Spymaster: The Life of Britain’s Most Decorated Cold War Spy

Title:                      Spymaster (Pearce)

Author:                 Martin Pearce

Pearce, Martin (2016). Spymaster: The Life of Britain’s Most Decorated Cold War Spy And Head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield. London: Bantam Press

LCCN:    2016436054

UB271.G72 O447 2016

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • Oldfield, Maurice, Sir, 1915-1981.
  • 1900-1999
  • Espionage.
  • Great Britain.

Date Posted:      October 13, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Sir Maurice Oldfield was born in the Derbyshire Peak district of England on 16 November 1915 to a family of farmers. The oldest of 10 brothers and sisters, he was educated locally and won a scholarship in 1934 to study at Manchester University. In June 1941, he was called for military duty and served most of the war in Cairo with military intelligence, initially as a private. He was soon commissioned and transferred to the Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME), an element ofMI5, where one of his subordinates was Alistair (later Sir) Home (author of A Savage War of Peace[2] (about the Algerian insurgency). Oldfield ended the war as a lieutenant colonel, MBE, and, having decided he liked the work, in 1947 joined the counterintelligence section of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). In 1973, he was appointed “C,” the chief of MI6. Spymaster looks at the man, his professional career, and his final assignment, undertaken at the request of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

Author Martin Pearce is Sir Maurice’s grandnephew; his grandmother was “Uncle M”‘s sister. Growing up, Pearce met his uncle during visits home from his uncle’s many travels and recalls discussions about the places on the postcards Sir Maurice had sent. He first learned of his uncle’s intelligence work when Kim Philby mentioned “the formidable Maurice Oldfield” (p. 244) in his memoir, My Silent War[3]. In 1985, one of Sir Maurice’s journalist friends, Richard Deacon, published a biography of Oldfield[4] that Pearce found “something of a disappointment” (p. 2) because it “didn’t describe the person I knew”—so he decided to do it himself.

Pearce’s main sources were family stories, passports, diaries, and letters Oldfield was careful to give to family members so they would not end up in MI6’s archives. He also relied on media coverage, interviews with former colleagues, and his many journalist friends.

Pearce is able to document Oldfield’s many assignments, the important cases in which he was involved, and the bureaucratic skirmishes he overcame. Oldfield’s time as head of station in Washing ton will be of interest to US readers. To put his CIA colleagues at ease, Oldfield voluntarily underwent a polygraph examination. When he was asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a practicing homosexual?”, he lied—but he passed the test. (p. 183) Pearce’s claim that Oldfield “was the conduit for the voluminous intelligence HERO” (Penkovsky) (p. 199) was providing—among other events said to have occurred during Oldfield’s time in Washington—is not supported by other accounts.

Pearce portrays Oldfield as ebullient, incisive, subtle, and quietly professional. These descriptions are the strong point of the book. His too-frequent comparisons of Oldfield to James Bond and George Smiley, however, get a bit tiresome, though he accepts David Cornwell’s statement that Oldfield was not his Smiley model.

When Pearce turns to historical events to bolster his story, he is frequently incorrect. For example, William Melville did not “found the Secret Service Bureau” (p. 21); Philby’s father never became “head of British intelligence in Palestine” p. 88); Philby did not teach “Angleton all he knew” (p. 93); and the CIA’s Bill Harvey was not the first “to publicly air the link between Burgess and Philby.” (p. 127)

Oldfield’s final assignment as coordinator of intelligence in Northern Ireland led to his exposure as a homosexual shortly before his death. While Pearce does not attempt to diminish the impact this had on his reputation, he does point out that it was Oldfield’s honesty (admitting that he had previously lied about it) that did the damage.

Spymaster presents the best account to date of a very professional and skilled intelligence officer and is an important contribution to the literature.

[1] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, p. 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 http://www.cia.gov

[2] Horne, Alistair(2006).A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962. New York: New York Review Books

[3] Philby, Kim (1968). My Silent War: The Soviet Master Spy’s Own Story with an introduction by Graham Greene. London: MacGibbon & Kee

[4] Deacon, Richard (1985). “C” A Biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield . London: Macdonald

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