If it can be said that MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service are classic manifestations of, and creatures of, the British Establishment, it is also true that World War II was the catalyst for a change in attitudes to Catholicism.
It was not until September 1939 that MI5 reluctantly began to employ Catholics, the director general, Major-General Sir Vernon Kell, having exercised strict religious discrimination, often asserting that “the pope has the world’s best intelligence agency, and I’m not going to improve it”. With some justification, he observed that the Vatican could make almost instant contact with a source of reliable information, probably a local priest, in virtually any location in the world, however remote.
Whereas the Security Service relied on more than a hundred police chiefs and their Special Branch or equivalent organisations, spread across the empire, the Holy See was perceived to enjoy a truly global reach which filtered down to the smallest villages.
Kell, with his Anglo-Irish heritage, and with his wife the daughter of a Cork landowner, also believed that many Catholics were burdened with a dual loyalty which would not necessarily put the interests of the Crown first. Always risk-averse, Kell relied on families known to him for a supply of officers and administrative staff, and discreetly maintained his policy of religious discrimination against Catholics and Jews.
But he had been unprepared for a further conflict with Germany, and was sacked from his post in June 1940. By then he had relaxed his prejudice somewhat and employed a Catholic solicitor, Dick Butler, who was a partner at the City solicitors Charles Russell & Co, as his personal assistant. Thereafter, when Jasper Harker briefly took over as director general, and was later succeeded by Sir David Petrie, Butler was appointed head of the secretariat, and extended his very considerable influence across the service.
Meanwhile, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) had undermined Whitehall’s reluctance to allow religious minorities into the secret world in 1935 by hiring Commander Kenneth Cohen, reputedly the first Jew to receive a commission in the Royal Navy. SIS’s role, of course, was to exploit foreign contacts to collect information abroad, and the pre-war chief, Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, harboured no qualms about employing Catholics, and placed a count of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick Vanden Heuvel, in a key post in Switzerland in an effort to gain the trust of anti-Nazi German Catholics. The genial, cosmopolitan “Fanny” Vanden Heuvel, who had cut his teeth in the intelligence business in France during the Great War, and had enjoyed a successful business career thereafter as a director of Eno’s Fruit Salts, spent most of the war under consular cover in Zürich, recruiting sources with access to opponents of the regime in Berlin.
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