National Army Museum logo

My Father, the Man Who Never Was

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 5 February 2015

Nicholas Reed reveals the story of his father Ronnie, who was the case officer for Agent Zigzag and other 'double agents' during the Second World War, and went on to head the Russian department of MI5.


Nicholas Reed:

This is in fact 30 years since I came to this august institution. I was doing some research in Nell Gwyn and you may know that your library here in this club has got quite a lot of material about her, because she lived round the corner back in those far off days.

But I'm showing you this picture, in a way, to take you back to the time of the 1930s. And that shows my father, in fact, at the age of about 20, when he was trying to become the British Bing Crosby, as far as I can see. And if you want to know why he tried to do that, well, let's take the story back.

He was born in the St Pancras area of London, just round the corner from St Pancras church, which you may remember as close to Euston station. And he became a choir boy there and became quite keen on music and was quite a keen singer. And as a boy soprano, he was in fact one of the boy sopranos who was interviewed or auditioned for that famous recording of 'O for the Wings of a Dove' by Mendelssohn, which Ernest Lough recorded in 1934, I think it was. But anyway, Ernest Lough got the part.

But my father himself then grew up here in that area. And his father was killed when my father was only one year old - that was in 1917 - leaving my father's mother as a war widow with very little money to send him both to school and then to do higher education.

But the other thing my father was very keen on was amateur radio, which he did from a young age. And so what he did from school was to get a scholarship to the Regent Street Polytechnic. A building that is still there now and is part of the University of Westminster – it's this building here. And you can see we're looking up Regent Street towards... that's where the BBC was built in 1926 and here's All Souls, Langham Place, which I think they still broadcast from occasionally. So that's a photograph from the early 1920s and my father was at the Poly.

This is a blow-up from an enormous 3-foot-wide panoramic photo taken in 1929. And my father is there as a 13-year-old. He always looked much younger than his age, I think, but there he is aged 13.

Travel Polytechnic – nobody remembers that – but Travel Polytechnic eventually joined up with another travel company called Lunn Travel and it became Lunn Poly, and a lot of people remember that – that was still around until the 1970s.

So, he got this scholarship to Regent Street Polytechnic and then in fact for some five years he trained in electrical engineering and wireless engineering. But as an amateur radio 'ham' this was his early call sign – G2RX. I think he became a radio 'ham' in about 1932 and living in Leigh Street, around the corner from St Pancras.

And one of his friends... I haven't got time to talk about it, but one of his exact contemporaries at his school was a man called Charles Chilton. And Charles Chilton, a BBC producer, is now perhaps best remembered for a radio programme called... what became 'Oh! What a Lovely War' when it was turned into a musical and arranged by Joan Littlewood.

This was a mysterious photograph amongst my father's possessions. He hardly ever wrote on any of the photographs and I think that was because he was always told you must keep it all in your head or you keep it back in the office, you don't leave things around at home. But I thought it must be... rather than being members of the polytechnic - they all seem a bit too grown up for that - and it was when I was talking to a BBC man who was interviewing me, he said, 'I'm pretty sure that's a place called Wood Norton Hall,' where quite a lot of BBC people were trained. And this is probably the trainees of 1936, which is when my father got into the BBC.

You can spot him down in the front here and what intrigues me is... there he is in the middle with these other people - probably all about five years younger than him because he only got into the BBC after five years working elsewhere - and I noticed that unlike them, who were wearing standard grey suits and dark ties, my father has got a non-matching jacket and trousers and then a very pale tie. I think he is wearing a velvet suit or something like that. So he was already making himself stand out a bit from the crowd.

Well, he got into the BBC and within a year he was, what was what was called 'floating staff' - junior maintenance engineer, which as he said enabled him to travel all around the country, although he was told where he was going. And one place he was sent to was Glasgow.

And this is the cutting he kept from 1938 from The Listener, for those who remember that magazine. And this photograph is taken from it and shows the new Broadcasting House in Glasgow in 1938. And there, very recognisably, is my father – that's exactly his size and shape and rather shorter than the rest of the men there. And that's him working there.

Now, there was a particularly important event which happened in 1938, which you may remember or you may remember the results on it, because this was the Empire Exhibition held in Glasgow. And there is one of the two postcards that my father kept of this exhibition which he attended. Notice the rather splendid art deco buildings – one or two of which still survive in Glasgow.

And one of the most important things that happened was at the beginning of that exhibition in Glasgow, the opening speech was given by King George VI, who as you may remember had that terrible stammer. And in the film in which Colin Firth starred he is depicted as largely getting rid of this stammer by the time he came to open this exhibition. In other words, my father was one of those who were relaying the King's Speech to the King's subjects throughout Britain.

He stayed in the BBC then for some two years until 1940, was still in the BBC in the first year during the Phoney War, and then The Blitz came. And here's a rather dramatic picture of one of a sequence of colour pictures taken in 1940, almost certainly by a visiting American. And this was in fact taken above Balham tube station and the bomb went straight down below, at night, so the bus coming along would have had no idea there was a great crevasse opening up, and went straight down into it.

So, that was what was going on in Central London while my father was in the air-raid shelter with his mother, in the Anderson shelter in fact, in Tufnell Park where they were staying. And two policemen turned up in a police car and said, 'We're looking for a Mr Reed.' And my father said, 'That's me,' and they said, 'Ah, we want you to go inside the house and ring up your boss at the BBC.'

And so my father duly did so. And his boss said, 'Well, I want you to go with these men and I want you to go on a sort of mission for the BBC. I can't tell you any more, just go with them and they will take you where you need to go. Take a bag with you.'

And so my father duly took a bag and accompanied them. And they drove through The Blitz and scenes like this – it was evening by that time. And eventually, after a very long drive, my father said, 'Can you give me some indication what this is about?' They said, 'That's all right, sir. We're taking you.' And they finally turned up at the gates of Wormwood Scrubs, which he was rather surprised at, although he did recognise them, as he said not from having visited them before.

And the gates duly opened and the car drove in through those gates and the governor came up and said 'Ah, Mr Reed. We've been waiting for you.'

And they then went with these two policemen and were asked to go up to the first landing, as it's called - in other words the first floor. So with one policeman behind and one in front he duly went up onto the first floor.

And they took him along to a cell and opened the cell door and said, 'In there please, if you would.' And my father said at that point he slightly faltered and said, 'You want me in the cell do you?' 'If you would please, sir.'

So he duly went in and found three people there, three men sitting down. The two on either side of the middle man were in fact, as he found out later, they were officers from MI5, interrogators. And the man in the middle was a German spy who had been flown over that day and had to broadcast back to Germany that evening. And he was one of the several people who became so called 'double agents'.

They were people originally sent to spy for Germany. And here is a photograph of my father in the field with one of the captured German radio sets which all these agents were given to broadcast back. And this then was the first of several 'double agents' that my father was in charge of.

In all cases he said, thanks to Bletchley Park, we had already been deciphering their wireless transmissions. We knew the name of the agent, we knew the code name, we knew what their task was.

And we presented them when they landed with all that information and said, 'Now, we've got all that. We are certain about all that information and we know you're a spy. And you've now got a choice. Either you will broadcast to Germany exactly what we tell you to broadcast or, as you are a spy, we can take you outside and shoot you. Which would you prefer?' And the great majority decided to work for the British while pretending to work for the Germans.

Oh, yes. I'm wearing today the emblem of the Signals regiment, because I thought I should mention signals, wireless and all that sort of transmission. There is a splendid Signals museum which hardly anyone knows about. I went to it, I think it was three years ago, and on an August bank holiday there were three visitors the whole afternoon.

You won't find it under 'Signals Museum' you will find it under 'Royal Signals Museum' and it's just along the road from the Tank Museum at Bovington. The Tank Museum is very well known and the Signals Museum really excellent, enormous museum and deserves to be far better known. So excuse me if I give it a plug today. Anyway, the emblem on my tie comes from that particular regiment.

The most dangerous 'double agent', so called, that my father worked with was Eddie Chapman, otherwise known as Agent Zigzag.

Now, Eddie was born up north and came down south to London and quite rapidly became quite wealthy, because he was a very skilful safe cracker and bank robber. And using that skill he made an awful lot of money. He was caught once or twice and given small sentences.

Here we see him, in fact, after the war with one of the fruits of his ill-gotten gains, a large Rolls Royce. He was very popular with the ladies one need hardly say.

And Eddie Chapman then had in fact gone over to Jersey. He got rather ambitious and having been robbing banks in England, he thought I can do better, I can rob the Bank of Jersey. Well, as you may know, Jersey is rather good at looking after its money and he was duly caught robbing the Bank of Jersey.

And Jersey... in this photograph, as you can see, there is what looks like a British bobby, but it is a Jersey bobby, talking to a Nazi officer because all the Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans as soon as the war broke out.

So, Eddie was locked up for two years in this prison in Jersey. And one of the problems was, of course, he was now stuck in prison with a World War going on which he wanted to be part of. And he volunteered to work for the Germans and said, 'Look, I'm quite willing to work hard. I don't like the British because they keep on locking me up in prison all the time. Can't I work for you instead?'

And the Germans had a quite simple answer to that: 'We are a respectable spying organisation. We certainly don't want notorious jailbirds working for us, thank you very much.' So his offer was turned down.

Then after his prison sentence was finally over in the 1940s, he came out and was almost immediately arrested because someone, some very brave resistance person in Jersey, had been cutting the communication cables and the Germans didn't know who it was. And they consulted the local police and they said, 'Well, we've only just released this notorious jailbird called Chapman.' And so the Germans took him off to interrogate him. So, for once, Chapman was arrested for something he hadn't done and taken off to Germany, where he again repeated his offer.

And the Germans realised that their spies hadn't been doing particularly well in Britain. And in fact there was one case, apparently, where a spy landed and before he was picked up by the British he was travelling on a bus, and when he got off the bus, he clicked his heels rather loudly, and a couple of people on the bus thought that's a bit funny and called over a local policeman. He was duly arrested and found to be a German spy. So, at least the Germans knew Eddie Chapman wasn't going to make that sort of mistake.

So what they decided to do was to train him. And he was taken to this place called La Bretonnière, which is quite near the Loire river or Nantes on the west coast of France on a little tributary of the Loire called the Erdre, still used for boat trips occasionally. And there he spent some three months being trained.

There was one thing they didn't have to train him in and that was how to create explosions and do so effectively - he knew far more about explosives than any of the experts. But he also had to be trained in things like wireless transmission, because if he was going to spy for the Germans he would have to broadcast back to Germany.

Eventually, after these three months of training, he was given a new false identity. This is part of the passport he had. He declared himself to be an Irishman from County Kildare, an electrical engineer. Well, of course, he had learnt all about that in the last two months, and that was the identity he had on him when he was sent over to carry out his mission.

Now his mission was to create major damage in a factory that was producing Mosquito bombers, the Mosquito planes. The Mosquito is very little remembered now. I think there is only one book specifically on that plane.

We all remember the Spitfires and the Hurricanes, but at the beginning of the war the Mosquito was the fastest of all our planes, and part of the reason was that they were made of wood, which meant that they were much lighter and they could dive through the sky much quicker than either Spitfires or Hurricanes.

They were produced in furniture factories – this is a photograph of the one in Hatfield – and all the staff moved straight over from producing wooden furniture to producing wooden planes – the Mosquito itself. In fact, what had happened is back in Germany, [Hermann] Goering had been buzzed by a group of Mosquitoes when he was giving an important speech to members of the Luftwaffe. And so he decided that the British should be taught a lesson and the Mosquito factory damaged. And that was Eddie Chapman's mission: to create damage at it.

Another picture of a Mosquito bomber with a bomb especially saying 'Happy Christmas, Adolf'. I don't think it actually hit Adolf, but, anyway, dedicated to him.

But the problem was if Eddie Chapman had been given this task, how was he to carry it out so the Germans would be satisfied with what he had done, to show that he was working for them. So it was decided that what we would have to do is make it look as if he had created major damage at the factory, and they would have to create a great big charade. And so the charade was to cover a lot of the buildings where the electricity generators were.

There were four generators inside the building here, and so they made it look... This was done when there was no moon, and a group of set designers, in fact, went and covered one of the walls to make it look as if that wall had been virtually destroyed. And this hut, half of that had been destroyed, a great big hole in the wall you can see here, and then what looked like two of the electricity generators blown out by the explosion. Blown out here. In fact these are papier-maché generators – all four metal ones were still firmly inside there.

And after this piece of deception had been arranged, Eddie duly sent a signal back at 3 o'clock in the morning to his masters and said, 'I've created a major explosion in 'Walter', which was the code name for the name of the factory. And the Germans said, 'Very well done. Great. Good to hear it. We will be in touch soon.'

And they obviously decided not just to take his word for it, but to check it out. So they sent a plane over from Germany to take aerial photographs of the factory. And we saw the plane coming, aiming straight for the factory, so we carefully did not shoot it down; it went back to Germany with the aerial photographs. They looked closely at them and then sent a signal back to Eddie saying, 'Magnificent job. You've obviously done a marvellous job of really creating major damage in this factory.'

So, Eddie Chapman was used for other purposes as well. But first of all we wanted him back in Germany, or in occupied France, so he could tell us more about what had been going on and tell us more about the German 'abwehr', the opposite of our MI5.

My father escorted him up to Liverpool where he took a ship which was going to take him to Lisbon, a neutral port. And so Eddie ended up there. But Eddie then, almost as soon as he arrived in Lisbon sent a message to Germany saying, 'Could I please be sent the pieces of explosive coal that one of my colleagues explained to me about. I would like to use them to blow up the ship, the City of Lancaster,' from which he had just returned from Liverpool.

Well, once again, we intercepted this signal and were extremely worried. And we thought, 'What's happened? Has he gone native? Has he decided to help his German friends when he is supposed to be helping us?' And we were extremely suspicious.

So we sent our man in Lisbon, not our man in Havana, but a man called Jarvis who was based in Lisbon to go and see Eddie Chapman. And Jarvis said, 'I'm from our lords and masters and we know you've got some explosive coal. You are not to use it on that ship in a neutral port. It's quite unthinkable, and totally contrary to the Geneva Convention.' And Eddie Chapman said, 'I haven't a clue what you're talking about.'

And Jarvis got quite emphatic and said, 'Look, we know perfectly well who you are. You must not use that explosive coal.' And Chapman still pretended he knew nothing about it.

And we realised that when we sent him back to France, we said, 'When you go back you've got to be extremely careful because the Germans will almost certainly try and trick you.' And in this case if this man, Jarvis, had been a Nazi spy or a Nazi and Eddie Chapman had said to him, 'OK fine, I won't use the coal,' then the Nazi would have immediately had him arrested and his cover would have been blown. Eddie was clever enough not to do that.

But it left us with a problem because we had to find out what was going on, and we had to send to Lisbon somebody who knew him, who he would recognise. So there anyway is one of these pieces of explosive coal with the explosive underneath. It was quite miniaturised and we didn't back in Britain think one could make anything like that, but the Germans had done it. There is an x-ray taken of the piece of coal with the explosive right in the middle of it, to show you how it worked.

The man who in fact my father had been discussing all these explosives with when Eddie was training back in Britain was this man called Victor Rothschild. He is the father of the present Lord Rothschild; head of the family bank, but during the war working for MI5.

And it's rather weird that you have this strange scenario of Eddie Chapman and Victor Rothschild discussing the best way to blow open the safes in Lord Rothschild's own banks, which in fact is what they were discussing.

So, anyway, the way then that we had to try and persuade Eddie not to blow up the coal was to send someone who he knew. So we decided to sent Ronnie Reed. And there is his passport from this time. You can see the date, 1947, over here but in fact it's dated 1942-43. And if we have a close look at the right-hand side of the passport you can see: 'The holder is proceeding to Portugal on official visit to His Majesty's Embassy at Lisbon, Foreign Office, March 1943.'

So my father was sent flying out there, went to see Eddie and found him in a pub nearby in Lisbon. They went up to his room and Eddie immediately said, 'Ronnie, am I glad to see you! I've had this man Jarvis on my back. I didn't know him from Adam. I wasn't going to admit anything.' And my father said, 'No, that's fine. That's quite all right. We don't want you to use that piece of coal. What have you got it for anyway?' And Eddie said, 'Well, because Victor Rothschild told me to bring it back to Britain when I came back and we could see how he had done it and see if we could do the same thing and use it ourselves.'

My father said, 'Fine. Well, don't use it on that ship.' And Eddie said, 'No, that's fine.' And my father said, 'Where is it?' And Eddie said, 'It's here. Look, here you are Ronnie. You have it.' And my father drew back rather suddenly and said, 'Not bloody likely. You can hand it back to the captain of the ship, who will take it back to Britain and then we can examine it.' So that's what duly happened and my father flew back to Britain.

Now, the man who had been training Eddie was this man, known as Dr Groening. Like all these people who were in the Secret Service, they all had code names. There is Dr Groening as he looked during the war and he is the one who trained Eddie.

And so when he eventually met Eddie back in occupied France. First of all they quizzed him for several days to try and see if he really had done what he said he had done - they still weren't quite sure whether he had been so remarkably more successful than any of their other spies - and eventually decided they believed him.

And then Dr Groening went to his desk when he was talking to Eddie and took out this little box, a black box, with a German Iron Cross, first class. And Dr Groening said this has been especially awarded by Adolf Hitler for all your help for the German Reich. And so the Iron Cross then was given to Eddie. And you might say it's MI5's finest hour because they were being given a medal by their opponents for supposedly helping the Nazis to win the war.

Well, Eddie then carried out various other tasks. But before my father continued with him... My father was with him for some 18 months and then my father went out to Europe to join a group of intelligence officers in occupied France.

There my father is in uniform. And he went to say farewell to Eddie for the last time and Eddie said to my father, 'Well, we've really done this all together. But really, Ronnie, you were the brains behind it all. You did just as much thinking as I did, so why don't you have my Iron Cross?' and duly gave it to my father. And we've still got it in the family.

And there's a letter written two years after the war, somebody who knew my father when they were both in MI5 together. And they said that my father had this Iron Cross hanging on an angle-poised lamp above his desk, just as a little souvenir of what Eddie had done during the war.

Well, the other stratagem my father was involved in was this one. 'The Man Who Never Was' written by Ewen Montagu, written only ten years or so after the war was finished. There is Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu. He was in Naval Intelligence.

Another man who was in Naval Intelligence was Ian Fleming and indeed Fleming was given the task earlier in the war of thinking up as many misleading things they could do to the Germans, ways in which we could try and undermine their war effort.

And one of the ideas was to use the body of a man, put fake plans on the body and then the Germans would find the fake plans and think, 'Oh, this is what the British are going to do.'

Well, what might they fake?

One very important thing they needed to fake was where we were going to invade in this part of Europe, in the southern part of Europe.

So it is 1943. Rommel has finally been defeated and the German troops captured and the British Army is now based in Tunisia and Algeria. And if we were going to invade somewhere along here, the obvious place to invade would be Sicily. Not that great a distance between Tunisia and Sicily. From Sicily there is literally only a one-mile strait between Sicily and Italy. And then one could march up the toe and foot of Italy.

Therefore, Sicily was immensely well defended by the Germans. We still possessed Malta, which as you may remember the whole island was given the George Cross for the valiant way in which it didn't give in to the Germans, but Sicily was even more heavily defended. And so it would be very useful if we could divert some of those German troops based there to somewhere like Sardinia or Greece. So we decided to carry out that part of Ian Fleming's idea and try and put some fake plans on the body.

They managed to get hold of a body that had no known relations - I'm simplifying this to some extent – but there is the body they got hold of, a man aged 43 who had been a tramp. They dressed him up in suitable clothing and had a briefcase which was fastened with a strap to the rest of his body so that if the body landed up in the sea, the briefcase would still be with the body.

But they were faced with a problem. They had kitted him out with all sorts of other gear, but they had to have an identity card for the body and they had no photograph of the man. They tried taking a photograph of him, and as you see that wouldn't look very convincing as a passport photograph.

So they thought they would have to have a blurred photographic view and assume that passport photographs never look much like the original, until Montagu was at a meeting - in fact to discuss the Chapman case - and he came across my father who was Chapman's case officer. And as Montagu wrote later, 'Facing me was a man who could have been the twin brother of the corpse.'

So he explained the whole stratagem to my father and said, 'Do you mind if we dress you up as you look so exactly like this body we've already got hold of?' So that's what duly happened and that's why my father appears in the identity card of 'The Man Who Never Was', hence the title of my book and indeed of this talk.

You can see here is this fictitious man, a Major William Martin, and they talk quite a lot in the documents accompanying him about what a good and reliable officer he is. But I think the British almost went slightly over the top, because having said he is so terribly reliable, notice that this identity card is issued in lieu of No XXX lost. So he wasn't quite as reliable as they said, the fictitious character.

Anyway, there is the identity card. And in fact I've put it on the front cover of my book. There is my father as 'The Man Who Never Was' and there is his identity card some ten years later when he was in New Zealand. We will come on to that later. And there is the Iron Cross which was given to Eddie Chapman.

Well, here are some of the accompanying documents and there have been whole books written about what was called Operation MINCEMEAT, which was the code name, the rather grisly codename, for this particular plan.

Here is [Louis] Mountbatten writing to the Admiral of the Fleet based down in Algiers recommending William Martin and saying, 'We were a bit worried that if we told you about where we're going to invade in the southern Mediterranean, the Germans might be listening in to our wireless transmissions, God forbid. So to prevent that from happening we are sending you Major Martin who has got all the details with him so you know exactly what's going on.'

There is a picture of Mountbatten at this time; in fact this is just after the war. There is one of those angle-poised lamps like the one that my father had with the Iron Cross hanging over it. Mountbatten directing operations.

And at the bottom it says, 'Let me have Major William Martin back please as soon as you can. He might bring some sardines with him. They are quite topical at the moment.' A bit of rather heavy humour but implying to the Germans, well, they are going to invade Sardinia. A lot of the other documents gave much stronger details about how we're going to divide our forces between Sardinia and Greece.

Here is one of the accompanying letters from Major William Martin's equally fictitious father, writing from North Wales telling him that he wants to speak to him and his bank manager about his overdraft of £800. Another little bit of unreliability one might have thought but, anyway, an appointment is being made.

And a nice little detail at the end: 'Your cousin, Priscilla, has asked to be remembered to you. She has grown into a sensible girl. Now, I can't say that her work for the Land Army has done much to improve her looks. In that respect I am afraid she will take after her father's side of the family. Your affectionate father.'

But they also decided they had better invent a girlfriend or indeed a fiancée for Major Martin, so they had a mini beauty parade in MI5 and all the women - and the women, I'm afraid, were all secretaries in those sexist far off days - and this was one of the most attractive ones. And they decided, right, we will use that as the photograph for Major Martin's fiancée.

And another woman in MI5 wrote, as it were, love letters for the fictitious fiancée. And after they were written they were carefully folded lots of times and smudged as though Major Martin was constantly taking them out of his pocket and looking at these letters.

And here you see an extract from one of them: 'The bloodhound has left the office for a short time and here I am scribbling nonsense to you again.' And so she writes that in fairly straightforward writing and then at the end: 'Here comes the bloodhound. Masses of loves and kisses from P,' before she hastily hides it under the desk and gets back on with her ordinary work.

Well, with all these things that are to go in the suitcase, or in the pockets of Major Martin's jacket.

There we see Ewen Montagu and Jock Horsfall who was a champion racing driver and MI5 got him at the beginning of the war to become the main driver for officers in MI5.

And there's the van in which the body was taken all the way up to Scotland to be loaded on a submarine and then it was brought in the submarine all the way back to be left. Here is France, Portugal and Spain and it was delivered to the little... still a tourist resort called Huelva, just off the Spanish coast, or on the Spanish coast, close to the borders of Portugal.

Spain was officially neutral in the Second World War because Franco had already fought his war and didn't want to get involved in another one. But of course Franco was just as much of a fascist as Hitler or Mussolini. And so we were fairly sure that if the documents with all this important information were found in Spain, the Nazis would make sure that they got hold of it and copied it and drew whatever conclusions they thought they could draw.

Eventually that happened and the submarine left the body outside the beach of Huelva. And in fact even before the body was swept onto the beach, a local fishing boat came across it and pulled it in to land and it was found with its suitcase and everything else. The body was buried fairly quickly. It was by this time that it had really started to rot a bit, so there was an incentive in keeping the post mortem fairly short, because it really stank by this time. And they decided he must have died from drowning.

And they decided that clearly the letters implied we're flying him over to Algiers to give this top-secret information to the man in Algiers, as they say. The Germans would have assumed his plane was shot down and the body was swept up on the coast of Spain.

But as for the actual results of the deception... Well, the body with the fake plans was found in April 1943. In May, Hitler ordered the first German Panzer group to Greece and another Panzer group to Corsica, which of course is next to Sardinia.

When we invaded Sicily in July of that same year, we expected 10,000 casualties in the first week. In fact, we lost just a tenth of that number. The Royal Navy thought we would lose 300 ships in the first two days, and in fact we lost just 12. The Germans had dispersed their forces so massively both to Greece and to Sardinia.

And one of the ironies of this whole thing is that Rommel was supposed to be the man who was going to fight us back... before D-Day - where he was supposed to be fighting us back from the French beaches - but on this occasion he was supposed to be watching out and protecting Sicily. But Hitler wouldn't allow him to go to Sicily unless they were absolutely certain we were going to invade Sicily.

So even after we had invaded Sicily, the Germans still thought that was a diversion and we must actually be going to invade Greece. And about two weeks after we had invaded Sicily, Rommel arrived in Greece waiting for the invasion, which of course never appeared. So, we really did completely hoodwink them and saved thousands of casualties by this particular deception.

There is the front cover of the CD of the film, 'The Man Who Never Was', starring Clifton Webb, who is an American actor, not that much remembered now. And one of the other people who took a bit part in the film was Ewen Montagu himself. He played a senior Army officer who was saying this is an extremely dangerous plan because suppose the Germans realise that this is a fake and that we're going to invade Sicily then things would be far worse because they will massively reinforce Sicily more than it is already reinforced.

In fact, this objection was made at the time, but the man who had to take the ultimate decision on whether to go ahead with this plan was [Winston] Churchill. So eventually the plan was put up to Churchill and the officers still said, 'We think this is terribly dangerous in case the Germans realise it.' And Churchill is supposed to have replied, 'Well, anybody but a damn fool would know we're going to invade Sicily anyway. So if they realise we're going to invade it, no harm will have been done. But if this deception plan works, it could make a major difference.' And of course he was exactly right.

Well, now, some five years after the war there was a conference held in Worcester College, Oxford, which I went to in the 1960s. And in fact I had a little room overlooking the garden there. This is the Nuffield Building which my father remembered because that's where a lot of these MI5 and MI6 officers stayed. It was a meeting of minds of the two forces – MI5 and MI6.

So I wrote to the archivist at the college about five years ago to say, 'Do you have any records of who was there at this conference?' And here we see a large number of names, some of whom might be familiar to you.

For example, Brigadier White, who went on to become head of MI6, I think it was. Lieutenant Colonel Robertson, initials TAR, so he was known as TAR Robertson. He was the chief interrogator who was the first person to interrogate any of the spies which were brought over. And he was in charge of turning them or making sure they could be relied on if they were turned. I remember my father mentioning Dick Thistlewaite and various other people like this. This is in 1950.

But looking for the word 'Reed', it doesn't appear. And this is the top half of the list, and the other half of the list we have various other... I notice all the secretaries, all unmarried, because of course if you got married you would have to leave your job as well in those sexist days. And over here, down the bottom, well, a letter R is not there.

Professor Popper is there, who paid a visit in the 1960s, the author of that book, 'The Open Society and its Enemies', a very valuable philosophical book about the dangers of lack of free speech.

But what you can see towards the end is Major Martin staying in 11-5. In other words, my father, who clearly remembered being there, must have gone in the guise of Major Martin, and that was his code name for this particular conference.

After the war my father could have gone back to the BBC and he was given the option but the Office, MI5, said to him, 'Well, we would rather like to keep you, if you don't mind.' And they had him first of all in charge of dissolving the War Office or dissolving all the wartime parts of it, because by that time we were fighting the Cold War.

And this is a book that I found in his collection, which clearly must have come from the library of MI5; it's got its Sellotape mark here. There's a book published by Cyril Connolly about the so-called 'Missing Diplomats' and this is before we had known what had happened to these two diplomats who had suddenly disappeared in 1951.

Here is one of the two diplomats. This is Guy Burgess. And after he had fled to Russia, there he is sunning himself beside the Black Sea. And the other diplomat was Donald Maclean.

Now, there's Donald Maclean and his wife and their two children, and they are back at home at a place called Beacon Shaw which is in Tatsfield – this is in the early 1950s. Beacon Shaw is still there.

There's Donald Maclean again and his wife. That's the back of Tatsfield. And I went back and got permission to take a picture of the same house as it is now. And there is Mrs Maclean with her young child, who was actually born after Donald Maclean disappeared.

But what actually happened was that we got more and more suspicious of Maclean and what he might have been doing in America. And so a decision was taken very high up in the Office that after the weekend, a particular weekend, he would be arrested on Monday and taken in and interrogated about exactly what he had been doing in the Foreign Office.

Well, surprise, surprise, that Friday evening he came back home, along with another man called Guy Burgess, who was also in the Foreign Office, and the two of them said they were going away for the weekend, or at least this is what Mrs Maclean later said. And when they disappeared over the weekend and he didn't come back on Monday, Mrs Maclean rang up sounding rather worried and said, 'Have you any idea... Has my husband turned up at work, because he's not here.' And they said, 'No, we haven't seen him since the weekend.'

And we were very suspicious about Mrs Maclean and so we, in fact, sent an officer, my father, to go down and interview Mrs Maclean. And this is the sitting room in which she was interviewed in Beacon Shaw in Tatsfield.

And according to my mother, the tabloids at the time were really quite hard on Ronnie Reed. Of course they didn't name him, but they said there's been this man from the Secret Service going and interrogating her and being very unfair to this poor woman who, as she says, obviously she didn't have a clue her husband even might be a spy, she had no idea what he was doing, and made a big song and dance about it. And the tabloids were rather on her side until three months later when she, too, disappeared and we realised that she, too, had known what her husband was doing and had actually been working for him. They were working for the Russians as well.

Now, if Maclean was going to be interrogated on the Monday but had disappeared on the Friday, then there must have been somebody who tipped them off, tipped off Maclean. And Maclean decided to go with Burgess as well. The third man was a very topical subject at the time. Grahame Greene had written his novella just two years earlier and here is the book which fairly rapidly became that very famous and classic film with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

And in fact there was an awful lot of speculation: if in fact they had been tipped off, who had tipped them off? In fact, what happened was in 1956 they finally came out of hiding in Russia and called a conference. And Maclean and Burgess, very proud of themselves, explaining how they had been spying for Russia for years, gave the reasons why they had. They didn't reveal who had tipped them off or who the third man was. But there was one man, Colonel Marcus Lipton, MP for Brixton, who asked questions in the House of Commons where, as you know, you can't be done for libel. And he named Kim Philby as the diplomat who he thought - he was by that time deputy head of MI6 - who he said had tipped off the two spies. And Harold McMillan had to make a statement...

By the way, just as we're looking at this photo, there is Kim Philby on the right and there is a keen young reporter, a very recognisable Alan Wicker, who only died a couple of years ago.

And Harold McMillan - rather than saying, as prime ministers tend to say now, 'We do not comment on security matters,' - he said, 'There is no evidence whatever that Kim Philby was in any way involved in either spying for the Russians or being anything less than a fine and upstanding member of our diplomatic service,' which was a rather surprising thing for him to say.

It seems to have been just that, again, unless you can bring evidence and put someone on trial, you've got to assume they are innocent. And if you are asked a question in Parliament, you've got to stick to the rules of not giving away anything about the evidence that might indicate they were doing anything.

So, this was Philby's triumphant press conference - which actually you can watch on YouTube, there's a bit of film showing him smirking away, really, while he replies to all the reporters, and saying at one point, 'The last time I spoke to anyone who was a Communist and knowing him to be a Communist was back in 1936'. It was one of the biggest lies he told in that particular interview but, anyway, we realised even back in 1956 that he must be a spy, we just couldn't prove it.

And so we stopped giving him any important work and he was demoted from deputy of MI6. And after a few more years Philby himself decided he wasn't getting anywhere and perhaps if somebody did denounce him, then he might get arrested, and so he, too, fled to Russia.

Well, the fourth person... There was also, as you must know, a fourth person. It was this man, Sir Anthony Blunt, the surveyor of The Queen's pictures. And there he is with Her Majesty.

Anthony Blunt, who had in fact been a don in the 1930s in Cambridge, and he was the man who in fact persuaded Philby, Burgess and Maclean all to become spies for Russia. But that fact wasn't revealed even though we'd found out by 1963 that he had been spying for Russia as well. But when Andrew Boyle published his book, he wrote a book called 'Five Who Spied for Russia' - here we have Kim Philby, Burgess and Maclean - and several people had told him that Sir Anthony Blunt was the fourth man. And Blunt said to him, 'If you dare to publish that, I will sue you for libel and the establishment will stick to their agreement that they wouldn't admit anything like that.' And so he had to keep his identity secret.

But Mrs Thatcher when she came to power in 1979 as prime minster had to be told that the fourth man was known to be Sir Anthony Blunt. And she really felt that allowing him to stay there as surveyor of the pictures, keeping his knighthood and all the rest when he had been spying for Russia, was just a bit too much to take. And so she duly named him in the House of Commons and he was stripped of his job. I think he wasn't stripped of his professorship, but stripped of his knighthood certainly because he didn't carry out any great favours for this country.

Later, after the war, my father stayed in MI5. He kept eyes on any subversive organisation, any anti-democratic organisation where you were worried they were going to use force. The Angry Brigade, little remembered now, but they came before the IRA, and they too used bombs to try and create economic damage. In fact, they were never responsible for any deaths. It was the IRA who let off so many more bombs that they did kill quite a lot of civilians, as I am sure you know.

But he also kept an eye on anti-Vietnam demonstrations. This is one of them, the famous one in Grosvenor Square. And perhaps you can recognise the man with the moustache – Tariq Ali, that's right. And the young lady, Vanessa Redgrave, both very keen left-wingers.

The thing that my father told me when I interviewed him and did a video interview with him shortly before he died, was that when that demonstration was actually taking place, it was led by a chief superintendant from Scotland Yard who had infiltrated the whole group, and this never came out. And I wrote to Tariq Ali and said, 'Is that likely to be true?' And he said... I could tell you afterwards in the questions perhaps what he said, but he thought it might have been a splinter... He said there was a splinter group in that demonstration that went off and started playing football with the police, which was perhaps a little bit of a giveaway.

You might think as my father was in charge of the Russian department of MI5 from 1945 until 1951 that with so many spies being revealed his own job might have been slightly on the cards. But he spotted this woman, a lady called Jenifer Hart, married to the Professor of Law at Oxford. And she wrote a book about her life and she did work for MI5 for a short time. And it's rather intriguing that she has this title of her book, 'Ask Me No More', which often implies: don't ask me too much or I might give something away. And in fact my father was very suspicious of her. Nobody else in the Office thought she could have been a Communist.

It eventually turned out she had been a member of the Communist Party since 1935, but kept it very quiet, even from her husband who was working in Bletchley Park at the time. So he was quite horrified to find this had happened. And she was never actually charged, but most experts now think she was also a spy for Russia.

Because my father spotted her he was allowed to carry on. And in fact in 1957 he was sent out to Wellington, New Zealand - and there's his call sign there. And he would call back to some of the friends he had back in Britain.

And there is my father and mother dressed up for a cocktail party and he was now in the High Commission in New Zealand. There's the Grand Hotel they stayed at in Auckland on the way back after three years posting.

And there's his calling card or QSL card, what the amateur radio people sent to each other- G2RX again - based in Dulwich where he was the last 35 years of his life.

There he is in front of his radio set in 1984.

That's my parents on their 40th wedding anniversary where my sister-in-law arranged for all the food to be coloured red for a ruby wedding. So there's the ruby-coloured cake.

And at the funeral... He died in January of 1995. There's some of his relations, including my brother who has now spent 40 years leading the second violins in Covent Garden Orchestra, sorry, he then became a first violin but anyway...

And in case anyone is interested in these comparisons of father and son, I happened to find those photos at the same age on one of those rare occasions when my father grew a beard.

But, anyway, that's just some of what appears in my book which is for sale if anyone wants a copy. There's either a copy at £10 or there is a special collectable version of it with the call sign, one of my father's original cards, a numbered number of them, those are £15.

Anyway, I hope you have a better idea about how someone with virtually no money and very little education became really remarkably senior in MI5 and how it all ended.

Thank you very much.

Be the first to leave a comment

Add your comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

(By ticking this box you agree for your name and email address to be added to the National Army Museum's mailing list. You also accept the terms of the National Army Museum's Privacy Policy)

Please note: By submitting a comment you are agreeing to the terms laid out in the National Army Museum's Rules for User Comments. Any views expressed in user comments do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of the National Army Museum or its staff.

Information & Enquiries

Contact the General Enquiries desk: