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Spies Who Changed History (Hardback)

The Greatest Spies and Agents of the 20th Century

Military > Frontline Books Military > Post-WWII Warfare > Cold War P&S History > By Century > 20th Century WWI WWII > Espionage & the SOE

By Nigel West
Frontline Books
Pages: 256
Illustrations: 16 mono
ISBN: 9781399086325
Published: 16th September 2022



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Spies have made an extraordinary impact on the history of the 20th Century, but fourteen in particular can be said to have been demonstrably important. As one might expect, few are household names, and it is only with the benefit of recently declassified files that we can now fully appreciate the nature of their contribution.

The criteria for selection have been the degree to which each can now be seen to have had a very definite influence on a specific course of events, either directly, by passing vital classified material, or indirectly, by organizing or managing a group of spies. Those selected were active in the First World War, the inter-war period, the Second World War, the Cold War and even the post-Cold War era.

These include Walther Dewé who formed a spy ring in German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. This train-watching network, known as ‘White Lady’, reported on German troop deployments and possible weaknesses in the German defences. Extending its operations into northern France, the ring provided 75 per cent of the information received by GHQ, British Expeditionary Force. By the time of the Armistice in 1918, Dewé’s group had a staggering 1,300 members.

Olga Gray, the 27-year-old daughter of a Daily Mail journalist, was employed as a secretary by the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1931 she undertook a mission for MI5 to penetrate the organization and discover its secret channel of communication with Moscow. Gray learned that the Party’s cipher was based on Treasure Island and this breakthrough enabled the Party’s messages to be read by Whitehall cryptographers.

Renato Levi, an Italian playboy, was the longest-serving British agent of the Second World War and is credited with creating the concept of strategic deception. While operating in Cairo as a double agent working for the Abwehr and the British he was instrumental in misleading the Axis about Allied strength across the Middle East and helped Montgomery achieve his victory over Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein. So successful was Levi in this and other deceptions, he was employed to persuade the Germans that the D-Day landings in Normandy were a diversionary feint, in anticipation of an invasion in the Pas-de-Calais.

These, and other surprising stories, are revealed in this fascinating insight into a secret world inhabited by mysterious and shadowy characters, all of whom, though larger than life, really did exist.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Spies were central to the fight against the Nazis, but because of the nature of their work, their stories have mostly gone untold until now in Nigel West’s impeccable style.

NetGalley, Caroline Palmer

The names associated with several cases will be familiar to many readers of the intelligence literature, but they should not be overlooked because West has added new detail.

Studies in Intelligence

As featured on World War II Today

WW2 Today

I quite enjoyed reading it and picked up a couple of new pieces of information.

3.5 out of 5

Read the Full Review Here

Army Rumour Service (ARRSE)

If you are a fan of spy stories, here are fourteen of the most influential spies of the Twentieth Century. Some we might label as the good guys and some we might label as the bad guys but they all believed in what they were doing and for better or worse changed the course of history.

I would separate them into two big groups. One is the ones who plied their trade during WWII. The second group belongs to The Cold War and beyond. Painstakingly researched, the book describes how they came to be enlisted in espionage, why they did what they did and what, if any, repercussions were there after the dust had settled. It is an interesting book and sheds light on them. Many of them may have escaped notice but for books such as these and often their exploits were hidden in secret documents.

NetGalley, Susan Johnston

Fans of TV pogrammes like Spooks and of authors like Ian Fleming and John Le Carré will be particularly pleased with Nigel West's latest book about spies. Fascinating.

Books Monthly

A good book for the spy lover.

Read the Full Review Here

The History Fella

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This collection of factual tales of the spies of recent history strips out the journalist excitement we read in the media and tell the real stories of these people in trusted positions that were prepared to betray their country or assist in obtaining secrets of their enemy. For anyone who is interested in the real world of the spies of history this is a worthwhile read and will keep your interest. As the saying goes, ‘real life can be stranger than fiction!’

NetGalley, Sandra Miller

Spies are considered one of the oldest professions, however people have entered the field of espionage for numerous reasons. Some do like the money, that is true. Some for patriotism or a sense of morality. Others for the adrenalin rush, the thrill of living the life of a lie, and the feeling that one gets from betraying others. Nigel West, politician author and longtime chronicler of the shadow world has in his book Spies Who Changed History: The Greatest Spies and Agents of the 20th Century collected the histories of various men and women whose actions saved lives, stopped wars, and altered events sometimes for the better, depending on the side telling the story.

The book features essays on 14 people, from the First World War to the closing days of the Cold War, detailing their lives, their actions, the results and what happened later. These patriots to some, traitors to others risked their lives and in many cases families lives, and freedom for a cause they thought was right, or for the cash to make the cause right. Detailing the actions of foreign armies, allowing Allied troops to be ahead, or in some cases allowing them to attack from behind. Inserting themselves into spy rings, become essential to certain actions, while informing their intelligence bosses exactly what they were doing. One kept the German High Command deceived about the D- Day attacks, allowing the Allies to strengthen there forces against counter attacks.

Nigel West is probably one of the best writers on espionage currently working. West's books are always informative, with commentary that fills in the gaps were sometimes facts have to be omitted. These essays are based on government reports, agent communications and interviews with the people involved, and go deep into the how and the why this agent should be recognized for their action. The cast of characters is quite large, but there is both a dramatis personae and a glossary for terms and acronyms, which there are plenty.

What caught my attention the most was that most of these spies were just walk ins, informing intelligence services in their own country, hey a rival wants me to spy. Quite a few. It goes o prove how difficult counter intelligence must be, but makes one wonder how many spies just slipped by. Also it proves the importance of human intelligence. A satellite or computer intercepts might show things, but humans no matter the gains in technology have deception as a part of their DNA. Spying comes quite easy. A very informative and interesting book for nonfiction and fictional spy fans. Also as a guide for writers or thrillers there are plenty of ideas to get your plot going. I've read quite a lot of Nigel West's books, and I found this quite interesting and educational.

NetGalley, Dan O'Leary

This is a compilation of stories of fourteen very important spies in history. I have a sort of fascination with spies. I love that mysteriousness that surrounds them, so I was excited to read about them and understand them better. I loved reading about Olga Gray, she was so intelligent. All the stories are fascinating and easy to follow and I really enjoyed reading this and learning so many new facts about amazing people. Thank you so much to Netgalley and the author Nigel West for this copy of the ebook! I absolutely think it’s worth checking out if you like learning new and interesting facts and if you love spy movies and shows like me!

NetGalley, Angel D

Readers who like to read true espionage as well as those who like to supplement their fiction reading with some real-world spies will find a lot to enjoy here. The writing keeps the reader engaged yet covers the available documentation in good detail.

NetGalley, Jack Messer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Spies Who Changed History by Nigel West, was put together using correspondence and open government files, interviews etc. they’re not short bios but intricate and detailed stories of each spy they even did one who was a spy while spying for the British let me reiterate he was a British spy who spied on Germany and was a spy for Germany while spying for Britain I hope I explained that right lol! Either way this was a great book they have female spies male spies Austrian spies, Hungarian spies the list goes on and on this was a great book well detailed.

NetGalley, Janalyn Prude

About Nigel West

NIGEL WEST is an intelligence expert and critically-acclaimed author. Such is his depth of knowledge in these fields that The Sunday Times noted that, ‘His information is often so precise that many people believe he is the unofficial historian of the secret services. His books are peppered with deliberate clues to potential front-page stories.’ In 1989 Nigel was voted ‘The Experts’ Expert’ by The Observer.

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