Russian MI6 Officer Appointed Director of Secret Intelligence Service in Asia

To pave the way for General Knox in Siberia, MI6 sent one of their top Russian officers, Captain Leo Steveni to Vladivostok in April 1918. Steveni’s grandfather was a Swedish Consul and his mother was a Russian Countess, but he was educated at Rugby School. During the first part of the First World War, he worked in the Russian War Office at Petrograd, where he met some of the top MI6 officers including Cud Thornhill, Stephen Alley and John Scale, who played a hand in the murder of Rasputin.

Arriving in Harbin in June, the British Consul Henry Sly introduced him to Admiral Kolchak. The renowned Arctic explorer offered him railway carriage number 2013, which became his accommodation for nearly two years. Before Knox and the other members of the British Military Mission joined him in Siberia, Steveni helped some of the desperate people fleeing from the Red Terror, such as Maria Ivana Zvegintsova, nee Obolensky, who was living with her three children among dozens of refugees in a cattle wagon at Ufa.

After the November coup that brought Kolchak to power, he took over the role of military intelligence in the Stavka and provided London with detailed information about the Siberian Army’s dispositions. He was awarded an OBE for this work in 1919, but the London Gazette spelled his name incorrectly. Steveni remained close to Kolchak throughout his time in power and only left him in Irkutsk in January 1920, when the British Consul decided to move all the British diplomatic staff east of Lake Baikal. His account of the retreat from Omsk was serialized in the Manchester Guardian in July that year.

Returning home via Shanghai, he was demobilized, but soon decided to rejoin the Army and was commissioned into Brian Horrocks’ Middlesex Regiment. For several years, he languished as a junior officer, but in the Second World War, he was rapidly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and in 1942, he was appointed Director of Secret Intelligence Service in Asia; a fitting title for someone who is included in the list of the “real James Bonds” of the spy world. For more on the role he played in Siberia, see Chapter 3 of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners.

Return to Philadelphia

After two and a half years away, Emerson MacMillan returned to America on 29th January 1921, arriving in New York with his new wife, Dallas, on board the White Star Line’s RMS Cedric.

He was interviewed by Raymond Carroll whose report was published in the Public Ledger under the title “Philadelphian Home from Reds Captivity”. This article highlights the hardships he suffered and plays down his role in the British Military Mission, describing it as the Inter Allied Economic Mission instead.

When he returned to Philadelphia, Emerson used his experience well. His engineering and management skills led to swift promotion in the railway industry, while he forged a reputation for entertaining talks about Russia, such as the one he gave at the Adelphia Hotel in May. Although, he didn’t produce a memoir (as did three of the other prisoners), he did write a number of articles that were published in the Public Ledger. Akin to all his compatriots, he felt Russia was a wonderful country that had been ruined by the Bolsheviks with their political system that was later allegorized so brilliantly by George Orwell in Animal Farm.

Sad Fate of the Anglo-Russian Brigade Commander

Brigadier James Molesworth Blair was educated at Winchester and commissioned into the Black Watch in December 1898, serving with the 2nd Battalion in the South African War. By the time he deployed to Siberia in 1918, he had transferred to the Gordon Highlanders and been awarded the CMG and DSO. During the First World War, he worked in Petrograd with Alfred Knox and William Gerhardi, who suggested in his memoir that Blair: “possessed perhaps the noblest nature of any man I have known”, but that he “had his wife [Lilian] and young boy [Charles] in Petrograd with him, and used to carry her things, her overcoat and umbrella, holding her up with the same arm, because on the other he carried the boy, who gripped a cage with a canary in one hand and a vessel with goldfish in another.”

In Siberia, he was quickly promoted from his appointment as Lieutenant Colonel GSO1 to be Head of the British Training Mission. After its success, General Knox invited him to command the Anglo-Russian Brigade in Ekaterinburg, which was endorsed by Winston Churchill. For six weeks, the British contingent comprising the Hampshire Battalion and volunteers such as Captain Brian Horrocks worked hard to make this an effective formation, but “every conceivable difficulty was put in our way”. At the end of June, the Brigade was broken up and Blair informed London that all the British forces “left Ekaterinburg on 12th July [1919]”.

Blair subsequently fell out with Knox when General Gajda attempted to take control of Vladivostok after Kolchak’s Omsk government had fallen. Knox supported the brutal General Rozanov, whereas Blair believed the British should remain neutral in any coup. As a result, Knox sent Blair home and he received neither reward, nor recognition in the Siberian Honours list published in January 1920.

However, after Knox was recalled by the War Office, Blair was ordered to return to Russia to command the remnants of the British Mission. It must have been a depressing two month journey across the Atlantic, America and the Pacific to Japan, where he was delayed in Nagasaki. Eventually, HMS Carlisle picked him up and he arrived in Vladivostok for the second time on 12th April, but there was little for him to do other than help Colonel Charles Wickham close down the mission and depart for Shanghai in May.

After the war, he was appointed Military Attache in the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Sadly, he did not live to see King Alexander rename the country as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia because he died aged 44 on 7th June 1925, just as the award of a CBE was published in the Birthday Honours. His other decorations included: Order of the Sacred Treasure 2nd Class (Japan); Order of Saint Vladimir 4th Class with bow and ribbons (Russia); Croix de Guerre (Czechoslovack Republic); and Legion of Honour (France).

His son, who had the canary and goldfish in Petrograd, eventually commanded 1st Black Watch in the Second World War and after he was invalided out of the army became a senior MI6 officer, whose autobiography was barred by the Government’s D Notice Committee, but that’s another story…

Brigadier James Molesworth Blair CMG CBE DSO
Commander of the Anglo-Russian Brigade in Ekaterinburg and Head of the British Training Mission in Siberia 1919

Australians In Siberia

More than a hundred Australians served in Russia after the Revolutions in 1917. The majority fought with the British forces in North Russia, where two soldiers, Sergeant Samuel Pearce and Corporal Arthur Sullivan, earned the Victoria Cross. Several also ended up in Siberia, including Captain O’Brien of the Australian Light Horse who arrived in Omsk on 29th January 1919 and 30 year-old Captain Ernest William Latchford MC of the 38th Infantry Battalion who taught musketry with the Training Team at Irkutsk.

One of the last prisoners to escape from Russia, Captain Dwyer Augustus Neville was born in Australia on 18th April 1892. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in February 1917 and transferred to the Royal Air Force when it was created in 1918. Just before the fifth battle of Ypres, he was forced down while on patrol over the Comines Canal and captured by the German Army, but was repatriated on 13th December 1918.

Volunteering for service in Siberia, he was captured on the retreat from Omsk in December 1919 with Lieutenant Colonel Eric Johnston, but then left behind in hospital when he contracted Typhus. Amazingly he survived this ordeal and almost a year later was sent to Moscow where he joined Brian Horrocks, another who had the ignominious distinction of being a prisoner-of-war in both Germany and Russia in World War One. Returning to Australia, Dwyer lived until October 1979 and is buried at Buderin Cemetery, Queensland.

Captain Ernest William Latchford MC in Siberia 1919

Left Behind in China in 1921

When the British mission in Siberia closed down, a few officers were left behind in Manchuria. Leading this group was Brigadier William Beckett who had been in charge of the British Railway mission during the retreat from Omsk, including those who were captured at Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk. He had been awarded the CBE in the 1920 honours list and as penance for losing his men, he was placed under control of the “British Minister, Pekin” and employed at Harbin as the representative on the Inter Allied Technical Board of the Trans Siberian Railway until 1923.

Several British soldiers were demobilized in Shanghai. One of these was the doctor who had written the final report of the British medical mission and handed over the X Ray machine in Krasnoyarsk, Captain James Alexander O’Driscoll LRCP. On 17th January 1921, he was living at 14 Museum Road and wrote to the War Office to claim the outstanding money it owed to him on discharge.

The situation in Manchuria remained tense as the fighting between the Red Army and the Japanese backed Ataman Semeonov’s forces continued until September 1921. At the same time a major influx of Han Chinese changed the demographics of the country overtaking the Manchu as the most populous ethnic group in North East China.

The First Head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary

When Major General Knox was recalled to England at the end of 1919, he passed command of the British Military Mission to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Wickham, who was originally commissioned into the Norfolk Regiment and awarded a DSO during the Boer War.

As head of supply in Siberia, he dispatched millions of pounds worth of British arms, ammunition and equipment to Kolchak’s army on the front line, but in January 1920 he had to organize the evacuation of British personnel and help those captured by the Red Army. He sent dozens of telegrams updating Winston Churchill (they had both been to the same school) about Leonard Vining and the other prisoners and put together a resupply train for their relief. However, once the British captives were transported to Moscow, Wickham closed down his headquarters in Vladivostok and returned via Shanghai to England.

He was immediately posted to Ireland at the height of the struggle for independence to organize the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He remained in charge for 25 years, earning a bipartisan reputation for his integrity and civil manner. One of his greatest challenges was organizing the defence of Northern Ireland during the Second World War, but after it ended, he could not resist one final overseas challenge when he was invited to lead the British police mission in Greece during the communist insurgency, for which he was knighted in 1952.

Charles Wickham is on the right of this photograph of Major General Knox and his staff officers in Siberia. Cecil Cameron is on the left and the cheery face at the bottom is Henry Wellesley who was awarded an MC and Bar in Iraq before arriving in Russia.

Genius According to Evelyn Waugh

One of the officers who served with Colonel Alfred Knox in Petrograd during the Russian Revolution and joined him, when he became commander of the British mission in Siberia in 1918 was the enigmatic William Gerhardi, who subsequently earned fame as an author, but ultimately died in poverty in 1977.

His parents, who were expatriates living in Russia, were ruined by the revolution and only just managed to escape to England. As a 23 year-old staff captain, fluent in Russian, he was employed as a liaison officer in Vladivostok, but did not see action on the front line. He was awarded an OBE for his services, but this was mysteriously delayed for a year after the main Siberian Honours were announced in the London Gazette.

After the war, Gerhardi returned to the University of Oxford where he wrote his critically acclaimed first novel, Futility. His fan club included Evelyn Waugh who wrote about him: “I have talent, but he has genius”. Perhaps even more impressive is the comment by Graham Greene: “to those of my generation, he was the most important new novelist to appear in our young life”.

Among Gerhardi’s literary work is Memoirs of a Polyglot, published in 1931. In this elegant book, he describes the fate of some of the officers who he worked for in Siberia, including the “charmingly courteous baronet” and the Brigadier “overwhelmed with duties”, who died in Serbia. By then, he was firmly opinionated about the waste and cruelty of war and became a darling of the 1930s appeasement movement.

Perhaps this is the reason why his writing lost potency after the Second World War and was “re-discovered” by anti-war activists after the invasion of Iraq. Whether he was right or wrong about its utility, he certainly has a memorable turn of phrase, including this abiding comment about historical analysis: “In the exercise of prophecy one is inclined to expect history to describe the same pattern as before, forgetting that if the initial curves are sometimes the same, those who follow often diverge, forming the initial curves of a new pattern.”

Sad Fate of the British Spy Chief in Siberia – Cecil Cameron

You can find Winston Churchill’s instructions to Major General Sir Alfred Knox as commander of the British Mission to Siberia on page 37 of the secret “Narrative of Events in Siberia 1918-1920”. Paragraph 10 orders him to “address all your reports to the Director of Military Intelligence” in the War Office. Paragraph 8b2 states: “Major CA Cameron RA graded as GSO 3rd Grade to take charge of your Intelligence Service, will leave England in about a fortnight.”

Cecil Aylmer Cameron was a controversial appointment because he had served three years in prison for fraud after he claimed £6,500 for the theft of his wife’s pearl necklace, which had not been stolen. However, after his wife admitted sole responsibility for the crime, he was given a royal pardon and allowed to resume his commission in the army. During the First World War, he was awarded the DSO for running a spy network in German occupied France and Belgium under his code-name Evelyn.

In Siberia, Knox used Cameron as his Chief of Staff because he was fluent in Russian and knew everything about everyone. He also directed the network of officers, who kept tabs on Kolchak’s decisions and how the Siberian army fared in its fight with Trotsky’s Red Army. For his services in Siberia, he was awarded the CBE in the 1920 Honours List.

After the war, he was posted to Ireland where he continued to work for Military Intelligence. When the Labour Party won the General Election in 1924, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald immediately recognized the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and appointed Robert Hodgson as Ambassador. He had taken over from Sir Charles Eliot as High Commissioner in Omsk in 1919, but escaped with General Knox after they abandoned the soldiers, who became the last prisoners in World War One. Hodgson was very familiar with Cameron’s work and approved the War Office’s proposal for him to become the Military Attache.

Cameron was the best candidate for the job, but the Soviet government knew about his espionage background and used its influence with the Labour Party to get at the Prime Minister, who refused to endorse the War Office appointment on the grounds that he had previously been convicted (so ignoring his royal pardon).

Sadly, Cameron believed his career prospects were over and was found dead at Hillsborough Barracks in August. Together with Labour’s support for the communist newspaper’s incitement of British Service personnel to mutiny in the notorious “Campbell Case” and their controversial concessions to the Soviet Union, Cameron’s death contributed to the fall of the MacDonald government on 29th October 1924.

Russian Railway Mission Dispersal Around The World

Several of Churchill’s Abandoned Prisoners were part of the British Railway Mission in Siberia and Manchuria. Initially, this was led by Brigadier Archibald Jack, but he handed over to Brigadier William Beckett at the beginning of November 1919. Jack was awarded the CBE and CMG in 1919 and the CB in the Siberian Honours. In 1920, he became General Manager of the railways in Havana, Cuba. He was shot through the head by a striker, but survived this (he had already been torpedoed three times during the war) and was also a survivor of the 1927 Sevenoaks railway disaster. Beckett was awarded the CBE in the Siberian Honours despite abandoning his soldiers on the way back from Omsk. His penance was to remain behind when the British Mission closed in Vladivostok in May 1920. He continued to serve at Harbin in China as the British representative on the Inter Allied Technical Board of the Trans-Siberian Railway until 1923, for which he was awarded the distinguished Chinese Order of Chia Ho.

The leader of the prisoners-of-war, Major Leonard Vining, who had saved the lives of his men, was given neither public reward nor recognition and had his acting rank taken away from him by the War Office, while still a PoW. He published his diary and returned to his country of birth, to serve with the Indian State Railways. In the Second World War, he was eventually awarded an MBE (downgraded from a recommendation for an OBE) for his work in East Africa, where he cleared and reconstructed the port of Massawa and organised the railway and ropeway network in Eritrea.

Captain William Dempster, who had been awarded the Military Cross in 1918, returned to Canada where he became embroiled in a political scandal at the end of World War II. As a virulent anti-communist, he served in the Ontario Provincial Police Special Investigation Branch tasked to root out 5th Columnists. In this role, he compiled reports on the activities of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and opposition members of Canada’s Provincial Parliament. He was cross-examined over several days during the 1945 Royal Commission that exonerated the Drew government for knowingly spying on MPPs.

Warrant Officer Emerson MacMillan married Dallas Ireland (who had resigned as a American Red Cross nurse in Vladivostok) in London and returned to Philadelphia, where she gave birth to a son. Emerson then emigrated to Brazil with his family and developed the tram network in Sao Paolo, the financial centre of the country. During the Second World War, he kept an eye on German agents trying to persuade the Brazilian government to join the Axis and for his efforts, he was awarded an OBE in 1946.

From Prisoners in Russia to WWII Generals

The two infantry captains in the group of prisoners became famous generals in the Second World War. Brian Horrocks, who represented GB in the 1924 Olympics, impressed General Montgomery so much when he commanded 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment during the battle of France, that he was rapidly promoted through the ranks of Brigadier and Major General to take over 13 Corps after the first battle of El Alamein in 1942. When he arrived at the front on 18th August, he was worried that “command in the desert was regarded as an almost certain prelude to a bowler hat”. However, he earned an immediate DSO at the second battle of El Alamein and in Libya, he took over 10 Corps and fought with it all the way to Tunisia, where he led the critical outflanking manoeuvre that won the battle for Montgomery. He also successfully led 9 Corps after its commander was wounded, but his luck ran out in June 1943, when his lungs and stomach were shot through by a strafing enemy aircraft. It took him a year to recover fitness and in August 1944, he took over 30 Corps in France, leading this iconic formation all the way into Germany and commanding a pivotal role at Arnhem (he was played by the distinguished actor Edward Fox in the film A Bridge Too Far). Unfortunately, he was medically discharged before taking up the appointment as Commander in Chief, but there is no doubt that if it wasn’t for his wounds, he would have become Chief of the Imperial General Staff after after Bill Slim in 1952. Of his many achievements, perhaps the most remarkable was that he is the only person to have commanded four different corps in battle.

Horrocks owed his life in Siberia to his best friend, Eric “Georgik” Hayes, who also rose to high command. After taking 2nd Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment to France, Hayes was promoted to lead a brigade in Kent and in 1941, he took over 3rd Infantry Division, which had been led by Montgomery in France. A year later, he was given command of West Africa and in the final year of the war, he became General Officer Commanding British troops in China, where he witnessed the surrender of Japan in September 1945.

Hayes died soon after the war after a short illness, but Horrocks had a very successful life, working as Black Rod in the Houses of Parliament and carving out a unique career in the media with his battlefield histories. He would never talk about his time in Russia, but in his memoir, he did admit that the ordeal “was an excellent preparation for the stresses and strains of command in war.”