Benjamin Beasley-Murray

Agents of enterprise

The flashy agents of SOE and the discreet US spies monitoring Congolese uranium shared one thing in common: a reliance on dirty tricks

A teenager in the second decade of the Cold War, my father was taught to play snooker by a KGB agent. His own father was the principal of a theological college in London that had been allowed to accept two foreign students from Russia only if, said the Moscow authorities, a third ‘student’ (notably less ardent in his desire to become a clergyman) was allowed to accompany them.

And this is the problem of the world of international espionage: you think it’s going to be all poisoned-tip umbrellas and canasta parties but can wind up in South Norwood studying early church history while making sure Sergey and Dmitry aren’t getting the bus up to Whitehall in the afternoons or swapping briefcases with carnation-wearing strangers at train stations. After writing your daily dispatch in lemon juice with a cocktail stick, you end up with nothing more exciting to do with your evening than play my dad at snooker.

Spies in the Congo drives home how trying the cover-life of a spy can be, introducing us to American agents who played a potentially civilisation-saving role during the second world war by posing as businessmen, photographers, ornithologists and gem prospectors in the Belgian Congo. Frequently ill with malaria and other afflictions, and faced with track and river journeys that would make even a Southern Rail commuter shudder, these spooks, in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, gave service to the Allied forces that was tough and, until now, largely thankless.

The US agents’ central task was to prevent the Germans from acquiring high-grade uranium that could be used by the Nazis to make a nuclear bomb. For the Congo, in particular its Katanga region nestled in the east, was — and indeed remains, as eagle-eyed perusers of the Snowden documents may notice — the source of the richest uranium in the world.

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