|"The Ace of Spies"|
Salomon Rosenblum, later known as Sidney Reilly, circa 1899.
|Birth name:||Shlomo Rosenblum|
|Born:||24 March, 1873 (?)|
Odessa, Russian Empire
|Died:||5 November, 1925 (?)|
Moscow, Soviet Union
|Height:||5' 9" (1.75 m)|
Lieutenant Sidney George Reilly, MC (c. March 24 1873/1874 – November 5 1925), famously known as the Ace of Spies, was a Jewish Russian- or Ukrainian-born adventurer and secret agent employed by Scotland Yard, the British Secret Service Bureau and later the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). He is alleged to have spied for at least four nations. His notoriety during the 1920s was created in part by his friend, British diplomat and journalist Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, who sensationalised their thwarted operation to overthrow the Bolshevik government in 1918.
After Reilly's death, the London Evening Standard published in May, 1931, a Master Spy serial glorifying his exploits. Later, Ian Fleming would use Reilly as a model for James Bond. Today, many historians consider Reilly to be the first 20th century super-spy. Much of what is known about him could be false, as Reilly was a master of deception.
The origins, identities, and activities of Sidney George Reilly have befuddled researchers and intelligence agencies for more than a century; hence, much of his purported life and many of his notorious exploits should be cautiously examined. Reilly himself told several versions of his origins to confuse and mislead investigators. Reilly claimed to be the son of (a) an Irish merchant seaman, (b) an Irish clergyman, and (c) an aristocratic landowner and habitué of the Imperial court of Czar Alexander III of Russia.
Apparently, Reilly was born Georgi Rosenblum in Odessa, then a Black Sea port of the Russian Empire (now Ukraine), on March 24, 1874 (Lockhart 1986); however, other theories of Reilly's birthplace and origins exist. In Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly (pg. 28), author Andrew Cook states Reilly was born on March 24, 1873, in the Jewish Kherson gubernia of Czarist Russia, as Salomon (Shlomo) Rosenblum, and later that "Sidney Reilly" was the illegitimate son of Paulina (Perla), his acknowledged mother, and Dr. Mikhail Abramovich Rosenblum, the trusted first cousin of Reilly's putative father, Grigory (Hersh) Rosenblum (Cook 2004).
According to Reilly, in 1892, the Imperial Russian Secret Police (Czarist Ochrana) arrested him for being a messenger for the Friends of Enlightenment revolutionary group. When he was released, Grigory (Reilly's assumed father) told him that his mother, Paulina, was dead, and that his true, biological father was her Jewish doctor, Mikhail A. Rosenblum. Re-christening himself Sigmund Rosenblum, he faked his death in Odessa Harbour and stowed away aboard a British ship bound for South America (Lockhart 1986).
In Brazil, Reilly adopted the name Pedro and worked odd jobs: dock worker, road mender, plantation laborer, and in 1895, cook for a British intelligence expedition (Deacon 1987). Allegedly Reilly saved both the expedition and the life of Major Charles Fothergill when hostile natives attacked them. Reilly seized a British officer's pistol and with expert, single-hand marksmanship killed the attacking natives (Cook 2004). Appropriately for a fantastic story, Major Fothergill rewarded Reilly with £1,500, a British passport, and passage to Britain. There Reilly became Sidney Rosenblum (Lockhart 1986).
Evidence asserted in Andrew Cook's Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly (pg. 32) contradicts the aforementioned Brazilian scenario and declares the British expedition incident to be unsubstantiated. Cook states that the arrival of Sidney Reilly in London in December 1895 was via France and prompted by Reilly's unscrupulous acquisition of a large sum of money in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, a residential suburb of Paris, necessitating a hasty flight. According to Cook, Reilly and a Russian accomplice, Yan Voitek, waylaid two Italian anarchists on December 25 1895, and robbed them of a substantial amount of revolutionary funds. One anarchist's throat was cut; the other, Constant Della Cassa, died from knife wounds in Fontainebleau Hospital three days later. By the time Della Cassa's death appeared in the newspapers, police had learned that one of the assailants, whose physical description matched Reilly's, was already en route to England. Reilly's accomplice, Voitek, would later relate this incident and his other dealings with Reilly to the British Secret Intelligence Service (Cook 2004).
Regardless of whether Reilly arrived in England via Brazil or France, Reilly was residing under the name of Sigmund Rosenblum at the Albert Mansions, a prestigious apartment block in Rosetta Street, Waterloo, London, in early 1896 (Cook 2004). Now settled in England, Reilly created the Ozone Preparations Company, which peddled miracle cures. Because of his knowledge of languages, Reilly became a paid informant for the émigré intelligence network of William Melville, superintendent of Scotland Yard's Special Branch and, according to Cook, later the clandestine head of the British Secret Service Bureau, which was founded in 1909.
In 1897, Sidney Reilly was involved in the sudden and suspicious death of the elderly Reverend Hugh Thomas. It has been verified that Reilly had a torrid affair with Thomas' youthful wife, Margaret Callaghan, just prior to Thomas' demise (Cook 2004).
Reilly, identifying himself as Sigmund Rosenblum, first met Thomas in London via Reilly's Ozone Preparations Company. Thomas had a kidney inflammation and was intrigued by the miracle cures peddled by Reilly. Thomas introduced Rosenblum to his young wife at his Manor House, and an affair between the two developed over the next six months (Cook 2004).
On March 4 1898, Thomas altered his will and appointed Margaret as an executor. A week after the making of the new will, Reverend Thomas and his nurse arrived at Newhaven Harbour Station. On March 12 1898, in that same hotel, Reverend Thomas was found dead in his bed. A mysterious Dr. T.W. Andrew, who matched the physical description of Sidney Reilly, appeared on the scene to certify Thomas' death as generic influenza and, signing the relevant documents, proclaimed that there was no need for an inquest. Records indicate that no Dr. T.W. Andrew existed in Great Britain circa 1897 (Cook 2004). Margaret Callaghan insisted Thomas' body be ready for burial a mere day and a half after his death. Six weeks later, Margaret inherited about £800,000. The Metropolitan Police did not investigate Dr. T.W. Andrew, nor did they investigate the nurse Margaret had hired, even though the nurse was previously linked to the arsenic poisoning of a former employer (Cook 2004).
Four months later, on August 22 1898, Reilly married Margaret Callaghan Thomas. The two witnesses at the ceremony were Charles Richard Cross and Joseph Bell. Bell was an Admiralty clerk, while Charles Cross was a government official. Both eventually married daughters of Henry Freeman Pannett, a close associate of William Melville. The marriage brought not only the wealth Reilly desired but provided a pretext to discard Sigmund Rosenblum and, with the help of Melville, assume the identity of Sidney George Reilly, husband of Margaret Thomas Reilly. This new identity was the key to achieving his desire to return to Czarist Russia and voyage to the Far East (Cook 2004).
[Sidney Reilly's role] is one of the unsolved riddles about the Russo-Japanese War.
—Professor Ian H. Nish, London School of Economics
In June 1899, Sidney Reilly and his first wife Margaret Callaghan Thomas traveled to Czarist Russia using Reilly's new British passport—a cover identity purportedly created by William Melville (Cook 2004). While Margaret remained in St. Petersburg, Reilly is alleged to have reconnoitered the Caucasus for its oil deposits and compiled a resource prospectus as part of "The Great Game." He reported his findings to the British government which paid him for completing the assignment. In early 1901, Reilly and his wife voyaged from Port Said, Egypt, across the globe to the Far East (Lockhart 1986).
Shortly before the Russo-Japanese War, Reilly appeared in Port Arthur, Manchuria, as a double-agent serving both the British and the Japanese interests (Deacon 1987). As the Russian-controlled Port Arthur lay under the ever-darkening specter of Japanese invasion, Reilly and business partner Moisei (Moses) Akimovich Ginsburg turned the precarious situation to their financial benefit. They purchased enormous amounts of food, raw materials, medicine, and coal—and made a small fortune as war profiteers (Cook 2004).
Reilly would have an even greater success in January 1904, when he and a Chinese engineer acquaintance, Ho-Liang-Shung, allegedly stole the Port Arthur harbor defense plans for the Japanese Navy. Guided by these stolen plans, the Japanese Navy navigated through the Russian minefield protecting the harbor and launched a surprise attack on Port Arthur. Yet the stolen plans did not help the Japanese much. More than 31,000 Russians ultimately perished defending Port Arthur, but Japanese losses were much higher, losses that nearly undermined their war effort (Cook 2004).
Historian Winfried Ludecke suggests that upon leaving Port Arthur, Manchuria, Reilly voyaged to Imperial Japan in the company of an unknown mistress. If Reilly did visit Japan, presumably to receive espionage pay, he could not have stayed very long, for by June 1904 Reilly appeared in Paris, France (Cook 2004). During the brief time Reilly spent in Paris, he renewed his close acquaintance with William Melville, the first Director General of MI5, whom Reilly had last seen in 1899 just prior to his departure from London. Reilly's meeting with Melville is most significant, for within a matter of weeks Melville was to use Reilly's expertise in what would later become known as The D'Arcy Affair (Lockhart 1986).
In Reilly: Ace of Spies, Robin Bruce Lockhart repeats one of Reilly's oft-recited tales of how, at the British Admiralty's request, Reilly located William Knox D'Arcy in the south of France and clandestinely approached him in disguise. According to Reilly, he boarded Lord de Rothschild's yacht attired as a Catholic priest and secretly persuaded D'Arcy to terminate negotiations with the French Rothschilds and return to London to meet with the British Admiralty (Lockhart 1986). Biographer Andrew Cook is skeptical about Reilly's involvement in the D'Arcy Affair, for in February 1904, Reilly was purportedly still in Port Arthur, Manchuria. Cook further claims that it was Reilly's intelligence chief, William Melville, and a British intelligence officer, Henry Curtis Bennett, who undertook the D'Arcy assignment (Cook 2004).
Although the extent of his involvement in the D'Arcy Affair is unknown, it has been verified that Reilly stayed in the French Riviera on the Côte d'Azur after the incident—a location very near the Rothschild yacht. After conclusion of the D'Arcy Affair, Reilly journeyed to Brussels, and shortly thereafter, in January 1905, he arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia, (Cook 2004).
An alternative scenario put forward in The Prize by Daniel Yergin has the Admiralty putting forward a "Syndicate of Patriots" to keep D'Arcy's concession in British hands, apparently with the full and eager co-operation of D'Arcy himself.
In Ace of Spies, biographer Robin Bruce Lockhart recounts Reilly's alleged involvement in obtaining a newly developed German magneto at the first Frankfurt International Air Show ("Internationale Luftschiffahrt-Ausstellung") in 1909.
According to Lockhart, on the fifth day of the air show a German plane lost control and crashed, killing the pilot. The plane's engine was alleged to have used a new type of magneto that was far ahead of other designs. Reilly and a British SIS agent posing as one of the exhibition pilots diverted public attention while they removed the magneto from the wreck and substituted another. The SIS agent quickly made detailed drawings of the German magneto, and when the engine had been removed to a hangar, the agent and Reilly managed to restore the original magneto (Lockhart 1986).
Biographer Andrew Cook has countered that this incident never happened. According to documents about the air show, no plane crashes occurred during the event (Cook 2004).
Reilly arrived in Essen, Germany, in 1909 disguised as a Baltic shipyard worker by the name of Karl Hahn. Having prepared his cover identity by learning welding at a Sheffield engineering firm, Reilly obtained a low-level position as a welder at the Essen plant. Soon he joined the plant fire brigade and persuaded its foreman that a set of plant schematics were needed to indicate the position of fire extinguishers and hydrants. These schematics were soon lodged in the foreman's office for members of the fire brigade to consult, and Reilly set about using them to locate the weapon plans (Lockhart 1967).
In the early morning hours, Reilly used lockpicks to break into the office where the weapon plans were kept but was discovered by the foreman. Reilly strangled the foreman and completed the theft. From Essen, Reilly took a train to Dortmund to a safe house, and tearing the plans into four pieces, mailed each separately. If one was lost, the other three would still reveal the gist of the plans (Lockhart 1967).
Cook casts doubt on this incident but concedes that German factory records show a Karl Hahn was indeed employed by the Essen plant during this time and a plant fire brigade was in formal operation (Cook 2004).
In 1918, behind-the-scenes helpers such as [...] Sidney Reilly, the erstwhile Russian double agent who was operating on Britain's behalf, were involved in the formulation and execution of various attempts to snatch both Russia and the [Romanov family] from the Bolsheviks.
The endeavor to depose the Bolshevik Government and assassinate Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is considered by biographers to be Reilly's most daring scheme. The Lockhart Plot, or more accurately the Reilly Plot, has sparked debate over the years: Did the Allies launch a clandestine operation to overthrow the Bolsheviks? If so, did the Cheka uncover the plot at the eleventh hour or had they unmasked the conspirators from the outset? Some historians have suggested that the Cheka orchestrated the conspiracy from beginning to end and possibly that Reilly was a Bolshevik agent provocateur (Cook 2004).
In May 1918, Robert Bruce Lockhart, an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service, and Reilly repeatedly met with General Boris Savinkov of the Union for the Defense of the Fatherland and Freedom (UDFF). Savinkov had been War Minister in the Provisional Government of Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky, and a key opponent of the Bolsheviks. A former Social Revolutionary Party member, Savinkov had formed the UDFF consisting of several thousand Russian fighters. Lockhart and Reilly then contacted anti-Bolshevik collectives linked to Savinkov and supported these factions with SIS funds. They also liaisoned with the intelligence operatives of the French and U.S. consuls in Moscow (Cook 2004).
In June, disillusioned members of the Latvian Riflemen began appearing in anti-Bolshevik circles in Petrograd and were eventually directed to Captain Cromie, a British naval attaché, and Mr. Constantine, a Turkish merchant who was actually Reilly. As Latvians were deemed the Praetorian Guard of the Bolsheviks and entrusted with the security of the Kremlin, Reilly believed their participation in the pending coup to be vital and arranged their meeting with Lockhart at the British mission in Moscow. At this stage, Reilly planned a coup against the Bolshevik government and drew up a list of Soviet generals ready to assume responsibilities on the fall of the Bolshevik government. While the coup was prepared, an Allied force landed on August 4, 1918, at Arkhangelsk, Russia, beginning a famous military expedition dubbed Operation Archangel. Its objective was to prevent the German Empire from obtaining Allied military supplies stored in the region. In retaliation for this incursion, the Bolsheviks raided the British diplomatic mission on August 5, disrupting a meeting Reilly had arranged between the anti-Bolshevik Latvians, UDFF officials, and Lockhart (Cook 2004).
On August 17, Reilly conducted meetings between Latvian regimental leaders and liaisoned with Captain George Hill, another British agent operating in Russia. They agreed the coup would occur the first week of September during a meeting of the Council of People's Commissars and the Moscow Soviet at the Bolshoi Theatre. However, on the eve of the coup, unexpected events thwarted the operation (Cook 2004).
On August 30, a military cadet shot and killed Moisei Uritsky, head of the Petrograd Cheka. On this same day, Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, shot and wounded Lenin as he left a meeting at the Michelson factory in Moscow. These events were used by the Cheka to implicate any malcontents in a grand conspiracy that warranted a full-scale campaign: the "Red Terror." Thousands of political opponents were seized and executed. Using lists supplied by undercover agents, the Cheka arrested those involved in Reilly's pending coup. They raided the British Embassy in Petrograd and killed Cromie, Reilly's accomplice, who put up an armed resistance. Lockhart was arrested, but later released in exchange for Litvinov, a Soviet spy who had been arrested in London in a reprisal. Elizaveta Otten, Reilly's chief courier, was arrested as well as his other mistress Olga Starzheskaya. Another courier, Maria Fride, with papers she carried for Reilly, was arrested at Otten's flat (Cook 2004).
On September 3, the aborted coup was sensationalized by the Russian press. Reilly was identified as a leader, and a dragnet ensued. The Cheka raided his assumed refuge, but Reilly avoided capture and met with Captain Hill. Hill proposed that Reilly escape Russia via Ukraine using their network of British agents for safe houses and assistance. Reilly instead chose a shorter, more dangerous route north to Finland. With the Cheka closing in, Reilly, carrying a Baltic German passport, posed as a legation secretary and departed Moscow in a railway car reserved for the German Embassy. In Kronstadt, Reilly sailed by ship to Helsinki and reached Stockholm. He arrived in London on November 8 (Cook 2004).
The day before Reilly and Hill met with Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming ("C") in London for their debriefing, the Russian Izvestia newspaper reported that both Reilly and Lockhart had been sentenced to death in absentia by a Revolutionary Tribunal for their roles in the attempted coup of the Bolshevik government. Their sentence was to be carried out immediately should either of them be apprehended on Soviet soil. This sentence would later be served on Reilly when he was caught by the OGPU in 1925. Yet, within the week of their debriefing, the British Secret Intelligence Service and the Foreign Office again sent Reilly and Hill to Russia under the cover of British trade delegates. Their assignment was to uncover information about the Black Sea coast needed for the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (Cook 2004).
Throughout his life, Sidney Reilly maintained a close yet tempestuous consanguinity with the British intelligence community.
In 1896, Reilly was recruited by Superintendent William Melville for the émigré intelligence network of Scotland Yard's Special Branch. Through his close relationship with Melville, Reilly would be employed as a secret agent for the Secret Service Bureau, which the War Office created in October 1909.
In 1918, Reilly began to work for MI1(c), an early designation for the British Secret Intelligence Service, under Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming. Reilly was allegedly trained by the latter organization and sent to Moscow in March 1918 to assassinate Vladimir Ilyich Lenin or attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks. He had to escape after the Cheka unraveled the so-called Lockhart Plot against the Bolshevik government.
Reilly told various tales about his espionage deeds and adventurous exploits. According to Reilly, he earned and lost several fortunes in his lifetime and had many wives and mistresses. He claimed that:
• He seduced the wife of a Russian minister to obtain information about German weapons shipments to Russia.
• During World War I he donned a German officer's uniform and attended a German Army High Command meeting.
• He saved diplomats in Brazil.
• He attempted but failed to engineer the downfall of the Russian Bolshevik government.
British intelligence adhered to its policy of publicly saying nothing about anything (Deacon 1987). Yet Reilly's espionage successes did garner indirect recognition.
After a formal recommendation by Sir Mansfield "C" Smith-Cumming, Reilly, who had been commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, was awarded the Military Cross on January 22 1919, "for distinguished services rendered in connection with military operations in the field." Cook claims the medal was bestowed due to Reilly's anti-Bolshevik operations in southern Russia, but espionage historian Richard Deacon states the award was given for Reilly's clandestine activities in World War I. Reilly had allegedly parachuted behind German lines on a number of occasions. Once, disguised as a German officer, he spent three weeks inside the German Empire (Deutsches Reich) gathering information about the next planned thrust against the Allies.
Deacon asserts in History of the Russian Secret Service that in April 1912, Reilly was an Ochrana agent with the task of befriending and profiling Sir Basil Zaharoff, the international arms salesman and representative of Vickers-Armstrong Munitions Ltd. Another Reilly biographer, Richard B. Spence, claims in Trust No One: The Secret World Of Sidney Reilly that during this assignment Reilly learned "le systeme" from Zaharoff. To Zaharoff, "le systeme" was the strategy of playing all sides against each other in order to maximize financial profit.
Cook counters in Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly (pg. 104) that there is no evidence of any relationship between Reilly and Zaharoff. According to Cook, Reilly was more of a con artist. Reilly claimed to have been employed by the British Secret Intelligence Service since the 1890s, but he did not volunteer his services nor was accepted as an agent until March 15, 1918, and was effectively fired in 1921 because of his tendency to be a rogue operative. Nevertheless, Reilly had been a renowned operative for Scotland Yard's Special Branch and the Secret Service Bureau, which were the early forerunners of the British intelligence community.
Author Michael Kettle has claimed in Sidney Reilly: The True Story of the World's Greatest Spy (pg. 121) that despite having been fired by SIS, Reilly possibly was involved with Sir Stewart Graham Menzies in the forging of the The Zinoviev Letter in 1924.
In September 1925, undercover agents of the OGPU, the intelligence successor of the Cheka, lured Reilly to Bolshevik Russia ostensibly to meet the supposed anti-Communist organization The Trust—in reality, an OGPU deception existing under the code name Operation Trust. At the Russian border, Reilly was introduced to undercover OGPU agents posing as senior Trust representatives from Moscow. One of these undercover Soviet agents, Alexander Yakushev, later recalled the meeting:
The first impression of [Sidney Reilly] is unpleasant. His dark eyes expressed something biting and cruel; his lower lip drooped deeply and was too slick—the neat black hair, the demonstratively elegant suit. [...] Everything in his manner expressed something haughtily indifferent to his surroundings.
After Reilly crossed the Finnish border, the Soviets captured, transported and interrogated him at Lubyanka Prison. On arrival Reilly was taken to the office of Roman Pilar, a Soviet official who the previous year had arrested and ordered the execution of Boris Savinkov, a close friend of Reilly. Pilar reminded Reilly that he had been sentenced to death by a 1918 Soviet tribunal for his participation in a counter-revolutionary plot against the Bolshevik government. While Riley was being interrogated, the Soviets publicly claimed that he had been shot trying to cross the Finnish border.
Historians debate whether Reilly was tortured while in OGPU custody. Cooke contends that Reilly was not tortured other than psychologically by mock execution scenarios designed to shake the resolve of prisoners. During OGPU interrogation, Reilly maintained his charade of being a British subject born in Clonmel, Ireland, and would not reveal any intelligence matters (Cook 2004). While facing such daily interrogation, Reilly kept in his cell a diary of tiny handwritten notes on cigarette papers which he hid in the plasterwork of a cell wall. While his Soviet captors were interrogating Reilly, Reilly in turn was analyzing and documenting their techniques. As the diary was a detailed record of OGPU Interrogation techniques, Reilly was understandably confident such unique documentation would, if he escaped, be of interest to the British SIS. After Reilly's death, Soviet guards discovered the diary in Reilly's cell, and photographic enhancements were made by OGPU technicians (Cook 2004).
Reilly was executed in a forest near Moscow on November 5, 1925; British intelligence documents released in 2000 confirm this. According to eyewitness Boris Gudz, the execution of Sidney Reilly was supervised by an OGPU officer, Grigory Feduleev. Another OGPU officer, George Syroezhkin, is credited for firing the final shot into Reilly's chest.
After the death of Reilly, there were various rumours about his survival. Some, for example, speculated that Reilly had defected and became an advisor to Soviet intelligence.
In 1983, a television mini-series, Reilly, Ace of Spies, dramatized the historical adventures of Reilly. The program won the 1984 BAFTA TV Award. Reilly was portrayed by actor Sam Neill. Leo McKern portrayed Sir Basil Zaharoff. The series was based on Robin Bruce Lockhart's book, Ace of Spies, which was adapted by Troy Kennedy Martin.