Was Mackintosh a spy?
Clues and Conclusions
All of the preceding really serves simply to indicate that Mackintosh needn’t have been directly involved in SIS to write as accurate and insightful a series as The Sandbagger’s.

Indeed, there are odd errors within his narrative that suggest very strongly that he wasn’t a serving SIS officer, or at least not for any sustained period. While it is possible to write the JIB gaffe off as Gidley Wheeler getting it wrong, other oddities are less easily dismissed.

A minor such item is the reference to the French foreign intelligence service as the SDECE (Service d’Espionage et Contre-Espionage) where it had in fact been called the DGSE (Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure) since the mid-1970s (however, that was about the time Mackintosh left the Navy). More problematic is his persistent misuse of the term ‘agent’.

No SIS or CIA officer would call a career member of their service an ‘agent’. In Anglo-American intelligence parlance (eccentricities of Hoover’s FBI notwithstanding) an agent is an informant or human source. The career member of a service who handles the agent is an intelligence officer. To be sure, former intelligence officers who write popular fiction often ignore the distinction for their readership, but why would Mackintosh be precise about UK intelligence organisation and procedures, litter the series with ‘spookspeak’ jargon and acronyms only experts and insiders would know, and then be sloppy about such a subtle but important matter of jargon?

And then there is the operation of SIS HQ itself. Burnside frequently refers to himself as a ‘junior’ director. By contrast, the real-life equivalent, Director Production (nowadays Director, Production and Requirements, see my essay Order of Battle on this site) is actually the third most senior post in the service (sometimes second as D/PR often doubles as Deputy Chief as well). D/P has always been a senior and very experienced officer with a number of foreign postings in highly active areas plus HQ Controllerate postings under his (perhaps one day her) belt.

D/P is, and has to be, a highly respected elder member of the service with real personal as well as formal authority. The typical D/P would be in his mid-40s, with a reasonable expectation of serving 4-5 years as D/P before, in usual course, acceding to the post of C and running 3-5 years in that post (past the usual retirement age of 50). Burnside is indeed too junior in his mid-30s or so, too junior to ever become D.Ops, but even if the service promoted a talented young turk to such a post, he could never be described as junior in institutional terms.

At the Office
Finally, there is the pace of life at Mackintosh’s SIS HQ. This is where The Sandbaggers diverges most strikingly from the real SIS. Consider this: in current SIS doctrine, the ideal SIS source (agent) might take two or three years to recruit, and would run for perhaps a decade before being stood down or ‘brought in’ (extracted) and relocated to retirement in the UK. In the mid-1970s, Oleg Gordievsky had been under surveillance by the SIS Copenhagen Station for two years or so -- his movements monitored, his home telephone tapped -- before the SovBloc and Western Europe Controlerates and Soviet Targeting Section decided he was ready for a ‘pass’ by the Head of Station.

A rendezvous was engineered at a local sports stadium; the SIS officer found a quiet moment alone with Gordievsky and opened with ‘Oleg, we need to talk....’ For the most part SIS operations are a matter of ‘slow and steady’; even ‘special operations’ generally take months to plan and execute. In this sense, the pace of life in ‘Collingstone House’ is a little at odds with Century House or Vauxhall Cross. The Operations Room in particular diverges from both the ‘slow and steady’ tempo and the principle of ‘compartmentalization’. ‘Compartmentalization’ (or, as it is generally known, SCI for Sensitive Compartmented Information) is the principle of keeping knowledge about an operation confined to only those involved with running it, or processing its product. People ‘in the know’ about a particular operation are described as ‘indoctrinated’, and secret files are accompanied by a signed indoctrination list.

Ops Room staff have an access to information that cuts across geographical controllerates, operational specialisms (e.g. special operations, counter-espionage and so forth) that would make compartmentalization elsewhere futile. The real SIS may have a high-tech communications centre, but com traffic going through it will be subject to strict compartmentalization.

What the Ops Room is like is a military operations centre such as that at the Joint Services Headquarters in Folkstone. The tone and tempo of its activities are better suited to the clandestine (as opposed to covert) efforts of Special Operations Forces like SAS and SBS. The kind of activities it monitors are more akin to the work done by SOF ‘contract labourers’ (see ‘Order of Battle’).

And herein lies what may be the chief clue to Mackintosh’s insight into the work of SIS and the UK intelligence community.

Might have been...
SIS has always made use of SIS personnel operating under Service Branch cover, and of Service Branch persons performing tasks on behalf of SIS. As noted in my ‘Order of Battle’ on this site, since 1921 (in fact, 1917) SIS has maintained a Navy presence at its HQ, these days known as MODA Navy (Ministry of Defence Advisor, Navy), before that as R3 or Section III. R3 would often be involved in recruiting and briefing officers and agents, and planning operations as well as evaluating and disseminating the product for Naval Intelligence.

A classic example was the recruitment of members of the Scottish trawler fleets by Royal Navy officers seconded to SIS. The trawlermen were asked to act as voluntary informants reporting on the types and locations of Soviet bloc vessels, especially warships, they encountered fishing in the North Atlantic.

These SIS officers portrayed the task as being for NID and not SIS, much as the catasrophic Crabbe dive in 1956 had originally been attributed to the NID. And of course, the back-up dive after Crabbe’s loss was by a serving Royal Navy diver rather than a retiree in private life like Crabbe. Naval personnel and vessels (especially submarines and motor torpedo boats) have also traditionally been seconded to SIS for the infiltration and exfiltration of officers and agents.

If Mackintosh had any direct dealing with SIS it would most likely be through one of the mechanisms of secondment rather than fully fledged service at Century House. His land assignment in Scotland could easily have brought him into contact with the trawler surveillance programme, or with clandestine landing operations through the Skagerak into the Soviet occupied Baltic states. It has been suggested elsewhere that he might have served a spell as a Naval member of the Defence Intelligence. I have often speculated that he might have been attached to R3 in some capacity, though he would likely have been too junior to have been the main R3 liaison officer. But the tone and pace of Mackintosh’s SIS and his stories is more like what one would expect of the work of military secondments to the ‘increment’ or ‘contract labourers’.

If Mackintosh did indeed have direct experience of the real Secret Intelligence Service it would most likely have been in circumstances of this sort.

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