The Traitorous Code Clerk, Part Four
By David H. Lippman
The story began in Part One and continued in Part Two and Part Three.
In our previous installment, Tyler Kent had stolen cables between Churchill and Roosevelt detailing a mutual desire for American intervention in the war, and shared them with his anti-Semitic friends in London.
As 1940 opened to a beautiful spring in Paris and London, Kent decided that revealing these messages might make it impossible for Roosevelt to gain a third term, and thus aid the isolationists and anti-Semites in America. The problem was how to move the messages out of Britain. All mail and packages were being searched on their way out of the United Kingdom. Kent thought about resigning from the Foreign Service and playing whistleblower, but then his correspondence would definitely be opened by British postal censors.
Ramsay suggested showing the messages to Chamberlain – perhaps the top appeaser would be upset by his subordinate’s messages – but that porous plan collapsed when Chamberlain’s government fell on May 10, 1940, and Churchill himself became Prime Minister. Next day, Hitler’s armies stormed into France, Belgium, and The Netherlands.
What happened next is still a matter of debate, but apparently Anna Wolkoff asked to borrow the signals, and Kent handed over the glass negatives and copies. Anna seems to have passed them to her friend, the Duke Del Monte of the Italian Embassy, intending that they would go in their diplomatic pouch to Rome, and thence to Germany, for use by Hitler and his government.
But while Anna was placing “sticky-backs” on lampposts in London in February 1940, the nets of Britain’s counter-intelligence agency, MI5, were wrapping themselves around Kent and his fellow conspirators.
Two days after he had arrived in London, MI5 took notice of Kent. They had been keeping an eye on London’s White Russian community as a matter of course, regarding it as a breeding ground for spies. White Russians had no national allegiance – their country had ceased to exist in 1917 – and often bartered themselves out for ideological, economic, or personal reasons, serving as spies, agents, or couriers, whether out of anti-Communist ideology, or just a need to put meat on the table.
Kent’s nemesis and nightmare would be a 40-year-old Great War Navy officer veteran, jazz fan, novelist, and natural history buff named Charles Henry Maxwell Knight, who had served in MI5 since 1924.
By 1940, he was an expert on the Communist and Fascist movements in Britain, and busy infiltrating both with informants and agents. Constantly seeking new faces and counter-spies, he spotted a potential one a few weeks into the war. In the staff canteen at Wormwood Scrubs prison, Knight noticed a stunning blonde woman named Joan Miller, who had gone from the Elizabeth Arden beauty salon to serving as a driver for MI5.
Knight brought over his lunch, and despite the 20-year age difference, Miller found Knight hypnotic, and accepted his invitation to dine with him at the Authors’ Club in Whitehall Court. There, Knight explained that he wanted Miller to infiltrate the Right Club.
“I was ready to agree to anything put forward by M (Knight),” Miller wrote later, “and also tremendously excited by the prospect of getting to grips with work rather more exacting than anything I’d had to deal with in the transport office. I was already benefiting from M’s ability to instill confidence and enthusiasm in his subordinates.”
Knight had his woman, and he personally saw to her training – wags and gossips around MI5 suggested that she was his mistress, although she indignantly denied it.
In January 1940, Miller, now fully trained in such skills as lock-picking and illicit photography, began going regularly to the Russian Tea Room, being introduced by another MI5 agent as a friend of her son, who was serving in the Royal Navy at sea. Miller told Anna that her job at the War Office was concerned with filing and terribly boring, which dropped the bait.
Miller soon became a regular at the Tea Room, dropping more hints: she was opposed to the war . . . sympathetic to the Nazis . . . had enjoyed a pre-war romance with a Nazi officer . . . and Anna sat quietly listening, smiling with vague approval.
The visits and cups of tea paid off: Anna invited Miller to her flat to meet some friends for some of her special omelets. Miller realized she was going to be vetted. Her training paid off. Miller told her examiners that the country should never have gone to war and abandoned appeasement . . . Germany’s expansionist ambitions were justified . . . and she felt cut off from like-minded people. Soon after, she was invited to join the Right Club and was presented with their eagle-and-snake badge in its red case. The club members told her she should get transferred to a War Office department where she could have opportunities for sabotage. Miller was impressed. Knight was jubilant.
Now to catch the suspected spies actually committing espionage. Joan invited Mrs. Ramsay to a flat borrowed from MI5 officer Phillip Brocklehurst, and two Special Branch detectives hid in an airless closet with sound-recording gear, hoping to pick up something illegal. But all they picked up was social chitchat in an overheated apartment. When Mrs. Ramsay left, the two detectives nearly fell out of their closet.
A few days later, Mrs. Ramsay invited Joan to her home, and she had to go, with no way to be wired for sound in the days before electronics. Ismay Ramsay asked Joan to be transferred to a job where she could steal secret material. That was the critical request, but still not enough for a prosecution.
However, they could try a “sting,” providing the Ramsays and Wolkoff with “chicken feed,” accurate but minor information, whose only use would be to fill up William Joyce’s venomous broadcasts as Lord Haw-haw from Germany. This Joan did, while keeping a tight eye on Knight’s primary target, Anna Wolkoff. Joan actually found herself liking the woman despite her hysterical anti-Semitic ravings and outbursts.
Anna also bragged about the people she knew – like Belgian Right Club member and undercover agent Helene de Munck who carried messages to German pals in Brussels until Hitler invaded the nation, and, most importantly, the Duke Del Monte at the Italian Embassy, which was also still neutral, but very pro-Hitler. Anna took Joan with her to post a letter through the front door of Del Monte’s house, hinting that she was using the Italian to pass coded messages to Haw-haw, for broadcast purposes. What Anna didn’t realize was that Helene was actually an MI5 agent, working for Knight.
Then Anna said she had an important coded letter for Joyce, which she couldn’t get out of England, as Del Monte was ill. Joan thought she believed Helene de Munck had a pal in the Romanian legation who could handle the job, using their diplomatic pouch. Helene was given the letter, which she took straight to Knight.
Next day, Anna was upset to learn that the letter had gone to Helene’s fictional Romanian already – she wanted to add a postscript. Helene retrieved the letter from Knight, came up with excuses for the delay, and Anna went to Helene’s flat to bat out the addition’s on Helen’s typewriter, including a drawing of the Right Club emblem and the initials “PJ,” meaning: “Perish Judah.”
With the enciphered letter in hand, Joan and Knight drove to Bletchley Park, the main British codebreaking center, where the code-crackers found it a lot easier to break than the complex German enigma codes.
Broken, the letter gave reviews on Joyce’s radio talks, information about the British home front, and suggestions on what radio frequencies to use and subjects to discuss:
“Here warmongering only among Blimps (diehard reactionaries). Workers fed up. Wives more so. Troops not keen. Anti-Semitism spreading like flame everywhere – all classes.
“Churchill not popular – keep on at him as Baruch tool and war theatre-extender, sacrificer Gallipoli, etc. Stress his conceit and repeated failures with expense lives and prestige . . .
“Butter rations doubled because poor can’t buy – admitted by Telegraph - bacon same. Cost of living steeply mounting. Shopkeepers suffering . . .
“Acknowledge this by Carlyle reference radio not Thurs. or Sun. Reply same channel same cipher.”
Soon enough, Joyce made the Carlyle reference in a broadcast. Knight now had his proof that Anna Wolkoff was communicating with the enemy and giving Germany information, a serious offense. But he wanted bigger game than the angry anti-Semite.
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social Research,
has written many magazine articles about World
War II. He currently works
as a public information officer for the city
of Newark, N.J. We're always pleased to add his work
to our Daily Content.