Find the birch sticks

R.W. Johnson

  • The Guy Liddell Diaries. Vol. I: 1939-42 edited by Nigel West
    Frank Cass, 329 pp, £25.00, February 2005, ISBN 0 415 35213 4

On 2 February 1940, Guy Liddell, MI5’s director of counter-espionage, wrote in his diary:

An elderly statesman with gout
When asked what the war was about
In a written reply
Said ‘My colleagues and I
Are doing our best to find out’

A not inapposite comment on the Phoney War (and we learn from Liddell that there was a good deal of hidden last-minute talk between Chamberlain and Goering), the verse also conveys something of the self-contained world of MI5. There is no word in these diaries about any of the war’s turning points – Churchill’s takeover, the German attack on Russia, Pearl Harbor – or anything personal. Yet Liddell was a considerable man in every way. After winning the Military Cross in the First World War, as both his brothers did, he spent the entire period after 1919 in counter-intelligence. He and his eccentric wife, the Hon. Calypso Baring, formed the centre of a large dinner-party world in their Cheyne Walk house designed by Lutyens. (Calypso had the walls papered with copies of the Times.) Guy was a great mimic, dancer and teacher of the Irish jig, until he was suddenly abandoned by Calypso, who went off to California, gradually taking all their four children with her. Guy then moved to a Sloane Street flat, a sad and lonely figure, immersed in his work, who found solace only in the cello. His life seems to have been spent in a male world of friends, colleagues and clubs.

Much the same was true of the rest of the often eccentric leadership that fought the war. Churchill set the tone, drinking to all hours, sending his chums – Beaverbrook, Brendon Bracken, Swinton – to wreak havoc, and suddenly asking Liddell why he wasn’t shooting more spies. Liddell describes an evening in Tring with another Churchill chum, Duff Cooper:

Duff has a tremendous feeling about the superiority of the British race and about our system of government. He is entirely die-hard on questions such as education for the poorer classes and the old school tie. He thinks the old school tie is one of the finest institutions that we have got and that widespread education is a mistake. His argument is that people in this country have far more freedom and better conditions than in any other country in the world and that therefore there is much to be said for the existing regime.

Duff Cooper, Liddell says, was ‘feeling rather bad’ because his wife, Lady Diana, was facing prosecution for accepting a free sack of stale bread for her pigs. More enlightening was the remark made to him by Churchill in May 1940 when France fell, and passed on to Liddell: ‘The end,’ Churchill is supposed to have said, ‘is very near, but there will be no surrender. We shall go down fighting.’ This suggests that when Churchill made his ‘Fight them on the beaches’ speech he was not rallying the people to victory so much as trying to prepare them to behave bravely in defeat.

Perhaps inevitably there is a strong note of comic opera about many of the occasions Liddell records. Early on, three Nazi agents are captured when their boat lands in Plymouth: they had been sailing from Brest to Le Touquet to pick up more agents but had got drunk and set the wrong course. An unfortunate Scots Guard, having escaped from Germany to Russia, is mistakenly understood to say he works for Scotland Yard and is interned in a concentration camp for the duration. Dealings with the Free French were particularly tricky. No sooner had De Gaulle arrived than he had to be told that three members of his office were Soviet agents and that his office was in any case leaking secrets like a sieve. A few months later, Admiral Muselier, De Gaulle’s deputy, was arrested on Churchill’s orders as an enemy agent, along with two others, only for it to emerge that the evidence against them had been fabricated by their opponents within De Gaulle’s entourage. His relations with Churchill became so envenomed that De Gaulle began talking of placing the Free French under the American flag and Churchill ordered all government departments to break off relations with him. Since the order never reached MI5, they remained his only friends, which was just as well or they wouldn’t have known that De Gaulle had taken US entry into the war as a signal that he could launch a crazy invasion of St Pierre et Miquelon, near Newfoundland, which in turn had the US threatening to invoke the Monroe Doctrine. The Polish émigrés in England were equally likely to fly off at a tangent. After Rudolf Hess flew to Britain, Liddell had to act quickly to stop the Poles assassinating him, in the belief that it was the only way to stop Britain from concluding a separate peace that would have left Poland under Nazi rule.

There was just as much farcical behaviour from the British. An inordinate amount of energy went into ensuring that the Italian (and presumed Fascist) manager of Claridge’s was sacked, or uncovering the fact that Mrs Gertrude Plugge, the wife of a Tory MP, was ‘going rather far with the Egyptian ambassador’. Churchill’s publicity machine was often wildly insecure. When Lord Halifax was sent off as ambassador to the US, bogus baggage was placed on the Port Jackson at Liverpool to fool the Germans, and when it turned out that the Port Jackson wasn’t going to America, the baggage was transferred to the Warwick Castle. Meanwhile, Churchill plus a whole crowd of journalists and cameramen went up by train to see Halifax off on a cruiser at Scapa Flow – such was the commotion that even the railway porters knew what was going on. ‘It will be little short of a miracle,’ Liddell recorded, ‘if we don’t lose the Port Jackson, the Warwick Castle, the cruiser and Halifax.’ Similarly, when Churchill flew to meet Roosevelt on his yacht in August 1941, Brendon Bracken had been so indiscreet that a German news agency was first to come out with a report of their meeting. The press ‘will certainly have a grand story’, Liddell noted, ‘if the prime minister and the president go to the bottom of the Atlantic’.

Even Liddell’s own spy world was laced with farce. Take Professor Grotwohl, German by birth but naturalised British as early as 1869, a professor at Bristol and Dublin, a Daily Telegraph correspondent, on the payroll of the Greek, Romanian and Saudi Arabian embassies, later connected with the Polish, Argentinian and Turkish embassies, a secretary to Selwyn Lloyd at the FO, an intimate of leading Nazis and a Japanese agent. The manager of Claridge’s was sacked: MI5 let Grotwohl go free. Even Liddell’s main achievement, the famous ‘double-cross system’ – whereby German agents were turned into double agents by the British – had its fantastical side. For example, the Germans decided to get money to one of these doubles by making an elaborate switch on a Number 16 bus out of Victoria Station: a Japanese man sitting on top of the bus was to carry a book and a copy of the Times in his left hand. Asked the right question, he would hand over the money. Liddell records that ‘the Japanese are very difficult to watch as to a European they all look alike,’ but even so arranges for a large number of Special Branch men and women to be in attendance. At the last moment everything goes wrong when the agent and the Japanese fail to get off at the right stop. Luckily, Liddell has also arranged for the bus to be followed by ‘a champion cyclist’. Meanwhile the Germans have decided on an alternative plan:

On the night of 27-28 May four birch-tree branches, each a metre long and with money in the thick end, are to be dropped near Luton. Two 200-pound bombs will be dropped in the direction of Charlton and the birch sticks will fall on the continuation of this line at a distance of roughly one to two kilometres from the second bomb crater.

Anyone who could follow those directions deserved the money.

The double-cross system itself was a tremendous success. Liddell quickly rounded up German agents, made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, then used them to feed back a mixture of interesting, true but largely harmless information, mixed with the occasional googly; from the questions asked of the agents Liddell was able to infer a great deal about German concerns and intentions. And, since the Germans were happy with their agents’ reports, they either failed to send reinforcements or telegraphed their intentions when they did. The result was to make Britain an intelligence target impenetrable to the Germans. The game also involved agents being shuffled backwards and forwards to Germany via Lisbon. And sometimes, it’s true, the Gestapo, in the shape of Liddell’s opposite number, Dr Rantzau (whose real name was Nikolaus Ritter), would get suspicious, exert unbearable pressure on the agents and then send them back with bogus stories. These Liddell would swiftly decode and then, for example, get the agent to radio back that his health and nerves had collapsed, that he was throwing in his hand, and ask Dr Rantzau what he should do with his transmitter and explosives. By observing the agent closely as he did this, Liddell would be able to tell where his final loyalties lay. Dr Rantzau, meanwhile, either had to say which new agent was coming to replace the resigner or, by failing to reply at all, take responsibility for closing the agent down – and thus remain for ever uncertain as to what had really happened.

Liddell seems to have had a 100 per cent success record in these elaborate games. Only once do we hear of a German agent being beaten up. Liddell was furious and the offending officer was banished from the premises. ‘We cannot have this sort of thing going on in our establishment,’ he noted. ‘Apart from the moral aspect of the whole thing, I am quite convinced that these Gestapo methods do not pay in the long run.’ Certainly, Liddell’s gentlemanly behaviour seems to have helped persuade a number of agents that his was the side to be on.

Dealing with domestic sources of treason was much more difficult. At the outbreak of war the head of MI5 thought that the way to tackle Communist or Fascist subversion was to call Harry Pollitt, the Party general secretary, and Sir Oswald Mosley in for a heart-to-heart. The interview with Mosley took place only in January 1940 – it is one of the best things in this book. Mosley ‘adopted at once an attitude of extreme affability and disarming frankness’. Displaying the same charm he had used to explain the finances and activities of the British Union of Fascists to kings and presidents, he was only too anxious to assure Liddell of his undying patriotism. Although of the view that the Gestapo was ‘the finest secret police the world had ever seen’, he was adamant that ‘I do not want the Germans to win. I want peace now, before England has been reduced to a dung heap. After the politicians reduce England and the British Empire to a dung heap, they are not going to get me to take over then. I shall retire from political life.’ It turned out that many BUF activists were involved in pro-Nazi activity, that the BUF had a secret military wing of armed anti-semites, that despite Mosley’s assurances about financial transparency the BUF had been drawing large, regular and laundered subsidies from Mussolini, and that Mosley himself had picked up £40,000 for his part in a deal for getting members of the Rothschild family out of Germany.

Despite all this, MI5 requests to tap Mosley’s phone had been denied throughout the late 1930s and Tory ministers were particularly boneheaded when it emerged that members of the BUF, let alone their own colleagues in the Right Club – the MP Archibald Ramsay was one – were sometimes traitors. Liddell describes a meeting at the Home Office in the week that France fell in May 1940, at which the home secretary, Sir John Anderson, declared that he found it hard to believe that any BUF member would help the Nazis. Presented with evidence that several had already been caught passing secrets, he still insisted that to imprison Mosley or his supporters would make them ‘extremely bitter after the war when democracy would be going through its severest trials’. Liddell struggled to restrain himself: ‘I longed to say that if somebody did not get a move on there would be no democracy, no England and no empire, and that this was almost a matter of days.’ Of Anderson he remarked that ‘either he is an extremely calm and cool-headed person or he has not the least idea of the present situation’: since he also noted that nobody in the Home Office except the charlady got to work before 11 a.m., it’s easy to guess where he would have placed his bets.

The bankruptcy of the old establishment is difficult to exaggerate. In May 1941, Liddell records Lloyd George’s manoeuvres for a separate peace with Germany – all fatally undermined by his determination that this should also secure his re-entry to the cabinet on his terms. One notes with despair the presence in Lloyd George’s camp of the News Chronicle’s James Horrabin and Hore-Belisha, the most prominent Jewish politician of his day. One notes, rather more suspiciously, that this initiative was timed to coincide exactly with Hess’s similar bid for a separate peace. A separate peace of any kind would have conceded permanent Nazi rule over Europe and given Hitler a free hand against Russia, though it is hard to imagine how anyone could believe that, having conquered Russia, he would stop there. Notable, too, was the case of Sir Samuel Hoare, sent off by Churchill to be our man in Spain as part of a wider attempt to get rid of the more notorious appeasers, but in fact a continuing blight on the anti-Nazi cause: Liddell reports that not only was he ‘a serious obstacle’ to any British intelligence effort in Spain, but he sent over as his protégé a Falangist, Del Pozo, for a guided tour of British military installations. ‘It seems a curious thing,’ Liddell drily notes, ‘that our authorities should not be really wise to the fact that any member of the Falange, which is in fact a Spanish Nazi Party, must be right in the German camp’ – which indeed Del Pozo was, drunkenly confiding to the Daily Express, of all institutions, that he wanted Germany to win.

With the US entry into the war, Liddell played a major role in Allied intelligence liaison, though he was privately dismissive of the capacities of the Americans as Johnny-come-latelies. In Washington he found Edgar Hoover’s deputy sitting at an enormous desk in an enormous room with a huge map of the US covered with pins showing the not amazing fact that alien nationals were located mainly in the principal urban centres. Liddell concluded that the only point of the map was ‘to impress the gentleman who occupied the room of his own importance’. And while he told the Americans that the best protection against enemy infiltration was to get a double-cross system going, he felt that they hadn’t ‘much notion of how to set about the problem’. Hoover merely wanted to lecture him. ‘I gave him some picture of our experiences in England whenever he showed signs of drawing breath, which was not often.’ It was a typical English reaction: the Yanks had resources one could only envy but they were hopelessly brash and naive. Not surprisingly, Liddell felt the biggest difficulty was the American feeling ‘that we did not trust them’.

His comeuppance was savage. In August 1942 the Russians asked for help in Afghanistan and Liddell noted that ‘this is the first indication that the Russians desire any form of co-operation on intelligence lines.’ In fact they had been enjoying maximum co-operation – of a kind – throughout. In March 1940, Chamberlain had asked Lord Hankey for a full report on MI5, SIS and GC&CS (now GCHQ). Since Hankey’s private secretary, John Cairncross, was a Soviet agent, the Kremlin got a copy too. Similarly, Guy Burgess, an intimate of Liddell’s whose name occurs often in these pages, was not, as officially stated, working for the FO but was secretly seconded to MI5 throughout this period – with obvious consequences. Kim Philby was working next door to Liddell and they frequently dined together, with even more dramatic results. Poor Liddell was to learn all this before he died, unnoticed, in 1958. Worst of all was the fact that he had chosen as his personal assistant his friend Anthony Blunt, to whom he confided the most sensitive tasks of all. What this meant was that absolutely everything of the slightest importance was going straight from Liddell’s desk to Beria and Stalin. Would the Americans ever trust the British again?

Could Liddell himself be trusted? There is no evidence that he was anything other than a devoted patriot. Besides, wartime leaks to the Soviets hardly counted: they were, after all, on the same side. But since the British establishment – look at Anderson, look at Lloyd George, look at Hoare – was so wilfully blind to Fascist treason in its own ranks, it is hardly surprising that the far more dedicated and professional Soviet agents took them, almost effortlessly, for a ride. One reads with sadness Liddell’s entries telling how, on a lonely evening, he would dine with Philby, Burgess or Blunt. Perhaps things would have turned out better if Calypso hadn’t left him.