Obituary: Nicholas Elliott
Monday 18 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.
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