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Nigel West. At Her Majesty's Secret Service: The Chiefs of Britain's Intelligence Agency, M16.

Nigel West. At Her Majesty's Secret Service: The Chiefs of Britain's Intelligence Agency, M16, Greenhill Books, London, 2006., ISBN 1-85367-702-7, hard cover with dust jacket, 296 pp., 21 b & w photos plus 1 b & w map, 17 x 24 cm, UK20 [pounds sterling] plus p&p.

When the noted authority Nigel West writes a book on espionage, it is sure to be heeded and praised. This book is no exception. One wonders how the author was able to assemble such in-depth biographical details on the secret lives of the fourteen chiefs of the British Secret Intelligence Service or M16. If one is interested in intrigues in politics, Foreign Office demands and the necessity of keeping an eye on enemies or potential enemies, there is a wealth of interesting stories and secrets to satisfy the reader or researcher.

The first director or Chief, of "the firm", Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming (known in-house as C) and his successors recorded some outstanding wins, but on the other hand the work was undermined, sometimes disastrously, by double agents and moles recruited by the opposition. Smith-Cumming's fights with the Foreign Office post-WW1 over staff cuts when there was a crying need to counter the new threat of Bolshevism make interesting reading, and remind us that bean counters are with us always. C's outstanding agent in WW1 was a disaffected German naval officer, codenamed TR-16, who supplied priceless information for over twenty years.

And so the story continues year after year: expansion, successes, failures, disasters, studies of relevant personalities in "the firm" and of those in politics and the bureaucracy who affected directions taken. The text is replete with famous names in espionage such as George Blake, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Kim Philby and Geoffrey Prime, as well as defectors such as Oleg Penkovsky, Oleg Gordievsky and Igor Gouzenko. The involvement of Mark Thatcher and Jeffrey Archer in a plot to take over the country of Equatorial Guinea and the resulting embarrassment to the British Government is also outlined.

The story is as up-to-date as January 2006, when H.M. Queen Elizabeth II made a visit to Vauxhall Cross and was received by the current C, John Scarlett.

A glossary of intelligence community abbreviations, a map of historical SIS sites in Central London and a listing of SIS stations add to the already high level interest of the text and make this a highly recommended reference.
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Author:Wigzell, Syd
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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