Tag Archives: Espionage

Book Review – Spies Under Berlin by David Stafford

Spies Beneath BerlinSpies Beneath Berlin by David Stafford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very well put together story of the Berlin spy tunnel, and some of the context that lead up to it being dug. It looks at the contemporary views and also re-evaluates the impact of the tunnel and whether or not it could be considered a success.

The tale is an interesting one, because the existence of the tunnel was betrayed to the Soviets before it was even dug. Blake took the minutes of meeting that decided to build it, and told his Soviet handler about it. Despite this the KGB didn’t share the information as they wanted to protect Blake as a source, so they couldn’t stop the tunnel until there was a reasonable excuse from another source. For two years the British and Americans taped all the traffic on the cables they’d tapped (it was a joint operation, but the US took the entire blame when it was discovered because Kruschev was on a state visit to the UK at the time).

At the time the tunnel was seen as a great US success, which was changed to a dramatic defeat when Blake finally got caught. There was a feeling that the KGB had used it for strategic deception. This belied the point that the purpose of the tunnel, as with all espionage at the time, was to ensure that there were no surprises leading to a nuclear war. In that respect it had succeeded, whether or not the KGB fed disinformation.

Looking back with fifty years of hindsight, the Cold War ended, and much of the intelligence declassified (at least on the US and Soviet parts if not by the British) it is clear that the information gained by the tunnel was real. The KGB were too scared of giving away Blake to be able to do anything to manage the information. It also took them some time to work out a way of finding the tunnel that wouldn’t lead to Blake as the source. It was only heavy rain and flooding that allowed them to arrange a systematic check along the cables for a damaged section. Once this was triggered there was still no guarantee the tunnel would be found as the KGB had deliberately not briefed anyone about what to look for.

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Book Review – Flames in the Field by Rita Kramer

Flames in the Field: Story of Four SOE Agents in Occupied FranceFlames in the Field: Story of Four SOE Agents in Occupied France by Rita Kramer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While this has lots of fascinating information about SOE Operations in France in WW2 it needs a better editor. The nature of the story, primarily of the secret operations in German occupied France in 1943 and the SD penetration of the SOE network, is one of many parallel threads and the uncovering of a mystery. So this makes it hard to just write a linear narrative, and the author has done a pretty good job of writing very readable prose that clearly explains what is going on. However there are a few places where the ordering of the material goes backwards within a few paragraphs and crucial pieces of information are given out of order.

The book shows an awful lot of research was done by the author, over a period of what seems to be years, and building on the work done by a number of predecessors. There is an academic level of referencing and footnotes.  There are several distinct parts to the book. The first is a narrative on four women SOE agents killed by the nazis at Natzweiler, which then widens to encompass the others that were arrested around the same time and that shared their captivity in Fresnes and then Karlsruhe. Each of these women is identified and has their life story before joining SOE told. Where it is known this then leads up to how they were captured.

Another piece of the narrative are the attempts by others (initally Vera Atkins in 1945-6 and then Jean Overton Fuller) to find out what happened to the women after they were arrested. This then leads nicely into attempts to work out whether or not the women were betrayed, and if so by whom. There has been a lot of controversy about this, and many of the participants in the events have competing theories. Traitors in SOE, strategic deception and sacrifice by the British, french informers, poor operational security of the SOE agents, German counter-intelligence competence. Each of these is disected in turn, sometimes adding new perspectives to help rule them in/out.

Lastly there is some discussion of the post-war discoveries as the secrets kept for 20-30 years following the war started to come out. How the revelations around both Ultra intelligence and the British strategic deception plans changed how the events of 1943 are interpreted to modern eyes.

On a content basis this should be a five star book, it draws together all the earlier sources and is well written. However the structure lets it down, and makes it harder to assimilate. It reads like the collected notes of the author more than as a structured narrative.

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