By Mick Smith
The resurgence of interest in espionage comes at an opportune time for us here at Biteback. It has been fuelled by the FBI’s discovery of Russian intelligence service sleeper cells spread across America, including the beautiful blonde Russian spy Anna Chapman, and the tragic, and still unexplained, case of a GCHQ officer murdered in Pimlico. We expect spy thrillers to be laced with murder, mystery and the odd femme fatale, but after years of being told that “the real stuff is nothing like James Bond”, it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that it very often is.
Certainly, as far as my latest book SIX: A History of Britain’s Secret Service, is concerned, there is very little evidence that “it’s nothing like James Bond”, rather the reverse. SIX is so full of murder and mayhem that we made it the sub-title of the book, and this first part, covering the period from the Service’s foundation in 1909 to the outbreak of the Second World War, is packed with Boy’s Own heroes, and noir-style femmes fatales, many of whom have never been heard of before.
But SIX is not the only espionage book we’re publishing. We have just published the three opening titles of our exciting new series Dialogue Espionage Classics, with several more titles already on the stocks waiting to go to print, one of them a book that the British government completely suppressed when it first came out, of which more very soon. <!--more-->
The first of the Espionage Classics has very close parallels to the Russian “illegal” spy network across the United States, which seems like a throwback to the 1950s and the great atom spies, an era covered in great depth by Vin Arthey’s latest book The Kremlin’s Geordie Spy. This is the absolutely extraordinary story of Vilyam Fisher, the Russian spy who, under the cover name Rudolf Abel, ran the agent networks that included notorious atom spies like Julius Rosenberg and Ted Hall. Fisher was so important to the Russians that he was swapped for Gary Powers, the pilot of a U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Not the least extraordinary thing about Fisher, lauded in Russia as one of its espionage heroes of secret with America – they even put him on a stamp – is that he was born plain Willie Fisher in the Benwell area of Newcastle, where they filmed Byker Grove in fact!
The second of these Dialogue Espionage Classics is Codename Rygor, the story of one of the most brilliant of Poland’s wartime spies. Mieczysław Zygfryd Słowikowski, who as the title suggests was known by the codename Rygor, organised a major Polish spy network in France before going to Algiers, then controlled by the Vichy French government, which was collaborating with Germany. Słowikowski set up Agency Africa, a highly successful espionage network under cover of running a cornflakes factory. It has always been claimed that the intelligence that led to the 1942 allied invasion of North Africa, known as Operation Torch, was provided by the US Consul-General in Algiers Robert Daniel Murphy. In fact, like the breaking of the German Enigma ciphers, this is just another area of Second World War history where the Poles were robbed of the credit they deserved. The bulk of the intelligence came from Rygor and was passed to the Americans via Murphy and to the British via MI6. Codename Rygor, Słowikowski’s own account of his wartime exploits, sets the record straight.
The third of the first three books in our classic tales of espionage is a new version of The Emperor’s Codes, my own account of the work of Britain’s Second World War codebreakers on the Japanese codes and ciphers. The concentration on the brilliant work done by Bletchley Park on the Enigma ciphers, another area where the Poles rightly feel they never get enough credit, has led to the important work they also did on Japanese codes and ciphers being forgotten. This new edition of The Emperor’s Codes includes two appendices by Edward Simpson, who led a good deal of the work done at Bletchley Park on JN25, the main Japanese naval code, and he tells you exactly how to break JN25 in the comfort of your own home! Go on, give it a go. Why not?
The Emperor’s Codes is only the first of a number of books we are planning to publish on Bletchley Park, one of which, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, to be published early next year, includes a chapter by Keith Batey. He was one of the least known of the codebreakers doing the really difficult work of attacking the Enigma machine ciphers, but no less important for that. Sadly, Keith passed away last month. You can read an account of what he did at Bletchley, and also for the University of Oxford, in this obituary.
All of these titles are available to buy or pre-order from the Biteback website.
Mick Smith is the defence correspondent for the Sunday Times.