Uncle Max

Patricia Craig

  • The man who was M: The Life of Maxwell Knight by Anthony Masters
    Blackwell, 205 pp, £9.95, November 1984, ISBN 0 631 13392 5
  • Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of the Second World War by Nigel West
    Weidenfeld, 166 pp, £8.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 297 78481 1
  • The Great Betrayal: The Untold Story of Kim Philby’s Biggest Coup by Nicholas Bethell
    Hodder, 214 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 340 35701 0

Like most biographers, Anthony Masters starts by announcing his subject’s date of birth; unlike most biographers, he gets it wrong. Charles Henry Maxwell Knight was born on 9 July 1900, not 4 September, under the sign of Cancer, not Virgo, however tempting it may be, for reasons which become clear in the course of the story, to assign him to the latter. Information about Maxwell Knight is pretty scanty and unreliable at most stages of his life, but a copy of his birth certificate may be obtained from the usual source, and was surely worth looking at; it is also more precise about Knight’s place of birth than Masters has chosen to be, specifying 199 Selhurst Road, South Norwood, Croydon, while he leaves it vaguely at Mitcham, Surrey.

Who was Maxwell Knight? Colleagues from MI5 still refer to him as a gifted and formidable intelligence officer, indefatigable in his efforts to scotch subversion on home ground, honourable, enigmatic, and full of relish for all kinds of intrigue. There is some evidence to suggest he contributed more than an initial to the ‘M’ figure in the James Bond books: hence Masters’s title. ‘M’, true enough, was the office sobriquet of Maxwell Knight, though not his only extra appellation. His work made it necessary for him to have a pseudonym or two at his disposal, and so we find ‘Captain King’ issuing instructions to his agents and arranging assignations in seedy hotels.

Masters resorts to cautious speculation when the facts can’t be ascertained, showing, for example, an impossible familiarity with his subject’s state of mind at 14. This was the age when Knight became a cadet on the training-ship Worcester; no doubt he ‘entered this new world ... with considerable trepidation’, as Masters assures us more than once – still, we should like to know how he knows. It’s the same when he comes to comment on Knight’s unconsummated marriages: we find a succession of wives, and at least one would-be mistress, ‘living in hope’ that ordinary sexual relations may eventually take place. Two wives were available to corroborate Masters’s statement to this effect, but not the first, poor Gwladys Knight, who swallowed a quantity of barbiturates at the Overseas Club in 1935. ‘Tall, attractive and auburn-haired ... with a passion for hunting and dogs’, Gwladys Knight, in this account, seems more like a character from the pages of Woman’s Home Journal than a candidate for breakdown and suicide. Her achievement here is to inspire the most jejune pronouncement in the book, when Masters informs us that her marriage ‘was ... one in name only’.

A rather meagre tribute to Gwladys has been extracted by Masters from an ex-guest at the Exmoor pub once owned by Knight and his tall, auburn-haired wife: this forthcoming person ‘admired her enormously for her ... determination to see that her guests had fun, apart from good food and good beds ... ’ Masters does his best with Gwladys but she remains unreclaimable, existing merely as a detail in the disquieting persona being built up by Knight. Up until the outbreak of the Second World War, Knight was busy acquiring the notable background that gave him a certain éclat in intelligence circles. He’d left HMS Worcester in 1917, spent the following year as a midshipman with the Royal Navy Reserve, visited New York and been enchanted by it, developed an enthusiasm for American jazz, returned to Putney and a spot of teaching, turned himself into an accomplished amateur naturalist, with grass snakes in the bath and parrots in the kitchen, and proved adroit enough to engage in exacting social activities on a rather poor income.

Recruitment to the Security Service came in 1924 after a happy meeting, at a dinner party, between Knight and its then Director-General Sir Vernon Kell – an event lushly described by Masters as having ‘opened a door into a completely new world for the restless and unfulfilled’ prep schoolmaster. Marriage followed, leading to further unfulfilment; the country pub was bought and run by Gwladys, with Knight putting in an appearance at weekends. (His appearances and disappearances made some local people take him for a werewolf, a detail not remarked by Masters.) He spent a lot of time on Exmoor instructing people in the techniques of fishing and lizard hunting. Less sportingly, perhaps, he used to go on salmon-poaching expeditions (we learn from the biography), stuffing the fishy booty down his trousers. One way and another – what with dead fish, live insects and the nest of adder eggs he once hatched in a pyjama pocket – Knight seems to have considered his person a fit habitat for certain unlikeable animal species.

It all helped to gain him a reputation for eccentricity, certainly an asset in the devious world of MI5, where a lot depends on your ability to keep things dark, to impress your associates, and to spring surprises. It wasn’t hard for Knight, with his unexpected areas of expertise – the occult was another of them – to get himself regarded favourably in the department. (His unorthodoxy eventually began to get up the noses of those in authority, but that was later.) A talent for the mechanics of counter-subversion was an asset too, even if it included a slightly romantic, mystifying tendency. Masters is surely right to stress his subject’s affinity – especially in his own mind – with the typical Buchan hero. There was always something rather dashing, in an old-fashioned way, in Knight’s approach to security matters.

He practised an especial vigilance in the matter of Communist agitation. Reds, Jews and homosexuals were three groups against whom Knight harboured a fair amount of venom, though he was always willing to suspend his prejudice against the last two in individual cases. His stand against Communism brought about his first major success, and shows how patience is one of the qualities necessary in intelligence work. Knight had picked out and trained an agent, Olga Grey, in 1930, got her to become a Communist Party worker and ingratiate herself with one or two Soviet sympathisers. All went to plan, over the next eight years, with Olga Grey – a lapse or two apart – throwing herself gladly into the infiltrator’s stressful role. As a result of her skill, a London spy ring was wound up. This business, highly gratifying for Knight, was labelled ‘the Woolwich Arsenal Case’.

When war broke out, Knight was running his own department within the ‘B’ – Counter-Espionage – division of MI5: B5(b). By now, he had a second wife, Lois, met in an Alder-maston pub and wooed according to his own peculiar ideas on the subject (he taught her to fish). Lois, like Gwladys, found herself, as Knight’s wife, taking second place to some rum animals, including a bushbaby and a piping bullfinch. Masters tells us that one of her husband’s pets, an Amazon parrot, took a personal dislike to her. It wasn’t much of a life – despised by a parrot, kept sitting in the dark each evening while the animals slept, and married in name only – but better things were in store for Lois, who left London in 1940 to take up a post as secretary to the Chief Constable of Oxfordshire. The marriage between her and Knight was eventually annulled.

Masters’s method as a biographer is somewhat odd. Instead of amassing all the available information, and recasting it as straightforward narrative, he tends to offer transcriptions, more or less verbatim, you feel, of all the tape-recorded interviews he was lucky enough to secure. You could call it the butcher-baker-candlestick-maker method, with many peripheral figures – such as the Exmoor visitor who remembered Gwladys affectionately – being brought in to deliver their comment, and then bowing out of the story. It’s a piecemeal way of going about things, and occasionally digressive. He is also at a loss to know exactly how much reliance to place on some of the testimonies he’s got hold of: amnesia, ill will or some less readily definable emotion may be a factor in any of them. He says as much, when he cautions us that the allegations of someone or other have to be seen in such-and-such a light. However, there are occasions when he displays altogether too much gullibility. More than once he accepts a particular version of events as the true one, when it is in fact nothing of the sort. Adequate checking and double-checking haven’t always been carried out. The chapter entitled ‘War: Joan Miller and Tyler Kent’ illustrates the point. Joan Miller was a redoubtable young woman who found her way into the transport section of MI5 in September 1939, and attracted Knight’s attention almost at once. It wasn’t long before she was transferred to the more glamorous ‘B’ division.

Here I must declare an interest. In 1982, I was commissioned by Weidenfeld to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of Joan Miller; the book was duly completed and scheduled for publication in August of this year, when the Government suddenly stepped in and banned it. Joan Miller, by signing the Official Secrets Act in 1939, had effectively debarred herself from publishing her recollections of MI5 at any future date. Her book, which covers the war years, deals at some length with the period she spent as Knight’s colleague and ostensible mistress. It was never an altogether easy alliance. She was captivated by Knight but also occasionally alarmed by his behaviour. He lavished attention on her but also did some unaccountable things. He gave her a Himalayan monkey that hated women.

At the time he met her, Knight was keeping an eye on a crypto-Fascist, anti-semitic organisation known as the Right Club. It held its meetings above a South Kensington restaurant called the Russian Tea Rooms. Among its luminaries was Anna Wolkoff, daughter of the restaurant’s expatriate proprietors. She and her co-members were pledged to obstruct the war effort. Among other things, they used to go about in the black-out attaching ‘sticky back’ notices to lamp-posts, telephone kiosks and so on. The notices informed passers-by that the war was a Jews’ war. Parties of illicit bill-stickers would emerge in pairs from Anna Wolkoff’s flat, all of them thoroughly au fait with the standard strategies for lessening the likelihood of arrest.

Knight had two agents on the spot, and through them he learnt that the Right Club was on the look-out for a War Office recruit. Joan Miller, he decided, was to be it. She was packed off to South Kensington with instructions to deliver herself audibly of Fascist views. ‘From then on,’ Masters writes, ‘she was invited to join the ... Right Club.’ (Why ‘from then on’? She was invited once and accepted, justifying Knight’s faith in her acting ability.) She didn’t, contrary to what Masters says, become ‘involved in Anna’s lampooning of newsreels and fly-posting campaigns’ – for the simple reason that the Right Club refused to expose its valuable War Office member to the risk of imprisonment.

A faulty version of what followed has become current, partly as a consequence of an interview given by Joan Miller to the Sunday Times journalist Barrie Penrose (18 October 1981). Masters, sticking closely to the facts as set out in this piece, gives an unfair degree of credit to Joan Miller, while completely ignoring the contribution of another of Knight’s agents, a Belgian girl named Hélène de Monck. I don’t think it was self-aggrandisement that made Joan Miller put herself exclusively at the forefront of the action, but plain misrecollection after forty-odd years. When she read the Sunday Times article she admitted certain things were wrong; characteristically, she held the author of the piece to blame.

It was Hélène de Monck, not Joan Miller, who ingeniously pretended to have access to the Rumanian diplomatic bag at a moment when Anna Wolkoff was eager to get off a communication to William Joyce at the Rundfunkhaus, Berlin. (Wolkoff’s usual mailing route, via the Italian Embassy, was temporarily unavailable to her since her ally at the Embassy had become unwell.) A stratagem was thereby set in motion, with Wolkoff, whom Knight now suspected of rather more than run-of-the-mill subversion, as its object. And not only Wolkoff: a code and cipher clerk at the American Embassy named Tyler Kent came into the business too. MI5 was in possession of evidence suggesting that a highly confidential correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt had fallen into the hands of the German Ambassador at Rome. It later came out that a quantity of purloined telegrams, helpfully decoded, had reached Anna Wolkoff by way of Kent, and hence were dispatched in the Italian bag.

Joan Miller had a hand in the stopping of all this, but it wasn’t as crucial a hand as certain recent commentators have suggested. Masters might have gained a clearer idea of what went on from a close reading of the Kent and Wolkoff chapters in the Earl Jowitt’s book Some were spies (published in 1954, and not listed in Masters’s bibliography, though he refers to the author once in the text). Jowitt recounts the anti-Right Club activities of two MI5 agents whom he calls ‘Miss A’ and ‘Miss B’. It’s only necessary to consult a transcript of the Tyler Kent trial to identify this pair as Marjorie Mackie and Hélène de Monck. Joan Miller doesn’t figure at all in this particular account. When Masters comes out with such statements as ‘Soon Joan discovered that Kent was showing the Churchill/Roosevelt correspondence ... to Wolkoff,’ and ‘Joan ... was able to unearth a considerable espionage operation,’ he is, quite simply, talking through his hat. Also, the entire Kent/Wolkoff conspiracy is more interesting and intricate than he seems to realise.

Masters, not a whale on dates, supplies a wrong one for the Kent trial, which actually took place in camera at the Old Bailey between 23 and 28 October 1940; the date he gives, 20 May, is the date of Kent’s arrest. Where else does he slip up? He mentions that Knight and John le Carré knew one another, but doesn’t see fit to add that le Carré – under his real name, David Cornwell – illustrated one or two of Knight’s post-war publications (e.g. Talking Birds, 1961): a not uninteresting detail in a story that includes spies and intrigues among its ingredients, just as le Carré’s do. Then, there’s an episode concerning Joan Miller later in the war, after her transfer from MI5 to PID (Political Intelligence Department). She hadn’t been five minutes in her new job before spotting something suggestive: a Major Bell, with whom she shared an office, was jotting down the contents of all top-secret cables relating to the Middle East. The next minute Joan was on the blower to Knight, and Major Bell was subsequently apprehended outside the PID neadquarters, his pockets stuffed with incriminating papers. A link was established between him and the CPGB.

This incident cries out for the keen investigation it doesn’t get here. What was Major Bell’s history? How did he escape prosecution? Why do we find him, after VE Day, turning up in Germany in the Control Commission? No explanations are offered by Masters, not even the circumspect surmise that Major Bell may have been treated leniently because his actions were undertaken on behalf of Russia, Britain’s ally; at the moment of his arrest, England’s survival was still dependent on the military effort of the Russian Army. All we get is the barest outline, as Masters misses the opportunity to make a striking story of it. It isn’t the only opportunity he misses. Still, it must be acknowledged that his work on the Benjamin Greene affair is thoroughly creditable. Greene, a cousin of the novelist, was wrongly arrested and interned in 1940 at the instigation of Knight’s agent Harald Kurtz. It was an extraordinary blunder which couldn’t but affect Knight’s standing at MI5. His anti-Communist ideology didn’t do him much good either at the time. His paper, ‘The Comintern is not dead’, which predicted with great accuracy the developments in Russia’s policy with regard to Britain after the war, was dismissed as ‘over-theoretical’ by Roger Hollis, and various other Soviet experts considered it unimpressive.

The question of Knight’s possible homosexuality isn’t really tackled by Masters either. He neither confirms nor contradicts it. It was first mooted by Joan Miller, who endured Knight’s unabated impotence between 1939 and 1943, and later attributed to her own naivety her protracted failure to grasp the score. Was it not perfectly plain for all to see? Knight’s abusive attitude to those not fully heterosexual becomes, in this reading, the act of one who protests too much. (Such a view suggests intriguing possibilities with regard to Knight’s other bugbears, Jewishness and Communism: not to Masters, however.) Still, his third wife, Susi, utterly repudiated the allegation.

The errors contained in this undertaking even extend to the publishers’ handout, in which Knight is held to have become a television celebrity in the 1950s: he didn’t. He became a radio naturalist who made occasional appearances on television. His new profession required a change of image: the mysterious ‘M’ was turned into a figure of rather different provenance, Uncle Max. In his final chapter, which deals with Knight’s post-MI5 period, Masters steps up the practice he’s followed throughout. Many, many people are quoted, down to the headmistress of a school which employed Knight’s wife. When the author is driven back on his own words he doesn’t always trouble to make them illuminating or cogent. For example, our attention is drawn to the ‘instinctive bond of trust and understanding’ existing between Knight, on the one hand, and children and animals, on the other. Has Masters got Uncle Max mixed up with Uncle Mac?

The MI5 historian ‘Nigel West’ has written a book which aims to separate the actual from the apocryphal in the field of espionage stories. Two small examples from his own previous work may be taken to show how easily the unfounded assertion can get accepted as fact. First, we have his claim that Maxwell Knight’s wife Gwladys ‘committed suicide after an occult experience with Aleister Crowley’. I am prepared to take Anthony Masters’s word for it that Knight and Crowley didn’t even meet until after Gwladys’s death. Masters, however, unreflectingly repeats a canard of Nigel West’s. The German refugee and MI5 agent Harald Kurtz was not ‘distantly related’ to the British royal family, as both authors aver. Both these figments originated with Joan Miller: the first she’d got from goodness knows where; the second arose from a confusion between Kurtz himself and one of his sponsors when he came to England.

Unreliable Witness addresses its subject with considerable shrewdness and animation. It rejects the supposition that Churchill might have rated the value of a code-breaking operation above the value of Coventry. Suspicions attaching to President Roosevelt, over the attack on Pearl Harbor and whether or not it took him altogether by surprise, are likewise cleared away. West has a buttonholing way of presenting his material, as well as a noticeably fair-minded approach, and his arguments convince. However, just to remind us of the impossibility of keeping small items of misinformation entirely at bay, the historian M.R.D. Foot has pointed out that three of West’s five allusions to him contain an error.

The Great Betrayal gets off to a showy start, and continues as a strong tale exhilaratingly told. In the opening pages, an intrepid little group of anti-Stalin saboteurs are in a yacht approaching the coast of Albania. Those not concealed below deck are passing themselves off as innocent holiday-makers. The hidden passengers, dubbed ‘pixies’ by the British (were they all very short?) are Albanian dissidents from the Hoxha regime, on their way back to put into practice certain guerrilla tactics recently taught them at a base in Malta. This inspiriting episode, which rivets the reader’s attention straight away, was part of an ambitious joint enterprise on the part of the British and Americans, the aim of which was to undo the Communist takeover. Started in 1949, it wasn’t relinquished until 1953, in spite of the greatest possible discouragement for its planners. Nearly all the Albanian infiltrators, hastily trained and inadequately equipped, were killed or captured very swiftly. There are many reasons for the failure of the operation, but the one from which the greatest irony can be extracted is the involvement in it of Kim Philby, at the time of its inception the MI6 representative at Washington.