July 5, 2011

The Secret History of MI-6 by Keith Jeffery

Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (also commonly known as MI6) was born a century ago amid fears of the rising power of other countries, especially Germany. The next forty years saw MI6 taking an increasingly important-and, until now, largely hidden-role in shaping the history of Europe and the world. This thorough, fascinating, and revelatory account draws on a wealth of archival materials never before seen by any outsider to unveil the inner workings of the world's first spy agency.

Some fun tidbits from the book:

-- Spy writers. Somerset Maugham, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Graham Greene were all M)-6 operatives (as this book reveals for the first time).

-- James Bond: true and false. Ian Fleming's fictional MI-6 agent is likely based on actual agent Wilfred "Biffy" Dunderdale, a friend of Fleming's. Unlike in the Bond novels and films, no MI-6 agent has a "license to kill".. However, Q, the gadget-making super-scientist of the Bond series, is based on reality.

-- In 1941, a British spy was arrested in Madrid dressed "down to a brassiere" as a woman. Unsure whether he was a spy or simply a cross-dresser, Spanish police soon released him. He was transferred to Cairo where he had "a brilliant career in deception."

-- In 1949, MI-6 seriously considered peddling confiscated opium in Asia to raise funds.

-- Friends in high places. Arthur Ransome, another writer/spy, worked in the Soviet Union and had as his mistress Leon Trotsky's secretary.

-- In 1941, an MI-6 operative infiltrated a posh casino on the Dutch coast from the sea - wearing a tuxedo underneath his wetsuit.

-- In the late 1940s, MI-6 operatives blew up ships in Italian ports to stop Jewish refugees from sailing to Palestine.

-- MI-6 was famous for running the British code-breaking program during World War II, but few appreciate its other innovations from that decade, such as knockout drops, silent weapons, and exploding file cabinets.

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