Celebrating the Bucks spymasters I
2016 marks the centenary of the creation of MI5 and MI6, the intelligence agencies responsible for identifying and tackling threats to the security of the UK and her interests overseas. Next year will also be the 70th anniversary of the founding of Britain’s third intelligence agency, GCHQ, which developed from the wartime Government Code and Cipher school, based at Bletchley Park, Bucks. To mark these anniversaries, Chalfont St Peter-based author DJ Kelly has published ‘Buckinghamshire Spies and Subversives’, exploring our county’s astonishing 600 years of subversives and spies and those who spied upon them. Among the county’s many individuals linked with spying, are a number of highly successful spymasters who operated from, or lived in, our villages.
N 1916 Britain’s Secret Service Bureau (MO5), was divided into two new agencies, MI5 (domestic intelligence) and MI6 (counter-intelligence). Vernon Kell, head of MO5, was appointed Director General of MI5.
When World War One broke out, with a staff of just twenty but utilising the resources of regional police forces and other agencies, Kell managed to round up every German agent sent to spy on Britain.
His successes continued in the run up to World War Two, as MI5 monitored Britain’s own fascist ‘Blackshirts’, Nazi sympathisers and communists.
However, when Churchill came to power in 1940, he promptly sacked Kell.
The longest-serving head of any government department, Kell retreated to grow roses at his country cottage Stone Pits House, in Embleton near Olney.
He nevertheless continued to serve his country both in the Home Guard and as a special constable.
He was knighted in 1942 but, sadly, passed away just weeks later.
Foreign Office mandarin Robert Vansittart of Denham Place, Denham, was a WW2 spymaster.
He and Denham-based film director Alexander Korda ran their own networks of spies made up of personalities from the film world.
In the 1930s Vansittart had appointed actor Nöel Coward to spy on Wallis Simpson, whom he believed to be disclosing classified information from the King’s despatch boxes to Fulmer-based German Ambassador, later Hitler’s Deputy Führer, Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Buckinghamshire resident actors John Gielgud (Wotton Underwood) and David Niven (Penn, Stowe and Dorney) gathered intelligence for Vansittart, whilst Gerrards Cross resident Laurence Olivier worked for Korda.
Vansittart’s biggest coup, however, was recruiting anti-Nazi senior German diplomat Wolfgang zu Putlitz who regularly disclosed communications between his London Embassy and Hitler.
Head of MI5 during the Cold War era was Michael Hanley.
Sharing his fear of ‘reds under the beds’ with James Jesus Angleton, the Chartridge-educated first head of counterintelligence for America’s CIA, Hanley too would retire from the spy trade to grow roses at his home in Hazlemere, Buckinghamshire.
Former Director General of MI5 Vernon Kell
Buckinghamshire Spies and Subversives, by DJ Kelly, [ISBN 978-1-78510-847-1] is on sale at all good book shops and via Amazon.
Spymaster Robert Vansittart lived at Denham Place