MI6 The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949

Title:                      MI6 The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949

Author:                 Keith Jeffery

Jeffrey, Keith (2012, 2014). MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949. London: Bloomsbury Publishing

OCLC:                    768489395

UB251.G7 D67 2010



  • This is a revised and updated version of the 2012 edition.

Date Updated:  March 21, 2017

Compiled and reviewed by Hayden B. Peake.[1]

In his foreword to MI6, the then chief of service (“C”), Sir John Sawers, writes that the book “is a landmark in the history of the service.” And indeed it is, by any measure. Although the service was officially recognized in 1994, only Alan Judd’s 1999 biography of Sir Mansfield Cumming was based on official MI6 files.[2] This is not to say that prior to 1994 the existence of MI6 was a well-kept secret. In 1992, publication of The Spy Who Saved The World[3] revealed MI6’s contribution to the work of Oleg Penkovsky in great detail while identifying the principle officers involved. The following year, British intelligence historian Nigel West unofficially surveyed the many MI6 officers who had published their memoirs.[4] What distinguishes Keith Jeffery’s book from these earlier works is its more broad timeframe and his unrestricted access to MI6 archives. MI6 confirms and corrects the record, although not the entire record.

As Jeffery makes clear in his preface, while his access was unlimited, what he could write about was not. The primary restrictions were the timeframe, 1909-1949, and the prohibition against identifying certain agents, officer, and operations. By stopping at 1949, the book could mention Kim Philby of the Cambridge Five only in connection with the Gouzenko case. Likewise, VENONA had to be excluded. With respect to naming individuals, Jeffery could not use names unless they had been officially released, even if the names appear in the public domain. Jeffery explains the reasoning with the comment that unofficial sources were often “unsubstantiated assertions in sensational and evanescent publications” or what he more colorfully terms the “sub-prime intelligence literature.” (p. xii)

These limitations aside, MI6 is an astonishing work of scholarship. It reveals the development of the service from its one-man origins, through WWI, the interwar period, and WWII. The latter brought great challenges, first with the abolition of the Z Organization—which controlled nonofficial cover officers—under Claude Dansey. Then came the formation of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, and the initial loss and subsequent rebuilding of British worldwide espionage capabilities. MI6 concludes with the transition from a wartime structure to its Cold War organization. About one third of the book concerns administration, and the balance covers operations.

Along the way some colorful Brits make an appearance. Examples include Sir Paul Dukes, who operated under the noses of the Bolsheviks in Russia, and Wilfred “Biffy’’ Dunderdale—fond of fast cars and a friend of lan Fleming—in France, whose fluent Russian aided in the debriefing of the first Soviet defector, Boris Bajanov, Then there was Haline Szymanska, the wife of a Polish military attaché and “friend” of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the German Abwehr chief. She served as an agent for the Poles and MI6, and Canaris arranged for her escape to Switzerland, though Jeffery does not mention the rumor that she was also his mistress. She also had links to Allen DuIles. When she informed him that the Germans were reading his cipher, he continued to use it until Claude Dansey, then the assistant to “C,” told the MI6 head of station to remind “the fool [Dulles]” of the fact. Subsequent communications were passed through British channels. (p. 511)

This is just a minute sampling of the hundreds of stories Jeffery tells in MI6. In this revised edition he has added details to the adventures of Sir Paul Dukes, SIS’s role in the Rudolf Hess defection, and on the agent NANNYGOAT’s links to a Romanian network. Finally, he describes in detail a case omitted entirely from the first edition—the Volkov case, which threatened to expose Philby and other Soviet penetrations of British intelligence.

MI6 is a most valuable addition to the literature of intelligence.

[1] Hayden B. Peake, “The Intelligence Officer’s Bookshelf”, Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 3 Spring/Summer 2014, pp. 130-131). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov.

[2] Judd, Alan (1999). The Quest for C: Mansfield Cumming and the Founding of the Secret Service. London: HarperCollins Publishers

[3] Schecter, Jerrold L.(1992) and Peter S. Deriabin. The Spy Who Saved The World: How A Soviet Colonel Changed The Course of The Cold War. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons

[4] West, Nigel (1993), ed. The Faber Book of Espionage. London: Faber and Faber

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One Response to MI6 The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949

  1. Pingback: Haig’s Intelligence | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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