Episode 7: True London Spy Stories

Have you ever wondered how much of the James Bond stories are true? We all know 007 is a fictional character but the inspiration for the stories has to come from somewhere.

In this episode our tour guide Rob Smith shares with us try London spy stories. Including how the secret service came about, the role of the secret service in World War I, where MI6 agents hung out in London. He also shares the intriguing story of the third man and the cost of being a double agent.

Recommended Reading:


True London Spy Stories

Show Notes:

Hazel: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

Joining me today is one of our long-standing guides Rob Smith. So, Rob spy stories with a London connection.


How did the Security Services get started?

Rob: Well, there have always been spies. I mean, if you think back throughout times, there are spies in the core of James in Spain, who know that the Spanish Armada is on its way. So, there have been spies for a long time. But the modern security services are actually really the result of a novelist called William F Buckley Jr. William Buckley was writing in the 1890s, and early 1900s. These rather fantastic books which envisage Britain being invaded first by the French, and then by the Germans as politics change. They were very convincing stories. They featured the Battle of Dorking, where the sleepy town of Dorking is invaded by the Germans and nothing more horrific than thinking of your own particular hometown being invaded. And just to add up the fear and paranoia that the Daily Mail started serialising these books, and they had their newspaper sellers dressed up as German soldiers, to give you an idea of what it would be like when the Germans invaded. 

So, before long people start worrying about German spies all over the place, you get stories in Times. There’s a case of a story where a man says, well, there’s a German man in my street. I know he’s got a full head of hair, but he still chooses to wear a wig. Surely that’s the sign of a spy. And this kind of paranoia goes on so much that people are seeing spies everywhere. That in the house of parliament questions are asked “what is going to be done about these 5000 German spies?” Which are in Britain at the moment. And another MP stands up and says “5000 spies?”. There are 300,000 German soldiers already in Britain disguised as waiters, and ready to turn into an armed force at a moment’s notice. With the Prime Minister at the time, Herbert Asquith, is forced to try and do something about this. So, he sets up a committee called the committee for Imperial defence. The idea is to try and root out these spies and catch them. So, they have two men and a lot of cool Mansfield coming and an army officer called Herbert Cal, between them they work out, they’re far too many spies to deal with. So, they’re going to split the work. So, Cal will deal with spies already in the UK, and Cummings will deal with spies outside the UK. So, it was just split up into two organisations. The one dealing with spying inside the UK is a MI5 and the one outside the UK was MI6, as they became established just before World War One.


Hazel: What was the role of the Secret Services in World War One?

Rob: Well, in World War One there was intense fear of the Germans invading, using subterfuge to invade, but also to gather intelligence outside. So, MI6 was based in a building called “White Hole Place”, which you can visit today, it’s now the world’s largest hotel. And their Mansfield Cummings, had his office and he coordinates a spy network across Belgium called Madame Blanche. Now Madame Blanche was made up of Belgium volunteers, where more women who worked as midwives. And there was a curfew in place so the Germans wouldn’t allow people to go out at night, but midwives, they had to go when a baby was being born. So, they would go off on their bicycles, but that bicycle route would often take them via route by the local station, and they would make a note of any German troop trains that were leaving for the trenches, and then pass on their information via carrier pigeon, back to MI6 operators on the other side of the lines. This was very bad news for pigeons, because when the Germans get wind of this, they give all their troops a bounty for each pigeon shot down. Now Mansfield Cummings was in charge of the operation and was now the Royal Horseguards Hotel. You can see blue plaque outside his house, in his building there. Because his surname was Cummings, he would sign his letters with a single letter C. And to this day, the head of MI6, is still known as C. And he would always use green ink to sign any documents and C to this day would use green ink to sign any documents. So, some of the traditions have stuck around from World War One.


Hazel: In James Bond, you have the characters with M and Q, is there any relation to that then?

Rob: That’s definitely what inspired it. There isn’t strictly speaking Q department and MI6, have a department where they have gadgets and tricks. I would love to say they make cars which can go underwater and turn into submarines like in the James Bond films. They’re not quite as adventurous as this, but they did have an underground car park where they converted vehicles there, that were used during the 1920s and 1930s. And you can see that at the end of St. Anne’s Gate in London, the slope down there that’s where the MI6 car park was, and they put tracking devices. And they’ll put the special armour and weapons into cars and vehicles. The MI6, I’m told they still do have a base up near Milton Keynes, where they create gadgets for the security services to this day. So, the key department does exist in a way.

Well, especially in the early days, things were a little bit amateurish in the 1920s and 1930s. Often the work that was going on was very covert, by the nature of spying, but the British did not want to get agents themselves involved in operations which were not strictly necessary. So, MI6 tended to recruit people like businessmen, who were able to move around countries overseas, and notice, and they would do things like carry bags and cases to agents that were hidden away. So, it meant that you got a lot of people who were not formally members of the Security Services, but who would work for them, and they will be told to come along to the Sun Ermine hotel. The Sun Ermine hotel is still in London, a very lovely hotel, it was an informal base for MI6 recruitment during the 1930s. So, if MI6 had a job for you, you would be told to come along to the Caxton bar in the main hotel and you would be given your instructions there. 

Now, this happened in 1938 to Alfred F Rickman. So, he reported to Section D of MI6 now, Section D, the D stood for destruction, and their job was to carry out industrial sabotage all over Europe. Now the war hadn’t started yet. But their plan was that if they could sabotage the German economy enough, before the war started, it might stop the war before it started. So, Rickman was given the job of blowing up a pair in Sweden, which is used to export iron ore to Germany. Now we’re not at war with Germany, we’re certainly not at war with Sweden. So, it would be very dangerous sending an official British operative to do the job. So, Rickman recruits do this. The only problem is Rickman has no idea about being a spy at all. He’s terribly excited about it, though. He has written a book about iron ore and that’s his best qualification. So, he’s given a case full of plastic explosives that you will have to pick up from the British Embassy in Sweden and take those and put them near the pier. But Rickman was so excited about this, he asked if he can have a gun as well.

Now, MI6 says, absolutely no need for you to carry a gun, just give the suitcase and if you put them there, eventually badges them to allow them to carry a gun. I’m not sure how he managed to do this, he ended up firing the gun through the roof of his hotel room, which attracted the attention of the police, and the whole mission had to be abandoned. So, those early days were a little bit amateurish. The other problem we have is that recruitment of spies was rather informal as well. If you were in the 1930s interested in joining security services, well, they had to do some background security checks.

I mean, first of all, they would check to see if you had gone to a good school. Then, have you gone to Oxford or Cambridge University? Well, yes, that sounds good, it seems like a pretty good school. So, are you a member of a gentlemen’s club? Yes. So, well in that case we can trust you, come along to Sun Ermine’s hotel, and you can join it with security services. This rather, unfortunately, is what happens to one of the most infamous spies, Kim Philby. So, Philby in the 1930s, he’s out in Vienna, there are actual women out there, who’s helping smuggle communists out Nazi Germany and helping them escape through Vienna. His wife says to Philby that if you really hate the Nazis, what you should do is work like I do for the Russians. After all, a lot of the British aristocracy, they quite like the Nazis, working for the Russians is much more useful. 

So, he agrees to do this and he meets with a Russian handler who tells him, okay, what we want you to do is go back to Britain, go to Cambridge University, and then make lots of friends, and friends who will be useful, and active spies later on. We don’t want them to be spies now. We would like them to finish their degree and then join the civil service or join the army, become journalists, become politicians. And then after 10, maybe 15 or even 20 years later on, once they work themselves up to a higher position. That’s when we’ll get them to spy for you. For Philby, they’ve got a special task, they want him to join the British Security Services. And so, that’s what he does, he goes along to make some contact with them, and they agreed to meet him in the Sun Ermine hotel after all, background is impeccable. He’s into Cambridge, he’s a member of a gentlemen’s club, ideal material. So, go to the Sun Ermine’s hotel bar and joins up there, the Russians just can’t believe this, it’s so easy to get into MI6. They’re always suspicious of Philby ever since. Now, one of Philby’s first jobs for MI6, is being sent to the Spanish Civil War.

That was just exactly what the Russians want them to do as well. They needed to know what kind of weapons that the Germans were giving to the Spanish, and Philby is given the task of finding this out by both MI6, and the Russians as well. Well, while he was in Spain, he was almost killed, which just proves to the British what a good chap this Philby is, prepared to die for King and Country out there, he must be a good spy and he was essentially promoted at the start World War II, to be head of all MI6 agents in Spain and Portugal. Well, the Russians again are very suspicious of Philby and they have another task for him. So, they say what we want is the name of all the British agents in Moscow. Well, Philby says this can be very tricky, I’m in charge of agents in Spain and Portugal and the Russian Satan. If you want to work for us, you’ll get that information. We’ll fill these notices, how his handler from the Russians always keeps changing. And the original handle has disappeared, and he doesn’t want to be the person who disappears next. 

So, he tries to get the information by bribing his way into the MI6 personnel records using drink, friending the captain who was in charge of the records and came to the pub. And eventually the captain says, well, you seem a good chap Philby. Once you get all these records back again by Monday, I’ll be happy to let you have them. Philby looks in the records, and to his horror, he finds out the British don’t have any agents in Moscow, too busy at this time spying on the Germans. Why would they have any agents in Moscow? So, he revealed this information to the Russians, and they’re not happy about this. After all, there’s one thing worse than being spied on, it’s not being spied on. When you think you’re really important? It’s become even more suspicious to Philby as time goes on, and for the next 15 years, Philby told them that he was going to have to come up with more information out of MI6, and he gets into a routine each day. You finish work at the MI6 office, 54 Broadway, which is a building that’s still there today. He will come out of the door there, and then he catches the train from St. James Park Station, travels three stops long on the district line, gets off again, gets back onto the district line, goes back the other way, and then goes into St. James’s Park. Now, he sits on a bench where he will meet his KGB handler, gives a bag of files to the KGB handler, and he then takes them away, copies him, meets Philby the next morning, and takes them back into the office. 

Now, this is not trivial information, Philby giving away the names of all the British and American agents in Eastern Europe who are working against the Germans. And when the Russians overrun those countries, with those people rounded up, some of them got shot, some even have their families shot. So, Philby has a lot of blood on his hands. 


Hazel: Being an agent must be really stressful but being a double agent must just play havoc with your nerves, right?

Rob: Yeah stress taken away by alcohol a lot of the time. I mean a lot of people involved in Philby stories seem to be alcoholics, that you think that alcohol and high security wasn’t a good mix. And that’s certainly not the case for the two agents that Philby recruited at Cambridge during the 1950s, they are Burgess and McLean. MacLean is a very loudmouth drunk and takes an awful lot of risks, he even invites members of the Russian security into the Sun Ermin’s Hotel bar to meet them there, right underneath the noses of MI6. It was incredibly brazen.

And he gets drunk at parties and insults people, and he’s giving information away left, right, and centre. And this is how the Burgess and McLean, the net started to close around them. And eventually the security services work out that they must be people giving information away. So, just as before they’re about to be arrested, they disappear and escape to Switzerland and from there make their way to Moscow, as someone who has tipped them off, someone who becomes known as the third man. And there are a lot of people very suspicious that Philby was the third man. I mean, at that time they claimed he was living in the same house as Philby. So, who would have given him the information? MI6 were after him. So, Philby is under a lot of suspicion. But unfortunately, those days the way their security services were run it was such an old boy network. And there was also so much animosity between MI5 and MI6. When MI5 are asked to investigate him, MI6 actually closed ranks around Philby, and stated absolutely disgraceful that one of our chaps are being discussed in this way, and how could a proper gent like Philby be spying for the Russians? 

So, he was allowed to escape. Eventually, there are questions, even raised and comments suggesting that Philby might be a spy. MI6 did nothing about it, he then goes into semi-retirement in Beirut. Well another 10 years passed into the 1960s, more evidence came to light that Philby was a traitor. And eventually MI5 said you must arrest your man to the head of MI6, instead of arresting him go over to Beirut, have a quiet word with him, ask him if he’s been spying for the Russians. Philby says, well, I was back in the 1930s, but I don’t do it now. And t hey come back again. So, Philby promised not to do it again and hope the matters drop. Then MI5, was furious and said you’re idiotic, he’ll escape. And sure enough, Philby then goes to Moscow where he is not fated as the hero, he was hoping to be by the Russians because they’re still very suspicious about how easy it has been for Philby to do his stuff. So, he’s given a very dingy department in Moscow, and there he spent the rest of his life as a very sad drunk on the streets of Moscow.

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