Gentleman Spymaster

Title:                      Gentleman Spymaster

Author:                 Geoffrey Elliott

Elliott, Geoffrey (2011). Gentleman Spymaster: How Lt. Col. Tommy “Tar” Robertson Double-Crossed The Nazis. London: Methuen

OCLC:    741550570

D810 .S8 R576 2011


Date Posted:      February 24, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[1]

“Agent” is one of the two most misused terms in media coverage of intelligence — “double agent” is the other.

A recent example appeared in an article by Washington Post correspondent Ian Shapira subtitled “Ex-agents claim credit:”[2] In that case, the article discussed former intelligence officers who had recruited and handled agents and wrote memoirs about the experience. Such memoirs have become a staple in recent intelligence literature. But it was not always thus, and Geoffrey Elliott’s work is about a World War II MI5 officer who declined to write about his career.

Thomas Argyll “Tar” Robertson was born in Sumatra, educated at Sandhurst, and, shortly after leaving the Army, was recruited into MI5 by its director general, Vernon Kell. He had a natural ability for counterintelligence work, and in WWII was the original architect of the Double-Cross system that controlled all the German agents sent to spy in Britain. Elliott describes Robertson’s early days in MI5, the agent-handling techniques he developed, how he came to recommend the use of double agents for deception, and the difficulties he overcame in supervising the Double-Cross system that deceived Hitler and his generals before D-Day. To add perspective, Elliott also provides background on the principal agents and the efforts Robertson made—in some cases dealing with them himself-to maintain their cooperation. A good example is the temperamental Russian emigre Nataliya “Lily” Sergueiew (TREASURE), whose affection for her dog nearly exposed the entire double agent operation. At times, agents’ reliability became suspect, and Robertson was forced to terminate their service or, as in the case of SNOW, have them operate from prison.

And then there was the case of Yugoslav volunteer Dusko Popov (TRIYCLE), who came into contact with a not too friendly FBI. Not all of Robertson’s problems had to do with agents, and Elliott tells how he interacted with MI6 and the various deception committees in Britain as well.

MI5 had a unique advantage in managing the systeM—namely, the ability to monitor German reaction to agent reports by reading their cable traffic at Bletchley Park, where the codebreakers performed their magic.

Elliott explains how Robertson used this capability to deceive.

After the war, Robertson, just 39, resigned from the service and became a gentleman farmer. His only concession to discussing his wartime service was made when he cooperated with author Nigel West in writing a history of MI5. Gentleman Spymaster provides unusual insights to both double agent operations and the life of one of the best at the task.

[1] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 115-116). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

[2] Shapira, Ian, “CIA memoirs offer revelations and settle scores among spies,” The Washington Post (June 2012).

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