The new official history of MI-6 by Keith Jeffery has hit amazon.com and amazon.co.uk (hardback and paperback). The book will be out in September, except for the paperback edition which will be September 2011. Unlike Christopher Andrew’s official history of MI-5, which goes more or less to the present day, Jeffery’s book only goes to 1949. Still, that’s four more years into the Cold War intelligence history than the Brits normally talk about in an official capacity. I met a retired senior MI-6 official at an IISS event a few weeks ago and he explained the difference between the time spans covered by MI-5’s book and MI-6’s as follows: the sensitive stuff that must be protected is usually information pertaining to recruited agents. Recruiting agents is the core business of MI-6, but not so MI-5. In fact, he indicated that for a long time such business was sort of a backwater within MI-5.
By the way, Prof. Jeffery is going to be the external examiner in my dissertation defense in a month, so I have a double interest in this book. As my dissertation is about American intelligence during World War I, I’ll be particularly interested to see what he has to say about MI-6 activities during that war. Previously, the main work on that subject that I’ve used is Andrew’s Her Majesty’s Secret Service which is an excellent book, but dates all the way back to 1987.
Englandspiel: The England Game : SOE’s Worst Wartime Disaster is another forthcoming book in the UK that sounds interesting. The blurb about it on amazon.com says:
The England Game – ‘Englandspiel’- was SOE’s most humiliating spy disaster of the Second World War and Germany’s most successful counter-espionage operation. German counter-intelligence penetrated the Dutch SOE network and fooled London into believing their agents were free and sending genuine radio messages in 1942-43, resulting in the deaths of 47 SOE agents and hundreds of civilian helpers, and the loss of 12 RAF aircraft on SOE missions. MI6 could easily have helped SOE prevent the disaster that unfolded in Holland by passing on and acting on the intelligence they received – but it wasn’t in their interests to do so.
This disaster sounds rather like Operation Berezino which the Soviets ran against the Germans during World War II and the early Cold War WiN operation that the Communist Polish service ran against the Brits and the Americans. (See Robert Stephan’s, Stalin Secret War: Soviet Counterintelligence Against the Nazis, 1941-1945 for Berezino. For WiN see Steven Dorril’s book on MI-6 as well as this website and this nascent website.)
Finally, and on a much more personal note, I’m intrigued to discover at amazon.co.uk a book entitled The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome. The blurb about it says:
Arthur Ransome is best remembered as the author of the series of books that began with Swallows and Amazons and sold millions of copies around the world. But before he became the jolly Lakeland storyteller, offering idyllic images of brave children messing about in boats, Ransome had spent a decade in Russia and lived a very different life as a spokesman for authoritarianism and violence. He went there in 1913 as a struggling young freelance writer and made friends with leading Russian liberals, and wrote a fine book of tales based on Russian folk legends. But as the country sank into chaos and war, Ransome was caught up in the whirlwind of revolution. Always impressionable and eager to please, he gained the confidence of the Bolshevik leadership and became, for three crucial years, their main defender and propagandist in the West. His reports in the “Guardian” were uncritical and disingenuous. “MI6” considered him an agent of a foreign power; British officials argued that he should not be allowed to return to Britain. Yet at the same time, while Ransome was so intimate with the Communist leadership that he could get exclusive interviews with Lenin – who he portrayed as an avuncular, folksy, straight-talking politician – he was also offering to help elements of the British intelligence services with information about what was going on in Russia.
I spent my third grade year living in England and while I was there I discovered Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books in their 1960s Puffin edition. I was immediately enthralled. In terms of books that captured my imagination as a young boy, there are the Swallows and Amazon series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Everything else is a distant also-ran. This series is on my living room bookshelves even as we speak. The picture of Ransome on the back of the books showed him as an avuncular bald man with round glasses and an enormous white moustache that the most manly walrus would have to envy. When I became a little older and more historically savvy, the fact that his bio blurb on the books said he had reported from places like Russia and China suggested to me that he probably had an interesting life and interesting politics, but nothing more. I’m delighted to find a book that talks about his life and describes his interaction with World War I, the Russian Revolution, and British intelligence. Judging from the introduction to the book, which amazon.co.uk will show you in part, the connection to British intelligence appears to have been Sir Basil Thomson, the head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. If Ransome’s writings were as pro-Communist as the blurb suggests it will be interesting to judge whether his contributions to British intelligence outweighed the propaganda value to the bad guys of his writings.