Some Reflections on the North Downs

Last September, on a visit back to the United Kingdom, I drove out into the country from my birthplace of Croydon, Surrey, to pay a visit to Chartwell, in Kent, the home of Sir Winston Churchill. Afterwards, I walked around the nearby town of Westerham, and admired the magnificent statue of Churchill, sculpted by Oscar Nemon, that stands in the town square. By one of those strange coincidences, I recently discovered that my supervisor at Buckingham University is a friend of Nemon’s daughter, Aurelia, who is married to the Conservative MP and Chief Whip, Sir George Young. I also learned from him that Lady Young had identified ‘an uncle’ who (she said) had provided the underwear for the corpse in Operation Mincemeat, the WWII deception project designed to fool the Nazis about Allied invasion plans. Now, from reading Ben Macintyre’s eponymous book on Operation Mincemeat (a story probably more familiar to older readers in the film The Man Who Never Was), I immediately knew that the person being referred to was the New College don, and sometime member of Lloyd George’s cabinet, H. A. L. (Herbert) Fisher, who had died from pneumonia shortly after being knocked down by a lorry in 1940. Macintyre informs us that the wheeze was John Masterman’s. Good underwear was hard to come by in the days of wartime rationing, and Masterman (head of the Twenty, or ‘XX’, Committee that turned German spies into double-agents) was an academic rival of Fisher’s at Oxford, and thought him rather pompous. Masterman found the obituaries to Fisher a tad too flattering, and conceived his revenge in a bathetic way.

Fisher was of interest to me, because he had been a mentor of Sir Isaiah Berlin, the famous historian of ideas, and Berlin had known his daughter, Mary, very well. In the early months of the war, Mary had worked in the clandestine propaganda unit set up within D Section of MI6, the Joint Broadcasting Committee (JBC), alongside the Soviet spy, Guy Burgess. The JBC had been set up by Chamberlain to transmit propaganda messages to Germany (something the BBC was not well prepared to perform), and then had its role expanded to include neutral countries. The writer and MP, Harold Nicolson, who worked for the Ministry of Information in 1940 under Churchill, was a close friend of Burgess, and also a director of the JBC. It was the planned visit to Moscow that summer by Berlin and Burgess, abetted by Nicolson and – rather curiously – by Fisher’s wife, Lettice, that had provoked my interest in wartime subversive activities. And the Young connection? Sir George Young’s grandfather, the 4th baronet George (1872-1952), had married Jessie Ilbert, the sister of Lettice Fisher.

On my way back from Westerham that day, I drove past the village of Tatsfield, where the spy Donald Maclean had lived, escaping the attentions of his police followers when they abandoned him at Charing Cross Station, and where Guy Burgess joined him briefly on that evening of May 25, 1951 before their harum-scarum drive to Southampton and escape to the Soviet Union. Soon I reached Woldingham, a leafy and hilly area in the North Downs outside Croydon. I didn’t know it at the time, but in a house in Woldingham that had previously belonged to Sir Hugh Sinclair, the head of MI6, who died in November 1939, a transmitter had been set up for the use of the Czech government-in-exile after its previous station in Dulwich had been bombed in September 1940. Here, messages composed by the BBC, or by Czech officers, were sent to the Czech resistance. Robert Bruce Lockhart, who was later to head the Political Warfare Executive when it was set up in 1942, was a keen supporter of the Czechs, and had been appointed the British representative to the Czech government. To Hugh Dalton, the new boss of the subversion and sabotage organization (SOE, or Special Operations Executive) created by Churchill, Lockhart enthusiastically represented the capabilities of the Czech ‘army’ based in Britain, encouraging him to support sabotage efforts in Czechoslovakia. Coincidentally (or maybe not) Guy Burgess had also been an ally of the Czechs, conducting talks with President Beneš when he worked for the BBC, and arranging for records of the talks – including some made by Lockhart himself – to be dropped into Czechoslovakia when he worked for the JBC. Yet – perhaps unsurprisingly – the Soviet government also had strong links with the Czech subversion efforts. As Callum Macdonald writes, in The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, “The Czech transmitters at Woldingham were soon bombarding the underground with questions …  which were clearly supplied by Moscow.” All these efforts were to lead to the assassination, in May 1942, of the Nazi ‘Protector’, Heydrich, by Czech agents flown in from England (Operation Anthropoid), which in turn led to the ghastly reprisals of Lidice.

I lived about a mile from Croydon airport for several years after 1956: recreational flights still took off from the aerodrome in those days, and could be viewed wheeling in the occasional blue skies at weekends. The airport had enjoyed a famous history. Last year, I was able to inspect, in the special archive at the Randall Library of the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, a fine edition of the Luftgeographisches Einzelheft Grossbritannien– the book of the German armed forces’ photographs of key British defensive installations taken just before the war. Each plane on a bombing raid took a copy with it.  It includes a clear picture of Croydon airport, with the following caption: “Croydon, rd. 15 km. südlich der Tower Bridge gelegen, ist durch dir grosse Flache des ehemaligen Zivilflughafens kenntlich.” (“Croydon, lying about 15 kilometers south of Tower Bridge, can be recognized by the large expanse of its former civil airport.”) In the early days of the Battle of Britain, the airfield was a target for heavy bombing. Isaiah Berlin was in the USA, en route to Moscow, when his mission was cancelled by the Foreign Office. In a letter from there, dated August 16, he wrote to his parents that “the papers this morning are full of the attacks on Croydon.” Berlin’s editor, Henry Hardy, annotates this letter with the observation that, on August 15, “Luftwaffe losses were so severe that the German pilots named it ‘Black Thursday’”. It was five days after the occasion of my parents’ marriage in nearby Coulsdon.

Before the war, the airport had witnessed several significant events. In his rather unreliable memoir, Special Relationships, the historian and intelligence officer Sir John Wheeler-Bennett asserts that, in 1938, ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl, an associate of Hitler’s who had fallen into disfavour, was able to forestall a scheme to have his body dumped in mid-flight by instead arranging his plane to land at Croydon, where he claimed asylum. Even more dramatic was the incident described in Wheeler-Bennett’s Knaves, Fools and Heroes. On October 10, 1938, on a charitable mission to Prague (which may well have had intelligence objectives), Wheeler-Bennett, accompanied by his colleague Neill Malcolm, and the Mayor of London, Sir Harry Twyford, boarded a Sabena flight to Brussels, where they changed to a Swedish flight for Prague. On landing at Prague, they learned that a bomb had detonated on the original plane, and killed all on board at Soest in Germany. The device was no doubt intended for them, but the timing had misfired. Less than a fortnight later, on October 22, President Beneš arrived secretly at Croydon, his frustration with Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich not turning him utterly against the British, and his escape maybe facilitated by Wheeler-Bennett, who was a close friend of Bruce Lockhart. A few months later, in March, 1939, Beneš’s intelligence chief, Moravec, along with ten key officers, arrived in an unscheduled KLM flight from Prague at the same airport, in an escape skillfully engineered by MI6 just before the Germans entered the city. The British press speculated on the identity of the passengers: in his memoir Master of Spies (which contains a laudatory preface from J. C. Masterman, the practical japer), General Moravec writes that the next morning the following headlines appeared: ‘Mystery Plane Arrives at Croydon’. ‘Names Kept Secret’. ‘Watchers Keep Away’. ‘Who Are The Eleven Czechs?’. And Harold Nicolson reminds us how different travel was seventy years ago. In his novel Public Faces (first published in 1932, but set in 1939), he has the French messenger, Jules Boursicault, arriving at Croydon Airport at seven minutes past five. “He swayed fussily towards a taxi”, which swung to rest in Salisbury Square (in Blackfriars, London) at 5:32. These days, he would have been lucky to have escaped the Croydon by-pass in that time.

This month I also read Lockhart’s wartime memoirs, Comes The Reckoning, which describe his struggles to unify wartime propaganda efforts across the BBC, the Ministry of Information, and the Special Operations Executive. You will find a very brief reference to Lidice, though none for Burgess, in the Index, but you will learn that Lockhart had regular meetings with Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador, and weekly sessions with Beneš until the latter’s return to Prague in 1945. Lockhart has a reputation for writing exciting but unreliable memoirs: his Memoirs of a British Agent is a compelling account of the time he spent in Moscow at the time of the revolution, ending up in jail, fearing for his life, before being swapped with Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet government’s representative in Britain. Litvinov had married an Englishwoman, Ivy Lowe, whose father was a friend of H. G. Wells. What Lockhart doesn’t reveal is that he was brought home from diplomatic service in Moscow beforehand, in 1917, for having an affair with a woman named Moura Budberg. Budberg was another enigmatic figure who might have been a double-agent, and who was for a time the mistress of H. G. Wells. Lockhart refers to Budberg again (in Comes The Reckoning) as one of his lady friends at the outbreak of war. (Note: in her biography of Moura Budberg, Nina Berberova strongly suggests that Lockhart’s mistress of 1917 was not Moura, but that he ‘met a beautiful young Jewess at a theater and began a liaison with her’, not meeting Moura until after his return to Petrograd in January 1918.)

I encountered Budberg somewhere else this month, in the memoirs of Burgess’s colleague, and Berlin’s friend, Mary Bennett (née Fisher), who eventually became Warden of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She writes that Budberg was also working for the Joint Broadcasting Committee, which suggests that the organization had more Soviet sympathizers in it than was probably wise. The director of the JBC was a woman called Hilda Matheson, who had worked as a secretary to Mary’s father, Herbert, had been the ardent lover of Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson’s wife, and had employed and nurtured Burgess when she was Head of Talks at the BBC. Vita had previously been the lover of Virginia Woolf, Herbert Fisher’s cousin, who was not unnaturally a little jealous of Hilda for snatching the affections of the dominating Vita from her. (On a previous visit to England, in 2010, I had struck out a bit further into the Garden of England, and visited Sissinghurst Castle, where Harold and Vita developed their gorgeous garden and magnificent library.)  H. G. Wells wasn’t to be left out: he had also been an admirer of Matheson, and had proposed marriage to her, while Nicolson portrayed her as the smart and positive civil servant Jane Campbell in his extraordinarily prescient novel mentioned earlier, Public Faces. And one of the biggest ironies was that Lockhart, as head of PWE, had to negotiate during the war with Soviet intelligence officers, now his allies, who still regarded him with suspicion because of his subversive activity during the revolution. Litvinov himself was the Soviet ambassador to the USA from 1941 to 1943.

This story just goes to show how everything is linked in ways that are superficially not obvious, and how social, intellectual and political connections were tightly woven into the fabric of British intelligence operations. It also tells how Guy Burgess was at the centre of so many of these circles: yet everybody became very quiet about their connections with the great manipulator and deceiver after he absconded to the Soviet Union with Donald Maclean in 1951. Burgess was largely erased from the memoirs of the Great and the Good, like those members of the Politburo whose figures were effaced from the official photographs after Stalin purged them. Yet Lockhart’s book was published in 1947 – a case of the dog that did not bark in the night-time, or was Burgess just seen as insignificant? And as a coda to this set of anecdotes: who was the politician who said that Czechoslovakia was the first state in the world to be created by propaganda? None other than the unconscious supplier of the subversive and subaquatic underwear – H. A. L. Fisher.  As for Harold Nicolson, he stood as the Labour candidate for North Croydon in a 1947 by-election, but lost by 12,000 votes to his Conservative opponent. Croydon ‘is a bloody place’, he wrote to his wife, Vita. ‘North Croydon possesses for the stranger no identity, no personality, no pulse even’.

© Antony Percy, February 2013


One Response to Some Reflections on the North Downs

  1. I have not checked in here for some time as I thought it was getting boring, but the last several posts are good quality so I guess I will add you back to my everyday bloglist. You deserve it my friend 🙂

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