Review: Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre

Ursula Burton was a housewife and mother who lived an apparently normal life in an English village in the 1940s. She cycled to the shops, shared scone recipes with her neighbours and took her three children to school. Her husband worked in the local factory. But at night, when the children were asleep, she got out her hidden radio transmitter and sent coded messages to her handlers in the Soviet Union. She picked up money and notes left in hollow tree trunks by agents in her network. Ursula was a devoted communist spy, known to the Soviets as Agent Sonya. She had spied in several other countries, including China, Poland and wartime Switzerland, before moving to England.

This is a true story, carefully researched by Ben Macintyre with the co-operation of Ursula’s two sons. It is extremely well-written and completely gripping. Agent Sonya spied for the communists in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where any slip would have led to torture and execution. In Switzerland, where she spied from a beautiful alpine home, she narrowly escaped capture by the Nazis. But her greatest peril came, ironically, from Stalin, the Russian leader to whom she was blindly loyal. He was conducting purges of Soviet agents during the time that she was in Moscow receiving new training. Sonya survived, but many devoted spies were killed in Russia despite being innocent; some were her friends. She lost many comrades across the world, and others endured harsh and prolonged imprisonment.

I will not give any more spoilers! Ursula’s activities in England were just as intrepid, and even more useful to the Soviet Union. Her story has every element of an exciting read – Ursula’s love life is as colourful as her espionage adventures. I highly recommend this book to almost any keen reader. Great for lockdown and a perfect Christmas present, since it has only just been published.