Dick White

Dick White

Richard Goldsmith White, the owner of an ironmonger's shop, was was born in Tonbridge on 20th December, 1906. While being educated at Christ Church, Oxford White met John Masterman, a history tutor at the university. Masterman was a great influence on White and he gradually adopted his right-wing political views. In 1926 White took Masterman's advice and worked as a special constable during the General Strike.

After leaving Oxford University White also studied at the universities of Michigan and California before being employed to teach History and English at Whitgift School in Croydon.

Unknown to White, John Masterman was an MI5 agent. As a university tutor he was constantly on the look out for potential recruits and in 1935 suggested to Guy Liddell that White would make a good agent. White was initially sent to Nazi Germany and on his return developed a relationship with Jona Ustinov, the press attaché working with the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ustinov identified anti-Nazis in Germany that could be persuaded to become British agents.

In January 1939 White returned to Germany and over the next few months he made contact with several opponents of Adolf Hitler including Dietrich Bonhoffer and Adam von Trot. White also travelled to France where he had meetings with officers working for the French intelligence agency. He was told that in France attempts were being made to persuade captured German agents to feed false information back to Germany.

On his arrival back home White had discussions with Vernon Kell and it was agreed to establish a double-cross operation. John Masterman became chairman of the XX (Double-Cross) Committee. Arthur Owen, an agent working for Abwehr, was arrested and he eventually agreed to become a double-agent. As well as sending false information to Nazi Germany, Owen also kept White informed about the arrival of German agents in Britain. Between September and November 1940 a total of 21 German agents were arrested by Special Branch officers.

In May 1940 Winston Churchill became prime minister. Six months later he sacked Vernon Kell, Director-General of MI5, and replaced him with David Petrie. Over the next four years Petrie brought in experts to form sections for dealing with different types of agent. He also established closer links with MI6, the Secret Service with responsibility for counter-espionage outside Britain. Petrie's reforms particularly benefited White and Guy Liddell. As controllers of B division, they now managed MI5's most important operations.

In May 1946 Sir Percy Sillitoe, the former chief constable of Sheffield and Glasgow, replaced David Petrie as head of MI5. Guy Liddell was expected to succeed David Petrie as chief of MI5. However, Ellen Wilkinson, who served under Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, had heard rumours from Europe that Liddell was suspected of being a double-agent. As a result, Liddell did not get the top job and instead became Deputy-Director-General.

Sir Percy Sillitoe eventually retired in 1953 and was replaced by Dick White. His major innovation was the creation of F Branch. This infiltrated every left-wing organization in Britain including the Labour Party, the trade unions, the peace movement and student unions. White appointed Alexander Kellar as the director of F Branch. Keller, a former president of the National Union of Students, suggested that MI5 should recruit British students and trade unionists. These people were then told to express views sympathetic to communism in the hope that they would recruited as Soviet agents.

David Maxwell-Fyfe, the home secretary, told White to "wage war on the communists and crypto-communists". In 1955 Hugh Winterton of MI5 organized the burglary of a flat occupied by a senior Communist Party official. During the operation MI5 agents were able to photograph files detailing the party's entire 55,000 membership.

During his period of office Sillitoe had to deal with the problems of Soviet spies such as Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt. Sillitoe eventually retired in 1953 and was replaced by White. He was considered a success in this post and in 1956 he replaced Major-General John Sinclair as head of MI6.

Sir Dick White retired in 1968.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Dick White, interviewed by Andrew Boyle for his book Climate of Treason (1979)

I wasn't really cut out to be an intelligence officer at all. I partly stumbled into it for second-hand patriotic reasons and that suited the needs of my immediate superiors. At the start it only looked on as an experiment. That was why I went to work for them under cover in Germany. In the end, I had no alternative but to stay.

(2) Kim Philby, My Silent War (1968)

I could not claim White as a close friend but our personal and official relations had always been excellent, and he had undoubtedly been pleased when I superseded Cowgill. He was bad at dissembling but did his best to put our talk on a friendly footing. He wanted my help, he said, in clearing up this appalling Burgess-Maclean affair.

He (Dick White) was a nice and modest character, who would have been the first to admit that he lacked outstanding qualities. His most obvious fault was a tendency to agree with the last person he spoke to.

(3) When Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to the Soviet Union in 1951 Kim Philby was interviewed by Dick White. Philby wrote about the interview in his book, My Secret War (1968)

Taking the line that it was almost inconceivable that anyone like Burgess, who courted the limelight instead of avoiding it, and was generally notorious for indiscretion, could have been a secret agent, let alone a Soviet agent from whom strictest security standards would be required. I did not expect this line to be in any way convincing as to the facts of the case; but I hoped it would give the impression that I was implicitly defending myself against the unspoken charge that I, a trained counter-espionage officer, had been completely fooled by Burgess. Of Maclean, I disclaimed all knowledge.... As I had only met him twice, for about half an hour in all and both times on a conspiratorial basis, since 1937, I felt that I could safely indulge in this slight distortion of the truth.

(4) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987)

Dick White, for all the elegance of his delivery, was essentially an orthodox man. He believed in the fashionable idea of "containing" the Soviet Union, and that MI5 had a vital role to play in neutralizing Soviet assets in the UK. He talked a good deal about what motivated a Communist, and referred to documents found in the ARCOS raid which showed the seriousness with which the Russian Intelligence Service approached the overthrow of the British Government. He set great store on the new vetting initiatives currently under way in Whitehall as the best means of defeating Russian Intelligence Service penetration of government.

(5) Tom Bower, The Perfect English Spy (1995)

He (Dick White) was the anonymous director of an organisation governed by a three-page charter but without any status in law. This absence of legal status was an anomaly, setting MI5 apart from the security services of every other country in the world, whether democracy or dictatorship, but it was justified and even envied as a source of strength. Denied any legal powers, White was nevertheless authorised, in the interests of the nation's security, to pry into the affairs of every individual in the land. The limitations of his authority depended upon his own self-discipline, the animus of his political masters and his taking care to avoid public exposure. "I could only advise ministers on risks to security. The decision to take action was the politicians." Under his control were experts in - lock-picking, burglary, telephone-tapping, placing bugs, opening sealed letters, organising surveillance, photographing targets in compromising circumstances and blackmailers.

Improperly used, his signature - even his nod of approval - could disturb relationships, careers and lives without any redress for those afflicted. Although in theory his officers required signed authorisation to break into homes, eavesdrop and breach confidentialities, in practice he knew that there was a higher law: thou shall not get caught. Unaccountable to the public, MI5 understood that those in Whitehall whose job was to safeguard the national interest approved of MI5's surreptitious activities.

(6) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987)

Dick White never enjoyed good relations with Edward Heath. Their styles were so dissimilar. Dick worshipped Harold Macmillan, and the grand old man had a very high regard for his chief of Intelligence. Similarly, he got on well with Harold Wilson. They shared a suppleness of mind, and Wilson appreciated Dick's reassuring and comforting manner on vexed issues such as Rhodesia. But Heath was a thrusting, hectoring man, quite alien to anything Dick had encountered before, and he found himself increasingly unable to stamp his personality on the Prime Minister.