The spy who knew everyone
By Stewart Purvis & Jeff Hulbert
Published by Bitback, Distributed by New South
RRP $49.99 in hardcover * ISBN 9781849549134
This is a fascinating look at one of the infamous Cambridge spies, Guy Burgess, who along with Mc Lean, Philby and Blunt, supplied the Russian intelligence with British and American secrets for many years.
Recruited to work for the KGB in 1935 because of his political leanings, his network of friends in high places and because the Russians felt he was too liberal with his tongue to be left outside the organisation, Burgess became a valuable purveyor of intelligence to the KGB.
He worked variously for the BBC, MI5, MI6, the War Office and the Ministry of Information while all the time working for the KGB.
Burgess was arguably a drunk and a promiscuous homosexual at a time when neither was acceptable in Britain.
Yet Burgess, an Eton and Cambridge old-boy, was forgiven his short-comings because he came from the wealthy upper classes. And it was this same cloak of respectability which gave him access to people and places and to go undetected and unsuspected for years as a Russian spy.
Ironically, he was also not suspected because of his drinking and erratic behaviour which, the authorities believed, made him too “unreliable” to be a Russian spy.
A must-read book for anyone interested in the Cambridge spies.
SOE: Churchill’s Secret Agents
By: Terry Crowdy
Published by Shire Library, part of Bloomsbury UK
Distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin
RRP $16.99 in paperback
I was intrigued when this small volume arrived on my review bookshelf. This is a big topic to be contained in 64 pages.
It turns out that the Shire Library publishes a ‘charming and eclectic range of titles exploring British history and heritage, including the bestselling Bradshaw’s Handbook’.
Bradshaw’s will be familiar to anyone interested in UK and European railway journeys. Michael Portillo, one time UK Secretary of Defence in the Thatcher Government, has made a new career of following in the footsteps of the 19th century Bradshaw with his TV series Great British Railway Journeys and Great Continental Railway Journeys, but I digress.
The first name that springs to mind for any Australian when they see the acronym SOE should be Nancy Wake, who gets a small mention on p.56.
This small volume offers an overview of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) whose mission was to export resistance, subversion and sabotage to occupied Europe and beyond, disrupting the German war effort and building a Secret Army which would work in the shadows to help defeat the Nazis. Potential agents were put through intensive paramilitary and parachute training, then taught how to live clandestinely behind enemy lines, to operate radios and write in secret codes. They lived in constant fear of arrest, and of betrayal by treacherous collaborators.
This book uses rare images from the collections of The National Archives and the Imperial War Museum to illustrate the work of the SOE and some of the clever gadgets they dreamed up.
There is a list of Places to Visit for those interested in the SOE, including the obvious Churchill War Rooms (definitely worth a visit) and Bletchley Park (on the itinerary for my trip next year).
The Secret Archives
By Sinclair McKay
Published by Aurum Press, in association with Bletchley Park
Dist. by Allen & Unwin
RRP $49.99 in hard cover, in slip case with removable memorabilia
Delving into this beautifully presented collector’s edition with its removable memorabilia is a bit like delving into Bletchley Park itself, full of secrets with its caches of documents slipped in between the pages.
There are some extraordinary facsimiles of original documents in this set – including some pages of (incomprehensible to me) workings by the remarkable Alan Turing (see the photo).
Another name that emerges in the collection is that of Ian Fleming, a young naval officer during WWII.
This is a delightful collection, showing us Bletchley Park in its many phases: as a country estate owned by Liberal MP Sir Herbert Leon, through its wartime requisition as a top secret code-breaking facility where the German Enigma code was cracked to its post-war dereliction and subsequent rescue as a museum whose visitor numbers have more than doubled in the past five years.
This edition features over 200 photographs plus the items of removable facsimile memorabilia.
It wasn’t until many years after the end of the Second World War that we heard about the work done at Bletchley Park. Since that time the story of Bletchley Park and its remarkable people have continued to fascinate.
Australian buyers can purchase the book set at this link:
While I was busy being sick just before Christmas, I missed the announcement that two titles I’m familiar with in writing about military history books had shared the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize in the Australian History category for 2015:
PRIZE FOR AUSTRALIAN HISTORY—JOINT WINNERS
Charles Bean by Ross Coulthart (HarperCollins Publishers)
The Spy Catchers—The Official History of ASIO Vol 1 by David Horner (Allen & Unwin)
Well done to both authors.
What alerted me to this was Brian Toohey’s article in The Australian Financial Review (23-28 December 2015) – ASIO’s official history has a $1.75m subplot
It is a revealing article in that it quotes the figures ASIO has reportedly invested in its three volume official history, not all of which ends up in the pockets of the authors, of course. However he does compare this with Ross Coulthart having to rely on author royalties from his publishers for any return on his effort in writing the Charles Bean book.
Toohey does make one mistake in the article. He suggested that given the size of the grants and the ‘paucity of sales’, it might be better to subject future literary funding [from government agencies] to competitive tender. The contract for writing the ASIO history was certainly subject to open tender. I remember remarking on it at the time.
If the benchmark was always to be commercial success, I suspect many important books would not see the light of day.
I know there have been several criticisms of David Horner’s The Spy Catchers, but that does not diminish, in my opinion, the value of having attempted to capture the history of the establishment and early days of Australia’s primary intelligence agency.
Australia’s Special Forces – Z Force to the SAS; Intelligence Operations to Cyber Warfare
By Robert Macklin
RRP $35.00 in paperback
Published by Hachette
Robert Macklin started the round of promotional activities for his new book in Canberra last night, with the official launch of the title at the excellent Paperchain bookstore in Manuka – http://www.paperchainbookstore.com.au. If ever you’re in Canberra, this is a bookstore you must visit.
Peter Jennings, a well known figure in Defence circles and currently Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has written a foreword to the book which he describes as a ‘lively study into the history and future of Australia’s Special Forces’. He says that Macklin’s book is unique because he has ‘tumbled to the reality that few people outside the office ‘national security community’ understand: the practical definition of what constitutes Australia’s Special Forces has widened to include not only the SASR and the commandos but also Australia’s intelligence agencies.’
So Warrior Elite, which begins its narrative with World War 2, is much more than an account of Special Forces operations – it includes the roles of ASIS, ASD (Australians Signals Directorate) and ASIO, so don’t let the cover fool you. This is a well researched book produced in Macklin’s highly-readable style that covers a substantial topic in considerable detail. It is not simply a book about the high octane life of a special forces operative.