In the early stages of the 1930’s, the gaze of British Intelligence lay not on the maneuverings of a failed Austrian art student, but on the insidious threat of the ‘Red Menace’ which seemed to threaten peace and order in Europe.
Despite the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) political impotence (not a single seat was gained in the 1931 elections), the effect of Communism on social stability was considered the greatest threat to Britain between the war years.
MI5 Spymaster Maxwell Knight, widely held as the inspirations for Ian Fleming’s character ‘M’, sought to infiltrate communist activity within Britain. Maxwell Knight was an unusual man by the standards of the time. He was known to keep an array of exotic animals and later went onto become a naturalist. Knight further stood out from his peers in his support for the use of female agents. The most successful of these agents, was Olga Gray.
Gray, the daughter of a night editor at the Daily Mail, was recruited by Knight in 1931. She was a talented secretary and provided the perfect fit for Knights model of infiltrating a ‘subversive body’. Knight believed, so as to limit suspicion, that it was most prudent to wait for the investigated group to make the first contact with the agent and not the reverse.
After putting herself ‘out in the open’ by becoming a member of the Friends of the Soviet Union and doing work for the Anti-War Movement, Gray was approached – Knight’s plan had worked.
Gray was approached by a member of the CPGB whom she had met through her past work to undertake a ‘special mission’. At was at this stage where Gray experienced one of the most peculiar situations of her career as a counter-espionage agent.
Gray had been instructed to deliver key messages to Communist elements within India. This was a trip fraught with potential problems and seemingly doomed to fail. Travelling to India in the monsoon season was highly unusual and was bound to attract attention from the authorities. Furthermore, a single woman entering the country at that time of year would almost certainly result in her being turned back as a suspected prostitute.
Gray thus had to turn to Knight to enable her to enter the country. A ludicrous scenario ensued whereby Knight and MI5 needed to provide Gray with a cover to enter the country and perform her duties for the CPGB to maintain her invaluable position within the organisation.
Knight wrote on the whole affair:
Our department was faced with a peculiar situation whereby Miss ‘X’ had to be assisted to devise a cover-story which would meet the requirements necessary, without making it appear to the Party that she had received any expert advice.
In 1935, Gray dropped her undercover work, citing the strain of the job making it impossible to work effectively. Nevertheless, the threat of Communism had shown little signs of abating and experienced agents were still sorely needed. Knight managed to persuade Gray to at least remain in contact with her former communist employers.
Gray was later contacted by Percy Glading, a member of the CPGB who she knew from her past days within the Anti-War Movement. Glading instructed her to hunt out a flat for the Party. Knight recalled that Gray was ‘none to keen’ to be embroiled in undercover work again, he soon persuaded her.
Gray discovered that along with the frequent meetings at the Holland Road flat that it was being used to photograph top secret documents from Woolwich Arsenal. This exchange went on for a number of months. On the 21 January, Gray informed to Knight that Glading was to meet with his contacts from the Arsenal at 8.15pm at Charing Cross station. The meeting was targeted by the authorities and resulted in the arrest of Glading and 3 others.
After the successful trial of Glading and his accomplices, the judge congratulated Gray (or Miss ‘X’ as she was referred to during the trial) for her ‘extraordinary courage’ and ‘service to her country’.
Olga Gray’s career with the B5(b) section of MI5 ended over a lunch at the Ritz; with a cheque for £500 and a thanks for her service. She went on to change her name and settle in Canada. It is believed that Gray was aggrieved by this fairly demeaning end to her loyal service. Maybe at this time, the threat of Communism within Britain was not as great as the highest authorities believed. But there can be no question marks over the commitment of this one, rather uncelebrated, brave lady.