Sir Dick Franks: Wartime SOE officer who became Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service in the Cold War

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dick Franks was Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service – MI6 – from 1978 to 1981. He was only the second chief to be appointed from within the service, succeeding Sir Maurice Oldfield. Both were highly successful chiefs, but their styles were markedly different.

Oldfield was donnish in manner and owlish in appearance, a dedicated intellectual intelligence officer who remained somewhat aloof from his staff. Franks was a pragmatist with a wartime military background, decisive and politically acute but much happier to delegate responsibility and, by his combination of kindness and authority, much better at inspiring genuine affection and loyalty. In a service where wives frequently played a key role, Franks enjoyed the support of his wife, Rachel, as a warm hostess who entertained tirelessly and won the devotion of all ranks.

Born in Hampstead in 1920, he was the son of Arthur Franks, managing director of WB Dick Ltd, which evolved into Castrol, and his wife, Kitty. Arthur was dispatched by Kitty to register his son's birth as Richard Arthur Franks but took a last-minute, unilateral decision to call him Arthur Temple Franks instead. Kitty, whose direct and practical gene seems to have been passed on, said that was fine by her but she would still call him Richard. Thus he became known to his family and many friends as Dick, but to his colleagues in SIS as Dickie. The family found this a most useful way of distinguishing between undeclared intelligence colleagues and those from more conventional walks of life.

After Rugby School, where he won the music prize with his clarinet, he had time to fit in a wartime law degree at the Queen's College Oxford, before joining the Army in 1940. He was briefly with the Royal Signals before being commissioned as an infantry platoon commander in the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. In 1942 he was attached as an Intelligence Officer to the Libyan Arab Force in the Western Desert, which led directly to his selection for SOE (the Special Operations Executive) in Cairo.

Following appropriate training he was, in 1944 and at the age of 24, given command of a small group of naval saboteurs who were parachuted into northern Serbia to collect intelligence and disrupt Axis shipping on the Danube River. Such attacks demanded a high level of courage and leadership and Franks operated successfully until the Russian army reached the Danube and the SOE team could be evacuated through Bulgaria. For these activities he was mentioned in dispatches, perhaps not an over-generous reward for his activities.

At the end of hostilities in Europe Franks moved on to the Control Commission in Germany, a group of civil servants, diplomats and armed forces personnel who were setting up democratic government in Germany, overseeing de-Nazification and keeping a wary eye on Soviet activities in Eastern Europe.

He was demobbed in 1946 with the rank of Major and joined the Daily Mirror as a sub-editor. He used to say that his three years on the paper taught him two useful things; the first was precision and economy of language, the second was shorthand. Both of these proved invaluable in his subsequent career, but the shorthand had a special utility as a virtually personal operational code that became increasingly secure as the years went by and the skill fell out of fashion.

Franks married Rachel Ward in 1945 and he soon found that the unsocial hours of sub-editing were inimical to raising a young family. Recruitment by SIS in 1949 was thus a blessing in more ways than one. His first overseas posting was to the British Middle East office in Cyprus in 1952, where he had a supporting role in the planning for Operation Boot, the successful Anglo-American operation to remove Mohammed Mossadeq, the prime minister of Iran.

It was thus fitting that he moved to Tehran in 1953 for three years as Second Secretary and head of station. By the time of his departure he had established a close relationship with the Shah and a knowledge of the Middle East which coloured the rest of his career, though coming second in his priorities to the Soviet Bloc. In Tehran he also put his clarinet to good use by leading the Tehran Termites, a swing quartet also featuring Rachel and two service colleagues.

Four years as a First Secretary in Bonn, from 1962 to 1966, took him to the heart of operations against Eastern Europe and led to a lifelong friendship with his station colleague David Cornwell, now better known as John le Carré. By the time of his return to London he was already being tipped as a future board director of SIS; he rose to this level in the 1970s and to Assistant Chief of the Service in 1977. Throughout this period he played a prominent role in organising and directing operations against the east European services, but despite press reports to the contrary he had nothing to do with the recruitment of the erratic Greville Wynne, nor with the altogether more vital recruitment of the Soviet agent Oleg Gordievsky.

Franks took over from Oldfield as chief of the service on 1 February 1978. He continued his predecessor's excellent relations with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the rest of Whitehall and the intelligence success in support of the Lancaster Conference on Rhodesia won him points with the government. He built significantly on the traditions of professionalism in the service. By the time he retired, in 1981, the reputation and the morale of SIS were high and much of the credit was his.

On retirement he became a part-time export consultant to the Wilkinson Group, but his main interests lay in Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, especially in his membership of the Aldeburgh Golf Club, of which he became captain. He was also chairman of the local British Legion, vice president of the Aldeburgh Society and a prominent fund-raiser for the Moot Hall Restoration Fund. Above all he was invariably available with practical help and sage advice to those in trouble.

Alastair Rellie

Arthur Temple Franks (Dick Franks), intelligence officer: born London 13 July 1920; CMG 1967, KCMG 1979; Chief of Secret Intelligence Service 1978-81; married 1945 Rachel Ward (died 2004; one son, two daughters); died 12 October 2008.