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


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 here.


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

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TV Review: Top Shot on HISTORY

Hi again!

When I first heard about Top Shot on the HISTORY Channel, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The show concept was pretty simple… Take 16 expert marksmen and women and put them through a Survivor-esque season to see who can adapt to various challenges.

The show is hosted by Survivor alum Colby Donaldson, a runner-up on Survivor: The Australian Outback and recently appearing on Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains.. I didn’t realize he’d also been acting in recent years as well, appearing on shows such as Bones, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Reba and others. He seems to provide a calm, strong, yet engaged presence as the host of Top Shot, which I think is probably a good thing around a bunch of folks with guns.

Watching the first episode, it became clear that the team aspects were much more important than had been emphasized in any of the previews I had seen. Though interested in the skill aspects, I honestly don’t have a lot of firearm experience beyond shooting a few pistols with a friend more than a decade ago. However, I was intrigued by the mix of people skilled with modern weapons dealing with weapons and physical challenges from different historical eras.

The sixteen shooters were split into two teams of eight – the Red and Blue teams. Based on personalities and how relaxed they were, I thought the Red team would smoke the Blues who were a bit more restrained and less comfortable with the situation.

It was immediately apparent that not only were the shooter’s skills as an individual important, but that the “spotter” who helped the shooter adjust aim to hit a target was just as important, if not more. In the first challenge between the Red and Blue teams, they would be dealing with four different long-range rifles from different historical periods.

Not only did each weapon behave differently, but the shooters would only have a little time to familiarize themselves with the weapon before attempting a team challenge.

And the team challenge itself was quite interesting. Taking a page out of the Survivor handbook, they merged long-range shooting with four separate obstacle courses. Each course used a different one of the four rifles they fired the day before. And each team was split into a pair, with each pair working through the obstacle course and then firing the weapon at two different targets – 50 and 100 yards away. Each shooter in the pair would take one of the two targets, which would explode on contact. When both targets were hit, the next team could start the next obstacle course, and so on.

I was shocked to see how easily the Blue team, who hadn’t seemed to work very well together in the practice, blew the Red team away. The Reds didn’t even get past the first station. Evidently there was something to be said for restraint vs. cockiness.

Once the team competition was complete, the losing team had to go through an elimination round. Unlike in Survivor where each contestant could cast an anonymous vote, the Red team watched as each shooter voted by shooting the target beneath the name of the person they wanted to vote for.

After all the votes were cast, the two contestants with the most votes competed head to head in a timed target shoot with a modern sniper rifle. The two shooters fired Remington 700 rifles, the sniper rifle currently being used by the U.S. Marine Corps.

The first elimination was Mike Seeklander vs. Kelly Bachand to see who was better with long-range targets. Seeklander is a former Marine, U.S. Federal Air Marshall, firearm instructor for the Federal Air Marshall training division, a police officer, and finally a senior instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. Bachand is a college student on the USA National Rifle Team and is the youngest person and first American to win the Canadian Target Rifle Championship.

Seeklander and Bachand fired at three targets – at 200, 400, and 600 yard distances. The first shooter to hit all three targets would win and stay in the competition. In very little time, Bachand hit all three targets before Seeklander had hit the second, forcing the more experienced shooter out of the competition very early.

As with most competition-based reality television, though the challenges are interesting, the drama created by the competitors is often even more intriguing. In this episode for example, Brad Engmann on the Red team, an I.T. project manager for a financial data firm, also happens to be a USPSA Grand Master and evidently a heck of a competitive shooter. Unfortunately, he seems to be a bit of a complainer who likes to make excuses. I’ll be curious to see how long he lasts or if he annoys his teammates enough to get rid of him early.

Next week we’ll see how the Red and Blue teams do in the aftermath of the first Red team elimination. Will the Red team come together as a team or fall further behind their competition?

Tune into Top Shot Sunday nights at 10pm/9pm central on the HISTORY channel. I know I’ll be watching to see who survives to the end and what unique weapon challenges they throw at the contestants.


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