British Intelligence operations of the Second World War have been the frequent subject of both scholarly and creative attention, often appearing in popular culture in films such as The Imitation Game and A Call To Spy. Some might argue that there is little left to uncover on the topic, but Helen Fry’s latest book, Spymaster, proves that there is always more to learn. Exploring the dramatic story of ‘spymaster’ Thomas Kendrick, Fry not only shares the extraordinary story of a man largely forgotten in history but provides new information that challenges the stories we think we know about the past.
Spymaster follows the life of Kendrick over four decades spent working in British Intelligence. Initially working under the guise of a ‘British Passport Officer’ in 1930s Vienna, Kendrick hosted elaborate cocktail parties and socialised with Austrian aristocracy whilst simultaneously running spy networks across Europe that were gathering intelligence about the Soviet and Nazi threats to democracy. Faced with the rise of Nazism, Kendrick worked alongside colleagues to save the lives of thousands of Jews, before escaping back to England himself. The Second World War saw Kendrick use his experience and espionage skills on the Home Front, creating a listening operation that elicited information that would have an impact on the outcome of key moments of the war, including cracking the Enigma Code.
At a time when Churchill was calling for ‘ungentlemanly warfare’, embodied by the Special Operations Executive, Kendrick and his team rebelled and chose ‘gentlemanly warfare’ instead. Rather than conforming to traditional interrogation methods, Kendrick created a ‘secret listening’ system to obtain information from prisoners, whilst also playing on his experience as a gentleman socialite to form bonds with the high-ranking Nazi officials in their custody.
Whilst Fry states that Spymaster is a comprehensive account of Kendrick’s life as the ‘man who saved MI6’, it is much more than this. Rather than exclusively focusing on Kendrick, Fry takes time to tell the stories of other members of his spy network. By sharing their stories, Fry allows the reader to build up a bigger picture, whilst a focus on the women Kendrick worked with offers an opportunity for female voices to be heard. Spymaster successfully balances emphasis on the stories of individuals and the value of their collective experience.
Although much of the material needed to tell a truly comprehensive story of Kendrick’s work has been destroyed, or remains classified, Fry’s extensive original research means she is able to offer more than a glimpse into his life and work. Adding new information to the stories we already know, Fry offers alternative interpretations to some of the key events of the Second World War, whilst also telling completely new stories.
After spending a lifetime dedicated to defending his country, and helping transform British Intelligence, Thomas Kendrick was seemingly forgotten in history. However, Spymaster ensures that he is no longer hidden in plain sight. Kendrick’s life as a gentleman spymaster, and ‘one of the greatest spymasters of the 20th century’, is finally being revealed and celebrated.
Ella Beales is a Historical Researcher, Archivist and Public Historian, currently in postgraduate study at the University of Bristol.
Aspects of History Issue 6 is out now.