“St. Ermin’s Hotel, London” – The History of a Legendary Spy Site, with Stephen Duffy
Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast," the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's historian and curator. Coming up next on SpyCast.
Stephen Duffy: But it also became known as the Works Canteen of the intelligence community. Because everyone either used to go into our bar or into the restaurant or the lobby to meet people. But it was mostly in the bar. And that's where Burgess, Maclean, and Philby, at different times, met their Russian handlers in plain sight. And sat there and spoke normally. Didn't talk out the side of their mouths and have red carnations and copies of the Financial Times under their arm. They just all passed over their information, their paperwork, or whatever, in plain sight to everybody.
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Andrew Hammond: Stephen Duffy is the Night Security Museum at the St. Ermin's Hotel, Westminster, London. Which if you're unfamiliar with London, is right at the very heart of the British power structure, with the Houses of Parliament on one side and Buckingham Palace on the other. And with MI5 and MI6 just a little farther down the River Thames. Stephen is also the custodian of the history of this legendary spy hotel. Where the origin of the special operations executive was quite literally drawn up on the back of a menu card, which is now deposited in the UK National Archives. In this episode, we discuss the origins of the SOE, MI6 and the SOE in the hotel during World War II, spoiler alert - bad neighbors, incredible female spies after World War II, St. Ermin's Cambridge 5 connection, and the broader history of the hotel, which goes way back when. If you enjoy the show, please tell your friends and loved ones and consider leaving us a five star review. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are SpyCast. Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Tell us a little bit more about the St. Ermin's Hotel. We're going to explore its relationship to the history of espionage and intelligence, but let's just help our listeners understand where is it, how long has it been there, you know, where is it in London, and then we'll move onto the other stuff next.
Stephen Duffy: Okay. St. Ermin's Hotel is based in Westminster. It is a 200 year old hotel, a 200 year old building. And the building was originally built as an apartment block. And the original owner kept it as an apartment block for about 25 years before realizing he could make a few more, as we say in London, a few more quib by turning it into a private hotel. So for the last 175 years, it's been a private hotel. It does have an extensive history. We are within walking distance within parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and so, you know, we're right in the middle of the- and particularly at Coronation, we can have a front row seat on that as well.
Andrew Hammond: And Westminster for listeners that aren't familiar with London, that's where the Houses of Parliament are, it's right in the heart of London.
Stephen Duffy: Yeah, it's- Westminster is the largest- London is made up of two cities and 33 boroughs. London is the city of Westminster, the city of London, which is the financial district, and then the 33 boroughs that surround London. But Westminster is where the heart of government and, you know, state and power are, basically.
Andrew Hammond: And can you just tell listeners a little bit more about how you came to do what you're doing? So, tell them about your day job and then tell them about briefly about how you came to be the custodian of some of the stories of the St. Ermin's Hotel.
Stephen Duffy: My day job is I'm a part of the safety and security team. And I work on- also work on a night team. So I predominantly work at night looking after the hotel. And during lockdown, during the- between March 2020 and May 2021, the hotel was closed completely. So we couldn't leave it entirely, just close the doors and walk away. We were part of a skeleton crew, or should I say, I was part of the skeleton crew looking after it. And during that time, because the hotel was empty, we were there, we had plenty of time to do the research. I'm a great fan of the history, military history, and it was great to be able to dig deeper into the history of the hotel. And from there, I was able to come up with the ideas for the guided tour around the hotel and to entertain the guests.
Andrew Hammond: And has there been any talk about your coming off of your regular duties to just be a full-time curator and historian of these stories?
Stephen Duffy: I think that's an ongoing discussion. Because as I've been doing the tours now for about a year- about a year, 13 months now. So, and, so it's gradually developing. And the word is spreading, as it were. But obviously, I'm hoping that as we expand our exhibits and showcases that we have in the hotel, then hopefully the bosses will think that's a good idea and have me doing it full-time.
Andrew Hammond: I was going to say for our listeners, if any of them ever go to the hotel or go to Westminster, there's a great place, one of my favorite places in London for food, the Regency Cafe where you can get an awesome full English breakfast. I'm sure you've been there a few times, Stephen.
Stephen Duffy: Yes. It's a regular haunt of mine after my- I usually finish my night shifts on a Monday morning. So whenever possible, at least once or twice a month, I'm always at the Regency Cafe. And you know, filling up after a very busy night.
Andrew Hammond: And the tea is so strong that you could feel-
Stephen Duffy: It's known as [inaudible] tea.
Andrew Hammond: [Inaudible] tea. So let's dig into a little bit more about the history of the hotel. So tell us about how it first intersects with the world of intelligence and espionage. Now obviously, because of its location, it probably will have even before things were formalized or were captured in documents. But when for you is the beginning of the story between the hotel and espionage and intelligence?
Stephen Duffy: I think it actually, from looking at the records and looking at the archives, it goes back to when the actual apartment lot was built. And around that period. Because even today, when you have apartment blocks and fancy developments being built, investors are asked to do that. Well one of the investors for St. Ermin's was the Kaiser Wilhelm II. German. Who was sent to be the German Ambassador, or German delegation that was in London in the time. So we're talking about the sort of late 1800s, early 1900s. And he was there. And was seen to have almost a plain monopoly, if you like, a monopoly around London with various properties and various apartment blocks and buildings and things like that. When he was under the- he was already under the watch of intelligence services, shall we say, as they were at the time. They were keeping an eye on him. Because they realized, why is he investing all this money in our London? What's going on? Is he trying to take over? Are the Germans trying to do something? That sort of thing. So that was an earlier reference to it.
Andrew Hammond: This was just before World War I?
Stephen Duffy: Yes. I'm sorry, just before World War I, yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And there's a big anti-German skid around then. There's German spies everywhere. There's a can of paranoia, right?
Stephen Duffy: Yep. Up in every tree and every bush there was a Germany spy hanging around, you know. The guy in the coat and the trilby hat was a spy. You know. But it was the time, and so there was a lot of that sort of feeling going on. But itself, the hotel, had always been involved with intelligence, so to speak. Because it was very discrete. Because of its location, where we are off of Victoria Street in Westminster. Because we're off there, set aside. It's almost hiding in plain sight, if you'd like, for lack of a better word. Where the lot of organizations and actually even still today, who knows? Are using the hotel as cover for something else.
Andrew Hammond: And it's not too far away from the current homes of MI5 and MI6. Where's the hotel in relax to their former homes, for listeners?
Stephen Duffy: Now, the former homes. So you have MI5 and MI6 there. Talking about in its early days. You had just around the corner on Broadway, straight on Broadway, this Broadway house is there. Which is one food the buildings that they used. But also, we have another building which is no longer there, which is also on Westminster. Just literally where, you know, surrounds us, they surround us. But GCHQ used to have a premises virtually next door to us. But they've since moved now into a newer premises in Victoria Street.
Andrew Hammond: When GCHQ were there, was this early in the 20th century when there- where like government code and cyphers go?
Stephen Duffy: Yes, well, the premises that they had there, I believe they were there from post-Second World War. So from the sort of late 40s upwards until just recently. So I would say probably about 2017.
Andrew Hammond: Okay.
Stephen Duffy: I would say they moved maybe. Or they certainly moved everybody out of the building.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And I know that Churchill was a visitor there. Can you tell us a little bit more about hold your powder for the Second World War period? Just tell us about Churchill. Did he come to the hotel before the war? I know that became one of his regular haunts. But when does he first become part of the story of the hotel?
Stephen Duffy: So Winston Churchill became part of the hotel, or part of the story of the hotel, in 1926. The next door- immediately next door to us was Caxton Hall, which was, at the time, Westminster Town Hall. And then became the Registry of Births next to marriages, people getting married, and things like that. But at that time, they have a public meeting hall there. A section of it was a public meeting hall. So Winston Churchill held an election rally there. He was running for election for parliament. I think it may have been to the Liberal Party. He was running there and had a meeting there. We're not sure whether he was- he came into the bar- or came into the hotel to celebrate or commiserate. But ever since then, he was associated- ever since that night, he came in, he drank his favorite champaign in the bar, and ever since then he was associated with the hotel up until his death in 1965.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And for the First World War, did the intelligence story get fleshed out during this period? So you mentioned Kaiser Wilhelm II. During the war itself, was the hotel part of this hot bed of espionage and intelligence around London?
Stephen Duffy: Well, it was and it wasn't. Because the British government moves in mysterious ways. But unfortunately, what they did was they decided oh, the hotel would be ideal as a hospital. So they commandeered the hotel and turned it into the hospital. The British Army took it over for the duration of the First World War. And built temporary structures in there. So Army doctors and nurses, Catholic nuns, in there looking after the place. And they were looking after recovering soldiers who'd been fighting on the Western Front in French and Belgium. And the thing was is that was going on, but also at the same time, there was also a small intelligence detachment. Because they were trying to find out information and trying to find out, you know, have a base there to see if they would find out any information. Whether the injured service members were bringing back information. Or whether there was, you know, anything of use to them.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And how many rooms does the hotel have, Steve?
Stephen Duffy: It has 331. It currently has 331 rooms. And another 15 meeting rooms. And the restaurant and a bar as well. The building is 200 years old. So there's a very interlaced building. So it's very difficult to fit those in. But what we have done is fit in 331 rooms there. So it's about 900 people we could have stay overnight.
Andrew Hammond: And it's a luxury hotel, right?
Stephen Duffy: Yes, it is. We're a four star deluxe hotel. We don't have a pool and we don't have a sauna because of the size and shape of the building. There's nowhere to put them, unfortunately. And this age of the building, there's nowhere to put them.
Andrew Hammond: So, it's one of these hotels that you go for the character more than for sitting in the hot tub after the bar? Okay, sounds like my kind of hotel. So, let's walk the story up to the Second World War then. So, help us understand. Before the war begins, Churchill's on the back bench, he's talking about rearmament and so forth, and part of the intelligence game of the war is happening before the war actually erupts. So, help us understand the hotel and the lead-up to the configuration as the Second World War?
Stephen Duffy: There had been a number, if you go through the records, there have been a number of meetings where, as I said, so Winston Churchill had been associated with the hotel since 1926. So, that was his regular place to hold court, if it were. Outside of parliament. So he would talk to journalists, he would talk to other MPs , other ministers, or other interested parties in the lobby of the hotel or in the bar of the hotel. He would hold court there. Have meetings, dinners, events, and things like that. So it was building up to his, shall we say, his election as prime minister in May 1940. So we could probably say we had our front seat, if you like, of watching what was the development or the buildup to the start of the war. And then once the war had started to see how it was going, well obviously, even when it's up to when Churchill was elected in May 1940, the war wasn't going very, very well. So they needed something to take that fight back to the enemy.
Andrew Hammond: And this is where we lead up to one of the big claims to fame for the hotel. And just before we get to that point, what does St. Ermin's mean? Is there a story there, or is it one of these things that we know that that's what it's called but we've kind of lost why it was called that?
Stephen Duffy: It's actually called St. Ermin's because it goes way back to the time before Henry VIII and also to it goes back in history to where you've got- there was actually a monk called St. Ermin's. Or there was Ermin. Ermin, and he was made a saint. He actually was leading sort of the charge for Christianity in the pagan world at that time.
Andrew Hammond: I was just wondering, during the war, does the hotel get damaged at all during the Blitz?
Stephen Duffy: No, not at all. Surprisingly, that's the one thing that I found very surprising. Given the amount of bombing that the Luftflotten did in the area around Westminster and the targets, kind of, Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and all the other sort of targets in that sort of area, if you like, the hotel itself survived. But all the buildings around it, well except for one, the Caxton Hall next door, the building opposite and to the side were all destroyed.
Andrew Hammond: Let's do the big reveal now. Tell listeners why it would have been advantages for the Germans to bomb the St. Ermin's Hotel during World War II?
Stephen Duffy: In May 1940, so Winston Churchill was elected as prime minister. And as I referred to briefly just now, he needed something. The war wasn't going very, very well. And he needed something to take the fight back to the enemy. So he called, in June of 1940, he got his ministry, intelligence chiefs, military chiefs, everyone together for a dinner at St. Ermin's. And about 15, 20 people. They got together. They sat down and had a dinner. And during the course of the dinner, they discussed how to take the fight back to the Germans. And it was during this, that Sir Winston had remembered his time in the Boer War fighting, reporting and fighting in the Boer War. He himself was captured by the Boer commanders in the Boer War and held in what was a prisoner of war camp. He then realized he could take their- use their style that they use of undercover, people in undercover agencies, if you like, going into certain areas, disrupting what the enemy was doing. In that case it was the British Army. But in this case, it was going to be the Germans. So they came up with an organization called the Special Operations Executive. Which was formed at that dinner. And within six weeks of that dinner, the SOE, or Special Operations Executive, was up and running and up on the sixth floor of the St. Ermin's building. And they had, which, well, alright get on with it, you know, action this day and everything, why not.
Andrew Hammond: And the sixth floor, that would be the headquarters of the SOE throughout the war?
Stephen Duffy: Yes, for the first part. Until they started to expand and to get bigger. And then they moved, they gradually moved from our building at St. Ermin's, around the corner to Broadway House. Which I mentioned earlier. Broadway House, they had their base in there. And then they have other locations around London as well. Because they gradually started to get bigger and bigger. More people and more space. When our initial section there was F section, which was the French section. Which was there in our building there. And that was the very first one to get everybody up and running and to start the training schools and various openings.
Andrew Hammond: It's quite interesting, the timing of this. Because the Dunkirk evacuation's happening at the end of May and going into the beginning of June. And it's during this period that you're saying when Churchill takes over the reign's of office. Becomes the prime minister. And then not long after Dunkirk, basically decide here to fight back to them as orchestrated. Is that correct?
Stephen Duffy: Yeah, that's right. Women were recruited as well. Because women were actually felt that they could blend in and almost, as it were, disappear in any environment because nobody would give a female a second look, so to speak. They wouldn't give them a second look. Whereas if you'd see somebody, a man, you know, they would expect him to be the spy. You wouldn't expect her to be the spy. That was the sort of USP, if you'd like, of it. It's using the females to get in there because they could blend in anywhere.
Andrew Hammond: Many of our listeners will have heard of the SOE, but for anybody who hasn't, could you just give them just a couple of sentences. What was the purpose of the SOE?
Stephen Duffy: Yes, the SOE was clandestine- it was a clandestine organization. And it was basically to go in and disrupt everything and to disrupt whatever the Germans were doing. But their main job was to go into occupy France, Belgium, and Holland and to coordinate with the French Resistance, the Belgian Resistance, and the Dutch Resistance groups that were already on the ground fighting in their own countries, to coordinate all those efforts, those groups together. And then as a united front, to then start doing operations to disrupt the Germans. Blowing up train lines, factories, anything to disrupt the supply chain for the Germans and just cause as much havoc as possible.
Andrew Hammond: And this can go all the way from organization and logistics through to sabotage and blowing things up, as you say.
Stephen Duffy: Oh, for sure. It was a case of initially getting everything coordinated. Because the groups, the French Resistance, the Marquis, the various other groups, didn't necessarily want to talk to each other. Say an area of Normandy or Paris, those are different districts of Paris, they go with different groups. They weren't all communicating or talking to each other. So they're all running off, doing their own individual jobs. Whereas when the SOE came in and they coordinated them all, they were in a better position to do better targeted raids. And missions, if you like.
Andrew Hammond: Who became head of the SOE during this period?
Stephen Duffy: You had Colin Gubbins, who was the first head. But the head of the F section was Maurice Buckmaster. Maurice Buckmaster, who was the boss there of the group, the F section. So there were various different sections, but F, the French section, everybody that operated in France, because that was the closest one. And that's the one that's most associated with us. With our hotel. But Maurice Buckmaster was the boss. And then you have Vera Atkins, who was this, if you like, money pay for the running of his back office.
Andrew Hammond: She was pretty incredible. Who did these people report to? What was like the- you know, we don't need to get too into the weeds with this. But what was the chain of command? Was there some line that went straight to the prime minister, or were they part of the military apparatus? Did they have to go up to Alan Brooke, the chiefs of the Imperial Staff and so forth, or- yeah. Help me understand how they related to the regular Army.
Stephen Duffy: Yeah, they were actually [inaudible], so they were clandestine organization. So they technically didn't exist. Although they're a secret organization. But the person who held the most sort of sway, Buckmaster then refers directly to the prime minister. So it went straight through to the prime minister's office, related everything there. There was a chain of command, obviously, for sort of supplies and you know, logistics, organized. So within the War Office, there was the usual bureaucracy and everything else that had to be done through there. And that sort of format side of it. But anything with decisions or power chain of command is the- would have gone sort of straight to Downing Street. To the prime minister.
Andrew Hammond: To help you digest the episode, here's a quick primer on British wartime intelligence. The SOE was a secret irregular warfare organization that's primary goals were sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines. Although it also engaged in espionage and reconnaissance. It was born of World War II and disbanded after World War II's end. World War II MI5 and MI6 are both descended from the Secret Service Bureau. Which was set up in 1909 to keep an eye on the rise of German military power and its challenge to British naval supremacy. There was a home section, MI5, and a foreign section, MI6. If you ever struggle which is which, remember that the lower number was closer to home from the British perspective, MI5. Whereas the higher number was farther away, i.e., international, MI6. They're better known today respectively as a security service and a secret intelligence service. MI5 and MI6, as titles, are technically archaic. Since after the early years, they have been civilian agencies closer to civil servants than the military. Two qualifications worth bearing in mind. One, from the present day vantage point, MI5's [inaudible] seems relatively circumscribed. I.e., its home is the British Isles. But remember that until after World War II, home was to some extent international because of the Empire and the Commonwealth. Two, because of our globalizing world, the boundaries between the original home and foreign intelligence gathering distinction will continue to be less than crystal clear. Next, we also have MI9, which was another born of the war and disbanded upon its end. It was formed to facilitate the escape of allied prisoners of war who had been captured and to help those who had been shot down to escape before they were captured. We can't discuss every organization, every MI. But I think ending with a government code and cypher skill is a good way to round out this interlude. This was the signals intelligence organization that had existed since 1919. It would become famous because of World War II, for its wartime headquarters, Bletchley Park, was where codebreakers helped crack the German Enigma Machine and other important codes. Alan Turing is probably the most famous cryptographer who worked here, partly because of the Benedict Cumberbatch movie "The Imitation Game."
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Can you tell our listeners some of the other interesting occupants of the hotel during the Second World War?
Stephen Duffy: Yes, I mean, we've also had during that time, we also had- when SOE set up their first office there on the sixth floor, in the corridor, they had a suite of rooms on one side of the corridor. On the opposite side of the corridor was MI6. MI6 is a secret intelligence service. They were actually on the opposite side of them. And as you can imagine, MI6 did not like the SOE. Because they were seen as these Johnny Come Lately, who are these young upstarts? Who are these jokers? And so, it did take a little while for them to work together. Particularly because SOE, when it first started, did not have its own communication network. Its own wireless or radio network. And had to rely on messages being passed by MI6 across the corridor. And being the old school [inaudible] or Cambridge, you know, or whatever they were, schools, public school guys, the MI6 would often sit on those messages for a couple of days and pretend they'd lost them. Whereas SOE's having to sort of try and rely on them for the messages. But they then eventually got their- SOE got their own wireless network.
Andrew Hammond: So, when you say MI6, Steve, do you mean the whole of MI6 was based there? Or was it an overgrowth, was it a particular outpost of MI6, or?
Stephen Duffy: Yes, it's just an outpost. It wasn't the whole group. I mean, obviously they were off doing other things. But this was a particular, if you like, a detachment, if you like, of them that were there in that office where they had their communications base set up. And so, they had people out in the field doing whatever they do, whatever they were doing at the time. And so, that's why SOE needed them, because they had this far-ranging wireless that could get them out to where their people are.
Andrew Hammond: And what was the purpose of the outpost? Did they have a specific function like the French? Help me understand what it was.
Stephen Duffy: It has been difficult to find out, actually. It's not very well documented to say exactly what they were doing. But it's just that they were all based there together. And so, it's believed that the MI6 group there could very well have been a French section. Because that was the most dominant area that everyone was working in at that time before it expanded to the other areas.
Andrew Hammond: And was that happenstance that MI6 and SOE were on opposite sides of the corridor or was that intentional?
Stephen Duffy: From what I could gather, I think it was just pure random luck that they just happened to be put together. I mean, I can't- I haven't seen anything to sort of say okay, you're going to be billeted there, and they're going to be billeted there. Because I think MI6 were there first. And so it's just that because the great speed at which SOE was set up, I think that they needed every available space that they could find. So the SOE was sort said, right, okay, the hotel said that's the available space we've got. Everybody in there. And it just so happens it was next door, opposite MI6.
Andrew Hammond: And for the genesis of the SOE, tell us the story of the menu card and how it came about. And if you still have the menu card and then also the dinner. Yeah. Set the scene for us.
Stephen Duffy: Okay, if you'll imagine, it is June 19th, '40. And as I say, Sir Winston Churchill has been prime minister for a month. And he is trying to find ways of taking the fight back to the enemy. He has called the dinner at St. Ermin's. And he has brought together all his military teams. So it includes Earl Mountbatten and staff officer was Ian Fleming. Both working in naval intelligence or naval counterintelligence, should I say. And they together with all the heads of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, the various intelligence, MI5, MI6, and a few other ministers and so about 20 people all together that were all sat round at the dinner. The dinner went on, but as they were talking, Sir Winston had remember about his time in the Boer War, as I mentioned earlier. But it was obviously, as they toyed around with different ideas, and they tossed around different ideas, as the ideas, as they're doing so, Sir Winston has a menu card. And on the back of the menu card, he's written down exactly what he wanted to do about the SOE. A clandestine, undercover unit that he would send in to occupy France. And he even notated, if that's the right word, or made notes about how it would actually be done. So the two different things they would do. They were couriers, and then the wireless operators. They would be the two roles, if you like, of those men and women that would be sent into the occupied areas to forward the cause. To develop the cause and coordinate the resistance groups. And that's what he, Sir Winston Churchill, thought was the most important thing that they would do. And that was agreed on that night. And then as I said, within six weeks, SOE as we know it was up and running.
Andrew Hammond: And how do we know about the record card?
Stephen Duffy: It is in the National Archive because it was held onto by the Churchill family. And it is, as I understand it, at the National Archive at Kew. There in west London. It's held in there. And it has to be viewed by arrangement. Excuse me.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us a bit more about Hugh Dalton, he's quite a fascinating figure. The Minister for Economic Warfare.
Stephen Duffy: Yes. Now, he was actually one of the ministers that was there, economic warfare as you say. But he was brought into- he was in the dinner as well. He was one of the ministers that was there at the dinner. And he had been given, officially given the task of right, the phrase let's set Europe ablaze, let's get on with the action this day, and almost sort of regular phrases from Sir Winston. But it was a case of he was the man that has been officially associated with setting up the logistics, or the skeleton, if you like, of SOE. And then everybody else was coming in and filling out the bones. Putting flesh on the bones, if that's the word.
Andrew Hammond: I think it might be quite interesting to give our listeners just a pen portrait of Vera Atkins. Because I think she has a really fascinating role. And you know, we can talk about this stuff abstractly, but it's always easier if you have examples of real people that were actually doing this kind of stuff. So let's just talk about her for a couple of minutes. Can you just give our listeners a primer on her?
Stephen Duffy: Yeah, sure. Vera Atkins had worked, was a Romanian Jew. That had worked in the- worked in Eastern Europe. And then had come over to London to work with the intelligence services in London. She had actually come to the attention of Maurice Buckmaster because at the right time, I think it just, it was timing. It was just the right time for her to arrive in London where she was going to be associated- working with one particular ministry, or one particular thing to do translation and various other work like that. But she came to the attention of Maurice Buckmaster, who then recruited her for SOE. To be his back office. And Vera Atkins' job was basically to run that office with him. But also to recruit all the female agents subsequently who had been there. So to meet, interview, vet all the female agents. And she would then subsequently be part of her main job at the back office running the operational side of it, she would then also have a regular [inaudible] of all the female agents who were there. And even to the extent that when they were going off on their missions, [inaudible], flying off to France or to wherever it may be, she would actually see them off. She would make sure their clothes that they were wearing were French. There was nothing British about them, nothing foreign. It was always, you know, from- exact to the country they were going to. And she'd make sure. And then she'd see or meet them when they came back here.
Andrew Hammond: As a SpyCast community, we've been getting our heads around artificial intelligence, the metaverse, and other emerging technologies and landscapes that have the capacity to disrupt the field of intelligence. In this show, we look at the presence and future of intelligence and espionage. But as in this episode also, and importantly, we look at the past of intelligence and espionage. How about mixing past and future? Here are the top five books recommended by ChatGPT, the generative AI platform, on the Special Operations Executive. Bear in mind that many of the SOE files have been lost to history due to fires, accidents, and bureaucratic banditry. One. "The Secret History of SOE, Special Operations Executive, 1940-1945" by William Mackenzie. Two. "Churchill's Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler's Defeat" by Giles Milton. Three. "The Women Who Left for Danger, the Agents of the Special Operations Executive" by Marcus Binney. Four. "The Spy Who Loved, the Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville" by Claire Mulley. Five. "A Life and Secrets, Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII" by Sarah Helm. I have to say, I'm actually impressed. I'm so glad I am not a history professor anymore though, because if you're an academic, ChatGPT must be a darn menace. And must also run the risk of massive grade inflation. I used to wish some of my students could come up with books like these five in their threadbare bibliographies.
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Let's just talk about another couple of the figures that are associated with the hotel. So I believe there's links to the Cambridge 5 at the hotel. Can you speak about them?
Stephen Duffy: Indeed. As soon as the European Theatre of War finished, the SOE as it were was disbanded, and the agents who'd been working for SOE were then swallowed up by MI6. Recruited by MI6. So, what wasn't known at the time was Burgess, Philby, and Maclean were actually double agents for Russia. They had already been recruited or turned or whatever the case might be when they were at Cambridge. They'd already been recruited there. So they were already agents, if you like. And one of the things that they did is they used to meet quite a lot within the bar. Because our hotel was not only the first base of the SOE, but it also became known as the Works Canteen of the intelligence community. But it also became known as the Works Canteen of the intelligence community. Because everyone either used to go into our bar or into the restaurant or the lobby to meet people. But it was mostly in the bar. And that's where Burgess, Maclean, and Philby, at different times, met their Russian handlers in plain sight. And sat there and spoke normally. Didn't talk out the side of their mouths and have red carnations and copies of the Financial Times under their arm. They just all passed over their information, their paperwork, or whatever, in plain sight to everybody.
Andrew Hammond: And tell us a little bit more about that bar. That was the Caxton Bar?
Stephen Duffy: That's right. That's the hotel's Caxton Bar. And that's our sort of famous bar. Which, for the last, as I say, at least for the last 175 years has been the place where everybody would go to. And it's, I think, a lot more people today because a lot more things are becoming known, at least through my work, are becoming known about the hotel, there are actually people coming in at the interest, they go to the bar. Because hey, that's famous, that's where the spies meet!
Andrew Hammond: And I'm imagining it does quite a good martini.
Stephen Duffy: Oh, yes. Yes. And also, there is a drink there which is called a Vesper Lynd.
Andrew Hammond: Ah. Ian Fleming?
Stephen Duffy: Yes, Ian Fleming, of course. Perhaps, for your audience, I should explain that obviously I immediately spoke about Ian Fleming. And he went onto create the series of books about a character called James Bond. And we know, or we understand, that a number of the characters that were appearing there. Q, Money Penny, and a couple of other characters, Vesper Lynd was one in the books there, were all- the inspiration for those characters came from SOE agents.
Andrew Hammond: Erin, who works on the podcast with me, she had a look at the cocktail menu and there's actually five drinks named after the Cambridge 5.
Stephen Duffy: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: And it's their codenames, like Stanley for Philby and so forth.
Stephen Duffy: Yeah. And you've got the difference. And they're also different strengths, as well. So you could almost say, depending on which one you go for, packs more of a punch.
Andrew Hammond: Okay. And just briefly, Violette Szabo, I think her story's really interesting. Can you tell us a little bit more about her?
Stephen Duffy: Yes. The short version is that Violette Szabo was a young lady from south London who [inaudible] at 14. She went to work for a department store in Brixton, in south London. This was during the Second World War. She met, fell in love, and married a foreign legion officer by the name of Etienne Szabo. So Violette became Mrs. Szabo. They settled into married life in south London. They ahead a daughter called Tania. And then Etienne went back off to fight with the foreign legion in North Africa, where sadly he was killed. Violette lost the soul of her life and- her soulmate. And she had to- decided to take the fight back to the Germans herself. She was so enraged by it. And was recruited by the SOE. She's recruited by the SOE, particularly as she spoke fluent French. She had a French mother and a British father. She spoke fluent French without an accent. And so was recruited by SOE for her skills. Put through her training. Went on the first training course- first training mission. And was quite successful. When she came back from that, it was the night before D-Day. So the 5th of June, 1944. And they needed a lot of SOE agents to go into Normandy to start disrupting the Germans before- when [inaudible] was about to happen. To stop them being able to fight back. She was parachuted in there. She landed with six other SOE agents. They were picked up. They met-- they were met in a truck by the French resistance. And they traveled down a road. They were stopped- came towards a German roadblock. They turned the truck around, the Germans fired upon them, chased them, and then they went to a farmhouse nearby where Violette Szabo went up into a window on the first floor and with a machine gun actually held off the Germans for four hours with the machine gun so the others could escape. Obviously, she ran out of ammunition, the house was stormed, she was arrested, interrogated rather brutally by the Gestapo, and then went from prison to prison. And then sadly, Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she was executed at the age of 23. And for that, she received the George Medal, and the Croix de Guerre, and the [inaudible].
Andrew Hammond: Really incredible woman. Is the Cold War spy game part of the St. Ermin's Hotel story as well or does it end at the end of the Second World War?
Stephen Duffy: No, it continues. No, no, no. It continues to Cold War. It continues with that where, as they say, with Mr. Burgess, Philby, and Maclean, that came out. And then even up as far as- would say as far up as- I've managed to find it as far as the Iraq War. So we may still have connections there with intelligence. And even today. There's still things that are done there with the intelligence still using the hotel for various different things. Shall we say.
Andrew Hammond: And I know that at the hotel there you've got a small exhibit and you've got some artifacts and so forth. I would love to just educate our listeners a little bit more about them. Can they see them if they go to visit the hotel? And can they expect- what can they expect to find? Give us a couple of highlights.
Stephen Duffy: It's the showcase, the window there is the showcase. We're working with the London Clandestine Warfare Collection. And one's the collection. And as we're the birthplace of the SOE, they put this push showcase there and they've got other showcases in other locations associated with the SOE. But in there, you will see Violette Szabo's uniform. When she was on the training, they needed a cover unit, so the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, or the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, were the female cover units. And Violette's First Aid Nursing Yeomanry uniform is in our showcase. As is a thing called a welrod. Which is a welrod. A welrod. Which is the world's first silenced pistol. And it's still being used by special forces today. We've got that. We've got also a biscuit tin radio. Which is a wireless, a short-wave wireless morse code set that is packed and hidden into a biscuit tin and then used by the agents and then hidden in the biscuit tin and hidden in the cellar out of plain sight. So nobody could find it.
Andrew Hammond: How many tours are you giving every week, Steve?
Stephen Duffy: Not so much every week. I'm not doing it at the moment. I usually do about three or four. But at the moment, we're not into spring season yet. So as soon as it's spring and summer, then I'll be doing more. It's more popular then. But at the moment, they're a couple of times a month at the moment. But then they will get more as we go into spring and summer.
Andrew Hammond: And how does one go on the tour, do you have to be a guest of the hotel and then sign up for it, or?
Stephen Duffy: No. What you can do is I have little group forms outside from both military, from the law enforcement, from government. They get in contact with me, they can email me. And we can arrange a date and a time and we either do it, an afternoon version, which includes afternoon tea. Or there's an evening version which includes beer and fish and chips afterwards. The tour and the beer and fish and chips, obviously.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. We would love to come one day and take the tour and then obviously have the fish and chips. Yeah, yeah, yeah, she's again, really excited. Just out of the corner of my-- both of us would love to come and see the hotel. It sounds fascinating. And just out of interest, do you know if there's any counterpart hotels in other parts of the world that have this- obviously not this unique story, but that are known as spy hotels? Maybe one in New York, Washington, Moscow, or Paris or something?
Stephen Duffy: I'm glad you asked me that question. Because it's something that I was thinking about myself just the other day. About doing some research on. And I know somebody, one of the people that came on a tour of guests, from America, came on the tour. Said he was sure there was one in DC. If not DC, then certainly in Virginia. Somewhere in Virginia that might be associated with the CIA or spy hotel, that type of thing. But again, it's something I have to do some research on and find out. But I'd be certainly willing to- happy to hear from anybody who is.
Andrew Hammond: Since I'm in the United States and a lot of our listeners are from the United States, can you tell our listeners if the OSS were part of the story of the St. Ermin's Hotel?
Stephen Duffy: Oh yes they were. Yes, indeed. Now, the- Eisenhower, who was the commander of Allied Forces in the UK at the time of the D-Day landings, and at the time of the SOE being set up. He went to see the training school, the combat school in Scotland. The [inaudible] in Scotland. And met William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes, the chief instructors. And he liked what he saw. And actually thought that this would actually- he wanted to get Sykes and Fairbairn over to America to teach instructors in America how to do the same thing. So he'd have an American unit. So that is where the OSS was born. Office of Strategic Services. Which is now, as we know, the forerunner of the CIA.
Andrew Hammond: So the St. Ermin's Hotel is basically the birthplace of the CIA.
Stephen Duffy: Yes, it is, actually. It is. We could say that, yes, thank you very much. We can say that.
Andrew Hammond: Well, this has been so much fun. Thanks so much and I'm really glad we made this happen in the end.
Stephen Duffy: Yeah, me too.
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Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of SpyCast. Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com/podcasts/spycast, you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes, and full transcripts. Coming up on next week's show.
Alexis Albion: Sometimes people think there's this impervious wall between fact and fiction in intelligence, and that's simply not true. We know that intelligence officers read spy novels and go and see, you know, TV shows about spies and movies, perhaps more than most people because they're interested in that topic.
Andrew Hammond: If you have any feedback, you can reach us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or on Twitter at ITNLSpyCast. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond, and my podcast content partner is Erin Dietrick. The rest of the team involved in the show is The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Afua Anokwa, Elliot Pelzman, Tre Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage related artifacts, The International Spy Museum.
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