The best history books about real secret agents

Brian Lett Author Of Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster
By Brian Lett

Who am I?

I started writing military history out of anger—a national newspaper had published an obituary of one of our SAS heroes, and it had wrongly defamed a deceased Italian partisan as a traitor. The newspaper published my letter of correction, but only on its website. It mattered to me that the record should be put straight, and therefore I wrote my first book. In researching that book, I discovered links that led me to Operation Postmaster, and after that, I caught the researcher's bug. As an experienced criminal lawyer, evaluating evidence has always been one of my skills, and sometimes "building" a book is very similar to building a case for the defence or prosecution.  

I wrote...

Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster

By Brian Lett,

Book cover of Ian Fleming and SOE’s Operation Postmaster

What is my book about?

Having fought battles in the criminal courts for over forty years, I love true-life action stories and real undercover agents. Having found out the true story of SOE’s [the Special Operation Executive] Operation Postmaster in 1941/2, and their extraordinary exploits in West Africa, I knew I had no option but to write a book about them—particularly when I discovered that Ian Fleming, later to create James Bond, had worked with them, inventing their cover story to disguise what was a “deniable” operation in the waters of a neutral country.

These real secret agents undoubtedly inspired Fleming to create his James Bond character, and their real-life boss was code-named M. M’s telegram to his agents as they set out on the operation read “Good hunting.”

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

SOE: The Scientific Secrets

By Fredric Boyce, Douglas Everett,

Book cover of SOE: The Scientific Secrets

Why did I love this book?

How did they do it? If you want to know about secret agents, then you need to know about the secret weapons and devices they used. SOE had a whole catalogue of secret weapons—from sleeve guns to incendiary cigarettes, exploding rats, and exploding turds. This book tells much of the story of the secret devices factory that SOE ran.

By Fredric Boyce, Douglas Everett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked SOE as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of Special Operations Executive (SOE) seems to spring a never-ending run of surprises, and here are some more. This book explores the mysterious world of the tools SOE used for their missions of subversion and sabotage. An often grim reality is confronted that is more akin with the world of James Bond and Q's workshop than previously believed. Written by two scientists, one of whom served in the SOE and one who was tasked with clearing up after it was disbanded; their insider knowledge presents a clear account of the way in which SOE's inventors worked. From high…

A Talent for Adventure

By Andrew Croft,

Book cover of A Talent for Adventure

Why did I love this book?

Who were the men that SOE recruited? Andrew Croft was already a hero when World War Two began – he was well-known arctic explorer of great courage and endurance. This autobiography tells the intriguing story of his life, leading perhaps inevitably to service with SOE and many other wartime adventures.

By Andrew Croft,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Talent for Adventure as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of Geoffrey: Being the story of "Apple" of the Commandos and Special Air Service Regiment

Why did I love this book?

Difficult to find, but this is a great little book. Geoffrey Appleyard was one of those secret agents involved in Operation Postmaster – one of the original James Bonds. He later joined the Special Air Service, and served with them with distinction, reaching the rank of Major. Tragically, he disappeared on a plane flying over Sicily during the Allied invasion of July 1943. His body was never recovered. This biography was written by his father as a memorial to Geoffrey, and has recently been republished. It is a heroic tale with a very sad ending.

By John Ernest Appleyard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Geoffrey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

Book cover of Rossano – Valley in Flames: An Adventure of the Italian Resistance

Why did I love this book?

An SOE agent with a difference - of particular relevance, perhaps, to the present war in Ukraine. Major Gordon Lett escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy in 1943 and became a partisan leader behind enemy lines there. He was recruited by SOE in 1944 when already leading a resistance band in the mountains above La Spezia. This book tells of the difficulties of fighting a partisan war, something that we understand is going on today behind Russian lines in Ukraine. It tells the story of civilian courage and sacrifice, and of guerrilla warfare in the face of a brutal enemy.

By Gordon Lett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rossano – Valley in Flames as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In July 1942, Major Gordon Lett was taken prisoner at the fall of Tobruk. After fourteen months in the notorious prison camps at Bari and Chieti, he escaped at the Armistice of September 1943 from the camp at Veano and took to the mountains above the Cisa Pass. Rather than return to England, he founded and led an entirely non-political band of highly-successful partisans, the Battaglione Internazionale. The group fought and harassed the Brigate Nere and the Germans along the Magra valley from North of Pontremoli to La Spezia for 18 months. They were so influential to the success of…

Book cover of The White Rabbit: The Secret Agent the Gestapo Could Not Crack

Why did I love this book?

First published in 1952, this remains an epic tale of an SOE secret agent in France – Squadron Leader Forest Frederick Edward Yeo-Thomas. Yeo-Thomas had worked in France before the war and spoke fluent French. When World War Two broke out, he joined the RAF and was later recruited by SOE. He parachuted a number of times into France to help establish the resistance there and was eventually captured, imprisoned, and brutally tortured. Miraculously, he escaped from Buchenwald Concentration Camp and found his way back into Allied hands. He survived the war.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 2, World War 1, and Germany?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 2, World War 1, and Germany.

World War 2 Explore 1,691 books about World War 2
World War 1 Explore 825 books about World War 1
Germany Explore 423 books about Germany