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Subject: ‘Espionage’

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In 1776 Sir William Eden’s finest secret agent was a scholarly American churchman

Posted in America, Espionage, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Revolution, War on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

This edited article about espionage in America originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Battle of Bunker Hill, picture, image, illustration

Battle of Bunker Hill by Trumbull (after)

It was 1776. The young clergyman with the cherubic countenance edged his way through the dense throng near St. James’s. The passers-by stared curiously after him, catching the twang of his American accent, and some muttered darkly. For Britain was at war with her 13 colonies in America, and had recently suffered a humiliating defeat at Bunker Hill.

Had they but known it, the British had a firm ally in the young cleric. He was the Reverend John Vardill from New York, and he had given up a brilliant future as a churchman and scholar to serve as a British agent, believing that America’s best interests lay in maintaining her union with Britain.

As he made his way through West-minister a voice – also American – hailed him. He turned and found himself face-to-face with a fellow-student from New York. He greeted his friend warmly and invited him back for supper.

Vardill lived in a small office at No. 17 Downing Street, not far from the Prime Minister and near the rooms of Sir William Eden, the Under-Secretary of State who controlled Britain’s intelligence service.

As they shared a bottle of wine, he pressed his friend for the latest news from his home state. Then he asked what had brought him to England. His friend was at first reluctant to say, but after a few more bottles stood empty on the table, he revealed that he had just come from secret business with the American Commissioners in Paris.

Vardill pricked up his ears. These Commissioners were of great interest to him. They had been sent by the Colonists to negotiate with France for help against England. They were led by a sincere but guileless diplomat – Silas Deane. Vardill saw here an opportunity to infiltrate the commissioners’ councils.

Pulling his chair closer, he asked his friend where his loyalty lay. Indignantly the other replied that he served the Colonies. But as Vardill began to drop hints of the money which British agents could earn, his friend’s eyes glistened. By the end of the evening his friend was pledged to serve the British.

The bribes were to make a large hole in Sir William Eden’s resources, but it was a worthwhile investment. Through his friend, Vardill obtained the first reliable lists of the American agents in France and the covering names and addresses of their sympathisers in England.

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Jacobite invasion plots were foiled by placing a spy in James II’s court-in-exile

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty on Tuesday, 29 October 2013

This edited article about espionage after the Glorious Revolution originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 443 published on 11 July 1970.

Jacobite invasion foiled, picture, image, illustration

James Stuart could only watch helplessly as the boats meant for the invasion of England burned by C L Doughty

The ship lay in Dover Harbour ready to sail. Two Jacobite agents, bound for France, stood on deck, deep in conversation. They did not notice the party of soldiers as they quietly came aboard. They were still talking intently as the soldiers surrounded them, and the officer in charge had to interrupt them politely in order to place them under arrest.

It was 1690. And one more attempt – the Scots Plot – to restore James II to the throne of England had been foiled. Since he had been driven out in the Bloodless Revolution of 1688, the hapless Stuart had striven desperately to unseat William III, the Dutchman, who had supplanted him. Now he would fall into yet another of his moods of black depression among his shabby court at St. Germain.

Meanwhile, in London, Lord Portland, to whom William had entrusted the security of the realm, was gleeful. He scanned the papers which had been taken from the two agents, and noted with approval that they incriminated a number of English and Scottish nobles. This confirmed information which had already been supplied to him by an agent in whom he was coming to place an increasing amount of trust.

The agent’s name was John Macky, and he was to repay Portland’s confidence amply in the next few years.

A period of quiet followed the Scots Plot, but nothing could be better calculated to arouse Portland’s suspicions. He sent Macky to Paris to find out what the Jacobites were up to. After a few weeks in which he insinuated himself into the Stuart court, Macky discovered the momentous truth that the French were preparing to assist the Jacobites in an invasion of England.

In the port of La Hogue, in Normandy, Macky saw for himself a fleet of warships and troop-transports and the French Army camped nearby. The enterprise, boasted the French, was infallible. And it was due to begin very soon.

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Edward Vernon uncovered the Dublin Castle conspiracy to dethrone Charles II

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Monday, 28 October 2013

This edited article about espionage after the Restoration originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 442 published on 4 July 1970.

Dublin Castle plotters, picture, image, illustration

Some of the plotters escaped including Blood by C L Doughty

It was 1663. The convulsions of the Civil War and the tense years of the Protectorate had passed and under her restored king, Charles II, England looked forward to peace and stability. But abroad fanatical Roundheads would not give up the struggle and plotted continuously to overthrow the monarchy.

One such group planned to seize Dublin Castle and raise rebellion in Ireland and Scotland. They might easily have succeeded, had it not been for a cunning agent, Philip Alden, and a Royalist spy-master, Colonel Edward Vernon.

One Monday early in January, Vernon was making his final preparations before leaving Dublin. While Conyers, his servant, packed the last of his clothes, the Colonel leafed through the reports he planned to present to the Secretary of State in London, and wondered idly how to pass the rest of the evening.

His problem was soon solved. He heard the sound of a horse hard-ridden and then Conyers was ushering in one of Vernon’s best agents in Ireland, Philip Alden.

As Vernon poured Alden some wine he eyed the spy keenly. Rumours had recently spread that Roundhead agents were flocking from Scotland and Holland to Ireland, and Vernon had sent Alden to discover their intentions. Now it was plain from Alden’s burning eyes and his impatience to report, that trouble was indeed on its way.

Alden gulped down his wine and pulled out a list. Did the Colonel recognise these names, he asked; and he proceeded to reel off the names of some of the most prominent politicians in Ireland. They had been meeting secretly for some weeks, he said. Their principal go-between and emissary was an adventurer called Lieutenant Blood. They planned to seize Dublin Castle as the signal for rebellion in Ireland and Scotland, and for the disaffected in England to rally to the Roundhead cause.

Vernon grimaced and ruefully ripped up his previous reports. Now they would have to be rewritten. Far into the night he and Alden sat planning their next moves.

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Cromwell’s spymaster saw the potential of cryptography for the secret service

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, Politics, Revolution, Royalty on Monday, 28 October 2013

This edited article about espionage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 441 published on 27 June 1970.

John Thurloe, picture, image, illustration

John Thurloe, secretary to the council of state in Protectorate England and spymaster for Oliver Cromwell

The Dutch Ambassador stared anxiously from his window before returning to his writing-table. The man was still there; an innocent-looking fellow, scanning a broadsheet. But the Ambassador knew better. Flustered, he took up his pen again. “Sir,” he scribbled to his master, “I dare not write much news. All our actions are spied. We have spies set to watch us in our houses. We cannot be certain of anything that we do, that it shall not be known or miscarry.”

It was 1653 and England lay under the relentless rule of Oliver Cromwell. But although the turmoil of the Civil War was past, the country was far from secure. At home and abroad, fanatical religious sectarians and exiled Royalists schemed to overthrow the Protectorate, while the other States of Europe watched with greedy eyes, ready to win what advantages they could from England’s embarrassments.

For six years the vigilance of one man kept the plotters at bay. His name was John Thurloe.

This quiet, unassuming civil servant controlled an elaborate network of spies. His men on the Continent sent “letters of intelligence” which kept him abreast of the affairs of every capital, while at home his agents bribed their way among clerks, postmasters and carriers, intercepting and tampering with the correspondence of suspected enemies of the State.

So efficient was Thurloe’s organisation that he was commonly believed to be in league with the Devil and to use supernatural powers to smell out treason.

In fact he relied on his agents and on the diligent activities of his cryptographers.

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In 1605 Cecil’s secret agents acted to discover the plans of Catholic plotters

Posted in Espionage, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, London, Religion, Royalty on Friday, 25 October 2013

This edited article about Jacobean espionage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 440 published on 20 June 1970.

Guy Fawkes, picture, image, illustration

Guy Fawkes and his associates; taken from a contemporary Dutch engraving

Slush seeped in through the cracked leather of his shoes and icy rain streamed down his neck from the sodden brim of his hat. He peered through the darkness down the mean alley towards Tower Street. That was the way they would come, if they came at all.

Suddenly above the moaning wind and the dismal splash of water at the riverside he heard voices. A linkboy accompanied by a man and a woman appeared at the mouth of the alley. They made their way to the house opposite the watcher and beat urgently on the door.

It was opened by a tall man with a flaming red beard. The woman slipped hurriedly inside. But her companion stopped to pay the linkboy. By the light of the flaring torch the watcher saw that her companion’s hair was flaxen, almost white, and he squinted horribly. It was all he needed to know.

William Udall, informer and government agent, grinned with satisfaction and settled down for a long night’s watch.

It was December, 1605. The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in the previous month had shaken all England. The main conspirators – Roman Catholics – had been arrested, but many suspects had still to be rounded up. These were mainly Catholics too, but harmless men and women who had stayed true to their religion, yet were no less loyal to their king, their country or their Parliament. Nevertheless, in the frenzy which the Plot had aroused they were hunted down zealously by James the First’s Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury.

One of the most urgent problems that faced Cecil was to discover the means by which his suspects, together with other Catholic priests and agents, were ferried in and out of the country. He set his secret agents to work and one by one the boltholes were stopped up. One escape-route remained open. Ironically enough, it began in the shadow of the Tower.

Henry Keene lived off Tower Street, near the river where he kept a small boat. With his partner, Anthony Hickmote, he carried Catholic priests or sympathisers to the coastal inlets around Gravesend, Rochester and Sittingbourne. There they boarded a larger vessel, which took them across the Channel to Calais, whence they travelled to the Catholic seminaries of Douai and St. Omer.

Keene was also prepared to carry supplies for the English students in the seminaries. This was his undoing. One youth wrote to his uncle for warm clothes, since those he had were ‘almost worn out,’ and added: “You shall hear of one Henry Keene who used to bring over youths to this and other colleges most commonly every month, by whom you may send unto me.” The letter fell into Cecil’s hands. Keene’s secret was out. And Cecil schemed to put a speedy end to his clandestine journeying.

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The safety of C16 Protestant England depended on espionage and secret surveillance

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History on Friday, 25 October 2013

This edited article about Elizabethan espionage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 439 published on 13 June 1970.

Sir Francis Walsingham,  picture, image, illustration

Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State and founder of the Queen's Secret Service

The room grew stuffy, the voices of the plotters loud, drowning even the clamour from the busy streets of Rouen. They spoke of England and how she might return to the Faith.

“There lies a block in our path,” said one. “Till she is removed we shall never have our way.”

“Some resolute man,” laughed another confidently, “will rid us of this problem.”

Unnoticed in a corner the man in shabby clothing heard them and smiled grimly. He knew that they spoke of Elizabeth of England and he guessed that here was yet another plot to assassinate her.

That night he sent a warning note to his master, Sir Francis Walsingham.

It was the year of 1586. Elizabeth’s England had become a bastion of Protestantism which Catholic states sought to destroy. Although their form of worship had been proscribed, a large number of Englishmen were still Catholics at heart, and as such, they represented a danger to the security of the realm.

Walsingham had been entrusted by the Queen with the task of organising a secret service at home and abroad to keep the Catholics under surveillance and to seize those whose zeal led them to conspire with England’s enemies.

He had established a highly-efficient organisation which had uncovered a number of plots and ensnared many traitors. His agents came from all walks of life: some were driven by greed or malice; others were renegate Catholics; some again, like Walsingham himself, were sincerely devoted to the Protestant cause and prepared to be utterly ruthless in the defence of it.

Nevertheless, hunting down sincere and often defenceless men and women was a dirty business, especially as torture and bribery, blackmail and forgery, were the habitual weapons of Walsingham’s men.

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Joseph Conrad wrote the first and greatest novel about terrorism

Posted in Anarchy, English Literature, Espionage, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, News on Tuesday, 17 September 2013

This edited article about Joseph Conrad originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 403 published on 4 October 1969.

Joseph Conrad, picture, image, illustration

Joseph Conrad by Walter Tittle

No one paid any attention to the inoffensive-looking French tailor who was sauntering through the grounds of Greenwich Park in south-east London. For Martial Bourdin seemed no different to anyone else, who was out enjoying a stroll in the crisp, February air.

But in his pocket was a bottle containing enough explosive to blow up the famed Greenwich Observatory. For as well as being a hard-working tailor, Bourdin was also an anarchist intent on overthrowing the British Government and establishing the rule of the people.

By destroying the Observatory, he would prevent the standard time from being telegraphed to all parts of the United Kingdom, so causing chaos and disruption. As Bourdin neared the walls of the Observatory, he lost his air of tranquillity. His movements became tense and jerky. He began to take the bottle from his pocket, and as he did so he stumbled over something in his path. He fell heavily to the ground with the bottle still in his hand. The bomb exploded immediately – killing Bourdin, but leaving the Observatory undamaged.

The story was fully reported in the newspapers, but aroused little interest at a time when London was beset by a whole series of bomb outrages. Twelve years later, however, in 1906, the writer, Joseph Conrad, used the incident as the basis for his exciting spy novel, The Secret Agent.

Conrad, who was born in the Ukraine of Polish parents in 1857, is one of the most extraordinary of “English” authors. For, despite his nationality, he considered himself to be as English as anyone born between the south coast and the border of Scotland. At the age of 15 he resolved to become a British seaman.

He joined the crew of the Mavis, and first set foot on English soil at Lowestoft in 1878. “I did not know six words of the language,” he confessed later. He continued his sea-going career and eight years later he obtained his master mariner’s ticket and became a naturalised British subject.

In The Secret Agent Conrad’s tale of anarchy centres around Adolph Verloc, a seemingly respectable Soho shop-keeper, who uses Stevie, his simple-minded brother-in-law, to unwittingly carry a time-bomb to Greenwich Observatory. This is the most dramatic part of the book, and you are forced to read on to discover whether or not Stevie suffers the same fate as his real-life counterpart, Martial Bourdin.

While he was working on the novel, Conrad became so obsessed with the lives of the terrorists that he felt as if he were an anarchist himself. “Then,” he stated, “a visitor from America informed me that all sorts of revolutionary refugees in New York would have it that the book was written by somebody who knew a lot about them. This seemed to me a very high compliment.”

An actor played Monty’s double in the very real theatre of war

Posted in Actors, Espionage, Historical articles, History, Theatre, World War 2 on Wednesday, 4 September 2013

This edited article about World War Two originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 399 published on 6 September 1969.

General Montgomery, picture, image, illustration

General Sir Bernard Montgomery by John Keay

Two Gestapo-trained secret agents were strolling slowly through the garden of the Governor of Gibraltar. Officially, they were leading Spanish businessmen, living in Gibraltar, who had been invited to see the Governor’s ancient Moroccan carpets.

Some weeks earlier, they had been ordered to find out if it was true that General Montgomery was about to visit the Mediterranean on a vital mission. It seemed incredible, because Monty was in command of the ground forces under General Eisenhower who were waiting to invade Europe. For this was May, 1944, just before D-Day. Yet, amazingly, Monty had arrived in Gibraltar that very day.

Suddenly, the Governor, Sir Ralph Eastwood, appeared in the garden – with Monty! The two spies walked towards them. They had not been spotted yet and Monty was talking about a plan 303. Could the rumour be true that he was here to launch a separate invasion from the Mediterranean?

Monty and the Governor saw the two men and Monty stopped talking. The four men met and chatted. “More flying ahead,” said Monty. Then the Governor led the spies into Government House.

That night, messages in code flashed between Gibraltar and Berlin. The German Secret Service ordered: “At all costs discover the nature of plan 303.”

Meanwhile, in Government House, Monty and the Governor relaxed.

“That went well, didn’t it, James?” said Sir Ralph.

“It seemed to, sir,” said Lieutenant Clifton James of the Royal Army Pay Corps – Monty’s double. The most daring bluff of the Second World War was under way.

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Walter Greenway fooled the Turkish enemy with his fearless impersonations

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, War, World War 1 on Wednesday, 4 September 2013

This edited article about espionage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 398 published on 30 August 1969.

Walter Greenway, picture, image, illustration

During the Great War, Walter Greenway, disguised as a high-ranking German ammunitions inspector, arrived at an ammunition dump controlled by Turkish troops… and blew it up

The sleepy Turkish guards rubbed their eyes, squinted against the glare of the burning sun – and suddenly snapped to attention. Coming along the track towards the heavy gate of the ammunition dump was a high-ranking German officer reclining on a litter carried by sweating peasants. Behind him toiled a line of men bent under the load of his baggage.

When the litter had been placed on the ground the German stepped out, drew himself up to his full height and looked at the Turks with an expression of disdain on his haughty features. The Turks had had very little to do with their German allies, but they knew by the way the officer regarded them they did not match up to the soldiers of the Kaiser’s army.

The arsenal commandant bustled forward, anxious to please. He bowed low and welcomed the officer.

The visitor clicked heels smartly.

“I am the District Inspector of Ammunition Depots,” he announced. “I have come to check that you are taking proper care of the ammunition which my Government has supplied to you.”

The commandant bowed again. “Your Excellency is most welcome. I trust Your Excellency will find everything in good order and submit a good report. . . .”

“That remains to be seen,” replied the visitor grimly. “Now conduct me to your best quarters. The journey has been tiring and I wish to rest before I begin my work.”

The commandant breathed a sigh of relief. It would give him a chance to see that everything was in order before the inspector began his investigation. So while the “His Excellency” dozed through the afternoon, the Turkish soldiers worked as they never worked before so that the frightening visitor would not find fault with them.

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The reluctant English spy in the shipyards of San Sebastian

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Ships on Wednesday, 4 September 2013

This edited article about the Spanish Armada originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 396 published on 16 August 1969.

Building the Spanish Armada, picture, image, illustration

In 1588, Thomas Richardson stood before the new Spanish Armada with little interest whilst, in England, Sir William Waad waited in vain for news from his spies, by Ron Embleton

Only seven years after Drake had defeated the Armada in 1588, rumours of another Spanish invasion were rife – and Sir William Waad, one of England’s chief spy-masters, was a worried man.

He had to know where the offensive would come . . . and how . . . and when!

But nobody, it seemed, could tell him. England was in a state of anxiety.

* * *

One man could have told Sir William Waad what he wanted to know. For, while the English spy-master vainly waited for news from his usual agents, a Scotsman by the name of Thomas Richardson stood before the new Armada and saw everything there was to see.

All the ships which King Philip of Spain was building lay before his eyes. Vessels of three to four hundred tons stood high in the yards, and the streets which led to the port of San Sebastian were full of warlike preparations.

But Richardson watched the scene without interest. The vital information that England craved was within his grasp, yet his eyes surveyed the scene without enthusiasm.

Richardson had no taste for politics. All he wanted was to settle a debt with a man. All he knew was that this same man might be in San Sebastian. And Richardson had travelled across Europe to catch him.

Born in Leith, Richardson had made his way south as a young man and had eventually settled in Gloucester. There he had married and lived a peaceful enough life for 16 years.

For 14 of those years, he had been a chorister in the cathedral, and there was nothing about him to suggest that he was in any way an adventurer. But, then, in the very cathedral where he had sung, his troubles began.

A newly-appointed dean had dismissed the choristers, and when Richardson had protested, the dean had driven him out of the town.

Moving to Waterford in Ireland, Richardson had lived there for four years – again peacefully. But again misfortune had dogged him. Just as he and his family had built a new life, a thief had robbed them of a hundred pounds. It was all they had. They were in deep poverty again.

But this time, Richardson’s Scottish determination showed through. He knew a little about the thief. His name was John Hughes and he had a blemish on his face. As far as Richardson was concerned, this was sufficient information to set him on the track of the man, for he was determined to get his money back.

Almost immediately he was rewarded with an amazing stroke of good luck.

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