The Barnes & Noble Review
Published as U.S. intelligence agencies began urgently working to revive their lapsed covert activities in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, David Stafford's Secret Agent represents a timely historical contribution, chronicling the struggles, interagency rivalries, successes, and failures of Britain's World War II Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed to conduct covert activities in occupied Europe.
This book grew out of the manuscript produced by the author for a BBC2 TV series, broadcast in the summer of 2000. The series employed an effective format, relying on former SOE agents to recall their activities firsthand -- thus providing authentic eyewitness accounts of events, as well as the underlying feelings and perceptions of the participants.
The operatives' elation over the success of perfectly executed sabotage -- such as that which temporarily disabled a heavy-water plant in Norway, thus disrupting Hitler¹s timetable for development of an atomic bomb -- was counterbalanced by the disastrous failure of SOE's mission in Holland. Despite an alert sent "upstairs" by a codebreaker at SOE headquarters, London failed to detect the early capture of an agent who signaled that something was amiss by deliberately omitting his secret transmission code in a communication. As a result, SOE kept sending more agents to Holland, so that a total of 58 were dropped into the waiting arms of the Germans.
But overall, SOE efforts were strikingly effective in Yugoslavia, Greece, and France (the latter despite the surprising revelation that more Frenchmen were sympathetic to the Vichy collaborators than to de Gaulle's Free French underground). SOE's operations noticeably helped Allied invasion preparations and troop advances.
Secret Agent provides a blueprint for covert operations, one that agencies formulating a response to modern-day terrorism would undoubtedly like to emulate. (Linda Goetz Holmes)
Linda Goetz Holmes lives in Shelter Island, New York.
With James Bondesque devices, disguise and sabotage, secret agents became Britain's weapon against Germany after Britain's troops were forced off the continent. In Secret Agent: The True Story of the Special Operations Executive's Covert War Against Hitler, British wartime intelligence operations expert David Stafford (Churchill and the Secret Service, etc.) gives a thorough history of the British government's subversions of German incursions. The book, which includes a map and 38 b&w photographs, accompanies a BBC documentary produced last spring. (Oct.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
When Britain had its back against the wall after the fall of France in the summer of 1940, it organized the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to conduct intelligence operations and guerrilla warfare against the powerful Axis forces that occupied Europe. This easy-to-read work recounts the history of its establishment, the intense bureaucratic infighting over its leadership, and the hazardous missions its agents undertook around the world. Numerous excerpts from veterans' memoirs are interwoven throughout the text to provide a human flavor to what could have been a dry recitation of events. A former diplomat and project director at the Centre for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Stafford wrote this book to accompany last summer's BBC2 television series on the same topic. This work nicely complements Stafford's earlier Britain and European Resistance, 1940-45 (o.p.). Suitable for the World War II collections in public and academic libraries, where it should be placed alongside M.R.D. Foot's SOE in France (o.p.). Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
An intelligence expert's look at British spying during WWII. The world of spying is at once captivating and dull. On its face, what could be more exciting? Missions, lies, gadgets, codes, "intelligence," and all their counterparts have always had a place in the public imagination. One can't help but imagine dashing agents and tawdry seductresses sipping their way through Europe, fighting Hitler and hangovers at once. And yet it's all been done-so much so that James Bond has had to resort to bigger, more violent explosions to attract an audience. Stafford (Roosevelt and Churchill, 2000, etc.), however, remains enthralled, not so much by Bond as by the truth, i.e., real-life heroism-which is . . . okay, but not quite as thrilling. He tells of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an eccentric intelligence agency that handled some of Britain's wartime espionage. (The Secret Intelligence Service actually was a larger organization, but Stafford discusses them only as a rival to the SOE.) SOE agents were trained extensively. They learned to kill with or without a gun, send encoded messages, destroy industrial machinery, and break down doors. And they had some of those neat gadgets, foremost among them an exploding rat that could destroy an industrial furnace if thrown into the fire, or take off a guard's foot if kicked. The training and the tricks resulted in some important successes. Most notably the SOE managed to destroy a vital transportation link for Himmler's army in Greece, and a heavy water facility in Norway that was essential to the German A-bomb effort. There were defeats as well, but in the end the SOE, like the Allies, emerged triumphant. The same cannot be said for Stafford'snarrative, which relies too heavily on first-hand accounts-quotations stretch as long as ten pages-and fails to express anything other than nostalgia. At its most successful, a book for buffs.