So, what do you expect when you read a non-fiction book? Specifically, since that’s what I’ll be talking about here, a history book?
Maybe different people have different expectations, but for me I’m looking for narrative and information, of course, there’s not much point in reading history if you don’t discover a story you didn’t know before, or at least one whose details you didn’t know. I want to learn, but that also means that I am looking for the author to be, as it were, a teacher. I want to feel they are on top of their subject, that they have formulated a coherent account that makes sense of the information they are conveying.
All of which, alas, is what is singularly missing from MI9 by Helen Fry.
I knew there were going to be problems with the book: I’d read the reviews. But the problem the reviewer, and a host of letter-writers, in the TLS was exercised with is not the problem I have with the book. Let’s deal with that problem first: none of the correspondents in the TLS was happy with the fact that Helen Fry blames Claude Dansey, Deputy Chief of MI6 and as such one of the people with overall control of MI9, for betraying one of the main escape lines in France. Except that you could read practically the whole of the book and wonder what all the fuss was about. Yes, the early parts of the book suggest that Dansey isn’t exactly the hero of this story, but there is nothing to tell us why Fry clearly doesn’t like him. We are told that a man called Harold Cole sold out one of the escape lines for personal gain. But it is not until we are two pages into the Epilogue that we get to this brief passage:
When Langley [one of the heads of MI9] raised concerns over Cole, MI9 arguably could have done more to terminate him. Dansey, however, failed to take action and it has been suggested that he was running Cole as a double agent. 
And that’s it. Several weeks of letters to the TLS all over these two sentences, hedged around with qualifications: “arguably”, “suggested”. Now, this isn’t exactly good history: what more could MI9 have done? What did they actually do? Who suggested that Dansey was involved? Is there anything to support this suggestion? Fry doesn’t say, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in the answers. I know several people were killed as a result of Cole’s betrayal, others were tortured and sent to concentration camps. Even so, this passage is barely an excuse for so many people to get hot under the collar, particularly when there is so much else wrong with the book.
Let’s put it simply: this book is badly constructed, badly written, and at the very least the copy editors at Yale University Press deserve to be taken out and shot. This is shoddy work. I wasn’t expecting great art, but when you are telling a story as complex as the history of the organisation that helped escaped prisoners of war and downed airmen across Europe throughout the Second World War, you expect the whole thing to be at least coherent.
There are other books on the subject, the earliest being Airey Neave’s Saturday at MI9 which came out in 1969. But it has been a while since the most recent of these appeared, and Fry apparently had access to newly released documents, so this should be the go-to book on the topic. Should be. And there is indeed an awful lot of information contained in the book, but it is presented in such a haphazard manner that it would be a nightmare trying to amass it all, and even then doubts would remain about whether you had got it all straight and in the right chronological order.
Let’s take a fairly simple matter. At the beginning of the book there is a rather too brief account of the gadgets that were designed and produced by the boffins at MI9 to aid escapers. These varied from tissue-thin maps hidden in board games to boots for airmen that could be quickly and easily cut down to resemble civilian shoes. There was a lot of ingenuity involved in this which Fry doesn’t give as much attention as I think it deserves (but that is a minor quibble), and these items were smuggled into PoW camps in deliveries from non-existent charities. This, we are led to believe, was all vital stuff for escapers. But much later in the book, when we are inside a Prisoner of War camp (in this instance, Colditz) we learn that the Germans quickly got wind of what was going on and quickly instituted procedures that managed to find most of the gadgets before they reached the prisoners. Later still, she changes the story yet again by insisting once more that most of the gadgets did get through and were instrumental in many escapes. Except that we are given details of very few actual escapes, and those that we are told about (Airey Neave’s escape from Colditz; the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III) seem to have taken place without the use of any MI9 gadgets. By the mid-point of the book, in other words, you are thoroughly confused about this part of the MI9 story, and there is nothing later in the book to clarify things.
And that is a really minor part of the mess that is this book. For instance, she will devote a great deal of attention to one of the escape routes across Belgium and France, the Comet Line, for example, or the Pat Line. Then she will just break off in mid story to tell us about something else that has no direct link to the Comet Line, and probably doesn’t even fit into the same chronology (chronology is so screwed up in this book that I couldn’t say for sure on that point). Then, when she resumes the story of the escape line, her account will just peter out, and it will only be several chapters later that you learn, in passing, that the line was betrayed, or the leader of the route was captured, or something else happened.
Then there is confusion about who Fry is actually writing about. For instance, writing about the Shelburne Line, which evacuated shot down airmen from Brittany to Dartmouth, she tells us: “A leader emerged in the person of a White Russian called Vladimir Bouryschkine” . The next thing we learn, however, is that “Back in England, Langley asked Val Williams if he was prepared to return to France”  to run the escape route. It is only when you check the index that you discover that “Val Williams” was the code name used by Vladimir Bouryschkine.
I could go on, but it is dispiriting to do so. All the way through the book you learn of people being betrayed and arrested before you find out what they actually did. You encounter people being called indiscriminately by their real name or their code name, sometimes without being clear which is which. There is a constant sense of stories only half told: for instance we know of the traitor Harold Cole, but we don’t know exactly what happened, why he did what he did, or what the consequences were.
And there is so much missing. Read accounts of similar wartime endeavours, the code breakers at Bletchley Park, for instance, or the people running the double cross system, and you will be given details of how it was structured and how it did its job day by day. There is none of that here. As I finish the book I feel I know less about how MI9 operated than I did before I started it. And then there is the other great absence: the actual experience of being an escaper. We know that everyone who escaped, or who evaded capture and was helped by MI9, was interrogated once they reached safety. There are detailed reports of the experiences of every one of the several thousand people who were helped to escape by MI9. Fry refers to these reports frequently throughout the book. But she never once tells the story of an escaper. Not just how they got out of the camp, we know all that from countless prisoner of war films, but how they made their way safely across enemy territory. How they made contact with an escape route (a few times in the book we are told that someone learned there were British airmen hiding out in the woods, or some such, but how did they learn and how do they safely go into the woods and make contact?). How do the escaper and the civilian helper, who may not know each other’s language, learn to trust each other when the wrong move means death? What route did they follow across France? What was it like hiding out all that time, being passed from one guide to another, moving secretly from safe house to safe house? How did someone who was exhausted, ill fed, possibly wounded, get across the Pyrenees to Spain or the Alps into Switzerland? All of that is surely the heart of the story of MI9, so why is it absent?
There’s a blurb on the front cover of this book: “A masterful page-turner you won’t be able to put down.” Every word of that is wrong. Which is so sad, because there is a wonderful story to be told about MI9. It’s just that Helen Fry doesn’t tell it.