Book reveals secret world of MI6: from horse penises to exploding cabinets
When the word “spy” is mentioned, it conjures up an image of suave sophistication and the ultimate British agent.
However, James Bond fans will be shaken and stirred to learn about some of the bizarre and crude gadgets that MI6 spies employed at the turn of the century.
A warts-and-all book written by a Northern Ireland don (inset, right) reveals how these skilled individuals employed the likes of a false horse penis and an exploding filing cabinet.
Professor Keith Jeffery’s book explores some of the more unusual devices utilised by the British secret service during the early part of the 20th century.
“There were secret inks, concealing devices of one sort or another and there was even an exploding filing cabinet,” the Queen’s University professor said. “This would have been used if the enemy was at the door and you needed to destroy documents before they arrive.
“One of the more outstanding concealing devices I discovered was a false horse penis. It may well be that they are still using false horse penises, but I really didn’t want to ask. It’s a slightly delicate area.”
Prof Jeffery came across the unconventional spy tool during research for his book on the history of MI6.
Five years ago, the Queen’s University historian was chosen by the Secret Intelligence Service to put together the first, and only, official account of the first 40 years of the service.
He was given unfettered access to the MI6 archives in London, allowing him to delve into the dangerous world of British espionage.
And yesterday, the fruits of his labour, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909–1949, was finally published.
Prof Jeffery explained he was glad his huge project had finally come to fruition. But he was slightly disappointed that he was not able to reveal more. “Writing the history was the easy bit. Negotiating it out of the building was a different exercise,” he said. “However, I was let a fair rummage through the cupboards and allowed to rattle a few of those old skeletons.”
Among the controversial files he was able to study was an account of MI6 agents sabotaging ships due to carry Jewish refuges to the then British Mandate of Palestine, immediately after the end of the Second World War.
Prof Jeffery explained security chiefs were concerned publication of the information could have disastrous political consequences today.
“That’s why they were worried about it — it being labelled a plot to blow up Jewish refugee ships,” he said.
“But it wasn’t. It was a plot to disable Jewish refugee ships before the refugees boarded.”
“There was a lot of anxiety that this could be taken up wrongly and there was a long discussion about revealing that story because it could be used |and manipulated against the British government.
“There was always this kind of tension where I wanted to reveal more, they wanted to reveal less. I think there is a slight bit less than what I wanted to tell, but, in the end, the reader has to be the judge.”
“Well, in one sense, no because we still end up on the winning sides of both world wars. And Hitler’s mistress was not a MI6 agent or anything bizarre like that.
“But what surprised me was the human cost. You are dealing with these individual stories of real people not spy novels. They are real people with real strengths and weaknesses.”
He added: “There were also failures as well as successes. Failures of not hitting the right information and there are also failures of interpretation when you actually bring in the right information to Government.
“I think they (MI6) failed on the security side. Kim Philby was the worst traitor the service has ever had. By recruiting people on account of the old boy network, old pals of pals, that kind of thing was desperately insecure and had huge costs.”