Memories of an SOE historian, By MRD Foot

Total recall of war, spies and lies by an old-fashioned secret agent
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The Independent Culture

MRD Foot was dropped into France in 1944, captured, paralysed by a pitch-fork through a vertebra on his fourth brave attempt to escape, and finally exchanged for four German officers. Such a heroic escapade recalls the ironic praise Alan Bennett heaped in 40 Years On on "The Breed": the 1930s school of snobbery-with-violence – imperial adventure stories replete with spies, suspense and sinister aliens.

Foot is no snob. Nor does he dislike foreigners. But he is never afraid to sound old-fashioned. He values good manners; lies and secrets interest him greatly. Revealing both have been his life's work. He is the world's expert on SOE, the Special Operations Executive set up by Churchill in 1940 to "set Europe ablaze", dropping agents into Occupied Europe to sabotage Nazism. Studying Second World War secret services is a burgeoning academic industry – and to some degree Foot's brainchild. He is the only living person to have appeared under their own name in a Le Carré novel.

Foot's nanny never expected him to survive the war. Indeed, of six men on his staircase at Oxford, he was the only survivor. Foot is no revisionist: this was a just war against a manifest evil. Even the fire-bombing of Dresden, a vital part of the German war industry and major communications centre, was justified.

He has the gift of good anecdotes. We learn a hitherto untold story about the abdication crisis: Edward VIII was toppled by a conspiracy during a partridge shoot. We see how Kim Philby got into the secret services: on a train, escaping the fall of France, a woman cousin of Foot's unknowingly recruited him. We learn how the disastrous Dieppe raid of 1942 was received at Combined Operations HQ. Foot, working there, saw staff officers of all three services crying out the forenames of missing friends. And much, much more.

Secrecy today is going out of fashion. Foot deplores this. The wartime habit of revealing nothing of your war work stays with him. He does not discuss his private life. In 1943 he and the economist Thomas Balogh effectively swapped girlfriends, one the future novelist Iris Murdoch, the other her close friend, Foot's first wife, the philosopher Philippa Foot. He tells little of his three marriages. But he reveals much that he considers proper, has an eye for vivid detail, and possesses total recall.

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