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Documentary Review - Secrets of Her Majesty's Service (2014)

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Her Majesty’s Secret Service, otherwise known as MI-6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6) is a legendary global spy network, thanks in part to its publicity from the James Bond films, which feature the organization as the employer of 007, James Bond.  MI-6 has more than a 100-year history, having been founded in 1909. The agency, however, is not the glamorous operation that the public has been led to believe.  It is the equivalent of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in the United States.


Sean Connery as James Bond

                                              Sean Connery as James Bond - Wikimedia

This TV Movie gives a realistic, almost frightening, portrayal of the duties of the agents and officers of MI-6.  Agents are the field operatives who risk their lives to pass on secret intelligence to allies; the officers are in charge of the supervision and administration of the covert operations.  All are referred to as spies.  There are 3200 officers across the globe who defend and protect the security of the United Kingdom as they foil international plots that they have uncovered.

London is one of the great spy cities of the world.  It is easy to be anonymous in such a huge city.  There are more spies in London today than there were during the Cold War.  Daily tasks revolve around assassinations, treason, betrayal, and espionage, as well as collecting intelligence on all of these tasks. 

Matthew Dunn, Spy turned Author

One of the narrators of the documentary is Matthew Dunn, a former British MI-6 officer who is now the author of the “Spycatcher” series of novels which have achieved immense popularity.  Dunn explained that he had used at least 14 or 15 aliases during his time at MI-6.  He was required at times to infiltrate terror organizations, a dangerous assignment.  He employed anti-surveillance devices such as bug sweeping in his work.  He always had to be alert to double-sighting, noticing a familiar face in the crowd.  That person could be enemy surveillance, posing a threat of being snatched, which could result in death.


Sir John Scarlett

                                                  Sir John Scarlett, Narrator - Wikimedia

Sir John Scarlett, former Chief of MI-6

Another narrator is Sir John Scarlett, a former Chief of MI-6, who had experience overseeing double agents.  He spoke about Mansfield Cumming, a former Naval Officer, who was the first Chief of MI-6 and quite a character.  Cumming set up his quarters at 2 Whitehall Court, and MI-6 was based there until after World War I.  The Chief would speed through the city of London without being stopped by the police.  He had a wooden leg.  When interviewing candidates to the Service, Cumming would try to startle the recruit by plunging a knife into his own leg.  If the candidate did not flinch, Cumming believed he was right for the Secret Service.  Years ago, naval officers always wrote in their logs with green ink.  All chiefs from that time write in green ink because Cumming did.  Also, because Cumming always signed his letters with a C, all of his successors use only a C as their signature.  Correspondents understand that the missive is from the Chief of MI-6.


Enigma Machine

                                                                Enigma Machine - Wikimedia

Enigma Code

During World War II, the Germans encoded all of their war communications through a coding device that they called “Enigma” which was believed to be unbreakable.  This story has been told in the film “The Imitation Game,” which gives credit to Alan Turing, a mathematician who worked on breaking “Enigma.”  In our story here about MI-6, we are introduced to an interesting and true story about Mavis Batey, a 19-year-old college student studying German literature.  She was part of a group of unique women at Bletchley Park who worked ceaselessly for five months to decipher Enigma messages.  A surprise attack was being planned by the Germans on an Allied Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.  Mavis decoded the German message: “Today’s the day minus three.”  Her work was key to winning the war; they turned the tables on the enemy.

In 1941, England wanted to draw the Americans into the war.  They told them about breaking the Enigma Code.  The Americans were impressed by the British ingenuity in cryptography and counter-espionage.  The two code-breaking allies worked together at Bletchley to counteract the German forces.  It became known as the "Special Relationship."

Sidney Reilly, Spy

A spy named Sidney Reilly has been given the appellation “Ace of Spies,” the most famous spy, the perfect spy, a conman.  He was a secret agent when MI-6 was called the British Secret Intelligence Service in the early twentieth century.  Ian Fleming is said to have used Sidney Reilly as a model for James Bond.  He was a brilliant collector of intelligence and an adventurous master of deception.  He once posed as a priest to steal some Russian naval plans; another time he posed as a Greek business man.


Kim Philby

                                                     Kim Philby, Russian Spy - Wikimedia 

Kim Philby, Russian Spy

An elitism existed within the agency.  Recruits were drawn from the upper classes, from Cambridge University and the exclusive St. James Clubs.  They were from the Establishment; they were gentlemen.  The process was flawed since the Soviet Union was successful in recruiting them away from the British.  One of these recruits was Kim Philby, a graduate of Cambridge who worked his way into MI-6 in 1941.  He was attracted to Communism and became a member of the KGB, passing secrets to his Russian comrades.  He was privileged to have access to a huge number of secrets.  Philby met his contacts in South Kensington Station, near the Soviet Embassy.  The Café Daquise and Holy Trinity Church were also meeting places in that area.  A KGB agent would hide a letter in a St. Francis of Assisi statue after making a chalk mark on a telephone pole, which indicated that the message was there.  It was picked up by another KGB agent who first removed the chalk mark from the pole.

In the 1950’s. Kim Philby came under suspicion but denied that he was a spy.  The evidence against him was too great and he finally had to flee to the Soviet Union.  In Moscow, he was met with suspicion and the KGB would not hire him.  He eventually turned to drink and died in 1988, a broken man.

Double Agent

The British were also able to employ double agents.  Oleg Gordievsky was a  member of the KGB assigned to the Soviet Embassy in London who became disillusioned when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia.  He risked his life to have a meeting with Chief John Scarlett at MI-6 who was convinced that Gordievsky was genuine.  Gordievsky was able to smuggle out top secret Russian documents which were then photographed by the British.  If the Russians found out, he would have been executed.  He finally came under scrutiny by the Russians and asked MI-6 to smuggle him out of the country.  It was a daring escape plan.  A car picked him up with a man and woman supposedly heading for a family outing; they were really British Secret Service agents.  Gordievsky got in the trunk of the car.  The Soviet border was heavily guarded and they could hear search dogs.  The woman in the car threw out the baby’s diapers to distract the dogs, whose sense of smell was then disturbed.  Gordievsky slipped through undetected.  He finally heard the signal he had been waiting for; the driver changed the music in the car.  They had reached neutral Finland and Gordievsky was free.  He had made a huge contribution to Britain’s conflict with the Soviets.


Magnifying Glass

                                                                Magnifying Glass - Pixabay

MI-6 today is in the business of preventing cyberattacks on government operations.  They fight terrorism and physical threats.  Twenty foreign states are actively fighting the United Kingdom.  MI-6 is needed now more than ever.  The British have three billion dollars set aside to combat those forces.

I learned a great deal from this documentary, and my curiosity is aroused, particularly about Bletchley Park, which is celebrated in a film entitled “The Bletchley Circle,” about a group of women who work at breaking the codes used by the Germans in World War II.

Inside British Intelligence: 100 Years of MI5 and MI6
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Oct 27, 2015 12:30pm
This sounds like a fascinating movie, Kellapat. I am actually old enough to remember the Kim Philby affair, and am also intrigued by you statement that "There are more spies in London today than there were during the Cold War. "
Oct 27, 2015 1:02pm
I love stories about the Brits. I'm sure you do too!
Dec 14, 2015 7:53pm
good stuff
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