“C” A Biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield

Title:                  “C” A Biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield

Author:                Richard Deacon

Deacon, Richard (1985). “C” A Biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield . London: Macdonald

LCCN:    85178907

UB271.G72 O443 1985


Date Updated:  April 16, 2015

Deacon’s book may not be the best biography of Oldfield, but I have to trust him owing to his experience and his demonstrated knowledge of British Security Services. In WWII, Oldfield joined the military and became a sergeant in Field Security in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. He was commissioned in 1943 and posted into the Intelligence Corps. His service was spent mostly at the Cairo headquarters of SIME (Security Intelligence, Middle East) where his talent was spotted by Brigadier Douglas Roberts.

Oldfield finished the war as a lieutenant colonel with an MBE. Immediately after the war Roberts was made the head of counterintelligence in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6: Oldfield became his deputy from 1947, a post he held until 1949. Oldfield was posted to Singapore from 1950 to 1952 as deputy of SIS’s regional headquarters and then from 1956 to 1958 as SIS’s regional head, covering south-east Asia and the Far East. In 1956 he was appointed CBE.

Following a short spell in London from 1958 to 1959, Oldfield was selected for the key post of SIS representative in Washington, where he remained for the next four years, with the main task of cultivating good relations with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a task he had started during his Singapore posting. In 1964 he was appointed CMG. His close ties with James Jesus Angleton, the head of the CIA’s counterintelligence branch, were reinforced by their shared interest in medieval history. But Angleton also persuaded Oldfield to believe without question the product of KGB defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, who was claiming, amongst other things, that the Sino-Soviet split and President Tito of Yugoslavia’s breach with Moscow were clear cases of Soviet disinformation. Soon after leaving Washington, Oldfield withdrew his belief in most of Golitsyn’s more creative stories.

On his return to London, Oldfield became director of counterintelligence and in 1965 C’s deputy. He therefore had reason to feel aggrieved when he was passed over in 1968 in favor of Sir John Rennie from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whom he later succeeded as C in 1973. This made Oldfield the first member of the post-war intake to reach the top post. Under his leadership, SIS benefited from the good relations he cultivated with both Conservative and Labour ministers at home and from its improved standing with friendly foreign intelligence services with which he kept in personal touch. Oldfield personally liaised with Lord Carrington at the time of the Littlejohn Affair in 1972 and mounted the black propaganda campaign against the Littlejohn Brothers, Kenneth and Keith, in the world media. His support enabled Lord Carrington to survive as the Secretary of State for Defence in the Heath government. Oldfield was privately a great admirer of the Littlejohn brothers and admitted that he reluctantly agreed to their sacrifice when a swap was arranged with the government of Jack Lynch in the Republic of Ireland for another agent John Wymann and an Irish Special Branch officer Patrick Crinnion.

Oldfield was appointed KCMG in 1975 and GCMG on his retirement in 1978: the only C so far to have received this award. He was also the first to cultivate chosen journalists at meetings in the Athenaeum Club. This led to the smile on his pudgy face behind horn-rimmed glasses appearing in the press when he became the first Director General of SIS to disclose his identity to the public when he gave an interview to the Daily Express in August 1973 to deny that the SIS had armed the Littlejohn brothers. He later admitted they had us on the ropes so we had to fight dirty. The Littlejohn brothers, serving 20 and 15 years penal servitude in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, were unlikely to have viewed the events of the period in the same light hearted manner of the man who had given them their orders and then reneged on his obligations to them.

Pamela, Countess of Onslow, who was a close friend of Oldfield, and of Keith Littlejohn, confused the previously known account of the Littlejohn Affair by stating shortly before her death that the two were known to each other for two years before the events in Ireland took place. She described a typical Oldfield Machiavellian maneuver in which the information Keith Littlejohn had passed to her about Kenneth’s discovery of Russian arms in the Republic of Ireland, was firstly given to Oldfield who requested that she passed it to Lord Carrington. Carrington then involved himself by contacting Oldfield. It was Oldfield’s way of protecting the SIS and himself from any serious consequences from the involvement of a loose cannon like Kenneth Littlejohn. He created a political buffer between SIS and the subsequent furore and the earned kudos for assisting Carrington. To the credit of the brothers, they never revealed the fact that Carrington was the patsy in the affair.

From A Spy’s London:[1]

At 21 Queen Anne’s Gate in London, dating from 1704, is a house that served for 47 years as the office and official residence of the first chief of MI6. Here the legendary Mansfield Smith-Cumming launched the more pretentious traditions of the service: the chief is called “C” whatever his real name; he is unknown to the public; even if fully known to adversarial intelligence services; he alone may use green ink for written communication. (Reinhard Heydrich was so impressed with SIS, I understand, that when he headed Hitler’s Sicherheitsdienst he too insisted on being called “C” and he too established a green-ink monopoly.):

The first “C”, born Mansfield Smith in 1859, changed his name to flatter his wife’s wealthy grandfather. Severe seasickness threatened his naval career until he obtained shore assignments and did well at them. When he became chief of SIS he was still a very junior officer, his service outranked and outbudgeted by the intelligence sections of the army and navy; only in the 1920s did MI6 begin to attain its currently pre-eminent position.

Any novelist inventing a Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming would be hooted out of town by the reviewers. The man fancied disguises and swordsticks, He built a secret passageway between this building and 54 Broadway. And after an automobile accident in 1914, it was probably he who initiated the tale that he had freed himself from the wreckage by hacking off his own leg. (The limb was surgically amputated the next day.) Smith-Cumming even used his wooden leg to promote his bizarre image, often stabbing the prosthesis with his letter-opener during conversation.

Smith-Cumming’s successors here eschewed his calculatedly colorful ways. And in 1966 SIS moved to modern Century House, south of the Thames, two miles away geographically but light-years away in the style of operation within.

More from Roy Berkeley[2]

In London, beyond the heavy traffic lumbering in over Lambeth Bridge is Thames House, Millbank. In 1937 Britain’s domestic security organization moved from Cromwell Road (see Site 44) to two floors of Thames House, subsequently spilling over into offices in Horseferry Road. The move was uncomplicated; the entire staff numbered only 28! All of MI5 could, and did, gather for tea in one room here.

The atmosphere must have been quite collegial at the office (or The Office, as some initiates say). Sir Vernon Kell still headed the organization he had founded 28 years earlier. His hiring policies stressed family background and military record, and his recruits fitted in well with each other—they were each other. They were never investigated for subversive leanings; someone from the proper background couldn’t be traitorous. (The women hired as clerks and typists came from similar families but were required, in addition, to have good legs.)

With the increasing threat of Axis subversion and sabotage, Kell moved all of MI5’s files (and his staff of 92) to Wormwood Scrubs. Personnel commuted from’ Central London, solemnly warned not to reveal their employment even when conductors on the No. 72 bus were heard to announce cheerily, ‘Wormwood Scrubs, all change for MI5.’ A beguiling amateurism marked British intelligence efforts in those days. As a precaution against air-raid damage, Kell ordered Ml5’s files photographed for storage elsewhere; only after the war were the negatives found to be overexposed and useless.

Today an enlarged and refurbished Thames House is once again MI5 headquarters. But these days women are valued for more than their legs. MI5’s first female chief, Stella Whitehouse Rimington[3], has been described by the press as ‘a .formidable intellect and administrator’ and ‘one of a group of female high-flyers within MI5.’ She heads a force of approximately 2,300—just over half of them women—and is said to have annual expenditures of ‘between £300 million and £500 million’. (Until the new openness promised by John Major takes place, we must be content with such estimates.) The focus of MI5 has also shifted from its early days; with the threat of subversion reduced, a very large percentage of MI5’s resources now goes into fighting terrorism and some may soon go into fighting organized crime. But Kell would be utterly astounded by the new complaints mechanism for the citizenry, and by talk of a press office (!), a telephone number for public access (!), and an all-party parliamentary committee to which the service would be accountable (!)

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, p. 5

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 17-19

[3] The current Director General [April 16, 2015] is Andrew Parker, a career MI5 officer with some 30 years of professional experience in a wide range of national security and intelligence work, including in the fields of Middle East terrorism, counter espionage, Northern Ireland terrorism, serious and organized crime, protective security, policy and strategic planning.


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3 Responses to “C” A Biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield

  1. Pingback: Kempei Tai | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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