George Alexander Hill

Geoffrey Dawson

George Alexander Hill, the son of a timber merchant, was born in Estonia in 1892. Michael Kitchen, his biographer, has pointed out: "He (Hill) was educated by French and German governesses and soon developed exceptional linguistic skills. He spoke six languages and his Russian was fluent." He later recalled: "I had half a dozen languages at the tip of my tongue and learned to sum up the characteristic qualities and faults of a dozen nationalities."

On the outbreak of the First World War he was on a fishing trip in British Columbia. He immediately joined a Canadian infantry regiment and served on the Western Front at Ypres in 1915. He was seriously wounded and after he recovered he was sent to the War Office where he began his career as an intelligence officer.

George Hill explained in his book, Go Spy the Land (1933): "Experts from Scotland Yard lectured me on shadowing people and recognising the signs of being shadowed. I was taught the methods of using invisible inks. I learned a system of codes and was primed with all the dodges which are useful to spies." Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of MI6, gave Hill the codename, Agent 1K8, and sent him to Russia.

Giles Milton, the author of Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot (2013) commented that: "A broad-beamed individual with a potato-shaped face, he had a military gait and public-school buffoonery that left no one in any doubt as to his nationality. Yet he showed a remarkable talent for blending into foreign cultures." Hill commented that a spy could only "live incognito for a sustained period of time" only if he learned to adopt "the habits and ways of thoughts of the people among whom his field of operations lies."

Hill explained in Go Spy the Land (1933) that Mansfield Smith-Cumming had an extensive range of gadgets available to his agents: "Secret inks, tiny cameras the size of half a crown and not much thicker, photographs reduced so that their films can be concealed in a cigarette." Smith-Cumming also employed a highly skilled team of cipher men in London who were constantly changing the codes in order to minimise the chance of them being decrypted. Hill used one of the codes while an agent in Russia: "It had been invented by a genius at the Secret Service headquarters in London and of the many I have seen it was the easiest and safest for a secret service man to carry."

Edward Knoblock, a fellow agent, wrote in Round the Room: An Autobiography (1939): "He (Smith-Cumming) had a passion for inventions of all sorts and being a rich man, he often bought the rights to them, such as strange telescopes, mysterious mechanism with which to signal in the dark.... rockets, bombs etc." Smith-Cumming had a particular fascination for invisible inks. He hired the services of the distinguished physicist, Thomas R. Merton, who conducted ink experiments with many different chemical solutions. These included potassium permanganate, antipyrine and sodium nitrate. Spies were also advised to make invisible ink from semen. However, this was eventually abandoned because of complaints about the smell from those receiving the letters.

Hill developed a cover-story for himself in Russia. "While my Russian was almost word perfect, I did from time to time make mistakes and it was much better for me to claim that I was a Russian of German extraction born in the Baltic provinces." This was a clever deceit as neither the Cheka nor the Bolshevik authorities would be able to verify his family details, because the Baltic provinces were under occupation by the German Army.

Hill met up with Sidney Reilly in Moscow. They became close friends. Hill described Reilly as like himself, "a man of action." Both men had a talent for languages. Hill noted that Reilly spoke perfect English, Russian, French and German, "though, curiously enough, with a foreign accent in each case."

George Hill and Sidney Reilly returned to London in November 1918. Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of MI6 was very pleased with the information Hill had smuggled out of Russia and arranged for him to receive the Military Cross. "He (Hill) has attended Bolshevik meetings at night when street fighting was at its height," read the citation that accompanied Hill's award, "passing back and forth through the Bolshevik fighting lines, and has been almost daily under fire without protection." Reilly was also awarded the Military Cross.

Smith-Cumming then asked the men if they were willing to return to Russia. The main objective was to assess the prospects of the White Army led by General Anton Denikin against the Red Army in the Russian Civil War. The men agreeed but was shocked when they were told that their train bound for Odessa was departing in two hours. Hill and Reilly realised that it was a dangerous mission and if they were caught by the Bolsheviks they would be executed. Hill and Reilly were joined by Paul Dukes, whose task was to rebuild MI6's shattered network inside Russia.

According to Michael Kitchen, after leaving Russia "Hill worked for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in the Middle East for the next three years, but the service was short of funds and Hill was reduced to living with his wife in a caravan in Sussex. His only recompense was appointment as an MBE and DSO, and the satisfaction of being mentioned in dispatches on three occasions. There followed a series of precarious jobs: a stint with the Royal Dutch–Shell Oil Company, manager of the Globe Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in London, and deputy general manager to the impresario C. B. Cochran." During this period he wrote two volumes of memoirs: Go Spy the Land (1933) and The Dreaded Hour (1936).

On the outbreak of the Second World War Hill was recalled to MI6 with the rank of major and worked as an instructor in Section D at Brickendonbury Hall near Hertford. His pupils included Kim Philby. In 1940 the school was taken over by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and restructured. Hill remained on the staff until 1941 when he was selected to head an SOE mission to Moscow. Hill worked closely with NKVD to co-ordinate sabotage and propaganda in occupied Europe. It was also agreed that they would help one another infiltrate agents into occupied Europe.

Brigadier Hill returned to London in the summer of 1945. After the war he became a director of the British-owned German mineral water company Apollinarius. His biographer, Michael Kitchen, commented: "It was a strange finale for a man who was never known to have refused a drink."

George Alexander Hill died in 1968.

Primary Sources

(1) George Alexander Hill, Go Spy the Land (1933)

Experts from Scotland Yard lectured me on shadowing people and recognising the signs of being shadowed. I was taught the methods of using invisible inks. L learned a system of codes and was primed with all the dodges which are useful to spies

(2) Giles Milton, Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin's Global Plot (2013)

George Hill's return to London in November 1918 gave him his first opportunity to meet "the Chief". He felt unusually nervous as he climbed the stairs to the top floor of Whitehall Court and knocked on Cumming's door. He had been forewarned that Cumming had a formidable presence. Now, as he entered the room, that presence quickly made itself felt.

"For half a minute, he leisurely surveyed me and I have never been so thoroughly looked over before or since in my life." After an uncomfortably long silence, Cumming suddenly stood up, shook Hill's hand and asked him to report on his work.

Cumming expressed his admiration for what Hill had achieved. He had proved a model agent, working undercover for many months without arousing any suspicion. Cumming's reward was to recommend him for the Military Cross, and he also ensured that he was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order....

Cumming had summoned the two men to his offices because he had a new mission for them to undertake, one that would take them back onto Russian soil. The victorious Allies were about to begin delicate negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference and urgently required information on the fighting that was taking place in Southern Russia.
It was well known that an anti-Bolshevik army led by General Denikin was engaged in a violent offensive against Lenin's Revolutionary forces. What Cumming needed was an accurate assessment of Denikin's prospects. He also wanted to know the likelihood of him uniting forces with Admiral Kolchak, who was leading a second anti-Bolshevik army in Eastern Russia.

Hill asked Cumming when he and Reilly would need to leave England. He was looking forward to relaxing in England after such a stressful stint abroad and hoped to have at least a couple of weeks to catch up with friends and family. Cumming told him that their train was departing in two hours. There was no time to pack and precious little time for farewells.

Hill had a rare moment of hesitation, one that Cumming was quick to notice. He discussed the situation with him `much more like a friend than a senior officer' and his kindness finally convinced Hill to go. Two hours later, he and Reilly were aboard the train and bound for Odessa. For Reilly, in particular, it was a most dangerous undertaking. If caught by the Bolsheviks, he would be executed.