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.