Tag Archives: Egypt

Alexander Wilson – the puzzling story of a Second World War spy

Alexander-Wilson.jpg
Alexander Wilson

Not all battles during a war are fought between armies in the open field. There have always been the men and women who work in intelligence and whose stories can often be very complex and difficult to understand, if we can unravel the truth of them at all. One such example was brought to our TV screens in December 2018 when many people in the UK were enthralled by the BBC drama ‘Mrs Wilson’ which told the story of Alexander Wilson, author, spy and bigamist. What most people found fascinating was that almost eighty years after some of the events took place we still don’t know the truth about Alexander Wilson as the government has still not released all the papers relating to his work. Who was Alexander Wilson? What role did he play in the murky world of espionage before and during the Second World War? Was he a patriot or an inveterate liar? Is it possible that a look at the situation in Egypt, and specifically Cairo, during that period may lead to some answers, or will it simply lead to more questions?

Alison Wilson
Alison Wilson

One thing that we do know about Alexander Wilson is that he was a bigamist. After serving in the First World War (with wounds which meant that he could not go on active service in World War 2) he left his first wife Gladys and son Dennis to go to India as a Professor of English Literature, and it was there that he began to write spy novels. Whilst in India he also married his second wife, Dorothy, without getting a divorce from Gladys. There is no evidence that Wilson worked for MI6 at the time, although that claim has been made by some.

When Wilson returned to England in 1933 he left Dorothy and their young son, Michael, and returned to his first wife, Gladys. About eighteen months later (in 1935) he moved to London, leaving his legitimate wife behind yet again. We do know that Wilson was working for MI6 at this time as he met his third wife, Alison, when she was his secretary there (again, no divorce); Alexander and Alison had two sons, Gordon and Nigel. In 1942 Wilson told Alison that the authorities were about to say that he had been dismissed from MI6 but it was all part of an elaborate cover story which would enable him to work as a spy in the field – specifically enabling him to get close to fascists and other targets in prison. The reason MI6 gave for his dismissal was that he had embellished a story about alleged Egyptian espionage and could not be trusted; he was also later accused of burglary and declared bankrupt.

Nahas Pasha
Nahas Pasha

The key reason for Wilsons ‘dismissal’ by MI6 was that they said his reports that the Egyptian Ambassador in London was spying for the Nazi’s were pure fabrication. Yet it was well known by the authorities at the time that a number of factions in Egypt were actively helping the Nazis in the hope that they would gain independence if Britain was defeated. And the Egyptian Ambassador in London was none other than Nahas Pasha, a key nationalist who had already plotted to overthrow the pro-British Egyptian government. To understand Wilson’s story we may need to understand more about Egypt during the Second World War.

Egypt had become part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 but western countries, including France, German, Italy, and Britain began to have more influence in the 19th century. In the 1850’s Ferdinand de Lesseps was given permission to build the Suez Canal which was underwritten by the Egyptians who were more or less forced to give the Suez Canal Company generous concessions, so much so that Egypt had to borrow large amounts of money to keep her economy going. Egypt was soon over £100 million in debt and had to allow the British Prime Minister, Disraeli, to buy up many of their shares in the Canal. France and Britain understood the importance of the Canal for trade and took over the Egyptian economy in 1876, declaring that they would maintain this role until the debts had been paid. When influential Egyptians tried to take back more control of their country British forces moved in and the British occupation of Egypt began in 1882 with the country becoming a Protectorate in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Many Egyptians felt cheated at the end of the war when the independence they thought they had been promised was not forthcoming, in fact they were not even allowed at the conference to decide the fate of their country. This led to riots in Cairo which spread throughout Egypt. Political instability continued until the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which required Britain to withdraw troops from all parts of Egypt except at the Suez Canal by 1949.

King Farouk
King Farouk

Nahas Pasha served as Prime Minister of Egypt before the war but was pushed out because of his nationalistic and ant-British feelings. When young King Farouk came to the throne in 1936 things changed – he wanted an end to British occupation of his country and was very friendly with the Italians. When war broke out many (but not all) Italians and Germans were interned at the insistence of the British, but Egypt refused to declare war on Germany and remained technically neutral until 1945. At the end of May 1940 Cairo was declared an ‘open city’ which meant that as the war in North Africa ebbed and flowed through the desert British troops rubbed shoulders with Italians and Germans on the streets of Egypt’s capital city. King Farouk refused to dismiss his Italian servants who kept lines of communication open with Rome, there were rumours of a powerful transmitter at the king’s Inchasse Palace, and he kept the lights burning at his palace in Alexandria despite the black-out imposed because of the Italian bombing of British facilities. It didn’t take a member of the intelligence community to see that although nominally British those in power in Egypt were firmly on the side of the Axis.

In Cairo itself there was a vocal if ineffectual contingent of Axis spies who frequented nightspots looking for information useful to Rommel, and it was believed by many that the barman at Shepheard’s Hotel (which was frequented by British  officers) was a German spy who listened in on conversations and reported back to his superiors. Hekmet, the most famous belly-dancer in the city was later arrested and accused of being a German spy. Ex-chief of staff of the Egyptian army Aziz el Masri formed a secret anti-British organisation in the Egyptian armed forces, and students held rallies in support of German advances chanting ‘press on Rommel’; at one point Anwar Sadat was imprisoned by the British for trying to get help from the Axis powers to throw the British out of Egypt and Sudan.

One of the novels written by Alexander Wilson
A novel by Alexander Wilson

It is almost impossible to separate truth from fiction when looking at Alexander Wilson so we have little hope of understanding his motives, yet nobody disputes that Wilson was a fervent patriot who clearly wanted to serve his country in any capacity. One wonders why with all of the knowledge they had of the nationalists anti-British activities in Cairo Wilson’s superiors at MI6 said that his reports on Egyptian espionage were wrong and he could not be trusted. Was this and the later accusation of burglary and declaring him bankrupt all part of an elaborate cover as Wilson claimed? Why else would MI6 continue to meet with him until his death in 1963? He said he was still working for them while they said they had him under surveillance, but if he was so disgraced and no longer had access to sensitive information why would they feel the need to keep him under surveillance for more than twenty years?

After the war, Wilson entered yet another bigamous marriage with Elizabeth although he continued to live with Alison who knew nothing of the intricacies of his private life. Everyone accepts that he was dishonest in his relationships, but that did not necessarily transfer to his work for the intelligence services. Was Alexander Wilson simply an inveterate liar or did he work under deep cover during the war and for many years after? One thing is certain, until the British government finally releases their files on Alexander Wilson we will never know the answer.

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Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan

A sweepingEmpire of Sand epic historical novel about Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most compelling characters in British history.

1915: While the war in Europe escalates, a young intelligence officer named Thomas Edward Lawrence is in Cairo, awaiting his chance for action. His superiors, however, have consigned him to the Map Room at GCHQ. But there’s more to Lieutenant Lawrence than meets the eye. A man of immense energy, he runs a network of agents across the Levant. Lawrence is convinced that an Arab revolt is the only way to remove the Ottoman presence, and leave a free self-governed Arabia. Soon, alarming reports reach him of trouble in Persia, orchestrated by infamous German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss. Intent on taking down Wassmuss and, at the same time, unlocking the secret of his success, Lawrence assembles a small group and travels to Persia…

Anyone who has an interest in the First World War, the Middle East or T E Lawrence (as I do) will enjoy this book. Contemporary accounts of the life of Lawrence were often contradictory, and few people would ever have known of his actions if not for the journalist Lowell Thomas who is responsible for bringing the hero whom he called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to public attention. Yet, 100 years later, the real man still remains elusive and enigmatic. Empire of Sand is a work of historical fiction although much of the novel is based on events which really happened to Lawrence (destroying railways, working with the Bedouins etc.), and the tactics he used in his unconventional warfare, which are mentioned here, are still used today. In its way this novel gives us a real insight into the complex character of Lawrence and how he came to be involved in such important events in the evolution of the Middle East as we know it today.

Mr Ryan has included in his novel a number of real people such as the German Wilhelm Wassmuss (who was the same age as Lawrence, looked similar, and worked in a similar way) and Captain Noel Edward, as well as the great female explorer Gertrude Bell. The main plot line (the importance of Wassmuss’ luggage – no spoilers!) is based on a real event in which all of these men were involved. This novel is a testament to the detailed research conducted by the author who has created an absorbing novel around real and very important events. The descriptions of Cairo, the life of the British in the Middle East, and the difficulties involved in desert warfare all serve to draw the reader into this story, giving an understanding of how people used to a British climate and culture struggled to live and work in the Middle East in the early part of the twentieth century. One can almost feel the burning sun and the wind-blown sand which plagued those who struggled in unfamiliar surroundings against the Turks and Germans.

Mr Ryan has delved deeply into the character of Lawrence and his love for the Arab peoples, so much so that this novel gives a clear insight into what Lawrence believed was the best way to bring about peace in the Middle East, it is a sad truth that if he had been listened to many of the problems which face us there today might never have arisen. The narrative of Empire of Sand enables the reader to get to know the real Lawrence, rather than the hero of David Lean’s epic film, and as such elicits a sympathy for and understanding of him which is often missing in purely historical accounts.

I was disappointed that this novel took the story of Lawrence up to the time he went into the desert to help the Arab uprising against the Turks but did not include the dramatic events which led to his ride on Damascus. To do what Lawrence did, lighting a fire beneath the Arab revolt and dealing with the difficult leaders of the Middle East, took a charismatic and quite unique character and I would love to see this part of Lawrence’s life portrayed in another novel by Robert Ryan!

Empire of Sand can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

At 11am on 11th November we remember the ending of the First World War, and the men and women who lost their lives in other wars and other parts of the world. Much of our focus is often on Europe, and those who fought and died in other theatres of war can sometimes be forgotten or relegated to the sidelines. One such group are the men who fought and died in North Africa during the Second World War.

Men of the Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment) camouflaging a gun position at Mersa Matruh, 28 May 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193447

Mersa Matruh is an ancient fishing port dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was also the place where Anthony and Cleopatra would escape for seclusion – at the time it was a village of sponge fishermen where the two lovers would relax and swim naked together in the sea. Allied troops were stationed in Mersa Matruh during the First World War, and at the time of the Second World War it was at the end of a narrow-gauge railway from Alexandria and as such was an important supply post for the Allies. The Allied troops who fought in North Africa came from all around the world – from the United Kingdom to Australia, from India to New Zealand, and the British Eighth Army (including the famed Desert Rats) set out on some of their most important operations from Mersa Matruh. Mersa was also the site of a crushing Allied defeat by Rommel’s Afrika Corps in June 1942.

I would like to thank Ian from the Desert Rats website for allowing me to use the following poem as a tribute to all those who fought and died during the North African campaigns of World War 2.

Signallers at Homs

THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.

How often do you folks at home
Think of sandy graves without a stone,
Where sleep our comrades brave and true,
Out in the desert at Mersa Matruh.

The raging sandstorms awake them not,
They’re cool below but above is hot
The trails of the desert are over them,
They fought and died like Englishmen.

Do you not feel pride in your heart
Where you think may be a friend took part
in the struggles for the empire, Britain and you,
And lay down their lives at Mersa Matruh.

On honoured scroll their names shall shine,
And will not dim through pass of time
In years to come we will remember them
As soldiers of the empire and British men.

Then forget them not you folks at home,
Those men who lie in the desert alone,
They died for their country, Britain and you
In the western desert of Mersa Matruh.

Desert Graves