The Hollis Launch

John Vincent

  • Their trade is treachery by Chapman Pincher
    Sidgwick, 240 pp, £7.95, March 1981, ISBN 0 283 98781 2

First, what the book, which is dedicated ‘to the loyal members’ of British Intelligence, actually says. The foreword claims that since 1945 ‘the Russians have penetrated and exerted control over both MI 5 and the Secret Service.’ About a third of the book deals with Sir Roger Hollis, Director-General of MI 5 from 1956 to 1965, who fell under suspicion in the 1960s and early 1970s because of ‘two hundred examples of Soviet bloc penetrations’ of British Intelligence. Two other very senior officers also came under suspicion around 1966-7, but were completely cleared after arduous investigation, a conclusion fully endorsed by Lord Trend’s inquiry in 1974.

Successive chapters then deal with Hollis’s life at Oxford and in China until he entered MI 5 in 1938, with his career there until 1950, and with his unexpected promotion to director-general following the Commander Crabb affair. Then Pincher turns to Russian spies of the early 1960s, claiming in particular that Vassall was a cover to some extent for a much more senior spy, ‘a naval officer who later became an admiral’ and whom Hollis ‘refused to allow ... to be approached’. A digression considers the question whether Gaitskell was murdered by the KGB, by means of coffee and biscuits at the Russian Consulate.

Pincher then reassesses the Profumo case from the point of view of MI 5’s rather unaccountable failure to raise the alarm about Ivanov, the Russian friend of Miss Keeler who alone gave the affair political significance. Pincher hints that the Russian object was to affect the 1964 election. We then return to Chapter Two – the arrangement of the text is rather higgledy-piggledy – for an account of how Philby survived from 1951 until his defection was eventually arranged, perhaps on a tip from within MI 5, in 1963. Pincher portrays the failures of MI 5 in the 1950s and 1960s in such a way as to suggest that the setbacks can only be fully explained by treachery.

In Chapter Ten, Pincher tells how Hollis, who had retired in December 1965, was called to London to be interviewed in 1970. Pincher gives a circumstantial account of some of what passed. Hollis died in 1973, but in 1974 a second investigation of the case began under Lord Trend, a former Secretary to the Cabinet.

The second, much longer and much less discussed section of Pincher’s book aims to show that ‘there were others in similar positions’ to Blunt and Philby. (Pincher never actually says Hollis was a spy, only that suspicions were held by others.) Though highly miscellaneous, this section does not degenerate as it might into a witch-hunt. Indeed, Pincher is at pains to clear away suspicions unjustly entertained – for instance, in the cases of Basil Mann, Guy Liddell and Tomas Harris. There is a spirit of justice in Pincher, which comes out too in his treatment of Blunt, Burgess, Driberg, and a civil servant called John Cairncross. All these geese become swans in Pincher’s skilled hands. How unfair to suggest that they were small fry, dilettanti, wartime temporary agents or upper-class decadents. Blunt, in particular, he praises as an agent of a supreme professionalism and commitment, with Driberg, an alleged treble agent, winning a proxime accessit for stamina and for knowledge of human frailty, and Burgess wins commendation for skill in exploiting his outrageousness to escape suspicion. Pincher seems remarkably well-informed about Blunt – more so than about Hollis – and much material, especially about Blunt’s debriefing by MI 5, probably sees the light here for the first time.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in