This is a biography of the life of Maurice Oldfield, written by his nephew. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the world of espionage, but without the thrills of a James Bond novel. From his early life as a farmer’s son in Derbyshire to his eventual retirement as Head of MI6 and beyond, the book traces his journey through his studies of history, his wartime intelligence efforts in the Middle East, his post-war struggles in the British-mandated Palestine and on to his work in the Far East and in Washington, before returning to the UK and finally taking up the post of “M”.
- Martin Pearce
There are no thrilling car-chases, no clandestine meet-ups in the dead of night and no dramatic finales on a desert island. What makes this biography so interesting is the times in which Maurice Oldfield lived and worked, the characters surrounding him and the quiet influence he had on a number of very important issues.
His time in Palestine was spent collecting intelligence to try and prevent the constant attacks by the Stern Gang and Haganah and Irgun organisations on British troops in the area, and he was also present in the Far East, based in Singapore, during the Malayan Emergency. However, and in spite of being head of intelligence, Oldfield was anything but an “office man”. He much preferred to go out among ordinary people and gather his own impressions, rather than relying on the reports of his fellow agents. As a result, he travelled very extensively all over South-East Asia and his intimate knowledge of the area would later play a vital role in the advice he gave the UK prime minister Harold Wilson about becoming embroiled in the Vietnam War.
What was remarkable about Maurice Oldfield was not only his stunning analytical skills, but also the fact that someone from his humble beginnings could advance so far in a secret service that was, during that period, very much the domain of “the Establishment”, with perhaps the main qualifications being good breeding, impeccable manners and an Oxbridge education. Oldfield certainly qualified on the manners front, but one of his great strengths was his ability to befriend and interact with just about everyone. He used that skill to great effect in all of his postings and struck up lasting friendships with people who would later become influential in their various fields and who passed on priceless intelligence to him. He returned time and again to his family home to immerse himself in the village life there and always attended the church, where he played the organ.
One of his most difficult postings was as head of station in Washington. He was replacing the infamous Kim Philby and it was Oldfield’s unceasing and very skilful efforts that finally convinced the CIA that MI6 wasn’t lousy with Soviet agents and could be a trusted and reliable partner. There is also very strong anecdotal evidence that he managed to convince the US president, John F. Kennedy, not to invade Cuba during the Cuba Crisis towards the end of 1962, but rather to blockade the island. Most of Kennedy’s gung-ho advisers were in favour of invasion, if only to mitigate the very embarrassing failure of the Bay of Pigs debacle of the previous year. In the end, Kennedy opted for a blockade strategy and, thankfully, the world escaped total nuclear destruction.
Maurice Oldfield was regarded as a shoo-in for the top job at MI6 in 1968, but it went instead to the “Foreign Office stooge” John Rennie, who proved to be totally out of his depth and rarely left his office. Oldfield, as his 2 i/c, on the other hand, was rarely in his office. He was constantly on the go around the world, interspersed with regular trips to his beloved Derbyshire, visiting all the many contacts he’d made, including a personal friendship with the Shah of Persia, simply because he felt a strong desire to form his own, personal, impression about any situation. That didn’t stop when he finally became “M” in early 1973, after the ignominious ending of the luckless John Rennie.
Just about everyone remembers him as a very polite, liberal, considerate, kind and almost “fatherly” chief, although he wasn’t averse to a bit of ruthlessness when it was called for; like the time he agreed to a cyanide pill being smuggled to an agent captured and imprisoned in Eastern Europe, who, it was feared, would be tortured and give up information.
What really was amazing about his whole career was that his homosexuality, in an age where it was actually illegal, was never a subject for serious discussion. There were occasional questions as to why he’d never married, but no-one really attached much importance to it. Oldfield also had the advantage that he’d passed a CIA polygraph test. He steadfastly refused to allow them to be used by MI6, in spite of the CIA’s enthusiasm for them, because he didn’t trust the technology. He was also firmly convinced that any Soviet spies would be specially schooled to pass such tests. One of the initial standard questions to set the parameters is: “Did you or have you ever engaged in homosexual activities?” As stated, Oldfield passed. He also arranged his personal occasions with such meticulous care that only once was there ever a hint of scandal (during Maggie Thatcher’s reign), but nothing came of it.
The “hint of scandal” occurred when he opted to head the intelligence effort in Northern Ireland after his retirement from MI6. In his own very efficient way, he co-ordinated all the intelligence and surveillance there and brought everything up to scratch to produce a competent and resourceful system. Being the first chief of MI6 who was ever known to the general public, he was obviously a target for the IRA. As such, his security was intensified in a way which he never wanted, but had to endure. His alleged “encounter” with a “friend” in a firmly Republican pub would have been impossible, given who he was, and the security surrounding him at all times. And to this day, no-one has ever been able to provide any firm evidence of what was supposed to have happened.
Sir Maurice Oldfield succumbed to cancer of the stomach in 1981. He was in his early sixties. He was by far the most popular head of MI6 and his death was genuinely mourned by those who served under him and also by the, in the meantime, hundreds of friends he’d made all over the world.
This book enlarges on many events we all know about and also on the people involved in them. It adds a further dimension to issues that were important for the world through from the 1950s right through to the 1980s and I highly recommend it for the insights it affords.