The British Local History Room of the Institute of Historical Research is a book-lined oasis of peace and learning in central London. On a wet afternoon earlier this month a group of old-age pensioners gathered there to reminisce.
Twenty-two men and two women sat around a large table in the centre of the room. There was a splattering of faded pin- stripe suits, a number of rough tweed jackets and the odd woolly cardigan to keep out the cold. Some sported walking sticks. They wore their poppies with pride. Most of these 70 and 80-year-olds had been trained in the art of silent killing, with the bare hands -- one or two had put that art into practice. Many had been taught how to kill by remote control -- running terrorist groups in a hostile environment.
This was a reunion of wartime secret agents under the auspices of the Institute of Contemporary British History witness seminar programme. These veterans had parachuted behind the German lines and had then spent the war running groups of agents and encouraging these resisters to sabotage factories, bridges, and canals. They organised large-scale deceptions and planted false information to disrupt the German war effort. They kept bullets in cigarette packets, had rendezvous in cafes, stayed in safe houses and carried transmitters in suitcases.
Or they had been in headquarters in London, planning and researching such enterprises. Some of their comrades had been involved in even more exotic forms of fighting like the faked pornographic pictures, bribery and corruption used against the Japanese, the details of which were recently released by the Public Record Office. Others, like Robert Boiteux, were born adventurers who operated behind both the German and the Japanese lines. However, most spent the war fighting in the clandestine battle against Hitler's fortress Europe, marginally more successfully than their Far Eastern equivalents. They were mainly, although not exclusively, members of the Special Operations Executive.
The SOE was formed in 1940 when Churchill told Hugh Dalton to "set Europe ablaze". At its height there were 10,000 men and 3,200 women working for it, and thousands more as agents or partisans. In Burma, for example, "Hector'', Squadron Leader Martin Southgate, had 70 officers and 12,000 men under arms.
What difference any of this actually made to the war effort was a hotly debated point at the seminar. There were many individual successes and acts of bravery, and some appalling disasters -- particularly the Der Englandspiel case in which an agent was captured by the Germans in Holland and made to transmit back to London, sending many agents to their death. Although, naturally perhaps, there was little emphasis on the missions that went wrong, the cause of some of these disasters, the feuding between the SOE, the Secret Intelligence Service and MI6 quickly resurfaced.
There were also many lighter moments amid the fear and daring. Captain Maurice Brooks, who organised extremely effectively among the French rail unions and was a highly efficient saboteur, was given a cover by Gaston Gusin, an SIS agent who was in charge of the Vichy economy -- Brooks was paid a salary by the Vichy regime while he blew up their trains.
The power of oral history in situations like this is immense. The right mix of witnesses and sympathetic academics creates an atmosphere conducive to confession and reminiscence. However, there is also the danger that old tales that have been polished and repolished in volumes of memoirs and over years will be retold for the ICBH tape recorder. Moreover, in common with many soldiers who have been into combat, some of the old spies will never speak about the sort of things they did -- as well as in the arts of killing, they were trained in demands of secrecy.
The challenge here is to try to get them to talk beyond their regular run of safe stories, to delve into the areas of Britain's secret war that are still kept secret. There is also the problem of the particular voices that are being heard. Those who speak on an occasion like this select themselves, firstly simply as the survivors and then among the survivors, as those who can and wish to talk about it. We do not see the victims of such a life, those who suffer from never being able to recapture quite such a pitch and intensity of experience in peace time. Those we do hear are those who have reached their own private accommodation with what they did in the war and at least one of them openly admitted that these were the best years of his life.
There was also a strong feeling that recognition should be given to people who had never been properly honoured because of the nature of their war work. Of all the spooks and boffins who fought the secret war the SOE "racket'' was the most clearly recognisable as a "Boy's Own" story. That the codebreakers made a much more substantial contribution to the defeat of Hitler was touched on at the seminar, but in the main discussion the boffins' contribution was limited. The emphasis was very much on operations behind the lines. There have been covert operations since 1945, from counter insurgency against nationalist movements to the bloody efficiency of the SAS, but the modern variations do not carry the same appeal, they are somehow too good at what they do; too technically well supported to be the real stuff of heroes.
Moreover, a degree of moral uncertainty descended on the "service'' when Hitler and the Japanese were defeated. In the all too brief hiatus between hot and cold wars, the spies were naked -- the moral cover for their actions was removed. Why there should be a moral ambiguity about operations against Stalin is not readily apparent. Stalin butchered many millions more than Hitler and yet there is a solidity to the cause of the Second World War which I have never read or heard effectively challenged even by those who argue that the elite in this country were fighting to defend the Empire and not to stop genocide. The fact remains that even if it was only a by-product for the British elite, victory in the Second World War stopped the Nazi genocide.
Stalinism often seems to escape the vilification it deserves because it is seen as a form of communism gone wrong and the objectives of communism can be defended as being good. Nazism was not seen as a variant on anything and the objectives of Nazism were evil, so the fight against it was therefore pure. This purity of the cause breeds a righteousness in the memory of these old spies that is unshaken after 50 years. It is an emotion that extends across the whole of the wartime generation. It has been clearly illustrated recently in the indignation expressed by veterans that German troops were going to take part in commemorations of wartime anniversaries, as though they were still the enemy and Nazi Germany was not, as a regime, the common foe. As Odette, the most famous and romantic of all the wartime agents, told Valerie Grove in 1990: "I was thrilled that in my life the wall was demolished. I am all for the reunification of Germany, and us doing business with the Germans. You can't put the sins of the father on to the children''. This from a woman who had her toe-nails removed by the Gestapo. However, such a view is rare among the wartime generation.
Patriotism, king, country and ideas of a national identity were the things for which these people committed acts that in time of peace would have been acts of terrorism. They have a simple moral system that has stood up remarkably well. Perhaps their uniqueness is simply that they have seen and experienced things in life that most of us have never seen or experienced. We are bathed in the moral ambiguity of our age, in which patriotism is dead and many profound symbols for which these people killed and were killed are compromised or like the monarchy, the cause of cringing embarrassment. Hearing their voices, clipped accents and impeccable manners -- some still strong, bold and military, others a little frail -- one is overwhelmed with a feeling that we will not see this kind of simple faith again.
This may be for the good. For all the admirable courage these people showed, there is a rather chilling lack of self analysis -- not much beyond some straightforward guilt about things that went wrong. These are the mavericks of the Second World War but aside from the double agents among them -- do not forget that Philby, a name that came up a couple times during the seminar, was in the service during the war -- their obedience and rudimentary critique of their own actions is rather frightening and sets them clearly apart as being from another age.
There will be fewer old spies next year. The cold war is over, there is a ceasefire in Ireland, and most of the old certainties are gone. Could it be that the Great Game these old people played is also a thing of the past?
Brian Brivati is lecturer in history, Kingston University.
The full text of the witness seminar will be published in Contemporary Record, the ICBH journal.