Hollis moved to China and worked as a reporter on the Shanghai Post and as a representative of the British-American Tobacco Company. After developing tuberculosis in 1939 Hollis returned to England.
On 5th September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk in the Russian Legation, defected to the West claiming he had evidence of an Soviet spy ring based in Britain. The case was passed on to Kim Philby, head of Section IX (Soviet Affairs) of MI6. He suggested that Gouzenko should be interviewed by Hollis.
Gouzenko provided evidence that led to the arrest of 22 local agents and 15 Soviet spies in Canada. Information from Gouzenko resulted in the arrest and conviction of Klaus Fuchs and Allan Nunn May. Gouzenko also claimed that there was a Soviet agent inside MI5. However, he was later to argue that Hollis showed little interest in this evidence. "The mistake in my opinion in dealing with this matter was that the task of finding the agent was given to MI5 itself. The results even beforehand could be expected to be nil."
Hollis replaced Sir Dick White as Director General of MI5 in 1956. When Kim Philby escaped to the Soviet Union in 1962 rumours began to circulate that Hollis had tipped him off that he was about to be arrested. Hollis was also criticised for not telling John Profumo that he was involved with Stephen Ward, a suspected Russian spy.
In 1963 Michael Straight was offered the post of the chairmanship of the Advisory Council on the Arts by President John F. Kennedy. Aware that he would be vetted - and his background investigated - he approached Arthur Schlesinger, one of Kennedy's advisers, and told him that Anthony Blunt had recruited him as a spy while an undergraduate at Trinity College. Schlesinger suggested that he told his story to the FBI.
Straight's information was passed on to MI5 and Arthur Martin, the intelligence agency's principal molehunter, went to America to interview him. Straight confirmed the story, and agreed to testify in a British court if necessary. Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has argued that Straight's information was "the decisive breakthrough in MI5's investigation of Anthony Blunt".
Peter Wright, who took part in the meetings about Anthony Blunt case, argues in his book, Spycatcher (1987) that Roger Hollis decided to give Blunt immunity from prosecution because of his hostility towards the Labour Party and the damage it would do to the Conservative Party: "Hollis and many of his senior staff were acutely aware of the damage any public revelation of Blunt's activities might do themselves, to MI5, and to the incumbent Conservative Government. Harold Macmillan had finally resigned after a succession of security scandals, culminating in the Profumo affair. Hollis made little secret of his hostility to the Labour Party, then riding high in public opinion, and realized only too well that a scandal on the scale that would be provoked by Blunt's prosecution would surely bring the tottering Government down."
Anthony Blunt was interviewed by Arthur Martin at the Courtauld Institute on 23rd April 1964. Martin later wrote that when he mentioned Straight's name he "noticed that by this time Blunt's right cheek was twitching a good deal". Martin offered Blunt "an absolute assurance that no action would be taken against him if he now told the truth". Martin recalled: "He went out of the room, got himself a drink, came back and stood at the tall window looking out on Portman Square. I gave him several minutes of silence and then appealed to him to get it off his chest. He came back to his chair and confessed." He admitted being a Soviet agent and named twelve other associates as spies including Straight, John Cairncross, Leo Long, Peter Ashby and Brian Symon.
Arthur Martin was disappointed when it was discovered that Roger Hollis and the British government had decided not to put Anthony Blunt on trial. Martin once again began to argue that there was still a Soviet spy working at the centre of MI5. Hollis thought Martin's suggestion was highly damaging to the organization and ordered Martin to be suspended from duty.
After his suspension had ended, Martin, along with Martin Furnival Jones and Peter Wright, went to see Dick White, head of MI6. They told White that they were convinced that either Hollis or his deputy, Graham Mitchell, were Soviet agents. White contacted Hollis and it was agreed that Mitchell should be kept under constant surveillance.
In 1964 Hollis ordered the investigation into Mitchell should be brought to an end. Arthur Martin protested by accusing Hollis of protecting Mitchell. Hollis was furious and took his revenge by replacing Martin with Ronald Symonds as head of DI (Investigations). Soon afterwards Martin was sacked from MI5.
Peter Wright now became convinced the real Soviet mole was Hollis. After carrying out further research into Hollis he discovered that while at university he became a close friend of Claude Cockburn, a suspected KGB agent. Although Hollis knew that MI5 had been investigating Cockburn for many years he had never revealed details of this relationship. Wright also found out that Hollis had been in contact with Agnes Smedley, another suspected Soviet agent, while he was in China.
Wright was unable to convince any other senior member of the MI5 that Hollis was a spy. Hollis retired in 1965 and was replaced by Martin Furnival Jones. Sir Roger Hollis died in October 1973.
In his retirement Peter Wright wrote an account of his work at MI5. Despite attempts by Margaret Thatcher and her government to suppress the publication and distribution of the book, Spycatcher, was published in 1987. In the book Wright claimed that Hollis had been a Soviet double-agent and had been the fifth man in the spy ring that included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt.
Roger Hollis was never a popular figure in the office. He was a dour, uninspiring man with an off-putting authoritarian manner. I must confess I never liked him. But even those who were well disposed doubted his suitability for the top job. Hollis, like Cumming, had forged a close friendship with Dick White in the prewar days. For all his brilliance, Dick always had a tendency to surround himself with less able men. I often felt it was latent insecurity, perhaps wanting the contrast to throw his talents into sharper relief. But while Hollis was brighter by a good margin than Cumming, particularly in the bureaucratic arts, I doubt whether even Dick saw him as a man of vision and intellect.
Hollis believed that M15 should remain a small security support organization, collecting files, maintaining efficient vetting and protective security, without straying too far into areas like counterespionage, where active measures needed to be taken to get results, and where choices had to be confronted and mistakes could be made. I never heard Hollis express views on the broad policies he wanted MI5 to pursue, or ever consider adapting MI5 to meet the increasing tempo of the intelligence war. He was not a man to think in that kind of way. He had just one simple aim, which he doggedly pursued throughout his career. He wanted to ingratiate the Service, and himself, with Whitehall. And that meant ensuring there were no mistakes, even at the cost of having no successes.
It infuriated M (Maxwell Knight) when his assessments of a situation were dismissed as unimportant by people who ought to have known better. One of his papers, for example, entitled 'The Comintern is not Dead', predicted with great accuracy the developments in Russia's policy with regard to Britain after the war, as well as underscoring the harmful character of her current subversionary activities. Roger Hollis, to whom the paper was first submitted, sent it back with the comment that it was over-theoretical. It-then went to Guy Liddell and various other Soviet-experts, all of whom expressed the opinion that M was allowing his personal distaste for Communism to swamp his judgement. M, undaunted, got the paper off to Desmond Morton, Churchill's private secretary, who was also a personal friend of his, with the plea that it should be passed on to the Prime Minister.
If there actually was such a fifth man, the pool of serious candidates, with the requisite access and seniority, is very small. Indeed, it probably consists of no more than three people.
One is Guy Liddell, who was the deputy director general of MI5 from 1947 until he retired, in 1952. He, Burgess, and Blunt were friends, and Liddell was very much a part of the hothouse wartime circle revolving around Victor Rothschild's 5 Bentinck Street flat, in which Burgess and Blunt both lived. During the war Liddell ran MI5's counterespionage division, where Anthony Blunt was his personal assistant. Philby had a high regard for Liddell, whom he described in My Silent War - with Empsonian ambiguity - as "an ideal senior officer for a young man to learn from." In 1944 Liddell assisted Philby in the successful bureaucratic knifing of Philby's then superior, Felix Cowgill, so that Philby could become the head of SIS's expanding counterintelligence effort (which Philby terms his "Fulfillment"). Liddell, however, was greatly admired, professionally and personally, and has many staunch defenders. These include Sir Dick White, Philby's nemesis in both MI5 and MI6, both of which White headed, and Peter Wright (of Spycatcher fame), one of the most avid of all mole-hunters.
The two others are Graham Mitchell and Sir Roger Hollis. In 1951 Mitchell was in charge of counterespionage; he became deputy director general of MI5 (under Hollis) in 1956 and retired in 1963. He drafted the patently mendacious, demonstrably erroneous 1955 white paper on the Burgess-Maclean defection. On the strength of that document the Foreign Secretary, Harold Macmillan, gave Philby what the latter would call the happiest day of his life by publicly affirming Philby's innocence in the House of Commons - declaring, in a statement that Mitchell helped draft, that Philby was not the third man ("if indeed, there was one"). Hollis became deputy in 1953 and moved up in 1956 to be director general until his retirement, in 1965. Mitchell and Hollis were the subject of a series of investigations during the 1960s. Both were eventually declared innocent of any wrongdoing.
Early in 1980 the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was warned about a hushed-up security scandal affecting MI5 which was infinitely more explosive than the exposure of the Russian spy, Anthony Blunt. The Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, and the Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, were also told that in 1974 Lord Trend, formerly Sir Burke Trend and Secretary of the Cabinet for a decade, was secretly called from retirement to conduct an unprecedented inquiry. He was asked to give an independent judgment on the appalling probability that Sir Roger Hollis, a long-serving Director General of MIS, had been a Russian spy for almost thirty years.