In a recent post I referred to Mers el Kebir as an understated event in Winston Churchill’s Premiership and today in reviewing the above I shall be referring to another equally important but uncovered one.
This book is a true and gripping account of the breaking of fifth column of fascists based in London in 1939-40 and formed of a White Russian anti Bolshevik Anna Wolkoff, a chancer in the code room of the US Embassy, Tyler Kent and Captain Jock Ramsay Conservative MP and head and founder of the Right Club.
The common denominator was virulent anti-semitism.
The person tasked with breaking the ring was a man of whom you may not have heard Max Knight, the first real spymaster, and said to be the source for M.
Diligently he cultivated his agents – two of whom Marjorie Amor and Helen Munch – befriended Anna Wolkoff whose parents owned and ran the Russian Tea Rooms where many of the fascists met. Knight’s task was impaired by many factors: the American ambassador Joe Kennedy was pro-appeasement and therefore the Embassy could only be notified once Knight was satisfied that Kent was stealing key documents such as the communications between Churchill requesting material and Franklin Roosevelt, President of neutral USA.
Such communications in the wrong hands would serve to make the re-election of Roosevelt for the more isolationist Wendell Wilkie all the more likely.
Secondly, the Right Club and British fascists had high-placed sympathisers like Francis Hemming the Principal Assistant Cabinet Secretary to the Cabinet, the Duke of Westminster, the Chief Executive of Shell Henri Deterding, Lord Ronnie Graham, GK Chesterton and the adulterous lover of Kent, Irene Danischewsky, aunt of Helen Mirren.
Willett’s book is so readable as to be a page-tuner.
He could have made it one of those popular faction novels but he confined himself to the facts with assiduous research, interesting footnotes, a helpful glossary and a clear writing style.
More than that it is the account of the breaking a group of fifth columnists that could have brought Britain down and undoubtedly would have been part of a Nazi regime had they invaded and occupied.
It also details the social conditions of the times and is a fascinating portrait of a working methods of an eccentric Spymaster. Knight was a keen zoologist who went on to present children’s programmes on the BBC and was a lover of jazz.
One problem that Knight did not have to incur in preparing evidence for the successful prosecution and imprisonment of Kent was the ‘whistleblower defence’ the defendant adopted. Tyler’s consistent view was that he had a higher moral right to explain to American people that there covert dealings between Roosevelt and Churchill.
Knight had already burgled his flat as Kent had diplomatic immunity and, aside from hoards of documents illegally taken, found wads of cash. Kent could never explain this nor why Ramsay should entrust him with the membership book of the Right Club. Over the years Kent, a traitor and an amoral chancer, has been reassessed inthe public eye as the whistleblowing aspect has been raised in an attempt to revise his treachery.