Olga Gray: a Secretary and a Spy


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.

Maxwell Knight

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’.

Percy Glading given six years for his activities.
Percy Glading given six years for his activities.

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.



Quitting Like You’ve Never Seen it Before!


Quitting smoking, not the easiest task by any stretch. Plenty try and most fail. Those adverts designed to persuade us to quit smoking certainly don’t do much to alleviate the stresses of the guilty smoker, with dangers including: arteries rammed full of yellow gloop and idiotic children trying to puff on a crayon (frankly, this advert concerns me for more reasons than than passive smoking). A world that includes skyscraper sized cigarettes is certainly not one that I want to live in. In spite of the trials of the modern day smoker, imagine living in a time where your habit would have had you labelled an ‘ape’ and a sinner by your own king.

James I, king of England, successor to Elizabeth I, survivor of the Gunpowder plot was also a vehement critic of smoking. In 1604, his work ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’, became one of the first anti-smoking publications of all time. James was a talented and well educated man, he authored many works and earned himself the unshakable title of ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’. Whether this title is wholly complimentary is certainly questionable, James’ attitude towards smoking and more specifically Tobacco, was not.

Just as James I had done some 300 years earlier, a certain Austrian dictator was also to publicize the perils of smoking. Whereas Hitler, as he had done for most of Germany’s mishaps, blamed the importation of this nefarious habit upon the Jews, King James I was equally contemptuous towards the ‘barbarous’ Indians for introducing this disgusting new trend into his beloved country. To James, smoking the Native American remedy for ‘pocs’ was tantamount to imitation – the great people of England may as well be walking around naked with feathers in their hair.


What James I lacked in racial tolerance, he made up for in some disturbingly familiar observations on the practice of smoking tobacco. Although seriously hindered by the medical knowledge of the time, James I still managed to identify some causal links between smoking and its side effects. For instance, he recognised that smoking was ‘dangerous’ to the lungs, while those around him nonchalantly puffed away on this new delight from across the Atlantic. The boy born in Edinburgh Castle was certainly right in assuming that the foul smell of tobacco smoke did not bode well for our poor little alveoli.

“A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”

‘Peer pressure’, just another aspect of smoking that James I correctly identified.

“We cannot be content unlesse we imitate every thing that our fellowes doe, and so proove our selves capable of every thing whereof they are capable, like Apes, counterfeiting the maners of others, to our owne destruction.”

The number of people who started smoking as part of some disappointingly familiar guise to be ‘cool’, will forever stagger me, old James I saw it for what it was.

By today’s standards, a remedy for gout, that could make an alcoholic sober, induce sleep – while also being useful in keeping you awake, and one that could alleviate stomach problems, is certainly a dubious one. This being considered, James was by no means the Stephen Hawking of 17th Century England for finding holes in the ‘omnipotent power of Tobacco!’

While identifying the link between smoking and lung problems is probably the most striking achievement of this publication, James I also identified a few other features of smoking that, if we’re all honest, we loath in equal measure.

Lets be be truthful, we all hate the breath of a smoker – James I was also not a fan. He proclaimed that a man who smoked, was a selfish man. He argued that a man who smoked tobacco should be ashamed of himself, for he was corrupting the ‘wholesome’ and ‘clean complexioned’ woman that he called his wife. At the very least, a husband was damning his wife ‘to live in a perpetuall stinking torment.’

He, like many of us, was repulsed by the idea of people smoking at the dinner table. He condemned smoking in the ‘Dining Chamber’ as being unclean, it polluted the air and the food on the table. James is remembered as quite a lavish king, it is hard to see his meals as being less than decadent, it is hardly surprising therefore, that he viewed those who soiled his epic meal time with such disdain.

When James I became king on the 25th July 1603, he inherited a kingdom in a very poor economic condition. Desperately looking for sources of revenue, it is unsurprising that in 1604, he should turn to the very lucrative Tobacco trade as a new source of income. The cynics among us, will say that ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ was just a means of legitimizing an onslaught on a highly lucrative industry by emphasizing its perverse features.

It is doubtful if we will ever find out the true root and cause of James I’s vigorous assault on tobacco smoking, which in parts, was well ahead of his time. James I work seems even more impressive, when we consider that he advanced his ideas in an age where medical treatment amounted to treating conditions such as syphilis with a good old bath of mercury. Still, Adolf Hitler is widely credited as the first major leader to oppose smoking. However, after studying James I’s critique, we can quite safely say, back off Hitler, James beat you to it.


The Wehrmacht: A Glorious Myth?


When the German army rolled into Paris on the 14th June 1940, the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since Napoleon’s Grande Armée . After all, the German army had rendered the Maginot Line redundant, a set of fortifications so modern that it was said to be of better living conditions than a modern city. The Wehrmacht bypassed it through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest in 5 days. It is perhaps unsurprising after so much hope and resources had been invested into this state-of-the-art defense, that contemporaries saw the German army as something hereto unseen before – a truly unstoppable force.

the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since their very own Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

There is an idealized vision of the Wehrmacht: as an ultra-mobile, ruthless and highly motivated force, a view that does not lack justification. Although Germany lost the war, is it really credible to blame the Wehrmacht for this? To talk of the Wehrmacht one cannot avoid talking of ‘Blitzkrieg’, a concept so fundamental to early German successes. There is a commonly held image of ‘Blitzkrieg’, one that is often portrayed as relentless waves of tanks steamrolling through inferior opposition. This was not certainly not the case in France. French tanks were better armoured, better equipped and more numerous than their German opposition. General Auchinleck in the defense of Norway, commented that the German forces had much greater morale as a result of their superior training. Therefore, can we call an army that defeated superior opposition on numerous occasions an incapable one?  The early victories in Europe, particularly France, certainly vindicate the superiority of the German military doctrine, however, a fully functioning modern state-of-the-art  force they were not.

The Maginot line was a modern and complex hive of defences.  Entrusted with defending France.
Entrusted with defending France was the Maginot line,  a modern and complex hive of defences.

In so far as the battle for France was concerned, the numerical superiority of the Luftwaffe was certainly pivotal. The German army itself had only mechanized 10% of its ground forces by this point. This was as a result of a production deficit from the pre-war years, one that Nazi industrialists had predicted would only be remedied by 1945 – a fact that was to be ignored by Hitler at great cost. The ramshackle fashion of which the Wehrmacht retreated from Russia in 1943 is perhaps its most ignominious moment. A rapid German army, with its immaculate coordination and communication is a vision that is hugely undermined by this campaign. Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to make up for the lack of modernization that beset the Wehrmacht at this time. Some 148 divisions were expected to fight across a front of almost 2,000-kilometers. It is clear that the Wehrmacht was not as polished a force as it has often been seen as being.

Russland, bei Targowi Sawod, deutsche Truppen
Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to support the Wehrmacht.

At times the Wehrmacht was an unstoppable force, one that laid the way for modern day warfare – where mobility and inter-service cooperation were the order of the day. The Eastern Front may have been calamitous for a whole host of reasons other than just the frailties of the Wehrmacht.  However, there is no ignoring the deaths of 4 million men and boys, soldiers that made up what had proven to be an undefeatable army. Maybe Nazi Germany would have succeeded in winning the war if it had the industrial capacity of the USA or Russia, but does this really restore the image of the Wehrmacht? There is no hiding from how fragile the Wehrmacht proved to be. A one dimensional force unable to adapt in the face of a resilient opponent. It had succeeded against weak and disorganized opposition in the past, but as its enemies learned from its mistakes, the Wehrmacht stuck to its principles, even though to follow such principles was no longer possible.