Intelligence historians know that the very first agent recruited by MI6 was Agent “WK” and that his real name was Walter Christmas. “WK” for Christmas, get it? Ho, ho, ho. (I try to be seasonal here). It couldn’t be WC, a) because it conjures certain other images and b) because Cumming, the first Chief, reserved that letter to apply to himself in supposedly “secret” correspondence. Strewth. MI6 tradecraft was appalling in those early days. Cumming often either allotted an agent’s initial from his surname as the code letter or, as he quickly ran out of letters, chose a word which reminded him (and anyone who got access to his records) of their name. So Byzewski was “B”, Bywater was “H2O”, Trench was “Counterscarp”, etc. One of the great myths of MI6 is that Cumming was some kind of intelligence genius. In fact he was a rather a blunderer who never even made the key naval rank of Captain until long after he had been an intelligence chief – and by then the powers that be assumed he must be pretty bright if he was running the show. But that is a subject for another day.
Walter’s full name was, rather splendidly, Captain Walter Christmas-Dirckinck Holmfeld. In truth, it isn’t even fair to say that he was MI6’s first recruitment since he wasn’t recruited by them, but rather by the Naval Intelligence Department (NID) in April 1909. The NID handed Christmas over to Cumming, together with several other sources, as a sort of “starter set” of field agents. He was an officer in the Royal Danish Navy, placed on the retired list, who was looking for an “honourable” way to supplement his income. Assisting an ally with naval intelligence about an enemy, Germany, was his way of doing this. Realising that he was on to a good thing, he soon recruited other members of his family and there was quite a little “K network” – “2K”, “KK”, etc. (Although it didn’t last long when it was realised that they were doing little more than rewriting stories from the Danish press. Anyone who thinks times have changed should read the verdict of the Franks Inquiry on MI6 reporting during the Falklands War….).
There are many stories about Walter which there isn’t room to relate here, but a friend in Denmark has just made me aware of a new one which is mildly amusing. You see there is a strict ban on MI6 officers writing books, especially spy novels. One or two, notably, “John Le Carre”, have worked a way around that, but they are the exceptions. So I was surprised to find that Walter was not only MI6’s first agent, but also one of the very first spy novelists. He is better known in Denmark as the creator of the “Peder Most” series of adventures. Peder is a red-haired, boy sailor who travels the world becoming mixed up in all sorts of fun including spying. He is a sort of Danish “Biggles” and was, in his day, very popular.
What makes this even more interesting is that the well-known author and MI6 officer, Compton Mackenzie was successfully prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act in 1932 for having written a book in which he named Christmas as a British agent. (They had met and Mackenzie thought his reporting was “utter nonsense”). This prosecution was laughable because it was well-known in Denmark that the author of Peder Most had been a British spy. Indeed Mackenzie’s defence team provided witnesses to that effect. Walter had been exfiltrated in 1916 when the Germans became aware of who he was (thanks to poor MI6 tradecraft) and he had returned in triumph to be awarded the official title “Knight of Dannebrog” for his work. So the entire case was a waste of time. It is not the first time that the Service has attempted to slam the stable door long after the horse has bolted and it also led to Mackenzie publishing “Water on the Brain”, one of the bitterest, best and least known of books about espionage ever written.