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Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.

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But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.


M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

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