British Agent

Title:                      British Agent

Author:                  John Whitwell [1]

Whitwell, John (1966). British Agent. London, Kimber

LCCN:    66073150

UB271.G7 W5

Date Updated:  October 12, 2016

The book is an espionage classic. British Agent tells the story of a bygone age of espionage. This unique memoir vividly describes a time when a hard-pressed British spy service, with only a handful of agents in Europe, sought to keep track of a continent descending into war. With Nazi Germany increasing in strength the stakes were high, yet this was still the low technology age of the amateur agent. Even a radio transmitter was a rare item; while stationed in Riga, Whitwell had to build his own. John Whitwell, the pseudonym of senior British intelligence officer Leslie Nicholson, conducted his secret work in a succession of European capitals without diplomatic cover, and at times with the German Gestapo and Soviet NKVD perilously close. His story is not one of derring-do, or spectacular coups, but of underground work when every scrap of intelligence was hard-won, and when dark fantasy and uncomfortable fact were exceedingly difficult to distinguish. It is hoped that this tale of British secret service work in Prague, Riga and London, first published in 1966 and long out of print, will provide insight and pleasure to a new generation of readers curious about the still-secret history of espionage.

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

In The Infernal Grove[2], Muggeridge describes his introduction into SIS and his first contact, Leslie Nicholson (Whitwell’s true name). Muggeridge says Nicholson was agreeable with a gentle manner, “amiable and helpful”; he thought him more a Bertie Wooster than a spymaster.

Nicholson served in SIS from 1929 through World War II in posts such as Riga and Prague. He was sent temporarily to Spain and Portugal to handle intelligence defectors. Despite these assignments and his handling of Middle East and Balkan matters for SIS during the war, he has relatively little to tell, although the book earned the praise of Haldane in The Hidden War[3]. Others, including Blackstock and Schaf, thought it cynical but allowed that it was one of the few insights available on SIS. Muggeridge introduced it as neither hair-raising nor breathtaking, only true. Sardonic it is, but there are some good lessons on poor practices by intelligence services, including his own, which failed to train him properly. Of added interest are his claims that he managed during the first months of the war to get the complete wireless code used by German agents in the Baltic, that a Gestapo officer who defected in Spain in March 1941 provided information on the German invasion plan for Russia, Barbarossa, and that the Germans deceived the British in Riga for a whole year via a double agent.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[4]

The authoritative memoirs of an experienced Secret Intelligence Service field officer who served SIS from 1929 through the Second World War. The author’s superior and chief-of-station in Mozambique, Malcolm Muggeridge, provides the introduction to the book. Although it is cynical, this book provides one of the few insights available into the SIS.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 486-487

[2] Muggeridge, Malcolm (1973). The Infernal Grove. Chronicles Of Wasted Time, no. 2. London: Collins

[3] Haldane, R. A. (1978). The Hidden War. New York and London: St. Martin’s Press

[4] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 156



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2 Responses to British Agent

  1. Pingback: Betrayed | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: Espionage and Counterespionage, Chapter 14 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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