“Surely the most eccentric unsung spy was Maxwell Knight, known to his friends as Max or M. Although he did later become well known, it was not as a spymaster. To children growing up in the late Fifties and early Sixties he was Uncle Max, the BBC radio naturalist.
He had always had a passion for fauna; indeed, when he was head of B5(b), an autonomous department within MI5 in the Thirties and Forties, those who worked with him also had to work with his menagerie of animals. He could recite trivia about them endlessly, from the correct method of mounting a llama to the breeding cycle of the laughing hyena. His daily help, Mrs Leather, would complain of the way grass snakes used to flop down the stairs of his flat in Chelsea. He kept them in the bath. He also kept a blue-fronted Amazonian parrot in the kitchen and a Himalayan monkey in the garden. And he was known to have raised a nest of adder eggs in his pyjama pocket. Ian Fleming, who worked in the Department of Naval Intelligence, was fascinated by Knight’s mysterious persona and used him as the model for “M”, James Bond’s boss.
But for all his eccentricity he was an effective spymaster. As early as 1927, the bisexual Knight had been put in charge of infiltrating the Communist Party of Great Britain. To this end he recruited Tom Driberg, the (homosexual) writer and future MP, and ordered him to join the Communist Party while at Oxford. He also infiltrated the British Union of Fascists and developed a rather sinister fascination with the occult which he shared with his friends Dennis Wheatley and Aleister Crowley.
When war broke out he recruited an astrologer as an MI5 agent and sent him to Germany to infiltrate the occult court of Rudolf Hess. The agent is said to have briefed Hess that the Duke of Hamilton was prepared to meet him to act as a peace negotiator between the German government and the British. Hess’s fateful flight to Scotland followed in 1941.
With the war against the Nazis over, Knight became increasingly obsessed with the Soviet Union, specifically with the idea that a communist spy ring had infiltrated MI5. But his colleagues no longer took him seriously – indeed, they ignored the numerous reports he wrote on the subject. Knight was by then regarded as paranoid and unstable and, even though his theory was proved right in 1951 when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to the Soviet Union, his reputation within the service never recovered. He left MI5 a few years later and embarked upon a successful second career as a naturalist on radio and television. He soon became a household name and was awarded an OBE. In 1967 he published How to Keep an Elephant, a guide to keeping off-beat pets. The following year he wrote a sequel: How to Keep a Gorilla.”