MI6: British Security Intelligence Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West (book review).

When I saw the two Nigel West book covers together, I couldn’t help feeling there might be some confusion in picking up the right book if I was buying one of them in a bookshop and they were facing out from the same shelf. After all, there is only a matter of one word added and an adjustment to the first word. However, make no mistake, ‘MI6: British Security Intelligence Service Operations 1909-1945’ is a history of the British Secret Intelligence Service otherwise known as MI6. Mind you, buying both isn’t a bad idea.

Pre-WW1, Great Britain didn’t have an intelligence service across the world. Only the Admiralty was monitoring various ports for suspicious behaviour and which is why the nascent Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) was under its charge initially. The big change came with a new boss, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who proved himself up for the task and from which the initial ‘C’ for its head derives to this day.

Even so, after WW1, the government continued to starve the SIS of funds causing many of its foreign stations to be closed down. The focus was still on the USSR and not Germany as being the biggest threat.

Author Nigel West points out that a lot of SIS activities is still classified up to the modern day. Hardly surprising considering if you’re a secret organisation you’re less likely to want to share your information or stir too many old ghosts that could come back and haunt you.

I think the biggest surprise was how much the early SIS was on a shoestring budget and its officers doing joint roles abroad, mostly in the handing out of British passports and visas so they at least had an idea who was entering the country. This came into its own in the build-up to World War Two with many Jews escaping from Germany and they helped with documentation.

There are several strategies displayed in their various countries which I’m surprised no one has thought of dramatising. Certainly the Double-Cross operations, fake spy rings and putting on a good face to the Americans as to how we were doing in WW2 makes for fascinating reading. It did make me revise my thinking why some things are still kept classified as we were pretty sneaky.

Probably for good reason when it came to manipulating allies like the Americans to think we were doing better than we were in WW2. Interestingly, the American OSS that would later become the CIA used the SIS as their template and a strong reminder that until then the USA didn’t have an overseas intelligence service neither.

Although the events in this book happened over a century ago now, this is a page-turning book, much of it following events in different countries, hotting up in the world wars. The tailpiece of the book looks at the moles in the SIS as well as some who were checked for having similar profiles and cleared.

It’s also interesting seeing references to the likes of Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge prior to their careers as writers. If you’re into spy fiction, the information about the real thing and if any author used its structuring will show which ones did their homework or probably involved themselves.

Don’t expect it to dwell too much on the spycraft itself but more on the work these officers did and the agents they employed. A lot of intelligence work is gathering information than derring-do and mostly fatal consequences if you got caught.

GF Willmetts

November 2019

(pub: Frontline Books/Pen & Sword, 2019. 290 page photo insert indexed hardback. Price: £25.00 (UK), $34.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-52675-574-2)

check out websites: www.pen-and–sword.co.uk and www.frontline-books.com

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