Working under Covers

Paul Laity

  • Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War by Tammy Proctor
    New York, 205 pp, US $27.00, June 2003, ISBN 0 8147 6693 5

It takes a special man to resist Hilda von Einem. A German spy in John Buchan’s Greenmantle (1916), she is a ‘known man-eater’, who tries to inspire a rising of ‘Muslim hordes’ against the British Empire. ‘With her bright hair and the long exquisite oval of her face she looked like some destroying fury of a Norse legend.’ She also has a mesmeric smile, devouring eyes, a cloud of fair hair and ‘a bosom that rose and fell in a kind of sigh’. It’s hardly surprising that Sandy Arbuthnot falls for this sex goddess of espionage; even Richard Hannay is tempted: ‘I hated her instinctively, hated her intensely, but longed to arouse her interest.’

The idea of the vamp extracting secrets from hapless men is old, but took on a ” new life during the First World War, when spy fever raged. Tammy Proctor’s feminist history covers the early years of British intelligence, and neither the times nor the institutions were enlightened. The secret services set up in 1909 found inspiration in The Riddle of the Sands and other spy-adventure stories, and were incorrigibly boysy from the start (codes! invisible ink!), run "by the sort of men who called each other Wolly, Bunter, Biffy and Blinker. Mansfield Smith Cumming, the original ‘C.’, thought espionage ‘a capital sport’, and is memorably described by Phillip Knightley in his recently reissued study of 20th-century spying, The Second Oldest Profession:[*]

He wore a gold-rimmed monocle, wrote only in green ink, and, after he lost his leg in an accident, used to get around the corridors by putting his wooden one on a child’s scooter and propelling himself vigorously with the other. Visitors were intimidated by his habit of stabbing the wooden leg with his paper knife in order to drive home the point of the argument. His journal, a battered naval logbook, contains entries such as ‘To Clarkson’s today to buy a new disguise.’

One of his agents recalled that to approach Cumming’s office, ‘it was necessary for a visitor to climb a staircase and wait while the secretary pressed a secret bell, whereupon C. would operate a system of levers and pedals which moved a pile of bricks revealing more steps . . .’

More than ever during wartime, this strange, masculine world – one which was, in Proctor’s terms, ‘fundamentally gendered’ – accommodated predictable anxieties and fantasies (untrustworthy women, promiscuous women, foreign women). Allied officers were warned about German female agents hiding cameras in their blouses. The Security Service (MI5), on the lookout for spooks in Britain, taught its operatives about the use of lemon juice and semen as secret inks, with talcum powder or perfume as fixatives. The Swedish-born Eva de Bournonville was found to have in her possession cakes of soap containing potassium ferrocyanide for invisible writing: she served six years in Holloway. The war was the making of MI5, which busied itself compiling a long register of aliens and rounding up potential spies. Martha Earle, a German married to a British headmaster, was charged with sending letters containing code words to her sister in Germany. Her defence was that it was an old family code and that the letters simply gave an account of life in London. She, too, was convicted.

Who knows what vital information could be recorded in a sketch or a piece of knitting? These were the years when soup adverts on telegraph poles were thought to contain messages to German spies, and parties of volunteers were formed to remove them. (As Knightley relates, the German authorities weren’t immune from spy hysteria: before the war, a lady’s maid was strip-searched crossing the border, and the female police officer excitedly reported that the maid had ‘secret writing’ on her bottom. An arrest was made, the writing photographed and the prints sent to military intelligence. It turned out that the maid, worried the train loo would be dirty, had covered the seat with her newspaper – the writing was from the Frankfurter Zeitung.)

It was spy-seductresses, however – the women working under covers – who most easily captured the imagination, both during the war and in the interwar years, when there was a clamour for sensational spy novels and memoirs, dealing in eroticism, heroism, the charismatic misfit and the dark charms of a double life. The swashbuckling Marthe Richer, founder of the Patriotic Union of Aviatrices and an agent (code-name Skylark) working out of Madrid, told, in I Spied for France (1935), of being instructed by her ‘spymaster’ to ‘exploit her youth and beauty’ in order to become the mistress of the German naval attaché. She had invisible ink made up into tiny tablets which could be concealed under her long fingernails.

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[*] Pimlico, 523 pp., £14.99, November 2003, 1 84413 091 6.

[†] Picador, 352 pp., £12.99, November 2003, 0 330 43273 7.