Real-life James Bonds' better

2010-09-22 13:29

London – A spy lands on a beach near a casino and strips off his wetsuit to reveal a smart tuxedo. Intelligence agents experiment with using bodily fluid as invisible ink to write secret letters.

Sound like extracts from a James Bond novel? In fact they're real-life examples of spycraft revealed for the first time in a new authorised history of Britain's foreign intelligence service MI6 from 1909 to 1949.

Author Keith Jeffery, a history professor at Queen's University in Belfast, paints a picture of the agency's cash-strapped, freewheeling early days as it battled not only the Nazis and Soviets but also government red tape.

Nor did it only target its enemies – agents bombed ships for refugees to Palestine and gathered intelligence on the US, on the "Free French" of liberation hero Charles de Gaulle and on post-independence India.

And unlike the suave 007, many MI6 agents did not survive.

"The real James Bonds are in fact more interesting than the fictional ones," Jeffery told AFP after the launch of the book, for which he was granted unprecedented access to MI6 archives.

"What does strike you really hard when you read these archives is that there are these people taken into highly hazardous situations on operations and some of them did pay with their lives," he added.

The origins of MI6 were humble. After his first day at work on October 7, 1909, Mansfield Cumming, the founding chief of the service, who was known only as "C", wrote in his diary: "Went to the office and remained all day, but saw no one, nor was there anything to do there."

Short of resources

The agency remained short of resources through the two World Wars and had to resort to unusual methods – particularly when Cumming became obsessed with the hunt for the perfect invisible ink during World War 1.

After extensive inquiries by the MI6 chief, senior agency officer Walter Kirke wrote in his diary in October 1915 that he had "heard from C that the best invisible ink is semen".

C was said to be especially delighted when a researcher found the fluid would not react to iodine vapour – though the researcher had to be transferred because of ribbing by his colleagues about the source of the "ink", wrote another officer, Frank Stagg.

An agent in Copenhagen meanwhile was apparently storing the new "ink" in a bottle "for his letters stank to high heaven and we had to tell him that a fresh operation was necessary for each letter", Stagg wrote.

Other MI6 operations veered between Bond and bizarre.

Agent Pieter Tazelaar was put ashore in Nazi-occupied Holland in World War 2 "in full evening dress and smelling of alcohol, wearing a specially designed rubber over suit to keep him dry while landing", Jeffery writes.

His colleague Erik Hazelhoff sprinkled a few drops of Hennessy XO over him to strengthen his "partygoer's image", the book says.

Another agent, Dudley Clarke, was arrested in Madrid in 1941 dressed, "down to a brassiere", as a woman, as the British embassy reported to London.

Brilliant career in deception

Spanish police believed he was cross-dresser while the Gestapo identified him as a spy, but he was released and "went on to have a brilliant career in deception", writes Jeffery.

Then there was Bill "Biffy" Dunderdale, a close friend of "James Bond" author Ian Fleming – and Dunderdale's "penchant for pretty women and fast cars" may have made him the model for 007, the book says.

Jeffery says talk of agents having a "licence to kill" was a myth, with the MI6 archives showing that the agency was involved in the illegal killings of only two people.

But MI6 agents did bomb five ships as part of "Operation Embarrass", a campaign to discourage post-war Jewish refugees from sailing to then British-controlled Palestine.

And its wartime head, Stewart Menzies, was in no doubt about the purpose of intelligence, saying it should result in action "which result in the death of one or more enemy nationals, or the defeat of some of his projects."

The book meanwhile covers what Jeffery calls MI6's "greatest failure" – its inability to spot its greatest traitor, Harold "Kim" Philby, who rose to the agency's upper echelons then defected to the Soviet Union in 1963.

Jeffery shows how MI6 operations involving Philby, including an attempt to engineer a coup in Albania, repeatedly collapsed without the finger of suspicion falling on him.

"He was damn good at his job – the trouble was his job was spying for the Soviets," he said.