Introductory lecture: Maxwell Knight the Spymaster, ‘M’ – Mr Simon H King

We’ve just heard from John Cooper about his mentor, Major Maxwell Knight, and the influence he had on John not only as an individual but also on thousands of other young (and not so young) people who tuned in to his BBC broadcasts, read one of his numerous natural history books, or were lucky enough to have met him in person.

My Maxwell Knight journey started in 2015 when I broke into his filing cabinet with this crowbar [holds crowbar aloft] but more about that later…

For now, I’m here to tell you about the other side of Maxwell Knight, the side we knew very little about until the past decade or so when de-classified papers were released into the public domain and that’s his role in the foundation of our intelligence services, MI5, the British Security Service.

Maxwell Knight was the original ‘M’, a self-taught spymaster who, with the help of young case officers and talented agents, was responsible for counter-subversion and managed successfully to penetrate the British fascist movement.

He was undeniably MI5’s most gifted agent handler of the inter-war years; his sixth sense for enlisting would-be talented agents and officers was a thing of legend within the Security Services and remains the case today.

He championed the recruitment of female spies; broke the Woolwich Arsenal spy case; uncovered a plot to prevent the entry of America into World War II and suppressed a fifth column of Nazi sympathisers who were prepared to help pave the way for the Nazi occupation of Britain.

Then there’s BOND, JAMES BOND: To many, Ian Fleming’s “M” (007’s boss) is just another fictional character from literary history; a random moniker ‘M’ plucked from thin air during a spell of writer’s block. It was, of course, anything but random as Fleming’s “M” was partly (if not wholly) based on the very real Maxwell Knight.

Knight was shackled by the Official Secrets Act; however, that didn’t stop him from planting clues for us to follow in his numerous natural history books – they’re peppered with spy terminology as Knight was amongst the first to link field study with nature detection.

In the world of subterfuge, few things are as they seem – even the harmless term “birdwatcher” is potentially duplicitous as it’s British Intelligence slang for a spymaster. If this makes you think there’s an uncanny connection between natural history and national intelligence, hold that thought…

It’s remarkable to think that during key events in our nation’s history, Maxwell Knight remained a committed amateur naturalist and an early environmentalist.

I won’t be the first to argue that what made him a talented spymaster and what prepared him for the challenges he faced as ‘M’ were his observational skills – derived from the study of animal behaviour, and his ability to look deep into nature. These talents were honed as a child – inspired by his father – and sharpened by the Boy Scout movement.

Charles Henry Maxwell Knight was born on 9th July 1900 in Mitcham, Surrey. His foundation years were heavily Influenced by Robert Baden-Powell’s teachings, which insisted that the study of living things was one of the most important features of everyday scout life.

One of his proudest scouting achievements was the moment he received his naturalist badge when he was just twelve years old. Knight recalled his joy in later life: “I can still remember how thrilled I was when I sewed it onto my shirt – yes, I said, “sewed”. I might not be able to draw, but I can sew.”

In 1915 he was serving as a naval cadet and then a midshipman in the Royal Naval Reserves by 1918.

In civvystreet, he was employed teaching Latin and games at a preparatory school in Putney, south-east London. He was on land but his career was adrift; cut off from the family money and spending most of his time exploring London’s jazz scene; taking clarinet lessons from legendary jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet. However, a chance encounter was about to put him, fittingly, on course for stormy weather, and ever-greater dangers than the fictional characters featured in his favourite John Buchan novels.

It all started In 1923 when Knight was approached by right-wing propagandist Sir George Makgill who ran his own private intelligence agency, the Industrial Intelligence Board (IIB). IIB’s objective was to ‘acquire intelligence on industrial unrest arising from subversion by Communists, anarchists, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and others.’ [Christopher Andrew. P. 122].

Knight’s first assignment for IIB was in 1923. At the request of Makgill, he was instructed to infiltrate the first of the fascist movements in this country: Rotha Lintorn-Orman’s British Fascisti. During this period, Makgill was running agents on behalf of Major-General Sir Vernon Kell, founder and first director of the British Security Service.

Knight’s instructions were (probably) to penetrate as far into the British Fascisti as possible – with a view to getting into a position of responsibility, which would eventually enable Knight to obtain reliable information about the more sinister plans of the organisation. The strategy worked faster than expected – in the same year he started with the BF, he was promoted to Assistant Chief of Staff and Director of Intelligence.

According to The Authorised History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, Knight’s Fascist connections would later assist his successful penetration of the more extreme British Union of Fascists (BUF), a political party formed in 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosley, and the “Right Club”.

Between the years of 1939 and 1945, Knight was in charge of the ‘M’ organisation for the Security Services or, ‘M.S.’ as Knight referred to it (KV4/227). The primary function of M.S. was the recruitment and operation of agents for penetrating subversive political bodies, and for the investigation of suspicious individuals or groups of individuals. Its secondary function was the recruitment and training of investigating officers – a subject close to M’s heart.

It’s late summer 1939 – before the outbreak of war; reports from M’s agents draw attention to the activities of Captain Archibald Ramsay, MP, and his ‘Right Club’. The information he received from his agents and casual sources’ intelligence inferred that the ‘Right Club’ was connected with fascist movements and that its members were working for such extreme organisations as the British Union, the Imperial Fascist League, and the Nordic League. Those early reports confirmed Knight’s suspicions that it was imperative to have an agent inside the ‘Right Club.’ Knight instructed a female agent to infiltrate Ramsey’s club, who would ultimately unearth a significant espionage operation, intending to unseat Winston Churchill and negotiate with Hitler. This wasn’t the first time Knight had used a female agent: in 1930 he’d recruited Olga Gray, a young typist from Manchester, to infiltrate the Communist Party of Great Britain (C.P.G.B.) which led in 1938 to the successful breaking of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring and subsequent trial of those involved. Knight’s decision to employ female agents, however, went against the grain insofar as the establishment was concerned. (In complete contrast – in 2018, MI5 features in The Times Newspaper’s ‘Top 50 Employers for Women,’ but you can imagine how that might NOT have been the case in 1939!).

The ‘Right Club’ arrests were to be ‘M’ organisation’s most documented war-time victory. The unveiling of Tyler Kent as a spy, a cipher clerk stationed at the United States Embassy, led to the discovery that he was found in possession of more than 1,000 official documents, including Top Secret correspondence between Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and President Franklin Roosevelt.

The correspondence could NOT have been more sensitive; In his book entitled “The Man Who Was M”, Anthony Masters explained why ‘M’s’ intervention may have shortened the war and thereby saved countless lives, as Kent’s intention was to keep ‘America out of the war, forcing England’s surrender.’

But this was only one case that ‘M’ was handling.

‘M’ continued to recruit would-be talented agents and officers, but recruiting for the investigation of communism, fascism and their allied organisations wasn’t without its risks during war-time conditions as one can well imagine. This was a time when loose lips literally sank ships!

So, what was ‘M’ looking for in his agents?
In his words: ‘Acumen and industry – honesty and loyalty.’

‘M’ was well aware, however, that officials in government departments were prone to regard an ‘agent’ as ‘unscrupulous and dishonest.’ This was a frustrating state of affairs for ‘M’ who felt his agents exhibited some of the highest human qualities. It was a constant struggle for him to help raise the status of his agents, but he never gave up trying.

As the war progressed, the feeling among the general public that a “German Fifth Column” might be operating in Britain created a “spy fever” and generated hundreds of letters and reports that were brought to the attention of the Security Service, all of which required sifting and investigating. In order to deal with this, ‘M’ put forward a proposal to recruit more officers, which was eventually accepted and he was given unique permission to set up a sort of spy ‘school’ at Wormwood Scrubs Prison for the purpose of giving officers suitable training.

‘M’ wrote that the recruitment of agents is the most important task of M.S. He knew that the success of the organisation would be down to its people.

So, how did he go about recruiting officers?

Existing officers should first look to enlist a friend who would be suitable for employment as an agent ‘M’ himself conscripted a number of his acquaintances; he considered members of the public who volunteered information as potential initiates.

‘M’ accepted that this wasn’t the fastest way to recruit officers, but he believed it to be the most effective, quote: ‘While it is not possible to build up a big organisation quickly in this way, it certainly produces agents of good quality; and I maintain that one good agent, carefully trained and well placed, is worth half-a-dozen indifferent agents.’

Recruiting the agent was one thing – handling them as an officer (an agent handler) was another, but this was where ‘M’ excelled as a spymaster. How? He’d get to know his agent ‘most thoroughly.’ He’d genuinely befriend his agent – it was absolutely crucial to ‘M’ that the officer trusts the agent and the agent trust the officer. He’d know his agent’s ‘home surroundings, family, hobbies, personal likes and dislikes.’ It was impossible in ‘M’s’ mind to set a task for an agent without bearing the agent’s situation in mind – Knight believed that a spy-handler needed to be, quote: ‘continually adapting himself to agents who vary very much in character and personality. An officer MUST,’ he stressed, ‘always adapt himself to the agent. [As] every good agent likes to think that his officer is almost exclusively concerned with him/her.’

‘M’ initially ran M.S. from his flat in Sloane Street, which was unconventional for a number of reasons – arguably the biggest being Knight’s amateur naturalist and pet-keeping antics which included an eclectic range of pets, including a baboon, monkeys, Bessie the sun bear, parrots, exotic fish, ferrets and all manner of creatures. It also put him beyond the day-to-day reach of high-ranking MI5 officers – a tactic that would eventually backfire for Knight.

As M Section recruits outgrew the Sloane Street premises, along with the menagerie of pets, ‘M’ was forced to seek alternative accommodation. Determined to retain his independence, he transferred his section to the now notorious Dolphin Square complex in London’s Pimlico. This move helped him continue to avoid the daily scrutiny of “the Office” and it’s fair to say ‘M’ enjoyed being seen as a little (if not a lot) different – indeed he was perceived as a kind of mystical figure as can be seen in this quote from MI5 officer John Bingham.

Bingham was himself the inspiration for another well-known fictional Security Services character, George Smiley in John Le Carré’s spy novels. How did Le Carré get to know Bingham well enough to portray him on the page? Because they both worked for ‘M.’

“Knight mothered his little brood of case officers in Dolphin Square, caring for us in a protective leadership that was fun as well as being exciting and dangerous.

He was MI5’s most brilliant case officer and we sorely miss those special days in Dolphin Square – when we were all Knight’s Black Agents”

– John Bingham

(‘M’s MI5 colleague. Source: Masters – Man Who Was ‘M’).

Why ‘Knight’s Black Agents’? Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘Good things of day begin to droop and drowse; whiles [K]night’s black Agents to their prey do rouse.’ These were dark days.

Additional note from Prof. John E Cooper: Is appropriate in another way too: The word “rouse” relates to falconry (which was one of ‘Major Knight’s’ interests) – see below the meaning of the term (it is still used by falconers).

Rouse: In falconry, means to shake feathers into place. n. The act of rousing. The rouse is a whole body movement where the feathers are lifted away from the body, shook, and then flattened back closer to the body.

By now, ‘M’ was taking the kind of risks that would be unthinkable in today’s Security Service. He “would burgle premises without authority and recruit whomsoever he wished,” wrote Christopher Andrews in The Authorised History of MI5. (But this made me feel much better about breaking into his cabinet. I knew he’d approve!).

In 1941, Knight penned a secret report entitled ‘The Comintern is not Dead’ – the ‘Comintern’ being an international organization that advocated world communism The report documented Knight’s suspicions that MI5 had been penetrated by the Soviets.

The report fell on stony ground and was ignored by senior MI5 officers and cast aside – like an oily rag – by Churchill who considered his primary enemy to be Nazi Germany.

Knight’s maverick tactics were beginning to work against him – those alienated high-ranking MI5 officers ignored his claims and Knight grew angrier by the day! …He decided the unfinished business was his to pursue and continued his surveillance of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). But Knight would have to wait a number of years to be proved right when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to the Soviet Union in 1951 and were later joined by Kim Philby in 1963 and the remaining members of the Cambridge Five Spy Ring were eventually outed. Had Knight’s predictions been taken seriously, those who defected wouldn’t have had the chance they had to share so many of the nation’s Top Secrets. Harry Smith (Knight’s nephew) confirmed to me in a meeting that his uncle said that ‘fighting communism was just like breaking the tail off a lizard – it would simply grow another.’

The rest of the Symposium is going to be largely about Maxwell Knight the naturalist, but we should be aware that – as historian Henry Hemming put it in his recent publication M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster – this was a great patriot, a man (one of a number) who helped save Britain in its darkest hour.

In a way, he had two personalities – perhaps many more! One was absolutely necessary because of the contingencies of the Nazis and communists and… the other one was the gentle Knight who found solace in the natural world: holding an animal and – as we all do, I’m sure – felt at ease with that animal, that he was a part of nature; watching the birds in the garden – even jotting down his thoughts and publishing Bird Gardening in 1953.

Two sides of the very same coin… and yet… the skills of Maxwell Knight the amateur naturalist were what made him one of Britain’s greatest spymasters. These are Knight’s words:

This is the opening paragraph of an article I found inside the cabinet entitled Friend or Foe, originally written for The Field magazine in the 1960s. When Knight penned this article he could have been weighing up the merits of wasps, hedgehogs and rooks as the public perception of each is not necessarily what it does in real life; however, he might have been thinking about watching subversive organisations or running a large number of agents; it could even be the opening scene of a John le Carré spy thriller. (John le Carré is the pen name of David Cornwell and he was recruited to MI5 by ‘M’ in the late 1950s.

There’s correspondence between Knight and David Cornwell in the cabinet (a cordial exchange; Cornwell agreeing to supply illustrations for Knight’s book ‘Animals and Ourselves’ (Hodder and Stoughton – 1962). Le Carré would tip his hat to ‘M’ using him as inspiration for his fictional character Jack Brotherhood in his thriller, A Perfect Spy. Le Carré described ‘M’s’ fictional character as ‘a tweedy, unscalable English mountain’ and ‘a handsome English warlord who served sherry on Boxing Day and had never had a doubt in his life.’

Maxwell Knight performed his duties to the level we are beginning to understand because of his deep understanding of nature; his ability to watch and observe without jumping to an immediate verdict – reserving judgement until it was necessary. The patience of a naturalist.

Knight would collide his two worlds; he’d take potential recruits for a ‘casual walk’ around London Zoo – where he was, of course, for decades, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and became a Vice President sometimes chairing the scientific and public meetings of the ZSL. During those ‘casual’ walks, Knight, we understand, would assess people based on whether they could (perhaps) recount a minor detail, such as the number of people in a queue. It’s easy to scoff at such a basic interview technique; however, we should consider that the personnel of the Security Service numbered around 12 agents plus M.S. at the outbreak of World War II. (Today, MI5 employs around 4,000 staff).

An interviewee might spot something like a bird’s wing drooping a little on the left, an eye that was half-closed, a lizard hiding under its waterbowl. All indicative of powers of observation, which ‘M’ knew were prerequisites of his duality – spymaster and naturalist.

Knight would instinctively know when a garden bird’s behaviour was unusual. Today, around 50% of the British population feed wild birds and “citizen science” such as the “Big Garden Birdwatch Project” make Knight’s actions as a garden birder look commonplace; however, these were the 1950s and 1960s when feeding wildlife was NOT widely practised. Today, wildlife companies such as Haith’s bird food (cheeky: catalogues are in the pack) go to remarkable lengths to provide safe, high-quality diets to wild birds and I’m proud to represent them today.

As I pieced together items from the cabinet, a thought occurred to me…

….was Maxwell Knight sharing his spy training during his broadcasts?

To find out, I read several scripts and came to the conclusion that he couldn’t do anything BUT SHARE HIS TRADECRAFT as his broadcasts and books contained the same basic training (the same ‘tradecraft’) that he was both giving to MI5 recruits and practising as an amateur naturalist. In other words, as far as Knight was concerned the two were inseparable; his spy training was based on his understanding of animals and how they behaved and his natural history tradecraft was fine-tuned by his time as a spymaster.

As John Cooper will attest, Maxwell Knight liked to challenge his young audience as he believed ‘any worthwhile naturalist welcomes a challenge.’ The transferable skills that John learnt from his time with “Major Knight” were invested in what has become a much-celebrated career that’s seen him teaching his veterinary skills around the globe, accompanied by his wonderful wife Margaret.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Knight’s advice’ for ‘young nature detectives’ contained within his aptly named book entitled: Be a Nature Detective (1968).

Knight insisted that investigations started ‘in the field’ as John Cooper has just told us, and that’s the first point he made in Chapter One. He also encouraged his radio audience to go outdoors and look for ‘signs of the presence of animals.’

His next piece of advice entailed the ‘close observation and careful examination of everything that you see.’ Knight’s philosophy was that ‘field naturalists must be good detectives,’ and that naturalists should ‘model themselves on those officers of the law whose duty it is to solve crimes.’ He explained that detective work involves ‘the use of one’s eyes, ears and even one’s nose; it means that observations must be accurate; it means having a great deal of patience and, most important of all, avoiding hasty conclusions without being able to prove them.’

Imagine, if you will, the memories bouncing around Knight’s mind as he wrote ‘most important of all, avoiding hasty conclusions without being able to prove them.’

To reinforce this nature ‘detective’ approach, he inserted a sketch to compare a ‘Police detective’s clues’ and a ‘Nature detective’s clues.’

Isn’t it fascinating that Britain’s greatest spymaster was passing on his observation skills in books and during BBC broadcasts? If that wasn’t good value for the licence fee payer….what was!?

As I said earlier, this all started for me when I broke into Knight’s filing cabinet…


I met up with the Coopers on a cold, foggy night in Lincolnshire where we together manhandled the cabinet from one car to another. John and Margaret said the drawers would need to be forced open (the irony didn’t escape me). We discussed how Knight’s widow, Susie Knight had bequeathed the cabinet to John. After refreshments, the Coopers drove off into the darkness, leaving me alone with ‘M’s’ treatises.
I drove home and wrestled the cabinet out of my car.

Initially, I couldn’t bring myself to break and enter the cabinet but I eventually reassured myself that ‘M’ would approve of my clandestine activity and I searched the garage for something heavy and persuasive (encouraged from behind by my children and father in law).

I pondered how many cabinets Knight might have forced open. Worryingly, I’d read about his penchant for keeping reptiles and tarantulas (something John Bingham’s daughter, the novelist Charlotte Bingham confirmed to me during a ‘phone call) so I wasn’t quite sure what might greet me. I decided to wear gloves! A short while later, the cabinet’s metal drawers were open… no snakes, no tarantulas, and no “Top Secret” documents (well, none that I will admit to seeing …).

What was inside the cabinet? A lifetime of natural history study; letters to book publishers, notes to and from BBC employees and zoo officials, numerous questions and responses to the general public, including children, asking for animal advice, and dozens and dozens of his articles for numerous magazines and the original drafts for many of his published books.

But… the item that sticks in my mind from the cabinet is a manuscript Knight was working on until his death. The manuscript’s working title was The Frightened Face of Nature which – as I pieced page after page together – I found it reflected on the first fifty years of the 20th century. Knight pulled no punches in predicting how the century would end if man’s advances continued unchecked. I will be reading passages from Knight’s unpublished manuscript as a prelude to this afternoon’s lectures.

Knight’s view was prescient as recent research from the ZSL and WWF confirms he was indeed right to be concerned: The Living Planet Report 2018 shows that “population sizes of wildlife decreased by 60% globally between 1970 and 2014.”

Knight’s hope was that the progress “at any cost” approach would change, and that industrialised nations would stop playing the short-term nature-unfriendly game of habitat destruction so often carried out in the name of progress. This extract from a chapter of The Frightened Face of Nature entitled ‘The Age of Science,’ sums up his thoughts:

Of all the things he could have written about and locked away, he chose to share his fears for the planet and man’s inhumanity, not to man, but to nature.

Nature’s depletion is very much on the agenda of all wildlife charities today; the spectre of invertebrate and vertebrate decline looms across the world, and nature’s antagonist isn’t a secret organisation, Nazi Germany or Communist Russia but something far more deadly: man’s overconsumption of the planet’s resources. What we read, inspired this Symposium and the FFON website, which we encourage you to visit, contribute and share with your friends, family and colleagues.

Knight was worried about the next generation not being able to enjoy nature in the way that he had. I’m therefore pleased to look around this room today and to see all ages represented.

As we heard from John, Maxwell Knight died on Wednesday 27 January 1968 at the age of 68. You could think of him as ‘M’ – Britain’s greatest spymaster. Or, you could picture in your mind an altogether different kind of Knight – an enthusiastic, perhaps eccentric, yet methodical field naturalist who shared his knowledge with avuncular charm at the drop of a deerstalker, a keen ornithologist with an evergreen love for cricket and with such generosity, empathy and humanity (especially for the young). I think that’s the Knight I’ll think of – unless I’m watching a Bond movie on Christmas Day!

It’s been my pleasure to gain a greater understanding of the man they (MI5) called ‘M’. I’d like to thank John and Margaret Cooper for entrusting me with the cabinet, plus Harry Smith (Maxwell Knight’s nephew – whose sister, Susie (Max’s niece), and James (Knight’s great nephew), is here today) for being generous enough to share his memories with me and – of course – my family, for playing an active part in this Maxwell Knight adventure.

For today, we are all Knight’s nature agents!

Thank you.

Simon H King – FFON.