Guy Maynard Liddell, the son of Augustus Frederick Liddell, a retired captain in the Royal Artillery, and his wife, Emily Shinner, was born on 8th November 1892.
Liddell's mother died when he was a child. A gifted cellist he was studying in Germany and was destined to become a professional musician until the outbreak of the First World War. He served with the Royal Field Artillery and during the war won the Military Cross.
In 1919 Liddell joined Scotland Yard as a subordinate to Basil Thompson in the directorate of intelligence. Later Liddell became the liaison man between the police, the Special Branch and the Foreign Office. In this role he was involved in exposing the spying activities of the All Russian Cooperative Society, a spy ring based in London. According to Nigel West: "He (Liddell) was responsible for co-ordinating the police raid on the Arcos building in Moorgate in May 1927 (which also housed the Soviet trade delegation), in pursuit of a missing classified RAF document. Although the document was not recovered, more than enough evidence was found of Soviet espionage, which was enhanced by the unexpected defection of a terrified code clerk, Anton Miller, who had been detained while attempting to burn incriminating files."
In October 1931, Liddell moved with his small team of civilian analysts to MI5, and was appointed deputy director of counter-espionage. In this post he became Britain's leading expert on subversive Bolshevik activities in Britain. In 1935 Liddell recruited Dick Wright as his private secretary and MI5's thirtieth officer. Liddell told Wright that he was needed to help prepare for the inevitable war with Germany.
In 1936 Liddell went to Washington to inform the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that a Dundee hairdresser, Jessie Jordan, was acting as a post-box for German intelligence and relaying letters to and from an address in New York City. An FBI investigation identified Gunther Rumrich, as a German spy, and Liddell's information allowed J. Edgar Hoover to take the credit for closing-down an extensive transatlantic espionage network.
Keith Jeffery, the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010) has argued: "Liddell wanted something more formal, to build on MI5's success in helping the FBI round up an important German spy ring operating in the USA which had been communicating with Germany through a Mrs Jessie Jordan in Perth, Scotland. In the spring of 1938 he visited the USA and determined that both the military authorities and the FBI were more than anxious to establish a liaison with us, which could cover not only Soviet, German and Italian activities, but also those of the Japanese. The difficulty, he observed, was how to do so without causing offence to the State Department, with whom we have been in touch via the Counsellor of the American Embassy here ever since the war".
Another agent employed by Liddell was Maxwell Knight, who became head of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. One of Knight's spies, Olga Gray, who was only 19, joined the Friends of the Soviet Union. She soon gained the confidence of Percy Glading, a senior member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to Francis Beckett, the author of The Enemy Within (1995): "Olga Gray worked for the CP for six years, from 1931 to 1937, first as a volunteer and then full time at King Street. She was surprised to find herself growing to like these Bolsheviks of whom she had heard such hair-raising things. When she began to help Percy Glading with a scheme to convey plans of a British gun to the Soviet Union, she found herself liking the man. Although Olga wanted to give up her job with MI5 Knight managed to persuade her to stay on until Glading was in the net."
In 1937 Percy Glading asked Olga 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. The spy ring was arrested in January 1938. On 14th May, 1938, Glading, Albert Williams and George Whomack were convicted under the Official Secrets Act. Glading was sent to prison for six years. Harry Pollitt did not suspect Olga Gray, as he believed the traitor was Jack Murphy, one of the founders of the CPGB who had left the party over ideological issues.
Another agent recruited by Maxwell Knight 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.
When Winston Churchill sacked Vernon Kell as head of MI5 Liddell was promoted to the director of B Division. A few days later Maxwell Knight told Liddell about the Right Club spy ring. On 18th May, Liddell 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 Wolkoff was sentenced to ten years. Kent, because he was an American citizen, was treated less harshly and received only seven years.
Liddell was promoted to director of B division in June 1940 and appointed Dick Wright and Anthony Blunt, to senior posts in the organisation. According to Nigel West: "His reliance on personal contacts led him to choose some impressive intellectual talent, and B division effectively took control of the enemy's entire espionage organization in Britain. This extraordinary achievement, documented by Sir John Masterman in The Double Cross System (1972), resulted in numerous future High Court judges and university dons running a large stable of double agents, thereby providing the deception planners with a reliable conduit into the German high command."
Another agent employed by Liddell was Dusko Popov. He discovered information suggesting that the Japanese Air Force planned to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. Surprisingly he did not notify the White House or the US Office of Naval Intelligence about this plan. Instead he sent Popov to J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. Hoover did not take the necessary action and the United States forces were not prepared for the attack on 7th December, 1941. Liddell was later blamed for not telling President Franklin D. Roosevelt about this information.
Liddell marriage to Calypso Baring, the daughter of Lord Revelstoke was to cause him great unhappiness and it was dissolved in 1943 after she had deserted him for her American half-brother, leaving Liddell to fight a long battle for custody of their son and three daughters.
Liddell was expected to succeed David Petrie as chief of MI5. However, Ellen Wilkinson, who served under Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, had heard rumours from Europe that Liddell was suspected of being a double-agent. As a result, the job went to Percy Sillitoe and Liddell became Deputy-Director-General.
In October 1950 Kim Philby warned Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean that they were being investigated by MI5. Burgess returned to London and in May 1951 he defected with Maclean to the Soviet Union. This created serious problems for Liddell as Burgess was a close friend and they were often seen together at parties, clubs and the opera. Liddell had also been seen drinking with other suspects Philby and Anthony Blunt in a pub in Chelsea.
Liddell once again came under suspicion. After the investigation held by MI5 Liddell was forced to take early retirement and become security adviser to the Atomic Energy Authority.
In 1951 Guy Burgess defected to the Soviet Union with Donald Maclean. Suspicions fell on Goronwy Rees and he was interviewed by Dick White. Rees admitted that Burgess had told him he was a Soviet spy in 1937. However, he insisted that he had refused to be recruited by Burgess. Ress also claimed that Liddell and Blunt were Soviet spies. White suspected that Rees had been spying for the Soviets but was unable to persuade him to confess.
Peter Wright, who worked for MI5, claimed in his book, Spycatcher (1987): "Rees... told White, then the head of Counterespionage.... that he knew Burgess to have been a longtime Soviet agent. Burgess, he claimed, had tried to recruit him before the war, but Rees, disillusioned after the Molotov-von Rippentrop pact, refused to continue any clandestine relationship. Rees also claimed that Blunt, Guy Liddell, a former MI6 officer named Robert Zaehner, and Stuart Hampshire, a brilliant RSS officer, were all fellow accomplices. But whereas Blunt was undoubtedly a Soviet spy, the accusations against the other three individuals were later proved groundless... Dick White disliked Rees intensely, and thought he was making malicious accusations in order to court attention." After the investigation held by MI5 Liddell was forced to take early retirement and become security adviser to the Atomic Energy Authority.
Guy Liddell died on 2nd December 1958 at his home, 18 Richmond Court, Sloane Street. His reputation went into decline when one of Liddell's agents, Goronwy Rees, made a deathbed confession in that he had been a Soviet spy. He also claimed that Liddell was also a traitor and had been part of the Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt spy ring. Nigel West has argued: "Before Rees died in 1979 he denounced Liddell as a spy, and the disclosure that Liddell had failed to act against Anthony Blunt when Rees had first named him in 1951 created a furore that, together with his unwise friendships and his preference for homosexual company, posthumously wrecked his reputation as a shrewd intelligence professional."
However, Christopher Andrew points out in his book, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009): "In the wake of Blunt's sensational unmasking in 1979 there was a worldwide media demand for more British traitors. Imaginary moles, identified as the result of mistaken leads, began to multiply rapidly in print: among them Donald Beves, Frank Birch, Andrew Gow, Sir Roger Hollis, Guy Liddell, Graham Mitchell and Arthur Pigou (all dead), Sir Rudolf Peierls (who denied claims that he too was dead and sued successfully for libel), Lord Rothschild (the victim during his lifetime of innuendo rather than open allegation in case he also sued) and Wilfred Mann (who did not sue but wrote a book to prove his innocence). Though the Service knew that all were innocent, it was not until August 1982 that, thanks to intelligence from Oleg Gordievsky, it finally identified John Cairncross as the Fifth Man in the Ring of Five."