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.