The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5
MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949
To mark the centenary of the creation of both the British Security Service and Secret Service (they both started as one organisation before evolving into the two separate organisations early on), both MI5 and MI6 opened up their archives to distinguished professors, allowing them wide access (though not unlimited) to documentation from the turbulent years in the build up to the First World War until the beginning of the Cold War in the case of MI6, and up to present day for MI5. The result is these two histories, mapping the personalities, politicians, spies and intrigues of Britain in the 20th-century.
Both Andrew and Jeffrey detail exhaustively the early years of both services, from their beginnings as more or less one man operations, with the formidable personalities of Vernon Kell heading up the fledgling Security service and Mansfield Cumming at the Secret service. Initially beginning in the same office, Cumming soon moved to separate premises and the rough delineation between the two services remits was formed. The Security Service would deal with homeland security, threats within Britain and counter-espionage, while the Secret Service took on foreign intelligence gathering and the recruitment and running of agents abroad. What both Jeffrey and Andrew detail extremely well is the amount of bureaucracy, political manoeuvering and Whitehall paper shuffling that hindered the organisations in the early years, matched by the lack of resources and amateur ‘social club’ atmosphere that pervaded.
By the end of the First World War, during which both services had proved their value in helping towards victory, the need for more professional, well-funded and professionally organised intelligence gathering was evident. However the form that this should take was still debated hotly, with the three main arms of the military lobbying for their own interests, alongside the politicians. Both Kell and Cumming set in place standards that remain to this day – that both MI5 and MI6 should not be used as political tools by incumbant governments to spy on opponents, and should act as gatherers of information but not interpretors or policy formers. That said, in the inter-war years both organisations were focused on the threat of communism from the USSR, and the Communist Party in Britain was particularly targeted by MI5, on suspicion that they were in fact infiltrated with Soviet spies, and were taking orders directly from Moscow (which they were). The obsession with the Communist threat is largely attributed by both histories as the main reason that the threat from Nazi Germany was overlooked. Both organisations were well aware of the political and military danger growing in Germany, but with limited resources concentrated on the Soviet threat, failed to warn early enough, and crucially forcefully enough, about the significance of these events.
During the Second World War both services excelled overall, although each had their own series of mishaps along the way. MI6 ran the famous code breaking unit at Bletchley Park, responsible for decoding German radio signals (including the famous Enigma machine), while both services ran succesful counter-espionage operations, particularly in the run up to the D-Day landings of Operation Overlord, where they successfully managed to obscure the real mission from the Germans by disseminating disinformation.
The sensitive nature of MI6’s work on foreign soil means its history disappointingly ends in 1949, but Andrew is able to carry on MI5’s until present day, although it is notable that it becomes less detailed the closer to the present day we become. It does, however, provide enlightening insight into major events, particularly the unmasking of the ‘Cambridge 5’ spy ring in the Sixties, when Kim Philby and his associates were discovered to have been moles working for the Soviets within the British Services for decades. Philby himself, the nominal leader of the five, worked for both MI5 and MI6 undetected, from before the Second World War. The paranoia this unmasking unleashed both within MI5 and amongst the other intelligence partners they worked with (most notably the American CIA) gives a fascinating insight into Cold War attitudes. It is at these moments that the real life history closely resembles the novels of (former Service employee) John le Carré, or the spy films of the sixties and seventies.
The contemporariness of the MI5 book is shown by the fact that it includes reactions to both 9/11 in America, and more pertinently to homeland security, the 7/7 London bombings of 2005, for which MI5 was severely criticised, and has had to defend itself on numerous occasions. As I was reading these books, a senior MI5 officer was giving evidence at the 7/7 inquest in London.
In mapping these time periods, both histories begin by concentrating on the various leaders of the organisations and the impact each had. They are exhaustive in detail about personnel, staff levels, about the structure of the organisations, funding, departments and locations. If that sounds mundane, it is necessarily so, because what most overwhelmingly emerges from these histories is that both Security and Secret Service work is far from that shown in the glamourised fictional accounts in novels and films. While SIS has plenty of tales of foreign agent derring-do in the wars, it is marked by how much of their intelligence gathering is centered on tasks such as train and ship watching – for every agent secretly photographing images within Soviet or German territory, there are several more keeping an eye on coastlines and train stations and reporting back to Britain. And above all else, the real heroes from these books emerge as the civil servants working in Whitehall and at the various offices of the services, gathering information and passing it on to those that need it in the military forces and governments. That said, some stories, particularly from the MI6 operatives offer a fascinating glimpse at the life of an agent. And certain famous names and affairs are covered as expected. The creator of the James Bond novels, Ian Fleming, pops up on a couple of occasions in the MI6 history, although don’t expect to find much of the glamour that Bond is synonymous with in here.
Issues such as the lack of equipment and trained operators, for example the wireless sets used by foreign agents to communicate with London which were in constant shortage during the Second World War, mark obvious parallels with Britain’s present overstretched forces, and other similarities exist that mirror our world today. The role of the Britain in the Middle East was as controversial before during and immediately after the world wars as it remains today, and the issue of oil and propping up friendly governments in these oil rich states was as topical an issue then as it is now. By contrast, MI5’s role in the breaking up of the British empire, in securing friendly relationships with the majority of former Commonwealth nations as they achieved independence, is regarded as quite a success, with some exceptions.
Due to the sensitive and classified nature of some of the material, as stressed by each author in their introductions, there are times when you do feel the hand of redaction on the histories, and are left wishing to know just that bit more detail or drama, and one can only imagine the secrets both Andrew and Jeffrey are now party too, but can never disclose. The limitations of the tasks both have taken on however, do not detract overall from the concise yet detailed histories provided.
These tombs are not a light read, and the endless listing of appointments to various posts and departments and the reorganisation of services can easily leave the reader floundering in detail, but if genuinely intrigued by this secret history, and interested in an alternative look at the incidents of the 20th century that have shaped the Britain of today, then they are well worth a concentrated read.