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Secret Agent

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Secret Agent
The True Story of the Covert War Against Hitler. By David Stafford. (Overlook TP: 2003. Pg. 254.) ISBN: 1585674613

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - July 16, 2002

On 16 July 1940 Hugh Dalton, the British Minister for Economic Warfare met with Winston Churchill. From this meeting, the SOE (Special Operations Executive) was born. The SOE's mandate was to "Set Europe Ablaze" using all manner of un-gentlemanly methods of warfare to battle the Nazi foe. Their main operation was sabotage and the fermenting of revolt and subversion against the Axis powers.

Secret Agent, by David Stafford offers the readers an in-depth look at the SOE, ranging from its formation to the work that it carried out during the war and the agents and auxiliary staff that worked for this most secret of secret organizations. This book was written as a companion for the TV series of the same names that originally aired on BBC2 in 2000. (Author's note.)

After reading this book, you'll understand why Ian Fleming choose to model James Bond after SOE agents. A task that was rather easy for him as Fleming worked with the SOE during the war, so he had first hand knowledge of the activities and daring of the men and women who served this agency. The SOE also used a variety of ingenious devices, ranging from an exploding rat to a "time pencil...when the agent pressed a ridge on the pencil, acid was released that ate through a wire attached to a detonator..." (Pg. 57.) These, and many other devices developed by the SOE later ended up in the hands of James Bond.

In addition to providing delightful insight into the creation of one of the most famous fictional spies, Secret Agent also offers a wealth of fascinating historical details about the SOE. These details include the inter-agent rivalry that developed between the SOE and older intelligence organizations such as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, which later became known as MI6) whose 'Section D' specialized in Dirty Tricks, i.e, sabotage. Other agencies that rivaled the SOE were the Foreign Office's EH (Electra House) that worked in subversive propaganda, and Military Intelligence's MI(R) which researched paramilitary warfare. Stafford also looks at the difficulties that these rivalries caused for the SOE, ranging from difficulties in getting supplies to carrying out operations in Europe.

The primary focus of Secret Agent is on the agents, how they were selected, trained, and the missions that they carried out. However, Stafford does not forget those behind the scenes, without which the agents would never have been able to carry out their work. To highlight the roles played by the myriad of backbenchers, Stafford has included biographical details and first hand accounts of the people and deeds that they carried out. Stafford also takes an intriguing look at the numerous women who worked in the SOE, both the female agents sent behind enemy lines, and those that served as auxiliary staff members.

Most of the material in this book is very favorable regarding the SOE's mission and achievement. Nonetheless, Stafford does not pull any punched when it comes to chronicling the errors and mistakes made by the SOE - and their occasional failures. Stafford garnered much of the information in this book by speaking with actual SOE veterans, and it includes numerous first hand accounts of the day to day operations of the organization. This first hand information gives the book an authenticity that is seldom achieved in traditional histories that can, if not written with care, take on a monotonous tone as information is simply regurgitated onto the page. In addition, Stafford's writing is vibrant, and his prose flows smoothly as he recounts the extraordinary exploits of the SOE.

In short, Secret Agent is a highly readable and engrossing book that will enthrall history buffs, as well as readers of spy thrillers and the like.

Related Reviews:

The Jedburghs: The Secret History of the Allied Special Forces, France 1944, by Lt. Col. Will Irwin (Ret).
Irwin not only provides a general overview of the Jedburghs history and their training, but he also provides riveting accounts of their hair-raising missions, battles, and close-calls where they had to dodge not only German troops and the Gestapo, but also collaborators who could easily have blown their cover.

Zigzag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman, by Nicholas Booth.
A biography of the man who was awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans for his exploits while spying on them for the British.

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