“I am convinced that more information has been obtained by women-agents, by keeping out of the arms of the man, than ever was obtained by sinking too willingly into them...”
– Maxwell Knight, MI5 spymaster
On June 11, 1934, Miss X travelled to Paris from London with scanty directions on her secret mission. There she met Percy Glading, a prominent member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and its front organisations, the League Against Imperialism and the Anti-War Movement. He gave her money, instructions and a questionnaire that she was required to bring back completed.
As a trusted typist at the offices of the Anti-War Movement since the autumn of 1932, she had been persuaded by Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Percy Glading to undertake an overseas assignment. Miss X had reluctantly agreed. She was more accustomed to sitting quietly at her desk, typing out letters, and answering phone calls.
Importantly, besides her trustworthiness, she also possessed a “clean” passport. She had never come under the notice of the police and had never travelled beyond British shores. With a sense of foreboding, the nervous Miss X travelled to Marseille and set sail to Bombay, artfully “drifting on with the tide”.
The money and documents were meant for Indian communists, to help arrested comrades as well as enable revolutionary activities. Miss X was following the path of previous Comintern emissaries in the persistent covert efforts of Moscow and its proxies to radicalise workers and peasants, bring down the British Empire and establish a proletariat of the people.
With the Meerut Conspiracy arrests of 1929 and the leader MN Roy’s arrest in 1931, the communists were on the backfoot, but their revolutionary ambitions remained very much intact. Miss X’s mission underscores the complex entangled mutualism between various political players across the seas. In a fascinating intersection of imperial politics, transnational anticolonial politics, state surveillance and espionage, intrepid travelling jazz musicians, sexual politics, not to mention the role of women in spy craft, Miss X’s story is a greatly insightful episode with colourful cinematic value.
The “vile little boat” she travelled on docked at Bombay Port in late June, just as the dark, dreary monsoon skies had set in. As an unaccompanied woman travelling to India, she had had to fend off some male attention on the journey. Single European women travelling to India at the time were regarded with suspicion.
There had been a flourishing prostitution trafficking trade for some decades and the colonial authorities had been especially vigilant of aliens, at times deporting several young women who fit the profile and did not have plausible reasons for travelling alone to India. Indeed, as reveealed by communications regarding the arrival of a “French prostitute” Ms Angèle Coves in mid 1931 – accompanied by a British woman – between the Political Department of Bombay, the Police Commissioner, she was placed on a no-entry list and the authorities sought to deport her under the Foreigners Act.
But not all single European women were sent back. Some served an important function for the colonial state. Academician Ashwini Tambe has shown that colonial officials strictly monitored European prostitutes in Bombay during this period. On the one hand, they – in conjunction with the police – allowed European brothels to operate, but on the other, they often deported British women.
This policy “allayed official fears about interracial sex between British men and Indian women”. In a telling hierarchy or racial, ethnic and sexual relations regulated by the state, colonial policy was linked to the “lesser whiteness” of European women and a view of protecting British womanhood, as Tambe writes.
Miss X had been provided with a plausible cover. She was visiting relatives in India following advice by her doctor to go on a sea voyage. Upon her arrival, she made her way to the Taj Mahal Hotel in Apollo Bunder, as revealed by Henry Hemming in his biography of the legendary MI5 chief Maxwell Knight. There she met the Black American jazz musician Crickett Smith. Deirdre O’Connell, who has a forthcoming biography of Smith, writes that he had just then in June 1934 arrived from Calcutta to join “Joe Ghisleri’s Symphonians on the Taj Mahal Hotel’s orchestra dais, alongside musicians from Cuba, Martinique, France, Britain and, of course, his ‘old pal’ Rudy Jackson”.
Known for his clever trumpet tricks and his showmanship, Smith had an interesting, peripatetic past. In 1926, he spent three months in Moscow with his bandmates of the Paris-based Jazz Kings. They were joined there by Sidney Bechet, the famous New Orleans born horn player and composer of Creole descent. It was a risky proposition since the US had ended diplomatic ties with Soviet Russia. They were consequently portrayed as traitors by the American press.
As O’Connell writes, Black Americans were regarded with great suspicion by British Indian authorities due to their perceived admiration of Mahatma Gandhi’s views and “had British authorities known Crickett Smith had made agitprop with Russian Bolsheviks and anti-colonial satires with French Communists and Surrealists, perhaps his arrival would have attracted greater scrutiny”.
It is in fact surprising that Smith was allowed in, given that anyone who had travelled to Russia then was marked, as the British communist agent Lester Hutchinson would later recall in a description of his arrival at Bombay Port in September 1928. It is highly likely though, that Crickett Smith was under the regular surveillance of the Bombay Police Foreign Branch.
For lovers of jazz music and dance in Bombay, these were heady times, with the colourful ensemble at the Taj Mahal Hotel, as Naresh Fernandes discusses in his account, Taj Mahal Foxtrot. The jazz scene “was honeycombed with virtuosi of high calibre. The pace was intense, but it was carried on in a spirit which placed the love of jazz above every other consideration.”
As Fernandes writes, the travelling musicians lived it up, were well liked, and faced little racial discrimination. While Bombay’s elite openly embraced the exciting new sounds from America via the Continent, elsewhere in the city labour leaders secretly welcomed visitors from abroad to help their cause.
Hemming says that Crickett Smith appears to have helped Miss X secure lodgings at a boarding house. She soon made contact with local communist leaders, among whom would have been BT Ranadive. Just a month earlier, GA Adhikari, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, had been arrested in Bombay.
Labour unrest had once again erupted in the city. Late 1933 had seen the Sassoon Mill strikes, where violence erupted leading to the police firing on strikers. In April 1934, Bombay textile workers joined an all India general strike. A large sympathetic strike in Delhi followed, resulting in more violence. Miss X had arrived at a highly volatile moment and her mission was consequently, all the more critical.
Archival documents show that prior to her arrival the Intelligence Bureau had intercepted communications and a telegraphic money order from Tom Mann of the League Against Imperialism office in London to Ranadive of the Girni Kamgar Union in support of the ongoing strikes. Following Miss X’s rendezvous, as Hemming reveals, she sat tight for further instructions, but became increasingly paranoid that one of the Indian comrades had been arrested and had named her. Instructions came through in early July and a relieved Miss X left, arriving back in London on 28 July 1934.
Percy Glading had also secretly travelled to India as a Comintern agent in February 1925. British intelligence noted that he arrived as a representative of the Amalgamated Union of Engineers under the alias of R Cochrane “armed with credentials from [MN] Roy…sent by British Communist Party to study Indian Labour conditions at first hand, to encourage Bolshevism and if possible, to form a Labour Party…”. Glading met freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai and DP Sinha amongst other leaders and returned to England in April.
Some months later in Amsterdam he submitted a highly negative evaluation of his trip, forcing MN Roy to defend his attempts to radicalise India. He then involved himself with the Workers’ Welfare League of India, and also found employment as a gun examiner in the Woolwich Arsenal but his political affiliations led to his dismissal in October 1928.
Glading travelled to Moscow in November 1929 to attend the Lenin School under the name James Brownlir, and upon his return became a prominent communist functionary. Following Ben Bradley’s arrest and incarceration in the Meerut Conspiracy case, Glading kept up a regular correspondence with him, published pamphlets against the arrests and British rule in India, regular spoke at gatherings, and led a League Against Imperialism-sponsored Meerut Prisoners’ Release Committee.
Glading also met various Indian leaders and activists during the early 1930s, including Indulal Yagnik and Bhulabhai Desai. He also appears to have met the Meerut case defence counsel Tej Bahadur Sapru. Fascinatingly, Glading and his League Against Imperialism colleague – and later detractor – Reginald Bridgeman secretly travelled to Paris in mid-May and met Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore there.
Miss X suffered a nervous breakdown upon her return to England, and quit her job at the Anti-War Movement. She, however, remained friendly and in communication with Glading, who was then, following the breakdown of his marriage, involved with a Spanish woman named Rosa Shar, the child of Russian parents of questionable antecedents. There is extensive information on Glading and his activities in British intelligence records, right down to minutiae – telephone calls, meetings, meals, travels, etc. Everything that Glading did from the summer of 1932 seemed to be known to British intelligence.
There was a very good reason for that. He was a counter-intelligence target and under secret observation.
Miss X was a deep cover MI5 plant who had infiltrated the movement some time back. She had been directly recruited by Maxwell Knight, the “greatest spymaster ever employed by MI5”, as his biographer Hemming notes. Knight was a former naval reservist and a jazz musician who had taken clarinet lessons from Sidney Bechet.
He began a private detective and intelligence agency in 1923, but following marriage, moved to a village in Exmoor to run a pub with his wife. That arrangement did not last long, and Knight was soon back in London recruiting and running agents to counter the dark threat of communism. M also had strong links with British Fascist groups, a fact known to the secret services at the time.
When Knight formally joined MI5 in 1931, he brought his own unique methods with him. In an unusual and illuminating document of war time activities, Knight or “M” as he came to be known, dismissed prejudice against women secret agents, instead strongly advocating their recruitment and “the long-term policy” of planting sleeper agents. Women’s intuition when harnessed properly he said “can at times save an intelligence officer an enormous amount of trouble”.
In the summer of 1931, M recruited the 25-year-old Birmingham resident Olga Gray who came from a conservative, patriotic background with good secretarial training. She had been spotted at a Conservative garden party. Following her move to London, Gray infiltrated the Friends of Soviet Russia in autumn 1931 and as a result of quite deftly “trailing her coat”, in 1932 she was asked to join as a typist in the Anti-War Movement office. Gray very efficiently provided intelligence to M and as the latter says, “she had attained the very enviable position where an agent becomes a piece of furniture…”.
Her break from work following her return from India did not last too long and she joined as a secretary to Harry Pollit at the headquarters of the Communist Party of Great Britain from February till July 1935. She provided exceptional intelligence, including cipher codebreaking information and proof of Pollits’ link to Moscow. She then suffered another health crisis and was admitted to hospital. In consultation with M, she resigned from her post and started work at an advertising firm.
As Olga Gray reveals in her witness statement, on February 17, 1937, “I lunched with Percy Glading and he asked me if I would like to live away from home and be willing to find a flat where I could live, of which I should be the nominal tenant.” All that was required of her was to make the flat available for visits from Glading and his associates. She moved into a flat on April 1, and made three sets of keys.
As it transpired, Glading was running an independent espionage operation in collaboration with Russian intelligence agents. They photographed plans of 14 inch naval guns that were being made at the Woolwich Arsenal, smuggled out by Glading’s contacts who worked there. Following a steady stream of information from Olga Gray, Percy Glading was arrested on January 21, 1938, by the Special Branch and was charged and later imprisoned under the Official Secrets Act.
M’s “long-term policy” woman-agent Miss X, or Olga Gray, had over a period of six years provided outstanding intelligence, facilitating the arrest of Glading and his associates in the what came to be known as the Woolwich Spy Ring case. The trial was widely reported across the world and Miss X was described as “exceptionally pretty” and a “counter-espionage heroine”.
Tellingly, on March 16, The Bombay Chronicle commented on Glading’s arrest in “Our London Letter” saying this “sub-judice” case and others “indicate the extent of the underground activity which is being carried on by every government”, pointing at as it were, to some of the skulduggery surrounding the Meerut Conspiracy case.
Olga Gray’s remarkable Bombay mission featured at the trial, where she testified. Glading said he bore no ill-will towards Miss X, and “reckoned it was fair cop”. Adding complexity to this tale of spies, jazz musicians, communists and unobtrusive office secretaries, is the claim by the British Trotskyist Harry Wicks that Glading and Olga Gray were sleeping together. But Gladings’ “photograph was no oil painting, so it must have been a sacrifice for King and country”, a commentator noted.
Miss X and her Bombay mission remains a fascinating and colourful episode in the history of modern espionage and colonial politics.
Gautam Pemmaraju is a Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker with a special interest in Indian anti-colonial activists of the early 20th century.