'Vividly imagined and prodigiously researched' Helen Davies, Sunday Times, Books of the Year
'Such a rewarding read' John Preston, Daily Mail, Books of the Year
'This odd, secretive man is brought to life', Robbie Millen, The Times, Books of the Year
Maxwell Knight was a paradox. A jazz obsessive and nature enthusiast (he is the author of the definitive work on how to look after a gorilla), he is seen today as one of MI5's greatest spymasters, a man who did more than any other to break up British fascism during the Second World War – in spite of having once belonged to the British Fascisti himself. He was known to his agents and colleagues simply as M, and was rumoured to be part of the inspiration for the character M in the James Bond series.
Knight became a legendary spymaster despite an almost total lack of qualifications. What set him apart from his peers was a mercurial ability to transform almost anyone into a fearless secret agent. He was the first in MI5 to grasp the potential of training female agents.
M is about more than just one man however. In its pages, Hemming reveals for the first time in print the names and stories of seven men and women recruited by Knight, on behalf of MI5, and then asked to infiltrate the most dangerous political organizations in Britain at that time. Until now, their identities have been kept secret outside MI5. Drawn from every walk of life, they led double lives—often at great personal cost—in order to protect the country they loved. With the publication of this book, it will be possible at last to celebrate the lives of these courageous, selfless individuals.
Drawing on declassified documents, private family archives and interviews with retired MI5 officers as well as the families of MI5 agents, M reveals not just the shadowy world of espionage but a brilliant, enigmatic man at its centre.
There is no reason why you should have heard of Geoffrey Pyke. After his suicide in 1948 he was described as one of the great geniuses of his time, to rank alongside Einstein, yet he remains today, as The Times put it, ‘one of the most original if unrecognised figures’ of the twentieth century.
Inventor, escapee, campaigner, war correspondent, Pyke was an unlikely hero of both world wars and is seen today as the father of the U.S. Special Forces. He changed the landscape of British pre-school education, earned a fortune on the stock market, wrote a bestseller and in 1942 convinced Churchill and Lord Mountbatten to build an aircraft carrier out of reinforced ice. He gave birth to the Mass Observation movement, escaped from a German concentration camp, devised an ingenious plan to get ambulances and microscopes to the Spanish Republicans for free and launched a private attempt to avert the outbreak of the Second World War by sending into Nazi Germany a group of pollsters disguised as golfers. But there was another side to this man. Pyke, it seems, was a man with a secret.
In 2009 MI5 released a mass of material suggesting that Pyke was in fact a senior official in the Soviet Comintern. In 1951 papers relating to Pyke were found in the flat of ‘Cambridge Spy’ Guy Burgess after his defection to Moscow. MI5 had ‘watchers’ follow Pyke through the bombed-out streets of London, his letters were opened and listening devices picked up clues to his real identity. Convinced he was a Soviet agent codenamed ‘Professor P’, MI5 helped to bring his career to an end.
It is only now, more than sixty years after his death, that Geoffrey Pyke's astonishing story can be told in full. Churchill’s Iceman is a many-faceted account of this enigmatic man’s genius, and reveals him as one of the great innovators of the last century.
Henry Hemming is the author of five previous works of Non Fiction, including most recently Churchill's Iceman, published in the US as The Ingenious Mr. Pyke, where it became a New York Times bestseller. Earlier works include Misadventure in the Middle East and In Search of the English Eccentric. He has written for the Economist, The Sunday Times, FT Magazine and the Washington Post, among many others. He lives in London with his two children.