Maxwell Knight

Maxwell Knight

Charles Maxwell Knight was born in Mitcham on 4th September, 1900. After finishing his education he spent time in the Royal Navy. Knight held extreme right-wing views and after leaving the navy worked for the Economic League.

In 1924 Knight joined the British Fascisti (BF), an organization established to counter the growing powers of the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement. Its leader, Rotha Lintorn-Orman, explained why she established the group in 1923: "I saw the need for an organization of disinterested patriots, composed of all classes and all Christian creeds, who would be ready to serve their country in any emergency." Members of the British Fascists had been horrified by the Russian Revolution. However, they had gained inspiration from what Benito Mussolini had done it Italy.

Linton-Orman was impressed by Knight and soon after he joined the British Fascists he was appointed as the organization's Director of Intelligence. In this role he had responsibility for compiling intelligence dossiers on its enemies; for planning counter-espionage and for establishing and supervising fascist cells operating in the trade union movement.

Knight's work as Director of Intelligence for the British Fascists brought him to the attention of Desmond Morton was seconded to the Foreign Office in 1919 where he was head of the Secret Intelligence Service's Section V, dealing with with counter-Bolshevism. Morton pointed out to Vernon Kell, Director of the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau, that Knight had "a small amateur detective or secret service in London, consisting of about 100 individuals in all walks of life, many of whom speak foreign languages".

In 1925 Vernon Kell recruited Knight to work for the Secret Service Bureau. He was placed under the control of Major George Joseph Ball. Knight played a significant role in helping to defeat the General Strike in 1926.

In 1929, J.F.C. Carter, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, discovered that Maxwell Knight and Desmond Morton were involved in organising the burgling "the offices of Communist and Labour Party organisations in Scotland". Keith Jeffery, the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010), argued: "Carter... was understandably aggrieved at SIS muscling in on his territory. Indeed, if a report by Knight of a meeting over lunch with the Deputy Assistant Commissioner on 23 July 1930, as passed on by Morton, is anything to go by, Carter was incandescent with fury about the development." Carter argued that Maxwell Knight and Morton was "doing the whole of this thing for the Conservative Party". Carter added that Ramsay MacDonald, the prime minister, was "against this sort of work".

Despite this controversy, Maxwell Knight was placed in charge of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. Knight also found time to write a couple of thrillers, Crime Cargo (1934) and Gunmen's Holiday (1935). He also played the drums in a jazz band and was a Fellow of the Royal Zoological Society.

Knight recruited Bill Younger, who was a student at Oxford University. His job was to spy on a group of pacifists who were active in the Oxford Union. MI5 had become concerned when the motion "this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country".

Another of Knight's agents was Olga Grey. Although only 19 she joined the Friends of the Soviet Union. She soon gained the confidence of Percy Glading, a member of the Communist Party. In 1937 Glading asked Grey to find a safe house. This became a meeting place for Glading and Theodore Maly, a Soviet intelligence officer. Glading also arranged for several people working at Woolwich Arsenal, to take pictures of blueprints of weapons being developed. On 14th May, 1938, Glading, Albert Williams and George Whomack were convicted under the Official Secrets Act.

The vast majority of Knight's agents were part-time. Knight recruited a large number of his agents from right-wing political organizations such as the Nordic League, British Union of Fascists and the Right Club. This included Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, who were both members of the Anglo-German Fellowship, a pro-Nazi pressure group.

Knight's agents also infiltrated left-wing organizations such as the Communist Party. One of these agents, William Joyce, created some embarrassment when during the Second World War he turned up in Nazi Germany as Lord Haw Haw.

Knight would have regular meetings with his agents. These usually took place in the lobbies of second-rate hotels. Knight used a whole range of different code names to hide his identity. He also established a small office in Dolphin Square which he purchased in his wife's name. Although his office was located close to the MI5 offices at Thames House on Millbank, it helped to distance him from the main organization. One of his agents was Ian Fleming and the 'M' character in the James Bond books is based on Knight.

One of Knight's most important agents was Joan Miller, a member of various right-wing organizations. Miller eventually became very close to Archibald Ramsay, the leader of the Right Club. After the outbreak of the Second World War Miller began to suspect that Ramsay was a German spy. Miller also believed that Anna Wolkoff, who ran the Russian Tea Room in South Kensington, the main meeting place for members of the Right Club, was also involved in espionage.

In February 1940, Anna Wolkoff met Tyler Kent, a cypher clerk from the American Embassy. He soon became a regular visitor to the Russian Tea Room where he met other members of the Right Club including Archibald Ramsay. Wolkoff, Kent and Ramsay talked about politics and agreed that they all shared the same views on politics.

Kent was concerned that the American government wanted the United States to join the war against Germany. He said he had evidence of this as he had been making copies of the correspondence between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent invited Wolkoff and Ramsay back to his flat to look at these documents. This included secret assurances that the United States would support France if it was invaded by the German Army. Kent later argued that he had shown these documents to Ramsay in the hope that he would pass this information to American politicians hostile to Roosevelt.

On 13th April 1940 Anna Wolkoff went to Kent's flat and made copies of some of these documents. Joan Miller and Marjorie Amor were later to testify that these documents were then passed on to Duco del Monte, Assistant Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy. Soon afterwards, MI8, the wireless interception service, picked up messages between Rome and Berlin that indicated that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German military intelligence (Abwehr), now had copies of the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence

Soon afterwards Wolkoff asked Joan Miller if she would use her contacts at the Italian Embassy to pass a coded letter to William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) in Germany. The letter contained information that he could use in his broadcasts on Radio Hamburg. Before passing the letter to her contacts, Miller showed it to Maxwell Knight.

On 18th May, Knight told Guy Liddell about the Right Club spy ring. Liddell immediately had a meeting with Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London. Kennedy agreed to waive Kent's diplomatic immunity and on 20th May, 1940, the Special Branch raided his flat. Inside they found the copies of 1,929 classified documents including secret correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent was also found in possession of what became known as Ramsay's Red Book. This book had details of the supporters of the Right Club and had been given to Kent for safe keeping.

Anna Wolkoff and Tyler Kent were arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. The trial took place in secret and on 7th November 1940, Wolkoff was sentenced to ten years. Kent, because he was an American citizen, was treated less harshly and received only seven years. It is said that after being sentenced Wolkoff swore that she would get revenge by killing Joan Miller.

Knight also recruited Tom Driberg as an agent for MI5. In 1941 Anthony Blunt informed Harry Pollitt that Driberg was an informer and he was expelled from the Communist Party. Knight now suspected that his unit had been infiltrated by the KGB but it was not until after the war that MI5 discovered that Blunt was responsible for exposing Driberg.

In 1945 Knight worked on the case of Igor Gouzenko, a Russian cipher clerk who defected to the Canadians. Gouzenko claimed that there was a spy code-named Elli inside MI5. Knight later wrote that if MI5 had been penetrated he thought it was most likely to be Roger Hollis or Graham Mitchell.

As well as working for MI5 Knight was a recognized expert in the fields of ornithology and zoology. He was also the successful author of books on natural history. This included Young Field Naturalist's Guide (1952), Bird Gardening (1954), Reptiles in Britain (1965), How to Keep an Elephant (1967), How to Keep a Gorilla (1968) and Be a Nature Detective (1968).

Charles Maxwell Knight died of a heart attack on 27th January, 1968.

Primary Sources

(1) Joan Miller, One Girl's War (1970)

One morning Bill Younger... came into my cell with a message from Maxwell Knight, the head of B5(b). I was invited to lunch in the staff canteen with this distinguished MI5 officer who, it seemed, had had his eye on me for some time. Naturally, I was intrigued and flattered. I knew Maxwell Knight by sight and reputation; I was aware that he ran B5(b) with no more than three or four case officers and a secretary, that he was known as 'M' or 'Max', that he cultivated some engaging eccentricities such as smoking long hand-made cigarettes from a little tobacconist's shop in Sloane Street. Rather tall and lanky, with a Wellingtonian nose which he referred to as 'my limb', always dressed in stylishly shabby tweeds, he made a conspicuous figure about the place. I was instantly aware of my good fortune and, at the same time, determined not to let it go to my head. I gratefully accepted the luncheon invitation, though.

At twelve-thirty I went into the canteen and saw Maxwell Knight at a table for two in the comer of the room. He got to his feet as I approached; even before he spoke, I was conscious of the charm this smiling man possessed - charm of a rare and formidable order. His voice, which I found hypnotic, confirmed the impression. By the end of that first lunchtime session I was capitvated. M. at the time, must have been about twice my age; it's possible, I suppose, that I had been subconsciously on the look-out for a 'father figure' - my own, an amiable, rather weak man who liked to gamble, hadn't exactly come up to scratch as a parent - but there was a great deal more than that to my feeling for M, even at this early stage.

(2) Nigel West, A Matter of Trust: MI5 (1983)

Max Knight was a remarkable ex-Naval officer who joined MI5 in 1924 and was to have considerable influence with the intelligence hierarchy and indeed the government. He was also to keep Churchill informed of intelligence developments through his personal assistant Major Desmond Morton, who had become a close friend. When Churchill became Prime Minister, Knight retained his ear and friendship.

(3) John Hope, Lobster Magazine (November, 1991)

The idea that the Security Service, MI5, colluded with British fascism in the inter-war years is not to be found in the existing literature on the subject. On the contrary the fascists are depicted as the victims, rather than the beneficiaries of MI5's attentions. MI5, it is generally argued, viewed fascism as a potential danger to state and national security against which it acted once that potential became actual. This, it is stated, is what occurred in the spring and summer of 1940 when MI5 deployed its repertoire of "dirty tricks" against fascists and their supporters and sympathisers. However, there is evidence that collusion did indeed take place, much of it to be found in the careers and activities of two of the more prominent MI5 officers involved in the surveillance of inter-war fascism, Charles Henry Maxwell Knight and James McGuirk Hughes.

Maxwell Knight was recruited to the Security Service by Sir Vernon Kell in April 1925 and won rapid promotion through the ranks of the agency. By the 1930s Knight was in charge of B5b, which conducted the day-to-day monitoring of both left- and right-wing subversion. It was Knight and his agents who were primarily responsible for the surveillance of Britain's fascists and other "fellow- travellers of the right", and for engaging in whatever counter-espionage against them was deemed necessary. The climax of Knight's encounter with domestic fascism occurred in 1940, when his section uncovered the pro- Nazi activities of Tyler Kent and Anna Wolkoff. Knight was able to link these with the circles cohering around Oswald Mosley, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Captain A.H. Ramsay and the Right Club, thereby precipitating the government's amendments to Defence Regulation 18B, and the internment of fascists and other right-wing suspects in 1940.(3) This earned Knight the reputation of being as staunchly anti-fascist as he was anti-communist.

There was, however, another side to Knight's encounter with fascism. At some point in 1924 Knight became a member of Britain's first fascist movement of any significance, the British Fascists (BF) and served as its Director of Intelligence from 1924 to 1927. Evidence confirming Knight's involvement is available from a number of sources. There is, for example, the testimony of Neil Francis-Hawkins, recently uncovered by W.J.West. Francis-Hawkins had been one of the more influential members of the BF before joining the BUF and becoming its Director-General of Organization. He was also one of the earliest BUF members to be interned in May 1940. Appearing before the Advisory Committee on 18B Detainees in 1944, Francis-Hawkins informed it that Maxwell Knight "had been Director of Intelligence at the British Fascists". This is substantiated by Foreign Office papers in which Knight's name appears on a list of the British Fascists' senior executives provided by two of the movement's members in September 1926 to Special Branch and Foreign Office officials.(6) Knight's membership and position as the BF's Chief Intelligence officer also appears in an intelligence report on British fascism submitted to the Australian authorities in November 1924, and discovered by the historian, Dr. Andrew Moore.

Knight's involvement with the BF cannot be explained by suggesting that he enrolled in order to keep the movement under surveillance for MI5 from within. It is, of course, highly likely that he did do precisely that once he had been recruited into MI5, but Knight joined the British Fascists in 1924, prior to his recruitment by the Security Service in April 1925. As its Director of Intelligence, he was responsible for compiling intelligence dossiers on its "enemies" and rivals; for planning its counter-espionage and covert action operations; for establishing and supervising the fascist cells it set up and operated in the trade unions and factories; and for the movement's own internal security and disciplinary problems.

(4) Keith Jeffery, MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010)

Desmond Morton's recruitment of Maxwell Knight, a fervent anti-Communist, mildly eccentric jazz musician and keen naturalist who had worked for Sir George Makgill. According to Morton, Knight had "a small amateur detective or secret service in London, consisting of about 100 individuals in all walks of life, many of whom speak foreign languages". He also claimed that, "when required to for his previous masters", Knight "and two friends burgled, three nights running", the offices of Communist and Labour Party organisations in Scotland. Knight was taken on, initially for a three-month trial, but after Morton had sent him around the country to gather information on Communist organisations he reported that "with every passing month MK has got his agents nearer and nearer the centre of affairs" and Sinclair approved his continued employment. Carter (Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Metropolitan Police), however, soon got wind of this expanded operation and was understandably aggrieved at SIS muscling in on his territory. Indeed, if a report by Knight of a meeting over lunch with the Deputy Assistant Commissioner on 23 July 1930, as passed on by Morton, is anything to go by, Carter was incandescent with fury about the development. He accused Morton (whom he called a "worm") of "exceeding his duties". The policeman declared that he would make Morton "go on his knees to him on the carpet at Scotland Yard before he has done". Carter, whose political sympathies appear to have been rather more left-wing than those of either Knight or Morton, contended that Morton was "doing the whole of this thing for the Conservative Party". He observed that Ramsay MacDonald's second Labour government (which had come into power after Labour won the most seats, though not an absolute majority, in the May 1929 general election) were "against this sort of work" and he had "to carry out their policy".

(5) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm (2009)

The IIB's most talented member was, almost certainly, Maxwell Knight, a youthful, self-taught agent-runner who later joined the Security Service. Born in 1900, Knight had become a naval cadet in 1915, serving as a midshipman in the Royal Naval Reserve during the last year of the war .3' For several years after the war, he worked as a teacher in a preparatory school and as a freelance journalist. To those unaware of his intelligence work, Knight came across as a gregarious eccentric who did not mind "being considered a bit mad". "In a world where we are all tending to get more and more alike," he believed, "a few unusual people give a little colour to life!" Knight's most obvious eccentricity was a passion for exotic pets which he claimed went back to a picnic lunch at the age of eight when he found a lizard and hid it from his parents in his box camera. For the remainder of his life he preferred "queer or unusual pets", ranging from grass-snakes to gorillas. Visitors to his home might, as one of them recalled, "find him nursing a bush-baby, feeding a giant toad, raising young cuckoos or engaging in masculine repartee with a vastly experienced grey parrot". For several years Knight also had a pet bear named Bessie who, unsurprisingly, "excited a great deal of attention and admiration" when he took her, sometimes accompanied by a bulldog or a baboon, for walks near his Chelsea home. "High on the list of subjects which those who prefer to indulge in observations out of doors should embrace", wrote Knight, "is the fascinating and essential one of the senses of animals." Some of Knight's self-taught intelligence tradecraft derived from his study of animal behaviour.

(6) Maxwell Knight, unpublished memoir (c. 1960s)

In 1924 at the request of the late Sir George Makgill who was thern running agents on behalf of Sir Vernon Kell I joined the first of the Fascist Movements in this country - The British Fascisti. I remained with this organisation until 1930 when it more or less became ineffectual. My association with this body was at all times for the purposes of obtaining information for HM Government and also for the purposes of finding likely people who might he used by this department for the same purposes.

(5) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm (2009)

The Security Service's main source of intelligence on the BUF came from Maxwell Knight's contacts and agents inside the movement, some of whom dated back to his earlier membership of the British Fascisti. His early reports, however, were somewhat distorted by his belief in the BUF's genuine, if wrong-headed, patriotism. Until the spring of 1934 he refused to believe reports from Rome that the BUF was receiving secret subsidies from Mussolini. On 13 April Knight admitted his mistake. He reported that before Mosley's visit to Italy in March the BUF had been in dire financial straits with talk of Mosley having to sell his late wife's jewels. Since his return from Italy, however, BUF finances had suddenly returned to health. Knight's sources within the BUF reported that it had an active membership of 35,000 to 40,000. A majority, however, probably did no more than pay subscriptions and purchase Blackshirt and other BUF publications. The Security Service later estimated the BUF's active membership, at its peak in 1934, at only about 10,000.

The evidence of foreign funding for the BUF, combined with street fighting between black-shirted Fascists and Communists, chiefly in the East End of London, prompted Kell to prepare his first full-scale report for the Home Office and other government departments on "The Fascist Movement in the United Kingdom".

Early in May 1934 he wrote to chief constables in England, Scotland and Wales asking them to supply details at regular intervals of BUF membership, together with "their opinion as to the importance to be attached to this movement in their areas". From their replies he concluded that "the Fascists have been more active and successful in the industrial areas and that their achievements in the majority of the Counties may be regarded as negligible". He reported to the Home Office that the prospect of a Fascist coup was still far away, but detected "various tendencies" which were "bringing Sir Oswald Mosley and his followers more to the front of the stage". Their propaganda was "extremely clever." The Fascist threat, such as it was, appeared to reach its peak at the Olympia rally in June 1934, extravagantly proclaimed beforehand by the BUF as "a landmark, not only in the history of fascism, but also in the history of Britain". Most of the choreography for the rally was borrowed from Hitler and Mussolini. Mosley marched to the platform lit by a spotlight through a forest of Union Jacks and BUT banners while uniformed Blackshirts gave the Fascist salute and chanted "Hail Mosley!" Fights between hecklers and Fascist stewards started almost as soon as Mosley began to speak, and continued intermittently for the next two hours. "The Blackshirt spirit", declared Mosley afterwards, "triumphed at Olympia. It smashed the biggest organised attempt ever made in this country to wreck a meeting by Red violence." The Communist Daily Worker also claimed victory: "The great Olympia counter-demonstration of the workers against Blackshirts stands out as an important landmark in the struggle against Fascism in this country." Though virtuously disclaiming all responsibility for the violence, both the BUF and the CPGB, in MI5's view, used "illegal and violent methods": "In fact, both... were delighted with the results of Olympia."

Despite the evidence of foreign Fascist funding for the BUF, the Home Secretary, Sir John Gilmour, refused a Security Service application for an HOW on Mosley, apparently in the belief that he remained a staunch patriot who posed no threat to national security. His successor, Sir John Simon, continued to refuse an HOW even when, two years later, Mosley married his second wife, the former Diana Mitford, in a private ceremony attended by Hitler in Goebbels's drawing room. Hitler gave Diana a signed photograph in an eagle-topped silver frame which she kept in the marital bedroom. M15 later concluded that "Before the outbreak of war Lady Mosley was the principal channel of communication with Hitler. Mosley himself has admitted she had frequent interviews with the Fuhrer." But until their internment in 1940 both, remarkably, were not subject to HOWs, though copies of letters to and from them turned up in the correspondence of other, less well-connected Fascists on whom MI5 did obtain HOWs.

After the Olympia rally of June 1934 the cabinet briefly turned its attention to ways of preventing further rallies in which Fascists paraded in political uniforms. But the problems of framing new legislation to prevent such rallies were complicated by the difficulty of defining what "political uniforms" were possibly reassured by Security Service reports, the cabinet gradually lost its sense of urgency.

Kell reported to the Home Office in October 1934:

It is becoming increasingly clear that at Olympia Mosley suffered a check which is likely to prove decisive. He suffered it, not at the hands of the Communists who staged the provocations and now claim the victory, but at the hands of Conservative N-1Ps, the ConserNative Press and all those organs of public opinion which made him abandon the policy of using his `Defence Force' to overwhelm interrupters.

(8) Joan Miller, One Girl's War (1970)

The Communist threat was something about which M (Maxwell Knight) felt very deeply indeed; his views on this subject, you might say, amounted almost to an obsession. He was equally adamant in his aversion to Jews and homosexuals, but prepared to suspend these prejudices in certain cases. 'Bloody Jews' was one of his expressions (you have only to read the popular novels of the period - thrillers in particular - to understand just how widespread this particular prejudice was).

(9) Christopher Andrew, Secret Service (1985)

In the course of the 1930s, as Maxwell Knight's network of agents infiltrating Communist and subversive groups expanded, he became head of an ultra-secret section of MIS known as BSb, based at a house in Dolphin Square held in the name of "Miss Coplestone". His agents within the Communist Party (CPGB), most of whose names still remain hidden in MIS files, included at least one 'close to', though not actually on, the Central Committee." Knight's success owed something to the seductive force of his personality. Though he failed to consummate his first two marriages and his first wife committed suicide, he seemed to his wartime assistant Joan Miller to exude animal magnetism. "He could", she believed, "make men and women do anything". Knight also had for a time a rather disturbing interest in the occult, going with Denis Wheadey to seances by the notorious Satanist Aleister Crowley to research black magic for Wheatley's novels.

(10) Joan Miller, One Girl's War (1970)

Towards the end of 1945 I was summoned by M to a rendezvous at the Royal Court Hotel; though I didn't realize it, this would be the last time I was ever to see him. There, he told me quite brutally that he had taken steps to ensure that the blame for destroying the Andrews/Darwell file - an act of M's which had shocked me greatly in 1941 - would fall on me, should the matter ever be brought to light. I think I must have stared blankly at him for quite a while, as the implications of his statement sank into my mind. 'You've arranged to put the blame on me,' I said, to get it quite clear. 'Max, this is perfectly dreadful of you. You know it simply isn't true.'

There is some evidence which suggests, to my mind, that M was being subject to blackmail in the later part of his life: why else should he have been impoverished to the extent of having to move in with his old B5(b) colleague Guy Poston and his family? He was never rich, it's true, but he always had enough to enjoy a way of life that suited him. And why did he opt for the comparative anonymity of radio work, when he'd have made such a splendid television performer? There may be some perfectly innocuous explanation, of course, but I can't help feeling that one of the risks he'd taken in his private life might have caught up with him.

(11) Steve MacDonogh, Why Whitehall Wants to Ban This Book (1986)

One Girl's War poses no threat to national security; if other books do and if the Government wishes to take action against them, then that is their business, not ours. The content of One Girl's War has to do solely with events which took place over forty years ago, and we believe that it should be considered for what it is, not for what other books might be.

The Government's attempt to suppress One Girl's War is part of a larger project to keep from the British public any information about the operations of the intelligence services and thus to render impossible any public debate on the matter. In the 1960s and 1970s most countries of the western world gradually liberalised public access to information; in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's Governments have sought to reverse that trend. There are general ideological reasons for this, and there are particular reasons.

Between 1974 and 1976 a coalition of right-wing Conservative politicians and elements of the armed forces and of the intelligence services worked secretly to subvert the elected Labour Government led by Harold Wilson. It is not suggested that this coalition was responsible for the demise of the Wilson Government and the installing of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. But the whole notion of such secret activity involving state security services in efforts to undermine the elected Government runs so sharply against the general perception of British democratic tradition that it is hardly surprising if the Thatcher Government is determined to ensure that the full story is never told.