The best books on spies and their greatest stories

The Books I Picked & Why

Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews

By Michael Smith

Book cover of Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews

Why this book?

This is the biography of Frank Foley who worked for the most secret of organisations the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS /MI6). From serving in the Intelligence Corps in the First World War, he went become the British passport officer in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s, a cover for his real role with British intelligence. Foley ran spy networks across Germany, often gaining scientific secrets for the British as the Nazis rose to power and threatened the stability and peace in Europe. Foley lived in the midst of the regime, witnessed the events in Germany, and was able to send intelligence back to his boss – ‘C’ – the head of MI6 in London. But parallel to his intelligence work, the situation became perilous for Germany’s Jews as Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies and laws singled them out for exclusion from public life and eventually death.

Foley embarked on an incredible humanitarian effort that resulted in saving thousands of German Jews from the Holocaust. Historian Michael Smith gives plenty of examples of Foley’s bravery, including standing up to the SS and Gestapo and eventually going into the concentration camps to secure the release of Jews. His actions were nothing short of selfless. Why did Foley risk his life? Was it something about the reckless side of a spy’s character? Yet, Foley was a discreet, quiet character and this is clear throughout the book. He was a man of great kindness and humanity, and moral conviction – yet determined to steal secrets for his country. During the Second World War, after a period in Norway on intelligence work, Foley returned to Britain and was one of the members of the XX Committee – running the double-cross agents of the war.

This biography continues to inspire me ever since I first read it over a decade ago. Today, much more is known of Foley’s legacy, thanks to Michael Smith’s work, and a number of memorials exist to mark Foley’s incredible work in saving over 10,000 German Jews and he is recognised as a Righteous Gentile in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

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Agent Jack: The True Story of Mi5's Secret Nazi Hunter

By Robert Hutton

Book cover of Agent Jack: The True Story of Mi5's Secret Nazi Hunter

Why this book?

When Nazi Germany posed a threat to peace in Europe in the 1930s, British intelligence became increasingly concerned about right-wing groups and subversive activities in Britain, and that included the rise of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) under Sir Oswald Mosley. Robert Hutton’s compelling narratives tell the story of agent ‘Jack King’ – real name Eric Roberts (an ex-bank clerk from Cornwall) who was tasked by Maxwell Knight (‘M’) of counter-espionage at MI5 with infiltrating the BUF in the 1930s. Hutton has been able to immerse us in the world of Agent Jack because of a chance discovery of a brief reference in declassified MI5 files. Then in 1942 Agent Jack was tasked with masquerading as a Gestapo officer in London. He met with a German female recruiting officer ‘Marita’ in a safe house near Paddington and she suspected he might have been an undercover MI5 spy, but in the end, her suspicions were never enough to assassinate him.

Their conversations in the safehouse were secretly bugged, but in a rare twist at the end of the war, ‘Marita’ could not be prosecuted because the transcripts could not be made public and were not legally admissible evidence. Had Hitler invaded Britain it is reassuring to learn in hindsight that the intelligence services were keeping a close watch on threats to national security and collaboration with the enemy. Hutton’s book is a page-turner.       

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Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

By Anne Sebba

Book cover of Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy

Why this book?

In 1953 an American couple, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, became the first civilians to be executed for conspiracy to commit treason during peacetime. It was alleged during their trial that they passed secrets to the Russians at the height of the Cold War. Biographer and journalist Anne Sebba has focused on Ethel and whether she was guilty of spying for the Russians. Sebba’s biography has proved to be an important breakthrough in understanding this case because decades of controversy surrounded this couple. It was largely believed in the public that they were both guilty. However, as Sebba shows, in 1995 with the declassification of once top-secret files on the Verona project – decrypted messages between Soviet handlers and their US agents -the evidence against Ethel Rosenberg is shaky.

The files make it clear that Julius was guilty of espionage; however, the case for his wife remains far more troubling. The US was determined to find her guilty and her treatment in prison is shocking. Ethel’s life, including her relationship with her two sons, is shot through with tragedy as she refuses to confess to a crime she did not commit. Sebba’s extensive and detailed research has finally enabled us to understand that the case of treason against Ethel was by no means conclusive. Shockingly for the reader, given that Ethel was given the death sentence, it can now at best be viewed as ambiguous. Ethel had no known Soviet handler, no codename under which she allegedly operated and, whilst she may have known about her husband’s spying, she herself was probably innocent. This may well have been one of the most shocking miscarriages of justice in the twentieth century. Sebba’s narrative is totally gripping but also – as its title suggest – highlights one of the greatest tragedies of the Cold War.

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Red Sea Spies: The True Story of Mossad's Fake Diving Resort

By Raffi Berg

Book cover of Red Sea Spies: The True Story of Mossad's Fake Diving Resort

Why this book?

Who would have imagined that a fake diving resort on the Red Sea would become the focus of a clandestine operation by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad? Raffi Berg’s book tells the epic story of a mission behind enemy lines by Israeli spies to secretly rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews and bring them to Israel. It was a clandestine operation sparked by a single cryptic message pleading for help from the Ethiopian Jewish community. During his research, Raffi Berg was given rare permission to interview the Mossad agents involved in the mission, including the commander Dani. He also gathered testimonies from those who were brought out of Ethiopia and narrates this human story with honesty and openness.

Rare video footage of the operation has now been released. It uses night vision technology and provides deeply moving footage of the exodus of these people in the middle of the night to board a plane. Incredibly, the plane had to leave undetected. The story inspired the Netflix film, but that does not diminish from the thrilling read of the book which often raises eyebrows at what the herculean task Mossad achieved. But then, isn’t that the continued fascination of real-life spy operations?

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The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

By Clare Mulley

Book cover of The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville

Why this book?

This is the biography of female spy, Christine Granville, originally born Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek in Poland. As the daughter of a Polish Count and a Jewish mother she always felt she was not totally accepted by members of the family and sought a different life. That opportunity came after Nazi forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and she was engaged as a spy in Poland. Fiercely brave, Skarbek eventually escaped to Britain and was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and returned to Poland several times on spying missions. Under the false name Christine Granville, she became the longest serving female spy of the Second World War. For her bravery she was awarded the George Medal, OBE and the French Croix de Guerre.

Her life story was riveting enough during the war and full of dangerous espionage missions, yet there is no less tension afterwards when in 1952, she was found dead in a London hotel room at the age of only 44, allegedly murdered by a stalker. Clare Mulley continues to keep Granville’s legacy alive through the biography and related talks, but she also works so hard to highlight the bravery of other Polish veterans.

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