I spy at the Ri

Laurence Scales investigates the many spies that have been involved with Ri over the years.

  • Maxwell Knight and his cuckoo 'Goo'.

    Credit: Reproduced by the kind permission of Surrey Heath Museum

There is a new biography out in May 2017, M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster. Maxwell Knight was a naturalist and also a member of the Ri. Laurence Scales has found in our archives that he was far from being the only spy connected with the Ri. 

Sir Thomas Merton (1888-1969)

Rather than M, let’s start with Q. The first scientist to work for the spooks was Thomas Merton, a chemist considered too sickly for active service in World War 1 (He survived into his 80s). He was engaged by Sir Mansfield Cumming, first head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), who famously signed himself as C. Though Merton’s father Emile was an Ri Member, Thomas never joined, but he did give a Discourse here on spectra in 1922.

The main problem in counter-intelligence was that the Kaiser’s spies were sending messages home in invisible ink. They started with everyday materials but the inks became more exotic and difficult to detect as the war progressed. Spectral analysis was a key tool in identifying them.

Philip de László (1869-1937)

De Laszlo was a Hungarian portrait painter who once painted the future Queen Elizabeth II. He became an Ri Member in 1928, his reputation having recovered somewhat after being interned in World War 1. He had by devious means sent money to Hungary, then enemy territory. Had he also been fishing for intelligence while painting the rich and influential? There is some evidence in declassified MI5 (Security Service) files that he had.

  • Laszlo self portrait

    Self portrait by Philip de László.

    Credit: Public domain

RV Jones (1911-1997)

But for the weight of countless lives that depended on him, Jones would have had one of the coolest jobs in World War 2, a physicist sitting inside MI6. He was not developing gadgets but trying to stay one step ahead of Hitler’s airborne secret weapons such as the rockets and doodlebugs.

Seven years after news broke that enemy codes such as Enigma had been broken at Bletchley Park, Professor Jones included an Enigma machine in his 1981 Christmas Lectures. In World War 2 he had been one of the very few people with access to the top secret decrypts. These provided him with vital clues to the Nazi rocket development programme and the existence of radio guidance beams for bombers. His grasp of physics and of subtle intelligence clues to possible secret weapon threats was one of Britain’s most important defences.

Jones had a counterpart in Naval Intelligence, Edward Gollin, who was an Ri Member from the 1930s. But his story remains a bit of a mystery.

  • image of destruction caused by a V2

    Ruined buildings at Whitechapel, London, caused by the penultimate V2 to strike the city in 1945.

    Credit: Public domain

JBS Haldane (1892-1964)

Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Ri, self-experimenter, and notable populariser of science, Haldane was a communist supporter recruited into Stalin’s intelligence web. This was at a time during World War 2 when Britain and Russia were allies. His role as a spy emerged from archived communications traffic codenamed Venona which was only decoded long after the heat of battle had turned into a cold war. Haldane became disenchanted with Stalin after the dictator’s support for the charlatan agriculturist Trofim Lysenko.

Harold Peteval (1900-1977)

‘Harold was now segregated in his separate room where he daily flagged enormous charts marked with cryptic signs, indicating the many agents and double agents through whom the enemy was being fed with false information.’ - Dennis Wheatley in The Deception Planners

Rubbing shoulders with the spies were the weavers of deceit, feeding false information to other powers. In this case the false information included the likely landfall of the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. Petavel, a soap manufacturer who became an Ri Member in 1936, worked for the deceptively named London Controlling Section in World War 2 (alongside the author of occult fiction, Dennis Wheatley). LCS wove together lies and then monitored (via Bletchley Park for example) whether their lies had been swallowed.

Frederick Nicholls (1889-1974)

The Special Operations Executive was the sabotage organisation set up by Churchill in World War 2 to set Europe ablaze. In May 1943 Nicholls became its Director of Signals, around the same time becoming an Ri Member. SOE communicated via clandestine wireless sets with agents in the field who slashed tyres, snipped telephone wires, put spanners in the works, blew up railway lines and assassinated key individuals. Nicholls’ appointment followed the tragically successful Englandspiel in which 54 agents were arrested the moment they landed on the continent because so little heed was paid to radio security checks in SOE that enemy radio operators successfully sent them spoof invitations. 

  • A radio set concealed in a suitcase.

    Credit: Timitrius, CC BY-SA 2.0

Sir Gordon Cox (1906-1996)

Cox’s career began with a research assistantship at the Ri’s Davy-Faraday Laboratory applying X-ray crystallography to resolve the molecular structure of various substances. This technique he later applied to explosives, becoming Superintendent of the Special Operations Executive laboratories in Hertfordshire where work revolved around the most efficient use of explosives in sabotage. With dark humour Cox lighted upon on an explosive with a swastika-shaped molecule, Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN). In retirement Cox returned to the Ri as its Honorary Treasurer.

Anthony Blunt (1907-1983)

Blunt gave a Friday Evening Discourse on A Picture by Picasso in 1950. The art historian, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, and Soviet spy was stripped of his knighthood once the secrecy surrounding his detection and confession had crumbled. There was little that an art historian could do to damage national interests. But in World War 2 he had been in a position to leak dangerous secrets from Bletchley Park, including its very existence.

  • Maxwell Knight with his cuckoo 'Goo'.

    Credit: By the kind permission of Surrey Heath Museum

Maxwell Knight (1900-1968)

Knight was recruited for intelligence work by the first chief of MI5, Vernon Kell. On getting married his wife had to get used to living with his pet mice, grass snakes and other creatures. A woman who was acquainted with Knight said she grew up thinking that everyone had swordsticks and revolvers about the house. He hatched adders’ eggs in his pyjamas and there were tarantulas under his sofa. As his role in intelligence declined after World War 2 his prominence as a broadcaster on natural history increased.

Knight was known to intelligence officer Ian Fleming and signed himself “M”. So it has been suggested that Fleming wrote in a fictional boss for James Bond based on Maxwell Knight. M became an Ri Member in 1946, describing himself coyly as Civil Assistant at the War Office. Unfortunately, prospective Ri Members did not have to sign their application so the Ri does not have the signature of M.

Coincidentally, Henry Hemming, who is the author of M’s new biography, is the grandson of Captain Henry Harold Hemming who worked with the young William Lawrence Bragg (later Ri Director) in World War 1 using science to determine the position of enemy guns from their bangs and flashes.

A Quantum of Solace

You may be disappointed by the absence of women in this line-up. One thing we learnt from MI6 in 2017 is that the real Q of today is female. She is obviously interested in science. So, next time you come to a lecture at the Ri she could be sitting right next to you.

Laurence Scales leads unusual London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention, medicine and espionage. He is a graduate who has worked in various engineering industries, and is a Heritage & Collections volunteer at the Ri.

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