Agent M

The Lives and Spies of MI5's Maxwell Knight


By Henry Hemming

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The fascinating, improbable true story of Maxwell Knight — the great MI5 spymaster and inspiration for the James Bond character M.

Maxwell Knight was perhaps the greatest spymaster in history. He did more than anyone in his era to combat the rising threat of fascism in Britain during World War II, in spite of his own history inside this movement. He was also truly eccentric — a thrice-married jazz aficionado who kept a menagerie of exotic pets — and almost totally unqualified for espionage.

Yet he had a gift for turning practically anyone into a fearless secret agent. Knight’s work revolutionized British intelligence, pioneering the use of female agents, among other accomplishments. In telling Knight’s remarkable story, Agent M also reveals for the first time in print the names and stories of some of the men and women recruited by Knight, on behalf of MI5, who were asked to infiltrate the country’s most dangerous political organizations.

Drawing on a vast array of original sources, Agent M reveals not only the story of one of the world’s greatest intelligence operators, but the sacrifices and courage required to confront fascism during a nation’s darkest time.



THIS BOOK IS BASED ON RECENTLY DECLASSIFIED MI5 FILES, CONVERSATIONS with former officers from MI5 and MI6, and the relatives of Maxwell Knight and the agents he ran, as well as diaries, memoirs, newspaper reports, and contemporary accounts. References for every quotation can be found at the back of the book.

Maxwell Knight may have been the greatest spymaster ever employed by MI5, Britain's counterespionage agency, yet technically he never worked for it. The organization that we all know today as MI5 was quietly renamed "the Security Service" several weeks before Knight began to work there, but the new title took years to catch on in Whitehall. For most people today the Security Service is better known as MI5, the name I have used in this book. Maxwell Knight also worked at one point for MI5's foreign counterpart, originally known as MI1(c) or C's Organisation, later MI6 and today SIS, which I have referred to throughout as MI6. (Just to help tell them apart: the TV series Spooks is set in MI5, whereas James Bond works for MI6.)

The most complex relationship in espionage, as well as the most fraught and dramatically compelling, is usually between the operative out in the field who gathers information and the man or woman to whom that operative reports. There are all sorts of terms to describe the two roles. The individual collecting intelligence might be a contact, source, informant, spy, or agent (and if this agent takes on his or her own informants, they are subagents), while the person they report to could be the agent runner, agent handler, officer, case officer, operations officer, or spymaster. A further source of confusion is that an American intelligence officer can sometimes be referred to as an agent. In this book I have generally referred to the people who gather intelligence as agents, and those who look after them as either officers or spymasters. For clarification on this, or any other question, feel free to get in touch. My e-mail address can be found at






Knight, or just Max, as everybody knew him, was an energetic twenty-three-year-old unhappily employed as a school games teacher. He was good-looking in an unconventional way, ears a little too big, nose more prominent than he might have liked. He wore his hair scraped back under a film of pomade. He had an easy, sporty air and the enviable ability to put most people at ease. Yet, on that particular day, the day that he went to meet Makgill, it is unlikely that he was feeling his usual relaxed self.

Although there is no record of where this interview took place, it was probably at the Guards Club, in central London, where Makgill had conducted meetings like this in the past. Entering the club, Max would have noticed the sudden change in atmosphere as the doors to the street cracked shut behind him. It was worlds away from the sweaty, swaying clubs of nearby Soho where he spent most of his evenings. The air tasted cleaner in here. The lighting was sharper, more refined. It was quieter, too, the silence broken only by the hushed drum of his footsteps and the distant flutters of conversation. Indeed, most features of this venerable gentlemen's club, from its polished neo-Georgian furnishings and Palladian proportions to the enormous elevated portraits of gimlet-eyed army officers, had been chosen to impress upon visitors the caliber and standing of the men who belonged to this military tribe. Usually, it had the effect of putting newcomers on edge. Making matters worse, Max had almost no idea what he was doing there.

He had agreed to the meeting after a chance encounter at an event staged by the British Empire Union, a right-wing political group that campaigned against the spread of Communism. Max had conversed with John Baker White, the son of a Kentish landowner. Baker White had asked the young games teacher whether he might be interested in doing some part-time work of a patriotic nature. For reasons that will soon become clear, Max agreed immediately.

The man that Max was now set to meet was Sir George Makgill, eleventh Baronet and de jure eleventh Viscount of Oxfuird, a square-jawed industrialist who was also a Freemason, a novelist, and a terrifying interviewer. Another young man who went to meet Makgill in similar circumstances would confess that "except for an uncomfortable twenty-four hours I spent with the Troisième Bureau [part of the French Security Service] some time later, I have never experienced such searching cross-questioning." Max had just walked into the job interview from hell, for a position that had not yet been described to him.

Makgill's aim in the cross-examination that followed was simple. This no-nonsense, gruff industrialist wanted to get the measure of Maxwell Knight, to find out what this twenty-three-year-old stood for, the type of man he was, and, most importantly, whether he could be trusted.

All of us are guilty in job interviews of projecting a version of ourselves, or at least trying to do so. Max would have gone out of his way to present himself to Makgill as an upright ex-naval officer from a good family, a young man who was patriotic, tough, and utterly trustworthy. In some ways, he was all these things. During the last two years of the First World War, Max had been an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, having volunteered for active service at the age of seventeen. He had served on destroyers and converted trawlers, and although he did not see enemy action, he was thought to have done well and was soon promoted to hydrophone officer, first class, finishing the war with the rank of midshipman. Even though Max was forced to take shore leave on one occasion as a result of seasickness, he was judged to be "a promising young officer."

Before that Max had spent several years as a cadet on HMS Worcester, a doggedly strict naval training vessel. So, no one could quibble with his describing himself as tough. As for his family background, Max could draw faithfully on childhood memories of exploring the grounds of the Knight family estate in Wales, Tythegston Court, a manor house set amid glorious rolling parkland. His ancestors had been clerics, antiquarians, and landowners. One of his cousins was R. D. Blackmore, author of Lorna Doone, the classic Victorian romance. Although they were not quite landed gentry, the Knights had been men and women of private means and admirable reputation. When asked about his politics, Max could point to his having been talent-spotted at a meeting of the British Empire Union as evidence of his hatred of Communism and his unwavering patriotism.

So far, so good. This was the version of himself that Max had arrogated and wanted the world to see. But there was another side to him, a shadow self that he would not have presented to Makgill during that interview. Max did not volunteer that he had recently been declared the black sheep of his family, cut off financially by the family patriarch and banned from future Knight family gatherings, or that he spent his evenings drinking champagne and dancing in grungy Soho cellar clubs. He probably kept to himself that he had been kicked out of the civil service after less than a year, and that the most likely reason for his decision to join the British Empire Union was neither patriotic nor political. It was to impress his girlfriend.

We all contain contradictions. Max Knight, by the age of twenty-three, cleaved to more than most. He had shown himself in the last few years to be patriotic and tough as well as rash, directionless, and a source of intense frustration to his family. The job Makgill had in mind was an unforgiving test of character. It was demanding and dangerous and could last for years. To satisfy himself that Max was suitable, this middle-aged industrialist needed to get beneath the young man's veneer of clubbable charm in order to understand the person he was at his core. One way to do that was by examining his past.

CHARLES HENRY MAXWELL KNIGHT WAS BORN ON JULY 9, 1900, and spent most of his childhood in the village of Mitcham, which was not yet part of London but no longer part of the surrounding countryside either. His father was a solicitor, as well as a philanderer and a spendthrift. Max's mother, Ada, who was by then on her second marriage, was large and loud and loved to sing. She was the livewire of the Knight household. When her cheating husband ran out of money, as he frequently did, it was Ada who packed up their modest belongings and took their youngest, Max, and his two siblings, Eric and Enid, to stay with their rich uncle in Wales. The reason Max had such vivid memories of life at Tythegston Court, with its servants, its manicured formal gardens, and its rambling grounds, was that his father was so often broke.

Yet the defining characteristic of Max's early years was not this financial insecurity, and the peripatetic life that followed; it concerned his relationship with wild creatures. As a child, Max was obsessed with animals. By the age of nine, he had kept lizards, mice, rats, hedgehogs, slow worms, many different species of birds, "and, of course," he wrote, "the inevitable tortoises." Rescuing animals and taking care of them was a fixation for him, and it helped to bring this otherwise shy boy out of himself. "I was brought up never to be afraid of any animal without good reason," he once wrote. This hobby burnished him with a lifelong love of the outdoors. It may have also given him an underlying fearlessness.

His most treasured boyhood memories were of going onto Mitcham Common to hear the churring of the nightjars and the harsh, rasping call of the corncrake, or those moments in his life when he had found an injured creature in the wild, captured it, tamed it, and nursed it back to health. When asked about his favorite boyhood pet—Agatha, a white Agouti rat—he described her as "more intelligent than any other rat I ever owned—and I had many." More than other boys his age, Max seemed to relish the slow, sleuthing discovery of character. He treated each animal as an individual and liked to spend hours alone with his pets, studiously working out their separate personalities.

His family tolerated all this—often it amused them—yet none of them could really understand why these creatures responded to him as they did. This sometimes withdrawn boy appeared to have what naturalists call "the gift." Within a month of finding a female toad, for example, which, for reasons known only to Max, he had christened Ted, he had tamed her. "I got her to feed out of my hand, and she would even take hold of an earth-worm suspended from my fingers and try to pull it out of my grasp." Few wild-born toads will feed from a human hand. Fewer still are happy to do this after so little time in captivity.

"He handled them brilliantly," a cousin later recalled. "They seemed to come to him easily, trustingly." In the way that some gardeners are green-fingered, Max had an apparently intuitive understanding of how to handle animals, a personal magnetism. They trusted him, especially female creatures, it seemed, and throughout his childhood he continued to display this rare gift.

At the age of twelve, he was paid seven shillings and six pence for an article of his on animal welfare. In the same year he proudly sewed onto his shirt the naturalist badge that he had been awarded as a Boy Scout. His ambitions at the time were to be either a zookeeper, a vet, or a taxidermist. It was clear to anyone who knew Max, or those who saw him handle pets, that his career would involve animals.

Then came 1914. In May of that year, Max's father died unexpectedly at the age of fifty-three after a short illness. Hugh Knight's death seemed to confirm an absence in his son's life rather than create one. His father had been a peripheral presence, one whose place in the family hierarchy was rapidly assumed by Hugh's brother, Robert, who was parsimonious, prudish, and much less forgiving of Max. He saw his nephew as wayward. Others might have been charmed by Max's love of animals, or his growing interest in music. Not Uncle Robert. Soon after Hugh's death, Robert Knight had his nephew dispatched to HMS Worcester, a training vessel for those going into the merchant navy. Max's mother was by then financially dependent on her brother-in-law Robert and was either unable to intervene or unwilling to do so.

To describe the regime on board this naval training vessel as Spartan would be unkind to that ancient Greek city-state. HMS Worcester had it all: barbaric initiation ceremonies, arcane traditions, a rigid pecking order, rampant bullying, and a rule against boys having more than one bath a week. The food was "unfit for human consumption." Cadets were deprived of sleep, and during the winter it was knee-shakingly cold. Yet life on board HMS Worcester certainly had the desired effect of hardening up its teenage cadets.

By the end of 1914, Max was living in a country that had gone to war, his elder brother was fighting in the trenches, his father had recently died, while he himself had started a harsh new life as a naval cadet. Aged fourteen, he had been fast-tracked into adulthood.

After several years on HMS Worcester, Max volunteered for the Royal Naval Reserve. Although he emerged from the conflict unscathed, in the last year of the war his brother, Eric, was killed on the Western Front. This left Max, by the end of the war, bereft of the two most important men in his life. He finished his naval career in 1919 and went to live with his mother and sister in London, where he took a lowly job as a clerk at the Ministry of Shipping. With no father or brother to rein him in, he was soon sucked into a subversive new movement. While other men his age worried about the protean political shape of the world, eagerly signing up to trade unions and political parties, Max joined a different kind of party. He got into jazz.

The jazz scene in postwar London was irreverent and wild, an uncharted and exotic land where it seemed that anything went. "You can call off imaginary figures, yell 'hot dog' in the midst of some perfectly decorous dance, and make a donkey of yourself generally. That is jazz," said Paul Whiteman, the so-called King of Jazz, adding: "anybody can jazz." Jazz was a musical movement as much as a youthful provocation. It was rebellious, out of control, and for many people in Britain its sudden popularity signaled a breakdown in morality. The nineteen-year-old Maxwell Knight could not get enough of it.

On leaving the navy, right after the end of the war, Max set up a jazz band composed of ex-servicemen. It was, he claimed, "London's first small, hot combination." If they really were "hot," then some credit for their playing should go to the man then giving Max clarinet lessons: Sidney Bechet, the legendary jazz saxophonist who was then based in London, a musician whose playing fell upon the listener, wrote Philip Larkin, "as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes." Max later recalled a "sort of jam session" with Bechet in which the maestro played on a soprano saxophone "Softly Awakes My Heart," from the opera Samson and Delilah, while the young civil servant "did my best to be with him on the clarinet"—possibly the same instrument he had just bought from Bechet. Max also became friends with members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, including its leader, Nick LaRocca, who gave him the first pressing of their hit record Rag Tiger. It did not survive. "Some ass of a friend of mine a few years later went and put his foot on it."

In these loud and out-of-control months after leaving the Royal Naval Reserve, jazz became a governing passion in Max's life, but it did not replace the other one. Even as he threw himself into the demimonde of London's new jazz scene, making new friends everywhere he went, alive to its possibilities, Max continued to collect animals. Like a young man who refuses to pack away his boyhood train set, and expands it instead, he now had more animals than ever before. As well as mice and a bush baby—a small, furry primate with worried-looking eyes and the pointed ears of a bat—there was a parrot living in his apartment and several grass snakes. On at least one occasion, his two hobbies collided when he tried to impersonate a snake charmer by playing his clarinet "fairly close" to his pet snakes. To his lasting disappointment, the snakes did not respond.

Just as it seemed that there was no room in his life for another animal, Max acquired a new pet that he called Bessie. Yet few people remembered this animal's name. They found it hard to see past the fact that Bessie was a bear.

This particular bear, Max recalled, was "the most attractive bundle of cunning and mischief that you could possibly imagine." Bessie the bear caused mayhem wherever she went, knocking over furniture in Max's apartment, rootling around in the kitchen, and on one occasion getting her snout stuck in the flour jar. Max would put her in a harness and take her out for walks in the street. Passers-by mistook her for an exuberant and rather large Chow puppy.

Otherwise, Bessie spent her days inside Max's apartment, in a mansion block in Putney, southwest London, where she seemed to get on well with the other pets, including a bulldog and a young baboon. This list of animals is revealing. Nobody else in London had a bear, a bulldog, and a baboon. Max made sure to mention this to a gossip columnist he had befriended, who made him and his exotic menagerie the subject of a short article. As a boy, Max had had no interest in looking after common or garden pets such as rabbits or guinea pigs, partly because he thought they were "stupid" but also because nobody paid them much attention. Max was a watcher at heart, yet it seemed that he also liked to be seen.

There may have been another reason why he clung on with such tenacity to his childhood hobby. Looking after these animals must have reminded him of that more innocent age he had enjoyed before his life had been upended by war, adolescence, HMS Worcester, and the deaths of his brother and father. Max's childhood was unfinished business. Caring for these pets was perhaps a way of getting back to it.

Given the jazz, the animals, the drinking, and the dancing, his day job at the Ministry of Shipping was for him a distraction as much as anything else, and after no more than a year, he was out. It is unclear whether he resigned or was fired. A respectable career as a civil servant had stretched out before him, and with it stability, status, and security, but it had come too soon.

Having left the civil service, Max found a job selling paint. Not long after this unusual career move, his uncle decided to cut him off. Robert Knight was no longer prepared to endure the spectacle of his nephew's life unraveling like this. He announced that forthwith Max was banned from all family gatherings and would no longer receive his modest allowance.

This was a heavy, lasting blow. Max had never seen himself as a rebel. He wanted to lead a more unbuttoned life than most of his contemporaries and he enjoyed being the odd man out. "In a world where we are all tending to get more and more alike," he later wrote, "a few unusual people give a little colour to life!" Until then, he had imagined that everyone was laughing along with him—but not his uncle, it seemed, who had come to think of him as a pleasure-seeking Peter Pan more interested in jazz and pets than settling down to become a conscientious civil servant.

Max was still living in Putney with his sister and mother. Although the two women in his life did not turn on him in the wake of his family excommunication, they could hardly ignore what had happened. When Ada made a codicil to her will shortly after, to reflect the death of Max's brother, Eric, who was one of the executors, she chose to substitute Eric with a former colleague of her late husband. Clearly, Max could not be trusted with this level of responsibility.

Max's new career as a paint salesman lasted only a few months, after which he found a job teaching games at the well-to-do Willington Prep School in Putney. Sometimes he filled in for a colleague by taking an English class, hoping, perhaps, that this might lead to more time spent teaching more challenging subjects. But it did not.

By 1923, Max was stuck. He even tried to become a novelist to escape his predicament, writing short stories in the style of John Buchan, his favorite author, whose amateur spy and all-action hero Richard Hannay from books such as The Thirty-Nine Steps he idolized, and sending these off to boys' magazines. But if any of them were published, there is no record of it. All the doors in Maxwell Knight's life appeared to have closed. He had a lot to prove and dangerously little to lose. He was also very short of money.

The only bright spot in Max's life was his girlfriend, Hazel Barr, a quiet eighteen-year-old schoolgirl he had met one morning on the upper deck of a bus. He had been going to work, she to school. There was a spark between them. They began to take the same bus each day. Max was soon invited to meet Hazel's parents, and made a winning impression on her mother. Indeed, Mrs. Barr began to wonder whether this nice young games teacher was going to propose marriage to her daughter. Although Hazel and Max did not have sex, which was normal for an unmarried couple at the time, they saw a lot of each other. Hazel later described herself as "completely enamoured" of Max, adding, "I think the feeling was mutual." Hazel also appears to have taken her beau along to an event staged by the British Empire Union, which was probably how Max came to meet John Baker White.

Given the dead-end Max had reached in his career, when asked by Baker White in 1923 whether he was interested in part-time, paid work of a patriotic nature, his response would have been emphatic and fast.

Not long after, he went to see Sir George Makgill.

What did Makgill make of Max? He was certainly different from the other men Baker White sent to him. Usually, these were bluff ex-officers in the mold of Bulldog Drummond, the fictional soldier famous for his Hun-bashing, Bolshie-baiting approach to life. Max Knight kept mice. He was not terribly interested in politics, and he adored jazz—which, for a reactionary like Makgill, was a tuneless abomination. Here was a twenty-three-year-old drop-out whose great gift in life, his ability to look after animals, seemed to qualify him to do little more than work in a zoo. Yet Makgill saw qualities in this apparently feckless young man that might be useful to him.

It was a gamble—every agent recruitment is—but Makgill concluded that Maxwell Knight might be suitable for the task he had in mind. It was probably at this point in their conversation that Makgill began to explain a little more about himself and his organization.



SIR GEORGE MAKGILL HAD BEEN ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD when he heard that his father had died. The elder son of a Scottish baronet, he had taken himself off to New Zealand several years earlier, and had expected to be there for a long time, when he learned of his father's death and that he had inherited a title, land, property, money, and a vast portfolio of shares and industrial holdings. Makgill's understanding of the world began to change. He returned to Britain, where his boyish patriotism hardened into a more prickly nationalism. During the First World War, he campaigned for a boycott of all German goods. He funded the Anti-German Union and lobbied hard for the expulsion from the Privy Council, which advised the monarch, of two of the country's leading Jewish politicians, Sir Ernest Cassel and Sir Edgar Speyer, arguing that they were not sufficiently British. But it was only toward the end of the war that Sir George Makgill found what he believed to be his calling in life.

"The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution," warned the prime minister David Lloyd George in 1919. By then, Russia had fallen to Communism. Germany looked set to follow. The Austro-Hungarian empire had collapsed. The Ottoman empire was on the brink, and Bavaria and Hungary had just become Soviet republics. The Communist threat to Britain in the immediate aftermath of the First World War was real and it was different. In 1920, the foreign secretary Lord Curzon complained that the Soviet Union "makes no secret of its intention to overthrow our institutions everywhere and to destroy our prestige and authority." In the past, Britain's enemies had endangered particular trade routes or far-flung colonial territories. Yet Communism and the Soviet Union imperiled the British ruling class, capitalism as an economic system, and the entire British Empire. Although the British government tried to suffocate the Bolshevik experiment at birth, supplying arms and assistance to White Russian rebels in the years after the establishment of the new Communist regime in Russia, it failed. The Soviet Union emerged triumphant and was now stronger than ever. Moscow had both the resources and the will to succeed, as well as a recruiting tool of explosive potency. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 demonstrated beyond any argument that a speedy socialist revolution in an aging autocracy, like Britain, was not just fantasy. It was realistic and surprisingly easy to carry out.

Most worrying for a man like Makgill, and so many others within Britain's social, industrial, and political elite, was the growing sympathy for the Soviet Union among large chunks of the newly enfranchised working class. Between 1914 and 1918, the size of the British electorate had more than doubled. For many of these new voters, the Bolsheviks had all the noble appeal of the underdog. Trade union membership in Britain had rocketed. Unemployment would soon be on the rise, leaving the country hamstrung by industrial action. In 1920 alone, twenty-six million working days were lost to strikes. Even the police had gone on strike. The promise of Communism, or the threat of it, depending on your perspective, was without precedent. Sir George Makgill was one of those who soon became convinced that the British government had not recognized this danger for what it really was. So, the baronet decided to take matters into his own hands.

With the help of fellow industrialists, landowners, and politicians who belonged to the British Empire Union, of which he was honorary secretary, Makgill set up a private intelligence agency. It was run, according to MI5, "somewhat on Masonic lines," and would be known by various names, including the Industrial Intelligence Bureau and Section D (possibly after "Don," its chief agent runner). Yet the "Makgill Organisation" is most apt, for, like so many intelligence agencies, its activities came to reflect the fears and private obsessions of those in charge, which in this case meant Makgill himself.


  • "The dramatic story of the remarkable British spymaster...Many spy stories are page-turners, but [Henry Hemming] proves that the story of one man can be equally thrilling. Hemming has uncovered a man determined not to be known and in so doing, has provided us with delightful reading."

    -Kirkus Reviews
  • "Espionage writing at its best."

    -Charles Cumming, author of A Divided Spy
  • "Crammed with cracking stories and founded on sound research, Henry Hemming's biography of Maxwell Knight-'M'-stands comparison with the bestselling books of Ben Macintyre."

    -Adam Sisman, author of John Le Carré
  • "I raced through Henry Hemming's book, constantly having to remind myself that it wasn't a work of fiction. It really has everything you'd want from a great espionage story: incredible agents risking their lives; the highest possible stakes, with the safety of the world hanging in the balance; and at its heart a complicated, mercurial spy master in Maxwell Knight spinning an ever more intricate web."

    -Matt Charman, Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Bridge of Spies
  • "Absolute proof that assiduous digging in the archives can produce scoops. This is intelligence research at its best, especially in the identification of hitherto anonymous agents. Definitely a great contribution to the literature."

    - Nigel West, author of MI5
  • "This in-depth introduction illuminates a largely forgotten man of antidemocratic tendencies who played a key role in keeping Britain secure and democratic for much of the interwar and early postwar periods."—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
Sep 3, 2019
Page Count
384 pages

Henry Hemming

About the Author

Henry Hemming is the author of six works of non-fiction, including Agents of Influence, Agent M, and The Ingenious Mr. Pyke, which landed on the New York Times monthly espionage bestseller list. He has written for The Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times, The Economist, FT Magazine and The Washington Post, and has given interviews on Radio 4's Today Programme and NBC's Today Show and spoken at schools, festivals and companies including RDF Media, The RSA, Science Museum, Frontline Club and The School of Life. Henry lives in London with his wife, daughter and son.

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