The Spy Files: Real-life escapades

None of them ever deployed an ejector seat, or - as far as we know - preferred their dry martini shaken not stirred. But from the man who plotted to overthrow the Bolsheviks with nothing more than a Colt revolver in his back pocket, to the embassy wife who fought the Cold War while pushing a pram round a Moscow park, the real-life escapades of the 20th century's most formidable spies went way beyond James Bond. Stranger than fiction? You bet, says Phillip Knightley
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PAYNE BEST, Sigismund (Cpt)

Not everyone in Britain was keen to go to war against Adolf Hitler, and even after the war started there were secret moves to try to stop it. MI6 was involved in one of the most controversial operations. On 9 November 1939, two MI6 officers, Captain Sigismund Payne Best, who had served in military intelligence in the First World War, and Major Richard Stevens, the head of the MI6 station at The Hague, were kidnapped in the Dutch city of Venlo and whisked into Germany.

The British records relating to this incident were ordered to be closed for 100 years and the German ones are unrevealing. But the basic facts are not in dispute. Best and Stevens believed that through one of MI6's agents in Holland, Dr Franz Fischer, they had established contact with a German opposition group that was anxious to overthrow Hitler and stop the war. Unknown to them, Fischer was a double agent employed by the Gestapo.

After a series of meetings designed to establish everyone's credentials, the British officers pressed to be allowed to meet the German general who was supposedly leading the conspiracy against Hitler. A meeting was set for a café in Venlo only a few yards from the German border.

Best and Stevens, accompanied by a Dutch intelligence officer, Lieutenant Dirk Klop, travelled to Venlo. Klop had arranged protection with the local police but the Englishmen and the Dutchman were late and, worried that they might miss the German general, drove to the rendezvous without giving the police time to take up their positions. Best, Stevens and Klop had barely parked outside the café when a German car came roaring through the customs barrier with Gestapo officers with submachine-guns on the running boards. Klop jumped from the car, drew his revolver and ran towards the main road firing at the Germans as he did so. But he was shot down, mortally wounded, after only a few yards.

Best and Stevens were ordered out of their car, their revolvers taken from them, and they were frogmarched across the border. There the Germans bundled them and the dying Klop into cars and they were driven to Düsseldorf.

Tke kidnapping was an embarrassment to everyone, and to MI6 it was a humiliating disaster. The fact that it had been duped so easily made the service chiefs reluctant even to admit that Best and Stevens were in MI6. Even the Germans were anxious to forget the incident. It exacerbated the strained relations that existed between the Abwehr, which had known little about the operation until it was well under way, and the Gestapo, which gloated over its triumph.

Best and Stevens disappeared until April 1945 when the Allies found them in a small German village in the Tyrol. They had not been able to resist Gestapo interrogation and had been the Germans' main source for MI6's order of battle, list of sections and their duties. It was decided not to prosecute them but neither was offered further employment.

The interesting aspect of the Venlo incident is to examine what Best, Stevens and the Germans thought they were really up to and place it in context. Immediately after the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, MI6 began to bombard the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, with reports of dissension within Germany. There was a feeling that circumstances might come about in which it could be possible to achieve a quick end to the war, and with MI6 support, it became official policy to encourage dissent in Germany "and see what happens".

At a meeting between Walther Schellenberg, head of the Gestapo's counter-intelligence section, and Best and Stevens in The Hague on 30 October, an agreement on peace terms emerged. Hitler was to remain, Joachim von Ribbentrop would go, and a role would be found for Göring. Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland would be restored and there would be a united anti-Soviet front.

On 1 November the War Cabinet was told about these secret negotiations for the first time. It was not happy with the news and Churchill, for one, wanted all contact with the Germans broken off at once. But it was, nonetheless, decided to continue with the operation. Then Hitler, who knew of the discussions and had approved of them, changed his mind. He himself had offered a compromised peace to Britain on 6 October, but then he had second thoughts. His plans for an attack against Britain and France were well advanced, and talk of peace smacked of defeatism. So Heinrich Himmler wound up the operation but, hoping to maximise any benefit, gave orders for the kidnapping of Best and Stevens.

Schellenberg, feeling guilty about having encouraged Best and Stevens, did his best to protect them from a political show trial in Germany and was rewarded by the Allies after the war. Tried at Nuremberg, he was sentenced to only six years' imprisonment, of which he served two.

HARI, Mata

Over the years Mata Hari has become the very epitome of the dedicated spy - the beautiful woman who for money and thrills wormed out of her lovers the most important secrets of state. Her story seems to have all the elements traditionally associated with spying - deception, excitement, high living, power, money and, in the end, incredible bravery.

When called upon to pay the price, the legend goes, she went to her execution steadfast and composed. One version has her dancing in her cell for her jailers. Another describes how she threw open her coat and bared her breasts in the conviction that the French soldiers in the firing squad would be unable to aim properly. The truth is much more sordid.

Mata Hari's real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She was born in 1876 in the Netherlands. After a disastrous marriage to an officer in the Dutch colonial forces, during which she spent six years in Java and had two children, she launched herself in Paris in 1905 as Mata Hari, "the eye of the morning", a performer of erotic Indian dances, some of which she did naked. She was an instant success, and in the pre-First World War years she performed in Paris, Berlin, London and Rome.

She was also a high-class prostitute and although far from beautiful, and nearing 40, she charged the many high-ranking citizens of these countries who came to her stage door enormous fees for her favours.

She was in Berlin when the First World War broke out and subsequently, as a neutral, moved freely between Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Spain. The German, French and British intelligence services all suspected her of being a spy but no one could discover any evidence apart from the fact that she had slept with German officers and French cabinet ministers.

She was arrested in Paris in 1917 and tried by court martial. The main evidence against her was a list of payments that the Germans had made to her in 1916 and 1917. The French authorities had discovered these payments, set out in telegrams from the German military attaché in Spain, which they had intercepted. How could she explain this?

Mata Hari said that the payments from the military attaché were gifts and housekeeping expenses - she was his mistress - and that if he had claimed them back from the German espionage fund, then he was not the gentleman she had taken him to be.

It is significant that the French court, in weighing Mata Hari's guilt, was not asked to consider the evidence of these payments at all. Instead, it was asked to pronounce on a series of propositions relating to the prisoner's intentions and her relationships with various Germans.

This was the best the prosecution could do, because there was not a shred of evidence that Mata Hari had ever given the Germans any information, a fact that the French finally admitted in 1932 when the head of the War Council, one Colonel Lacroix, read the file and announced it contained "no tangible, palpable, absolute, irrefutable evidence".

Moreover, Mata Hari was a neutral. As she told the court in her impressive final statement: "Please note I am not French and that I reserve the right to cultivate any relations that may please me. I am a neutral, but my sympathies are for France. If that does not satisfy you, then do as you will." The court found her guilty and sentenced her to death. She was shot by a firing squad on the 15 October 1917 at Vincennes, her hands bound behind her back and without a blindfold.

The problem was that France at that time was rife with defeatism, staggering from the shock of mutinies at the front and the executions necessary to suppress them. Mata Hari's case served to remind the citizens of France of the dangers of subversion from within and her execution was meant to act as a deterrent to any other spies who might seek to undermine the French war effort.

The conclusion must be that Mata Hari was executed not because she was a dangerous spy, but because it was militarily and politically expedient to shoot her, and because of what she was.


The very nature of espionage means that it is almost impossible to have a detached relationship with a spy. Spies are trained never to take "no" for an answer and to ruthlessly exploit people's character weaknesses to get them to do what the spy wants. Deceit, lying, manipulation and even blackmail are common.

Jeremy Wolfenden, son of Sir John Wolfenden, director and principal librarian of the British Museum and a distinguished educationalist noted for his public service, went to Moscow in 1962 as The Daily Telegraph's correspondent.

Jeremy had learnt Russian as a member of naval intelligence during national service and no doubt the KGB knew this. In the event, his language skills were to crudely compromise Wolfenden, who was homosexual. As he was going to bed with the Ministry of Foreign Trade's barber, a man jumped out of the wardrobe in Wolfenden's room at the Ukraine Hotel and took photographs.

The KGB then blackmailed him. It ordered him to pass on information about his colleagues. He resisted, but worried that the KGB would tell the Telegraph and he would lose his job, and uncertain of how long he could hold out, he warned his colleagues not to confide in him and then, with some courage, he reported the incident to the British embassy.

The embassy must have passed this on to London because on his next visit home Wolfenden was called to see an MI6 officer, who asked him to cooperate with the Russians but report back to MI6 whenever he was on home leave. Wolfenden was now hooked by both services. Always a heavy drinker, he now had frequent bouts of alcoholism. (The other correspondents nicknamed him "Green" because of his pallor.)

He began to "cooperate" with the KGB. In 1964 he wrote a story for The Daily Telegraph saying that British firms that had been associated with Greville Wynne [a British spy in the Penkovsky case] were to be blacklisted by the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade. He later told colleagues that he had filed a story he knew to be untrue because the KGB had ordered him to. But he also "cooperated" with MI6.

Martin Page, a correspondent for the Daily Express who had been in Moscow during Wolfenden's time, was questioned by MI6 about a Soviet diplomat, Yuri Vinogradov. Page refused to answer questions about him on the grounds that what he knew about Vinogradov could serve no counter-espionage purpose. When Page later told Wolfenden about this, Wolfenden confessed that he had given Page's name to MI6 as someone who had had close contact with Vinogradov in Moscow.

By now Wolfenden was making desperate efforts to break away from both intelligence services. He had married an Englishwoman, Martina Brown, whom he had met while she was working in Moscow as a nanny. He renewed the friendship with Martina when on a short posting to Washington, but after the marriage, when he was due to return to Moscow, his British MI6 controller advised him not to take his wife with him.

To get away from his spy roles, Wolfenden arranged a permanent transfer to the Telegraph's Washington bureau. But at the Queen's birthday party at the British embassy in Washington in 1965, Wolfenden's MI6 controller came up to him, greeted him warmly, introduced himself under a new name and began a close association with Wolfenden all over again.

Back on the hook, Wolfenden began to deteriorate. His marriage was not going well. His bouts of drunkenness became more frequent and he hardly ate. On 28 December 1965 his death was announced. It was said he had fainted in the bathroom, cracked his head against the washbasin and suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. He was 31.

Some of his friends believe that MI6 and the KGB between them had driven him into such a state of desperation that he had lost the will to live. It is hard to see what real use he could have been, except as part of the intelligence game that spy services play between themselves, because the weakness they exploited led him to tell each side all he knew about the other.

COHEN, Morris & Lona

aka Peter and Helen Kroger

Husband-and-wife spy teams are not unusual and have often been highly effective. One such team was exposed in London in 1961 with the arrest of Helen and Peter Kroger, New Zealand antiquarian books dealers, charged with spying for the Soviet Union. At their trial it was revealed that they had acted as communications officers for a spy ring run by the KGB colonel Conon Molody ("Gordon Lonsdale") at the Portland naval base in Dorset. But there was far more to their story than that.

The Krogers were really Lona and Morris Cohen, two New Yorkers who had joined the American Communist Party in 1935 and would serve the cause for more than 50 years. Morris, the son of a New York peddler, had joined the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War to fight for the Republicans.

Recovering in a Spanish hospital after being wounded in both legs, he was recruited by Soviet intelligence officers and sent to a spy school in Barcelona. Back in the United States he married Lona, a high-school sweetheart, and in 1938 the pair began running a seven-man spy ring.

They identified secret Nazi supporters in the US, stole weapons parts from US arms factories, and succeeded in recruiting an agent in the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the CIA. But their most valuable service for Moscow was to do with the Soviet atomic spy ring that had penetrated the Los Alamos research facility to steal US nuclear secrets.

Lona, then only 27, made several trips to New Mexico to collect material from Theodore Alvin Hall, a young physicist who was working on the atomic bomb project. She then took it to her controller, Anatoly Yatskov, in New York. Yatskov said in 1991 that the material included drawings of the world's first atomic bomb that had just been dropped on Japan.

Then, in 1951, with the FBI beginning to identify Soviet spies in the US, the Cohens' KGB controller ordered them to flee so as to avoid arrest. As Lona recalled in Moscow in 1990: "A comrade came to our apartment and wrote a note, in case the FBI was listening, ordering us to leave the country immediately. We were gone within the hour." (No one warned the Rosenbergs, the other husband-and-wife team involved in atomic espionage, because the KGB wrongly believed that even if caught they would not be severely punished, let alone sent to the electric chair as they eventually were.)

The Cohens went to Moscow via Czechoslovakia and were told they were to be reassigned to South Africa and to get used to new identities. "The head of government there was someone called Kruger so we changed the "u" for an "o" and called ourselves Kroger, Helen Joyce Kroger and Peter John Kroger."

Their assignment was switched to Britain at the last minute to handle the material that Lonsdale's ring was producing from the Portland naval base. They rented a house in suburban Ruislip and stuffed it with spy equipment - radio transmitters, microdot cameras and code books. They made friends with the neighbours, led a quiet life, and did nothing that might attract attention. They received and sent a lot of post but that was in keeping with their cover business as sellers of antiquarian books.

They were exposed because Lonsdale was under surveillance by the British Security Service, MI5, and its officers followed him to the Krogers. Sentenced to 20 years, the Cohens had served only eight when they were exchanged for Gerald Brooke, a very minor figure in the intelligence war who had been arrested for distributing anti-Soviet literature in Moscow. Lona died in Moscow in 1992, Morris a year later.

But there remains a mystery about the affair. Did MI6 not wonder why the KGB was negotiating for the release of two non-Soviet citizens? Did MI6 realise what high regard the KGB had for this American husband-and-wife team? If it had, the story of their atom bomb espionage might have emerged earlier.


Some of the most successful Soviet spies worked not for the KGB but for the Red Army's military intelligence service, the GRU. Richard Sorge, a German-born spy who gave Stalin vital information from Japan, spotted a young German woman, Ruth Kuczynski, in Shanghai when she was living there in the 1930s. He recommended her to the GRU and arranged for her to go to Moscow for spy training.

It was the GRU's aim to get Ruth into Britain, so after the Spanish Civil War it sent her to Switzerland to meet British veterans of the war who had fled there. Her orders were to recruit one and marry him. She was successful with a young English Communist, Len Brewer, and left for London with two children from her previous marriage on 18 December 1940. She settled into life as a wartime refugee and waited patiently for the GRU to make contact.

It did so 18 months later. She recalled the meeting thus: "Sergei [her controller] told me that Britain was at war with the Nazis but that influential reactionary circles were continuously urging an understanding with Hitler and a move against the Soviets. Moscow wanted information. What contacts could I find. Military? Political? I was to try to build up a network."

This proved to be surprisingly easy. Her father, Rene, well known as a leading academic economist in pre-war Berlin, had fled to Britain with his family in 1935. He had become friendly with many Labour politicians and left-wing economists. (Ernest Bevin, then Minister of Labour, intervened personally to get Professor Kuczynski's son, Juergen, also an economist, released from internment in 1940.)

Ruth spoke to her father first and then her brother. Both agreed to help. Other members of her ring came from all walks of life - Hans Khale, the Time and Fortune correspondent in London, "James", an officer in the technical section of the RAF, "Tom", a locksmith in a car factory, and an unnamed specialist in amphibious landings. "None of my agents wanted money," she said later. "None felt he was a spy, just that he was helping an Allied country that was fighting hardest and making the greatest sacrifices."

It was her ring that first told Moscow in 1941 that Britain would be reluctant to provide military aid to the Soviet Union because the War Cabinet expected the Germans to triumph in a matter of weeks. Ruth said that she got this information from her father, who had been told it by the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Stafford Cripps.

Since her information was current and important, Ruth radioed her reports to Moscow using a Morse transmitter. She persuaded her landlord, the distinguished judge Neville Lasky, to allow her to erect an aerial on the roof of his house. When not in use, the components of her radio transmitter were concealed in the stuffing of her children's teddy bears. To all outward appearances she was a refugee housewife with two small children and another on the way struggling to get by in wartime Britain. No one would have believed that she was running a spy ring and in radio contact with Moscow.

She continued to serve the GRU with fervour and in 1941 became the link with Moscow for Klaus Fuchs, the atomic scientist who was working at a British atomic research establishment near Oxford. They would cycle into the countryside for their meetings, at which Fuchs would hand over information about British progress in the search for an atom bomb.

After the war the British security service MI5 became suspicious of her. She bluffed her way through a courteous interrogation over tea in her cottage but decided that it would be safer to leave Britain, and in 1950 went to live in East Berlin.

After it was revealed that Moscow had awarded her a second Red Banner, the highest Soviet military decoration, Western journalists beat a path to her East Berlin door - only to be chased away by her husband, Len Brewer, wielding a walking stick. She died in 1993, shocked by the collapse of the Soviet Union and a devout Communist to the end.


British spies in Moscow during the Cold War often worked out of the British embassy. The KGB knew this, and kept under surveillance any embassy employee they thought might be a spy. For its part, MI6 managed to choose the most unlikely looking spies - Janet Chisholm, for example.

In Moscow she ran Oleg Penkovsky, an officer in the Soviet military intelligence (GRU), who passed Soviet secrets to the West at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Penkovsky had been offering his services to the West for years, buttonholing diplomats and businessmen at receptions and approaching tourists in the street. The CIA considered that he was a Soviet agent provocateur and warned its officers to have nothing to do with him.

But the British decided to give him a trial. The problem was how to collect his material in Moscow without alerting the KGB's counter-espionage department. With London's approval, Janet Chisholm, the wife of the embassy's "visa officer", Ruari Chisholm, was assigned the job.

Mrs Chisholm would take her children for a walk in a park. Penkovsky would wander by, stop to admire the youngest, and slip a box of sweets into its pram. The box contained film of secret Soviet papers that Penkovsky had copied. The idea was that anyone watching would assume it was an innocent, chance encounter between a matronly looking foreign woman and an avuncular Russian man. What no one realised until too late was that the KGB already knew that the job of "visa officer" held by Ruari was a front, and that he was actually MI6's head of station in Moscow.

The KGB knew this because his previous posting was in MI6's Berlin station where one of his fellow officers was George Blake, who had secretly gone over to the KGB. Blake later admitted he had given the KGB the names of every MI6 officer he knew.

So not only Ruari Chisholm but his wife were under intense KGB surveillance. Every time Mrs Chisholm left the embassy she was followed and photographed. It did not take the KGB long to identify the avuncular Russian who met Mrs Chisholm and her children as Colonel Oleg Penkovsky of the GRU.

But the KGB had to consider the possibility that the GRU was trying to recruit Janet Chisholm. Any hasty KGB move might wreck an operation by a sister intelligence service and then there would be hell to pay. But a KGB search of Penkovsky's apartment revealed his cache of spying equipment and incriminating papers. He was arrested, and the Chisholms had to leave the Soviet Union quickly. After a show trial at which Penkovsky confessed, he was found guilty of treason and shot.

Janet Chisholm was the daughter of a Royal Engineers officer. She was born on 7 May 1929 in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, and educated at Queen Anne's, Caversham, where she learnt Russian. She studied French at Grenoble and attended a secretarial school in London before joining MI6 at the Allied Control Commission in West Germany where she met her future husband.

After Moscow, the Chisholms were posted to Singapore and had two spells in South Africa. Ruari took early retirement from MI6 and become an author. But he contracted cerebral malaria in Tanzania and died in Scotland a few weeks later.

Janet Chisholm continued a life of adventure and in her seventies went backpacking around Australia and Tibet. But she never really abandoned the secret world and declined to talk or write about the Penkovsky case, despite many attractive offers to do so. She died in 2004, taking her spy secrets with her.

Aspects of the Penkovsky affair remain controversial to this day. Blake's confession that he had revealed to the KGB that the Chisholms were MI6 officers came in the middle of the Penkovsky operation. So MI6 had to accept that the KGB were on to Penkovsky because of his meetings with Janet Chisholm. Yet instead of aborting the operation and warning Penkovsky, MI6 allowed the meetings to continue.

The chief of MI6 at the time, Sir Dick White, said later that Penkovsky's determination and the value of his information justified leaving him in danger. But the value of the information Penkovsky provided has since been disputed. Although at the time every little morsel from Penkovsky was seized upon by Western intelligence experts, in retrospect they now find it difficult to identify any single piece of military information that Penkovsky brought which proved to be of major value.

REILLY, Sidney

The Russian Revolution left British intelligence floundering. No one really knew what the Bolsheviks were about or what they wanted. Desperate to know what was really going on in Russia in 1917-18, MI6 sent a series of spies to find out. The most flamboyant was Sidney Reilly, an early James Bond.

Reilly's own version of his background was that he was born in Russia in 1874, the son of an Irish merchant sea captain and a Russian Jewish mother. After working with a firm of Russian naval contractors, he said he made an enormous private fortune from the commission he received from a German company on contracts to rebuild the Russian navy after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. None of this has ever been confirmed.

At some stage in his career he was recruited by MI6, which was impressed with his command of languages - Russian, English, French and German - and given the code name ST 1. He was in Russia when the Revolution occurred and succeeded in establishing himself as a Soviet government official with access to documents in Trotsky's office in the Foreign Ministry.

Reilly quickly grasped what others had failed to - the slender thread by which the Bolsheviks clung to power. A man bold enough to organise a plot to overthrow them could, with a Colt revolver in his back pocket and a reasonable amount of foreign gold provided by, say, the British, take over Russia.

So Reilly, supported by MI6, organised what became known as the Lettish plot, the uprising of the troops from the Baltic province of Latvia (the Letts), who acted as bodyguards for the Bolshevik leaders. The Letts were to seize Lenin and Trotsky, and Reilly was to establish a provisional government of anti-Bolsheviks "to suppress the anarchy which would almost inevitably follow from such a revolution". There was a sub-plot which required a fanatical socialist, Dora Kaplan, to shoot Lenin if the opportunity arose.

It did, but Dora Kaplan shot too soon, and failed to kill Lenin, and the whole plot fell apart, mainly because Bolshevik intelligence agents had joined the conspiracy and knew all about Reilly's plans. Reilly had to flee the country using one of his many false names - Comrade Relinsky of the Russian police; Georg Bergmann, a merchant; or Monsieur Massimo, a Turkish businessman.

Back in Britain, he was soon up to his neck in White Russian intrigue. He married Pepita Bobadilla, a well-known actress, the widow of the dramatist Haddon Chambers. She said later that he had warned her that no one could be trusted. "The difficulty of this game is that you never know who is with you and who is against you. Many spies take the pay of both sides."

Reilly was now deeply involved in the notorious "Zinoviev letter" affair. The letter, purportedly written on 15 September 1924 by Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, to the British Communist Party, instructed it to prepare for the revolution by using sympathisers in the Labour Party.

Published in the British press four days before the general election of 29 October 1924, it swung voters away from Britain's first Labour government and brought the Conservatives back to power. Yet the letter was a forgery, concocted by Russian émigrés in Berlin and brought to the attention of MI6 by Reilly.

Then less than a year later Reilly disappeared. He had set off to slip across the Finnish border into the Soviet Union because an organisation called The Trust, ostensibly an anti-Communist group in Moscow, had invited him to return and lead a counter-revolution.

The Trust turned out to be a KGB operation set up to help it identify subversives. Reilly was arrested the moment he crossed the border. Mrs Reilly did her best to get the British government to find out what had happened to her husband, even approaching Winston Churchill, a great admirer of Reilly.

But MI6 had disowned him, partly because of the custom of denying any link with a spy who gets into trouble but probably also because with Reilly's disappearance the only man who could link MI6 with the forgers of the Zinoviev letter was gone. Any risk that Reilly might be tempted to tell his story (he had already started on his memoirs) was eliminated. His fate was revealed only after the collapse of Communism some 60 years later. The KGB had tried to "turn" Reilly and get him to work for it against Britain. When it failed, its officers took him for a walk in the snow outside Moscow and shot him in the back of the head.

Phillip Knightley's books include The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century, published by Pimlico