MI5 – the True Story

Title:                  MI5 – the True Story

Author:                 Nigel West

West, Nigel (1982). MI5: The True Story of the Most Secret Counterespionage Organization in the World. New York: Stein and Day

LCCN:    81181045

UB251.G7 W47 1981


Date Updated:  October 28, 2015

The following review is adapted from one posted by Laurence Daley.

This book is full of interesting details which surely will continue to supply scholars and novelist with material for decades.

I was seeking information on WWII events for introductory chapters in my manuscript in progress “Narrations of War in Cuba” and digging through the masses of information was able to find a number of useful things. For instance, Chapter II page 49 starts with a quote (in reference to the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), which I found comparable to the Cuban Communist Party of the same era) “The loyalty of a Party member lies primarily with the Party and secondarily with his country.” Alexander Foote, a CPGP member recruited into the NKVD by Douglas Springhall in 1938, commenting on his experiences in his memoirs Handbook for Spies.

In parallel to times and events in Cuba the first lines of this chapter read: “In 1921 Ramsay McDonald’s government allowed the Soviet Union to establish a permanent diplomatic representative in London, thus setting the scene for a covert conflict between the British and Russian intelligence services.” Apparently this is a typo which should read 1924 [Answers.com (accessed 4-28-09) James Ramsay MacDonald […]]. Still the 1924 date corresponds far better to the Cuban legalization of the Islands communist party under then elected president Gerardo Machado and approximates the arrival of that young Stalinist agent who would come be known as Fabio Grobart in Cuba.

I find it curious—but in all probability unrelated—that McDonald, who died 9 November 1937 on the liner Reina del Pacifico, at the same time that same Stalinist Fabio Grobart was sending Cuban volunteers on this same vessel to fight for the Republic in Spain (Vera Jiménez, Fernando 1999 (last accessed 4-24-09) Cubanos en la Guerra Civil española. La presencia de voluntarios en las Brigadas Internacionales y el Ejército Popular de la República. Revista Complutense de Historia de América. 25, 295-321 […] Lists (admittedly incomplete) of those who traveled on the Reina del Pacífico include: Miguel Angel Mordí Rivero in April 1937: Alejo Elias Sánchez Sufro, Rafael Nodarse, and Florentino Alejo in September 1937 Apparently they landed at the vessels last stop in France at El Havre, went to Paris and from there to Barcelona presumably by land routes. It seems that Rolando (El Tigre) Masferrer (listed as Rolando Mas Ferrer) a famous lame murderous communist executioner, wounded in the Spanish Civil War, and rival of Fidel Castro, who is most notorious as a killer for Batista was not listed as a passenger under that name. Caution is advised since this last cited reference—not the reviewed volume—is a pro-communist source and its bias in this direction is considerable).

As to beautiful women agents, one can cannot help but note Joan Miller, Hungarian refugee and society photographer, who placed her mind and her body at the service of Britain (see for example her image among the photographs and their legends that follow on page 96 of this Nigel West book). She was one of the agents of MI5 who successfully penetrated the British Communist Party. An amusing side detail is the damage to her photograph done by a ragingly jealous woman.

Many more details are found in this book by Nigel West. Thus I recommend this volume as an excellent source for those interested in details of 20th century history and its endless espionage, plots and intrigues, and of course beautiful women spies.

[My own observation is that West’s later books on MI5 are better researched, and more useful. However, anything written by West is worth reading and having in one’s library. I suspect that this book reviewed is an edition of MI5, British Security Service Operations, 1909-1945. London: Bodley Head, 1981]

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

Walk E on Euston Road—not the most pleasant stroll—and find this next site at Gower Street above the tube station. The more scenic approach is on the underground. Get out at Euston Square for

Site 89: 140 Gower Street. “You don’t actually see it,” exults a commentator on the BBC’s recent exploration of “secret architecture” as he points to this MI5 headquarters. “Almost an invisible building”, it is deemed more suitable to rebuilt Dresden or to anywhere in Poland.

This building is one of the many modem structures that sprang up the 1950s in London, trying to stand out and fit in at the same time. Recently, it has been one of the rather few (mostly anonymous-looking) MI5 properties spread out across London. The Times numbers them at “about eight”, serving various purposes: human, technical, vehicular. Like other of these “secret” buildings, Gower Street hasn’t been secret for quite a while. Among those who have talked openly about this headquarters, The Tatler naughtily revealed a decade ago that MI5 candidates came here (sworn to secrecy) for) their positive vetting.

Anyone who doesn’t have the run of the building might like to know about the flat on the top floor; Peter Wright stayed in it on his last night with MI5. Presumably there are other unexpected amenities behind these bland-looking windows.

With the publicized move of some 2,300 MI5 personnel to the expanded Thames House (see Site 10 Thames House, Millbank), fewer and fewer secrets remain. Newspaper readers learnt in 1991 not only the name of MI5’s new director-general (Mrs. Stella Rimington) but also her prior place of work (“the fifth floor of MI5’s headquarters in Gower Street, north London”). I can’t imagine which of these revelations would most have amazed Sir Vernon Kell who launched the service 80-odd years ago.

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 233-234


This entry was posted in British Intelligence and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to MI5 – the True Story

  1. Pingback: Espionage, Security and Intelligence in Britain 1945-1970 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Laurence Daley says:


    Thank you


    BTW the running title of the manuscript in preparation is now “Love and War in Cuba”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s