The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine
‘I was seduced by WW2’S most dangerous spy’
Harry de Quetteville reports
Infatuation, as Bond creator Ian Fleming knew so well, is the elixir of espionage. Mixing sex and spying himself on navalintelligence duties during the war, Fleming visited Washington to hear about a femme fatale who was securing sensational secrets from Britain’s enemies in then neutral America. Yet he wanted more than just stories about the seductress spy. ‘His main objective,’ noted her handler, ‘was to meet her.’
Fleming never got to. Against all the rules, that handler – a married British intelligence officer who rose to the highest ranks, advising prime ministers over 40 years from the Second World War to the Falklands War – had already fallen for the charms of his own agent, who was codenamed Cynthia. It would cost him the advancement of his career – he was told that he would never run MI5 or MI6 as a
result. But he didn’t care, as his soon-to-bepublished (anonymous) memoir makes clear. His own infatuation with Cynthia – real name Amy Elizabeth Thorpe – made this a price worth paying.
Cynthia was electric from the moment he met her. Known occasionally to eschew knickers, she allowed her skirt to ride up as she crossed her legs nervously in his office, auditioning for a role that would have her target the Axis diplomatic corps, winning first the trust then the adoration of men with top-secret information to betray.
Cynthia was 30 years old when they met, ‘restless and reckless’ with a marriage and a string of lovers already behind her. She had discovered that passion and secrets went naturally together, deploying charm to find and help a lost lover during the Spanish Civil War, and seducing Michał Łubieński, the chef de cabinet of the Polish Foreign Minister, in the run-up to the German invasion of 1939. As a result it was she who, her handler notes, ‘was the first to confirm that the Poles finally had succeeded in deciphering some German Enigma traffic’, leading to a meeting in which they explained their methods to Britain’s famed cryptographer Dilly Knox.
It soon became clear she had many of the
essential qualities of a spy. She was possessed of almost unthinking courage, volunteering to be dropped into occupied France. She reserved a particular venom for the Nazis: ‘I hate the Germans, their Stukas machine-gunning refugees in Poland…’ She also had what US spy Allen Dulles (who later became CIA director) described as ‘an absolute determination to succeed in her mission, plus a streak of ruthlessness… hallmark of most of the really successful men I know’. But, said her handler, ‘it seemed clear that what Cynthia loved above all was the glamour and sheer excitement of being a secret agent.’
And yet with her establishment upbringing she had seemed destined for a conventional existence.
Born in November 1910 to a distinguished member of the Marine Corps, George Thorpe, and Cora Wells, a socialite, she grew up on her father’s postings to Cuba and Hawaii before returning to the East Coast bourgeoisie. But by then the smart-set mould had been broken; Betty, as she was known, was the focus of the teenage attentions of boys her age but already seemed distant from them. Her fragmented, far-flung childhood matured her beyond her years, leaving her a self-confessed loner.
When she met Arthur Pack, a British diplomat twice her age, he seemed to offer an exotic escape from childish things. Yet soon she was pregnant, married and forced to give up her baby to foster parents, to avoid the scandal of having a child that was obviously conceived before marriage, a deadening sequence that killed any attraction. ‘My mistake,’ she said, ‘was being just 20 years old. I had graduated cum laude from college but, in reality, I knew nothing about anything.’
When Pack was posted to Warsaw, she caught the eye of an MI6 officer there, Colonel Jack Shelley, who reported that while her husband was ‘rather a dull dog’, she was anything but, particularly after Pack suffered a stroke and was invalided home to Britain. She stayed on and began an affair with a Polish cavalry officer in a forest cabin after a riding lesson, the seduction fuelled by champagne and caviar. He was killed in the German invasion. ‘End of story,’ she said. By then, in any case, she had moved on to Łubieński. Shelley didn’t care, as long as she kept passing on to British intelligence what she learned on the pillow. But others in the embassy felt differently, and she was packed off to London to rejoin her husband.
Soon enough though, their split became final – while Pack was posted in Santiago, she headed back to the East Coast, where Shelley’s file on her eventually fell into the hands of the man who was to become her handler, and lover.
He remains anonymous, but the veracity of his and Cynthia’s espionage exploits is vouched for by former British ambassador to Washington Robin Renwick, who knew
One besotted target was soon ‘talking of settling down with her in the US after the war’
him personally. Together, Cynthia and her handler cooked up a series of covert capers that almost defy belief.
Their targets were the German, Italian and Vichy French embassies, all in Washington. Posing as a society journalist, she attended a blizzard of parties and diplomatic soirées, and before long had ensnared Admiral Alberto Lais, naval attaché and former head of naval intelligence in Italy. Besotted with her, he was soon ‘talking of divorce and of settling down with her in the US after the war’. But if he ever wanted to stay in America, she suggested, he would need to show the authorities ‘he could really be counted on’. She asked for the Italian naval-code books. He refused. But he did reveal the identity of a cipher clerk at the embassy who then handed them over for a huge bribe.
The code books allowed Bletchley Park to check and verify its efforts and a telegram of congratulations for Cynthia arrived from Knox. A little later, in March 1941, thanks to Bletchley intercepts, an Italian fleet in the Mediterranean was hunted down by the Royal Navy and blown to smithereens at the Battle of Cape Matapan.
It was a triumph that resounded through intelligence circles. But Cynthia and her handler were to top it, this time targeting the Vichy French in Washington. Naked but for a string of pearls and a pair of heels, she distracted a security guard while a professional burglar purloined the Vichy naval codes from a safe (an episode described in an extract from the handler’s memoir, below). Once again, Knox, ‘for whom Cynthia by now had achieved legendary status’, sent congratulations.
In late 1942, the codes proved their immense worth during Allied landings in north Africa, allowing codebreakers to decipher messages sent to and from an admiral commanding Vichy forces in north Africa instantly, assuring victory and sparing the lives of many Allied soldiers.
In the end, however, the Vichy operation ensnared Cynthia herself. Her target, press attaché Charles Brousse, whom she convinced to turn against the regime, asked her to marry him, and she agreed. Together they moved to the Pyrenees after the war, where they lived in a castle with walls so thick ‘log fires had to be lit even in the summer’.
Still, Brousse knew better than to chain his wife to rural life, and occasionally she flitted to America and Paris, where she picked up the thread of her affair with her old spymaster. Even in ‘retirement’ she was able to introduce him to Count Alexandre de Marenches, who eventually became head of French foreign intelligence. Soon afterwards, she called her lover to say that she had been diagnosed with cancer and had not long to live. She died in December 1963, aged 53.
At her memorial service, in America, her handler slipped into the back row. Afterwards, however, he found himself standing before her bereaved husband. ‘She always told me how much she loved you,’ he told Brousse as the men shook hands. ‘She loved you too,’ the widower replied.
A Spy Called Cynthia and a Life in Intelligence (Biteback Publishing , £12.99) is out on 7 September; pre-order a copy now at books.telegraph.co.uk