Anthony Cave Brown offers an extremely detailed and engrossing account of the life of Sir Stewart Menzies (known as “C” for most of his adult life), whom he considers Great Britain’s greatest spymaster.
Having entered secret service in World War I, Menzies presided over SIS through all of World War II and into the early years of the Cold War. Brown does not merely chronicle Menzies’ fascinating professional and personal life; he analyzes the difficulties facing Menzies as he successfully transformed a depleted peacetime organization into one of Britain’s most important assets of World War II. Menzies’ prime task throughout the war was to keep the Nazis from learning that the English could even read their most secret wireless traffic. This tremendous breakthrough (code-named Ultra) in 1933 by a young Pole whose work was then carried on by ever more of England’s greatest minds, is considered by Brown to be the “cardinal factor in the Atlantic war.” Menzies was willing to withhold Ultra intelligence at times, thereby sacrificing thousands of British lives, in order to preserve the secret.
Brown also offers an interesting picture of Anglo-American cooperation and antagonism. During the war there was an unprecedented sharing of state secrets between these two countries; yet at certain times American intelligence leaders had better relations with the Soviet NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor) than with SIS.
Anyone interested in secret intelligence or World War II military history will find this a readable and informative biography. Because of the nature of the man and his work, no account of Menzies can be final. Although Brown’s research is ground-breaking and exemplary, Menzies went to his death with many a secret, most especially concerning the British traitor Kim Philby and his fellow double agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.