Occasionals -Dramatis Personae in ‘Mole Hunt’

Afterword from ‘Churchill’s Mole Hunt

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The Second World War spluttered to a start onto an unprepared Britain at the end of what the poet W.H. Auden described as a “low, dishonest decade”. The country knew it was heading towards conflagration from early 1939. Trenches had been dug in London parks, entrances to public buildings had been sandbagged and Parliament had passed war regulations ready for the fateful day.

But despite the cosmetics, it was not actually organized for war on that forlorn Sunday, the 3rd September 1939. Civil servants still moved at a leisurely pace, no doubt in part taking their cue from their political masters. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did not like to be disturbed after dinner. At the weekends, staying at his official country residence Chequers, he frowned on any interruptions at all. Indeed, there was only one telephone and that was in the butler’s pantry.

Across London, nighttime socializing extended into the small hours. Typically dinner at the Savoy would be followed by a show at a West End theatre or maybe the ballet at Covent Garden. Then it would be onto a nightclub, perhaps the Café Anglais in Leicester Square or the Coconut Grove in Regent Street, for champagne and dancing to the ragtime of Harry Roy and his Orchestra or the trad jazz of saxophonist Art Gregory and his St Louis Band. It didn’t make for early starts at the office the next morning.

Throughout the government precincts of Whitehall and Westminster, the old boy network prevailed. It was the way to get ahead, and many did so by frequenting the Establishment ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs around St James’s. It was said MI5 only recruited from the bars at Bootle’s and White’s. So supposedly homogeneous was this group of men running Britain that it was unthinkable that they would not support the nation in war.

And yet for the five years leading up to World War II, many in the British Establishment had great affinity for the dictatorships of Europe. Even Winston Churchill once said how much he admired Benito Mussolini.   

As we now know, a few of the privileged were less than fore square behind the war and several were traitors. The most renowned are commonly known as the Cambridge Spies because they had been recruited while at that town’s university – Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean and Anthony Blunt – double agents for the Soviet Union exposed long after the war was over, but active during it.

There were less high profile spies. There were persistent rumors of a spy in the Admiralty in the early years of the War. No then-secret papers yet released have been able to prove there was one, but the suspicion remains strong.

Churchill, a lifelong fan and client of the secret services, was very suspicious. He fired Lord Sempill, an extreme right-winger, from his job in the Navy because he believed him to be a security risk

It is a matter of historical record that Britain’s naval intelligence was not as good as Germany’s in the early years of the War, as the Official History reluctantly acknowledges. The German code machine – now widely known as the Enigma Machine – did not fall into Allied hands until 1941 and from then on the Allies had the upper hand.

But in the autumn of 1939, there was much anxiety in the corridors of power in London.

We will never know the full details of what went on within the Admiralty’s Directorate of Naval Intelligence – the nerve center of operational information about the battles a sea – because many files and documents were burned at the end of the War; some long-forgotten senior officer wrongly, or maybe conveniently, considered it to be in the national interest.

This story has been about what might have happened. It weaves supposition and possibility through established historical record.

Some of the main characters and some with bit parts are part of history. As far as surviving information allows, I have been true to the known historical record and facts, but clearly interactions with fictional characters are how I imagined them to be based on what we know about personalities and their views.

MI5’s Maxwell Knight did operate his 5(b)5 counter intelligence section out of Dolphin Square in Pimlico and Admiral Karl Doenitz did meet with Captain Gunther Prien on the Weichsel in Kiel Harbour before the audacious attack in Scapa Flow. Joan Miller was a pretty, feisty 21-year-old working for MI5 who infiltrated The Right Club, led by Conservative M.P. Archibald Ramsay. The Russian émigré Anna Wolkoff made dresses for the Duchess of Windsor, Unity Mitford and Princess Marina and served the best caviar in London in the South Kensington Tea Rooms owned by her parents.

The winter of 1939/40 was unusually cold – the coldest for 100 years at that time. Kew Observatory at Richmond in west London recorded the coldest January since 1791. On January 29, 1940, the river Thames froze over for the first time since 1814. It was the first of three severe War Winters.

The action took place in central London and we know in many cases in which hotels, parks and offices. Most of the public houses in which key meetings take place in the story still exist, though one or two have since changed their names. The public house formerly known as The Northumberland Arms in Northumberland Street in Whitehall, for instance, is now known as The Sherlock Holmes.

And finally, it is instructive to see how hindsight makes the unfolding stories of history seem inevitable. Things were not nearly so clear back in August 1939. 

By May 1940 Britain was in crisis. Chamberlain had resigned on May 10 to be replaced by Churchill, still deeply suspect in the eyes of many, especially the ruling Conservative Party. On the same day Hitler had finally ordered the ground war in Western Europe into action and, over the next fortnight, the Panzer Divisions overwhelmed the Low Countries and France. Could the invasion of Britain be far behind?

The arrest of Wolkoff and Kent on May 20th 1940 was the final straw that led to action against those under suspicion. There was too much at stake to worry about civil liberties. Fifth columnists were rounded up under Section 18b of the emergency Defence Regulations. Caught in the net were: Archibald Ramsay, Admiral Sir Barry Domvile and many others from The Right Club. By December over 1000 people were in detention. This was steadily reduced as the tide of war turned. By 1943 there were about 500 still interred and when Hitler killed himself in 1945 there were just 11 people detained at His Majesty’s pleasure under 18b regulations.

I have listed below the subsequent career, so far as I have been able to discover it, of the historical figures in the story who get more than a passing mention, except for Sir Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. I assume readers of this humble tale of what might have happened will be acquainted with their life stories.

John Tilston

Cambridge June 2006

The British

droppedimageMaxwell Knight, who was born in Surrey in 1900, was an eccentric. He was recruited into British Intelligence from the right wing British Fascisti, a group set up in the 1920s to counter the growing influence of the Labour Party and Trade Unions. He lived with Joan Miller for a while (see below). After the War he remained in MI5 but also wrote several books on natural history. He later became a popular presenter on BBC of children’s’ programmes known as Uncle Max. He died of a heart attack in 1968.

Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence from 1939 to 1942, was highly regarded by many of his contemporaries but suffered from never gaining Churchill’s full confidence. Nor did he aid his own cause by once sending a memo to Churchill pointing out that the First Lord had been overstating enemy losses at sea. In 1941 he played a crucial role in establishing intelligence co-operation with the United States after a productive 90 minute meeting with President Roosevelt. Just days after being promoted to Vice Admiral in mid 1942 he was relieved of his duties, after falling out with the Joint Intelligence Committee (the British Government’s top spy coordinating body), and sent to India as the Flag Officer Commanding the Royal Indian Navy. He retired in 1945 and died in 1971, aged 83. These days he’s considered to be one of the unsung heroes of the war.

droppedimage_1Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, was born in 1908 into a wealthy banking family. He was educated at Eton and went to Sandhurst, but didn’t distinguish himself at either place. It was in the war that his star started to burn brightly. He began working in Naval Intelligence for Admiral Godfrey in May 1939. He remained in that capacity for the whole of the war and was central to much of the work done. After the war he worked for Reuters and eventually created Bond, partly it seems in his own image. He died in 1968.

droppedimageJoan Miller was born in 1918. After the time described in this story, she lived for a short while with Maxwell Knight, but soon realised she was being used as a cover for his homosexuality, which, despite being widespread in London society, was illegal at that time. She married Tom Kinlock Jones in 1943. She continued working in MI5 but transferred to the Political Intelligence Department. She died in 1984. Despite MI5’s efforts to stop it, her daughter published Miller’s book about her experiences, entitled One Girl’s War: Personal Exploits in MI5’s Most Secret Station, in Dublin in 1986. Some critics have suggested she embellished her story.

The Germans

Karl Doenitz promoted to Rear Admiral for the Scapa Flow attack and eventually ended up as Admiral of the Fleet, commanding the German Navy from early 1943. Hitler anointed him as his successor when he killed himself in his Berlin bunker in 1945. He was head of state for 20 days before he was captured. He was convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials – though most Allied sailors believed he fought hard but fairly – and spent eleven and a half years in prison. He died in 1980; he was 89 years old.

droppedimage_2KapitainLeutenant Gunther Prien was born in Germany in 1908. He won his papers in the German merchant marine at the age of 24, but could not find work. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and the Kriegsmarine the following year. He scored the first official U-Boat victory in the war and on his first patrol sunk three Allied ships. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class when he stepped ashore from the Scapa Flow mission. He quickly capitalized on his fame by publishing his memoirs entitled ‘I Sank the Royal Oak’. After Scapa Flow, he was credited with destroying 28 merchant ships. While leading a U-Boat wolf pack attack on an Allied convoy in March 1941, he was killed when U-47 was sunk.

Herbert von Dirksen was born in Berlin in 1882. He worked as a barrister and an assistant judge before the First World War, in which he won the Iron Cross. After the war, he joined the diplomatic service and served in various European posts, finally replacing Joachim von Ribbentrop as Ambassador to Britain in 1838 when the latter was appointed Nazi Foreign Minister.

On the outbreak of war he returned to Germany where he retired. He was a member of the Nazi Party but in June 1947 was cleared of responsibility for Nazi atrocities committed. He died in 1955.

The Italian

Antonio Maringliano, the Duke del Monte, was the Military attaché at the Italian Embassy, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

The Americans

kentTyler Kent was born in China in 1911. His father was a serving U.S. diplomat at the time. Maxwell Knight interviewed him while in prison and said he was telling him the truth when he said he didn’t know the Roosevelt/Churchill documents would be passed on. He told Knight he thought Ramsay would use them for political purposes. After his release from prison in 1945, Kent returned to anonymity in the U.S. He died in a Texas trailer Park in 1988.

Joe Kennedy was US Ambassador to the Court of St James from 1938 to 1940. He was opposed to the war and tried to influence the British government against declaring it, but once it started, he more or less supported the Allied war effort, despite the fact that he was no friend of President Roosevelt. He resigned in November 1940 in protest against what he saw as Roosevelt’s determination to enter the war. His children, including the future President JFK, cut quite a dash on the London social scene.

The Right Club

domvilleAdmiral Sir Barry Edward Domvile was born in 1878 and began his career in the Royal Navy in 1892. He was interred by the British Government in 1940 and was released from Brixton Jail in July 1943. His fascist views were not dimmed by the enforced years of quiet reflection. He published his memoirs, entitled From Admiral to Cabin Boy, four years later and developed a conspiracy theory that he dubbed “Judmas” (‘the Judaeo-Masonic combination, which has wielded such a baneful influence in world history’). After being introduced to Hitler on a visit to Germany in 1936, he wrote: “This remarkable man was fully alive to the evil potentialities of Judmas, and was determined to remove its influence from Europe. He died in 1971.

ramsayArchibald Ramsay was born in Scotland in 1894. In 1940, he was interned in Brixton Prison under special wartime regulations that allowed the Home Secretary to detain people who were deemed a threat. He was the only M.P. to be detained under this regulation. Some believed his profile and membership of the House of Commons saved him from being charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act for passing information to Nazi Germany. In fact, some Labour Party M.P.s suspected he’d done a deal to stay out of court by keeping the membership of the Right Club secret.

In 1941, while in detention, he sued the New York Times for libel for reporting he had been spying. He won his case by arguing that if he had been guilty of spying British authorities would have charged him, but the court awarded derisory damages of a farthing, effectively suggesting it regarded this as a technicality.

He was released from Brixton in September 1944. He lost his seat in parliament in the 1945 General Election that also turfed out Churchill. In 1955 he published a book in self-justification entitled The Nameless War, and he died in March of that year. He said in his book that he kept the names of Right Club members secret because of the “well-grounded fear of Jewish retaliation of a serious nature.” He did entrust the list of members to Tyler Kent for safekeeping and was discovered when his flat was raided.

wolkoffAnna Wolkoff was the daughter of Admiral Nikolai Wolkoff who was an aide to Tsar Nicholas II based in London. Anna was born in Russia in 1902 but remained in London with her father after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 rendered his services superfluous.  In 1940 she was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. She was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. At her trial she threatened to kill Joan Miller, who gave evidence at the trial. She didn’t. She was released in 1947 and went back to the Tea Room but that closed soon afterwards. She eked a meagre living out of dressmaking. She died in 1969.

Admiral Nickolas Wolkoff. Born in 1870. He and his family remained in London and, latterly, ran the Russian Tea Rooms. He was interned during the war and died in 1954.

A list of members of The Right Club maintained by Sir Archibald Ramsay emerged after the War. It included: William Joyce (who as Lord Haw Haw broadcast Nazi propaganda and who was executed for treason after the war); journalists A.K. Chesterton and Francis Yeats-Brown; the aristocrats Lord Redesdale, the Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Westminster, Lord Sempill (also a pilot in the Armed Forces), the Earl of Galloway and the Marquess of Graham (who later became a Minister in the Rhodesian Government and signed that country’s illegal Declaration of Independence in 1965); Conservative Party Members of Parliament John Stourton, John Mackie, James Edmondson, Mavis Tate and Thomas Hunter; Commander E.H.Cole from the Royal Navy; colonial public servant Aubrey Lees; Samuel Chapman; Ernest Bennett; Charles Kerr; Margaret Bothamley; H.T. Mills; Richard Findlay and the delightfully named Scot Serrocold Skeels. There were three on the list – Joan Miller, Marjorie Amor and Helen de Munck – who, unknown to Ramsay, were from MI5.

The Right Club’s Red Book

According to Professor Richard Griffiths, the police had the leather bound book containing the names of members of the Right Club found in Tyler Kent’s flat until October 1944. But the best guess now is that it was returned to Ramsay after his release. Nothing was seen of it until the late 1980s, when it was discovered at the bottom of an old safe in a solicitor’s office.

Luckily, the finder passed it onto Professor Griffiths, who used it as a primary source for his book, Patriotism Perverted: Captain Ramsay, The Right Club and British Anti-Semitism 1939-40, then deposited the book at the Wiener Library. It is now publicly available for viewing.

The Ships

royal-oakHMS Royal Oak now lies in 30 metres of water in Scapa Flow, almost upside down, with her upturned keel reaching to within just five metres of the surface. A wreck buoy marks her hazard to shipping. 

She was built in the naval dockyards at Devonport, Plymouth during World War I and fitted with an awesome array of firepower, particularly her eight 15″ guns – the largest guns ever fitted on a British Naval vessel. They each weighed 100 tonnes and were capable of firing 876-kilogram shells onto targets up to 29 kilometres away. Identical guns from her sister ships HMS Ramilles and HMS Resolution are on display outside the entrance to the Imperial War Museum in south London.

speeThe Graf Spee remains at the bottom of the entrance to Montevideo Harbour. There is frequent talk that it will be salvaged.

Other historical figures who make a fleeting appearance in this story include Royal Navy Admirals Sir Dudley Pound and Sir Charles Forbes; the politician Lord Boothby; Churchill’s chief contact with the Intelligence Services in the early days of the war Major Desmond Morton, head of Economic Warfare; his daughter Mary, who as Lady Soames was the only one of his children that survived into the 21st Century; the Soviet Union’s English spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, and one of their lovers Jackie Hewitt; the Italian Foreign Minister and Mussolini’s son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano and the German Ambassador to Rome Hans-Georg von Mackenson.

Leslie Hore-Belisha was a British Jew who served as Minister of War in the Chamberlain government. He was forced to resign on January 5th, 1940. It might have been coincidence that Archibald Ramsay had agitated for his removal.


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