|This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.|
It was known that Siemens (GB) Ltd had previously provided cover for pro-Nazi espionage and King was tasked with infiltrating the company to assess the level of threat that its employees might pose.
It was there that he met Marita Perigoe, the ‘crafty and dangerous’ pro-Nazi wife of an interned member of the British Union of Fascists. King convinced her that he was a senior Gestapo agent recruiting people who could be relied upon should the Germans invade Britain.
Perigoe fell for the trick and introduced King to a ring of six men and women who were willing fifth columnists who in turn gave him information on scores, if not hundreds, of other sympathisers. These included members of the aristocracy, the military and the intellectual elite, with one sympathiser claiming to have influence over Herbert Morrison, the home secretary at the time.
The sympathisers were driven by anti-Semitism and BUF propaganda, but thelevel of treachery horrified MI5. King reported that heir hatred was so strong that they ‘applauded’ women and children being killed by German bombs.
Their weakness was a fondness for cloak and dagger which King exploited by supplying them with invisible ink for secret communications and clandestine meetings at midnight in the cellar of an antiques shop. He also persuaded them to wear special badges in the event of an invasion, supposedly to identify them as friends to the Germans, but actually so they could be swiftly rounded up by the police.
But their espionage could have seriously damaged the war effort had King been a real Gestapo agent. One sympathiser, Hilda Leech, passed on reports about secret research to develop a jet aircraft while another gave details about secret trials on a new amphibious tank.
King continued his deception until 1949 when the investigation was closed down. The failed fifth columnists were never tried on the grounds that King’s cover would need to give evidence and his cover would have been blown.
Of course Jack King did not really exist. Although it will never be officially acknowledged, the master spy was in fact John Bingham, an impoverished Irish aristocrat also known as the 7th Baron Clamorris, and he continued to work for MI5 after the war, as well as becoming a successful author and journalist.
Not that Bingham approved of the fiction and he is reported to have said of le Carré that he ‘was my friend, but I deplore and hate everything he has done and said against the intelligence services’.
The official papers recording his wartime exploits were released in February this year, 25 years after Bingham’s death in 1988, and you can find them here at the National Archives.