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Churchill's Knight: Henry Hemming on M's Darkest Hour

Posted on 8th February 2018 by Martha Greengrass

In the midst of award season, with all eyes on Gary Oldman's Churchill and the thrilling events of Darkest Hour, Henry Hemming, the author of our thrilling Non-Fiction Book of the Month for February M, brings light the darkest hour of another man: the senior MI5 officer Maxwell Knight. In an exclusive article for Waterstones, Hemming reveals how, over the course of one night, this brilliant, complex, sometimes contradictory man - arguably Britain’s greatest spymaster – sounded the death knell for organised fascism in Britain and changed the course of history.

Film awards season is upon us and I doubt I’m alone in hoping that Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas, cleans up. The film is fantastic, as is the tie-in book, in the way it shines a fresh light on Churchill during the frenzied first few weeks of his wartime premiership. Indeed that spotlight is so bright, the timeframe so short, that it’s hard to imagine any other significant narrative running through the same period in Churchill’s life. And yet there is.

On 22 May 1940, just twelve days after he became Prime Minister, Churchill flew to Paris to meet General Wegand, the beleaguered Supreme Commander of the French Armed Forces. The Prime Minister returned that evening in high spirits to chair a meeting of the War Cabinet. In the discussion that followed there was a far-reaching and momentous agreement, but it had very little to do with military operations in France.

During that meeting the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, agreed at last to a controversial plan which had been put forward on numerous occasions before by senior figures in MI5 as well as Churchill himself. The plan was to amend existing legislation so that the government could detain – without trial – any British citizen who belonged to an extreme right-wing organisation, such as Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), and to have that person locked up indefinitely and with limited right of appeal.

Anderson had resisted this for months. He was troubled by the idea of suspending habeas corpus, the right to a fair trial set out in Magna Carta, especially at a time when Britain was positioning itself as an upholder of democratic values in the struggle against tyrannical dictatorship. Imprisoning your own citizens was the kind of thing they did in Berlin, he felt, not London. Anderson also believed that the threat of homegrown British Fascism had been exaggerated by MI5.

Yet the night before that cabinet meeting Anderson had been won over during a long discussion with a senior MI5 officer called Maxwell Knight, better known to his colleagues as ‘M’.

M was probably the most colourful character ever to work inside MI5. He was renowned among his colleagues for writing trashy novels in his spare time, playing clarinet in a jazz band and for the menagerie of unusual animals he kept at home (including at one point a bear).

M was also very good at his job, which was to run undercover agents inside extremist groups. Another skill he had begun to master was advocacy. On the night of 21 May 1940, M had achieved the apparently impossible in persuading the Home Secretary, Anderson, that the threat posed by homegrown Fascists in Britain was so great that in the event of a German invasion Mosley and his fellow British Fascists would be happy to help the advancing German troops.

Anderson agreed to M’s and Churchill’s proposal, and the War Cabinet approved the new legislation. Twelve hours later the arrests began. Soon more than a thousand senior Fascists, including Mosley – who was furious about it all – were taken off the streets and imprisoned. British Fascism had been decapitated.

Did Churchill go too far? Was this suspension of habeas corpus justified by the possibility of a German invasion? It remains one of the most draconian legislative acts in recent British history, and beneath the surface lies a little-known personal drama.

M’s first job as a spy, in the days before he became a spymaster, was to infiltrate the 1920s Fascist movement. This was in the years before British Fascism had acquired its poisonously anti-Semitic character. M’s job back then had been to befriend senior Fascists. When Mosley started his own Fascist party the following decade, some of its key figures were men that M had once known and liked, including the notorious William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, someone M seemed genuinely fond of, despite the fact that M’s first girlfriend had left him to marry Joyce.

In May 1940, with German forces pouring in through the Low Countries and Britain gearing up to an imminent invasion, M had to decide just how far he was willing to go to kill off British Fascism, and whether he was happy to see so many of his former friends locked up without trial.

As well as going out of his way to convince the Home Secretary, M also bypassed his superiors at MI5 to win over Churchill himself. He did this through Churchill’s advisor on intelligence matters, Desmond Morton, the same man who had been M’s spymaster back in the 1920s. Despite his past inside the movement, M had done more than anyone else at MI5 to end organised Fascism as a political force in Britain.

At the heart of this story, and my biography of the man at its centre – M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster – is a question of loyalty. M had to decide in those frantic, do-or-die days of May 1940 whether his loyalty was to people he knew and had known, or to the struggle against international Fascism. He had to choose between his friends and his country. Ultimately he decided to kill off his Fascist past. It was the hardest decision of his life, M’s own ‘darkest hour’, and as such it encapsulates much of who he was and what he later became.

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