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On His Majesty’s Secret Service

The girls and the gadgets only do so much to make up for the enduring sadness of the James Bond fan: the world’s most famous Brit lives a life that bears almost no discernible resemblance to the experiences of tens of millions of real-life Englishmen—except, of course, in our midnight fantasies. The big revelation of Keith Jeffery’s authorized history of MI6—or to call the organization by its official title, the Secret Intelligence Service—is that Ian Fleming’s most famous creation is not such an implausible character after all.

It is true that during the first four decades of SIS’s existence, the period covered by this immensely detailed book, very few agents had to battle a bowler-hat-throwing Korean golf caddy, a Catalan circus performer with a golden gun, or a Chinese-German doctor with metal pincers for hands. And yet anyone who recalls the opening scene of Goldfinger, in which Sean Connery infiltrates a drug baron’s base, peeling off his wetsuit to reveal an impeccable tuxedo, will find the story of Pieter Tazelaar immensely satisfying. Put ashore in Nazi-occupied Holland just before five o’clock in the morning of November 23, 1940, Tazelaar wore full evening dress beneath his specially designed wetsuit, allowing him to walk directly into the seafront casino at Scheveningen. For greater verisimilitude, one of his fellow agents sprinkled him with Hennessy XO brandy beforehand. What happened next—a miraculous triumph at baccarat? an encounter with a mysterious blonde? a gun battle with an assassin who feels no pain?—remains sadly unknown.

MI6 began life in what readers may well regard as typically British circumstances. In essence, it was a product of the “invasion panic” that preceded World War I, with ordinary book-buyers and politicians alike obsessed by fantasies of German agents infiltrating rural England and undermining its empire from within, an atmosphere captured beautifully in those wonderfully paranoid adventure classics like Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). In April 1909, a coalition of Admiralty, War Office, and Home Office bigwigs agreed to set up a Secret Service Bureau “with the view of obtaining information in foreign countries.” From the beginning, though, it was the founding director, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who set the tone. Formerly an obscure naval veteran, ‘C’, as he called himself, was short and sturdy, with a gigantic head and a monocle. At first he had no idea what he was meant to be doing. “Surely we can not be expected to sit in the office month by month doing absolutely nothing?” he complained to one of his colleagues. But he soon found his stride: working every day of the year, including Christmas, he bought himself a fake beard and toupee and even took to carrying a swordstick, despite the fact that nobody ever attacked him.

As an authorized history, Jeffery’s book is unsurprisingly more sober than other histories of MI6’s early years, notably a recent book by Michael Smith, the security correspondent of the London Sunday Times. Still, Jeffery has a good eye for a story, and it seems clear that Cumming’s antics—injured in a car crash during World War I, he cut off his leg with a penknife and later tested potential recruits by whipping out the knife and stabbing it into his wooden leg—set the tone for many of MI6’s escapades. Only a few years after the Bureau’s foundation, its agents were smuggling information out of German-occupied Belgium inside boxes of chocolates, while at one stage they experimented with using human semen as invisible ink, even requesting samples of the “female equivalent” from a London lunatic asylum for testing. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that the Bureau’s early days were so colorful: among its agents were Arthur Ransome, Graham Greene, and Somerset Maugham, although none of the writers of MI6 got up to anything especially interesting.

Readers looking for parallels with the recent history of the CIA will find them in abundance. From the very beginning, MI6 had to fight for its place in the bureaucratic jungle of Whitehall, and despite its success at obtaining German naval intelligence during World War I, it was only the intervention of Winston Churchill that secured proper funding in the early 1920s. In some ways this was the service’s heyday, with madcap agents such as the notoriously amoral Sidney “Ace of Spies” Reilly rampaging across revolutionary Russia in a vain attempt to bring down Communism from within. At one point Reilly even plotted to murder Lenin and Trotsky at the Bolshoi Theatre. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he was fired for unreliability a few years later. It is disappointing that Jeffery does not address the theory that MI6 arranged the murder of Rasputin, the holy man whose closeness to the imperial family was such a boost to Bolshevik propaganda. Years afterwards, the British agent Oswald Rayner claimed that he had organized the conspiracy to get Rasputin out of the way. Perhaps he was exaggerating; it would have been nice to know for sure.

Jeffery’s book has all the strengths and weaknesses of many authorized institutional histories, being very long, very authoritative, very serious, and very dry. Future historians will find it a monument of scholarship, though I suspect many casual readers will find their eyes glazing over. To be fair, Jeffery admits that since MI6 made a habit of destroying its records in the early years, and many paper trails ran cold; and since his book ends in 1949, there is nothing on the Cold War. What there is, however, is an enormous amount of bureaucratic wrangling: it is depressing but not surprising to learn that just three days after Britain had declared war on Hitler’s Germany, one official was still trying to “standardize the size” of forms attached to service reports. (It takes only a glance at documents such as the 9/11 Report, with its painstaking chronicle of bureaucratic infighting, to confirm that, on both sides of the Atlantic, a pen-pushing, pettifogging spirit is alive and well today.)

Still, Jeffery thinks that MI6 made a difference. Its agents produced invaluable evidence on the Germans’ V1 and V2 rockets, as well as on the coastal defenses of Normandy before D-Day. The tragedy was that despite its fine wartime record, the seeds of future disasters were being sown, above all in the person of Kim Philby, the suave Communist mole who later betrayed dozens of agents to the KGB. Philby’s reputation was such that when the Foreign Office tried to poach him in 1943, the MI6 chief Sir Stewart Menzies told them: “You know as well as I do the valuable work which Philby is doing for me.” It was a terrible mistake, perhaps the worst in MI6’s history. For the rest of the story, we will presumably have to wait another fifty years. In the meantime, we get the pleasure of sticking with le Carré and Fleming.

Dominic Sandbrook is the author of a series of books chronicling postwar Britain, most recently State of Emergency: The Way We Were, Britain 1970-1974. His upcoming book is Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right.