Friday, 21 April 2017

Maxwell Knight - the real M


When Ian Fleming came to write the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952, he turned to people he knew for inspiration for some of his characters. Take Bond's spy chief, M. In manner, it seems most likely that M was based on Fleming's wartime chief in the Naval Intelligence Division, Admiral John Godfrey. The code name may have had another source, however: Maxwell Knight, legendary MI5 spymaster who was known by the letter M.

While the connection between Maxwell Knight and the Bond novels is superficially a slight one, a new biography of Maxwell Knight by Henry Hemming has suggested other intriguing links.

Maxwell Knight's career in espionage began in the 1920s when he was recruited by Sir George Makgill to Makgill's private spy organisation. His task: to root out Communist activities by joining the British Fascisti, a powerful right-wing organisation which was waging its own campaign against the Communists, and secretly report back to Makgill. In time, Knight discovered that he was a better spymaster than spy, and was recruiting and running his own agents, who under Maxwell's guidance infiltrated Communist groups. After a brief spell in MI6, Maxwell Knight joined MI5, gave himself the code name M and set up M Section, which continued the secret fight against Communism.

By the mid 1930s, MI5 was waking up (slowly, it must be admitted) to the rising threat of the new Fascist movement, led by Sir Oswald Mosley. As the clouds of war gathered, M's agents set their sights on Fascists and Nazi sympathisers and scored notable hits against them.

M's work continued during the Second World War, and both his section and legendary status expanded. M retired in 1961, and he died seven years later. During his long career as spymaster, M busted spy rings, wrote the manual on tradecraft, trained a large number of highly successful agents, and was also largely responsible for bringing down the Fascist movement in Britain.

Curiously, all the time Maxwell Knight served in MI5, he was well known by the public, though as a thriller writer, and in particular a naturalist. He took part in many BBC broadcasts about animals, and for most of his life kept a menagerie of animals in his own apartments. His MI5 work of course remained a secret, but his expertise with animals allowed him to step out of the shadows.

On the face of it, the real M and Fleming's M have little in common, but reading Henry Hemming's superb biography, I was struck by just how often the worlds of Maxwell Knight and Ian Fleming overlapped. Presumably, Ian Fleming met Maxwell Knight from time to time while Fleming served as assistant to Admiral Godfrey. The two certainly had mutual acquaintances, among them author Dennis Wheatley. I was intrigued by the fact that one of Maxwell's agents was bookseller and bibliographer Graham Pollard. After the war, Pollard occasionally contributed to The Book Collector, the journal that Fleming owned and relaunched in 1952. An obituary of Graham Pollard published in the journal in 1977 described his work for the Communist Party, but not that he had been spying on its members. It's interesting to speculate whether Fleming knew about Pollard's activities when Fleming was on the journal's editorial board and cast his eye over Pollard's contributions.

What comes through very strongly in Henry Hemming's book is Maxwell Knight's hatred of Communism and his desire, born from personal experience, to crush it in Britain. I could not help be reminded of James Bond's epiphany at the end of Casino Royale, when having suffered at the hands of SMERSH and been betrayed by Vesper Lynd, he resolves on a personal level to 'take on SMERSH and hunt it down'. The real M would have approved.

When reading about the early career of Maxwell Knight, I was reminded too of Fleming's M's tricky relationship with MI5 and Special Branch. In Moonraker M tells Bond, who is about to operate on home soil, that he 'didn't want to tread on Five's corns'. Later, Bond reflects on how well Scotland Yard commissioner Ronnie Vallance avoids the corns of both MI5 and the uniformed police. It was these sort of 'corns' or conflicts that led to the creation of MI5 as we know it, and to a large extent Maxwell Knight had been responsible. Before joining MI5 and setting up M Section, he worked for MI6, but operated in Britain, and also worked closely with members of Special Branch. These amorphous boundaries were eventually clarified (although the real M would always act with a certain amount of independence).

Henry Hemming's biography is every bit as thrilling as the spy fiction, such as those by John Buchan, that inspired Maxwell Knight and his agents to pursue a career in espionage. What's more, the author has carried out painstaking detective work and identified some of Knight's agents who might otherwise have remained unknown. The book is a fascinating read that breaks open the secret vaults of British Intelligence to shine a fresh light on a remarkable spymaster and his organisation.


M: Maxwell Knight, MI5's Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming, is out on 4th May and published by Preface 

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