Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Head of MI5 and a traitor's grave

Sir Roger & Lady Valentine Hollis open the local flower show

Harry Chapman-Pincher has released Treachery:Betrayals, Blunders and Cover-ups: Six Decades of Espionage, published by Mainstream Books, a riveting expose of Britain's security service. Harry has been on their case since the sixties when I worked with him at the Express. In particular he has relentlessly pursued the truth about the boss of MI5 during the Cold War, Sir Roger Hollis, whom he believes was a double agent for the Soviets, despite government denials. And I agree with him.

This is the story of how I found a shepherd in a pretty Somerset village who unmasked Sir Roger as Britain's greatest ever traitor.

Ever since the Cambridge Spy Ring defected to the Soviet Union in the 50’s there has been speculation about the role of Sir Roger Hollis, head of MI5 from 1956 to ‘65. Kim Philby was dubbed, ‘the greatest spy of the century,’ when he fled to Moscow at the height of the Cold War. He had been tipped off of impending arrest as had been Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, both Foreign Office officials. And all turned up in Moscow years later.

Philby was said to know the identity of every British spy, and many American spies in the Soviet Union.  Britain was already reeling from the Christine Keeler scandal and her entanglement with War Minister, John Profumo and his ‘KGB spy’ friend, Stephen Ward. Why had the Intelligence Service not tipped off the Macmillan government? Britain was made to look foolish and questions were asked.

During the ‘50’s and ‘60’s a large number of MI5 operations were failing and the suspicion was that the KGB had a mole inside Britain’s Secret Service. Fingers were pointed at Sir Roger Hollis and his deputy, Graham Mitchell. Many authors have speculated on Hollis’s guilt, the latest being Harry Chapman Pincher’s book, released this month.

The Service set Hollis and Mitchell against each other to watch for cracks in their cover, but none came. Subsequent debriefs of Soviet defectors, coming the other way, showed that Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross and later, Anthony Blunt, were responsible for many of these operations failing. They had been tipping off their KGB spymasters for years from their comfortable jobs inside the Foreign Office, leading their controllers to call them ‘the magnificent five.’

Yet the disasters continued after the notorious Cambridge Spies had ‘gone over’ to the Soviets. There had to be another mole, high up in the Service but, in 1974, Lord Trend led an inquiry into Hollis and had found nothing.

In the ‘70’s, at the height of the speculation, I was asked to locate any existing pictures of Hollis. On the Mail I had done the picture research for Stewart Steven’s book on Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service and now he wanted Hollis. All the usual picture sources for Hollis had been ‘cleaned’ by the spooks. There was nothing of Britain’s spymaster-in-Chief. In London I located two photographs of Hollis that the ‘cleaners’ overlooked. A portrait and an old wedding photo of his first marriage at St Margaret’s Westminster. Both were ancient history so I went digging.

Hollis had been born in Wells, Somerset and I followed his trail West. I knew he was a passionate golfer which led me to the posh Burnham and Berrow Golf Club in Weston-super-Mare where he had been captain. Like all golf clubs there was a roll of honour board on display. The names of proud past captains were in gold leaf on mahogany panelling. 

The board of honour entries were blank for the years that Hollis was captain of this exclusive club. When I asked the members, there were shrugs all round: “Never heard of him.”
I reasoned, maybe that’s what they did in those Cold War days, hid in anonymity. I found the retired captain of the club’s Artisans section who still lived in the town.  This nice old chap confirmed:
“Yes. Sir Roger was club captain. He presented our annual Artisans trophy, but he never mixed with us much. There were never any pictures taken.”
So I moved on to the Bath & Wells Chorister School where Hollis had been a governor. The annual magazine always carries pictures. The years in question were missing. More shrugs.
On to the local paper who said: “Go back through the files.”

I flicked through ten years of the Wells Journal, a lovely little local paper, week by week.
And there he was. Undiscovered by the security ‘cleaners.’ The caption read:
‘Sir Roger and Lady Valentine Hollis open the local flower show.’  An elderly gent in a suit with his smiling wife holding a basket of chrysanthemums.

I was on the right track for Britain’s Cold War spy master.  Now I had an address. ‘Primrose Cottage,’ Catcott, a tiny typical Somerset English village, the sort on postcards in souvenir shops. But Primrose Cottage was the address of Catcott village Post Office. Surely Sir Roger didn’t sell stamps on the side? I scoured that village and found there was a second, identically named Primrose Cottage, way out in the back end of it. A perfect ruse to lead the unwanted from the real address. It was worthy of a George Smiley novel.

The centre of local life, as in all these villages, was the church. Catcott church is a tiny, beautiful Norman church in stone. A stone wall surrounded the trim churchyard of eighty or so gravestones. I hunted those graves for clues but there was no Hollis. Inside, the forty pews were unmarked. The walls the same. I was doubting Sir Roger ever lived there. Then it happened.

There was a church notice board in the porch with a pinned letter:
‘Will the ladies of the Committee please replace the chairs after use.’
Signed Val Hollis. Edith Valentine Hammond had been Sir Roger Hollis’s secretary for many years in MI5. Peter Wright in Spycatcher asserts that they had a long standing affair and she even refused promotions to stay with him. Finally, after Hollis divorced his first wife, they married and she became Edith Valentine Hollis. Now, long after his death, she was still tending this church. Therefore, I thought, he must be buried in it?

So I visited the local pub, the source of all knowledge. I took a pint with a wonderful, old local shepherd who wore a traditional, leather lambing apron.  We spoke about Hollis. I quizzed him on the mystery and his answer revealed all.
“Sir Roger? He’s there, all right. He’s in the churchyard  wall. They took out a flint and put ‘im in there. There ‘aint no marks, though. You won’t see ‘im.”

This shepherd had attended the funeral. My ephemeral spy master existed! His body had been cremated and his remains had been stowed behind a stone in the wall. His death had been expunged from all public record.
I had pictures of previous MI5 bosses who, when laid to rest, were honoured by black horses, caparisoned with tall, sombre plumes, pulling the funereal hearse, garlanded with flowers. Fitting tributes for a lifetime’s service once their secret identity was no longer necessary. This Cold War chieftain was in an unmarked grave.

Britain’s Establishment has always used an unmarked grave as a sign of treachery, going back eons. So why for Sir Roger? MI5 gives you short shrift on the matter.
‘It was claimed that Sir Roger Hollis, who was Director General of the Security Service from 1956-1965, was a Russian spy. The Trend inquiry of 1974 cleared Hollis of that accusation. Subsequently, the evidence of the former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky confirmed this judgement.’

In Britain unmarked graves are the resting place reserved for notorious criminals like Myra Hindley and Dr Harold Shipman. Earlier for Nazi war crimes perpetrators like Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering and Adolf Eichmann.

And yet Sir Roger Hollis was ignominiously hidden away behind an unmarked stone in a country graveyard wall, only his widow and a local shepherd left to tend his memory.


  1. I lived in Burnham on Sea. I thought Hollis was married to a Swayne. Hollis's father in law lived in Burnham and was a solicitor. Incidentally, the Golf Club is in Burnham not Weston
    Justin Downes

  2. It would seem that even though he was the son of an Anglican bishop, Hollis was denied burial in hallowed ground, the wall, presumably, being the border that marks out the boundary of the hallowed ground and not a part of the hallowed ground itself. If correct, this is no small thing, as once upon a time such was the fate of hanged murderers.


  4. From what some Brits have told me,Hollis was a morphine & heroin addict,from when he had TB,and was also a fag,but George W Bush was reportedly heavily into cocaine,then again after the 9/11 fuckup,he had a good reason

  5. I picked up a used/new Peter Wrights SpyCatcher. I've wanted to read it for years.
    Gads, now I know why the Yanks didn't trust the Brits for 30 years after the war.
    The old boys network of Intelligence gathering and divulging secrets over port at the club. 'Need to know' didn't exist!
    Although Wright was helping, he was too deep into the culture to see a lot of things.
    Roger Hollis wasn't Roger Hollis, google his name for photos and there are only 2 in the world, anywhere! MI5 has many photos of their former directors from all parts of their lives available everywhere except for Hollis. Everywhere, old school, travel, social events, nothing. Why? MI5 wouldn't waste their time with such trivia from decades past. Hollis travelled through Moscow twice in the 30's (great tourist town) and he didn't leave the second time.
    The KGB put in a double and since he was gone for so long nobody noticed but they couldn't have old photos of ears and such that are like fingerprints around for viewing so he and others cleaned up. All his old friends who socialized with him were fellow agents. He was probably never fingerprinted until too late. That's why he was so calm when accused, he knew he wasn't a traitor, he was a KGB agent and was proud of it. I'd say that's why nothing was done, besides the embarrassment he would have been traded back shortly for one of ours. Hollis resides in an unmarked traitors grave.
    He wasn't Hollis!!!
    Also, Peace time intelligence is highly overrated.
    Even though the Commies knew everything, it did them little good as our side.

    1. Tell me, have you ever visted planet Earth?

  6. Hollis was an agent of the GRU, not the KGB as was assumed by many. He never had any connection with the Cambridge Five who were all run by the KGB.

    Oleg Gordievsky was a high-ranking KGB official who defected whilst in London. Although he was well aware that Hollis had been a Soviet spy he denied it at the request of the UK Security Services. Had the Security Services asked him to state that the moon was made of cheese he would have done so. After all he wanted politcal asylum in UK, so he would have said whatever his new "friends" wanted.

  7. The Truth About Hollis

    M J West

  8. The last (UK paperback) edition of Chapman Pincher's "Treachery" is the best book on the Hollis. Long but very clearly and carefully assembled.


  10. Hollis was first and accurately blown by Igor Gouzenko in 1945 to RCMP in Ottawa, as a senior British cointel member, under codename "ELLI".

  11. Hollis was, incidentally, a GRU asset (ie. not KGB) and was outed as Gouzenko was the top GRU cipher clerk in the USSR Embassy in Ottawa who overheard GRU office gossip about a very highly placed mole in British cointel.

  12. See the Man who came back tobe published late 2017 by A. Machin-Taylor

  13. The evidence is there,a knighthood,and immunity from prosecution.Thank god for people like Chapman Pincher!

  14. "Ferrets led by Moles"