Friday, 17 May 2019

MI5's Greatest Spymaster

Recalling Recent History

We recently read M--Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster (London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017), written by Henry Hemming.  It is well worth a read.  

Of course since the 1950's onward spy thrillers have been pretty standard fare in the UK.  Authors like Ian Fleming and John Le Carre have become standards.  A common frame of reference in these spy novels (and in many others) has been the Spymaster--the boss, the head guy (or gal) who ran if not the spy agency itself, then a group of spies.

These novels, particularly those written by Le Carre, have always been seen as reflecting in some way, shape, or form the real world of real life spies in the UK in the twentieth century.  (Le Carre used to be a spy in MI5.  His real name is David Cornwall.  In the years he worked for MI5, his boss was "M" which stood for Maxwell Knight.)

There have been more and more de-classifications of UK secret papers, including the files and dossiers of the various secret services over the years.  M-Maxwell Knight draws upon recent declassified information.  It demonstrates the craft of the real-life spy--essentially a watcher, a listener, and a reader.

Most of the spies recruited and "run" by M were ordinary folk.  They were trained on the job.  M was a superb teacher and mentor.  He was the first to see that often the best spies were "nobodies".  They were secretaries, clerks, receptionists.  So low-level that they were often overlooked.
  Maxwell Knight appears to have been one of the first to see that women often made top notch "assets".  Thankfully M got away employing women in such critical positions as "assets" simply because a great deal of what he did was, well, secret.

At one time Knight had two "assets" ensconced in the same (small) office, neither of which knew that the other was actually working for the same spy master.

All good and successful spies have a "front", a story.  Usually once they spring the trap as it were their spying career is over, particularly if one of the outcomes is the arrest and trial of a traitor.  Hemming tells a curious story about a female spy who appears to have become such an  adrenaline junkie and could never fully settle back into "ordinary" life when it was all over.

Olga Gary became a key witness in a case against a cell actively spying in the UK for the Soviets.  Because of M's modus operandi, Olga ended up being a star witness against the personnel of this Soviet spy cell--people whom she had come to know well over the years, and liked.  She and her "handlers" knew that, once things came to light, she would forever-after be marked for retaliation by the Soviets.

Her career in M's spy network now over, she migrated to Canada, married, settled down and had a family.  Hemming provides us with a window into Olga Gray's lifestyle in Canada after her public exposure as a spy in the UK, performing for M so effectively.
After the war, she moved with her young family to Lindsay, outside Ontario, a small town with small-town values.  Rather than let her considerable talents go to waste, she became a reporter for the local newspaper, but had to write under a pseudonym because the assumption in Lindsay at that time was was that if a women had a job it meant that her husband was unable to provide for her.  . . .

Olga's daughter remembers how her mother would often pick her up from school and take a detour on the way home to a dirt track on the outskirts of town.  It ran parallel to a railroad.  They would wait in the car with the engine running until a freight train came into view.  Olga would honk at the driver.  He would blow his whistle.  Olga would rev the engine until the train came alongside, then they began to race.

Her daughter still recalls the look on her mother's face as she slammed down the accelerator, screamed with joy and began to race against the train.  That was when she became alive, the adrenaline coursing through her as it had done during her days working for M.  Then the road ran out, the train hived off and Olga returned to her new life as a housewife in a small town in Canada.  [Hemming, op cit., p. 341f.] 
Olga later suffered a complete "breakdown".  Presumably the stresses of her service in MI5 eventually caught up with her.  M himself eventually retired from MI5. He began a new career--as a naturalist for the BBC presenting on radio and TV.  He died of a heart attack on 24 January, 1968.  Nobody (except insiders) knew that he had been one of the most celebrated spy masters of the modern world.

Hemming's book is a joy to read.  The stories he tells which draw upon the historical files and archives are incredible--except they are true. 

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