Clare Mulley

Sidney Reilly, Ace of Spies, remains an enigma

‘James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamt up,’ the former naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming once said. ‘He’s nota Sidney Reilly you know.’ Sidney Reilly was not really Sidney Reilly either; but he was certainly a James Bond. Born Sigmund or Schlomo Rosenblum (this is a book full of caveats), he spoke

The sheer tedium of life at Colditz

They say each generation needs its own biographies of Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Napoleon, not just when more evidence is unearthed but because the lens through which we view character and motive changes. The same is true for the great set pieces of history. According to Ben Macintyre, the story of Colditz and its

The great betrayal of Ethel Rosenberg

Ethel Rosenberg was an exceptional woman. Born with a painful curvature of the spine to a poor family of Jewish immigrants and a mother who never loved her, she was determined to make her life matter. A talented singer, she won a place at New York’s prestigious Schola Cantorum and performed at Carnegie Hall. Having

The defiance of the ‘ghetto girls’ who resisted the Nazis

‘Jewish Resistance in Poland: Women Trample Nazi Soldiers,’ ran a New York headline in late 1942. That autumn, the Nazi occupying forces in the ancient town of Lubliniec, in southern Poland, had forced the Jewish community to assemble in the square. As men, women, the elderly and children were ordered to strip, a dozen women

Sleeping with the enemy: the wartime story of ‘La Chatte’

The name ‘Carré’ immediately evokes the shadowy world of espionage. Ironically, however, few people today have heard of the real Carré, also known as ‘Victoire’ and ‘La Chatte’, a female intelligence agent inside Nazi-occupied France whose life had enough plot twists and moral ambiguity to satisfy any spy novelist. Mathilde Carré (1908-2007) had beena clever

The pram in the hall was one spy’s best friend

‘If you had visited the quaint English village of Great Rollright in 1945, you might have spotted a thin, dark-haired and unusually elegant woman… climbing on to her bicycle,’ Ben Macintyre opens his latest book, like the start of a gentle Ealing comedy. It will come as no surprise to his fans that the elegant

Monuments to the second world war are looking increasingly dodgy

Most monuments are literally set in stone — or cast in bronze to better survive the weather. Being enduring, they arguably become ‘prisoners of history’, as this fascinating series of essays by Keith Lowe is titled. Conversely, perspectives are like the weather, constantly changing, as relationships between and within nations, and views on social and

How Britain conned the US into entering the war

In June 1940, MI6’s new man, Bill Stephenson, ‘a figure of restless energy… wedged into the shell of a more watchful man’, sailed from Liverpool to New York on the MV Britannic. Once separated from its protective convoy, ‘this elegant, ageing liner was on its own’, Henry Hemming writes, noting that the same was true

The lady with the limp

‘This seems to be in your rough area. I mean, it contains wooden legs and everything…’ my commissioning editor at The Spectator emailed. He was requesting a review of Sonia Purnell’s excellent A Woman of No Importance, a biography of the remarkable Virginia Hall, the only second world war agent to serve not only with

The lure of a well-tailored uniform

Anita Leslie knew how to tell a story. Arranging to sit for a portrait six months before she died, she planned to borrow a khaki shirt on which to pin her second world war decorations, the Africa Star and the Croix de Guerre. The portrait was never commissioned, but it is clear that Leslie —

Delusions of the deserters

‘Keep my name out of it’, was the fairly standard reply when Matthew Sweet started researching the story of the GIs who deserted from Vietnam. People’s concern, it turned out, however, was not about being associated just with desertion, but with a more complex story of duplicity, abuse and insanity. Over time, the American Deserters

Carve their names with pride

‘Women,’ Captain Selwyn Jepson, SOE’s senior recruiting officer, once wrote, ‘have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men.’ This questionable assumption is not actually the reason why the women were recruited. That was down to their ability to move around enemy-occupied territory carrying messages, arms or heavy wireless sets without arousing

Licence to kill | 12 January 2017

As I read the last chapter of this book, news broke that the Russian ambassador to Ankara, Andrey Karlov, had been shot multiple times at close range by an off-duty Turkish police officer. Despite shocking live footage of the incident, it was unclear immediately whether this was political assassination or terrorist attack, or who was

What did you do in the last war, Maman?

‘La France,’ as everyone knows, is female. Perhaps this is due to gendered assumptions about the beauty, cuisine and couture of the French capital, the symbolic revolutionary Marianne, or the patriarchal nature of language. Between 1940 and 1945, however, Paris was more literally female. Most of the capital’s men were serving with the Allied effort

The house that Alfred built

This is a book about boundaries — and relationships. At its heart is the eponymous house by the lake, which in 1927 was the first of many small wooden summer houses to be built in the village of Gross Glienicke. Both its situation, just outside Berlin in the lakeside area that would later abut Gatow

Mission near impossible

Operation Thunderbolt was, Saul David contends in this gripping book, ‘the most audacious special forces operation in history’. In June 1976 Air France Flight 139, travelling from Tel Aviv to Paris via Athens, was hijacked above the Gulf of Corinth by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans

The beginning of the end

Christmas Eve 1944 found thousands of Allied — mostly American — troops dug into trenches and foxholes along the Belgian front, where they sucked at frozen rations and, in some places, listened to their enemies singing ‘Stille Nacht’. Their more fortunate colleagues in command posts gathered around Christmas trees decorated with strips of the aluminium