Unmasked: Out of the shadows for the first time: Britain's real spooks

For many decades, the men who ran MI5 were forced to remain faceless. But now the service has decided to out them. Francis Elliott reports
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The Independent Online

Forget the smoke and mirrors, put away the cloaks and daggers, and drop that disguise: spying is coming in from the cold.

Today, after 96 years of secrecy and by kind permission of Her Majesty's Not-So Secret Service, we can show what would, in previous eras, have had us all led away for a session with the rubber hose and Anglepoise: the faces of Britain's spymasters.

Authorised officially, for the first time we can gaze on the mug-shots of all the men - and women - who have been directors general of MI5, in command of our domestic spies. And far from the sinister-faced coves beloved of film-makers and novelists, they are a humdrum-looking lot.

Happily, there are exceptions. One wore dark glasses, even on a winter's afternoon. Another was known as "Jumbo". A third may have been a Russian spy. The images may fall short of the glamour of BBC 1's Spooks, but despite their strong resemblance to bank managers these spymasters were most definitely "MI5 - not nine-to-five".

From breaking German spy rings on the eve of the First World War to confounding Hitler ahead of D-Day, through the Cold War and on to today's war on terror, these are the men and women who have led Britain's homeland spies.

"What these photographs disguise is the vastly different characters of the former DGs," says Professor Christopher Andrew, who is writing a history of MI5. Some were career spies, others were brought in from the outside to shake up an institution regarded by politicians with fear and respect in equal measures. Some were brilliant, others were not.

Sir David Petrie restored MI5 to glory with brilliant counter-espionage operations against Hitler, says Professor Andrew, who rates him as one of the best heads. Sir Percy Sillitoe, his successor, became DG in 1946 after a long police career. His identity was an open secret in Fleet Street.

And Professor Andrew said he was not above "flirting" with the press. "He once attended a football match in dark glasses. Something, you might think, likely to draw rather than deflect attention on a grey winter afternoon."

Charming, clubbable, career spy Sir Dick White was so loved by the political elite he was the only officer to serve as DG of MI5 then as C, the head of MI6.

Sir Michael Hanley, a head of MI5 during the 1970s was known as "Jumbo" on account of his "enormous frame", says Professor Andrew, himself a member of the Security Service.

Only when Dame Stella Rimington arrived as DG in 1992, did MI5 begin its slow journey out of the shadows. "There was a sense that she could continue with her normal life, living in the same place and going to Marks & Spencer," he says. "Nobody was prepared for the huge media attention for a female DG."

Eventually, MI5 was forced to confirm that she was its head, ushering in the era of openness under today's incumbent, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller.

The service launched its website, www.mi5.gov.uk, and recruited with beguiling newspaper ads. Now it has opened the family album for all to see. What ever next? Selling its own-brand invisible ink?


SIR VERNON KELL: (1909-1940) Broke German spy ring on eve of WW1

BRIGADIER A W A HARKER: (1940-1941) Took over after Kell was sacked

SIR DAVID PETRIE: (1941-1946) Restored MI5 to glory during war

SIR PERCY SILLITOE: (1946-1953) Outsider, flirted with press

SIR DICK WHITE: (1953-1956) Dashing career spy. Later MI6 'C'

SIR ROGER HOLLIS: (1956-1965) Accused of spying for the Soviets

SIR MARTIN FURNIVAL JONES: (1965-1972) War hero, later spymaster

SIR MICHAEL HANLEY: (1972-1978) Nicknamed 'Jumbo'

SIR HOWARD SMITH: (1978-1981) Smooth, long-serving diplomat

SIR JOHN JONES: (1981-1985) Insider who joined service in 1955

SIR ANTONY DUFF: (1985-1987) Career diplomat who updated MI5

SIR PATRICK WALKER: (1987-1992) Oversaw post-cold war period

DAME STELLA RIMINGTON: (1992-1996) First woman DG.

SIR STEPHEN LANDER: (1996-2002) In post during Iraq war