Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

In his review of Joseph Persico’s book about FDR and spying in World War Two (see pages 19-20 of this issue), R.W. Johnson mentions the Cicero Affair, the leak from the British Embassy in Ankara of the preparations for Operation Overlord. Our man in Turkey at the time was Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen. ‘Cicero’, codenamed for his eloquence, was Knatchbull-Hugessen’s valet, Elyesa Bazna – in Persico’s words, a ‘swarthy, compact Albanian in his forties, heavily browed and black-moustachioed’. One wonders how an English gentleman could ever have been taken in by such an ostentatiously villainous type from the Balkans. To find the answer, however, one need look no further than between the lines of Knatchbull-Hugessen’s obituary in the Times (he died in 1971, at the age of 84).

He was educated at Eton and Balliol, from where ‘he passed into the Foreign Office’ in 1908. He was sent to Tehran in 1934, and in 1939 was appointed Ambassador to Turkey, being ‘regarded in the Foreign Office as a safe man’. So safe that ‘for some six months, from October 1943 until April 1944 . . . top secret documents . . . were almost daily photographed by Hugessen’s Albanian valet’ – he isn’t dignified with a name – ‘and passed by him to the German Embassy.’ Still, ‘Hugessen’s career was a successful one,’ the anonymous obituarist wrote, ‘and he was fortunate in never having had to meet a situation demanding more of him than he had to offer’ – the Cicero Affair clearly not counting as a ‘situation’. Indeed, it was ‘proof of the high regard felt in the Foreign Office for Hugessen that this strange affair did not affect his career.’ The proof is in the pudding: Knatchbull-Hugessen was recalled from Ankara in 1944 and sent to Brussels, safe from the prying eyes of rogue Albanians.

Knatchbull-Hugessen, it seems (but we might have guessed), didn’t have ‘the kind of compelling personality which can influence men or events. Indeed, there was something boyish, almost ungrown-up, about him: not for nothing did the nickname “Snatch”, conferred on him at school, stick to him all his life.’ What? He was good in society, though. ‘He played the piano more than adequately, though without any strong feeling for music . . . He had a ready pen (an aunt on his mother’s side was the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy) and was fond of writing light humorous verse, less unamusing to the uninitiated than such productions usually are.’

The most absurd sentence of all in the obituary is this: ‘It was also a definite advantage that he had a mind which, while agile and resourceful, instinctively eschewed complexities and so saved him from the pitfalls which, especially in dealings with clever foreigners, beset the path of the overingenious intellectual.’ After all, a smarter man might not have noticed his valet stealing state secrets and selling them to the Germans.

To judge from contemporary obituaries, or obituaries of HKH’s contemporaries, this exemplary exercise in restrained irony – probably written some years before its publication was required; it is even possible that the obituarist’s own obituary appeared first – is less exceptional than it at first appears, and belongs in a long tradition. Take this, for instance, from 1922: ‘It has been said’ of Arthur Nikisch, the Hungarian conductor, and was now being said again, ‘that his perfect economy of the art of the stick was due to the fact that he was temperamentally lazy and hated any unnecessary physical exertion’. Nil nisi bonum?

So far as I know, Elyesa Bazna wasn’t honoured with a Times obituary of his own, his walk-on part in HKH’s send-off his only claim to that particular brand of immortality. The German Government paid him £300,000 for his pains, of which, HKH’s elegist recounts with some glee, ‘all but the first £29,000 was in forged sterling notes’ – so he didn’t even get his 30 pieces of silver. He was never caught, and died in 1970 – within a year of HKH – in Munich, where he worked as a nightwatchman. But at least no one ever forced him to go to to Belgium.