Book brings spies in from the cold

2010-09-21 17:05

London - Britain's foreign intelligence agency MI6 published the first authorised history of its early years on Tuesday, revealing the exploits of both real-life James Bonds and its worst ever traitor.

MI6 was written by Keith Jeffrey, a history professor at Queen's University in Belfast who was granted access to unseen archives from the shadowy agency's creation in 1909 until the start of the Cold War in 1949.

In tales of derring-do worthy of a spy novel, its agents blew up ships and infiltrated Nazi-controlled Europe and the Soviet Union, while finding time to sip champagne and refine their seduction techniques.

The book also confirms for the first time that the famed British authors Graham Greene, W Somerset Maugham and Arthur Ransome were members of MI6 staff.

Agent in a foreign country

Jeffrey said that he had been granted access to the "holy grail of British archives", adding that unlike the papers of other British intelligence agencies the ones he had seen would never be made public.

"It was a bit like an opportunity of being, perhaps not behind enemy lines, but like being dropped like an agent into a foreign country," he said at the launch of the 810-page book at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.

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

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

Spied on allies

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

MI6 also spied on its own allies including the United States and the "Free French" of World War II resistance hero Charles de Gaulle.

And it also shows early signs of the treachery of Harold "Kim" Philby, who rose to the upper ranks of the agency before he was exposed as a Soviet double agent and member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring.

Former MI6 head Sir John Scarlett, who left the service last year, said at the book launch that authorising the history was a "radical step... there has been nothing like it before and there are no plans for something like it in the future".