Secrets Galore by Compton Mackenzie
TO THE commuters passing the faceless building opposite St James’s Park Underground Station on the morning of 27 October 1932, it was just another drab office. But inside the corner block, Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, was filled with rage as he thumbed a top secret dossier. The subject matter that so infuriated him was not a failed or aborted mission on foreign soil, but a detailed analysis of a book by the Scots novelist Compton Mackenzie.
Greek Memories was an autobiographical work ostensibly about the writer’s service in the First World War. In reality it was a book that, had it been published in 1932, would have lifted the lid off the inner workings of the British Secret Service, an organisation which at the time the general public barely knew existed. Within the hour Vernon Kell, director-general of MI5, had been informed, the book banned and proceedings against Mackenzie instituted under the Official Secrets Act. The episode bore striking parallels with the Spycatcher saga of the 1980s, and the more recent prosecution of former MI5 officer David Shayler.
Although Mackenzie is best known for novels such as Whisky Galore and Monarch of The Glen, he spent his early years as an agent in MI6. A cursory study of the yellowing pages of Mackenzie’s two-volume MI5 file, kept secret until today, opens up this hitherto short and little known chapter in Mackenzie’s life.
Initially serving on the Gallipoli front and in Greece during the First World War, Mackenzie was recruited into the Secret Service in 1915. There he met and worked with a number of luminaries including Captain George Hill, who would later go on to partner James Bond inspiration Sidney Reilly, the so-called Ace of Spies, in Russia. Greek Memories was a handbook on how the Secret Service worked and was, from that point of view, a revelation. Mackenzie explained to his potential readers how the Secret Service was "attached to the War Office" although it got its funding from the Foreign Office, and referred to the fact that it had been completely re-organised in 1917 to co-ordinate with the Director of Military Intelligence’s Department.
He told how many of its Heads of Station abroad functioned under the secret cover of Passport Control Officers through British Legations, and how agents communicated with each other using a "dictionary code". He also revealed the identities of Heads of Station, including Sir William Wiseman, the Head of Cumming’s Station in the United States.
It is clear from his many references to C that he held Cumming, the organisation’s chief, in great esteem, describing how he met him for the first time at the Service’s then HQ on the top floor of Whitehall Court. He tells with admiration the story of how, early in the war, Cumming’s car had hit a tree at full speed, trapping him in the wreckage. Unable to free his smashed leg, Cumming had used a knife to hack away at it until he had cut it off and crawled from the wreck.
Mackenzie also gives a detailed account of how Cumming apparently offered the young Scot the job of Deputy Head of the Secret Service. "You realise what this would mean?" Cumming, according to Mackenzie, told him. "I’ll go through the war and I’ll stick on for a couple of years after it’s over, and when I go you’ll step into my place".
Mackenzie apparently retorted that as soon as the war was over he wanted to get back to his "writing job". However, it was apparent that personal jealousies had been aroused within the organisation by Cumming’s proposal; by the time of their next meeting he revealed that resignations had been threatened by some staff should Mackenzie be appointed.
When Mackenzie was called to account over the book at the Old Bailey, he initially made a mockery of certain aspects of the prosecution’s case. Among those intelligence officers the prosecution claimed had been exposed by the book was one Captain Christmas. Mackenzie pointed out that he could hardly have been imperilled by the exposure as he had died in 1922. Another name on the prosecution’s list was Major CE Heathcote-Smith, who, although alive, had referred to his wartime intelligence work in his Who’s Who entry. None of this helped, however, and after Mackenzie changed his plea to guilty he was fined 100 and ordered to pay costs.
In 1933 he took revenge on the Secret Service with Water on the Brain, a swipe at the Service. Despite its satirical cover, he managed to include a few genuine morsels - such as the fact that the chief of the Service always wrote in green ink. At story’s end, the location of the Secret Service’s headquarters is revealed in a spy thriller and the spooks have to move out. The building becomes an asylum for "the servants of bureaucracy who have been driven mad in the service of the country".
McKenzie said he wrote the book to "tell the truth" about his experiences. What possessed him to think he could get away with publishing it, however, is still very much open to debate.
Andrew Cook is the author of On His Majesty’s Secret Service, Sidney Reilly Codename ST1, published by Tempus, 14.99
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