Wednesday 29 January 2020

Obituary: Professor Keith Jeffery

Belfast-born historian who wrote of spying nuns and exploding filing cabinets in MI6

On a literacy mission: Keith Jeffery chronicled MI6
On a literacy mission: Keith Jeffery chronicled MI6 Newsdesk

Professor Keith Jeffery, who has died of cancer aged 64, was a historian of Ireland and the British Empire and was chosen in 2004 to write the first official history of the British secret intelligence service, MI6.

Belfast-born and educated in the Methodist College where his father was vice-principal, he wrote several books on Irish history,

In Ireland and the Great War (2000) he synthesised recent historical research to illuminate a "once shadowy corner of Ireland's modern history" for a general readership, concluding that the war was "the single most central experience in 20th-century Ireland". This led on to a biography of Henry Wilson, the Irishman who became chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1918 and was assassinated in 1922 by the IRA.

In his most recent book, 1916: A Global History (2015), Jeffery embedded the central events of the most bloody year of the First World War within a much wider history, showing, for example, how while the involvement of French and British colonial peoples in the conflict had helped deliver victory, it also undermined the imperial dream by tarnishing the mystique of the colonisers among those they ruled.

His tome, The Secret History of MI6, published in 2010, traced the history of the fledgling British secret service operation of 1909 to the global intelligence service it had become by the onset of the Cold War in 1949, by which time it was employing 2,000 people at home and abroad.

The existence of the service had itself been an official secret (often with absurd results) until 1994 and it was a surprise when its then chief, Sir John Scarlett, announced that its centenary in 2009 would be marked by an official history, albeit one which covered only its first 40 years, starting in 1909 when MI6 was a one-man band run by Mansfield Cumming (the prototype for Ian Fleming's "M") who, as Jeffery related, recorded his first day in his diary: "Went to the office and remained all day, but saw no one, nor was there anything to do there." This was unsurprising as his telephone number was considered too secret to be listed in the Whitehall directory.

It was not a story of smooth progress, however, and some critics found the scholarly length in which Jeffery charted the bureaucratic turf wars between the first three "M"s - Cumming, Hugh Sinclair and Stewart Menzies - with Whitehall bean-counters, to be excessive.

Nonetheless, for fans of the James Bond school of espionage, there was enough to make the book enjoyable. There was, for example, La Dame Blanche, an 800-strong Belgian organisation, organised into battalions, one-third of which were women. They included 44 priests, a nun and a reverend mother, and their main occupation was counting and reporting on German troop trains passing through Belgium during the First World War. Jeffery reckoned them to be "the most successful single British human intelligence operation" of the conflict.

Cumming himself, Jeffery found, set the tone for the new service with his penchant for gadgets (including exploding filing cabinets), code names and invisible inks: "The best invisible ink is semen," someone opined, and "all were anxious to obtain" it.

MI6's "eclectic and cosmopolitan mix" of agents, meanwhile, ranged from Compton Mackenzie, who ran the Aegean Service from a former royal yacht, to Dudley Clarke, whose arrest in Madrid in 1941 "dressed, down to a brassiere, as a woman" (the Spanish authorities, confused about whether he was a spy or simply a cross-dresser, eventually released him), did not hinder his rise to the rank of brigadier.

Other colourful characters included Major Cudbert Thornhill, a "first class Russian scholar" and "a good shot with rifle, catapult, shotgun and blowpipe", and Air Commodore Lionel "Lousy" Payne, assessed as having a "good brain, which he is willing to use if given time" and who "is often well informed, probably due to the fact that information is more readily obtained in bed".

Jeffery also described how, despite spying on the Americans in the 1930s, MI6 managed to develop its own access to the highest levels of US government and helped to lay the foundations of what became known as the "special relationship". Keith John Jeffery was born on January 11, 1952, in Belfast, where his father was vice-principal of the city's Methodist College. He was educated there before going up to read history at St John's College, Cambridge, where he won the Prince Consort Prize and Seeley Medal, shared a room with Douglas Adams (future author of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy), coxed his college's 1st VIII to the Head of the River and renounced the teetotalism of his Methodist upbringing.

After taking a PhD, Jeffery taught, first, at Ulster Polytechnic where, during the Troubles, he resisted pressure to give a partisan gloss to his teaching. He later taught at the University of Ulster and in 2003-04 he spent a year as a Parnell fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. From 2005 he taught at Queen's University, Belfast, where he became professor of British History.

In his first book, The British Army and the Crisis of Empire, 1918-22 (1978), he analysed how military realities had influenced Britain's approach in the Middle East and south Asia. In 1988, with Ciaran Brady of Trinity College, Dublin, Jeffery became the first Belfast-based editor of the journal Irish Historical Studies.

He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy.

A gregarious, affable, easy-going man, Jeffery was popular with his many graduate students. In 1976, Keith Jeffrey married Sally Visick, who survives him with their two sons. He died on February 12.

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