The best books on intelligence and espionage

Who am I?

Historian Dr. Helen Fry has written numerous books on the Second World War with particular reference to the 10,000 Germans who fought for Britain, and also British intelligence, espionage and WWII. She is the author of the bestselling book The Walls have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of WWII which was one of the Daily Mail’s top 8 Books of the Year for War. She has written over 25 books – including The London Cage about London’s secret WWII Interrogation Centre. Her latest book is MI9: The British Secret Service for Escape & Evasion in WWII – the first history of MI9 for 40 years. Helen has appeared in numerous TV documentaries, including David Jason’s Secret Service, Spying on Hitler’s Army, and Home Front Heroes on BBC1. Helen is an ambassador for the Museum of Military Intelligence, and President of the Friends of the National Archives. 

I wrote...

Mi9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two

By Helen Fry,

Book cover of Mi9: A History of the Secret Service for Escape and Evasion in World War Two

What is my book about?

When Allied fighters were trapped behind enemy lines, one branch of military intelligence helped them escape: MI9. The organization set up clandestine routes that zig-zagged across Nazi-occupied Europe, enabling soldiers and airmen to make their way home. Secret agents and resistance fighters risked their lives and those of their families to hide the men.
Drawing on declassified files and eye-witness testimonies from across Europe and the United States, Helen Fry provides a significant reassessment of MI9’s wartime role. Central to its success were figures such as Airey Neave, Jimmy Langley, Sam Derry, and Mary Lindell―one of only a few women parachuted into enemy territory for MI9. This astonishing account combines escape and evasion tales with the previously untold stories behind the establishment of MI9―and reveals how the organization saved thousands of lives.

The Books I Picked & Why

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MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949

By Keith Jeffery,

Book cover of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949

Why this book?

The Secret Intelligence Service, SIS and also known now as MI6, is one of Britain’s most secret organisations, and as such has provoked intrigue, mystique, and fascination; all partly fuelled by Ian Fleming’s successful James Bond novels. But whilst there is some crossover at points with the fictional world, the official history makes it plain that much of its work was mundane. That does not lessen our interest in the organisation. This book provides the first authorised recognition that SIS existed, but also the first glimpse into its clandestine activities. Told chronologically rather than thematically, there is a sense of the developing history of the organisation, from the threats in 1909, through to the deceptions and counter-espionage ops of the First and Second World Wars to 1949 (the start of the early Cold War). The book is the first insight into some of the central characters – those who can be named – from the mysterious and quintessentially first eccentric ‘C’ (Mansfield Smith Cumming, head of SIS), to the double agents who operated behind enemy lines amongst ‘smoke and mirrors’. For me, as well as using it as a reference work, I enjoy dipping into it and randomly discovering operations and personalities that I would not have necessarily come across in my own research. Ultimately this is an essential reference book for readers interested in intelligence and espionage.  

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

By Christopher Andrew,

Book cover of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

Why this book?

The official history of MI5 similarly provides the first authorised account of another secret organisation. The book provides a far-reaching account of clandestine activities since its nascent beginnings as part of the Secret Service Bureau in 1909, and across a period of 100 years. It offers a rare insight into some of the eyebrow-raising operations in counter-espionage, as well as an administrative overview, for an intelligence agency that is responsible for Britain’s security at home. It gives the first inside account from it archives, from Bolshevik threats and Communist subversive activities in the 1920s in Britain to Hitler’s spies in the 1930s, to the Double-Cross deception and agents of World War Two. It goes beyond the Second World War to name some of the traitors and spies of the Cold War. There is a clear understanding publicly for the first time of the sheer scale of surveillance of enemies or potential threats, to the scope of MI5’s operations in keeping Britain safe. Another essential compendium for the bookshelf.

Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of Gchq, Britain's Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency

By John Ferris,

Book cover of Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of Gchq, Britain's Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency

Why this book?

This is the long-anticipated authorized history of GCHQ, one of Britain’s most top-secret intelligence agencies that was published in 2020. John Ferris was granted rare access to the majority of the archives at GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham.  This volume of over 800 pages provides an open assessment of the crucial role of GCHQ in the most important defining moments of the 20th and 21st centuries; from the codebreakers of the First World War, to breaking of the German Enigma codes in the Second World War, and to contemporary times with the betrayal by whistleblower Edward Snowdon in 2013. Ferris has not been tempted to glamourize GCHQ’s contribution and legacy but provides an honest account that acknowledges that much intelligence work can be laborious. But this does not deflect from the agency’s achievements and fascinating history.

Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE

By Kate Vigurs,

Book cover of Mission France: The True History of the Women of SOE

Why this book?

So much has been written about SOE in World War Two, yet so little is actually known about the 39 female agents who were dropped into occupied France with F Section. Kate’s book is a tour de force in its research and highly readable narrative that is dramatic and, at points, deeply moving. It provides the first comprehensive history of these 39 women, setting the relevance of their stories for their missions in France but also for the wider context of the war. Some of the agents we are familiar with: Odette Samson, Noor Inayat Khan, Violette Szabó – but the majority of the women are unknown by the public. One example is Pearl Witherington who successfully led a resistance group of more than 3,000 men. This is an immensely important historical account of the missions of the 39 women who were sent behind enemy lines with F Section of SOE in France. The first to chronicle their stories in one book, it is based on extensive interviews and new research. The women took immense risks as couriers, radio operators, and spies, and at great risk – as the stories of those who did not survive Ravensbrück concentration camp demonstrate. Perhaps the most poignant moment for me in the book has to be the photograph of the 4-year old daughter of Violette Szabó, receiving the George Cross on behalf of her mother who was executed at Ravensbrück. The women of F Section all shared a common mission and deserve recognition, and this book is so important for recording their operations and immense bravery.   

Saturday at M.I.9

By Airey Neave,

Book cover of Saturday at M.I.9

Why this book?

Saturday was the codename given to Airey Neave when he worked for MI9, the branch of military intelligence for escape and evasion in World War Two. Neave has achieved legendary status as the first British man to successfully escape from Colditz Castle, Leipzig in Germany in 1942, and make it back to England. This fortress – nicknamed ‘the camp for naughty boys’ by British officer POWs – was believed by the Germans to be impenetrable and from which no prisoner could ever escape. Neave’s success vastly raised the morale of airmen and soldiers going into action because they knew it was possible to escape from such camps. Neave was perfectly placed to write this first history of MI9, placing on record the establishment and running of the major escape lines as well the bravery of thousands of women and men of Nazi-occupied countries who aided MI9 and saved over 35,000 Allied personnel. Their legacy went beyond this to smuggle intelligence out for the Allies. This timeless narrative remains one of the foremost classics on MI9, its intelligence operations, agents, and wartime espionage.  

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