The Spies of Winter

Title:                      The Spies of Winter

Author:                  Sinclair McKay

McKay, Sinclair (2016). The Spies of Winter: The GCHQ Codebreakers Who Fought The Cold War. London: Aurum Press Ltd

LCCN:    2016364829

JN329.S4 M38 2016


  • Following on from the enormous success of his bestseller, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, Sinclair McKay now uncovers the story of what happened after the Second World War was over. Many of the men and women who had worked at Bletchley Park moved on to GCHQ, the British government’s new facility established to fight a new foe – Stalin’s KGB. McKay has interviewed various members of this secret organisation, from codebreakers and radio listeners to mechanical engineers and computer programmes who all shared the common desire to build a new Britain and protect it throughout the Cold War — Source other than Library of Congress.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      October 11, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

In 1901, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim popularized the “Great Game” as a reference to classical espionage and the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and Great Britain. In The Spies of Winter journalist Sinclair McKay employs the term to describe two different forms of the British-Soviet Cold War relationship: chess and codebreaking. He deals with chess mainly in the prologue and the final chapter where codebreaker and chess amateur Hugh Alexander takes on two Soviet grand masters in 1954. The balance of the book is devoted to how British—and, to a lesser extent, American—wartime codebreaking programs evolved to meet early Cold War threats.

McKay’s approach does not include the details of codebreaking; rather, he concentrates on the people who did the work and the practical challenges they overcame. Many of them, for example, Joan Clarke, a brilliant Cambridge university mathematician and one-time fiancée of Alan Turing, had worked at Bletchley Park during the war. In telling her story and others, he flashes back to the Bletchley experience to provide background. The practical challenges McKay deals with include Clarke’s decision to remain in government service; the difficulties associated with moving twice to new and improved quarters, when Bletchley Park proved inadequate; securing financial support; and the bureaucratic conflicts over who would have government responsibility for codebreaking.

In addition to the general techniques of code-breaking and the difficulties of signal collection, McKay considers the everyday professional challenges involved in operational security at a time when some Soviet codes were actually being broken. On the other hand, circumstances were complicated because Soviet agents had penetrated both British and American governments. McKay’s discussions of the now-familiar penetrations of Fuchs, Philby, Burgess, Blake, and Melita Norwood (whom he persists in calling double agents—but they were just Soviet agents) are not always accurate. For example, he attributes to American Elizabeth Bentley and Kim Philby the exposure of the VENONA secret to the Soviets. In fact, Bentley had merely passed on agent rumors and Philby learned of the program a year after the real culprit, American Army officer William Weisband, had passed on hard facts in 1948. After Weisband’s reporting, “all Soviet systems were changed, overnight, on 29 October 1948,” ending British and American access. (p. 229) McKay does describe the partially successful operations undertaken to restore the capability in the years before satellites changed everything.

There is little new in The Spies of Winter, but for those unfamiliar with the early Cold War cryptologic story, it provides a well written introduction.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, p. 131-132). 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

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