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The Secret History of Mi6: 1909-1949

3.48  ·  Rating Details ·  320 Ratings  ·  48 Reviews
"Jeffery's book is perhaps the most authentic account one will ever read about how intelligence really works." --"The Washington Times"
Britain 's Special Intelligence Service, commonly called MI6, is not only the oldest and most storied foreign intelligence unit in the world-it is also the only one to open its archives to an outside researcher. The result, in this authori
ebook, 832 pages
Published September 1st 2010 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 2010)
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Aw, shoot. I have to abandon this at the end of WWII, about 16%/133pgs in. It's very, very dry.

This is an official history-- the author had unfettered access to MI6's files from 1909 to 1949. Yet the history is remarkably hampered. The preface lets you know that: 1) the records are very spotty, 2) despite 60-100+ years, names and other details still cannot be released, and 3) MI6 during this time was only a gatherer of information- they did not perform analysis.

What this means is that the histo
I'm mixed about this book. I enjoyed the fact that it was close look at politics and how it can effect governmental business, yet at times it was incredibly dry. This was particularly frustating because sometimes you wanted more of the sensational. Jeffery mentions a flight from the Nazis in Norway, in one line. But apparently the diary about it was gripping.

So it gets just one line? Makes no sense. I mean I can understand downplaying Flemming and Reilly, but really.

Yet parts of the book, like
Erik Graff
May 22, 2013 Erik Graff rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: espionage fans
Recommended to Erik by: Kelly Kingdon
Shelves: history
This was an unsatisfying book. The author, an academic historian, was purportedly given unrestricted access to records through the second world war and used them primarily to reconstruct the changing administrative structure of the agency and its relations with other elements in the government. Important matters such as the Enigma machine and the Cambridge spies are only glancingly mentioned. Entertaining matters such Ian Fleming's James Bond figure are not explored--indeed, Fleming himself is g ...more
Alex Nagler
Feb 06, 2011 Alex Nagler rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: war
I went in to this hoping for more exploits like that in Ben Macintyer's "Operation Mincemeat", the amazingly true story of how a dead body tricked the Nazis and helped obscure the real location of Operation Husky (they planted evidence to suggest Greece, not Sicily, the real target). I did not get that. What I got instead was 700 pages of the politics associated with MI6 from 1909 to 1949, with some casework attached. I suppose I should have expected that from an official history.
Well, I gave up abut 100 pages in. There is a fascinating story here, to be sure. This guy manages to bury the interesting stuff underneath a bunch uninteresting stuff. A pity, really.
Sep 27, 2014 Nick rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Here's an odd bird: An official history of a secret intelligence organization. Bear in mind this is the real history of MI6 (nee SIS), so instead of James Bond parachuting away from an exploding blimp and snowboarding down the mountain he lands on while outrunning the fireball, you're going to be reading about people trying to get jobs in shipyards and stealing documents from the garbage.

Now that's all well and good and I wish I could recommend this book, but I can't. The book is weirdly dry an
Emmanuel Gustin
An interesting but very dry history of the Secret Intelligence Service. The problem may be that Jeffery has fallen for the modern management illusion that the fate of an organization is decided by its organogram and the personality at its head. But while it is interesting to learn something more about the three men who used the designation 'C' in the period described (1909-1949) there is a lot more to a secret intelligence organization than that. Jeffery gives us too little insight in the cultur ...more
Covers only 1909 to 1949. Gets badly bogged down in bureaucratic bullshit and doesn't say enough about what field agents did to acquire intelligence. I'm not satisfied with the organization of the book, either, but I get that Jeffery had only a small scope of the larger British Intelligence story to tell, as but one of several officially sanctioned histories covering specific elements. Frustrating, but understandable.

I should also say that I had an interesting disconnect at times because this al
Andy Walker
Prof Jeffery's huge work is an analogue of Prof Christopher Andrews' recent history of MI6's domestic sister, MI5. The story of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, from its birth in 1909 to 1949, is a pretty familiar one to students of the subject but this book, which features vast amounts of hitherto unpublished detail on operations, tactics and organisational matters, is undoubtedly set to become the standard reference text. Its revelations about the extent of British intelligence operation ...more
Mar 20, 2016 KerryH rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: second-world-war
Bit of a struggle to get through this. Information overload and the style is very academic, but I can imagine the reams and reams of bureaucratic paperwork that the author had to wade through to get to the nitty gritty of this subject. This book will no doubt become a definitive work and an invaluable tool for researchers. Not a coffee table book for those looking for the 'inside story' on James Bond, I can recommend the Stella Rimington series.

March 2016. Have just read of the death of Keith Je
Tom Callaway
I had hoped this book would be full of exciting spy stories, but instead, this book delivered pages upon pages of boring and dry notes on political and bureaucratic infighting. This work is really only useful to historians, who are already well versed in the historical data previously available about British spycraft during that period, but for everyone else, it serves as little more than a surefire cure for insomnia. Long, dry, disjoint, and lacking any sense of excitement. If the point of this ...more
Aug 09, 2011 Gordon rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
In principle this could be a fascinating story, but it seems that most of the good stories were either kept back or the records destroyed for security reasons. There are a few interesting tidbits, especially from the WW2 era, but to find them you have to wade through page after page on bureacratic turf wars: not exactly riveting stuff. To be fair, I only read the first 600 or so pages out of 700 before I had to give the book back, but I doubt the last bit on the early days of the Cold War would ...more
Keith Johnstone
Keith Jeffery had a tough task with this book, I assume he had ti carry out difficult research that was understandably censored at times while at the same time being able to access information previously inaccessible. Completing this book was no doubt a great achievement, ultimately though I was disappointed. Sufficient consideration was not given to what should be included in this book and what should not it has some fascinating and important information and some facts which should have just be ...more
Kory Klimoski
What a letdown! What red-blooded American man would not want to read about
MI6, organization of James Bond? But the book ended up disappointing me on
a couple levels. Granted the author was very thorough on the presented
materials and it was an early history of the organization, but it was a
little too much. I was almost expecting to hear what each of the subjects
had for breakfast lunch and dinner. There is detail and then there is too
much detail. This seems to be a common theme on British Authors.
Dec 27, 2012 Eric rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
This book contains page upon page of dry, boring and mundane facts without a hint of a story. Perhaps the early days of running a spy agency were that much of a boring and bureaucratic slog, but more likely the author (who was, sadly, given unprecedented sole access to old MI6 archives) is more adept at writing academic reference books than compelling nonfiction. I must admit that I only could read a tenth of this book, them jumped around in the hope of finding something interesting... but witho ...more
John Huseby
Fact filled, definitely interesting, rich in history. A little bit of a slow read, because it's so dry. Perhaps, to someone more interested in the history of "Secret Service" in various countries.

I just started reading Jim Marrs "Rise of the Fourth Reich" and am using this book as a cross reference to WW1-2 era german intelligence and international funding. Very useful, but again, very clean cut and linear.

I give it 3 stars as a read, 4 stars because of it's usefulness in my life.
Oct 27, 2010 James rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lots of pages to slog through, but a fascinating read. It's most interesting in the World War II section. I was disappointed he didn't go more in depth with their cracking the enigma codes, and that more wasn't said about Kim Philby--though it appears that a follow up may pick up where this book left off, with the beginning of the cold war. Not a spy novel, but the real thing.
Laurie Drew
I didn't finish this. It is a big book and pretty dry/detail oriented. That doesn't mean that at some point in time I would not like to finish it but it certainly isn't a sit down and breathlessly read it all the way through. This is the kind of book that I would like to keep on my nightstand and read bit by bit.
Sep 19, 2013 Zach rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found the book an entertaining if not somewhat dry read. Dry because it was very factual, but entertaining if you truly have an interest in the history. It wasn't meant to be a James bone-esq read and I was prepared for that from the beginning. I would recommend this to any reader who really enjoys this point in history and had had an interest in clandestine services and how they came to be.
Mar 01, 2014 James rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A weighty academic tome. You need to be very into the subject to enjoy. For the few interesting nuggets I got out of it, it was long.
The best part was the defense by Kilby of another SIS agent, Syers...'his connections with Communists are less sinister than might be supposed' (p.561)...ha ha
Jan 28, 2012 Susan rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I really wanted to like this book but I found it so ponderous that I got through only a third of it. Too many names and dates with too little logical structure. Life is too short to read a book that I'm not enjoying so, even though I hate doing so, I quit reading it before I finished it.
Nov 24, 2013 Khalid rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: research
I don't know how impressed I was with this book. My intent in reading it was for background information for my fiction novel, but I didn't get the kind of background in terms of spycraft, tradecraft or anything else that I expected.
Feb 07, 2013 Katy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book and found it quite interesting; however, as other commenters have said, there were times where the writing was quite dry and it was a bit of a struggle to carry on. That said, for the most part I enjoyed this book and am glad I read it.
Feb 15, 2013 Chris rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The paperback version says this reads like a script for a spy film.

That reviewer has seen some weird spy films.

This book majors on the ins and outs of the MI6 bureaucracy and puts most of the interesting bits in a postscript.
Christian Olson
Jan 06, 2014 Christian Olson rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I try to finish every book I start, but this one is just dull, and I stopped a third of the way. A book about spies sounds like it would be fun, but there are few spy stories, more of a "how to" of starting an intelligence brutally dull detail.
William Torres
Didnt hold my attention. Found myself looking for reasons to stop reading. I'm sure there is a lot of good history and knowledge within the book but for me, I needed a better delivery. Sorry cause I don't like not finishing a book.
Oct 06, 2012 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-2012
A monster book at 768 pages long. The world war two part is fascinating, but I alwys wonder with these books, how much they have left out!
M Visser
Yes, historical correct but dry as bone
Jeffery is no Flemming but still...maybe I hoped for more mincemeat and Englandspiel
With so much information at hand Jeffery should have gone deeper and wider
May 28, 2012 Bob rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
Excellent history of MI6 using available historical data. The history only goes to 1949 as data after 1949 has not been declassified yet.
Michael Pryor
Jul 06, 2011 Michael Pryor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dense, lots of names, but a fascinating insight into the clandestine world of espionage from 1909 through to the end of WW2. This was real, not made up, but sometimes ...
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Keith Jeffery, MRIA was a Northern Irish historian specializing in modern British, British Imperial, and Irish history. He obtained his BA, MA, and PhD (1978) degrees from St. John's College, Cambridge, the latter under the supervision of John Andrew Gallagher, and was Professor of British history at Queen's University Belfast.
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