Obituary: Nicholas Elliott

John Nicholas Rede Elliott, intelligence officer: born London 15 November 1916; Honorary Attache, The Hague 1938-40; Acting Lieutenant, Intelligence Corps 1940-45; Head of Station, Secret Intelligence Service, Berne 1945-53, Vienna 1953-56, London 1956-60, Beirut 1960-62, a director 1963-69; executive director, Lonrho 1969-73; married 1943 Elizabeth Holberton (one son, and one daughter deceased); died London 13 April 1994.

NICHOLAS ELLIOTT's contribution to life and his value to those who knew him well go far wider than his professional achievement inside and outside the Secret Intelligence Service, impressive though that was.

As he lay consciously facing death, he told a friend: 'Well, I now know my sell-by date. I am 77 and I think I can say I have enjoyed a not uninteresting life.' The twist of humour was typical, the reflection no exaggeration.

Nicholas Elliott was the son of Claude Aurelius Elliott, a don at Cambridge, who subsequently became a successful and popular Headmaster and Provost of Eton, whither Nicholas was sent after a fairly horrific experience at Durnford, a notoriously Spartan and uncomfortable preparatory school in Dorset. Apart from his other attainments at Eton, Nicholas developed a lifelong interest in racing and managed for a time to run a clandestine bookmaking business. This was, of course, against the rules and eventually led to confrontation with his father. After remonstrating, the Headmaster agreed to buy him out for so much per term. Doubtless this was useful practice for Elliott's subsequent career in MI6 and says a good deal for his negotiating powers. He had a strong bond with his father, who figures prominently in his first and most amusing memoir, Never Judge a Man by his Umbrella (1991).

After leaving Trinity College, Cambridge, Elliott was offered a post in 1938 as Honorary Attache at The Hague by Sir Neville Bland. His career in secret intelligence came by chance, like many before and after him. Sir Hugh Sinclair, Head of MI6, happened to visit The Hague, took to Elliott and offered him a job.

On the outbreak of the Second World War he was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps, posted to Cairo in 1942, and subsequently to Istanbul; a seething hive of wartime espionage. His job was to check anti-British activity and he became an extremely effective Field Officer, obtaining the defection of an important German intelligence officer, Dr Erich Vermehren, an operation which dealt a devastating blow to the effectiveness of the Abwehr in 1944.

After the war Elliott returned to Britain, whence he was posted to Berne in 1945 as Head of Station. In 1953 he was transferred to Vienna, again as Head of Station, returning in 1956 to London, where he was responsible for all home-based operations. From 1960 to 1962 he was in charge in Beirut, eventual scene of his famous confrontation with the traitor Kim Philby. Elliott also served in Israel, where the links he built with Mossad, the extremely effective Israeli intelligence service, played a vital part during the Suez crisis and later. Subsequently he served as a director of MI6 for several years before his retirement in 1969.

Elliott was above all an operational officer. Pen-pushing and detailed analysis behind a desk were not for him. Indeed he regarded the 'intellectuals' in the Service with some contempt. In his second memoir, With My Little Eye (1994), he describes the qualities he believed necessary to succeed in this tense and exacting profession: 'The successful Field Officers will be generally found to have three important characteristics. They will be personalities in their own right. They will have humanity and a capacity for friendship and they will have a sense of humour which will enable them to avoid the ridiculous mumbo-jumbo of over-secrecy.' The cap fits Elliott well.

His was a distinguished career, publicly and unluckily marked by two notorious events, the death of Commander Lionel Crabb and the flight of Kim Philby to Moscow. Elliott and the Service suffered criticism in both cases and he felt this deeply to the end of his life.

In 1956, during Khrushchev's visit to Britain, the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze lay in Portsmouth harbour. The Navy was vitally interested in certain equipment carried under the stern. Elliott arranged for Crabb, an experienced ex-naval frogman, to investigate. He made one successful run under the ship, came back for an extra pound of weight for his next attempt and never returned. It seems probable that Crabb was no longer fit enough or it could be that his equipment failed.

There is not the slightest reason to doubt Elliott's account of what happened (in With My Little Eye) and he deeply resented subsequent criticism of Crabb, whom he knew as a brave and honourable officer and a holder of the George Medal, who had undertaken successful operations of this kind before.

The Russians, who had reported a diver in trouble near the stern, were in no way discountenanced, did not complain, and were not responsible for Crabb's death. In any case, they regard espionage as an inevitable extension of international relations. But by mischance the matter leaked. Anthony Eden protested he had not been informed and thus ensured the maximum adverse publicity. Elliott had been given every reason to believe the operation had been cleared by the Foreign Office.

Later in With My Little Eye Elliott gives a clear account of his last contacts with Kim Philby, in 1963. Philby had been a friend and Elliott felt his betrayal bitterly. Typically he volunteered to confront the traitor himself. He was instructed to go to Beirut, where he obtained Philby's written confession. After Elliott returned to London, Philby fled to Moscow in circumstances calculated to cause the maximum pain to his family. When the news of his escape broke, public reaction was predictably critical. Perhaps matters might have been handled otherwise but this was scarcely Elliott's fault. He had done what he was told to do and it is difficult to see how he could possibly have prevented Philby's escape.

After retiring from the Service, Elliott served on the board of Lonhro, leaving, with several colleagues, after a boardroom conflict in 1973. He kept up his interest in politics and foreign affairs to the end; he had just returned from a conference in South Africa when his fatal illness was diagnosed.

Elliott's home life was scarred by grief at his daughter Claudia's tragic death. Indeed he turned to transcendental meditation for relief. He was a lifelong sufferer from diabetes, though few of his colleagues ever heard him complain. A bon viveur who delighted in human relationships, he was a gifted graphologist and a dowser in his spare time, capable of divining both minerals and water.

Nicholas Elliott was a most unusual man. His friends will remember his generosity of spirit, his unfailing sense of humour, and his relaxed attitude even in the most testing circumstances. But this lightness of touch concealed a burning patriotism and an unshakeable integrity. He spoke his mind fearlessly and regardless of his own interest and his gift with people was remarkable.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...