So what sort of person was the real-life “M”?

To answer that question, we need to better understand the contrast between Maxwell Knight’s (recently publicised) life as one of Britain’s most talented World War II spymaster’s – the original ‘M’ – and that of an early (largely unpublicised) environmentalist. Clearly he was an incredibly gifted man who had a sixth sense for identifying and recruiting talented individuals to the security services prior to and during the second world war. In Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5 (Penguin Books) we get an insightful illumination into his character when he was overseeing ‘M Section’ in 1933: “Knight, however, remained something of a law unto himself. He was probably the last Security Service officer who, as one who served under him later recalled, ‘would burgle premises without authority and recruit whomsoever he wished. But to his agents, he was almost a mystical figure.” This spirited mixture of ‘talents’ may well seem out of place and unacceptable in today’s connected world but they were what was required for the time and space occupied by Knight. Indeed, it was this indomitable spirit and willingness to sail close to the wind that brought down “The Right Club” stopping cypher-clerk, Tyler Kent, from handing over stolen telegrams between Churchill and Roosevelt to anti-war activists in America. Had this information reached the United States, American troops may never have come to Britain’s rescue.

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