BookPick : A Secret World

This selection is devoted to the black arts of spy-craft – espionage, code breaking, clandestine operations and the like – and features four titles by recognised experts in the area. In my Kydd tales Nicholas Renzi, against his moral compass but undertaken from his sense of duty, is sometimes involved in covert operations involving the French and other enemies of Great Britain. As a serving Royal Navy officer I was privy to a number of classified activities and have long held a fascination for a world largely hidden from general view but crucial to the freedom and values of our democracies.

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Code Breakers by Stephen Twigge

July 21 code breakersThe story of British codebreakers from the reign of Elizabeth I to the Cold War is presented using faithfully reproduced key documents from the National Archives. Historian Stephen Twigge explores the use of ciphers during the Napoleonic wars, the role of the Royal Mail’s Secret Office and the activities the Admiralty’s ‘Room 40’ leading to the creation of the Government’s Code and Cypher School. His main focus is on the events of the Second World War and the battle to break the German enigma codes. The centre of Britain’s code-breaking operation was located at Bletchley Park in rural Buckinghamshire and it was from here that a hastily assembled army of code-breakers battled to decipher Nazi German’s secret wartime communications. The resulting high-level signals intelligence had a major influence on the outcome of the war. I was pleased to see a specific tribute in this book to the work of Alan Turing, the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, who so tragically took his own life in 1954. Fittingly, he features on the new £50 bank note issued on June 23 this year, the anniversary of his birthday.

Cold War by Stephen Twigge

July 21 cold warAlso by the same author, ‘Cold War’ tells the story of half a century of superpower confrontation from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book describes in chilling detail the military and ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that dominated the post-war landscape. Twigge highlights the role played by Britain during the Cold War and its involvement in Cold War flash points including the Berlin Blockade, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He goes on to describe the devastating consequences of nuclear war, the growth and influence of the peace movement and the exploits of the Cold War spy networks built up by both sides. Based on previously secret government reports and papers, Twigge presents a compelling story of global conflict and superpower politics set against a backdrop of dramatic social and cultural change. As with ‘Code Breakers’ the text is enhanced with images, documents and other material from the National Archives.

GCHQ by Nigel West

July 21 gchqSignal intelligence is the most secret – and most misunderstood, – weapon in the modern espionage arsenal. As a reliable source of information, it is unequalled, and the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, is several times larger than the two smaller, but more familiar, organisations, MI5 and MI6. Because of its extreme sensitivity, and the ease with which its methods can be compromised, GCHQ’s activities have remained largely cloaked in secrecy. West traces GCHQ’s origins back to the early days of wireless and gives a detailed account of its development since that time. From the moment that Marconi succeeded in transmitting a radio signal across the Channel, Britain has been engaged in a secret wireless war, first against the Kaiser, then Hitler and the Soviet Union. West describes all GCHQ’s disciplines, including direction-finding, interception and traffic analysis, and code-breaking. Peppered with fascinating anecdotes, ‘GCHQ’ is a well-written and engaging treatment.

MI6 by Nigel West

July 21 M16This title, also by West, exposes the operations of Britain’s overseas intelligence-gathering organisation, the famed Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and traces its origins back to its inception in 1909. The book mainly concerns MI6’s operations during the Second World War, and includes some remarkable successes and failures, including how MI6 financed a glamorous confidant of the German secret service; how a suspected French traitor was murdered by mistake; how Franco’s military advisors were bribed to keep Spain out of the war; how members of the Swedish secret police were blackmailed into helping the British war effort; how a sabotage operation in neutral Tangiers enabled the Allied landings in North Africa to proceed undetected; and how Britain’s generals ignored the first ULTRA decrypts because MI6 said that the information had come from a well-placed source called ‘BONIFACE’. An engaging inside story throwing light on many wartime incidents that had previously remained unexplained.

Still looking for bookish inspiration?
You might also like to take a peek at my other BookPicks this year

7 Comments on “BookPick : A Secret World”

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