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In the archives of history, there are tales of remarkable women whose pivotal roles shaped the course of nations, often hidden behind the scenes.

One such captivating narrative unfolds in the realm of British Intelligence during the first half of the twentieth century.

In my latest book 'Women in Intelligence', I delve into the extraordinary and oft-overlooked contributions of women who defied the conventions of their time to become unsung heroes of espionage, resilience, and resourcefulness.

Spies, Networks, and Escape Lines

As the world grappled with the tumultuous events of the twentieth century, women took centre stage in Intelligence operations. Contrary to the stereotype of women playing minor roles, they spearheaded spy networks, orchestrated daring escape lines, parachuted behind enemy lines, and expertly interrogated prisoners. Their stories remain a testament to their courage and ingenuity.

One intriguing example is the Belgian network known as 'La Dame Blanche,' where resourceful women skillfully knitted coded messages into jumpers, cleverly hiding secrets in plain sight. The network was so obscure that a simple search of Google images today yields such few clues to it's existence. These women became the unsuspecting heroes of the clandestine world, using their knitting needles as tools of espionage.

The Unsung Administrators of MI Offices

While some women ventured into the heart of covert operations, others played vital roles in the administrative machinery of British Intelligence. Behind the closed doors of Bletchley Park and Whitehall, these dedicated women were the gears that kept the British war engine running smoothly. Their contributions, though often overshadowed, were nothing short of indispensable.

A Panoramic History

I find myself deeply immersed in the compelling narratives of these remarkable women. Their stories are like hidden gems waiting to be discovered, and it's a privilege to bring them to light.

In the course of my research, I've had the honour of uncovering a rich and diverse tapestry of women's involvement in their respected networks. They weren't just passive observers or minor players in this intricate web of war-winning operation; they were the driving force behind critical missions that shaped the course of both the First and Second World Wars.

Through 'Women in Intelligence,' I aim to do justice to these extraordinary women by placing their stories on record for the very first time. Their contributions may have been hidden in the shadows, but they deserve to stand in the spotlight. It's a chronicle of courage and a testament to the fact that, when called upon, women can rise to the occasion and leave an indelible mark on history.

As I recount these tales of bravery, my hope is that readers will gain a profound appreciation for the exceptional women who played such a pivotal role in the tumultuous years of the twentieth century. Their legacy is an enduring reminder that courage knows no gender, and determination can conquer even the most formidable challenges.

You can purchase the book HERE:

  • Writer's pictureHelen Fry

On the afternoon of Tuesday 17 August 1938, the British Secret Service’s top spy in Europe was arrested by the Gestapo as he tried to flee over the Austrian border to safety. He was Thomas Joseph Kendrick who had already worked for British Intelligence for nearly 30 years. It was the most serious catastrophe to befall the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS / MI6) in its first 30-years of existence.

For decades, speculation has circulated that Thomas Kendrick was betrayed by his friend and colleague Charles Howard Ellis and that Ellis was the double agent who had betrayed him and the whole SIS network. It is something which has never been proven and which Ellis denied.

Ellis later argued that it was a lack of formal intelligence training which had perhaps caused

him to inadvertently give away the SIS network to Berlin-based Russian agents who

(unknown to him) were working for German intelligence.

The allegation against Ellis seems to have first appeared in Pincher Chapman’s book Their

Trade is Treachery. For decades, the allegation was unquestioned and therefore reproduced in

the majority of histories of the British Secret Service ever since.

It is now clear from new research for my biography of Kendrick, Spymaster: The Man who

Saved MI6, that Kendrick was not betrayed by Ellis, but by one of his own double agents,

Karl Tucek. During the time that Tucek worked for Kendrick, he never knew Kendrick’s real name. It led Tucek to refer to Kendrick as ‘the elusive Englishman’.

In March 1938 Kendrick arrived at the Tucek’s apartment for a pre-arranged meeting with the Austrian-born agent, an inventor, who appeared to have great potential for SIS. The meeting was to have far-reaching consequences which even Kendrick did not suspect at the time. Two chapters in my book narrate the dramatic events which led to Kendrick’s arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo, and the shadowy figures to followed him on the streets of Vienna to finally ensnare him as he tried to escape.

Ellis made his own valuable contribution to SIS / MI6 and one which has yet to be fully

appreciated and narrated. Working closely with Kendrick’s networks of spies and agents,

Ellis had been penetrating White Russian circles in Vienna since 1926. Later he moved to

Switzerland and in the 1930s worked in industrial espionage as part of Claude Dansey’s Z

Organisation. Dansey went on to become the deputy head of MI6.

During the Second World War, Ellis worked for and Canadian steel businessman, William Stephenson, head of the British Security Co-ordination in New York (part of British intelligence operations in the USA). Later, Stewart Menzies (the third head of MI6) appointed Ellis to the post of Controller of the Far-East.

The case of Charles Howard Ellis underlines the importance of ongoing research by historians to establish the facts and try to uncover the truth. It means that Ellis has now been exonerated. This is terribly important to honour his own legacy and contribution to MI6.

  • Writer's pictureHelen Fry

Updated: Apr 11

For nearly 30 years Thomas Joseph Kendrick was the most senior spymaster in Europe for SIS – the British Secret Intelligence Service (otherwise known as MI6). During the instability and turmoil of Europe after WWI, SIS posted Kendrick to Vienna as the British Passport Control officer – a cover for his real work as head of the SIS station there. During the 1920s and 1930s Vienna was the hub of espionage. For thirteen years Kendrick recruited and ran agents and informers for MI6, operating extensive spy networks into Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Italy and Germany. He gathered precious information for Britain about the threat faced in the Soviets, and later in the 1930s the still greater threat in the Nazis.

Hitler turned his attention to Austria and Czechoslovakia and Kendrick’s work for SIS assumed even greater significance. The period between March and August 1938 was chaotic as Kendrick’s intelligence work came under strain. He embarked on a humanitarian mission to save Austria’s Jews from deportation to concentration camps and facilitate their exit from Austria to Britain, Palestine and British Dominions. With increasing pressure from London to limit immigration to the UK, Kendrick started to issue fake visas and documents to Jews. His rescue efforts included the saving of many of the Viennese intelligentsia: prominent doctors, surgeons, musicians, artists, psychoanalysts, architects and businessmen. He is credited officially with saving up to 200 Austrian Jews a day after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. He went beyond the call of duty and disobeyed official government visa regulations to rescue over 10,000 Austria Jews. Some later worked for him in WWII as ‘secret listeners’.

As WW2 loomed in the autumn of 1938, Kendrick was tasked with setting up one of the longest and most far-reaching intelligence operations that sprang into action at the start of the war in September 1939. With no blue-print, he masterminded an operation to eavesdrop on the conversations of over 10,000 German prisoners of war at his three special sites, including Hitler’s generals and Field Marshals at Trent Park in North London, after their capture on the battlefields. The intelligence gained by Kendrick’s clandestine unit – including the work of the ‘secret listeners’ – has now been recognised by Historic England as being “on a par with the code-breaking at Bletchley Park for the outcome of the war.

Although the bugging operation began in the Tower of London, it swiftly moved to Trent Park. In October 1939, Trent Park was requisitioned by Kendrick and its rooms ‘wired for sound’ – with bugging devices placed in the light fittings, fireplaces, billiards table and even the trees in the grounds. It opened in January 1940 until November 1945. Results were swift. Already in spring 1940 his team of secret listeners overheard references to X-Gerat, a new kind of navigational beam system on German aircraft for bombing targets, and a wealth of information on the U-boat campaign, development of new technology and weapons for the German navy, its aircraft and tanks, and some of the earliest references to atrocities, including the mass killing of Jews.

From May 1942 Trent Park was reserved for high-ranking German officers and Generals. Coming fresh from the battlefields, they were duped into believing they were being held there as befitted their military status. the Generals quickly became off guard and Kendrick’s intelligence officers created conditions that enabled them to totally relax and become unguarded in their conversations – in essence, the place was run like a ‘gentleman’s club’. The Generals devoted time to learning languages, the arts, music and other subjects, painting and drawing, or playing cards, table-tennis and billiards. Little did they suspect that everywhere was bugged.

These reveal how quickly the Generals aligned themselves into two political divisions: pro-Nazis and anti-Nazi. While they wrangled over politics and loyalty to the Third Reich, they began to inadvertently reveal some of Hitler’s closely protected military secrets; the most precious of which related to the deadly ‘secret weapon’ programme: the V1 (doodlebug), V2 and later V3, as well as the development of the atomic bomb.

The discovery of the ‘secret weapon’ development site at Peenemünde in a conversation between two Generals in March 1943, led to Churchill directly ordering the famous bombing of Peenemünde in Operation Crossbow a few months later in August 1943. It is believed that the discovery of the V1 and V2 from the German Generals, alongside the cracking of the Enigma at Bletchley, changed the course of the war, shortened the war and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Lieut. Colonel St. Clare Grondona (Kendrick’s deputy) later succinctly summarised the importance of their work when he wrote: ‘Had it not been for the information obtained at the centre, it could have been London and not Hiroshima which was devastated by the first atomic bomb.’ Like Bletchley Park, the fact that Kendrick’s unit’s existence remained unknown for over six decades, and is still largely unknown today, was a testament to its success.

Kendrick's achievements went beyond being at the centre of war-winning against Nazi Germany. His secret unit began to gather intelligence for the British on Russia. Although Russia was an ally for much of the war, by 1943 it had emerged again as the long-term threat. Kendrick's life cam full circle as he found himself spying again on the duel threat of Russia and Nazi Germany.

Behind Kendrick’s incredible wartime work, lies another equally important legacy. My new book Spymaster: The Man who Saved MI6 has enabled the first far-reaching assessment of Kendrick as one of the greatest spymasters of the twentieth century; a man with a moral compass as a Righteous Gentile; and in the end the spy who saved MI6 at a time of supreme crisis in the service.

Catch my podcast interview with Al Murray and James Holland:-

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