I had lunch with a spy last week. A real one. It was part of my research for an article on the history of SIS/MI6 for OMEGA Lifetime magazine. I had heard many of his stories before, but I always liked this one. Unfortunately, when I came to look at the finished article it was almost 4,000 words long. SIS has a lot of history. Just to do justice to the grim Philby era eats up the words. So this story had to go but I thought it worth posting here as an example of the men who fought on the frontline of the real Cold War.
The winter of 1947-8 in Berlin is particularly bleak. The city, under the combined occupation of Russia, France, America and Great Britain, still mostly consists of piles of rubble. Food and fuel are in short supply. The surviving occupants are scarred, physically and mentally, by the brutality shown by the Russian forces when they swept through the city. Now, it’s a wind from the East that is knifing down the wide streets and bringing misery. The bitter cold it delivers is killing the old and the weak. People are selling whatever they can to stay alive – their last possessions, their bodies and above all, information, for Berlin had been plunged straight into the front line of a new war, a clandestine conflict between the Soviet Bloc and the West. The front line of this battle runs right through the former capital (and, a city in a similar plight, Vienna). And the commodity everyone wants most is intelligence about what the other side is up to. James Fraser, not yet thirty but already a veteran of Britain’s various secrets services, is one of the warriors in this Cold War. He is sitting in a shabby café, overcoat and gloves on, his breath clouding the chill air as he sips an acrid cup of adulterated coffee and peers out into the street. Across the road is the Russian sector, marked at this juncture only by a virtual border – no wall, no barbed wire, just the agreed concept that one side of the street is the Red of oppression, the other, Fraser’s side, is the Red, White and Blue of liberty.
Fraser is, ostensibly, an administration officer with the Control Commission for Germany. In reality, he is a member of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Agency, sometimes known as MI6. And he is waiting for Otto, one of his ‘assets’ or agents in the east. As case officer, he is like father and brother to this young man, who is charged with watching train movements to and from the uranium mines of the SAG/SDAG Wismut mining company in Erzgebirge and Vogtland. A mundane job, but vital. The frequency of trains will tell someone, somewhere back in England, just how Russia’s nuclear programme is progressing. It is one of the tiny scraps of information that SIS uses to build a picture of what is happening in the East. Fraser has the madams of several high-end brothels over there in his pay, listening for pillow talk from Russian offers, and other assets working in the Red Army’s kitchens, for Napoleon was right, an army does march on its stomach, and if there is sudden increase in the amount of provisions ordered, it could be a sign that Soviet soldiers are about to move. Into the West, perhaps. Fraser lights a cigarette and checks his watch. Leo is late. That’s not necessarily a cause for concern. He has had to travel across an occupied country where military traffic always has priority. Across the road, a shadowy figure detaches from a doorway. Fraser is careful not to react. Like any good spy coming in from the cold, Otto has been observing the rendezvous, scanning for signs that the meet is compromised. As his prodigal son hurries towards the café, Fraser orders a second coffee for him from the owner. As he turns back, he catches an unexpected movement in the street from the corner of his eye.
Almost seven decades later and it is me sharing a beverage – tea, this time – with James Fraser at the Caxton Grill at St Ermin’s Hotel in London, not far from Broadway Buildings, once the home of his old ‘firm’. In fact, St Ermin’s is something of a ‘spy’s hotel’ – plenty of MI6 men used it and it was once a favoured watering hole of Ian Fleming, who, of course, spent WW2 in Room 39 at the Admiralty as Personal Assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. During the war SIS and the Admiralty would have informal meetings at the Caxton, probabaly complaining about that noisy upstart, the Special Operations Executive.
Fraser, long retired but still sharp as a tack and with the impeccable manners of a trained diplomat (which is what he pretended to be for so many years), worked for SIS, and before that its sibling Special Operations Executive (SOE), from 1939 until the early 1990s. I have asked him to tell me the story of SIS from his perspective, given he dedicated so much of his life to the organization. He agrees, but with a number of provisos. He will not name names, unless that person is on public record as having been a member of SIS, and he will give no details of operations he was personally involved in (Otto is an exception, as he used him to make a more general point about the nature of intelligence gathering) or which remain sensitive in any way. What he did in postings to Asia, Europe and the USA must remain off the record. This is, he makes clear, deep background only. I agree. And so much of what follows comes from him.
[You can read this missing section in the next issue of OMEGA Lifetime]
Back at the Caxton Grill, James Fraser agrees that the world of spying has moved on since his day. And not always for the better. He misses the world of dead letter drops and seedy cafes. He isn’t alone – how else does one explain the remake of the Smiley books with Gary Oldman and the BBC’s recent The Game series, set in the 1970s, all muted browns and beiges and with more moles than Wind in the Willows? What about Otto? I ask as we finish up. Last seen heading for a cafe in West Berlin? A car pulled up, Fraser explains, a new Moskvitch 400 with Soviet Embassy plates. Otto was bundled inside by some hoods and driven off. A few days later, his belongings were delivered to the SIS HQ at the Olympic Stadium (the very same one where Jesse Owens triumphed in 1936) as a message. Otto was dead. Fraser blinks, drinks his tea and rises to go. He pauses. ‘You know’, he says wistfully, ‘despite computers, satellites and drones, I bet somewhere in the world, right now, there is an SIS agent sitting in a bar or café waiting for his contact to show.’ And somehow, like me, he clearly finds that thought oddly comforting.