Forget Bond, MI5 wanted its spies short and static

Wanted: nondescript individual, 5ft7in to 5ft8in in height, with good hearing and the ability to stand still for long periods in extreme heat and cold. The ideal candidate must also have a fondness for hiding behind trees in parks and a strong aversion to false beards and moustaches.

It might sound like the job description for an eccentric ornithologist but these are the attributes that MI5 was looking for when it sought to recruit a “watcher” or surveillance officer to its ranks with the purpose of tracking foreign spies and suspected traitors around Britain’s towns and cities.

A secret file detailing the activities of Section B6, the outpost of MI5 used to tail threats to national security, details how senior spooks struggled to find sufficiently unobtrusive operatives to carry out the vital work of pursuing Nazi agents. Communist agitators and high-level ne’er-do-wells during the Second World War.

The document, released at the National Archives in Kew, west London, reveals that the Security Service despaired when it received a flood of applications to join its ranks from wannabe spies who had spent too long watching detective films and expected a glamourous clandestine existence. One moustachioed applicant accompanied his CV with a picture of himself dressed in a trilby while peering around a street corner.

Instead, MI5 felt obliged to underline the drudgery of the task of spending long hours in shadowy doorways watching a single window. The report, which includes a history of B6 written by an anonymous veteran surveillance officer, said: “This is an onerous and exacting profession. Screen sleuths of the secret service thriller or detective novel appeal to the uninitiated, but in actual practice there is little glamour and much monotony in such a calling as ‘observation’.

“A successful watcher is a rarety. After many years of watching and following, the writer is forced to the conclusion that the ideal watcher is born and not made, and unless he has a natural flair for the work he will never rise above mediocre. Observation cannot be mastered from textbooks or lectures. Hard practical training in the street is the only way to bring out a man’s aptitude for the job.”

The file sets out the profile for the perfect “shadower”, specifying the ideal height (5ft7-8), with acute senses and “hardy enough to withstand cold, heat, and wet during the long hours of immobility in the street”. Also important was an appearance “as unlike a policeman as possible” and the ability to dress in “old clothes, cap, muffler” when in the “slum quarters”.

The one thing that a B6 operative was never to wear was a false moustache. The report said: “The writer is against the use of facial disguises. It may be considered essential in Secret Service films but in practice it is to be deplored. A false moustache or beard is easily detected, especially under the high lights of a restaurant, pub, or in a Tube train.”

After its formation shortly before the First World War, the unit of trench-coated observers grew to 40 members by the beginning of the Second World War and was dealing with 140 cases a year by 1942, trailing a colourful range of foreign spies and British agents, including a Nazi operative working as bakery delivery driver in Mayfair and a taxi driver who was eventually arrested by being asked to drive Wormwood Scrubs and detained once he arrived in the prison yard.

The clandestine observers were part of a formidable MI5 operation against attempts by Nazi Germany and its allies to flood Britain with spies. Through a mixture of enemy ineptitude (many Nazi agents simply surrendered to the British authorities) and the breaking of German codes, MI5 was able to operate its Double Cross system.

John Masterman, the MI5 officer who ran the network feeding false information to the Nazis, boasted that by 1941: “We [MI5] actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country.” The disinformation supplied to the German high command was so successful that it helped change the course of the war, in particular by convincing Hitler that the D-Day invasion would happen at Calais.

The Section B6 file highlights a particular triumph when a surveillance team followed the naval attache at the Japanese embassy to Ham Common in west London, where he met his source, a former RAF fighter ace, in the middle of a clump of bushes. The report states that the MI5 tail, “the best little watcher in the game”, was able to creep into the bushes unnoticed and report word-for-word the men’s conversation.

Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
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 General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments