London has been home to British agents involved in spying and espionage for more than a century. Yes, a real life James Bond has walked these very streets, carrying top-secret information, involved in dodgy dealings and (possibly) bedding beautiful women…
Now how boring does your job seem?
The MI6 in London’s Whitehall
British spies were born on the back of hysteria over Germany’s growing power in the early 20th century; in 1909, MI5 took up headquarters in the in Whitehall.
MI6 moved its headquarters to 2 Whitehall Court in 1916; its first head, Mansfield Cumming, was an eccentric – a master of disguise who wore a monocle and only ever wrote in green ink. In 1914, he crashed his car in France and freed himself from the wreckage by severing his leg with a penknife.
Early days of British espionage
Over the course of the two World Wars, British intelligence was all about zee Germans, and a parallel war was fought by code breakers in the majestic Admiralty Building in Whitehall.
During World War I, Britain’s code breakers were led by the legendary Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall, and they managed to intercept a telegram sent by the German kaiser that offered the Mexicans a swathe of the USA if they joined the fight. President Woodrow Wilson was furious, and the Americans joined the fray.
The Cambridge spies
Four Brits – Harold “Kim” Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald MacLean – were known as the Cambridge Spy Ring. They were all high up in British Intelligence during World War II and beyond, but were actually working for Moscow.
MacLean had information on US nuclear ambitions, which he promptly fed to the KGB.
Philby had access to MI6’s registry of its agents across the world, which he passed on to the Soviets, condemning his countrymen to death.
One famous case is the 1978 Umbrella Killing; Bulgarian dissident Georgi Ivanov Markov was waiting for a bus on Waterloo Bridge when a man holding an umbrella bumped into him. The man was KGB hitman Francesco Gullino and the umbrella shot a deadly ricin-filled pellet into his leg. Markov died four days later.
In 2000, Soviet intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko defected to Britain and published a tell-all book. When Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in 2006, Litvinenko began making inquiries.
He drank tea at the Millennium Hotel with former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi before meeting an Italian contact in Piccadilly Square. But unbeknown to Litvinenko, someone had slipped deadly Polonium-210 into his tea.
He died four weeks later, with KGB involvement widely suspected.
The real James Bond?
Dusko Popov was a famous double agent, who enjoyed a glamorous lifestyle – his code name was Agent Tricycle because of his penchant for threesomes – and in a move bizarrely sanctioned by both MI5 and MI6 and German counterpart, the Abwehr, he was sent to the US to create a spy network during World War II.
But FBI boss J Edgar Hoover was having none of it, and expelled Popov. Some analysts believe this was a grave error, as he may have been carrying intelligence on the imminent attack on Pearl Harbour.
Popov also met and worked with an MI6 man named Ian Fleming, leading many to speculate that he was the inspiration for James Bond.