Spymaster Ben Macintyre plays the long game

Espionage writer Ben Macintyre, author of Operation Mincemeat, A Spy Among Friends and Colditz, is used to sitting out decades before the truth makes its way out.

Mar 06, 2023, updated Mar 06, 2023
Espionage writer Ben Macintyre at Adelaide Writers' Week on Sunday. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

Espionage writer Ben Macintyre at Adelaide Writers' Week on Sunday. Photo: Andrew Beveridge

Looking for a hot spy story for a book, and maybe a film? It might take 20 years, but UK espionage historian Ben Macintyre has his eye on a Russian spy currently spilling the beans on the invasion of Ukraine.

At Sunday’s Adelaide Writers’ Week session on Spooks and the Stories They Spin, Macintyre said he would love to get his hands on what was unfolding behind the scenes involving US intelligence and Russia’s preparations for invasion.

“Right at the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, the CIA was producing intelligence that made it absolutely clear that they had a senior source of some sort inside Putin’s inner circle,” Macintyre said. “In the runup to the invasion itself, they were able to say ‘we know it is happening, we know where it is happening, we know who is doing it’. I have never seen an intelligence service do that before. It was extremely rare.”

Macintyre said the intelligence failed to stop the invasion but it was used to send a signal to Russia’s autocratic president, Vladimir Putin, that there was a human intelligence source somewhere close to him.

Macintyre is used to waiting for sources and said he could only write a fact-based espionage thriller like A Spy Among Friends, about the MI6 intelligence officer hoping to debrief his close friend and KGB double agent Kim Philby, because the UK in the early 1990s removed the total secrecy around all intelligence files.

“Those files are particularly wonderful for a non-fiction writer because they were intended to be secret,” Macintyre said. “So, they were honest … in real time. As it goes wrong, they are writing in the margins ‘we are going to hell in a handcart here, we are completely finished’ so there is a tension to them that is utterly wonderful.”

His new book about Colditz Castle, the infamous 700-room Gothic fortress in Saxony used as a prisoner-of-war camp for escapees, was made possible only after Colditz inmates were interviewed in the 1980s and 1990s as part of an oral history project by the British War Museum. Their personal stories debunked the idea of Colditz as a gentleman’s prison, an idea reinforced after the war when one of the German guards, the English-speaking Rheinhold Eggers, appeared on This Is Your Life with a former inmate.

“What makes them so interesting is that this was a time when these people felt they could speak openly about subjects that really had been taboo immediately after the war,” Macintyre said. “The myth of Colditz was about upper-middle-class men with moustaches digging their way out of Colditz and continuing the war by other means, it’s all a sort of jolly jape.”

The real story revealed oppressive class divisions in which officers prevented their orderlies from attempting to escape, among them war hero and Spitfire pilot Douglas Bader, a double amputee, who forbade his orderly from being repatriated back to Britain.

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Sexual relationships between the prisoners were common.

“Of the dozens of books written about Colditz, and there were a lot of them in the ’50s and ’60s, not one mentioned this because, of course, it was taboo,” Macintyre said. “It was as prevalent as you imagine it to be. Of course, they fell in love, of course they had sexual relations: they were locked up for five years some of them.”

Adelaide Writers’ Week continues in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden until March 9. InReview will be reporting from Writers’ Week each day – read coverage of other sessions here. 

Read more 2023 Adelaide Festival stories and reviews here on InReview.

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