Seven British spies have been outed in a new biography of Maxwell Knight, the naturalist and spymaster who is believed to have been the model for M in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. The seven worked for MI5 in the interwar years and included prominent members of the Communist party and fringe members of the Bloomsbury circle.
The identities of the spies are revealed in M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, a new biography by historian Henry Hemming. “It was a totally unexpected find,” Hemming said. “I had no intention of finding this out, but as I started going through the files and building up a picture of who the spies run by Knight were, I realised that with a bit of detective work I could find out their names.” Although he admitted absolute proof of the spies’ true identities would only be found in closed MI5 files, he was “99.9% certain” that he had identified the ring.
The most prominent of the names uncovered was Graham Pollard, codenamed M/1 by Knight. The son of a well-respected Tudor historian, Pollard infiltrated the centre of the British Communist party in the 20s and 30s and married a prominent member of the party as part of his cover.
The historian identified Pollard from references to an “HG” in MI5 records. HG had provided information on four comrades with whom he shared a house in Camden Town in London. From this information and references to his daily work, Hemming was able to identify him as Pollard, who at his death was lauded in the Times as one of the most distinguished bibliographers of his generation.
Though Pollard was close to the heart of the British Communist party, he made an unlikely spy, let alone communist luminary. At Oxford, he distinguished himself with his book collection and by beating Evelyn Waugh to a “half blue” in spitting (at a distance of 10 feet). Once in London, his life was far from that of the industrial proletariat. Rising late, he would lunch at the exclusive Chez Victor, before heading to the famous Birrell and Garnett bookshop, of which he owned a part-share acquired from Bloomsbury luminary David “Bunny” Garnett.
After an afternoon in the shop, he would head to a party meeting, before filing a report to his spymaster. By the early 30s, he had almost reached the very centre of the party and was filing reports from the Daily Worker, where he held a staff job. Much of the information he filed overlapped with that of Vivian Hancock-Nunn, a barrister who was codenamed M/7. Hancock-Nunn provided free legal advice to party publications and may have leaked information to prosecutors about party members’ defences in forthcoming trials.
Pollard and Hancock-Nunn were the most prominent of the seven, who Hemming said risked their lives in the fight, first against Soviet Russia and then Nazi Germany. Their less visible colleagues included three women – Kathleen Tesch (M/T), Mona Maund (M/2) and Olga Grey (M/12) – recruited by Knight despite disapproval from his superiors, who regarded espionage by women as on a par with sex work.
“One of the biggest contributions that Maxwell Knight made to MI5 was to let women in,” Hemming said. “Most of his greatest spies were women, like Gray who broke up a Soviet ring at Woolwich Arsenal, and Hélène de Munk and Marjorie Mackie who together broke up the Wolkoff-Kent ring of fascists in 1940.”
Although M was made famous by Ian Fleming, Hemming said that the way he and his spies operated more closely resembled George Smiley and his people in the novels of John le Carré – who also worked for Knight at one point.
But the links with literature went deeper than the inventions of former spies, Hemming added: “The really important thing to remember with these agents is that none of them had any training in spycraft or surveillance. Their only reference points were what they read in spy novels like John Buchan’s,” he said. “There was a fantastic interweaving between real and fictional espionage.”
Despite the professionalisation of tradecraft and the introduction of technology, the historian said the relationship between fiction and reality remains strong in espionage circles. “When it comes to the present day, I don’t think that people working for MI5 or MI6 are immune to watching Homeland, and things like that do have an influence,” he added.
Kathleen Tesch, codenamed M/T was an animal-loving housewife with no previous experience of espionage. When Tesch had a one-on-one with Hitler in Germany, shortly before the start of the second world war, she broke the silence with “idiotic remarks, such as ‘What a very beautiful view’”. Hitler gave her an autographed copy of Mein Kampf.
Mona Maund, codenamed M/2 provided vital intelligence about Melita Norwood, who was the Soviet Union’s most productive British agent and spent 40 years undetected inside the British nuclear programme. Maund’s intelligence might have changed the direction of the cold war if Jasper Harker, who later became acting director of MI5, had not ignored it.
Eric Roberts, codenamed M/F became “Jack King”, the bank-clerk-turned-spy who infiltrated British right-wing groups during the war by posing as a Gestapo officer. Roberts was recruited by Knight, who used him to infiltrate the Communist party and then Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
Graham Pollard, codenamed M/1 infiltrated the Communist party, first for MI6 and then for MI5. He even married a communist – almost certainly to improve his cover. Pollard was the son of the great Tudor historian AF Pollard and, at one point, ran a fashionable bookshop in Bloomsbury.
Jimmy Dickson, codenamed M/3 was a civil servant who moonlighted in his spare time as an MI5 agent. Dickson wrote comedies for the BBC as well as bestselling thrillers. Under Knight’s guidance, he passed himself off first as a communist, then a fascist, providing the government with valuable intelligence on both.
Vivian Hancock-Nunn, codenamed M/7 was a barrister who worked as an MI5 agent deep inside the communist movement, providing free legal advice to Communist party publications.
Olga Gray, codenamed M/12 was a typist from Birmingham. Recruited over a game of golf to the secret service, Gray was given the task of infiltrating the Communist party and was able to uncover a communist cell operating at the Woolwich Arsenal.