Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I have the great pleasure of teaching History to Bickley Park’s Y8 boys. They engage enthusiastically in lessons which reminds me of how my Prep School Headmaster inspired me to love the subject: a passion that led me to study History at Cambridge University and to continue to devour historical tomes to this day.

At the moment, the boys are developing their understanding of warfare throughout history by undertaking a personal study of a battle or war that interests them. I like to give them pointers to finding interesting additional information. I have encouraged one boy, who is studying the Battle of Hui (Vietnam War), to contact the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which I visited in 2001. At the museum, Vietnamese war veterans act as guides: there might be someone who can give a first-hand account of the battle. Another boy is studying The Cold War: a chapter in history shrouded in intrigue. I am going to see if I can establish a link with a Cold War spy who was in my year at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Oxbridge colleges have historically been prime recruiting grounds for the intelligence services, although this is less the case nowadays. Rumour had it that one of our college ‘Dons’ actively looked for undergraduates with the right skills set to enter the world of espionage. Students who were exceptionally bright were of interest, as were those who had highly developed skills in particular areas, like linguistics. It was rumoured that those who had experienced a dysfunctional family background were targeted, so that the secret services could become their ‘family’.

In my year, at Gonville and Caius, there was at least one undergraduate who was recruited. One, Richard Tomlinson, was very much built in the James Bond mould: a dashing, handsome, tall individual who went on to achieve a starred first in aeronautical engineering. He initially declined to join MI6, shortly after graduating. He spent the next few years following a mix of careers: he was awarded a Kennedy Scholarship, which allowed him to study technology policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; he enrolled in a political science course at the University of Buenos Aires, where he became a fluent Spanish speaker; he joined the SAS reservists and represented Britain in the 1990 Camel Trophy, competing in Siberia, and crossed the Sahara desert solo on a motorcycle. He then applied to MI6, and officially joined the Service on 23 September 1991. He completed his training with MI6 and claims he was the best recruit on his course, being awarded the rarely given “Box 1” attribute by his instructing officers.

As a spy, in the latter stages of The Cold War, he was based in Moscow and was responsible for the retrieval of the valuable Mitrokhin Archive in 1992. He was then posted to Sarajevo during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia before being posted to Teheran where he managed to infiltrate the Iranian Intelligence Service. However, Tomlinson was a maverick and did not enjoy a good relationship with his ‘managers’ at MI6. This led to him being thrown out of the service. Disgruntled at his treatment, he wrote a book: ‘The Big Breach’, in which he disclosed classified information. This resulted in his arrest and imprisonment. He was later released and his relationship with MI6 was partially repaired.

Tomlinson’s colourful life continued: he was linked to an accusation that Nelson Mandela was in the pay of MI6, something the renowned statesman strenuously denied. He was also used as a witness in the inquest into the death of Princess Diana and Dodi al Fayad. He had suggested that MI6 was monitoring Diana before her death and that her driver, Henri Paul, may have been an MI6 informant. He also suggested that her death resembled plans he saw during 1992 for the assassination of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, using a bright light to cause a traffic accident.

He is now living in France. Maybe we can get in touch with him to seek his views of what it was like to be a Cold War spy?