Daily Express

The unlikely SPYMASTER

A riveting new book looks at the life of Sir Maurice Oldfield, a farmer’s son who rose to become head of MI6 and the model for two of fiction’s greatest spies

- To order Spymaster by Martin Pearce, published by Bantam Press, £20, call the Express Bookshop with your card details on 01872 562310. Or send a cheque or postal order to Spymaster Offer PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit expressboo­kshop.com UK delive

IT WAS the first time any of his family had seen him in tears. As Margaret Thatcher left Maurice Oldfield’s bedside, the former head of MI6 was distraught. “Mrs Thatcher asked if I was homosexual. I had to tell her,” he wept as they gathered around his bed.

Just days before he died of stomach cancer in 1981, it was the first time he had spoken about his sexuality. Since then Oldfield’s name has been smeared by uncorrobor­ated and unlikely allegation­s of impropriet­y. But a new book written by his nephew highlights the remarkable career Sir Maurice had inside the secret services and the influence he wielded for 40 years.

Oldfield was by any standards an unlikely candidate to rise to the top of MI6 in 1973 and become its most decorated Cold War spy. The Secret Intelligen­ce Service, as MI6 was originally known, was a closed shop, dominated by the plummy voices and connection­s of public schools and Oxbridge.

But Oldfield, the eldest of 11 children of a tenant farmer in the remote Derbyshire village of Over Haddon, was bright and had a natural way with people. After gaining a scholarshi­p to a local grammar school he went on to get a first in medieval history and win a fellowship at Manchester University.

A life in academia could have followed, but when Oldfield was recruited to join the Intelligen­ce Corps during the Second World War and served with distinctio­n at its Cairo headquarte­rs he had found his vocation.

After becoming deputy head of counter-intelligen­ce in 1947, he was posted to Singapore and became head of station. Oldfield was already making a name for himself but it was through starkly different methods to most other members of the secret service.

While the brash, overconfid­ent, public school-educated elite of MI6 – dubbed the Robber Barons – had become known for a series of bold but ultimately disastrous operations, Oldfield believed more in forensic investigat­ion, thorough intelligen­ce gathering and the subtle exerting of influence.

His research led him to become the first to suspect double agent Kim Philby. He became an expert in handling defectors and his “Oldfield law” that they were like grapes – the first pressings are the best – became a key rule in assessing the secrets they passed on.

Most importantl­y, Oldfield was a master at garnering contacts wherever he went. It included a web of secret service colleagues across the world but his links went much deeper. Businessme­n who traded abroad, scientists, embassy officials and politician­s all became part of his network of “friends”.

ANYONE who could get access to a country without suspicion was included. number worked as airline staff, including at British Airways. He even had contacts in the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee.

An excellent source of “friends” was journalist­s. One was Letter From America correspond­ent Alistair Cooke while another was former Daily Express foreign correspond­ent Sefton Delmer, who provided excellent intelligen­ce with the full approval of Express Newspapers’ then director Lord Beaverbroo­k.

A devout Christian, Oldfield even developed links with priests in the belief that discoverin­g the mood of a country was every bit as important as what its leaders might be planning. The scheming would pay dividends repeatedly.

During his time based in the US after 1959, the gregarious Oldfield was tasked with mending relations with the CIA and US colleagues. They had been completely shaken by the infiltrati­on of the British secret service by Philby and the Cambridge spy ring.

His work helped to restore trust but it was the Cuban missile crisis where he made a true difference. President Kennedy’s advisers were pushing for a full military invasion of Cuba following Fidel Castro’s decision to allow the Russians to site nuclear missiles on the island. However, Kennedy was more reticent and it was a private phone call to Oldfield that persuaded him to instead blockade Cuba and force the removal of the missiles.

Oldfield’s guidance was important to politician­s and a string of prime ministers and foreign secretarie­s grew to rely on his wisdom.

In 1964 Harold Wilson was being urged by US President Lyndon Johnson to send British troops to fight in the Vietnam War. But it was Oldfield who convinced Wilson that the Vietnamese fighters were not being manipulate­d by Beijing or Moscow and that Britain had nothing to gain from going in.

In the late-1970s Oldfield’s contacts proved their worth again. Argentina’s military junta had landed a unit on the uninhabite­d British island of Southern Thule. Oldfield understood the threat to the nearby Falkland Islands as well as the strategic importance of the area. Diplomatic moves had made little progress so James Callaghan sent a nuclear-powered submarine to the region.

It was Oldfield, through his contacts in South America, who warned the Argentines of the task force with some exaggerati­on of its size. The danger was averted at least for the time being.

The spymaster, rumoured to be the inspiratio­n for Ian Fleming’s “M” and John Le Carré’s George Smiley, worked behind the scenes around the world.

Often long-term relationsh­ips were the key. The Shah of Iran remained a close ally for decades as Oldfield encouraged the country to westernise. The spy also became a firm friend of Lee Kuan Yew before he went on to become Singapore’s chief minister – and even after independen­ce the link meant the country remained friendly to Britain.

Sometimes there was a darker side to Oldfield’s manoeuvrin­gs. His hand was clearly behind the decision of the Queen’s representa­tive in Australia, Governor-General Sir John Kerr, to sack the democratic­ally elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. One of the main concerns was that Whitlam might close the vital CIA-run satellite-tracking base near Alice Springs from which surveillan­ce of Russia, China and the Middle East was controlled.

OLDFIELD was known to be fair to his operatives and encouragin­g, even if he was at times too interferin­g. But hard decisions could be taken. When one British agent was caught in Russia, Oldfield sanctioned the smuggling in of a cyanide capsule so he could commit suicide rather than reveal his secrets.

The work was stressful and pressurise­d and at times dangerous. In 1975 a huge bomb was found hanging from a railing beneath his London flat. Two years later while in church, a note in his hymn book read: “The IRA will get you.”

But even in the midst of internatio­nal conflict, spying scandals and dealings with powerful politician­s, Oldfield could always find solace at home. Weekends working on the family farm, boozy lunches at the local pub, the Lathkill, and visiting friends and family around Derbyshire were a welcome release.

He retired as chief of MI6 in 1978 but within a year had been appointed co-ordinator of security intelligen­ce in volatile Northern Ireland at the personal request of Mrs Thatcher. Then in 1980 he had his vetting certificat­e withdrawn after it emerged he had lied about his homosexual­ity.

Lurid allegation­s were later made of propositio­ning a man in a Belfast pub, of inappropri­ate behaviour with young men who had visited his home, even of using rent boys. None appear to be backed by proof but were made as part of a smear campaign.

As Oldfield’s contempora­ry at Manchester University, Professor Ronald Reed, noted: “He never faltered in trying to maintain the former glory of his country as a world power. No wonder the spy Philby and other would-be destroyers of this country found him a formidable adversary.”

 ?? Pictures: GETTY; MARTIN PEARCE ?? MASTER PUPPETEER: Sir Maurice Oldfield, left, befriended Express foreign correspond­ent Sefton Delmer, above, and advised President Kennedy on Cuba
Pictures: GETTY; MARTIN PEARCE MASTER PUPPETEER: Sir Maurice Oldfield, left, befriended Express foreign correspond­ent Sefton Delmer, above, and advised President Kennedy on Cuba

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