I picked this up in Tesco and was intrigued because the tagline at the top said ‘The life of Britain’s most decorated Cold War Spy and Head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield’ and from reading the back it seemed that he was a pretty important player in UK Foreign Policy and he had been involved in things like the Cuban Missile Crisis and is believed to have helped keep Britain out of the Vietnam War. He was also influential with the Thatcher government and I was a bit surprised that I had not really heard of him although I suppose by the very nature of a Spy Chief he would not have had a hugely public profile but it appears that he was actually the first Head of MI6 to be ‘outed’ (in more ways that one as you will see if you read the book !!) and widely known to the Public with some unintended appearances in Daily Tabloids. I guess I was simply too young.
This was a decent read though and I am well glad I picked it up (I am terrible for throwing books into my Shopping Basket because I find them much more interesting merchandise than things like Potatoes, Toothpaste and Teabags - although I am distraught because my local Tesco has ditched their limited Book display - I guess the Clientele at the ‘Rough end of Windsor’ is just not that hot on reading) and it certainly gives a lot of insights into the whole Spy thing although perhaps it is fair to say that in many ways I wanted more and I am sure the Book could have been better. I suspect part of the problem is that Members of MI6 were trained and encouraged to write nothing down and the Files of even fairly distant times are either still ‘Classified’ or they have been destroyed in many cases. The Author has done a good job with limited reference material and a lot has been gleaned from Interviews with People who knew Sir Maurice or from Contemporary Interviews and Autobiographies etc., but it is clear that there are lots of gaps which will probably never be fully known.
One of the truly strong points of this Book is that it gives a lot of depth on how and why MI6 was formed during and after the Second World War and also it gives a lot of information about how such Spies operate and of course it is not very ‘James Bond’ in reality and much of it sounds like extremely dull work and there are countless examples in the Book of the dangers involved in Espionage - especially for ‘Double Agents’ (Spies who were working for both The West and the Ruskies). Ah, that reminds me, the story is that Sir Maurice Oldfield was actually the real life Spy that Sir Alec Guinness based his portrayal of ‘Smiley’ on for the film ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and this is substantiated by a meeting that Sir Alec had with Sir Maurice before the filming.
There are many descriptions and background on Operations that MI6 carried out in the time that Sir Maurice was involved with them - from his early days out in the Middle East during WW2 right through to his final Role in Northern Ireland which ended in a sad and abrupt manner due to illness and scandal. That was a shame from reading the Book although it needs to be appreciated that the Author is Sir M’s Nephew or some sort of Relation and I suspect there is an element of bias however objective he has tried to be. You get the impression that Sir M was actually a very well liked chap and that was part of his success because he was able to get the best out of People as a Leader but was also able to extract Information in a very effective way without actually giving away any Information himself. You get the impression that although he did have to take very tough decisions some times he was quite a moral Man and was in fact highly Religious. Having said that, it is pretty obvious that as Head of MI6 and having occupied many Senior Roles in the Service before that, he would have been faced with ‘Life or Death’ circumstances many a time and it is clear from the Book that many people lost their lives although Sir M was not necessarily the direct cause of this.
While I am on that subject of lives being lost, one of the bits I liked best in the Book was the stuff about the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring - Philby, Burgess and MacLean (and later on Sir Anthony Blunt who ended up looking after the Queen‘s Paintings or something just before he was exposed). I am sure most Readers will have heard of these despicable Traitors but I would guess not so many People know the details of what they actually did to betray the UK and this Book is very good on this kind of stuff. Indeed, the constant thread about Philby is fascinating and it runs throughout the Book and he was clearly a huge problem for the UK Secret Services and they did not even know it (including MI5 which is the Spy Operation that deals with all activities on UK Soil, whereas MI6 is in charge of Overseas Espionage although during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, MI6 were brought in because MI5 were not making enough progress), although Believe it or not, through much of the 50s and 60s, Kim Philby was touted to become the Head of MI6 - imagine the damage he could have done !!
Philby was a genius at befriending People and getting their Confidence and he was very much part of the ‘Establishment’ which was clearly rife at that time and you had to have gone to the ‘Right’ Schools and University etc. to have any chance of getting anywhere within MI6. In many ways this was where Sir M was different because his background was far more ‘normal’ having come from farming stock in the Peak District. Philby went undetected for decades and it is claimed in the Book that Sir M was the person who was instrumental in exposing Philby’s activities although that is not really definitive. It is interesting how the Yanks and in particular the CIA were very untrusting of the Brits at the time and the Head of the CIA waged a never-ending Campaign against MI6 with the belief that Soviet Spies were deeply embedded and causing all sorts of problems. That was partly true by the looks of things.
However it all went a bit far and I can remember as a kid all the fuss about Peter Wright’s Book ‘Spycatcher’ which was banned by the Thatcher Government despite it being on sale in Canada and stuff - it was a huge scandal at the time. Anyway the insights in this book on that whole episode are fascinating and it appears that Peter Wright actually worked for MI5 and was very obsessed with the idea that MI6 was full of Traitors and he hounded the Predecessor as Head of MI6 before Sir M. Much of the ‘Mole Hunt’ by Wright and others was fuelled by some pretty questionable Claims and tactics by a Journalist called Chapman-Pincher who it appears just made stuff up !!
The bit about Philby’s activities that really stood out was how MI6 working with the CIA was trying to get Spies across into the Soviet Union in the 50s and they discovered loads of Greeks, Albanians, Czechs, etc. who were trained to be dropped by Plane or to cross Mountains etc. to embed themselves in the USSR but unfortunately every time they did this, the Spies were discovered by the GRU (a Division of the KGB I think) and were killed. This went on for Years and Years and The West thought it was because the Russians were just really superb at Counter-Espionage and they kept discovering the Spies that were inserted. However, the truth is that Kim Philby was tipping them off every time !! Thousands of People died in this way.
Anyway, I think that gives you some sort of background to the Book and it is certainly something well worth reading and is one of the best Books I have read on giving insights into how MI6 and MI5 go about their business and why it is of such importance. It covers so many historical and significant events of modern times and runs the full gamut right through to things like Sir M’s relationship with Sir Harold Wilson and plenty of insights around the attempts by the Establishment to undermine the Wilson government and how Sir M was extremely influential on the Policies of many Prime Ministers who saw him as a reliable and trustworthy resource who could be turned to in times of difficulty. Of course Sir M had a ‘dark-side’ and perhaps this is glossed over to some extent although I can’t help feeling that his name was sadly besmirched at the end and much of the blame for that seems to lie in the direction of Margaret Thatcher who appears to have ‘chucked him under the Bus’.
Oh, I better throw in an ‘Advert’ - Spymaster can be purchased from ‘Wheelie’s Bookshop’ if you fancy it - you need to go to the ‘Non-Finance Books’ page on WD2.
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