Maxwell Knight

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Charles Henry Maxwell Knight OBE, known as Maxwell Knight, (b. Mitcham, Surrey, 4 September 1900 – 27 January 1968) was an English spymaster, naturalist and broadcaster, while reputedly being a model for the James Bond character M.


Knight had been a member of Rotha Lintorn-Orman's British Fascisti and served as the organisation's intelligence director. He maintained his membership until 1930.[1] Joan Miller, his second ex-wife, claimed Knight was a rightwing, anti-semitic homosexual.[2]

In 1924, at the request of Sir George Makgill who was running agents on the behalf of Sir Vernon Kell, Knight joined the first of the British Fascist movements in the UK, he remained on this assignment to British Fascistii until 1930.

In the 1920s, on Knight's instructions, six British Fascists posing as Communists joined the Communist Party of Great Britain to work as penetrator agents for Makgill's II B, according to The Defence of the Realm about the MI5.

In April 1925, Knight was recruited by Major General Sir Vernon Kell, Director General of the British Security Service MI5 responsible for counter terrorism. He was MI5's chief 'agent runner', principally against the Communist Party. [1] He rose to be head of section B5(b) responsible for infiltrating agents into potentially subversive groups, based for much of its existence at 308 Hood House, Dolphin Square, London, separate from the rest of MI5.

During his career with MI5, Knight found that there was "a very long standing and ill-founded prejudice against the employment of women as agents", a position with which he did not agree. Indeed, many of his best agents were women. Agents working under him included Olga Gray (who infiltrated the leadership of the CPGB), Joan Miller (who "penetrated the anti-semitic underworld of British Fascism")[1] and Tom Driberg.

A respected case officer, notable successes were the infiltration of political groups leading to the internment and imprisonment of people regarded as a threat to the UK such as Albert Williams, Percy Glading, George Whomack, Anna Wolkoff, Tyler Kent, the anti-semitic Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay and Oswald Mosley. His early warnings of communist infiltration of MI5 were not taken seriously. A notable failing was his entrapment of Ben Greene, the pacifist Quaker refugee worker interned by the then Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, as result of false evidence from Knight's agent provocateur Harald Kurtz.

Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond series of books, used an amalgam of Knight and his former superior Rear Admiral John Henry Godfrey, Director of the Naval Intelligence Division, as a model for the character 'M', Bond's boss.


After World War II, in 1946, Knight, who had since childhood been an ardent naturalist, began what was to become a successful broadcasting career on BBC radio, appearing in and hosting such programmes as Naturalist, Country Questions and Nature Parliament. He appeared occasionally on television in Peter Scott's Look and Animal, Vegetable or Mineral and published 34 books and wrote magazine articles.

His broadcast career progressed alongside his MI5 work until 1956, when he retired early, from MI5, on the grounds of ill health, suffering from angina. He died in Midgham, Berkshire from heart failure in 1968. After his death, the Maxwell Knight Memorial Fund was set up and, from the proceeds funded, the Maxwell Knight Young Naturalists' Library in the education centre of the Natural History Museum.

Knight was a well regarded birder, as were numerous other spies. Naturalist Helen Macdonald describes the reason for this co-interest as such: "You have the same skills, the ability to identify, recognise, be unobtrusive, invisible, hide. You pay careful attention to your surroundings. You never feel part of the crowd."[3] Further illustrating Knight's overlapping interest in both fields, he raised a pet cuckoo, a bird that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, essentially animal spies and "penetration agents".

In October, 2015, news that an hitherto unpublished manuscript entitled The Frightened Face of Nature (written by Knight in 1964) had been discovered in Maxwell Knight's personal filing cabinet by Simon H. King and Professor John E. Cooper was published by the Guardian - with the headline: Spectre of destruction: the lost manuscript of the real-life 'M'

Published works[edit]

Detective fiction[edit]

  • Crime Cargo. London: Philip Allan. 1934. 
  • Gunman's Holiday. London: Philip Allan. 1935. 

Natural history[edit]

  • The Young Naturalists Field Guide. G. Bell. 1952. 
  • Bird Gardening: How to Attract Birds. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1954. 
  • Frogs, Toads and Newts in Britain. 1962. 
  • Reptiles in Britain. Heinemann. 1965. 
  • Pets and their Problems. Heinemann. 1968. 
  • Be a Nature Detective. Warne. 1969. 


  1. ^ a b c S Twigge, E Hampshire, G Macklin British Intelligence, The National Archives, Kew, 2008, p33
  2. ^ Bowcott, Owen (21 May 2004). "Women make better spies - as long as they forget sex". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 12 May 2010. 
  3. ^ Helen Macdonald, Spies in the sky: Helen Macdonald on how birds reflect our national anxieties, The Guardian, 12 May 2015.


  • Masters, A. (1986). The Man Who Was M: The life of Maxwell Knight. London: Grafton Books. ISBN 978-0-586-06867-0. 
  • Robinson, Curtis B. (2011). Caught Red Starred: The Woolwich Spy-Ring and Stalin's Naval Rearmament on the Eve of War. Bloomington IN.: Xlibris. ISBN 978-1-4653-4041-2. 

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