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Written from Moscow in 1967, My Silent War shook the world and introduced a new archetype in fiction: the unrepentant spy. It inspired John le Carré’s Smiley novels and the later espionage novels of Graham Greene. Kim Philby was history’s most successful spy. He was also an exceptional writer who gave us the great iconic story of the Cold War and revolutionized, in the process, the art of espionage writing.
When the World War broke out, The Times sent me to Arras as their correspondent accredited to the Headquarters of the British Army. By June 1940 I was back in England, having been evacuated twice, from Boulogne and from Brest. In London, I had written two or three pieces for The Times, winding up the campaign and pointing its various morals. I have no idea what I wrote and, having just read the pungent comments on the campaign in Liddell-Hart's memoirs, I am grateful for the lapse of memory.* I must have produced dreadful rubbish. The main point was that, by the end of June, I was at a loose end. The Times showed no disposition to get rid of me or to overload me with work. Thus I had ample leisure to plot my future, if only I could make a good guess at the nature of the background I had to plot it against.
I decided early to leave The Times, considerate though they had always been to me. Army field censorship had killed my interest in war correspondence. Try writing a war report without mentioning a single place-name or designating a single unit and you will see what I mean.? Besides, the idea of writing endlessly about the morale of the British Army at home appalled me. But, in decid- ing to leave The Times, I had to remember that my call-up was fast approaching. I had no intention of losing all control of my fate through conscription into the army. It was therefore with increasing concern that I watched various irons I had put in the fire, nudging one or other of them as they appeared to hot up. I had one promising interview, arranged by a mutual friend, with Frank Birch, a leading light in the Government Code & Cypher School, a crypt-analytical establishment which cracked enemy (and friendly) codes. He finally turned me down, on the infuriating ground that he could not offer me enough money to make it worth my while. Disconsolately, I went to Holloway for my medical.
A few days later, Ralph Deakin, then Foreign News Editor of The Times, summoned me to his office. He bulged his eyes at me, puffed out his cheeks and creased his forehead, habits of his when upset. A certain Captain Leslie Sheridan, of the War Office, had telephoned to ask whether I was "available for war work." Sheridan had not impressed Deakin. He had claimed to be a journalist on the grounds of a previous association with the Daily Mirror. In short, Deakin wanted no part of the affair, and pressed me to let the matter drop. I was sorry to disappoint him. Although I had never heard of Sheridan, I strongly suspected that one of my irons was glowing bright. I decided to strike before it cooled, and immediately followed up the enquiry.
Soon afterwards I found myself in the forecourt of St. Ermin's Hotel, near St. James's Park station, talking to Miss Marjorie Maxse. She was an intensely likeable elderly lady (then almost as old as I am now). I had no idea then, as I have no idea now, what her precise position in government was. But she spoke with authority, and was evidently in a position at least to recommend me for "interesting" employment. At an early stage of our talk, she turned the subject to the possibilities of political work against the Germans in Europe. For ten years, I had taken a serious interest in international politics; I had wandered about Europe in a wide arc from Portugal to Greece; I had already formed some less than half-baked ideas on the subversion of the Nazi regime. So I was reasonably well equipped to talk to Miss Maxse. I was helped by the fact that very few people in England at that early date had given serious thought to the subject. Miss Maxse's own ideas had been in the oven very little longer than mine.
I passed this first examination. As we parted, Miss Maxse asked me to meet her again at the same place a few days later. At our second meeting, she turned up accompanied by Guy Burgess,* whom I knew well. I was put through my paces again. Encouraged by Guy's presence, I began to show off, name-dropping shamelessly, as one does at interviews. From time to time, my interlocutors exchanged glances; Guy would nod gravely and approvingly. It turned out that I was wasting my time, since a decision had already been taken. Before we parted, Miss Maxse informed me that, if I agreed, I should sever my connection with The Times and report for duty to Guy Burgess at an address in Caxton Street, in the same block as the St. Ermin's Hotel.
The Times gave me little difficulty. Deakin huffed and sighed a little, but he had nothing spectacular to offer me. So I left Printing House Square without fanfare, in a manner wholly appropriate to the new, secret and important career for which I imagined myself heading. I decided that it was my duty to profit from the experiences of the only secret service man of my acquaintance. So I spent the weekend drinking with Guy Burgess. On the following Monday, I reported to him formally. We both had slight headaches.
The organization to which I became attached called itself the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). It was also widely known as MI5, while to the innocent public at large it was simply the secret service. The ease of my entry surprised me. It appeared later that the only enquiry made into my past was a routine reference to MI5, who passed my name through their records and came back with the laconic statement: Nothing Recorded Against. Today, every new spy scandal in Britain produces a flurry of judicial statements on the subject of "positive vetting." But in that happier Eden positive vetting had never been heard of. Sometimes, in the early weeks, I felt that perhaps I had not made the grade after all. It seemed that somewhere, lurking in deep shadow, there must be another service, really secret and really powerful, capable of backstairs machination on such a scale as to justify the perennial suspicions of, say, the French.But it soon became clear that such was not the case. It was the death of an illusion. Its passing caused me no pain.
Guy first took me to the office that had been assigned to me. It was a small room with a table, a chair and a telephone, and nothing else. With a snort of annoyance, Guy disappeared down the corridor and came back with a sheaf of foolscap which he laid on the table. Satisfied that I was now fully equipped for my duties, he told me that my salary would be the same as his: £600 per annum, paid monthly in cash and no nonsense from the Inland Revenue. No snooping after a single secret shilling! In fact, the secrecy of pay-scales concealed gross inequalities. Each contract was theoretically a private, secret one between the Chief and his subordinate. And if the Chief could get A cheaper than B, whatever their respective merits, he would be silly not to do so. However, I was quite happy with the arrangement, and I was then taken off to be introduced to some of my future colleagues. As they play no substantial part in my story, I shall not embarrass them by mentioning their names.
The section of SIS in which I found myself was known as Section D (for Destruction). I never saw its charter-if it had one. From talks with my colleagues, I gathered that the object of the section was to help defeat the enemy by stirring up active resistance to his domination and destroying, by non-military means, the sources of his power. The head of the section was Colonel Lawrence Grand,? to whom I was introduced a few days after joining his staff. Tall and lean, he looked startlingly like the dream-figure who should have approached me in Germany or Spain. The difference was that his mind was certainly not clipped. It ranged free and handsome over the whole field of his awesome responsibilities, never shrinking from an idea, however big or wild.
Much attention was focused at that time on attacking the Iron Gates of the Danube, to interrupt the supply of Rumanian oil to the Germans. I had seen the Iron Gates, and was duly impressed by the nerve of colleagues who spoke of "blowing them up," as if it were a question of destroying the pintle of a lock-gate in the Regent's Canal. Such an attempt was hopelessly out of keeping with the slender resources of Section D in 1940. When it was finally made, it was discovered and nipped in the bud by the Yugoslav police, causing the British Government some embarrassment. The same disparity between ends and means appeared in suggestions that Hitler's oil supply could be seriously interrupted by "putting the Baku oilfields out of action." I have since seen the Baku oilfields, and amused myself mildly by wondering how I would launch such an enterprise, assuming that I started from a base in Cairo. Even in 1940, I would have dismissed such talk as fantasy, if I had not attended a press conference in Arras given by General Pownall, then Chief of Staff to Lord Gort,* in which he said that, given the strength of the Siegfried Line, better prospects might be offered by an attack through the Caucasus. If successful, such an attack would open "Germany's weak eastern defences" to Anglo-French assault.
Grand never had the resources to carry out his ideas, though they were given freely to his successors. His London staff could fit easily into a large drawing-room. We regularly did so on Sundays at his headquarters in the country, where plans, plans, plans were the inexhaustible topics of discussion. In the field, he had little more than bits and scraps. His efforts to get a larger slice of the secret cake were frowned on by the older and more firmly based intelligence-gathering side of the service. Starting from the valid premise that sabotage and subversion are inherently insecure (the authors of bangs are liable to detection), the intelligence people rushed happily to the invalid conclusion that bangs were a waste of time and money, diverting resources from the silent spy. Thus Grand's demands on the Treasury and on the armed services were often blocked within the service. At best, they were given lukewarm support.
On the side of political subversion, the difficulties were even more serious, because they involved fundamental aspects of British policy. By and large, the British Government had accustomed itself to supporting the monarchs and oligarchs of Europe. Such men were strongly averse to any form of subversion. The only people likely to support any sort of resistance to Hitler were the Left-wing movements: the peasant parties, the Social-Democrats and the Communists. Only they were likely to risk their lives by continuing resistance after the Germans had engulfed their countries. Yet they were extremely unlikely to stir for the sake of a British Government which insisted on playing footsie with the King Carols and the Prince Pauls who had systematically persecuted them between the wars. Thus the ideologues of subversion in Britain started out under a heavy handicap imposed by the Foreign Office which failed to see until much too late that, whatever the outcome of the war, the sun of its favourite puppets had set for ever. Small wonder that, when the crunch came, the resistance movements leant so heavily towards the Soviet Union, and that the balance was only restored in France, Italy and Greece by a massive Anglo-American military presence.
For reasons of security and convenience, all SIS officers are given symbols which are used in correspondence and conversation. Grand was naturally D. His sub-section heads were known as DA, DB and so on; and their assistants were distinguished by the addition of numerals, e.g. DA-1. Guy was DU. According to normal practice, therefore, I should have been DU-1. But Guy explained, with heavy delicacy, that the symbol DU-1 might have implied some subordination of myself to him; he wanted us to be regarded as equals. He solved the dilemma by giving me a third letter instead of a final numeral, and he chose the letter D. Thus he launched me on my secret service career branded with the symbol DUD.
DU was not the ideal starting-point for what I had in mind. I wanted to find out how it was organized and what it was doing. But Guy, following his own predilections, had turned DU into a sort of ideas factory. He regarded himself as a wheel, throwing off ideas like sparks as it revolved. Where the sparks fell he did not seem to care. He spent a long time in other people's offices, propounding his ideas. As he warmed to his themes, shouts of raucous laughter would drift down the corridor to my office where I sat thinking or reading the newspapers. After a hard morning's talking, Guy would return to my office, chortling and dimpling, and suggest going out for a drink.
One day in July, Guy came into my office bringing some papers for a change. They were pages of a memorandum written by himself. Grand had given general approval to its contents, and had asked for further study and elaboration of the subject. For that Guy needed my help. I was excessively pleased. From long experience, I knew that "helping" Guy meant taking all the donkey work off his hands. But as I had done literally nothing for two weeks, I would have been glad of any work. I took the papers and Guy sat down on my table to watch my face for signs of appreciation.
It was a characteristic production: lots of good sense embedded to the point of concealment in florid epigram and shaky quotation. (Guy had quotations to meet almost any emergency, but he never bothered to verify them.) What he proposed was the establishment of a school for training agents in the techniques of underground work. It was an astonishing proposal, not because it was made, but because it had not been made before. No such school existed. Guy argued the case for its necessity, obvious now but new then. He outlined the subjects of a syllabus. At the end, he suggested that such a college should be named the "Guy Fawkes College" to commemorate an unsuccessful conspirator "who had been foiled by the vigilance of the Elizabethan SIS." It was a neat touch. He could hardly have proposed "Guy Burgess College."
At last, I had got my teeth into something. I broke the subject up into its component parts: syllabus, selection of trainees, security, accommodation and so on, and produced a memorandum on each. I have forgotten most of what I wrote and, in view of the huge training establishment that gradually developed, I hope that my first modest paper on the subject no longer exists. Having deposited his shower of sparks into my lap, Guy seemed to lose interest in a fresh riot of ideas. But it was not so. He saw that Grand read my papers, and arranged committees to discuss them. I did not take to committee work then, and have never taken to it since. Every committee has a bugbear. My bugbear on the training committee was a certain Colonel Chidson.* He had played an astute part in rescuing a lot of industrial diamonds from Hitler in Poland, but to me he was a pain in the neck. He had visions of anarchy stalking Europe, and resisted bitterly the whole idea of letting a lot of thugs loose on the continent. One day, I spotted him coming towards me in Lower Regent Street. A moment later, he saw me and froze in his tracks. In a swift recovery, he turned up his coat collar and dived into a side-street. Our training school had evidently become very necessary.
Posted August 1, 2003
The book is interesting. I was dissapointed because I wanted to read a novel about a spy, a spy's life, methods, fears, history... This book is none of these. It is much more a recounting of office-politics, and Philby's rise through British Intelligence (with some huge gaps). There are very few details about Philby's life, what he was thinking, feeling, his fears, or his escape. On the upside, there is some interesting name-dropping, and he isn't politically correct in saying how he feels about certain well known (intelligence/political) people.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 31, 2008
No text was provided for this review.