Secret Alliances. Finding treasure troves: Norwegian and Russian intelligence archives – and Kim Philby

  • April 22, 2020 10:00
  • Tony Insall

Today on the Biteback Book Festival, we're focussing on history, and here to kick things off is historian and author of Secret Alliances Tony Insall on the murky world of intelligence archives...


Secret intelligence services like to maintain the secrecy of their work, so they strive to ensure that their archives remain closed – apart from accesses granted to the occasional and fortunate official historian.

There are very few exceptions.  The most significant, fortunately for me, proved to be in Norway. The Norwegian Resistance Museum has an open archive containing the papers of the wartime Norwegian Intelligence Office, which describe its close cooperation with SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, often known as MI6) in sending a stream of Norwegian agents back to Norway to obtain vital intelligence, mainly on German shipping movements.  Their reports enabled the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to attack German warships and merchant shipping, many of which were taking valuable minerals back to Germany.  This archive provides a fascinatingly comprehensive – and unique – picture of the way in which intelligence operations were planned and carried out in enemy occupied territory, of successes and of failures.

Many of the agents worked in pairs in what were known as hermit stations, isolated sites on the coast, which provided ideal vantage points for observation of coastal traffic.  They were often exposed, in goat caves or rudimentary shelters.  Conditions, especially in winter, were harsh. The strain caused by this, and the ever present fear of discovery by the Germans, must have been intense.  It’s not surprising that agents like Atle Svardal asked to be equipped with boxing gloves so that they could let off some steam by fighting each other!

Despite the difficulties, many agents produced remarkable results. We can see evidence of this in the regular progress reports provided by SIS to the Norwegians, which were read by King Haakon and his senior ministers. Their tracking of German warships enabled the head of their intelligence office to assert that SIS agents provided reporting which to a greater or lesser extent contributed to the sinking of the Bismarck, Scharnhorst and Tirpitz, and also to the damage caused to the Prinz Eugen, Hipper and Scheer.  And they were responsible for the sinking of many merchant ships, too. During one six month deployment, Ole Snefjellå was credited with responsibility for reporting which led to the sinking of twelve ships.

The Admiralty, and the Air Ministry, really valued this intelligence, and often wrote to say so. For example, after station  Erica had reported the passage of the cruiser Nürnberg and four destroyers one morning at 0630 – a report which reached the Admiralty at 0910 – the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence complimented SIS on the reliability of Erica’s reporting, and the speed of transmission of this and other reports, which made them of great value.

But not everything worked. After naval MTBs had dropped Svardal and two other agents to establish station Delia in December 1943 they went on – with misguided enthusiasm and against the wishes of SIS – to make an unsuccessful attack against a local German target. Fearing German reprisals, normally supportive local villagers asked the agents to leave. So they were withdrawn.  Fortunately there were few such examples of indiscipline.

But the most remarkable documents came not from Norwegian, but from Russian archives. They were obtained from the NKVD (Russian Intelligence) archives in Moscow during that brief period in the 1990s when they were open to foreign researchers. They consist of reports dating from 1941, written by Kim Philby, the SIS officer who was a Russian spy. Philby was then working in the counter-intelligence section of SIS, a position which gave him access to some of SIS’s most sensitive secrets. They show that SIS was running a German military intelligence agent in Norway.  (As a result of this lead, it was possible to find corroborating evidence that SIS remained in contact with him throughout the war, which represented a remarkable and significant achievement.)  These are the only known examples of reporting provided by Philby – or for that matter any British spy working for the Russians – to his controlling officers.[1]

In the first report, Philby wrote

The following consists of extracts from reports on German intelligence operations in Scandinavia.  They are chiefly of interest from a technical viewpoint.  The information about the German post at Vardø was obtained from an agent in the post, and is of such a secret nature that CSS[2]  has forbidden its distribution ‘in toto’. If found, it will certainly be traced back to me.

This gives a revealing insight into Philby’s concerns for his own safety.  He had been working for the Russians for seven years already since his recruitment in 1934, and had carried out some difficult assignments for them, particularly in Spain during the Civil War. So he was a very experienced double agent. Nevertheless, he still felt it necessary to draw their attention to the sensitivity of the information he was providing, and remind them of the precariousness of his own position.

After he fled to Moscow in 1963, Philby took several opportunities to present his version of his career as a Soviet spy. The first, My Silent War, was his own autobiographical account, published in Moscow in 1968. In a Times review in 2018, Ben Macintyre described this as ‘a blend of fact and fiction, part history and part propaganda, at times devastatingly honest and in others wholly mendacious’.  Another prominent example was Master Spy. The Story of Kim Philby, written by Phillip Knightley in 1988, which was based on extensive interviews given to him by Philby in Moscow. This and similar literature allowed Philby to present himself, and his activities, in the most favourable light and to emphasise the extent to which he was in control of events.

These documents, revealing an awareness of his vulnerability, show that the reality was rather different.

[1] I am grateful to Michael Smith, who obtained these documents from Russian archives, for making them available to me.

[2] Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, Stewart Menzies.


Find out more about the fascinating world of Secret Alliances by ordering Tony's book here: only £20 until 26th April!


Auntie Beeb's Corona War

  • April 21, 2020 12:00
  • Robin Aitken

For the second day of the Biteback Book Festival, we're turning our attention to the media. Here to talk us through the BBC and its relationship with coronavirus is author Robin Aitken...        


    'Public Service Broadcasting' is a phrase that carries with it the whiff of a different era; there's something post-war about it, redolent of a time when the BBC was implicitly trusted to provide the nation with an unimpeachable service. In recent times the BBC has frequently fallen short of that standard but the corona virus pandemic has provided the Corporation with an opportunity to put on display its traditional virtues.

          In a time like this, when a fearful population  is  struggling, collectively, to find the right response to the disease what is required from broadcasters, above all else, is clear, truthful and practical information. People need to know what they must do to keep themselves and their families and neighbours safe.  With a few exceptions this is a duty which the BBC has faithfully discharged.  Just a few days ago there was a segment on the World at One on Radio 4  on how to make your own face-mask; the fact that this item was preceded by a Ministry of Information announcement dating from 1942 on making face masks only reinforced the sense that Britain is in the process of rediscovering some of the wartime virtues.

          Much of the BBC's radio coverage has been exemplary marred only occasionally by an over-aggressive interviewer; one of the female presenters of Today is particularly prone to unnecessary interruptions. Other programmes have shone and Evan Davies' extended PM on Radio 4  has been a master-class in even-tempered, well-informed and intelligent radio. It seems that the BBC has, effortlessly, found the right tone for this crisis. Something which cannot be said of other media outlets; the grandstanding of  some big-shot journalists has been emetic.

          Auntie, one could say, is having a good Corona War. And one of the intriguing aspects of this is the contrast between the general excellence of the BBC's output in the past three weeks compared to its performance in the preceding three years. Those were years dominated by the Brexit debate and the BBC mislaid the qualities which have distinguished its corona coverage. During Brexit there was a persistent, underlying bias towards the Remain side of the argument. Figures compiled by a media monitoring organisation ( which I detail in the forthcoming new edition of The Noble Liar ) show that throughout the Brexit upheaval there was a large and consistent over-representation of Remainers across all BBC News and Current Affairs output.

          The BBC always says it gets criticism from both sides of the argument; but Eurosceptic discontent with  the BBC's unbalanced coverage stretches back not merely to 2016 but back into the 1990s. Up until the vote to leave in 2016 Remainers were perfectly content with the way the BBC handled the debate because it was so favourable to their side. In this current health crisis the BBC has rediscovered its ability to talk to the whole country whereas during Brexit one  half of the population was left feeling hard done by. If the BBC is wise it will ponder why there was such a difference and learn the necessary lesson; impartiality has to be practised, not merely preached.  


Robin's book, The Noble Liar, is published by Biteback and is now available to buy for £7.99 until 26th April. Find out more here!


The great football quiz

  • April 20, 2020 16:00
  • Jon Henderson
To round off our sport-focussed Monday, why not spend a minute or two completing this quiz from the golden age of football from author of When Footballers Were Skint, Jon Henderson?

1. What was the most that Football League players could earn a week before the maximum wage was abolished in 1961? 


2. Who was the first player to be paid £100 a week by his club after the upper limit on wages was removed? 


3. Who was the player, later to become a renowned TV pundit on the game, who led the players’ revolt that forced the Football League to abandon the maximum wage? 

4. A Bolton Wanderers player rebuffed a fellow professional who, at a 1960 players’ meeting, spoke in favour of retaining the maximum wage because of how much footballers already earned compared to miners. Who was this Bolton player who issued the rebuke on the grounds that he’d worked in mines and it was not nearly as daunting as marking Stanley Matthews in front of a crowd of 30,000 on a Saturday afternoon? 


5. Matthews and only two other current England players who had represented their country before the Second World War did so again after the war. Who were they?


6. Who was the Preston Plumber who, like Matthews, was one of England’s greatest players and yet spent most of his career earning no more than a modest, restricted wage despite helping to attract huge attendances? 


7. Shortly after their victory on wages, the players had another restraint on their livelihoods removed when an ex-Newcastle United player won a High Court case that ended the retain-and-transfer rule, aka the slavery rule. Who was this player? 


8. In the days when wages were capped most players took summer jobs to supplement their earnings. A few were good enough cricketers to spend their summers playing in the County Championship. Who were the Arsenal brothers who played cricket for Middlesex? 


9. The inaugural World Cup was held in 1930, but England chose not to take part thanks to the Football League's same blinkered attitude that informed their decision to cap wages. When did they finally condescend to enter the world tournament for the first time? 


10. Alf Ramsey, England’s World Cup-winning manager in 1966, played thirty-two times for England between 1948-53. His final international appearance was against Hungary in a match that showed up the dangers of the Football League's isolationism and had a profound influence on the sort of football Ramsey's teams would play when he became a manager. What was the final score in the Hungary match? 



1. £20

2.Johnny Haynes of Fulham

3. Jimmy Hill

4. Tommy Banks

5. Tommy Lawton and Raich Carter

6. Tom Finney

7. George Eastham

8. Denis and Leslie Compton

9. 1950

10. Hungary won 6-3


Jon's book, When Footballers Were Skint, is only £5.00 for this week only. Find it here.


The rise of Les Bleus: the story of French football

  • April 20, 2020 10:00
  • Matt Spiro

Welcome to the Biteback Book Festival! For a week, we'll be posting interviews, think-pieces and more by some of our amazing authors right here- and it starts with this post by French footballing guru Matt Spiro.


Football, as the world’s most popular and accessible sport, is regarded as a mirror for society in many countries. But nowhere is that notion stronger than in modern-day France. No single activity reflects the nation’s rich ethnic and social diversity as vividly as the beautiful game does. In France, white faces remain prevalent in the media, in politics and on television shows, but the national football team – with its multi-cultural makeup – provides a sharp and refreshing contrast.

For black and Maghrebi children growing up in France’s underprivileged suburbs, the future invariably looks bleak. It would appear French society continues to condition these youngsters, most of whom are of immigrant backgrounds, to believe that certain professions and positions of responsibility are quite simply not for them.

Football, though, does not adhere to those rules. If you are good enough, you get your chance. That’s the way it should be in any occupation of course, but whilst researching ‘Sacré Bleu’ I realised that this is most definitely not the case in France. Speaking to Lilian Thuram, I was alarmed to hear his stories of discrimination. In my mind, the former France, Juventus and Barcelona defender, who won the World Cup in 1998, is a footballing legend. To imagine that he was racially abused as a child, that he was refused entry to restaurants and suffered monkey chants as a player, simply beggars belief.

I am, above all, a football journalist. I love commentating and writing about the game. It is my passion. But since I moved to France in 2002, I have been fascinated by the wider ramifications of football here. I was struck by the fact that black footballers were among the few to speak out in support of the disillusioned youths at the heart of the social unrest in 2005. When Les Bleus disgraced themselves by going on strike at the 2010 World Cup, the bizarre way in which politicians linked the players bad behaviour to unruly thugs in France’s les banlieues took me aback.

What is clear is that Les Bleus possess extraordinary power. Aimé Jacquet’s black-blanc-beur (black-white-Arab) World Cup-winning team was hailed as a beacon for society. Football became a symbol in 1998, a unifying force, Les Bleus a national treasure and veritable institution. But Zinédine Zidane’s generation was placed on a pedestal that would prove impossible to live up to.

Until 2018, that is. This book looks at the journey France has been on over the last twenty years, the wider responsibility that footballers have had to take on, and the many rifts that have been fuelled by social and racial tensions. When Kylian Mbappé inspired France’s second World Cup triumph, the nation again celebrated as one. This time, though, nobody was kidding themselves regarding the potential wider sociological consequences. Football is capable of setting an example – that much we now know. But the rest of society still has plenty of work to do to catch up.


Matt's upcoming book, Sacré Bleu, is out on 12th May. Find out more about it and pre-order it here.


The Biteback Book Festival

  • April 15, 2020 14:00
  • Vicky Jessop

We couldn't do it in person, so we thought we'd bring the festival to you.

From 20-26 April, our website, Twitter and Facebook profiles will be playing host to a rotating cast of authors from across the Biteback back catalogue. If you want reading inspiration, to find out a little more about the story behind some of your favourite books, or see how our authors have been spending their time at home, why not get involved with our list of events below...


On Monday, head on over to see:

- Jordan Wylie hosting a Twitter Q&A on the inspiration behind his book, Running for My Life at 1pm

Jon Henderson testing your football knowledge with a quiz about the good old days from When Footballers Were Skint

Robert O'Connor talking about the difficulties of reporting on football in Eastern Europe's rebel republics for Blood and Circuses on our podcast channel


On Tuesday, delve into the murky world of journalism...

Robin Aitken talks about his experiences of writing about the BBC and bias over on the Biteback blog

- Lib Dem co-leader and talking head Mark Pack answers your burning questions about his new book Bad News in a Twitter Q&A at 2.30pm over on our Twitter feed


On Wednesday, travel back in time with our authors:

-  Tony Insall will be chatting about Secret Allianceshis exploration of wartime links between Norway and the UK, here on the Biteback blog

- Former Home Secretary and MP turned talkshow host Jacqui Smith will make her inaugural Biteback podcast appearance to talk about her book Honourable Ladies

- Historian Adrian Phillips will reflect on the past few months and the similarities to the Second World War struggle in his book Fighting Churchill, Appeasing Hitler


On Thursday, we'll be turning our lens on the royal family:

- Find Norman Baker's musings on Harry and Meghan's departure from the royal family on the Biteback blog

- Tune into the Biteback podcast for a reading of Brian Hoey's book Pets by Royal Appointment 


On Friday, head on over to our blog to find:

Trump and the Puritans author Martyn Whittock musing on Trump’s America in the age of coronavirus


At the weekend, we're embracing our bread and butter: politics!

On Saturday, tune in to see:

- Phil Cowley hosting a live Twitter Q&A at 10am all the way from Hong Kong, and writing about politics and viruses on the Biteback blog

- Political expert Anthony Seldon talking about his time writing bestseller May at 10 on the Biteback podcast at 11am

- Economist and author of Home Truths Liam Halligan hosting a Facebook video Q&A at 2pm

- Barbara Hosking musing about her political past in a Q&A on the Biteback blog


And carrying on the party to Sunday...

- Asa Bennett delves into the classics in a video Q&A across our social channels at 11am

- Brexit expert and author of F**k Business Iain Anderson graces the airwaves in a Biteback podcast at 1pm

- And to round off the festival, Caroline Slocock reminisces about her time working for Margaret Thatcher in a Twitter Q&A at 3pm!