An intelligence expert’s look at British spying during WWII.
The world of spying is at once captivating and dull. On its face, what could be more exciting? Missions, lies, gadgets, codes, “intelligence,” and all their counterparts have always had a place in the public imagination. One can’t help but imagine dashing agents and tawdry seductresses sipping their way through Europe, fighting Hitler and hangovers at once. And yet it’s all been done—so much so that James Bond has had to resort to bigger, more violent explosions to attract an audience. Stafford (Roosevelt and Churchill, 2000, etc.), however, remains enthralled, not so much by Bond as by the truth, i.e., real-life heroism—which is . . . okay, but not quite as thrilling. He tells of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an eccentric intelligence agency that handled some of Britain’s wartime espionage. (The Secret Intelligence Service actually was a larger organization, but Stafford discusses them only as a rival to the SOE.) SOE agents were trained extensively. They learned to kill with or without a gun, send encoded messages, destroy industrial machinery, and break down doors. And they had some of those neat gadgets, foremost among them an exploding rat that could destroy an industrial furnace if thrown into the fire, or take off a guard’s foot if kicked. The training and the tricks resulted in some important successes. Most notably the SOE managed to destroy a vital transportation link for Himmler’s army in Greece, and a heavy water facility in Norway that was essential to the German A-bomb effort. There were defeats as well, but in the end the SOE, like the Allies, emerged triumphant. The same cannot be said for Stafford’s narrative, which relies too heavily on first-hand accounts—quotations stretch as long as ten pages—and fails to express anything other than nostalgia.
At its most successful, a book for buffs.