Special Branch

Title:                      Special Branch

Author:                  Ray Wilson

Wilson, Ray (2015) and Ian Adams. Special Branch: A History: 1883-2006. London : Biteback Publishing

LCCN:    2014482966

HV8195.A2 W55 2015


Date Posted:      April 10, 2017

Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]


In January 1950, when Jim Skardon of MI5 obtained a signed confession from Klaus Fuchs acknowledging he spied for the Soviet Union, Skardon could not arrest him: the Special Branch of the Metropolitan (MPSB) had that responsibility. “The Branch” as it is known, originally called the Special Irish Branch, was formed in 1883 to deal with the Fenian Dynamiters then creating havoc in London. It soon became just Special Branch, a name it retained until 1986 when it was redesignated Special Operations 12 (SO12), and finally in 2006, when combined with SO13 it became S)15. Special Branch—A History tracks the Branch from its early days with emphasis on its mission, personnel, organizational changes and selected operations.

Authors Ray Wilson and Ian Adams, both Special Branch veterans, review a wide range of cases. For example, anarchists were a persistent problem at the turn of the 20th century and they add details to a number of cases such as the “Greenwich Park Bomb” incident made famous by Joseph Conrad in his book, Secret Agent.[2] The Branch also had a counterespionage mission until MI5 assumed that responsibility after WWI. The authors cite many examples of German espionage, including the treason of Roger Casement and the interrogation of Mata Hari, both handled personally by Basil Thompson—then in charge of Special Branch. The authors’ claim that Mata Hari was executed in Spain is, however, incorrect: it was France. (p. 94) In the post WWI era, the focus turned first to the communist and fascist threats, followed by multiple challenges from the IRA that persisted in various forms until the present.

From the interwar period to the end of the Cold War, the authors discuss the Branch’s involvement with well-known cases, such as the Cambridge spies, and some lesser known problems with Zionist extremism (p. 230), and a new mission, VIP protection. Espionage cases during this period, such as the Fuchs case, were worked with MI5. Two interesting examples of this cooperation are the Erwin Van Haarlem and Michael Smith cases, both worth attention. (p. 351)

Special Branch —A History concludes with a discussion of the transfer of its longtime mission against IRA terrorism to MI5, then headed by Stella Rimington. This did not end the Branch’s traditional functions of “prosecuting espionage offenders and monitoring anarchists” write the authors, that are professionally performed to this day. (p. 390) They have produced a fine history of Special Branch-SO15.

[1] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp.  132-133).  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  www.cia.gov.

[2] Conrad, Joseph (1907, 2007). The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale. New York: New American Library

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