Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Sidney Reilly - ACE OF SPIES

Sidney Reilly - The Legendary ACE OF SPIES

January 2, 2006
This morning I read a very interesting report from the NOVOSTI Russian New Agency. Boris Gudz, a famous Soviet Intelligence figure died on the weekend, having lived 104 years. Gudz was the last living participant in the Bolshevik counter intelligence sting called Operation Trust, which succeeded in exposing Sidney Reilly, a chameleon who had volunteered to work for the British S.I.S. in World War 1. Reilly was actually born S.G. Rosenblum, (photo to left - above) and was a Polish Jew who found the need to experiment with personal identity when business deals began to sour. Now he is forever the Anglicized "Sidney Reilly". Boris Gudz went on to serve his government long and well as an officer in OGPU and KGB. He became intimately involved with the SORGE spy ring in Japan, a story which I found even more absorbing than the Reilly tale.

Gudz worked as a consultant on a Russian TV series in 1967 called Operatsiya Trest, which broadcast in b&w. In 1967 there were already two books available in English which dubbed Reilly with the catchy title "Ace of Spies," but he really became famous as a television hero. In 1983 Thames Television produced a 12 episode mini-series starring handsome actor Sam Neill as the ACE OF SPIES. I missed its debut on PBS in 1984 but eventually caught a few episodes. I recall not liking it. For the curious, an episode guide is found here http://epguides.com/ReillyAceofSpies/

The Canadian Connection
I remained interested in the espionage figure and his role history and added several books about him to my research library. Fragments of disinformation or outright guessing, had placed "Reilly" in Toronto during World War 1, training as a junior officer in the "Royal Canadian Flying Corps". (Author Michael Kettle cleared that up, in 1983.) Canada did not have its own airforce in WW1. Our airmen trained under the auspices of Britain's Royal Flying Corps. Still, I thought the possibility existed that Canada did the British secret services a favor by giving him some Canadian profile. By letting him assume rank here and then embark from Canada, it would form a buffer of sorts between his busy years in New York and his future missions in Europe. I used the provisions of our federal Access To Information legislation to search the relevant record groups. It was not a hopeless proposition. In 1991 I did find 2/Lt. S.G. Reilly in records of our Department of National Defence. The Directorate of History (DHIST), had an index card in the Air History Section containing data extracted from his old military service file. I learned that on Nov. 16, 1917 he was added to the "RFC Canada roster of officers as Mr. S. G. Reilly, E03 on probation." A further note read, "He is included in Dec. 16, 1917 list of officers proceeding overseas." Note also the address he gave on his Canadian paperwork: 120 Broadway, New York City.

At the time I also consulted on "S.G. Reilly" with a friendly archivist at the National Archives. We confirmed that no duplicate RFC file, Assigned Pay or other records survived in our war archives. I could only conclude that the REILLY file had been pulled and destroyed years ago, which is more common in our archives than should ever have been permitted. Between 1989 - 92 I had fruitful correspondence with James Barros, scholar at the University of Toronto (now deceased), who shared my research interests. We agreed that much of what we sought, including material pertaining to the infamous 1950s Herbert Norman case, had been "weeded" (to use the polite term used by the old Security Service of the RCMP). Barros encouraged me to pursue the Canadian angle, but in fact I let Reilly drop.

The reality was that any research breakthrough on Rosenblum depended on gaining access to the great repositories of secret archives in Washington, London and Moscow. The Americans (bless them) did lead the way, opening a huge volume of espionage files years ago. When the crucial British and Soviet dossiers became available, well-placed scholars pounced, and have produced several superb new books which relegate all the others to the discard pile. The new biography by Cook, which I have not yet acquired, challenges the place of birth and his paternity. If you own the A&E box set of ACE OF SPIES, (shown at the top) you might wish to pencil out the words "True story" on the decorative slipcase. Or not. It's just a TV show after all.

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