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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics



British Secret Intelligence Service Operations 1909-1945


Nigel West                           Frontline (Pen & Sword) 2019

A sister volume to the MI5 book I reviewed here. Like that this is an unrevised republished volume of the original work which appeared in 1993, and much has taken place in the revelations about British intelligence in the interim. According to West, an official history of SIS was written for internal consumption (by a senior officer, one Neil Blair)  and  “is still considered too sensitive to be released.”


Prior to the establishment of SIS (MI6), British intelligence was dominated by the Navy’s intelligence organisation, and this continued to overshadow SIS in its early years. Like MI5 this period had many amateurish overtones. By 1916  the main effort was in creating a successful team of train-watchers who fed details of German movements back to the UK by carrier pigeon.


After the end of the Great War, MI6 was subject to the same level of swinging cuts as every other military department, and became responsible for only the Rest of the World excluding the Empire. In 1921 the organisation was duped in a  big way by the White Russians, and SIS went on to spend more time prying into the Bolshevik surge than keeping tabs on the rise of fascism in Germany. Resources were of course tight (and West slightly oddly gives the reader annual budgets for each station). Budgets were conserved by widespread employment of WW1 veterans who were attached ‘on special duties’ to the Foreign Office. A meagre salary from SIS was of course supplemented by their Army pension.


SIS officers were often listed in the Diplomatic Service as Passport Control Officers. Once Hitler’s ethnic cleansing started to bite, the PCOs in Palestine were swamped with visa applications. (West goes on to explain why the PCO cover caused unnecessary strains, including for example with the Foreign Office). Frederick Winterbotham, who went on to head the aviation section in WW2, was however introduced to Hitler as early as 1934. But during this period several intelligence failures led to SIS being held in low esteem in Whitehall.  (Not the least being the sharing of French confidence in the strength of the Maginot Line). This poor reputation appears to have continued until the organisation got its hands on Ultra, and other decrypts, in WW2.


A particularly interesting part of the book explains that the roots of the SIS/SOE total failure in the Low Countries in WW2 stemmed from blunders even before the war started. The Venlo incident is covered in some detail. Indeed West is unsparing in setting out the parlous state of the organisation in September 1939. When Churchill assembled his War Cabinet the following summer, the Labour members were deeply suspicious of both SIS and MI5. SIS’ saving grace was that it had cultivated good relations with Polish intelligence and this lead to their sending to the UK a captured Enigma machine. Analysts in both countries eventually worked out its operation.


Perhaps SIS’ most successful sphere of operations was Scandinavia, where its keystone project was the destruction of the Germans’ heavy water plant at Vemork. Given this was largely a SOE operation, West goes into a lot of detail.


The effort to drag the US into the war is well chronicled, and it is amazing the degree to which the Cabinet was prepared to share SIS intelligence with the Americans from a very early stage. However in West’s view, the active support by the USA’s OSS of pro-Communist groups facilitated the creation of the Eastern Bloc after the war’s end.


The book is very thorough at denoting staffing levels, and many names of SIS’ various out-stations.  It contains plenty of evidence of British eccentricity: section V (counter-intelligence ), for example,  was headed by Valentine Vivian; a former monk appears, with the memorable name of O’Shagar, etc. Some idea of the sort of staff employed was that the Norwegian section contained the only SIS member with a science degree!


A major flaw is the lack of references – presumably West keeps his sources close to his chest, however this diminishes the work’s value to other historians. There is some duplication of narrative, but perhaps this is inevitable in having to loop back from considering various countries of operation.


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