Hugh Reilly: I spy an espionage opportunity

Declassified files reveal an almost comical side to the dark art of information gathering during the Cold War, writes Hugh Reilly
A drunk Guy Burgess dropped top secret documents on to the street. Picture: GettyA drunk Guy Burgess dropped top secret documents on to the street. Picture: Getty
A drunk Guy Burgess dropped top secret documents on to the street. Picture: Getty

It amazes me that a gullible public continues to lap up Hollywood’s distortion of reality. For example, in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the road trips of Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes are magical experiences. The leading actors sing and swoon in each other’s company, while Van Dyke’s two kids, sitting in the back seat, laugh heartily and enthusiastically join in the mirth-making.

When I was a young(ish) dad of four children, a long car journey was something to be dreaded. I’d quickly become exasperated when incessantly pestered by my issue to convey information regarding the vehicle’s proximity to the destination. To prevent filicide en route to Saltcoats or some other hidden gem on the Clyde Riviera, my wife would initiate a game of “I spy”. Big mistake. Within minutes, the brood were fighting over what constituted a viable object to be espied. Cries of “Do you give in?” gave way to blows, as something starting with “T” turned out to be “the hedge”. Watching the events unfold somewhat voyeuristically in my rear view mirror greatly pleased me – the repetitive question of “Are we nearly there yet?” would be some way off.

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According to recently released declassified files, the espionage activities of some Cold War agents made my kids’ “I spy” games seem positively James Bond-esque. Soviet handlers complained that the drunken behaviour of the so-called Cambridge Five – a quintet of establishment figures passing on information to the Reds – threatened the entire intelligence-gathering operation. It seems there were three means by which Communist covert goings-on could be exposed: by telegram, by telephone or, most likely, by telling Guy Burgess and his four fifth columnists. On one occasion, a bladdered Burgess dropped documents he’d filched from the Foreign Office on to the pavement.

Burgess, Philby and Maclean fled to the USSR were they were feted as heroes. Anthony Blunt, the fourth man, was exposed in 1964. Rather than being subjected to the thrashing and splashing of a waterboarding session and hanged, the traitor whom Queen Elizabeth II had awarded the title Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1956 was granted immunity from prosecution. Despised by his Trinity College contemporaries, this establishment Judas was forced to rely on friends such as his ex-pupil and art critic Brian Sewell – little wonder, then, that his death in 1983 must have come as something of a relief to him.

During the Second World War, SOE (Special Operations Executive), that derring-do bunch of toff idiots, recruited Boy’s Own types whose intellectual capacities were on a par with Frank Spencer. When it became abundantly clear that these clowns could not participate in any clandestine overseas activity, the poor blighters were placed under de facto house arrest in the Highlands, at Inverlair Lodge, near Spean Bridge, for the duration of the war. Their plight gave birth to the cult television series The Prisoner, an audio-visual disaster that even the Dave channel refuses to repeat.

To be fair, unlike Berlin, at least British spymasters filleted out those unsuitable for surveillance activities. In 1942, Germany despatched to the United States two groups of spies and saboteurs whose training and motivation eerily resembled that of folk employed on a zero-hours contract. One can but assume that this hapless band of secret agents was fooled by the tad ostentatious “Investors In People” plaque above the spy-training induction centre. The first group, led by George Dasch, egressed from a U-boat and landed in Long Island, New York, just after midnight. As part of their cunning plan, they were dressed in German army uniforms, believing that they would not be shot as spies if they were captured on touching down on terra firma. On paddling to the shore, perhaps as a consequence of their Berlin tuition, they considered it prudent to disrobe themselves of their army kit; wandering around Manhattan in grey Wehrmacht clobber would surely have aroused suspicion, they concurred.

But barely had they buried their gear and changed into civvies when they were spotted by a coast guard. With one of the group still wearing swimming trunks, Dasch’s story that they were fishermen sounded like a tall tale. When offered a small fortune to forget what he’d witnessed, the coast guard accepted the cash and then promptly informed the authorities. On being captured, Dasch and a mate escaped the death penalty by informing on the whereabouts of their compatriots who, without exception, became reluctant participants in a mortal bullet-catching trick performed by a unit of US soldiers.

However, to give credit where credit is due, spying has always been an equal opportunities employer. Margaretha Geertruida “Margreet” Zelle MacLeod – a guid Scots name if ever there was one – was an exotic dancer/spy who belly-danced her way to an Allied firing squad in 1917. Better known as Mata Hari, she bravely faced death without a blindfold or the need to be restrained.

Melita Norwood was a Russian spy who, if the KGB is to be believed, was of greater service to the USSR than any other agent. Quite why it took MI5 decades to discover this female mole beggars belief. Half Latvian (Ding! First warning bell), she served tea in a Che Guevara mug (Ding! Second bell) and delivered the Morning Star to her London neighbours (Ding! Third bell). In 1999, the super sleuths responsible for the safety of UK citizenry finally realised this 87-year-old woman was a security risk. She had worked for years in a firm connected to Britain’s nuclear weapons industry and passed on vital information.

These days, governments have less need for bungling human spies. Thanks to technology, every word-processed sentence transmitted is intercepted, every phone call is monitored, every web page visited is recorded. We live in a society that tolerates the invasion of personal privacy for “the greater good”.

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Instead of executing those who spy upon us, we put them on the New Year Honours List or bestow upon them other trinkets of patronage. Occasionally, there is an outburst of public rage – for example, Andy Coulson is this year’s scapegoat.

Maybe I should enlist in the espionage business. Reilly, Ace of Spies, has a certain ring to it.