Operation Kronstadt

Michael Goodman enjoys a highly readable story of secret operations

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Reviewed by: Michael Goodman
Author: Harry Ferguson
Publisher: Random House
Price (RRP): £8.99

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The centenary of the birth of MI5 and MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service – SIS) has re-awakened interest in the early years of British intelligence. Harry Ferguson’s Operation Kronstadt: the Greatest True Tale of Espionage to Come Out of MI6 is a highly readable and energetic narrative of one of the first major SIS operations. The author, we are frequently reminded, is a former SIS officer, and he has used his knowledge of operational tradecraft to bring insight to events chronicled in the book.

Operation Kronstadt was, as the flyleaf tells us, a “daring rescue attempt” and a “mission impossible” centred on the Soviet Union. Following the communist revolution in 1917 the country became embroiled in civil war. The fledgling SIS planned an audacious attempt to rescue one of their agents – a former concert pianist and Russian linguist, Paul Dukes. The mission, against all the odds, was a success – Dukes was knighted for his espionage work and his rescuer, Augustus Agar, awarded the Victoria Cross.

Ferguson’s account is a thrilling tale. The frequent fictional efforts to recreate conversation might infuriate some historical aficionados, but Ferguson does an admirable job of bringing to life the mood and desperation of civil war Russia. Both Dukes and Agar wrote memoirs of their adventure, and Ferguson seamlessly works these into other accounts, both primary and secondary. For those familiar with events the book offers little new, but for the uninitiated this is, as the sub-title states, the greatest tale of espionage to come from the early years of MI6.

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Michael Goodman is a senior lecturer in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London