Sunday, 16 July 2017

Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster. A second biography of the MI5 officer, amateur naturalist and broadcaster

Like London buses, you wait for ages and then two come along. Well, not quite because there is a gap of 33 years between these two but the subject and the subject matter are identical: Maxwell Knight.

The publication in 1984 of the book by Anthony Masters (1940-2003) The Man Who Was M came as a shock to those of use of a certain age who knew Maxwell Knight as a populist amateur naturalist and animal keeper who was a regular on BBC radio and, sometimes, television and who instilled an interest in young listeners and readers that helped start them in careers as professional biological scientists. The shock came from knowing what Knight did earlier in life because he had been a highly successful agent runner for the government security service MI5 and had achieved notable successes in infiltrating himself and, later, his agents into fascist organisations with links to nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s and into communist organisations with links to and control from the Soviet Union.

Since 1984, additional information has emerged, several books have been published and a number of websites contain information. One book had material from it available to Masters. That one was a sensationalist and, it has been claimed, a rather fanciful account by Joan Miller, an associate of Knight in MI5. Another deals with a particular case, The Kent-Wolkoff Affair. The new material, some from recently declassified MI5 files, has been incorporated in the new book, Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster by Henry Hemming.

In many respects, therefore, the new book is like a second edition of the old. It kills a few canards and presents a more balanced view than was possible with material available to Masters in the early 1980s.

Maxwell Knight though remains an enigma: a chameleon by trade, from adopting the persona of a fascist activist in the 1930s to the avucular broadcaster in the 1960s; an inhabitant of a secret world who courted publicity (a castaway on Desert Island Discs for example); an impotent thrice-married womaniser; a gentleman burglar; a naturalist with an amateur interest in the occult.

Maxwell Knight retired early—at the age of 55—from MI5 on the grounds of ill health in 1961. By then though he was already well known by BBC audiences. Hemming writes:

Max—he was no longer ‘M’—was by 1961 one of the BBC’s most prolific broadcasters. In the 1950s alone, he featured in at least 306 original radio broadcasts, he had no fewer than 20 books published in this one decade, he appeared on television more than 40 times, excluding repeats, he gave lectures throughout the country and he wrote numerous magazine articles, all on the subject of natural history. His rich, reassuring voice was synonymous by 1960 with radio programmes such as The Naturalist, Country Questions, Nature Parliament and Naturalists’ Notebook. Max also popped up on Woman’s Hour, did schools programming and featured on television programmes such as Look and the panel show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. When children became junior members of the London Zoo in 1965, one of the advertised benefits was the chance to attend “film shows and lectures given during the school holidays, when you can meet famous animal experts such as David Attenborough, Maxwell Knight, and Peter Scott”.

His secret and public lives overlapped.

Hemming does make the connexion between Knight’s two lines of work. John Le Carré (who worked under Knight in MI5) illustrated two of his books. But it is links with the Zoological Society of London that are intriguing. Hemming notes that Knight was a member of council at the same time as Ivor Montagu (1904-1984; zoologist, film-maker and table tennis enthusiast) ‘a Soviet agent who had been followed around London thirty-none years earlier by Eric Roberts, acting on Max’s instructions’. There were other former security and secret service officers around the Zoo in the later decades of the last century. One was Gwynne Vevers† but there were others. However, the mix is even more interesting. Gwynne’s father, Geoffrey Marr Vevers (1890-1970), Superintendent of the Zoo until 1948 was a strong supporter of the Soviet Union and its political system, before and during the Second World War (he edited Anglo Soviet Journal) as was his boss, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell (1864-1945), Secretary of the Society from 1903 until 1935. There were also links to Ivor Montagu through the distribution of Soviet propaganda films. Many of the individuals involved must have been of interest to MI5, however innocent or humanitarian the motives of those involved since a number of the network of organisations were covertly controlled either directly or indirectly from Moscow, and as we now know some individuals were active Soviet agents. The biographies of Knight stress how he argued strongly within MI5 that the threat of Soviet espionage within the British government was real. He expressed his views in an internal memorandum, ‘The Comintern Is Not Dead’ and history showed with Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt et et al. that he was right. I cannot help but think that at the Zoo, Maxwell Knight was  initially mixing business with pleasure.

Closer to home on the other side of the fence was the sister of the photographer who illustrated another of his books. The great photographer and cinematographer, Wolfgang Suschitzky, (1912-2016) who had set out in life determined to be a zoologist, worked a great deal at London and Whipsnade zoos, his photographs there illustrating many articles and books. His sister, Edith Tudor-Hart (1908-1973), was most certainly of interest to MI5 since she was a major talent spotter and recruiter of the Cambridge spy ring as well as acting as a courier and supplier of photographic equipment to Soviet spies. She also worked as a photographer and one of her photographs, of children exploring a rock pool, appeared in the August 1939 issue of Animal and Zoo Magazine.

Both Masters and Hemming posed the question of what drove Maxwell Knight to pursue (some said in a pushing manner) his second career as a broadcaster and writer. Money seemed to be the answer. He retired early from MI5 on medical grounds. I do not know what the pension arrangements were then but my estimate is that with his thirty years service he would have been on something like three-quarters of half his final salary. Given that he was not in the top echelons of MI5 and had an expensive lifestyle in rented property it is easy to see why a second stream of income was needed.

Although this is not a book review there are a few statements of a zoological nature in Hemming that range from dubious to an outright howler. In drawing a parallel with his handling of animals and his brilliant handling of his agents, his ability to get a wild-caught toad to feed from the hand is mentioned: ‘Few wild-born toads will feed from a human hand. Fewer still are happy to do this after so little time in captivity’. In my experience this is not true. A hungry toad fresh from the wild will readily accept an earthworm dangled in front of its nose.

Then there is a photograph showing ‘Knight with his favourite pet. Goo the cuckoo’ with quite clearly a young Greater-spotted Woodpecker on his shoulder. The correct photograph for that caption is plate 27 of Masters. Finally, surely every schoolboy knows the plural of mongoose is not ‘mongeese’.

Now we have had two biographies of Maxwell Knight (the latter produced with little reference to the former) how long until we get a third? Will we eventually know what service he performed for the King which led to his receiving in 1931 a gold cigarette case inscribed with the royal cipher and his name?

*Charles Henry Maxwell Knight, 1900-1968. See also the website M: Maxwell Knight and the Frightened Face of Nature

†A BBC producer, Winwood Reade, responsible for many of Maxwell Knight’s broadcasts was the third wife (out of four) of Gwynne Vevers; she was interviewed by Masters,

Hemming H. 2017. Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster. London: Preface

Masters A. 1984. The Man Who Was M. The Life of Maxwell Knight. Oxford: Blackwell

Clough B. 2005. State Secrets. The Kent-Wolkoff Affair. Hove: Hideaway

Miller J. 1986. One Girl’s War. Dingle: Brandon