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9th October 2023

Stephen James reviews Lord Ashcroft’s In the Shadows: ‘it will leave you wanting more’

Lord Ashcroft’s book, ‘In The Shadows’ shines a light on the extraordinary world of the Intelligence Corps, writes Stephen James

Lord Ashcroft’s latest book rightly focuses on “the extraordinary men and women of the Intelligence Corps” whose skills and knowledge help inform Commanders where the enemy is, what they are doing, and what they are capable of. Now, at this point, I’d like to declare an interest – I served in the Intelligence Corps throughout the 2000s (deploying on operations to Afghanistan twice). As with any member of the Corps, I’m fiercely proud of my Corps and its history.


The Intelligence Corps is one of the youngest units in the British Army; it was formally constituted with the consent of King George V on 15 July 1940, with the formation being notified on 19 July 1940 in Army Order 112. The Intelligence Corps played a vital role in World War 2 with its members working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the founding of the Special Air Service (SAS), and contributing to deciphering the enigma code. Today, the Corps is one of the smallest Corps in the British Army with approximately 1850 serving Officers and soldiers. However, what the Corps lacks in size, it more than makes up for in impact and influence.


Unlike other parts of the military which are known for their aggression (Parachute Regiment), equipment (Royal Tank Regiment / Army Air Corps) or drill on parade (Guards) – the Intelligence Corps does not fit into any particular category. The ‘textbook answer’ is it analyses large amounts of data, to produce accurate and timely intelligence that has an impact on the theatre of operations.


Lord Ashcroft’s book goes further and gives us a fascinating insight into the history of intelligence leading to the establishment of the Intelligence Corps and most importantly, brings the exploits of individual Intelligence Corps soldiers to life!


The Corps itself brings together a wide range of people; some unconventional but all highly skilled intelligence operatives who were able to use their energies in various trades and specialisms that can be brought to bear on the enemy. During my time in the Corps, I worked alongside the Security Service (MI5), Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), as well as foreign intelligence services – and the ability to be flexible and resilient to unpredictable situations was a key trait amongst Corps soldiers and officers.


Some of the stories shared by Lord Ashcroft are not ones I had heard before… not because of my own ignorance of Corps history but because we take its role seriously ‘to protect the Military and its secrets’ – after all, loose lips sink ships! The only times I’ve heard of some of these stories of ‘daring do’ are over hushed tones in the quietness of night over a pint in the mess.

“There is a reason that the Intelligence Corps is the British Army’s most secretive unit and not as well known as SOE, MI5, MI6 or GCHQ… it’s because we prefer to operate in the shadows!”
Stephen James


That is not to say that we are not deeply proud of our heroic soldiers who have helped tackle matters of security, terrorism and war, in every conflict since the Second World War but we take seriously, our dedication to service and secrecy. Sadly (or not), it will always be the case that many of the most valiant and brave members of the Intelligence Corps will never have their stories told due to the clandestine nature of their work. That said, this book is packed full of heroic deeds which fill me with pride, and wanting more!


The story of Paddy Leigh Fermor who was a natural recruit to our ranks is one of particular excitement that was also made into a movie starring Dirk Boregare. Paddy was rebellious, free-spirited sort and found himself gathering intelligence in Nazi-occupied Crete, disguised as a shepherd. as well as training and organising the local resistance fighters. As if that wasn’t dangerous enough, Paddy engineered an ambitious plan: to kidnap a German general and dispatch him to British Army headquarters in Cairo. For his ‘courage and audacity’ in planning and executing the high-stakes mission, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.


The Corps is very good at shaping itself to the current threat, the Cold War and The Troubles in Northern Ireland placed huge demands on the Intelligence Corps and as I joined it was starting to pivot towards Afghanistan. Although NI was a thousand miles away, the lessons we learnt during The Troubles enabled us to draw on the experience of senior soldiers who were used to asymmetric warfare.


My one critique is not the author’s fault, but more a consequence of writing about such a secretive organisation – because it is inevitable that some extraordinary men and women are missing from this account. Lord Ashcroft could have included them but not without being locked up in the Tower of London for sharing state secrets. For example, The ‘Special Reconnaissance Unit’, also known as the “The Det” was a part of the Corps. It involved plainclothes operations in Northern Ireland from the 1970s onwards where numerous members of the Corps lost their lives. I know several stories about individuals, who, in my opinion, would deserve to be included in this book.


Overall, In the Shadows will give you an explanation of how the Intelligence Corps recruits the best and the brightest. It is not only for those with linguistic and intelligence skills but also for rogues, rascals and raconteurs – those with the ability to think outside the box. During my intake, we had such a broad range of people who brought different skills to the Corps – and whatever you think an Operator of Military Intelligence is… it isn’t… there is no type. But in my view there are similar employability traits such as attention to detail, a passion for problem solving, excellent communication skills and adaptability to constantly evolving situations. In a world where transferable skills provide you with the best opportunities for success, I am thankful to the Intelligence Corps jobs who have shaped my skill set and Finito who are now also helping me refine further into the corporate world!


Short of joining yourself, if you want to get an idea of what the extraordinary men and women of the Intelligence Corps really do, this is an enjoyable read that will leave you wanting more.


Stephen James is a former member of the Intelligence Corps and one of our Finito’s Business Mentors.


In the Shadows: The extraordinary men and women of the Intelligence Corps is published by Biteback priced £25


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