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The Secret War Between the Wars: MI5 in the 1920s and 1930s

The Secret War Between the Wars: MI5 in the 1920s and 1930s

Kevin Quinlan
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Secret War Between the Wars: MI5 in the 1920s and 1930s
    Book Description:

    Despite the ending of the First World War, the battle against Britain's enemies continued unabated during the period of the 1920s and 1930s. Buffeted by political interference and often fighting for their very survival, Britain's intelligence services turned to fight a new, clandestine war against rising powers Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Using recently declassified files of the British Security Service (MI5), The Secret War Between the Wars details the operations and tradecraft of British intelligence to thwart Communist revolutionaries, Soviet agents, and Nazi sympathizers during the interwar period. This new study charts the development of British intelligence methods and policies in the first half of the twentieth century and illuminates the fraught path of intelligence leading to the Second World War. An analysis of Britain's most riveting interwar espionage cases tells the story of Britain's transition between peace and war. The methods developed by British intelligence in the early twentieth century continue to resonate today. Much like now, the intelligence activity of the British in the pre-Second World War era focused on immediate threats posed by subversive, clandestine networks against a backdrop of shifting great power politics. As Western countries continue to face the challenge of terrorism, and in an era of geopolitical change heralded by the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia, a return to the past may provide context for a better understanding of the future. Kevin Quinlan received his PhD in History from the University of Cambridge. He lives and works in Washington, DC.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-342-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Christopher Andrew

    Intelligence remains the only profession in which a fictional character (James Bond) remains many times better known than any real practitioner, alive or dead. The tradecraft used by intelligence agencies tends to be thought of as the province of Bond and the spy novelist rather than the serious scholar. References to ‘invisible ink’, for example, are vanishingly rare in the many scholarly studies of twentieth-century international relations published by university presses. It was not always thus. Robert Boyle of ‘Boyle’s Law’, one of the key figures in the seventeenth-century scientific revolution and a founder of the Royal Society, invented the...

  5. Acknowledgements and Disclaimer
    (pp. xi-xii)
    Kevin Quinlan
  6. Abbreviations and Acronyms
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  7. Notes on Style and References
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  8. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  9. Introduction: The Architecture of British Intelligence
    (pp. 1-15)

    Invisible inks. Hollow heels. Hidden briefcase compartments. Microdot photography. All seemingly the stuff of spy thrillers, born of the imagination of writers such as Ian Fleming. But all are actual historical examples of espionage methods. Spies cannot conjure the tools of their craft out of thin air. No single person in the field can develop the technology required for a fake rock to store and transmit secret information to spies’ hand-held devices, as a senior British official recently acknowledged was one method used by British intelligence in Russia until discovered by Russian security officials.¹ A considerable administrative apparatus stands behind...

  10. CHAPTER 1 Official Cover: Nikolai Klishko and the Russian Trade Delegation
    (pp. 16-30)

    In the 1920s, barely after the birth of modern tradecraft during the First World War, both signals intelligence and human intelligence came to affect the conduct of British foreign policy towards the Soviet Union and vice versa. The context in which the art and science of spying evolved began immediately to shape its development as well. External affairs and foreign policy, as well as domestic politics, all played a role in changing the craft of surveillance. So did administrative and bureaucratic wrangling.

    After the UK and USSR emerged from the hostilities that accompanied the Soviet withdrawal from the Great War...

  11. CHAPTER 2 Counter-subversion: Labour Unrest and the General Strike of 1926
    (pp. 31-54)

    The Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement of 1921 did not put an end to Bolshevik activities in Britain. It did not dampen Soviet propaganda, attempts to meddle in British domestic affairs, or the British fear of their doing so. Indeed, concerns that the Soviets were attempting to influence British unions and workers led to a political crisis and influenced Parliament’s decision not to ratify a second trade pact, which the two nations had negotiated in 1924. It also led Parliament to vote no confidence in the still new Labour government barely after it had gained power for the first time.

    Earlier that...

  12. CHAPTER 3 Recruitment and Handling: Macartney, Ewer and the Cambridge Five
    (pp. 55-84)

    In 1927, the Anglo-Soviet relationship ruptured, and agent operations lay behind the break. One set of treasonous activities, those of the Macartney case, occurred within the context of several international incidents of considerable importance: the coup in Poland led by Marshal Jozef Piłsudski, the quickly following assassination of Soviet diplomat Pyotr Voikov in Warsaw, the Chinese civil war (including the Peking raid by British authorities), and more directly, the ARCOS raid of May 1927 and subsequent war scare. Viewed altogether, it is easy to understand why Wilfred F. R. Macartney’s attempt to give classified British military information to the Soviets...

  13. CHAPTER 4 Penetration Agents (I): Maxwell Knight, the CPGB and the Woolwich Arsenal
    (pp. 85-108)

    Knowing an opponent’s intentions is among the most useful pieces of information to bring to any confrontation.¹ But as history has shown with some painful regularity, getting it right can be brutally difficult. In deciphering the layer upon layer of signalling that occurs in international relations, penetration agents, those trained by to infiltrate a hostile organisation, provide one of the best means of distinguishing between the real and the counterfeit, the overt and the secret, and the secret and the mysterious.

    The difference between secrets and mysteries is often critical: ‘Secrets are things that are potentially knowable’, whereas in mysteries,...

  14. CHAPTER 5 Penetration Agents (II): Maxwell Knight, Fascist Organisations and the Right Club
    (pp. 109-138)

    Through the 1930s, as Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy grew more menacing, MI5 expanded its focus beyond what had been its almost singular efforts to counter Soviet and communist activity. Turning to the domestic fascist threat it had begun investigating in the early 1930s, Knight’s M. Section spearheaded MI5’s investigation into Britain’s fascist organisations. Generally regarded as the best agent-runner in MI5’s interwar history, if not the history of the agency as a whole, Knight earned his reputation not only from his successful penetration of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring, but also as a result of his infiltration of fascist...

  15. CHAPTER 6 Defection and Debriefing (I): Walter Krivitsky
    (pp. 139-162)

    After Soviet intelligence officer Walter Krivitsky defected to the West in 1937, he offered his receivers tremendous amounts of information and great insight into one of modern Europe’s most closed societies, one whose clandestine activities often left rivals ignorant and weak in the face of its subversive onslaught. Krivitsky’s debriefing in London, conducted over the course of four weeks in January and February 1940, occupies a singular place in the annals of MI5. The debriefing was the first of its kind, the earliest attempt at what would later become a standard practice in handling defecting or active enemy agents. It...

  16. CHAPTER 7 Defection and Debriefing (II): Walter Krivitsky
    (pp. 163-178)

    Although MI5 and SIS would not know it for another ten years (except, of course, that the moles Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt did), Krivitsky was providing details on two of the Soviet Union’s greatest operatives, the recruiters and early handlers of the Cambridge Five spy ring.¹ It is unclear how many times Krivitsky met with the officers. But by the end of Krivitsky’s month-long stay in London, MI5 and SIS had obtained a wealth of information on the structure and operations of Soviet intelligence. At the heart of these revelations was the identification of Soviet operatives. Of those Krivitsky...

  17. Conclusion
    (pp. 179-186)

    Although Britain may boast the world’s longest continuously operating intelligence services, they were only three decades old at the onset of the Second World War. Having learned by doing, their handlers and operatives had laid the tracks for the great challenges that lay ahead. That new expertise, however, was typically not the sort depicted in action films and sensational fiction. The real nature of intelligence work was by and large not the world of swashbuckling escapades it is often portrayed to be.

    It should be apparent that despite the images conjured by popular media, agent running was dominated by unrelenting...

  18. APPENDIX I: The Evolution of British Security Studies
    (pp. 187-190)
  19. APPENDIX II: Record Keeping
    (pp. 191-192)
  20. APPENDIX III: Secret Inks
    (pp. 193-194)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 195-243)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 244-258)
  23. Index
    (pp. 259-266)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 267-267)