Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Book Review: MI6 British Secret Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West

Pen and Sword Books very kindly sent me a copy of MI6 British Secret Intelligence Service Operations 1909 - 1945. I have been interested in the history of espionage for many years and, although that interest has mainly focused on the Cold War, I was intrigued to see how things had evolved before that.


This is a very thorough book and goes into great detail about the personnel that were a part of SIS (MI6) in it's earlier days, an amazing achievement considering much of the information has never been officially released. It has all been gleaned from interviews with former officers and employees and once the book was finished it was cleared by the current security services before it was released.

Covering much of the day to day running of the service, as well as going into some detail of the more interesting operations, the book can be a little dry in places, but this only shows the depth of detail that Nigel West has gone into. The book will certainly be an important source for anyone interested in specific details about the early years of MI6.


In the days before and during the Second World War, there were several different security services that, to some extent crossed over in their remit, and in many instances, MI6 was not the most successful, but it was quite a small service and had limited staff and budgets as compared to organisations such as the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), or even MI5 (which covered UK mainland and other British Empire counter-espionage and counter-sabotage).
In fact, MI6 suffered some major catastrophes that, in the early part of the Second World War, actually jeopardised it's existence, however, it's saving grace and it's most successful section was the Government Code and Cypher School (which eventually evolved into GCHQ).

Obviously, with several different organisations (SIS, MI5, NID and SOE - Special Operations Executive, which co-ordinated and planned sabotage and rescue missions in occupied Europe)  having similar operational areas there were lots of opportunities for co-operation between them and also rivalries.

As well as the day to day running of the Secret Intelligence Service, examples of some of the more interesting operations and networks are covered at some length. Such characters as the White Russian Sidney Reilly who was something of a super-spy, but turned out to be less than reliable. There are also many examples of both successful and unsuccessful operations throughout the Second World War.

The book does have a photo section, but obviously, with the nature of the subject matter, there are, I am sure, a limited and often poor selection of photos, so, to be honest, this could quite easily have been skipped. The photos that are included are interesting enough, but I don't think that they add that much to the book, overall.


To try to get things a little more on topic for this blog, looking at the wargaming possibilities, frankly, there are not that many. Some of the wartime operations could be used as a basis for scenarios in games like Osprey Publishing's Black Ops or possibly Crooked Dice's 7TV Pulp rules. It might also be possible to organise a game that has a small team infiltrating a base to acquire information or rescue an asset, but these would be more in tune with the SOE rather than SIS, which tended to use subtler methods.

In conclusion, a very interesting book that gives an excellent background to the British Secret Intelligence Service's early years. I will certainly be on the lookout for some of Nigel Wests other books on the other intelligence services.

Pick up a copy HERE.

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