Military history


Room 13

JOHN MASTERMAN, the chairman of the Twenty Committee, wrote detective novels in his spare time. These featured an Oxford don, much like himself, and a sleuth in the Sherlock Holmes mold. The operation outlined by Cholmondeley appealed strongly to Masterman’s novelistic cast of mind, as a mystery to be constructed, scene by scene, with clues for the Germans to unravel. Despite some misgivings about its feasibility, the Twenty Committee instructed Cholmondeley to investigate the possibilities of utilizing the Trojan Horse plan in one of the theaters of war.

Spies, like generals, tend to fight the last battle. Axis intelligence had failed to act on the genuine documents that had washed up with Lieutenant Turner and so missed the opportunity to anticipate Operation Torch; they would be unlikely to make the same mistake twice. “The Germans, having cause to regret1 the ease with which they had been taken by surprise by the North African landings, would not again easily dismiss strategic Allied documents if and when they came into their possession.”

Since the body would be arriving by sea, the operation would fall principally under naval control, so the representative of the Naval Intelligence Department on the Twenty Committee, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, was assigned to help Cholmondeley flesh out the idea. Montagu had also read the Trout Memo. He “strongly supported”2 the plan and volunteered to “go into the question of obtaining3 the necessary body, the medical problems and the formulation of a plan.”

The choice of Ewen Montagu as Cholmondeley’s planning partner was largely accidental but inspired. A barrister and workaholic, Montagu possessed organizational skills and a mastery of detail that perfectly complemented Cholmondeley’s “fertile brain.”4 Where Cholmondeley was awkward and charming, Montagu was smooth and sardonic, refined, romantic, and luminously intelligent.

Ewen Edwin Samuel Montagu had been born forty-two years earlier, the second of three sons born to Baron Swaythling and scion of a Jewish banking dynasty of quite dazzling wealth. The first half of his life had been almost uniformly pleasurable, materially and intellectually. “My memory is of5 a continuous happy time,” he wrote, looking back on his early years. “We were lucky in every way.”

Montagu’s grandfather, founder of the family fortune, had changed his name from Samuel to the more aristocratic-sounding Montagu, prompting a cruel limerick by Hilaire Belloc:

Montagu, first Baron Swaythling6 he,

Thus is known to you and me.

But the Devil down in Hell

Knows the man as Samuel.

And though it may not sound the same

It is the blighter’s proper name.

Ewen’s father had taken over the bank and made even more money. His uncle Edwin went into politics, becoming secretary of state for India. The family home, where Ewen Montagu was born in 1901, was a vast redbrick palace in the heart of Kensington, at 28 Kensington Court. The hall was paneled in old Spanish leather; the “small dining room”7 seated twenty-four; for larger gatherings there was the Louis XVI drawing room, with silk-embroidered chairs, Art Deco moldings, and an “exquisite chandelier”8 of unfeasible size. The Montagus entertained nightly and lavishly. Ewen summed up the daily guest list as “Statesmen (British and world),9 diplomats, generals, admirals etc.” Presiding over these occasions were “Father” (vast, bearded, and stern), “Mother” (petite, artistic, and indefatigable), and “Granniemother,” dowager Lady Swaythling, who, in Ewen’s estimation, looked “like a very animated piece10 of Dresden China” and “like most women of her milieu never did a hand’s turn for herself.”

Ewen and his brothers had been brought up surrounded by servants and treasures, but in a reflection of the ideological ferment of the time, each emerged from childhood utterly different from the others. The eldest son, Stuart, was pompous and unimaginative as only an English aristocratic heir can be; by contrast, Ewen’s younger brother, Ivor, rejected the family money and went on to become a committed communist, the pioneer of British table tennis, a collector of rare mice, and a radical filmmaker.

The house was equipped with a hydraulic lift, which the Montagu children never entered: “It was a servants’ lift,11 to carry trays or washing baskets or themselves invisibly past the gentlemanly regions when untimely menial presence might offend convention.” There were at least twenty servants (although no one was counting), including a butler and two footmen, a cook and kitchen maids, two housemaids, Mother’s personal maid, a nurse and nursemaid, a governess, a secretary, a Cockney coachman, a groom, and two chauffeurs. “Born as I was12 into a very rich family, the servants abounded, and made one’s life entirely different,” wrote Ewen.

Ewen attended Westminster School, where he was clad in top hat and tails, educated superbly, and beaten only infrequently. Before going on to Trinity College, Cambridge, he spent a year at Harvard, studying English composition but mostly enjoying the Jazz Age in a way the Great Gatsby might have envied: he danced, he drank in defiance of the “idiotic”13 proscriptions of Prohibition, and he met only rich and famous people. Touring America in a private railcar, he took in New York, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Hollywood, where he lived, by his own account, “the sort of American social life14 one saw in the films.” The experience turned Montagu into a lifelong Americanophile: “I felt a great debt15 of gratitude to Americans for all their kindness to me and felt that I should try to repay it in some small measure.”

At Cambridge, the pleasure continued. Unlike most students, Ewen had a personal valet and a 1910 Lancia two-seater sports car he called “Steve.” He played golf, punted, and courted girls of his own class and religion, in a discreet and intensively chaperoned way. He dabbled in Labour politics and briefly edited a radical magazine but left the more extreme left-wing thinking to his brother Ivor, who followed him to Cambridge a year later and was already well on his way to becoming a committed Marxist. Despite their differing personalities and politics, Ewen and Ivor were close friends. “The ‘spread’ among us three16 brothers was amusing,” Ewen reflected. Stuart “already had a banker’s attitude17 to life,” whereas Ewen and Ivor had no intention of following the family career path. “He and I were much18 closer than either of us [was] with Stuart as we had many more interests in common.”

At Cambridge “we had nothing to do19 but enjoy ourselves,” Ewen reflected, “and, from time to time, work.” They did, however, find time to invent table tennis. Ivor was extremely good at Ping-Pong, and since the game had no real rules or regulations, he founded the English Ping Pong Association. Jaques, the sports manufacturer, got wind of the fledgling club, and stuffily pointed out that the company had copyrighted the name Ping-Pong. Ewen recalled: “I advised [Ivor] to choose20 another name for the game; as we bandied names at one another, one of us came up with table tennis.” Ivor would go on to found the International Table Tennis Federation in 1926, and served as its first president for the next forty-one years.

Another project initiated by the Montagu brothers at Cambridge, of slightly less historical impact, was the Cheese Eaters League. Ivor and Ewen shared a passion for cheese and set up a dining club to import and taste the most exotic specimens from around the world: camel’s milk cheese, Middle Eastern goat cheese, cheese made from the milk of long-horned Afghan sheep. “Our great ambition was21 to get whale’s milk cheese,” Ewen wrote, and to this end he contacted a whaling company to arrange that “if a mother whale was killed the milk should be ‘cheesed’ and sent to us.”

Montagu made the most of his privileged time at Cambridge, but he was already honing the intellectual muscles that would stand him in good stead, first as a lawyer, then as an intelligence officer, most notably the ability “to study something22 with little or no sleep intensively over a short period.” He was also physically tough. Once, when riding to hounds, his foot slipped out of a stirrup, which then swung up as the horse swerved, cutting a large gash in his chin and knocking out five teeth. Another huntsman picked up one of Ewen’s smashed teeth: “I put it in my pocket23 and rode on.” The accident left him with a lopsided smile, which he deployed charmingly but sparingly, and a useful dental ledge on which to hang his pipe.

While still at university, Ewen became engaged to Iris Solomon. It was, in many ways, a perfect match. Iris was the daughter of Solomon J. Solomon, the portrait painter; she was extremely vivacious, intelligent, and of just the right Anglo-Jewish stock. They married in 1923. A son soon arrived, followed by a daughter.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, the young lawyer and his wife lived a golden existence, in the interval between one devastating war and another. They socialized with the most powerful in the land; on weekends they repaired to Townhill, the Montagu estate near Southampton, where twenty-five gardeners tended exquisite gardens laid out by Gertrude Jekyll. Here they shot pheasants, hunted, and played table tennis. In summer they sailed Ewen’s forty-five-foot yacht on the Solent; in winter they skied in Switzerland. Most of all, Ewen loved to fish in the river and salmon pools at Townhill, tracking the sea trout as they flashed upstream and the wily little brown trout in the higher streams and pools of the estate. In later life, he would be described as “one of the best fly-fishermen24 in the realm;” he modestly denied this, insisting he was “never better than a mediocre25if enthusiastic fisherman.” For Montagu there was no more satisfying experience than “the thrill of the strike26 and the joy of playing the fish.”

Ivor Montagu, meanwhile, was pursuing a different career path. By the age of twenty-two, he had founded the English Table Tennis Association, written Table Tennis Today, founded the British Film Society with Sidney Bernstein, and made two expeditions to the Soviet Union, where he perfected his Russian and searched for “an exceedingly primitive vole”27 found only in the Caucasus. The experience led to a zoological monograph on Prometheomys, the “Prometheus mouse,” and a lifelong faith in the Soviet machinery of state. In 1927 he married Frances Hellstern, universally known as “Hell” (and regarded as such by her mother-in-law)—an unmarried mother and the daughter of a boot maker from south London. The marriage made tabloid headlines: “Baron’s Son Weds Secretary.”28 Queen Mary wrote to Lady Swaythling: “Dear Gladys, I feel for you.29 May.” Ivor could not have cared less. In 1929, he linked up with the Soviet film director Sergey Eisenstein, and together they traveled to Hollywood, where Ivor became close friends with Charlie Chaplin, whom he taught to swear in Russian. The youngest Montagu brother would go on to work as a producer on five of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films. Ivor’s politics, meanwhile, marched steadily leftward, from the Fabian Society to the British Socialist Party to the Communist Party of Great Britain. He visited Spain during its civil war and in 1938 made a series of pro-Republican documentaries, including In Defence of Madrid and Behind the Spanish Lines. While Ewen hobnobbed with generals and ambassadors, Ivor mixed with the likes of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. While Ewen lived in Kensington, Ivor cut himself off from his father’s money and moved with Hell to a terraced house in Brixton. Yet, for all their differences, the brothers remained close and saw each other often.

After joining the bar in 1924, Ewen had developed into an exceptionally able lawyer. He learned to absorb detail, improvise, and mold the collective mind of a malleable jury. Ewen Montagu was born to argue. He would dispute with anyone, at any hour of the day, on almost any subject, and devastatingly, since he possessed the rare ability to read an interlocutor’s mind—the mark of the good lawyer, and the good liar. He became fascinated by the workings of the criminal mind and confessed to feeling “a certain sympathy with rogue characters.”30 He relished the cut and thrust of the courtroom, where victory depended on being able to “see the point of view,31 and anticipate the reactions, of an equally astute opposing counsel.” Montagu was invariably kind to people below him in social status and capable of the most “gentle manners,”32 but he liked to cut those in authority down to size. He could be fabulously rude. Like many defense lawyers, he enjoyed the challenge of defending the apparently defenseless or indefensible. He had one client, a crooked solicitor, in whom he may have seen something of himself: “If he could see a really artistic lie,33 a gleam would come into his eye and he would tell it.” In 1939, Montagu was made a King’s Counsel.

Ewen was sailing his yacht off the coast of Brittany, six months after becoming a barrister, when he learned that war had been declared. The sailing trip had been delightful, “hard in the wind,34 in glorious weather and escorted by porpoises playing around our bow.” The prime minister interrupted with a grim wireless statement: “This morning the British35 Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note, stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.” On hearing the news, Ewen had swung the helm around and headed back to port, knowing that nothing in his gilded life would ever be as shiny again. He recalled “looking out to sea36 and realising all had gone smash for me. All had been going so well, as a new Silk [barrister] all looked promising, and in my family and private life all was so wonderful. And now full stop.”

Iris and the two children, Jeremy and Jennifer, would be packed off to the safety of America, away from the Luftwaffe bombs that would soon rain down on London. As one of the country’s most prominent Jewish banking families, Ewen knew the Montagu clan faced special peril in the event of a Nazi invasion.

At thirty-eight, Ewen was too old for active service, but he had already volunteered for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. With the outbreak of war, he was commissioned as lieutenant (acting lieutenant commander) and swiftly came to the attention of Admiral John Godfrey, the head of Naval Intelligence. “It is quite useless,37 and in fact dangerous to employ people of medium intelligence,” wrote Godfrey. “Only men with first class brains should be allowed to touch this stuff. If the right sort of people can’t be found, better keep out altogether.” In Montagu he knew he had the right sort of person.

Godfrey’s Naval Intelligence Department was an eclectic and unconventional body. In addition to Ian Fleming, his personal assistant, Godfrey employed “two stockbrokers, a schoolmaster,38 a journalist, a collector of books on original thought, an Oxford classical don, a barrister’s clerk, an insurance agent, two regular naval officers and several women assistants and typists.” This heterogeneous crew was crammed into Room 39, the Admiralty, which was permanently wreathed in tobacco smoke and frequently echoed with the sounds of Admiral Godfrey shouting and swearing. Fleming awarded Godfrey the heavily ironic nickname “Uncle John,” for seldom has there been a less avuncular boss. “The permanent inhabitants39 who finally settled in this cave,” he wrote, “were people of very different temperaments, ambitions, social status and home life, all with their particular irritabilities, hopes, fears, anguishes, loves, hates, animosities and blank spots.” Any and every item of intelligence relevant to the war at sea passed through Room 39, and though the atmosphere inside was often tense, Godfrey’s team “worked like ants,40 and their combined output was prodigious.” The ants under Godfrey were responsible not merely for gathering and disseminating secret intelligence but for running agents and double agents, as well as developing deception and counterespionage operations.

Godfrey had identified Montagu as a natural for this sort for work, and he was swiftly promoted. Soon, he not only represented the Naval Intelligence Department on most of the important intelligence bodies, including the Twenty Committee, but ran his own subsection of the department: the top secret Section 17M (for Montagu). Housed in Room 13, a low-ceilinged cavern twenty feet square, Section 17M was responsible for dealing with all “special intelligence” relating to naval matters, principally the “Ultra” intercepts, the enemy communications deciphered by the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park following the breaking of the German cipher machine Enigma. In the early days of 17M, the Ultra signals came in dribbles, but gradually the volume of secret information swelled to a torrent, with more than two hundred messages arriving every day, some a few words long but others covering pages. The work of understanding, collating, and disseminating this huge volume of information was like “learning a new language,”41 according to Montagu, whose task it was to decide which items of intelligence should pass to other intelligence agencies and which merited inclusion in the Special Intelligence Summaries, “the cream of all intelligence,”42 while coordinating with MI5, Bletchley Park, the intelligence departments of the other services, and the prime minister. Montagu became fluent at reading this traffic, which, even after decoding, could be impossibly opaque. “The Germans have a passion43 for cross-references and for abbreviations, and they have an even greater passion (only equalled by their ineptitude in practice) for the use of code-names.”

Section 17M expanded. First came Joan Saunders, a young woman married to the librarian of the House of Commons, “to do the detailed work44 of indexing, filing and research.” Joan was effectively Montagu’s chief assistant, a tall, strapping, scarily jolly woman with a booming voice and a personality to match. Joan had been a nurse in the early part of the war and had manned a nursing station at Dunkirk during the retreat. She was practical, bossy, and occasionally terrifying and wore a tiger-skin fur coat to work in winter. The other female staff called her “Auntie,”45 but never to her face. Her familiarity with dead bodies would prove to be most useful. “She is extraordinarily good,46 very methodical but also frightfully alert,” Montagu told his wife. “Very pleasant to work with, although not much to look at. I’m not lucky in assistants as regards looks.” Montagu was something of a connoisseur of female beauty.

By 1943, 17M had swelled to fourteen people, including an artist, a yachting magazine journalist, another barrister, three secretaries, two shorthand typists, and two “watchkeepers”47 to monitor any night traffic. The working conditions were atrocious. Room 13 was “far too small,48 far too cluttered with safes, steel filing cabinets, tables, chairs etc. and especially far too low, with steel girders making it even lower. There was no fresh air, only potted air [and] conditions which would have been condemned instantly by any factories inspector.” The only light came from fluorescent strips, “which made everyone49 look mauve.” In theory, the staff “were not supposed to listen50 to what we said over the telephone or to each other.” In such a confined space, this was impossible: there were no secrets between the secret keepers of Room 13. Despite the rigors, Montagu’s unit was highly effective: they were, in the words of Admiral Godfrey, “a brilliant band of51 dedicated war winners.”

As he had in the courtroom, Montagu delighted in burrowing into the minds of his opponents: the German saboteurs, spies, agents, and spymasters whose daily wireless exchanges—intercepted, decoded, and translated—poured into Section 17M. He came to recognize individual German intelligence officers among the traffic and, as he had his former rivals in court, he “began to regard some almost as friends”52—“They were so kind to us unconsciously.”53

In New York, at Ewen’s instigation, Iris had begun working for British Security Co-ordination, the intelligence organization run by William Stephenson, the spymaster who reveled in the code name “Intrepid.” Behind a front as British Passport Control, Stephenson’s team ran black propaganda against Nazi sympathizers in the United States, organized espionage, and worked assiduously to prod America into the war, by fair means or foul. In a way, spying and concealment was already in Iris’s blood, for her father, the painter Solomon J. Solomon, had played an important role in the invention of military camouflage during the First World War. In 1916, Solomon had built a fake nine-foot tree out of steel plates shrouded in real bark, for use as an observation post on the western front. This was a family that understood the pleasure and challenge of making something appear to be what it was not. Ewen was pleased that his wife was now, as he put it, “in the racket”54 too. Ewen and Iris wrote to each other every day, although Montagu could never describe exactly what his day involved: “If I am killed there are55 four or five people who will be able after the war to tell you the sort of things I have been doing,” he wrote to Iris.

Montagu’s role expanded once more when Godfrey placed him in charge of all naval deception through double agents—“the most fascinating job56 in the war,” in Montagu’s words. By means of the Ultra intercepts and other intelligence sources, Britain captured almost every spy sent to Britain by the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization. Many of these were used as double agents, feeding misinformation back to the enemy. Montagu found himself at the very heart of the “Double Cross System,” helping Tar Robertson and John Masterman to deploy double agents wherever and whenever the navy was involved. He worked with Eddie Chapman, the crook turned spy code-named “Zigzag,” to send false information about submarine weaponry; he investigated astrology to see if Hitler’s apparent belief in such things could be used against him (“very entertaining but useless”57); and in November 1941 he traveled to the United States to help establish a system for handling double agent “Tricycle” (the Serbian playboy Dusko Popov) in the penetration of German spy rings operating in America. The Double Cross System also involved the creation of bogus spies, “a great number who58 did not really exist at all in real life, but were imaginary people notionally recruited as sub-agents by double agents whom we were already working.” In order to convince the enemy that these invented characters were real, every aspect of the fake personality had to be conjured into existence.

Some of the material that crossed Montagu’s desk was strange beyond belief. In October 1941, Godfrey ordered Montagu to investigate why the Germans had suddenly imported one thousand rhesus monkeys, as well as a troop of Barbary apes. Godfrey speculated that “it might be an indication59 that the Germans intended to use gas or bacteriological warfare, or for experimental purposes.” Montagu consulted Lord Victor Rothschild, MI5’s expert on explosives, booby traps, and other unconventional forms of warfare. His lordship was doubtful that the large monkey imports were sinister. “Though I have kept60 a close eye on people applying for animals,” he wrote, “those cases so far investigated have proved innocuous. For example, an advertisement in The Times for 500 hedgehogs proved to be in connection with the experiments being done by the foot and mouth disease research section.” The mystery of Hitler’s monkeys remains unsolved.

Montagu would never fight on the front line, but there was no doubting his personal bravery. When Britain was under threat of German invasion in 1940, he hit on the idea of trying to lead the invading force into a minefield, using himself as bait. The minefield off Britain’s east coast had gaps in it, to allow the fishing boats in and out. The Germans knew the approximate, but not the precise, location of these channels. If a chart could be gotten into their hands showing channels close enough to the real gaps to be believable, yet slightly wrong, then the invading fleet might be persuaded to ram confidently up the wrong route, and, with any luck, sink. Popov, Agent Tricycle, would pass the false chart to the Germans, claiming he had obtained it from a Jewish officer in the navy keen to curry favor with the Nazis. Popov would say that this man, a prominent lawyer in civilian life, “had heard and believed the propaganda61 stories about the ill-treatment of Jews and did not want to face the risk of being handed over to the Gestapo.” The chart was his insurance policy, and he would only hand it over in return for a written guarantee that he would be safe in the event of a successful German invasion of Britain. Popov liked the plan and asked what name he should give the Germans for this treacherous naval officer. “I thought you had realised,”62 said Montagu. “Lieutenant Commander Montagu. They can look me up in the Law List and any of the Jewish Year Books.”

There was considerable courage in this act, although Montagu later denied it. If the Germans had invaded, they would have swiftly realized that the chart was phony, and Montagu would have been even more of a marked man than he was already. There was also the possibility that someone in British intelligence might hear of the chart and the treacherous Jewish lawyer prepared to sell secrets to save his own skin: at the very least, he would have had some complicated explaining to do. The plot made Montagu appear, to German eyes, to be “an out and out traitor.”63 He was unconcerned: what mattered was telling a convincing story.

Before placing Montagu in charge of naval deception, Godfrey had passed him a copy of the Trout Memo written with Ian Fleming. Montagu considered Fleming “a four-letter man”64 and got on with him very well: “Fleming is charming65 to be with, but would sell his own grandmother. I like him a lot.” Years later, when both men were long retired, Godfrey gently reminded Montagu of the debt, and the origins of the operation: “The bare idea of the dead airman66 washed up on a beach was among those dozen or so notions which I gave you when 17M was formed,” he wrote. Montagu replied blandly: “I quite honestly don’t remember67 your passing on this suggestion to me. Of course, what you said may have been in my subconscious and may have formed the link—but I can assure you that it was not conscious which shows the strange workings of fate (or something!).”

The strange workings of fate had now thrown together, in Room 13, Montagu, the whip-smart lawyer, and Cholmondeley, the gentle, lanky, unpredictable ideas man, an ill-matched pair who would develop into the most remarkable double act in the history of deception. They had the backing of the Twenty Committee, they had plenty of precedents, and they had the outline of a plan; what they did not yet have was a clear idea of what to do with it.

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