Obituary: Sir Dick White
Tuesday 23 February 1993
THE DEATH of Sir Dick White who, in turn, served as head of both MI5 and MI6 at a low ebb in their fortunes has removed one of the best and most gifted men in the secret world. White was a remarkable survivor and a lasting inspiration to all who knew him. The Soviets possibly had other views of his handiwork; yet even the KGB could not have faulted him on his sheer professionalism, once the scandals of the Burgess-Maclean-Philby-Blunt affairs had been absorbed.
Born in 1906, the youngest child of three, Dick Goldsmith White had his first name wished on him by a father who relished pointless jokes. Percy Hall White liked the sound of Goldsmith, just as he could not stand the name 'Richard'. So Dick he became. The family was moderately well-to-do. The father ran an ironmonger's shop in Tonbridge High Street for years, until his weakness for alcohol caused a permanent estrangement from his wife, Gertrude. It was she and the two elder children who ensured Dick's upbringing, sending him to Bishop's Stortford School, then a place of Low Church attitudes that changed during the First World War. Both Allen White, later to become a publisher, and Dick himself enjoyed their schooldays there, as did such alumni as Denis Greenhill of the Foreign Office (later Lord Greenhill of Harrow) and even Peter Wright, later of MI5 and now the millionaire of Spycatcher notoriety.
Dick White was an all-rounder, as good on the running track as in the classroom, winning a special Exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1925. Just short of six feet tall, slim-built, with bright blue eyes and a fair complexion, he might have won a Blue for athletics. Instead, he preferred to get a First Class honours degree in history, a subject he liked better.
Charles Masterman, a senior tutor at 'the House' and a highly regarded modern historian, had a strong influence on him. When, for instance, White applied for a Harkness Fellowship to the United States, the prompting had come from Masterman, who enabled White to 'discover the New World' before joining the security service. Those two years he spent at Michigan and Berkeley turned out to be of enduring value.
During a long voyage to Australia in 1935, shepherding a party of boys as assistant master at the Whitgift School, Croydon, he was 'looked over' by someone from MI5 as a possible recruit. The late Malcolm Cumming then recommended him to Guy Liddell, the head of counter-espionage. White was at first rather doubtful: apart from his teacher's salary, he was also writing occasional articles and reviews in the Listener. The money on offer appeared to him 'a ludicrously small pittance'. What eventually interested both Liddell and Sir Vernon Kell, the director of MI5, was White's fluency in German and French, as well as some Italian. So they pressed him to join. He soon picked up the office routine in the Cromwell Road.
White's career took him to Germany, which proved both exhilarating and dangerous. He went, still learning, with the blessing of SIS and MI5, to study at first hand the unknown opponents of the Hitler regime, gradually discovering how many of them there were in the high places of the Third Reich. It had to be done by trial and error. His contacts might be businessmen, diplomats, aristocrats, clergymen, even airmen and soldiers. Only as a final resort would White use the British embassy or local consuls. He knew far more than was good for him, returning to London only for brief intervals, partly to 'recharge my batteries', partly to add to the list of disaffected Germans he had compiled. Two who became close were Adam von Trott and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom were caught, tortured and killed in July 1944, after the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life.
The British art of intelligence-gathering between the wars had little to commend it. The methods of the Special Branch were, in essence, cumbrous and slow; yet, compared with those of MI5 and MI6, they were paragons of efficiency. No proper conception of the double threat of Communist infiltration and of Nazidom had yet been worked out, so that by 1939 Britain's secret service had been overtaken by events. As White admitted in retrospect: 'Most of us were sleep-walkers.'
Tinkering with Britain's Secret Intelligence Service during the early months of war changed nothing. So the dismissal of Sir Vernon Kell as head of Security, whether just or not, and the elevation of Sir Stewart Menzies as chief of SIS gave nothing of substance. There were accidental opportunities, like the joint Polish-French-British teams prising out the secret of the Enigma machine which, in time, broke the German codes: and deceptive ways of creating double-agents which proved of almost equal value.
White had no set wartime role, except as a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as Guy Liddell's Number Two in counter-intelligence. Ironically, MI5 and MI6 did not yet know that Anthony Blunt and Harold ('Kim') Philby, both working inside, had already become Soviet agents. When the Anglo-American plans for the invasion of France were being drawn up, White was glad to be given a vital part in masterminding some of the security aspects. Under General Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, he had direct access to the Supreme Commander both before and after D-Day, remaining in France and Germany until victory was won. He enjoyed running this finely conceived plan, the memorable end of which was his encounter with senior Soviet agents who helped him towards the incinerated remains of Hitler in the underground Berlin Chancery.
White had an uneasy feeling of anticlimax by September 1945. Churchill had been defeated: Clement Attlee, now Prime Minister, chose a new security chief, Percy Sillitoe: 'an honest copper', as Attlee thought. The first 'atomic spies', such as Nunn May and Fuchs, had been found guilty and sent to prison, but more complex problems arose.
The FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, and the emerging CIA were beginning to see through the weaknesses of Britain's security. In late May 1951, the escape of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean exposed the truth that, for years, MI5 and MI6 had been eaten from within by Soviet agents. The Philby and Blunt cases later revealed still more. Guy Liddell, from whom White had learned so many lessons, now had to resign himself: he, too, had inadvertently been compromised. White was himself so disenchanted that he wanted to leave too. Sillitoe, an 'empty-headed character' who, in White's view, 'loved playing to the gallery', then retired. Weirdly enough, before leaving, Sillitoe picked White as Director-General in 1953. By then, Sir Stewart Menzies, saddened and shocked by these repeated misfortunes, had himself left the Secret Intelligence Service.
White had no alternative but to reorganise MI5 from top to bottom. Happily, his touch was sure, combining firmness with determination and good sense. There were too many dubious customs for his liking; and he had small compunction in getting rid of them. It took him three years to improve the system, always with the one aim of ensuring a steady supply of more talented and reliable people.
Churchill finally retired, Eden replacing him in April 1955. White kept his distance. The two had met before; there was little rapport between them. Vain and often moody, Eden sent for him soon after the start of the state visit of Khrushchev and Bulganin in April 1956. There had been a bad faux pas: the Soviet leaders had arrived in Portsmouth in a new cruiser, in which both the Navy and MI5 were more than interested. So an experienced diver was sent down to inspect the hull. He was never seen alive again.
The 'Buster' Crabbe incident sent shock waves round Whitehall, causing a setback to Anglo-Soviet relations, to the fury of Eden and the Cabinet. The Prime Minister told White: 'I've decided to sack Sir Hugh Sinclair as head of MI6 and put you in charge. Don't let me or yourself down.' White was allowed to run both departments until a successor was chosen, Roger Hollis being appointed head of MI5. It was scarcely an inspired choice, although Hollis was never the 'Soviet spy' of Peter Wright's later imaginings.
Gradually Dick White managed to make both parts of the same service, MI5 and MI6, leaner and more efficient, despite such pointless problems as the Suez crisis towards the end of 1956. Even the friendly President Eisenhower was enraged with Eden. Allowing for repeated frictions between the Anglo-American secret communities, the CIA and MI6 grew more tightly knit during Harold Macmillan's premiership. Dick White's sound and often intuitive knowledge of American prejudices had come into its own. There remained dark patches from the past which, as far as possible, had to be wiped out: one pending case being the Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, now a knight and the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, a second Kim Philby. When the latter decided to come in out of the cold, escaping to the Soviet Union in 1963, White believed that he had at last come full circle. He was, alas, still mistaken. It was with Roger Hollis's decision in 1964, when Blunt partially confessed, that he should receive immunity, that fresh problems loomed.
KGB defectors had always to be dealt with. If these happened to know too much, that could be corrected. However, the great influence of James Jesus Angleton, the chief of CIA's counter-intelligence, whom White first met in 1942, became increasingly divisive: life became almost impossible for White. Even before the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, three important Soviet defectors crossed over one after another.
The most important of them, according to Angleton, was Anatoly Golitsin, a top-ranking KGB officer who claimed that these were 'super-moles' in the United States and the Western world as a whole. Dick White thought this to be unprovable and therefore ludicrous, saying to Angleton: 'Just ignore the phantoms, real or false.'
In a sense, this intermittent clash of views between White and Angleton, always at long distance, went on for some years. It weakened both the CIA and Britain's Secret Intelligence. Angleton, said White, suffered from the very defects of his own extremely subtle mind. They remained friends. In the end, the then Director of the CIA, William Colby, found a political excuse for firing Angleton in 1974. As White predicted, both US and British intelligence were split asunder well into the Seventies by the uncertainties thus caused.
Members of MI5 and MI6 also fell for the so-called 'super-mole' theory started by Golitsin and Angleton. Among them was Peter Wright, who swallowed it hook, line and sinker. If White did not like official 'hounding of people', especially over dubious cases, he had reluctantly to tolerate them. There was no way to prove a double negative, neither through the internal enquiry into the case of Graham Mitchell, alleged to be a Soviet agent while acting as Number Two to the Director-General of MI5, nor when Sir Roger Hollis later had to face his security examiners. Hollis was brought in from retirement, purely on the wild supposition that he had been surmised to be a Soviet agent. Eventually White himself had to call a halt to 'these endless goings-on, which offered only self-repeating delusions'. It was left to Lord Trend to declare, following Hollis's death, that the latter had never been a Soviet agent either, so far as could be proved.
White was knighted as early as 1955, then further honoured in 1960. Even in semi-retirement, he had a part-time role as Security Co-ordinator at the Cabinet Office under both Wilson and Callaghan. He gave up only when Margaret Thatcher found younger and more pliable men to help.
To the end he fought with his usual massive common sense against the misguided legal efforts of the Government to stop Peter Wright's Spycatcher book from being published in Australia and elsewhere. 'Had it been left to me, I'm sure that book would have sunk without trace. Secrecy can be a two-edged weapon,' he said. The concept of unnecessary restrictions on secrecy and freedom had never been to White's taste.
Beyond the confined and frequently blinkered ways of Whitehall, Dick White found relaxation, quiet, peace, even laughter. For he was given to quiet laughter from the very beginning, and he retained to the last a keen sense of the absurd. If this had to be kept in check at the office, he would later produce it, on a better or more timely occasion, in his wife's, or a close friend's, private hearing. One of his greatest joys lay in classical music; others, almost equal, were in contemporary history and literature. Yet, probably most of all, White relished good conversation, largely because he had a finely attuned ear for it. He was a kindly, generous and truly compassionate man when the occasion demanded, scarcely ever fooled, or hoodwinked, in his grey and twilit world. Somehow he managed to achieve the near-impossible, sticking to his task like Churchill's cobbler for the best part of 40 years as head of the Service. He never faltered or failed. In his own words, 'I was a unique survivor of a kind.'
Andrew Boyle died 22 April 1991
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