The Secret World

Title:                      The Secret World

Author:                 Hugh Trevor-Roper

Trevor-Roper, Hugh (2014), Edward Harrison, ed. The Secret World: Behind The Curtain of British Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War. London; New York, NY: I.B. Tauris

LCCN:    2015462525

JN329.I6 T74 2014


  • Annotation Hugh Trevor-Roper’s experiences working for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) during the war had a profound impact on him and he later observed the world of intelligence with particular sharpness. To him, the subject of wartime espionage was as worthy of profound investigation and reflection as events from the more distant past. Expressing his observations through some of his most ironic and entertaining prose, Trevor-Roper wrote with a freedom he could not express publicly due to the Official Secrets Act. Based on previously unpublished material—including an extraordinary and previously-unseen correspondence with the exiled spy Kim Philby—this is a first-hand account of the intelligence world in World War II and its aftermath.


  • 1.Sideways into SIS; 2.Admiral Canaris; 3.The Philby Affair; 4.Deception; 5.Ultra; 6.Percy Sillitoe and Dick White; 7.Anthony Blunt; 8.Michael Straight; 9.Peter Wright; 10.Otto John and Reinhard Gehlen.


Date Posted:      December 13, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

Sir Michael Howard notes with irony in his foreword that the professional intelligence officers in MI6 “resented the wartime intrusion of interlopers” like Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Koper and “were glad to see the last of them, with the exception, of course, of the deferential and reliable Kim Philby, the only one they trusted.” Then, in 1968, with the publication of Philby’s memoir, it was the anything-but-deferential Trevor-Roper who, with the official approval of MI6, published The Philby Affair[3]. This now classic account of “the secret world Trevor-Roper shared with Philby… provided his own explanation of Philby’s treachery.” (p. x) The Philby Affair was highly regarded at CIA, and Walter Pforzheimer later wrote that Richard Helms “made the essay ‘must reading’ for all his senior officers.” (p. xvii) Now historian Edward Harrison has included in this collection of Trevor-Roper’s writings on intelligence.

In his lengthy introductory essay, Professor Harrison reviews Trevor-Roper’s sometimes controversial wartime service in MI6 and the important friends he made there and in MI5. Trevor-Roper’s skill in winning bureaucratic turf battles, insistence on speaking truth to power, and his ability to articulately express his views on German intelligence won him admiration. It was this array of attributes that led Dick White, who would later head MI5 and MI6, to select him to investigate the death of Adolf Hitler. Harrison explains the scholarly way he went about the task that led to The Last Days of Hitler[4], the book that made him world famous.

In addition to The Philby Affair, Professor Harrison includes nine additional essays, one by Trevor-Roper tells the story of the beginnings of his intelligence career. Several of the others are lengthy book critiques—analyses, really—of well-known, popular books on WWII intelligence. For example, he deplored (for good reason) Anthony Cave Brown’s Bodyguard of Lies[5]. And he found The Man Called Intrepid[6], a hagiography of Sir William Stephenson, a quest for greater publicity where fantasy was its dominating quality. He concludes his assessment of Spycatcher[7] by Peter Wright, with the comment that “we have not yet found a means of controlling egregious traitors from within like Peter Wright.” (p. 189) Trevor-Roper judged the memoir of the American Cambridge spy, Michael Straight[8], more favorably and Climate of Treason[9], the book that exposed Anthony Blunt, “difficult reading; but its content is fascinating.” (p. 151) Harrison also includes a piece Trevor-Roper wrote on “Why Otto John Defected Thrice.”[10] In it he wrote that “successful espionage… requires continual regeneration: fresh though constant vigilance, continuous adaptation to changing circumstances.” (p. 204) A concluding appendix contains an exchange of correspondence with Patrick Reilly, personal assistant to the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, on the subject of Kim Philby.

The Secret World informs the reader with critical views of the intelligence profession in elegant style. History at its best, an indisputably valuable contribution.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 120-121). 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, Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[3] Trevor Roper, Hugh R. (1968). The Philby Affair: Espionage, Treason, And Secret Services. London: William Kimber

[4] Trevor-Roper, H. R. (1947). The Last Days of Hitler. London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd

[5] Cave Brown, Anthony (1976). Bodyguard of Lies. London: W. H. Allen

[6] Stevenson, William (1976). A Man Called Intrepid: The Secret War. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

[7] Wright, Peter (1987) with Paul Greengrass. Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of A Senior Intelligence Officer. New York: Viking

[8] Straight, Michael (1983). After Long Silence. New York: W.W. Norton

[9] Boyle, Andrew (1979).The Climate of Treason: Five Who Spied for Russia. London: Hutchinson

[10] Hugh Trevor-Roper, “Why Otto John Defected Thrice,” (April 11, 1997), The Spectator Archive, downloaded December 13, 2016

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