This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine
Early on the morning of Monday 20 May 1940 Maxwell Knight was sitting in a police car outside a central London address. With him were three Scotland Yard detectives and a senior American diplomat. Moments later, one of the detectives rang the doorbell. As soon as the maid let them in, they headed for the first-floor flat rented by an American named Tyler Kent. They ended up breaking down his door. Inside they found Kent dressed only in pyjama bottoms. What Knight and the others found elsewhere in Kent’s flat would have implications of global significance.
That morning’s raid represented the climax to a year-long investigation, headed by Knight, a brilliant MI5 spy-hunter. Within the intelligence community, Knight’s work on the case has come to be regarded as a textbook example of the importance of what is now called ‘humint’, short for ‘human intelligence’. Unlike other major Second World War intelligence operations, it has, however, remained comparatively obscure, thanks no doubt to the complexity and enduring ambiguity of the case. For the first time we can, however, draw on hitherto unexplored archive material to piece together a comprehensive account of what happened.
From once top-secret MI5 files, we know that Tyler Kent wasn’t the original target of the investigation, which began in the summer of 1939. At first the enquiry focused on Captain AHM Ramsay, a Scottish Unionist MP. Ramsay helped to co-ordinate the Nordic League, one of numerous British organisations with far right and/or pro-German sympathies that flourished between the wars. These included smaller groups such as the socially exclusive Anglo-German Fellowship, which received funding from well-known companies, notably Thomas Cook, Dunlop and Price Waterhouse. Most prominent was the British Union of Fascists. Under the leadership of Sir Oswald Mosley, BUF rallies attracted as many as 20,000 people.
Boasting a membership of less than half that number, the Nordic League was not only stridently anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler, but also possessed strong links to the Nazi regime. Police infiltrators had reported that its members were talking about seizing power and massacring Britain’s Jewish population.
In his role as head of Section B5b, an MI5 department committed to monitoring home-based fascists, Knight recruited an agent whom he told to befriend Ramsay and infiltrate his Nordic League circle. Far from being a 007-like figure, Marjorie Amor was a middle-aged single mother, previously an acquaintance of Ramsay and his wife.
Little by little, Amor burrowed her way into their world. Shortly before the outbreak of war, she was invited to join the Right Club, a fascist group founded by Ramsay several months earlier. He saw the organisation as a revolutionary movement dedicated to infiltrating other fascist groups, not to mention branches of government.
Via her relationship with the Ramsays, Amor met Anna Wolkoff, a famous Russian émigré fashion designer whose upmarket shop had lately gone bankrupt. Amor became part of Wolkoff’s anti-Semitic Right Club clique, which convened at the Russian Tea Rooms, a South Kensington cafe-cum-restaurant favoured by Nazi sympathizers.
The tearooms were run by Wolkoff’s parents: her father had been a naval attache at the Imperial Russian embassy, while her mother was a former lady-in-waiting to the tsarina. Robbed of their wealth and status by the Bolshevik revolution, they detested communism, and viewed the Nazis as Russia’s potential saviours. On at least two occasions, Wolkoff, who had multiple links to Hitler’s regime, travelled to Germany and held meetings with Nazi officials.
Frequent reports submitted by Amor soon encouraged Knight to broaden his investigation. Now it encompassed Wolkoff, who had been scraping a living first as an auxiliary fire service driver and then as a dressmaker. By January 1940, Knight was aware that Wolkoff and a friend of hers from the tearooms were smuggling letters to a Nazi-supporting Right Club associate in Berlin. These provided a possible conduit for sensitive government information obtained by Ramsay.
Additional urgency was breathed into Knight’s investigation by the apparent imminence of a German invasion and by the knowledge that Ramsay had held merger talks with leaders of other homegrown fascist movements such as the BUF.
When Knight heard that Wolkoff had got to know an employee at the US embassy in London, the threat from her escalated. Her friend turned out to be Tyler Kent, a handsome young man entrusted with coding and decoding messages. Knight subsequently discovered that Kent was showing Wolkoff confidential paperwork from the embassy.
Among the huge number of stolen documents accumulating in Kent’s flat were telegrams between American president Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty. That was sensational enough in itself. But what made the telegrams even more explosive was the fact that they contained information that had the potential to oust Roosevelt from power.
Hidden in the MI5 case files is a report from Knight that reveals that Kent and Wolkoff’s exchanges included “many references […] to the projected Lease-Lend plan”. Lease-Lend (which came to be known in Britain as Lend-Lease) enabled Roosevelt to sidestep US law and, by supplying Allied nations with food, oil and military hardware, contravene his pledge to maintain US isolation from the war. Accepted history has long held that the Lease-Lend programme was not formulated until December 1940, yet here it was being proposed in telegrams discovered seven months earlier.
If Kent had released the Lend-Lease telegrams into the public domain, the consequences for Roosevelt could have been catastrophic. With his well-intentioned duplicity revealed, the president may have been unseated and replaced by a committed isolationist.
Yet Kent made no effort to trigger the president’s downfall – and that’s because, unknown to Wolkoff, he was working for Soviet intelligence, which sought to penetrate London-based Russian émigré fascist groups. In accordance with that objective, Kent cultivated the trust of Ramsay and Wolkoff (who had fallen in love with him and regarded him as a political ally) by showing them relatively innocuous items of correspondence between Roosevelt and Churchill.
Knight discovered that Wolkoff had copied one of these letters and relayed it to a friend at the Italian embassy. Her friend then sent it to the fascist government in Rome, which forwarded it to Berlin. At that stage Knight had no proof of the letter reaching Germany, but he did obtain evidence of an attempt by Wolkoff to smuggle a message to her fellow Right Club member, William Joyce. A few months earlier Joyce had decamped to Berlin, from where he was broadcasting Nazi radio propaganda, his sneering upper-class delivery earning him the nickname ‘Lord Haw-Haw’.
Armed with evidence of Wolkoff and Kent’s treachery, Knight initiated their arrest and successful prosecution. On the strength of his investigation, he also persuaded Herbert Morrison, the home secretary in Churchill’s new government, to sanction illiberal methods to help save liberal democracy. These took the form of interning large numbers of British fascists, Ramsay and Mosley among them.
Since then, many historians have poured scorn on such methods. Others have portrayed the interned fascists as blameless patriots who fell victim to an MI5 conspiracy. Even Churchill grew to regret the use of internment. Substantial documentation has nevertheless recently surfaced about the tangible threat posed by British-based fascists.
Both Wolkoff and Ramsay have since been shown to feature on the Nazis’ list of probable collaborators whose help could be enlisted after the planned invasion. Mercifully, neither of them had the opportunity to become notorious quislings. Their residual reputation is, instead, based on their starring roles in what, in 1944, the Washington Times-Herald proclaimed the war’s “greatest spy story”.
Stars of the “war’s greatest spy story”
Maxwell Knight: The brilliant MI5 spy-hunter
Knight (1900–68) was a superficially avuncular man with an eccentric range of interests: natural history, keeping exotic animals and playing jazz. He relished telling the story of how he used to take his pet bear cub for a walk around the streets of Chelsea. By the late 1930s, he had established himself as a brilliant MI5 spy-hunter who arranged for his agents to infiltrate target groups. After the Second World War, by which time he had earned an OBE, he enjoyed an equally successful career writing books and presenting TV and radio programmes about natural history.
Captain AHM Ramsay: The pro-Nazi MP
Hailing from an aristocratic family, Ramsay (1894–1955) was a close friend of Queen Mary. While serving as a backbench Scottish Unionist MP, he was a pivotal figure within two virulently anti-Semitic British fascist organisations with strong links to the Nazis. These were the Nordic League and the Right Club, the latter of which he founded in 1939. Anna Wolkoff was a dedicated assistant of his. Their involvement with Tyler Kent would lead to Ramsay’s internment by the British government before he had a chance to assume the promised role of Gauleiter of Scotland in a Nazi puppet government.
Anna Wolkoff: The Jew-hating émigré
The St Petersburg-born Wolkoff (1902–73) moved to England in 1913, where her father worked at the Russian embassy. Her considerable artistic gifts were poured into haute couture fashion. During the 1930s, her stylish outfits regularly adorned magazines such as Vogue, and her clients included Wallis Simpson. Like many other Russians exiled in London by the communist takeover, Wolkoff embraced fascism. Her beliefs led her to carry out espionage on behalf of the fascist powers. She would later be killed in a car crash while on holiday in southern Spain with one of her old fascist cronies.
Tyler Kent: The charming Soviet spy
Born in Manchuria in 1911, where his father ran the US consulate, Kent’s exceptional gifts as a linguist were encouraged by an itinerant childhood. Following a prep school and Ivy League education, which nourished his intellectual arrogance, he landed a job at the US embassy in Moscow. His family’s comparative poverty, along with his extravagance and sense of grievance against his employers, appear to have provided the motivation for his decision to sell US secrets to the Soviets. In the wake of his involvement with Anna Wolkoff, Kent served a five-year spell in a prison on the Isle of Wight. He died in 1988.
Paul Willetts is a journalist and author, whose books include Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond (Serpent’s Tail, 2010)