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British Spy Tales

World's greatest spy stories revealed

British Spy Tales
Danielle de Wolfe
11 September 2011

Strangely enough, real-life spying doesn’t owe much to jet packs. ShortList’s Andrew Dickens looks at the 20th century’s most remarkable secret agents

Britain, due to its position, geographically and historically, plus its enduring habit of becoming involved in most global fracas in one way or another, has found itself at the heart of international espionage for hundreds of years. We’ve spied on, and been spied on by, pretty much every country on the map.It was the 20th century, however, with two World Wars and one Cold one that saw spooks come to the fore. Here are the stories of five real agents from the last century who, whether for or against our country, were at the very top of the spy game.

Sidney Reilly

The original James Bond

James Bond

Born in Odessa, Russia, in 1873 or 1874, as either Georgi, Solomon, Shlomo or Sigmund Rosenblum, he made his way to Britain by either faking his own death and single-handedly saving a British intelligence expedition in Brazil or robbing and murdering two Italian anarchists in Paris for their revolutionary funds. Either way, Rosenblum ended up wealthy and in London, where, because of his linguistic abilities, he found himself recruited as an informant on émigrés for Scotland Yard’s Special Branch.

After cuckolding — and possibly murdering — an elderly reverend and marrying his young and now exceedingly rich widow (taking her family name of Reilly), Rosenblum embarked on a life of espionage, sabotage, arms-dealing, philandering and bigamy. He adopted so many disguises and identities, spinning so many lies, that, according to some, he began to believe them. He was a delusional, pathological liar or, some might say, the perfect spy.

Among his adventures, it’s claimed, are acting as a double agent in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), ‘persuading’ the owner of a Persian oil concession to sell his rights to the British rather than the French, and stealing weapons plans and aeroplane parts from Germany before the First World War. All done, it‘s said, with the odd strangulation or stabbing.

“After the First World War,” says Stephen Twigge of The National Archives (, “Reilly went on a seemingly one-man mission to destabilise Russia. He was definitely co-opted [by the British Secret Intelligence Service]. He tried to put together an anti-Bolshevik force. Unfortunately, one of the groups he tried to recruit, The Trust, had been formed by the Bolsheviks.”

Reilly was captured by the Soviets in 1925, then questioned and executed. Officially, he’d been cut off by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) three years earlier. After his death, guards found a diary written on cigarette papers hidden in the plasterwork of his cell. While the Russians interrogated him, he’d been documenting and analysing their techniques. A spy to the end.

Eddie Chapman

The safe-cracker turned spook

“Criminals were sought after by the intelligence services,” says Twigge. “Their skills, particularly breaking and entering, were very useful, so they’d try to appeal to their conscience or offer a pardon or reward. It was a bit like The Dirty Dozen.”

However, when Chapman parachuted into Cambridgeshire just before Christmas 1942 on German orders, rather than heading underground, he gift-wrapped himself for the British authorities, immediately giving himself up at a police station. After lengthy interrogation, MI5 decided that the benefits of using Chapman as a double agent outweighed the risks of employing a safe-cracker and set him to work.

His finest hour came in January 1943. He informed the Germans that he was preparing a sabotage mission at the De Havilland aeroplane factory in Hatfield. It was, of course, an elaborate deception.

The factory was camouflaged to appear to German reconnaissance planes as if a huge bomb had exploded inside its power plant. Damaged transformers were created from wood and papier-mâché, buildings were covered with tarpaulins and corrugated iron sheets painted to appear as if they were half-demolished walls and roofs, and debris was strewn around. MI5 even arranged for a fake story to be printed in the Daily Express.

Chapman radioed the Germans to inform them of the successful ‘demolition’ of the factory’s power plant. They were delighted and arranged for him to return to Germany, where he became the only Briton in the last century to receive the Iron Cross.

Rumours persist as to whether Chapman, who died in 1997, was a double or triple agent (the film Triple Cross was based on him), but as one MI5 analyst said after viewing his files, “Chapman loved himself, loved adventure, and loved his country, probably in that order.”

Christine Granville

Churchill’s favourite spy

Skarbek was in Ethiopia with her husband when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Unable to return home, they headed to London, where Skarbek offered to work for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a spy. She even came with a plan to which the SOE eventually agreed.

In December 1939, she headed to Budapest (Hungary was allied with Germany at the time) where she printed propaganda leaflets and, with the help of a member of Poland’s Olympic skiing team, crossed the Carpathian mountains to her homeland — a feat she repeated several times, building up such a reputation that the Nazis issued posters offering a reward for her capture. She also noted the build-up of German troops on the Poland-Russia border, despite a non-aggression pact, which meant that Winston Churchill was aware of the impending invasion before Joseph Stalin. Churchill later described Skarbek — now known as Granville — as his “favourite spy”.

In 1941, Granville was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo. During questioning she bit her tongue so hard it bled, then coughed up the resulting blood to convince her guards that she had tuberculosis. Temporarily released, she escaped to Yugoslavia in the boot of a British ambassador’s car. This wasn’t the end of her work, though.

“Granville was sent to France where she hit the ground running,” says Twigge. She immediately began her task of subverting Polish troops serving in the German army. “Dissatisfaction became so widespread that, within days, her area commander reported it was essential to send another officer to help her.”

Granville became famous for her bravery and close calls. During one reported attempt to cross the Italian border, she was stopped by two German guards. They told her to raise her hands. She complied — revealing a grenade in each armpit, their pins out. When she threatened to drop them, the guards fled.

Granville, who kept her adopted name after the war, was awarded an OBE, the George Medal and France’s Croix de Guerre. Sadly, after everything she’d survived, she was stabbed to death in 1952 by former colleague George Muldowney, who had become obsessed with her.

Oleg Gordievsky

The man who stopped a war

“It could be said that he prevented World War Three.” One man who can put that comment from Stephen Twigge at the top of his spy CV is Oleg Gordievsky, Britain’s most potent Cold War double agent and the highest-ranking KGB officer ever to defect.

Recruited in 1963, Gordievsky rose rapidly through the KGB ranks, eventually becoming a colonel and rezidentura (the senior intelligence officer at a foreign embassy). He was, though, an increasingly unhappy employee, finding it hard to justify his organisation’s work, in particular the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

In 1974, after some flirting, he told MI6 that he wanted to defect. However, they persuaded him to be a ‘defector in place’ and, over the following 11 years, he provided the West with information, particularly once he was serendipitously posted as rezidentura in London. But what of that World War Three claim?

“Operation Able Archer 83 was a Nato exercise in 1983 designed to simulate a nuclear war across Western Europe,” explains Twigge. “It was so realistic that the Soviets mistook it for a genuine first strike and were seriously considering a pre-emptive attack. Gordievsky, knowing of this, persuaded British and American leaders to downgrade the operation.”

In 1985, Gordievsky was recalled from London to Moscow. Sensing he’d be discovered, he told his British handler (and later head of MI6) John Scarlett to look for a signal to say he needed to be exfiltrated. “All Gordievsky would do was stop at a street corner leading to Red Square carrying a bag of groceries,” says Gordon Thomas, author of Inside British Intelligence: 100 Years Of MI5 And MI6.

“He activated it after a day of KGB interrogation, during which he was accused of being a spy.”

An escape was planned. On 19 July 1985, Viscount Asquith, head of MI6 in Moscow, told Soviet officials that he was driving a pregnant colleague to Helsinki for treatment. Both had diplomatic immunity. As Gordievsky took his regular morning jog in a park, he shook off the men tailing him and made for a train.

Getting off at a small station outside Leningrad, he headed for Asquith’s Saab, lifted the boot, and calmly lay down in the back. They drove, unhindered, to Viborg in Finland. Gordievsky, who’s now an author, had safely defected.

Kim Philby

Britain’s greatest traitor

To the USSR, Harold ‘Kim’ Philby was a hero. To Britain he was, in the words of Thomas, its “greatest traitor”. Philby, nicknamed after Rudyard Kipling’s literary spy, was part of the notorious Cambridge Five: a spy ring of British agents converted to communism during their time at Cambridge University, who worked for the Soviets from the Thirties to the Fifties. The others were Guy Burgess, John Cairncross (according to Gordievsky), Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, the recruiter.

“Philby,” says Thomas, “was by far the most dangerous. He was brilliant; he fooled everybody. He could have destroyed the entire intelligence network.”

“His work was so good that at one point, the Soviets thought he was a plant,” adds Twigge. “He named countless agents who would have been caught and executed. He was responsible for deaths.”

In 1941, Philby, already a Soviet informer, was brought into the SIS, working as a conduit between British and Russian agents. In 1944 he was, ironically, tasked with hunting communists.

“Philby’s closest brush with exposure came in August 1945,” says Thomas. “A Russian intelligence officer in Istanbul, Konstantin Volkov, told the British consulate that he wanted to defect, offering in return the names of a Soviet spy ring at the ‘very heart of your government’. Philby was asked to investigate and immediately realised that he, Burgess and Maclean were identified. He travelled to Istanbul to locate Volkov, ostensibly for the British. However, days later a heavily bandaged figure was carried on to a Soviet military plane at Ankara airport. Philby had told the KGB of Volkov’s defection, and he was now on his way to Moscow to meet certain death.”

When Burgess and Maclean defected to Russia in 1951, Philby was tainted by association, but thanks to support from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, he continued to work, undercover, for the SIS in Beirut. When, however, Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn exposed him, Philby fled to the USSR.

He died there in 1988 and was buried with full military honours.

(Images: Alamy, All Star, Getty, Rex Features)