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.

More renowned and more elusive than Richer was the Lady Doctor. Also known as the Red Tiger, Tiger Eyes, the Black Cat, the Queen of Spies, the Fair Lady, the Blonde Lady, La Baronne and the Lady with the Cigarette, she was a German agent who trained spies to work in wartime Britain and France. Exactly who she was, and whether she existed at all, no one is sure (two possible candidates are a young spy called Anne Marie Lesser, and Elsbeth Schragmuller, a former student at the University of Freiburg). In effect, the Lady Doctor was a blank page on which were inscribed all types of kinkiness. ‘The Frau Doktor, as she was addressed by her colleagues,’ the Times reported in 1919, ‘spoke French without the trace of a foreign accent’ and addressed her agents ‘with a cigarette between her lips, leaning back seductively in a large armchair’. She apparently said that more espionage could be carried out in one evening in a ballroom than on any number of field assignments. ‘I recall seeing her on two occasions,’ Edwin Woodhall wrote in Spies of the Great War (1932), ‘once in 1912, once again in 1914. She was an exceptionally beautiful creature . . . clever and charming. Altogether, the type of woman who could fetch a man down like a punch from a boxing-glove with a horseshoe in it.’ Marthe Richer referred to her as ‘an A1 specimen’, and noted that her own German lover stood and saluted whenever the Fraulein Doktor was mentioned.

Different versions of her exploits emerged, but her image was usually that of a sadistic femme fatale. Depending on who was telling the tale, she variously shot agents who failed in their assignments; was a former prostitute addicted to morphine and cocaine; was an extremely thorough strip-searcher; had a taste for masks, locked rooms and torture; and lured men to their downfall, using, in the somewhat perplexing words of H.R. Berndorff, in Espionage! (1930), ‘her way of smiling from under drooping eyelashes’. Myrna Loy played her in Stamboul Quest in 1934, and Pabst made a movie about her life two years later. She was for decades the second most famous spy-vamp.

The most famous, Mata Hari, was executed on 15 October 1917. Almost immediately, a series of fantastic stories began to circulate about her imprisonment and death: that while in Saint-Lazare prison, she demanded her customary daily bath in milk; that she had danced naked in her cell for the entertainment of the French guards; that the moment before being shot by firing squad she had thrown open her fur coat to reveal her naked body, causing at least some of the soldiers to miss their target; that she wasn’t killed at all but managed miraculously to escape. Most outlandish of all was the claim made by the prosecution and endorsed by the French authorities that fifty thousand troops had died as a result of her treachery. Although she was sleeping with a German military attaché – as well as a number of other influential men – and, as agent H21, accepting large payments from the German secret services, it’s now clear that she passed on little if any information of significance. No matter: she was already a celebrity before the war, and the allegations of espionage turned her into a legend.

Margaretha Geetruida Zelle was born in 1876 in the Netherlands, married a colonial Army officer, and spent several unhappy years in the Dutch East Indies, before relocating in 1904 to Paris and reinventing herself as the Oriental dancer whose name in Malay means ‘Eye of the Dawn’. She dyed her skin, decked herself out in veils and a spangled headdress, and, dancing a ‘Javanese temple ritual’, presented herself as a lost princess and the custodian of Eastern erotic mysteries. Notoriety and success were quickly achieved: she performed at the Folies Bergère and all over Europe, and was a star attraction at Natalie Barney’s rue Jacob garden parties, riding naked on a white horse.

Soon after the start of the war, she attracted the attention of different intelligence agencies, which looked to exploit her international network of lovers and clients. Having accepted money from the French Government for a spying mission to Belgium and Spain, she was, in turn, recruited by Germany in the autumn of 1915, though she always maintained that any money she received from her German contacts was simply lovers’ gifts – unromantically claimed on expenses. (She liked to live well and was always short of cash; her customary ten trunks of luggage contained thirty pairs of black silk stockings.) The charges against her were trumped up; she was a scapegoat for French defeats, and was probably having an affair with the Minister of the Interior, Louis Malvy, who feared exposure. As a result, the numerous protests against her arrest, not least, so the story goes, from two of her former lovers – the Crown Prince of Germany and the Prime Minister of Holland – were of no use. ‘Please note that I am not French,’ she said in her final statement, ‘and that I reserve the right to cultivate any relations that may please me. The war is not sufficient reason to stop me from being a cosmopolitan.’ After her execution, her body went unclaimed by relatives and was dissected by medical students. Her head went to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris, where it joined a collection of bits of famous criminals, until it was reported missing in 2000 – stolen perhaps by the citizens of Leeuwarden, the small town where she was born, which is preparing to turn her childhood home into a museum.

Mata Hari figured in the interwar imagination as the archetypal spy-seductress. The myth took shape in newspapers and books; numerous avatars appeared; Dietrich and Garbo played her on the screen. In one episode of the long-running Sexton Blake series, Plummer, an arch-villain, meets a ‘devilishly beautiful’ dancer from French Indo-China called Vali Mata-Vali: ‘She was dressed in a jacket and harem pantaloons of heavy silk . . . her hair was black as a moonless night . . . Plummer was an expert in scents and he knew her elusive waft at once as that very rare and extremely expensive essence known as "Moi-même".’ Thanks to Mata Hari, female espionage was more closely than ever associated with sex. In Women Spies I Have Known (1939), the author, a former agent known as E7, gave an account of Lu-Lu the Dancer (Louise Herbaut), ‘an expert in the gentle art of painless extraction’, who had supplied him with information. Bernard Newman, a spy novelist who worked in counter-espionage during the war, told of organising a ‘series of listening posts in the Amiens brothels’ in 1917 through a prostitute called Regina, whose talents included being able to blink messages in Morse code.

The few women spies who weren’t depicted as horizontales or sexual servants of the state were, Proctor argues, made to fit another ‘lingering cultural stereotype’: that of the pious female martyr, the embodiment of feminine self-sacrifice. The most powerful example in Britain was Edith Cavell, whose execution by the German authorities in 1915 for running a refugee smuggling network out of her nurses’ training school was useful propaganda for the Allies. British newspapers, which always like an ‘angel of mercy’, called for vengeance and reported a sudden wave of enlistments in the Army. A different set of lies circulated about Cavell’s execution: that she had fainted when being led to the post; that one member of the firing squad refused to shoot her and was himself put to death. Every British paper made sure to mention the small Union Jack badge she wore as she was led out to be shot, together with her final words: ‘I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.’ Commemorative statues were put up around Britain.

According to Proctor, the notion of women as ordinary agents – soldierly, ‘active’, ‘heroic’ – was ‘hard for the postwar public to accept’. All that survived the war "were the clichés, so she sets out to reclaim the actual experience of female intelligence work during the years of conflict. Part of this endeavour is to document what was done behind the scenes in MI5, much of it distinctly unsexy and centred on ‘H’ branch – records administration. Women handled the spy-tracking paperwork, were involved in censorship and had a part in cryptography and in writing propaganda. Many were secretaries: this is a book in which Miss Moneypenny finally takes centre stage. They were cleaners, tea-club supervisors, switchboard operators, lift attendants, cooks, drivers. Girl Guides were used as messengers in the censorship offices, and instead of signing the Official Secrets Act pledged, ‘on their honour, not to read the papers they carried’. (Early in the war Scouts had done the job but, according to an ‘H’ Branch report, ‘were found to be very troublesome’.) The Guides filled inkpots as well as carrying messages, and were expected to parade every Monday afternoon on the roof of the Security Service HQ on Haymarket.

Like MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service (later MI6) grew during the war, from an office employing a handful of people into an operation with several international bases. Proctor retells forgotten stories and unearths new evidence of intrepid female field agents. (With no alternative, British intelligence officers shelved their conviction that women made unsuitable spies.) Many of her examples – Louise de Bettignies is one – worked under the auspices of SIS for the French and Belgian resistance. De Bettignies was born near Lille, educated at Girton and spoke four languages. Assuming the name Alice Dubois, she was trained by British intelligence and worked under Lord Cameron running a network which provided information about military emplacements and airfields. Eventually caught and sent to Siegburg prison, she led a strike in protest at having to assemble munitions parts, and died in 1918. For a while she was a French national hero, though her postwar eulogists ignored her more soldierly qualities in favour of her sacrificial patriotism; her biographer was eager to establish that ‘there was nothing of the Amazon about her.’

Marthe McKenna, an SIS operative in the Belgian resistance, was a nurse at a German hospital in Roulers. She worked alongside Canteen Ma, an elderly vegetable-seller who travelled around the country with her cart delivering coded messages, and No. 63, through whose window in a secluded alley intelligence dossiers were posted. McKenna was eventually caught in 1916, having taken part in the dynamiting of a supply depot, and spent the rest of the war in prison in Ghent. She published her memoir, I Was a Spy!, in 1933, with a preface written by Churchill, who praised her as ‘dignified’.

Most agents achieved no recognition at all; Proctor’s archival discoveries hint at countless small acts of audacity and defiance. "She devotes a paragraph to the two young daughters of the Latouche family, for example, whose house overlooked the railway from Aulnoye to Hirson in Belgium, and who were connected to La Dame Blanche, a resistance group funded and managed by the British War Office. The girls merely watched the line, reporting the traffic that came and went, taking the day shift while their parents stayed up during the night. Fearing a police search, they devised their own code: the movements of troops and equipment were recorded as different items on a grocery list – soldiers were beans, horses were chicory, cannons were coffee. The lists were stashed in a hollow broom handle.

Thanks to books like this one, the history of female espionage – from Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Van Lew to Lotus Blossom to Stella Rimington – is slowly being filled out. Proctor believes, however, that female intelligence work is even now generally regarded as ‘exceptional, rare and surprising’ – in popular representations of espionage, the stereotypes have never gone away and continue to ‘plague the women who try to work for intelligence agencies’. We still invest too much in Bonds, and prefer our women spies to be like Emma Peel (a character conceived to have ‘M-Appeal’ – ‘Man Appeal’). Of course, there’s history and then there’s Hollywood: Hollywood – or TV or fiction – will always take what it wants from history, and we’ll always know that to be the case. Consider two recent, significant revelations.

A few years ago, the Mitrokhin Archive disclosed the secret life of Melita Norwood, an 87-year-old great-grandmother living in Bexleyheath. She had worked for forty years as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association. Seemingly remarkable only for her ordinariness, she was, in fact, a Soviet spy – Hola – who had, for decades, and consistently, handed over information about the British development of nuclear weapons to her controllers in Moscow, refusing payment for her services because she was an ardent Communist. She has been judged the most important British female agent ever recruited by the KGB.

Last spring the story broke of Katrina Leung, ‘a modern Mata Hari’. An LA businesswoman and fundraiser for the Republican Party, Leung was a high-profile figure in the promotion of US-China relations, a conduit between Washington, Wall Street and Chinese dignitaries. She became an ‘asset’ to the FBI – her code-name was Parlour-Maid – and provided information about the Chinese Ministry of State Security; her house was bugged to let US agents listen to the conversations of her Chinese guests. It was eventually discovered, however, that she was a double agent. The long-term lover of her married FBI ‘handler’, James Smith, she had used him to gain access to confidential files which were then passed on to the Chinese secret services; she had also become involved with the head of security at a nuclear weapons facility. (It’s thought that Leung tipped off Beijing about an alleged attempt to plant bugs on China’s Presidential jet while it was being refitted in the US.) Investigators have claimed that she made several million dollars from her spying, which she kept in property investments and 16 bank accounts.

I’d bet on Parlour-Maid over Hola to inspire a glammed-up movie treatment (the tea-ladies at MI5 stand even less chance), but the exploits of both have been detailed in the press and will in time be celebrated in hard covers. No one now doubts the importance of women agents of all kinds, and even Hollywood spies make a show of being clever and independent as well as sexy. Could it be that there’s never been a better time for female espionage? Halle Berry is shaping up to be Pierce Brosnan’s match, Cate Blanchett is rumoured to be portraying Mata Hari in a Robert Altman TV film, and Helen Fielding has created Olivia Joules, in her Bond-parody follow-up to Bridget Jones, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination.[†] There’s nothing of the Amazon about Olivia: she’s a curvy blonde, wears Prada and uses her face powder to dust the keys of a safe. Yet she is bold and brave, and single-handedly foils an al-Qaida-style terrorist attack, designed to wipe out an American city (welcome back, Buchan’s Muslim hordes). What can I say? She is clearly, as Fielding’s publishers point out, a heroine for our new century.

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

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