be required reading for any student of history or individual seeking to learn more about how MI-6 began. As events unfold through the years, I gained a new perspective on key events leading to World War I and II and the aftermath of each. The Secret History of MI6 is an incredible read. Perhaps in another fifty years or so we can read more about MI-6 history from 1950 to 9/11 and beyond!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great history books below!

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Book Review: Voices Under Berlin by T.H.E. Hill

Hey all…

For me, historical fiction all too often falls into one of two camps. It’s either so detailed that you get lost in the details and don’t get much in the way of story. Or it focuses almost entirely on story and doesn’t provide enough detail to set the stage. Voices Under Berlin is like the Baby Bear’s bowl of porridge in the Three Bears. It provides just the right amount of details to enhance the already gripping story.

Voices Under Berlin is a novel about the Berlin Spy Tunnel started by the American military and intelligence forces in the American Sector of Berlin after World War II. Work on the tunnel began in February 1954 and American forces operated it until April 1956 when it was finally discovered by the Russians.

The Berlin Spy Tunnel was a joint operation between the American CIA and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). They dug a tunnel below the border between the Western sector of Berlin and the Soviet sector to tap into Russian communications between the Soviet spy masters in Berlin and their leaders in Moscow.

The story, amid the history, is about Kevin and a small number of soldiers who constructed the tunnel, administered the wiretaps, and translated the calls made by their Russian counterparts.

Though Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) has been around for as long as there have been signals to intercept, it’s amazing to see the type, depth, and breadth of information gathered and used during the two years the tunnel was operational. The soldiers involved were privy to private phone calls between Berlin and Moscow, which provided details about operations by the Russian intelligence agents in Berlin as well as amazing insight into Russian politics as viewed by those Russian agents in Berlin.

The transcripts included to provide the Russian side of the equation not only were a major part of the story (it’s what the men were there to do), but it was part of the give and take of the times. We learned to like some of these Soviet spies that the guys were listening to. It was a glimpse into the human side of intelligence gathering that’s tough to get across. I thought Hill handled it masterfully.

Hill also managed to bring the human element into the novel, allowing us to watch relationships develop among the men and some of the local women in Berlin, some of whom were spying on them. Each of the main characters – Kevin, Fast Eddie, Sheerluck, and others – gave us glimpses into a segregated Berlin after World War II. There were many difficulties and challenges of living in a city separated into the American, British, Russian, and French sectors.

And amid the day to day drudgery and danger of working as spies in post-war Berlin, Hill also brought a great deal of humor seamlessly into the story. It’s the humor of military life and the quirks of people forced to work together under pressure. These pranksters and tricksters born of boredom and spite came up with some great ways to even the score between enlisted men and officers.

What’s even more interesting to me is that Berlin was segregated from the end of World War II until 1990 when the Berlin Wall came down. Nearly 40 years of a city and country divided in one way or another.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, spy novels, or just looking for a great story – Voices Under Berlin has a little bit for everyone. It’s a quick, enjoyable, and educational read.

Be sure to check it out!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick it up at Amazon:

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