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.