Packed with more double-crossing, deceit and sleight of hand than feature in even the most dramatic works of spy fiction, Misdefending the Realm by historian Antony Percy is a shocking, revelatory account of MI5’s failings during the era of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
Central to this real-life tale of spies and subterfuge are the events of early 1940, when a key Soviet defector alerted British intelligence to the presence of infiltrators within the country’s institutions.
As this heavily-researched book reveals, the handling of Walter Krvitsky was an egregious exercise in sloppiness that squandered a golden opportunity to rout out the Communist infiltrators within the British government.
The resultant report by MI5, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, was carelessly circulated and intercepted by an undercover Soviet agent working in the UK Home Office.
Here it was passed onto the infamous Guy Burgess, who orchestrated an audacious plan to protect himself and the rest of the ‘Cambridge Spies’ circle, by having Krivitsky eliminated.
Burgess, who later fled to Russia, has become a near-mythical spy figure, but the story of MI5’s mishandling of the affair, and appalling ineptitude in general when it came to the Soviet threat during the Second World War, has remained largely overlooked – until now.
Based on a PhD thesis by the author, Misdefending the Realm gives the untold story of how MI5 woefully failed in its duty, being professionally incapable of defending itself – and the nation – from communist subversion owing to a failure of leadership, haphazard hiring practices, inadequate training, and poor tradecraft.
What’s more, this fascinating study uncovers how MI5 chiefs subsequently attempted to hide their failings to save the department from the axe.
The author turned detective in writing his scholarly and objective account of MI5’s activities, or in some cases inactivities, during the critical years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact from 1939 to 1941 – calling upon a wide range of material from biographies, memoirs and letters to recently declassified documents.
He dramatically exposes the Soviet Union’s ease in infiltrating and influencing the UK’s intelligence agencies and the corridors of power, being able to place sympathisers in strategic positions to sway opinion towards ‘Uncle Joe’, as Josef Stalin was affectionately, and completely inappropriately, named.
For though Stalin was successfully courted by Churchill to join the Allied forces against the Axis Powers of the Nazis, he never stopped being a threat to Britain and his expansionist ambitions would ultimately come to pass with the start of the Cold War.
Leaving no stone unturned in his examination of the events of 1939-41, Percy has a nose for red herrings, and has put together a damning case against MI5.
He outlines clearly how and why MI5 stumbled against the Communist threat, including for the first time the full story of Burgess’s Moscow Mission, and the lasting repercussions of those blunders.
He also details MI5’s comprehensive cover-up of its failures after the end of the war ̶ especially in the vetting of the German atom-spy Klaus Fuchs ̶ in order to maintain its independent existence, and to preserve the careers of its leaders.
It’s an intelligently argued book that, while scholarly in tone, is never a dry read. Chapters are lightened with illustrations from publications such as the satirical magazine Punch, and the style is accessible without ever patronising its audience.
Unlike previous accounts of this tumultuous period in history, Misdefending the Realm goes beyond the authorised and wallpapered histories of the Security Service to give a frank overview that pulls no punches.
It will undoubtedly appeal to those interested in modern history, the Second World War and espionage, and the author’s depth of research will deliver new insights to even the most wide-read students of the subject.
Misdefending the Realm: How MI5's Incompetence Enabled Communist Subversion of Britain's Institutions During the Nazi-Soviet Pact is out now, published by University of Buckingham Press and priced £20 in softcover. It is available for sale on Amazon UK.