James Bond--a fictional figure--is the most famous secret agent in the world. He works for the British Secret Service and has a 'license to kill' (which he does quite frequently). In the films (at least) his employers, in the person of 'Q', provide him with all sorts of useful gadgets and gizmos. Although in some of the movies he appears to have human vulnerabilities, essentially he is a kind of indestructible super-man.
Although Bond himself does not exist, his organisation does. Properly known as SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service), but popularly as 'MI6' (a cover-name adopted at the beginning of the Second World War), the British Secret Service has existed since 1909. It remains the most secret of all British government departments, never identifying its officers and never releasing any at all of its archives to the public. But to mark its centenary, it commissioned an authorised history, written by a professional historian given absolutely free access to the Service's archives over its first forty years, 1909-49. And so perhaps now we might be able judge whether the truth of British secret service matches the fiction.
The author of the original Bond novels, Ian Fleming, himself worked in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War, and he certainly knew a fair bit about the workings of MI6, though he was never directly involved in its activities. Fleming has a walk-on part in the book when we find him helping MI6 cover up the fate of a Vichy French traitor accidentally killed while the British were trying to bundle him out of neutral Spain in 1941.
One candidate to be 'the real James Bond' is Wilfred Dunderdale, nick-named 'Biffy', apparently from his prowess as an amateur boxer. A fluent Russian-speaker, he was first employed by MI6 in 1919 to work on Soviet Russian targets. In the 1930s he was head of the MI6 station in Paris, where his penchant for pretty women and fast cars was widely noticed. During the Second World War he provided the British liaison for very productive French and Polish intelligence networks in Nazi-Occupied Europe. He was a man of great charm and savoir-faire, who in old age became an incorrigible raconteur. He liked to tell the story of how, while still in his teens, as interpreter for an anti-Communist Russian general, he found himself translating outside a railway sleeping compartment where the general and his British mistress were seducing each other. He was a great friend of Ian Fleming, and claimed that he found parts of his own stories in the James Bond novels.
And there were other notable MI6 individuals, for example Sidney Reilly, the so-called 'Ace of Spies', and Paul Dukes, who both operated in the Soviet Union after the Russian revolution of 1917. Although a very clever agent, Reilly let his right-wing political prejudices affect his intelligence work with, in the end, fatal results. Dukes was a master of disguise and had the nerve to enter Russia in 1918 cheekily masquerading as a member of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police (and he safely got out again, too). Frank Foley, MI6's station chief in Berlin in the late 1930s combined his vital intelligence work with helping as many Jewish refugees get out of Nazi Germany as possible. The agent Jonny de Graff (who was initially handled by Foley) defected from the Soviets in the 1930s, provided precious detail of the 'Communist International' (Comintern) across the world, and also helped prevent a Communist revolution in Brazil. Karl Krüger, code-named 'TR/16', was a classic spy who started to work for the British in November 1914 and gathered vital naval information from within Germany. He continued to do so right into the Nazi period, until he failed to arrive for a meeting with his case-officer in August 1939. He had been betrayed by a German spy within MI6.
But for much of its history the real story of British intelligence is not generally one of fiendishly clever master-spies, or Mata Hari-like seductresses (though one or two of them do feature), achieving fantastic, war-winning intelligence coups. The reality is more like a jigsaw containing tiny fragments of information, gathered by many thousands of individual men and women in circumstances fraught with danger, which need to be collected together to provide the big picture. Watchers along the Norwegian coast during the Second World War, for example, provided precious information about enemy ship movements. These individuals had to get to what were inevitably exposed situations; once there they had not only to collect their intelligence unobserved, but also to communicate it quickly back to London; and at each stage of the process the penalty for discovery was almost certain death. In both world wars, ordinary men and women in enemy-occupied Europe ran similar risks, for example train-watching, carefully logging the movements of railway trains and their cargoes and endeavouring to identify the military units they carried. This is often the reality of intelligence work. And because they are more like ourselves than any glamorous super-spy, relying more on native wit than on Q's clever gizmos, perhaps these brave people are actually the 'real James Bond'.
Keith Jeffery is Professor of British History at Queen's University Belfast, and writes in a personal capacity. His authorised history of SIS is published in the UK by Bloomsbury as MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949 and in the USA by The Penguin Press as The Secret History of MI6: 1909 - 1949.