Throughout history, intelligence agencies and secret agents are the most easily mocked of public servants. Their necessary secrecy gives rise to sinister interpretations. They have to bribe, seduce, blackmail or cajole men and women into betraying their own country or cause. They make mistakes, are venal. But they are necessary.
INTELLIGENCE CO-OPERATION BETWEEN POLAND AND GREAT BRITAIN DURING WORLD WAR II
by Tessa Stirling, Dria Nalecz,
Vallentine Mitchell $95/£55, 616 pages
A LIFE IN SECRETS:
The Story of Vera Atkins
and the Lost Agents of SOE
by Sarah Helm
Time Warner Books/Littie, Brown $28.95/£20, 496 pages
by Henry Porter
Orion $16.95/00, 400 pages
MY LIFE IN THE CIA
by Harry Matthews
Dalkey Archive $13.95/£8.99, 249 pages
MY LIFE AS A SPY
by Leslie Woodhead
Macmillan $30.50/£16.99, 256 pages
The terror attacks are alerting a public sleepy-eyed after reading too much John le Carré to the real-time importance of intelligence. To understand what needs to be done we need to look at past successes and failures. Luckily there is now a new wave of spy books -- fact rather than fiction -- which examines in detail achievements and cockups. These new volumes are much richer than the unending sequence of spy thrillers, a genre that is running out of steam.
On one point, however, history and fiction concur. Wrongly focused leadership, turf-fighting, bureaucratic squabbles between military and civilian intelligence agencies, and recruitment from narrow castes have regularly led and almost certainly still lead intelligence agencies into dead ends.
In 1939, for example, Polish intelligence offered to the British the German encoding machine, Enigma, plus the keys to keep decoding Wehrmacht secret messages, 80 per cent of which the Poles could read. The British, obsessed with the Empire not Europe, had focused on trying to read Japanese naval codes and showed little interest in the fact that the Poles were cracking German codes before the war started.
The endless literature on Enigma and Ultra barely mentions the contribution the Poles made in giving Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill the priceless secret that helped win the war. One reason was the disappearance in 1945 of all the files that recorded the contribution Polish intelligence made to the Allied war efforts. As the Soviet Union rose to world power status, official London placated Sovietism by writing the Poles out of second world war history. Polish airmen and soldiers were not even allowed to march in any of the victory parades at the war's end.
Now British prime minister Tony Blair has written a joint foreword with his Polish counterpart to a powerful collection of investigations into the work of Poles in helping the Allies. Intelligence Co-operation Between Poland and Great Britain During World War II may have a dry title but it has a political purpose of bringing back to life a forgotten history of intelligence operations that has lessons for today.
Blair has gone out of his way to champion Poland, making good the wrongs and slights of his predecessors, who refused even to admit Stalin had ordered the massacre of Polish service personnel at Katyn. Blair has sensed the new importance of Poland in Europe and made sure a firm LondonWarsaw alliance has been created.
The book is edited by one British and two Polish historians, with contributions from a number of researchers, and seeks to make good the loss of the files of the Polish intelligence. And what a story emerges. Not just the Enigma machine but a full copy of the V2 rocket plus its top-secret fuel were smuggled by Polish agents to London. The Polish intelligence network had agents everywhere - from Japan to every corner of occupied and neutral Europe. In France, they provided a complete order of battle of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe ahead of the Normandy landings. Polish agents smuggled themselves in and out of Auschwitz but their reports of the Holocaust were given little priority in London and Washington.
The precise academic prose reveals the most amazing adventures. In Greece in 1941 a Polish agent, Jerzy Iwanow-Szajnowicz destroyed a German submarine and sank a destroyer. He sabotaged a factory producing aircraft engines so that enemy pilots found their planes crashing over Africa. This real-life James Bond, however, suffered the fate of so many agents. He was betrayed to the Germans and killed while trying to escape. There was no M or Q able to save his life. In Afghanistan, the top Polish spy, Bronislaw Telatycki survived. He was honoured by Britain with an OBE in 1946 "for important services of a highly confidential nature which significantly helped to neutralise Afghanistan as a centre of hostile activity". Where today can we find the agents to neutralise Afghanistan, let alone Iraq?
The book was written because of the mysterious disappearance of the Polish intelligence files. Who destroyed them? The British, who decided for raison d'état to accept the reality of post-1945 Europe, which meant writing out of politics the claims of the Poles to freedom and control of their own country? As the war went on, the Poles switched intelligence efforts to the new occupiers - the Soviets. How much information was in the files about the spread of Soviet networks and communist collaborators in eastern Europe? Maybe it was better that information was lost than read in Moscow. To what extent did the Poles realise the penetration of British intelligence and diplomacy by Soviet sympathisants such as Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and James Klugmann, protected by chums who lived by E.M. Forster's maxim about preferring to betray his country rather than a friend? Whoever put a match to the Polish files stopped countless names going on to Soviet execution lists but at a price of losing for decades a story of bravery, skill, incredible mathematical work and a relentless desire to defeat tyranny.
If the academic researchers have given us back this slice of intelligence history, the remarkable work by Sarah Helm on the female agents betrayed to the Gestapo tells of the courage of women who served their country and the cause of freedom, and the blunder after blunder of the men safe in London who sent them to a foul death. Sebastian Faulks, Piers Paul Read and Laurent Joffrin have written novels about women spies in wartime France but the facts are stronger than the fiction.
Helm has left the ranks of professional foreign correspondents to become a major writer with her book, A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, which explores the mores and manner of sending Special Operations Executive agents into France. Helm travels to Bulgaria, Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe to tell the story of Vera Atkins, who became second in command of the French section of the SOE. Atkins accompanied every woman to the airfields of southern England and made sure the labels on their clothes matched those worn by women in occupied France. Yet she was not British, but a penniless Jewish immigrant from Romania who did not become a British citizen until the war's end.
And what kind of operation was she involved in? British agents were parachuted into France barely able to speak French. In spite of the huge success of the Germans in penetrating and turning the SOE operations in the Netherlands, little effort was made to change systems that had proven to be useless. A simple test could check if a radio operator had been caught or not. Each was told to transmit two secret codes. If captured, one could be given to the Germans but unless both codes were included it had to be assumed that the messages were being sent following capture. Yet when one of the most important networks was captured by the Gestapo - possibly as a result of betrayal - and the radio messages came back without the second code, the SOE just assumed a silly mistake had been made and kept sending agents, containers, money and arms into the hands of the grateful Gestapo.
And here the story is at its most distressing. Atkins donned her mannish bomber jacket and toured post 1945 Germany and France to find out what really happened. The women agents were held in prison in Paris until Berlin ordered their execution. Atkins found drawings of the women made by fellow prisoners as they arrived at the camps where they were killed. Their heads are held high, their hair neat, their jaws strong, Their deaths were brutal, with evidence that one was fed into a crematorium oven while still alive.
The truth Helm recounts is much more gripping than the fiction we have been reading about spies since Joseph Conrad wrote The Secret Agent. The journalist Henry Porter has written his latest novel, Brandenburg, about the last days of the Stasi in Berlin in 1989. The reader knows the Berlin Wall will come down and with his denouement gone, Porter works overhard at sustaining interest.
My Life in the CIA, written in remarkable prose by Harry Matthews, is a very different novel. Nominally about a part-time CIA agent, it is more in the Graham Greene genre of the spy as a cynical but not-quite-helpless pawn who is manipulated by unknown forces and makes more mistakes than he uncovers secrets. As a memoir of literary Paris in the 1970s and a homage to the seasons and humours of France, it is a delightful read.
Intelligence is knowing what the enemy plans to do or is capable of doing. Leslie Woodhead's book, My Life as a Spy, is a friendly memoir of the one serious effort to put right Britain's notorious non-knowledge of other languages. In the 1950s, he -- together with thousands of bright young school-leavers such as the writers Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn -- was packed off to learn Russian as part of his national service. Woodhead recalls the grip that cold war mentalities had 50 years ago. Perhaps it worked. As Britain listened to everything the Russians were saying, did policymakers work out that the Ruskies were not going to invade? Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik defused the looming threat of Sovietism. The end came 25 years ago when a Polish electrician called Lech Walesa climbed over a shipyard wall in Gdansk and launched a challenge to communist rule in eastern Europe that was based on democracy and civil society, not tanks and spies.
At about the same time, an angry Saudi was moving to Afghanistan to help the US-financed jihadis in their onslaught on the Russians who had so foolishly invaded this proud Muslim country. The 10-year campaign in the 1980s was the perfect training for Osama bin Laden to get into place his al-Qaeda movement. While one totalitarianism was finishing, another was being born.
Today we need to train thousands of young British citizens, of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds, in the languages, cultures and cults of the new enemy. We need brave men and women to infiltrate the malign movements that threaten us. The spy, decoder and special agent are more than ever needed. And Britain could do worse than to look to new friends such as the Poles and east Europeans, who have a great knowledge of the Arab world and are not frightened of foreign languages, as we work out the best tactics to defeat our new enemies.
(Denis MacShane is a Labour MP
and was a British Foreign Office
minister from 2001 to 2005)
Under syndication arrangement with FE