Spies, Lies and Deception: proof that Ian Fleming’s imagination wasn't so fanciful after all

A matchbox containing one match adapted for writing secret messages, Second World War
A matchbox containing one match adapted for writing secret messages, Second World War - IWM

A ghetto blaster from the early 1980s is just one fascinating object in an exhibition called Spies, Lies and Deception opening this Friday at the Imperial War Museum in London, running until next April. This particular blaster is unusual: from the Soviet era, it contained Russian surveillance equipment. In James Bond mode, there is also a fountain pen that fired jets of tear gas, a clutch bag designed by the KGB with a camera in it, a box of matches one of which was a stylus for writing secret messages, and a hollowed-out brush whose cavity could contain film. They were the utensils of the Cold War, proving that Ian Fleming’s imagination was not unduly wild.

The displays include deception in warfare, such as netting covered with camouflage used to conceal trenches from enemy aircraft in the Great War, observation posts disguised as trees and a yeti-like camouflage suit. We learn of the artist Solomon J Solomon, whose such camouflage was. The technique was advanced in the Second World War, and among the exhibits are aerial photographs (for me one of the great surprises of the exhibition) showing how another artist, Christopher Ironside, successfully camouflaged factories to disguise them from German bombers; and the Germans used camouflage in Hamburg to convince the RAF it was bombing factories when it was bombing a lake. Experts from the film studios at Shepperton helped design decoy RAF airfields to mislead the Luftwaffe.

Our spies are well represented. An open small suitcase displays a transmitter used by the Special Operations Executive. There is a fake ID and a handsome leather coat made exactly as it would have been on the continent, labels included. A sweater with a darned bullet hole was worn by the agent Harry Rée when a German military policeman shot him in December 1943: he survived and escaped to Switzerland. That exhibit alone is a reminder of the lethal dangers of espionage, and the heroic courage it takes to do it. A remarkable exhibit are footprint overshoes, used by agents in south-east Asia, to create the impression that the wearer had walked in the direction opposite to the one he had in fact taken.

Russian troops spot a BRIXMIS team photographing them
Russian troops spot a BRIXMIS team photographing them - IWM

The exhibition comes up almost to the present day, with the official deception plan for the Iraq war, a camouflage helmet from Afghanistan, and a display about countering Islamic terrorism. And the most famous features of 20th-century espionage and deception are all there – Agent Zigzag, who double-crossed the Germans, Operation Mincemeat, which duped the Nazis over the invasion of Sicily by planting fake documents on a washed-up corpse, and Alan Turing’s role in breaking German codes – and there’s an Enigma machine as well. Various excellent video presentations explain and interpret different aspects of an exhibition whose artefacts are excellent and whose labelling and provision of context are first-class.

What the show really teaches is that however the technology has improved, the basic skills – subterfuge, deception, concealment, disguise and the unobtrusive gathering of information – remain exactly the same.

Until April 14; iwm.org.uk