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  • Published: 22 August 2023
  • ISBN: 9780143777557
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $34.99

The Eagle in the Mirror


Like a lot of people whose lives come to sticky or ignominious ends, Dick Ellis’s time on Earth was ruined by the butterfly effect. All it took was the bodies of two Russian secret agents to be discovered – one machine-gunned to death at point-blank range and dumped on a lonely road in Lausanne, Switzerland, the other a supposed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot in a Washington DC hotel room – for his reputation to begin to unravel completely.

It would take time, decades, for that to happen but there was no escaping Ellis’s ultimate fate. It mattered not that he was widely admired, possessing ‘a most refreshing sense of humour which made being in his company always a most enjoyable and rewarding experience’ or that he was ‘greatly liked and trusted in his day’. Ellis’s achievements as a soldier and intelligence agent would evaporate into irrelevance. No matter what he said or didn’t say, no matter how much evidence he presented to prove his case, it made no difference because simple suspicion of collaboration with the enemy was enough to ruin him both in life and in death, for perpetuity. That is the fate of spies accused of such an unforgivable crime.

Soviet secret agent Ignace Reiss, codename LUDWIK or LUDWIG, aka ‘Ignace Poretsky’ and ‘Hans Eberhardt’, had vowed never to go back to Moscow. In 1937 World War II was on the distant horizon and Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was picking off his rivals and perceived enemies one by one in the unprecedented purges that had started the year before. For Reiss – then based in Paris but who’d served in Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam, an idealistic Trotskyite – any return to the Soviet Union would mean certain death. He’d be far better off taking his chances in exile but he wasn’t going to exit quietly.

His ‘old friend and comrade’, Walter Krivitsky – who in his 1939 book In Stalin’s Secret Service described himself as ‘chief of the Soviet Military Intelligence in Western Europe’ – would write that Reiss had ‘worked for years in our secret service abroad’ and ‘had been deeply shocked by the purge of the Old Bolsheviks and the “treason trials” and was already determined to break away from Moscow . . . those were the days when ambassadors and ministers, to say nothing of special agents, were being recalled from all over the world to be shot or imprisoned in Moscow, when even the leading generals of the Red Army were bound for the firing squad.’

Some 35,000 Soviet army officers were killed in 1937 alone, hundreds of thousands of people were exiled and millions more interned in concentration camps. Despite knowing the risks, Reiss effectively signed his own death sentence by brashly sending Stalin a letter on 17 July that year, admonishing his leader for betraying the ideals of the Russian Revolution:

Up to now I have followed you. From now on, not a step further. Our ways part! He who keeps silent at this hour becomes an accomplice of Stalin, and a traitor to the cause of the working class and of Socialism . . . let no one be deceived. Truth will find its way. The day of judgment is nearer, much nearer, than the gentlemen in the Kremlin think.

Wrote Krivitsky: ‘Reiss was a thorough idealist who had enlisted heart and soul in the cause of communism and world revolution, and Stalin’s policy appeared to him more and more obviously an evolution toward fascism. He spoke to me of his crushing disillusionment, of his desire to drop everything and go off to some remote corner where he could be forgotten.’

Instead on 4 September, futilely hiding away from roving assassins with his wife Elsa and son Roman in Lausanne, Reiss was murdered. He’d been taking an evening stroll with a fellow Soviet secret agent, Gertrude Schildbach, whom he thought he could trust. That trust was misplaced. The treacherous Schildbach had at least declined to kill him with the strychnine-laced chocolate in her possession but had agreed to participate in the ambush that would end Reiss’s life at the age of 38. It has been inferred that the chocolate was ‘doubtless intended’ for Roman.

‘He went out with her to dine in a restaurant near Chamblandes to discuss the whole situation,’ recalled Krivitsky. ‘So he thought. After dinner they took a little walk. Somehow they wandered off into an obscure road. An automobile appeared and came to a sudden stop. Several men jumped out of it and attacked Reiss. He fought the attacking band, but with the aid of Schildbach, whose strand of hair was found in his clutch, they forced him into the car. Here one of them, Abbiat- Rossi, assisted by another, Etienne Martignat, both Paris agents of [the Russian secret police] the OGPU, fired a submachine gun point-blank at Reiss. His body was thrown out of the car a short distance away . . . there were five bullets in his head and seven in his body.’

What makes this account so credible is that Krivitsky – at the time of Reiss’s assassination ostensibly a bookseller in The Hague, the Netherlands, but working undercover for the Soviets (he was living in France when he wrote his book) – had himself been asked to help kill Reiss but had refused. Upon learning of Reiss’s death, he wrote, ‘I realised that my lifelong service to the Soviet government was ended . . . I could not pass the criminal test now put to those who wished to serve Stalin. I had taken an oath to serve the Soviet Union; I had lived by that oath; but to take an active hand in these wholesale murders was beyond my powers.’

In 1938 Krivitsky defected to the United States. The 41-year old planned to apply for American citizenship and settle in Virginia. He’d already survived one kidnapping attempt by Stalin’s agents and knew his life and those of his wife and family were in mortal danger. Nevertheless, he told what he knew of Stalin’s secrets – and Russia’s network of double agents – to the secret-intelligence services of France, United States, Canada and Britain, as well as the readers of the Saturday Evening Post in America. Sure enough, being so open and public about the Soviet Union’s inner workings and espionage activities abroad ensured Krivitsky would meet the same grisly end as Reiss and another Soviet defector, Georges Agabekov, who had been assassinated in the Pyrenees the same year.

Of course, it was made to look like a suicide – Kim Philby called it a suicide, and the coroner officially found it so – but the manner of Krivitsky’s death bore all the hallmarks of expert Russian assassins. On the morning of 10 February 1941, Krivitsky’s body, with a head wound from a .38 calibre revolver, was discovered by a chambermaid on his bed in a pool of blood at the Bellevue Hotel on 15 East Street, Washington DC. The gun lay next to him on the floor. The fifth-floor room was locked from the inside – both door and windows – and there were three separate suicide notes.

‘If they ever try to prove I took my own life, don’t believe it,’ he’d told an American investigator before his death.

Krivitsky, whose real name was Samuel Ginsberg and codename ‘Walter Thomas’, was notable for having given British intelligence its first hint of infiltration by notorious Soviet mole Philby, though the tip-off wasn’t followed up. Information he supplied did directly lead to the arrest of another traitor, Captain John Herbert King, however.

MI5’s Jane Archer began debriefing Krivitsky in late January 1940 in London and extracted from the Russian a trove of valuable intelligence. Among it was a reference to an obscure figure called Vladimir von Petrov (aka Waldemar von Petrow). Codenamed T100, Von Petrov was a secret agent who’d operated in Western Europe in the 1920s. He was a valued source for British intelligence and had an indirect association with Australian- born MI6 intelligence officer Dick Ellis in the 1930s.

Ellis had married into a Paris-based White Russian (anti-Bolshevik) family, the Zelenskys, in 1923 and it was Ellis’s brother- in law, Aleksei (Alexander), who had a personal connection to Von Petrov. Through the conduit of Aleksei, Ellis had allegedly traded information with Von Petrov, a Nazi agent, and for this reason Ellis would later be accused of giving over secrets to Nazi Germany in return for money. It was suspected Ellis had also been blackmailed into service for the Soviet Union.

Von Petrov was a very big fish – a different individual to the Soviet official Vladimir Petrov who later defected to Australia. He was, it transpired, a Nazi/Soviet/Japanese triple agent. Like any spook worthy of the name, Von Petrov used various aliases: Petroff, Petrow and Otto von Bohl, among countless others.

‘Sometime between 1921 and 1929 the third section [Russian secret police] had what they considered a most valuable agent for British colonial matters who was a member of the staff of the Japanese Embassy in Berlin,’ wrote Archer in her report. ‘His name was PETROFF – agent no. 401 – a White Russian. No. 401 was much relied upon as a source of information on British colonial problems. He not only had access to Japanese sources but himself wrote reports on the subject. He would never disclose his source.’

In 1945, when the war was over, the same Von Petrov (T100) appeared in the British interrogation files of a captured senior Nazi, Walter Schellenberg, the chief of Sicherheitsdienst or SD, the intelligence division of SS (Schutzstaffel). Schellenberg was an oberführer (senior leader) who became brigadeführer (brigade leader) and number-two man in the Gestapo.

‘Agent T100 was [a] Chilean White Russian [called] Petroff in Switzerland who was also used by [SS police chief Ernst] Kaltenbrunner to transfer his funds there.’

Another reference to Von Petrov is made in the same files (‘I presume Kaltenbrunner will be asked about Petrow’)11 and  Schellenberg states in his interrogation that he last met Von Petrov in his office in Berlin in 1944 and that Von Petrov had ‘direct relations with [Reinhard] Heydrich’, the head of the Reich Security Main Office or Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA).

This detail shows that Von Petrov was networked into serious power because around 1941, the RSHA under Heydrich and his boss, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, had supplanted the Abwehr (the military intelligence service of Nazi Germany) as the Nazis’ top department for ‘espionage, sabotage and repression’. Schellenberg’s Amt VI, the foreign political intelligence department of SD, had been absorbed into RSHA.

In the CIA files in Washington DC, a document dated 28 June 1945 says that Von Petrov was the highest paid agent Schellenberg had on the Nazis’ books: ‘Despite meagre results, Schellenberg continued to reward him with the highest pay of any agent of Amt VI . . . Kaltenbrunner thought that T100 worked also for the Japanese or the Russians and Schellenberg did not deny this possibility as far as the Japanese were concerned.’ The Chilean-born White Russian was regarded as ‘something of a protégé of Schellenberg’s’.

Schellenberg also took Von Petrov’s reports ‘directly to Himmler without ever showing them to Kaltenbrunner’. The fearsome Himmler, of course, was not just head of the SS but one of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen.

Taken together, all these documents confirm for the first time that the elusive, phantom- like Von Petrov – a British intelligence asset – had been working for the Soviets and the Nazis as well as the Japanese, and in each case at the highest levels. Indeed, further investigation by the British secret services established beyond doubt that Von Petrov was no less than an ‘emissary for Himmler’.

This friend and close contact of Dick Ellis’s brother-in law was not your run-of-the-mill intelligence operative. Who exactly was this Chilean White Russian Ellis had allegedly been selling information to, where was that information going, where was he exactly, and how was he about to alter the course of Ellis’s life?

In September 1945, a Soviet defector in Ottawa, Igor Gouzenko, told representatives of the Canadian government that there was a mole called ‘ELLI’ inside MI6 working for Stalin. Who ELLI is remains a mystery; his identity has never been unanimously agreed upon. Ellis, with his similar-sounding name and specific details that seemed to match ELLI’s personal background, was at one point considered one of three possible suspects, only to be eventually ruled out, despite Gouzenko himself saying right before his death from a heart attack in Mississauga, Ontario, in June 1982 that he thought ELLI might be Ellis after all.

Then, somewhat ominously for Ellis, in April and May 1946, an Abwehroffizier (Abwehr officer) under interrogation at Fort  Blauwkapel in Utrecht, the Netherlands, came into the picture. Referred to by his peers as ‘Onkel Richard’ (Uncle Richard), Traugott Andreas ‘Richard’ Protze spilled the beans on a British double agent called ‘Captain Ellis’ operating in Brussels who had met supposed Russian agents. Brussels is 160 kilometres from The Hague, where Krivitsky had been based.

Protze was no minor Nazi. A former Kriegsmarine kapitän zur see (naval captain), he was a close confidant of the Abwehr’s former director, the recently executed Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (one of the leaders of a failed plot against Hitler), and served as head of the Abwehr III F, the counterespionage unit of Abwehr III, the Abwehr’s counterintelligence department. From 1927 to 1938 Protze had lived in Berlin. He’d been personally sent to The Hague in 1938 by Canaris, working undercover as a travel agent for German railways. There he set up his own espionage unit, Stelle P.

In his 1971 book The Game of the Foxes, Ladislas Farago wrote that ‘Canaris considered Protze his mentor and aide’ and Protze was ‘a troubleshooter in the old Marinenachrichtendienst [German Naval Intelligence Service] . . . then continued as the ace spybuster of the Abwehr. A fox among the foxes and a cynic with a strong stomach, he was an odious old pro who regarded every man as guilty even when proven innocent. He could be affable and charming. His personal diplomacy consisted in doing and saying the nastiest things in the nicest way . . . dedicated, diligent, and self-effacing on the one hand but eccentric, iconoclastic, and rather sinister on the other.’

A cable was promptly sent in June 1946 to the desk of none other than Harold Adrian Russell Philby, head of a section in MI6 handling counterintelligence, who signed his letters ‘H. A. R.’ but was known to all by his nickname, ‘Kim’. (The previous year Philby, yet to be exposed as a Soviet spy, had given up aspiring defector Konstantin Volkov to the Russians forestalling Volkov’s chance to tell the British secret services what he knew in exchange for protection. Volkov, then Soviet vice-consul in Istanbul and an NKVD agent, disappeared and was presumably executed.) Philby, bizarrely, replied that he didn’t know who this ‘Ellis’ could be – even though he and Ellis were both members of the same SIS committee on the service’s postwar reorganisation.

‘I am afraid,’ Philby wrote in a letter to MI5 officer Major John Gwyer, ‘that I cannot make any suggestions on the spur of the moment as to the possible identity of ELLIS and suggest that all we can do is to await the result of PROTZE’s further interrogation. Yours sincerely, H. A. R. Philby.’

A battery of questions had been drafted by British intelligence to press Protze on his spectacular claim about a ‘Captain Ellis’ but the German, then almost 70, took ill and was mysteriously released; in any case Protze had begun backpedalling, making out Ellis had been a Russian who had simply used the British name ‘Ellis’. An SIS agent in the same intelligence file warned: ‘PROTZE will probably deny further knowledge of the matter and profess that he cannot answer any of the questions.’

By the following year, Philby and his MI5 counterpart, future MI5 boss Roger Hollis, had shut down the Protze probe. That, so it seemed, was where the investigation of ‘Captain Ellis’ wrapped up until the spectacular defection of Philby to Moscow in 1963 prompted British intelligence and a group of ‘young Turks’ in MI5 to launch an unprecedented internal ‘molehunt’. An unsuspecting Dick Ellis would be comprehensively ensnared.

One of those young Turks was MI5 intelligence officer Peter Wright who’d become a confidential source for crusading British espionage journalist Chapman Pincher. On his own account Wright would author (with future Bourne Supremacy, Bourne Ultimatum and Jason Bourne director Paul Greengrass as his ghostwriter) one of the bestselling books of the 1980s, Spycatcher, in which he laid out the circumstantial case against Ellis (whom he dismissively called ‘Dickie’). While some thought Wright’s ‘knowledge was on an altogether different scale’, not everyone was impressed with his modus operandi: ‘Behind the guarded doors of Leconfield House, Peter Wright was behaving like a Witchfinder-General.’

Serious charges would be levelled against Ellis by Wright; that effectively, as late British historian Donald Cameron Watt summarised, he ‘was a double agent working both for the German Abwehr and the Russians’, ‘that he betrayed to the Germans the MI5 tap on the German Embassy telephone to Berlin’, ‘that he continued to work for the Abwehr when he was posted to Washington in December 1939’, ‘that Ellis “betrayed” the entire MI6 organisation in Western Europe to the Abwehr’ and ‘that Ellis was a Soviet mole in the pre-war years’.

None of it, however, convinced Watt. He was absolutely scathing about Wright’s Spycatcher, especially the purported confession Wright claimed to have witnessed Ellis make under interrogation.

‘The more one reads Wright’s account, the sorrier one becomes for the unfortunate Ellis. One is even left to doubt whether Ellis’s interrogation ever took place (though I am assured by persons who claim to have spoken with the interrogating officer that it did), or that he could have admitted one tenth of these accusations.’

Nor was anything ever proven against Ellis while he was alive but he remained actively under scrutiny and suspicion till his death in 1975.

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