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.