My dad, the unlikely Russian spy
The story of James MacGibbon has been thrillingly brought to life by his son
07 December, 2017 — By Sebastian Taylor
THE time is July 1943 and the greatest tank battle in history, the Battle of Kursk, is under way in Russia.
It was to be the make or break battle between Germany and Russia. If successful, Germany would be well-positioned to make another attack on Moscow. But if Russia won, it would be the end of German ambitions in Russia.
The Russian defenders had a major advantage over the German military. The Soviet command had advance knowledge of the German battle plan.
This knowledge came from the military Enigma ciphers in the historic “Ultra” operation giving details of the German tank dispositions.
But the Enigma details were not provided by Churchill’s government. It believed that Stalin’s government might reveal the existence of the Ultra code-breaking operation.
In addition, there was a strong contingent of “White Russians” in Churchill’s government hopeful that the Bolsheviks would be defeated by the Germans.
No, the key Enigma ciphers that proved so useful to the Russians in the Battle of Kursk came from one James MacGibbon operating as a freelance spy for the Soviets in the War Office in London.
His work as a Russian spy has prompted his son Hamish MacGibbon to write father’s life story in Maverick Spy: Stalin’s Super-Agent in World War II.
It’s a gripping story, full of the skullduggery of the world of spies, quite up to the standard of a John le Carré tale.
It provides a detailed picture of MacGibbon’s operations as a spy, both in London and later in Washington, and an exquisite portrait of how the British counter-espionage operated at the time.
The biography provides a picture of James MacGibbon’s life in the round from early childhood and marriage to Jean Howard to his time as a spy and his long career as a publisher. They had an exceptionally wide circle of friends, authors, poets and artists, among them at one time Julian Trevelyan, Jessica Mitford, Hammond Innes, Colin MacInnes, Robert Shaw, Al Alvarez and Stevie Smith.
He’s most remembered, of course, for launching the MacGibbon & Kee imprint that launched a variety of fiction and non-fiction books; he worked fruitfully for a variety of publishing companies after his firm was sold.
In the late 1960s, living in Gospel Oak and later in Kentish Town, he became a Labour alderman on Camden Borough Council.
Hamish MacGibbon, who has written the life story of his father, James MacGibbon
As chairman of the library committee, he presided over the opening of the central borough library and the Shaw Theatre, both constructed and owned by the council.
Throughout his long life – he died at the age of 86 – he was a keen yachtsman, sailing the oceans whenever the opportunity arose.
James MacGibbon was the most unlikely person to become a spy, the product of a prosperous, conventional Presbyterian family in Scotland.
He was a man of immense charm, full of vigorous humour, an excellent ballroom dancer, quite up to Strictly standards, as my wife can attest.
Not going to university, his interest in politics was pretty minimal until the 1933 burning of the Reichstag and the rise of Nazism.
More importantly, his political understanding was much enhanced through his marriage to Jean Howard, a clever woman who became a successful author of children’s books.
Onset of the Spanish Civil War was the catalyst for political action. Like so many intellectuals determined to do something about that dreadful war, they joined the Communist Party.
Imminent war with Germany saw James joining up with the Royal Fusiliers, eventually moving to the War Office, joining its Military Operations section and learning of the refusal of the government to help Russia.
“James was outraged that we were not doing everything we could to help our only ally, the only country at that time waging all-out war against the Germans at the cost of massive losses day by day,” writes Hamish MacGibbon.
With daily access to information about German military dispositions, it was but a short step to becoming a spy, eventually a spy of major importance to Russia.
Hamish MacGibbon has unearthed that importance through study of the Moscow archives of the GRU, the Red Army’s military intelligence unit.
Operating under the code name “Dolly”, James provided copious top secret information of huge military and diplomatic value.
The material probably included the German battle plans for the Battle of Kursk and the plans for D-Day, received by Stalin seven months before the Normandy invasion.
After the war ended, James became a priority suspect and was kept under surveillance by MI5 through mail and telephone interceptions for some years.
A bug was inserted in the family home so that MI5 officers could eavesdrop on James, his family and friends, recording their everyday lives and the trials and tribulations of James’s fledgling publishing business.
Also, the MI5 officers overheard the MacGibbons worrying that his espionage activities might be revealed.
MI5’s top interrogator William “Jim” Skardon, responsible for getting the atom spy Fuchs to confess, tried to get James to do the same.
But James did not crack as Fuchs did; he emerged from the interviews unscathed, thereby escaping arrest and prosecution, much to his satisfaction.
• Maverick Spy: Stalin’s Super-Agent in World War II. By Hamish MacGibbon, LB Tauris, £20