Maxwell Knight – the spy-runner who loved nature

Maxwell Knight was the original “M”, a spy-runner who, with the help of young case officers, was responsible for counter-subversion and managed successfully to penetrate the British fascist movement. He was undeniably MI5’s most gifted agent-runner, and his sixth sense for enlisting would-be talented agents lead to him recruiting Joan Miller from within MI5 to his own department, B5(b), which consisted of a team of handpicked agents known as “Knight’s Black Agents” – an amalgam of the surname “Knight”, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the dark, counter-subversion world and the predatory figures they encountered:

MACBETH: Act 3, Scene 2.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

He championed the recruitment of female spies; Joan Gray (Miss X) was to break the Woolwich Arsenal spy case in 1938; a different Joan, Joan Miller, helped him make his name within MI5 by uncovering a plot to prevent the entry of America into the World War II. (This was to become one of his greatest coups, earning him his reputation for getting the job done).

The National Archives released (2014) information that Knight’s B5(b) was engaged during the Second World War in what was to become known as the “Jack King” case. The significance of this case is that it for the first time revealed that Britain had a virulent growth of fifth column sympathisers during the Second World War who were prepared to pave the way for Nazi occupation of Britain. Thankfully, Maxwell Knight had the foresight to recruit the right person for the job; this time, it was Eric Arthur Roberts, a Bank Clerk employed by Westminster Bank. Whatever Knight could see in Roberts, his employer, Westminster Bank, could not, as they wrote to the Security Service asking that they explain what particular talent Roberts possessed, because they hadn’t seen any for themselves!

It’s fascinating to think that during these key events he remained a committed amateur naturalist and became an early environmentalist. What made him a talented spy-runner and prepared him for the challenges he faced as ‘M’ were the observational skills and ability to look deep into nature and these talents were honed as a child – inspired by his father – and sharpened by the scout movement, which is where he was awarded his naturalist badge when he was just twelve years old.

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