This is an extended version of the obituary of John Debenham Taylor that appeared in The Telegraph. John helped me with several novels, notably Early One Morning, The Last Sunrise and, especially, Dying Day. There will be a memorial service for him at St Paul’s in May.
Like the majority of the officers of his generation who had served with the Secret Intelligence Service (popularly known as MI6) John Debenham Taylor, who has died aged 95, was famously tight-lipped about his time with “the office”, as he referred to it. However, shortly before Christmas, in his last interview, he was filmed for Legasee, a splendid project to record on camera the memories of those who had been involved in the Secret War, as Debenham Taylor had, in the 1939-45 conflict. (See www.legasee,org.uk) During the filming he admitted that, post-war, some (in fact, all) of his career had been with SIS.
Off-camera he talked about the early years with the organisation, but only events which he no longer considered sensitive, including three years in the Control Commission for Germany in the late 1940s, This was a time when the Cold War was at boiling point, with West Berlin blockaded, supplied only by an Allied airlift. He spoke of the twin perils of visiting the opera in the East (this was well before the Wall went up) – the unfeasibly tall hats of Russian officers’ (which they refused to remove, thus blocking the view) and the suffocating pall of body odour, thanks to the chronic shortage of soap. “A bar of Lifebuoy went a long way in securing whatever you wanted over there,’ he said.
Under some gentle probing from the Legasee cameraman, he told of a remarkable operation involving a stable of prostitutes that he was ‘running’ in the hope that the girls would persuade (for substantial bonuses) Russians to defect or spy or, at the very least, obtain some pillow talk. Did it work? “Not really, but we probably gave them some terrible diseases,” he said.
It was typical of Debenham Taylor, a noted raconteur, to finish such a story with a self-deprecating punch line. In fact, his family-eyes-only memoir reveals a much darker cat and mouse game. “We were using a White Russian as head agent.. and I recall nights spent on stations and road junctions keeping rendezvous near the Russians sector to which we hoped one girl or another would turn up, complete with a Russian. None was ever forthcoming, however, and I have often wondered if the whole thing was an elaborate con – either by the head agent, or the girls, or both.”
If all this sounds like something from Len Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy, this is hardly surprising, as Debenham Taylor’s life was the stuff of fiction, from Alistair-Maclean-like secret missions to Finland, through the Quiet American-era Vietnam, to the politics of what Le Carre dubbed ‘The Circus’. His career in subterfuge spanned from the beginning of World War Two to the collapse of the Soviet Union, making him, perhaps, HMG’s longest-serving secret servant.
Major John Debenham Taylor, TD, OBE, CMG was born on April 25, 1920. His father, John Francis Taylor was from Suffolk agricultural roots and, after schooling at Aldenham, Debenham Taylor joined the Eastern Counties Farmers Cooperative Association Limited in Ipswich (where he played rugby for the YMCA) in 1936, before moving to Great Yarmouth. There, convinced a war in Europe was inevitable, he joined the Territorial Army in February 1939; when war broke out in the September he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the regular army (Royal Artillery) and was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery at RAF Duxford. This was the “Phoney War” and he described his time as “agreeable but unexciting” (apart from losing his virginity in a telephone box in Tenby). And then, on November 30, Russia (allied at that time with Nazi Germany) invaded Finland.
There was great sympathy for the beleaguered Finns in the UK. An International Brigade of volunteers was raised (which included in their number the future actor Christopher Lee) and Great Britain surreptitiously sent Blenheim bombers and a consignment of antique field guns and howitzers across. The Finns, however, had no experience in using the WW1-era weapons and RA volunteers were requested to travel to Helsinki. Debenham Taylor was selected and, as it involved travelling through neutral Sweden, was duly de-commissioned from the army and re-born as an employee of Vickers Armstrong. Kitted out in warm winter clothing from the Army and Navy Stores in Victoria Street, a small group travelled to Stockholm and then on to the Finnish capital, arriving as an armistice was signed.
Debenham Taylor stayed for several months, with visits to Jyväskylä and the Karelian Isthmus, demonstrating the guns and time in Helsinki compiling manuals and “picking up local girls in the café above Stockmann’s department store”. The trip gave him a taste for travel and clandestine work that remained with him for the rest of his life.
He subsequently left Finland by cargo boat from above the Artic Circle, carrying with him via “diplomatic bag” a variety of captured Russian weapons, including an anti-tank gun, for the War Office to analyse. The boat passed within miles of the Norwegian coast just as British troops were being evacuated from Narvik and the aircraft carrier “Glorious” was sunk, but Debenham Taylor knew nothing of this. He was in agony below decks, having an enema administered. As he says in his private memoir: “I had become terribly constipated on a diet of reindeer and porridge with no fresh vegetables.”
The full story of the Finnish adventure only emerged some seventy years later when Debenham Taylor was interviewed by an author writing a novel about the early days of Special Operations Executive, the sabotage and subversion unit primed by Winston Churchill to “set Europe ablaze”. The novelist wrote to the Finnish Embassy suggesting Debenham Taylor’s efforts be recognised and a new Winter War Commemorative Medal was struck and he was invited to the embassy to receive it from the Finnish Military Attaché. Thanks to a similar intervention by his brother-in-law, he later received the Artic Star for the voyage back home to Liverpool from northern Finland, in a cargo boat carrying captured Russian ordnance.
Winter War medal
Quietly posted back into the army, Debenham Taylor served in gun batteries in Aden (where he shot down an Italian bomber), Egypt and in the Libyan desert. In the latter he was part of Operation Battleaxe in mid-1941, designed to raise the siege of Tobruk, which he was convinced failed “in large measure due to the use of the German AA 88mm AA guns used in an anti-tank role, as I have always believed our own 3.7-inch AA guns should have been.”
However, Finland had given him a taste for intelligence work and in 1942, using contacts in the War Office, he was duly accepted into the Secret War. Although he hankered for an operational post, initially he was used as an instructor on an intelligence course at Oxford – a course he had only recently graduated from. In 1943 he moved into Carlisle Mansions, a large apartment block off Victoria Street in London, where he became part of the planning for OVERLORD, the invasion of Europe.
His ambition at the time was to move to SOE (although it was never referred to by that name) and in particular the “Jeds” or Jedburghs, three-man teams (an SOE operative, an OSS officer and a Free French agent) would be parachuted behind enemy lines to co-ordinate the French resistance in acts of sabotage. His request was refused, however, because, in the event of his capture and torture, he knew too much about the OVERLORD strategy.
Instead, by now a captain, he took a posting to Beaulieu, which was SOE’s ‘finishing school’ for agents in the New Forest, although still with one eye on active service abroad once his D-Day knowledge was no longer relevant. He described this as instructing on: “burglary techniques, mostly copying or making replacement keys, and a technique for opening handcuffs of certain types, using a clove hitch knot of catgut.”
In late 1944 he was offered a staff appointment with promotion to Major at SOE’s HQ in Colombo, Ceylon, the base for operations in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, mostly monitoring Japanese troop and naval movements. After peace was declared his war continued in Surabaya, mounting intelligence operations against a nationalist uprising intent on violently resisting the returning Dutch colonialists.
When SOE was hastily wound down, Debenham Taylor let it be known he would welcome the opportunity to move across to SIS, which he duly did. He then became something of a Zelig-like figure, popping up in pivotal moments of late 20th Century history, as this sketchy summary of his career from an intelligence website suggests:
This discreet officer, former SOE agent during the 2nd World War, is successively stationed in Germany 1947 50, 50 in Thailand and 52 in Hanoi from 52 to 53 .It is back to Bangkok 54 to 56 and then to Singapore from 1958 to 1960 where he meets Maurice Oldfield (later Director or ‘C’ of SIS). He is chief of station in Kuala Lumpur from 1964 to 1966 and Controller of the Asia division from 1966 to 1969. He is posted to Washington (1969-72) and when he left Washington he was appointed head of the station Paris, still under embassy counsellor coverage.
From witnessing the defeat of the French in Vietnam to fighting the Malayan uprising, from the height of the Cold War in the USA, the declaration of independence by Rhodesia and onto negotiations for the UK to enter the Common Market, Debenham Taylor was in the thick of it. Happiest of these postings were Washington (where he was befriended by J Edgar Hoover and was instrumental in a number of high-level Russian defections) and Paris with his wife Gillie (Gillian May James), a family friend whom he had married in 1966. He said of Paris: ‘It got off to a rather drama-laded start, with the imminent arrival of the Queen and Prince Philip, which meant going through the packing cases of our newly-arrived possession from Washington in a frantic search for my medals, as the visit inevitably involved both white- and lack-tie functions”. These medals included an OBE (1959), CMG (Companion of St Michael and St George) and Territorial Decoration (both 1967).
When asked directly, of course, he would always claim to be a Foreign Office diplomat, which was indeed his official status, although in later years the mention in passing of people he had met (Kim Philby, Nicholas Elliot, Jomo Kenyatta, J. Edgar Hoover, Dick White, who was MI6 chief 1956-68) suggested the truth of the matter. He struck me as a far less gloomy version of John Le Carre’s George Smiley – one who was happily married and with a fine line in self-deprecating anecdotes – yet who shared the fictional spy’s discretion, doggedness and sharp intelligence.
It is little wonder he found his later career behind a desk at SIS in London a little tame. There were those who tipped him for the role of C, but his horror of what he witheringly called “admin” probably precluded him from the post. After several false starts, he finally retired in 1990, firstly to a wing of Gunton Hall in Norfolk and latterly to part of a splendid Arts and Crafts House (originally built for Lord Tate of Tate & Lyle) in West Sussex.
John, Christmas 2015, shortly before he died.
He gave his recreations in Who’s Who as “walking, reading, history” and he devoured any books on areas where he had served, with an unforgiving eye for inaccuracy or exaggeration. He was particularly pleased to discover in James Holland’s detailed account of the North African campaign (Together We Stand) that the historian agreed that the failure to use the British AA guns was a great tactical error.
His final task with SIS before retirement was extending the official history of MI6 but, as befits the man, that story, and his remarkable role in it, remains under lock and key. He is survived by his wife Gilly, daughter Catharine and two grandchildren, Saskia and Charles.
John Debenham Taylor (April 25, 1920- January 30, 2016).