A History of The British Secret Service

Title:                      A History of The British Secret Service

Author:                Richard Deacon

Deacon, Richard (1970). A History of The British Secret Service. New York: Taplinger

LCCN:    72107017

JN329.I6 M3 1970


Date Updated:  October 6, 2016

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

Traces the development of the British intelligence and counterintelligence services since the time of Henry VII, although the title with its singular “Service” might mislead one to think it dealt with the SIS and its predecessors. This is the author’s first major sally into the field of intelligence writing where he has gained the reputation of an indefatigable and prodigious (though not always accurate) writer. The Times Literary Supplement review said this contained what it called a reasonably sober selection of stories from the time of the Tudors to Victoria (about a quarter of the book). The rest was of a different quality—the reviewer found his stories on Reilly, Zaharoff, Sikorski, and others “outside of reality.” To these faults one can add a few more representative examples: the author’s mistakes and speculation about the Lucy ring in Switzerland during World War II; his “certainty” that Alexander Foote had all along been a British agent and thus a penetration of the Soviet service; his acceptance of the discredited story of the nonexistent German spy at Scapa Flow, Oertel, as the provider of the intelligence that sank the battleship Royal Oak. Deacon had no idea of the real scope of the work of British counterintelligence and the XX Committee in controlling all German agents and persons such as Owens and his “group.” He was also quite wrong in saying that no historian had ever mentioned the Russian ambassador Vorontzov as the possible source of intelligence to the British on the secret clauses of the Treaty of Tilsit; Thompson and Padover did in Secret Diplomacy[2], which he listed in his bibliography. However, Deacon has probably turned out to be right about the work of Alexander Szek in World War I (though he fingers Admiral Hall rather than Admiral Oliver as the one who ordered the action against him). Note too that he wrote of Bletchley Park and its work. It is inevitable that a writer undertaking a history such as this without access to official records and thus reliant on secondary sources or war stories will end up with a work that is selective of material and spotty in reliability.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[3]

A narrative about intelligence in England that begins during the reign of Henry VII and carries on through the modern period to 1970. An important work. The bibliography might have been more complete, however.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 151-152

[2] Thompson, James Westfall (1963) and Saul K. Padover. Secret Diplomacy: Espionage and Cryptography 1500-1815. New York: Frederick Ungar

[3] 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. 155


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