You are the first independent historian who has ever been allowed inside the MI6 archives, how were you chosen for the task?

The procedure was part-head-hunt and part conventional job-application. I’ve been working on aspects of military and intelligence history for nearly 30 years and was just completing a biography of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, a flamboyant and controversial First World War general who was (among other things) head of British Military Intelligence before 1914, when I was asked if I might be interested in ‘doing something historical’ to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Secret Intelligence Service (or MI6, as it is popularly known). Since I was assured that this would involve privileged access to the secret SIS archive, the offer was too attractive to refuse. I was not the only person sounded out, and, after I had been asked to prepare a scheme for a history of SIS’s first 40 years—from 1909 to 1949—which passed some sort of test, the process developed into a job-interview situation. I was not the only person interviewed, but, again, I passed the test and was offered the commission.


What was it like being inside archives that may never see the light of day again?

The SIS archive is the Holy Grail of British government records. None of SIS’s own papers are released to the National Archives, nor is it envisaged that any will ever be so released. The whole lot are also completely exempt from UK Freedom of Information legislation. As a result, when I actually got access to the papers, it was like being a kid in a candy store. The records themselves are not physically very different from other government documents of a similar age. I’ve been working for years in national and other archives—including, for example, the US archives at College Park Maryland—with ‘Top Secret’ military, political and intelligence papers, and the SIS papers are very similar in type. But there is obviously a tremendous thrill in being an outsider seeing classified materials for the first time. I was also acutely aware that there were (and are) no plans to let any other historian into the archive, and that I had only this one go at writing the history, so I had to get it right first time—or as right as possible. So, no pressure there!


Did you discover anything that shocked you?

What shocked me most of all was the sheer human cost of intelligence work. Working undercover and having to keep secrets for all of one’s life, while doing sometimes extremely hazardous work, is immensely hard. In wartime especially, many officers and agents paid with their lives. Of course we know intellectually that war is dangerous, and that people die. But when you find yet another agent ‘murdered at Buchenwald’ (for example), or stumble on the grainy individual circumstances of real people’s deaths captured in the apparently dryasdust documents on your desk, it gives one pause, and made me reflect (as it must anyone) on what I might have done in such circumstances.


What are the revelations in your book?

The chief revelation of the book is, in fact, the book itself, and the utterly counter-intuitive action of the most secret department of the British government actually commissioning a history for open publication, to be written by an independent professional historian. Of course, for the very first time, the structure and organisation of the agency, and its development over the first 40 years of its life, is reliably and authoritatively laid out. For the first time, too, the names of over 150 officers are named with the authority of the Service itself. But the history is also ‘warts and all’; failures are faced as well as successes.

There are never-before-told operations which include SIS work against the USA between the wars, focusing on American naval and military targets (the Royal Navy was, for example, particularly anxious to know about US naval construction), as well as American left-wing political groups and Irish nationalists. There is much detail about work against Soviet Russia in the post-revolutionary period, including operations in Romania in the 1930s, where the SIS head of station’s over-trusting attitude led to the loss of agents working in the Soviet Union, and also in Bulgaria, where the head of station got into trouble over money. Details of  SIS operations in Latin America in the Second World War have never before been told, including ship-watching for German commerce raiders; a telephone-tapping operation working from the basement of the Santiago embassy; tracking down of Nazi agents across the continent; and unsatisfactory agents (among whom were a French morphine addict and a ‘Chillian Irishman’). The book contains detailed coverage of the Service’s most successful interwar agent, Jonny de Graff, a Comintern officer who came over to SIS in 1933 and supplied a wealth of information about Soviet activities in Britain and across the world, as well as helping to foil a leftwing revolution in Brazil in 1935.

One of the most sensational stories in the book covers ‘Operation Embarrass’ and is as close as you’ll ever get in real life to an espionage thriller. Occurring in 1947–8, it was aimed to disrupt illegal Jewish emigration into Palestine and included direct action with limpet mines to disable potential refugee ships in port (including the vessel which became the famous Exodus); a black propaganda campaign from a bogus Arab organisation, among other thing sending forged letters to the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary; and planting disinformation documents on Soviets in a Vienna night club.

Another operation with the air of a thriller was ‘Climber’ in 1948–9 to penetrate the Soviet Union across the Caucasus mountains, but it also illustrates how human frailty could bring serious risks. The Georgian agents jeopardised security by returning to London ‘with their suitcases bulging with every sort of Turkish delicacy’ and ‘a large number of female garments which they were conveying from mutual friends’ in Istanbul for émigrés in Paris. We presume the famous traitor Kim Philby, then Head of Station at Istanbul, also betrayed the operation.


What espionage techniques did you discover which surprised you?

I was intrigued (as was the Service Chief, Mansfield Cumming) by the discovery during the First World War that semen made a usable secret ink for invisible writing. Apparently the SIS representative in Copenhagen stocked the substance in a bottle ‘for his letters stank to high heaven’, and he had to be told that ‘a fresh operation’ was necessary for each message. I was also impressed by the ingenuity displayed in concealing devices, to smuggle sensitive documents or other materials past security checkpoints. It was reported that in Italy during the Second World War a false horse penis had been manufactured and used.


Who is your favourite person in the book and why?

It has to be the first Chief, Mansfield Cumming, without whom the Service would not exist today. From a standing start in October 1909, he created an impressively functioning organisation which made a significant contribution to Allied intelligence work during the First World War. He fell in love with the ‘business’ of espionage—what came to be known as ‘tradecraft’—secrecy, disguises, cutting-edge technology and so on. He was also stoical and brave and was the subject of many extraordinary stories, including that he cut off his own leg with a penknife after a motor accident in 1914 which left his only son fatally injured. He was clearly a most attractive personality, much loved by his staff, though he was not without frailties, which included a keen eye for the ladies and a penchant for Edwardian pornography.


What was the most interesting thing you unearthed about a well known character?

That the novelist Graham Greene, recruited in the summer of 1941 to work for SIS in West Africa with cover as an army officer, was so physically incompetent and unco-ordinated that he had to be sent to a military training course in Oxford solely to be ‘given the most elementary instruction in soldiering’, in order to ‘wear battledress without embarrassment’.


Who was the most interesting new figure uncovered?

There are so many, but one of the best was agent ‘Ecclesiastic’, a glamorous 22-year-old Central European woman living in Lisbon, where she was the mistress of a German Abwehr (Military Intelligence) officer. Taken on by SIS, she became a double-agent, feeding carefully-collated disinformation to the Germans. This successful operation is unusually well recorded, including revealing reports from her flirtatious case-office, ‘Klop’ Ustinov (father of the actor Peter Ustinov), as well as a unique image of Ecclesiastic at work taking photographs of documents which she had purportedly taken from the Anglo-Portuguese Air Liaison office where she worked. Her German lover took the photograph as insurance against Ecclesiastic betraying him, and gave her a copy to confirm his hold over her. But she promptly passed it on to  her case officer and it survives in the SIS archive to this day.


The world’s most famous MI6 operative, albeit fictional, is James Bond. How does the real work of MI6 compare to that depicted by Ian Fleming?

The real work of MI6 is much more interesting, and much more grimly realistic than the fictional. James Bond is terrific entertainment (or at least the best movies are), but, in the end, he is not much more than a kind of cartoon character, who manages ‘with one bound’ (or so) to get free from the clutches of whatever evil genius he has taken on. Since the real James Bonds are real people, they do not have quite the indiarubber qualities of the fictional one. When they are knocked down they sometimes, alas, stay down. They are, moreover, frequently better trained and prepared than Ian Fleming’s fictional creation, who, for example, does not appear to speak any language other than English (though, arguably, Sean Connery can speak Scottish). But one of the prerequisites for a genuine MI6 officer is a facility with languages. Ian Fleming, who worked in British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War clearly knew a lot about intelligence work and people, and there are suggestions that James Bond might in part have been modeled on a debonair SIS officer called Biffy Dunderdale, who was Head of the SIS Station in Paris during the 1930s. Some other stories seem familiar from the Bond oeuvre, for example, the Dutch agent put ashore in November 1940 on the beach near the Casino at Scheveningen, wearing a tuxedo protected by a specially-designed rubber oversuit. To strengthen his party-goer’s image, his minders sprinkled some drops of Hennessy XO brandy on him before setting him ashore.


There is an enduring fascination with intelligence work. How do the actions of 1909–49 relate to modern intelligence?

There are obvious differences between today’s intelligence environment and that of sixty years ago and before, with technology perhaps being the greatest change, but the essentials of successful intelligence work are amply demonstrated in the 1909–49 history of SIS. At the heart of all intelligence work is trust, not just between case officers and their agents, but also between the agency and its government masters. This is as true of 2011 as of 1911. There were moments in the 1920s and 1930s when SIS, under the ambitious and empire-building leadership of Admiral Hugh Sinclair, got a bit ‘big for its boots’, trespassing, for example, into domestic security work for which it was ill-suited and which dangerously threatened to jeopardise its reputation.

From the very start, Mansfield Cumming recognised the varying motivations of agents: money, patriotism, ideology, revenge. Not much changes in this world. Another constant is the important subject of liaison with foreign security and intelligence agencies. SIS has had to cosy up to potential rival organisations—French Intelligence in the 1920s; the Gestapo in the 1930s—in order to target common enemies—the Italians and Communists in the two examples just cited. Spying against friends and/or potential allies can be problematic, as demonstrated with British operations against the USA in the 1930s. In this case, friendly co-operation and the abandoning of those operations (though not before they had systematically been evaluated) proved to be more productive than keeping them on. One difficulty with a distinctly modern resonance is the experience of the SIS officer who visited Palestine in December 1939. Here the British administration of the territory told him they wanted information about the Jewish Agency, and especially about their support of illegal Jewish immigration. The next day, a contact in the Jewish Agency, in turn, offered their assistance in intelligence-gathering.

Another dimension with a remarkably contemporary feel is the assessment of potential bio-warfare threats to London drawn up by an SIS committee in August 1939. Reflecting on the possibility of anthrax or foot-and-mouth disease attacks on agricultural targets, it also asked if ‘one hundred Nazi agents supplied with bacteriological material and operating in the London Underground Railways during the rush hours, [could] start a serious epidemic in London’. Even on the technology side, many of the changes are purely of scale rather than kind. The pioneering portable suitcase radio developed by SIS’s engineers during the late 1930s is the Second World War equivalent of today’s cell phone, and the careful protocols for using those wartime radios securely remind us, today as much as ever, that any method of communication is liable to be vulnerable if not properly used.


Did you have to leave a lot out of your book at the request of MI6?

This is a really important question, since it reflects on my status as an independent historian. While I was granted complete and free access to the SIS archives for the period of the book (and this was a potential deal-breaker if I had found my access in any way restricted), and that the history should be ‘warts and all’, the corollary to this was that my final text would be reviewed in-house for what were described as ‘necessary national security requirements’. The most significant dimension of this concerned the naming of agents. SIS’s line, which I accepted, is that it will itself never reveal the name of an agent. In general, only if an agent has ‘outed’ him- or herself, can their name be revealed. This point of principle obviously makes very good sense, and goes to the heart of the relationship of trust between the Service and its agents. If, for example, you are a German hired by the British to spy against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, SIS will say: ‘Your secret is safe with us, in perpetuity’. (One analogy is with an investigative journalist, who may go to jail before revealing his sources.) But after 1945, for example, that German agent might be very glad to have her story told, and may even publish memoirs revealing this. In that case, and in some other cases where the identity of an agent is authoritatively revealed in publicly-available official documents in an archive or museum, I was permitted to name names. Even in those cases where I couldn’t reveal names, I could still tell the stories using cover-names or numbers (which is, after all, what cover-names are for).

There still remains the reasonable suspicion on the part of skeptics that I, having been found suitable by SIS to write its history, might be precisely the wrong person to do an independent and properly-critical job. All I can say to that, is (a) the opportunity (of a lifetime) to be the only historian allowed access to the SIS archives was too great to resist; (b) even if it might be seen as a kind of Faustian Pact with an immensely powerful and seductive organisation, the risk was worth taking; (c) as a senior academic historian with a high reputation to protect, and much to lose if I did only a partial job, I hope my professionalism has enabled me to get the story as right as possible; (d) in practice, while I was prevented from including some details of names etc, I was not restricted from including material about bungled operations and inadequate personnel which was not to the credit of SIS; and (e) in the last resort the ‘proof of the pudding [etc]’ will lie in the text itself, and for that the discerning reader must make up his or her own mind.


What do you think is the enduring importance of your work?

My book has been called ‘definitive’, a flattering description but one with which I have some worries. Whether it is already definitive or not, I very much hope that the book becomes definitive, and really only time will tell, as it might take five or ten years for this to be so. The book certainly has been written to stand the test of time. It is authoritative, and, since it is the only work based on access to the SIS archives, will, at the very least and for many years to come (if not for ever), remain the only reliable source for the real story of SIS. If it becomes definitive, I shall be well content. Like any author, my chief hope is that the book will be widely read and bring pleasure as well as conveying information. In the meantime, however, it is an indispensable source for anyone interested in ‘grown-up’ history, particularly that of the most famous intelligence organisation in the world.