Monday, 2 November 2015

The Real 007


The Bizarre World of Sidney Reilly – The Real 007.

Sidney Reilly: The Man who inspired James Bond.

Beyond the misty boundaries of espionage there are walking, human mysteries, conundrums of the psyche who leave behind a strange record of lives lived which are so complex, incredible and multi-faceted that they will remain a source of puzzlement and wonder for all time.
Whatever James Bond achieved in fiction is nothing compared to the real-life exploits of the so-called ‘Ace of Spies’, Sidney Reilly.  Even 007’s originator, author Ian Fleming, admitted his creation’s limitations when he said
 “James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He’s not a Sidney Reilly, you know…”  
Sidney Reilly was a cunning chameleon, a devious, bold survivor, and the inspiration behind Bond, the ultimate enigma, feared by both political extremes, from capitalist to commissar. In the words of one researcher, ‘Reilly was so twisted he had to take his pants off with a corkscrew’. He may have come too early for the age of missiles, helicopters, Goldfinger and Blofeld, yet his dark hand is traceable in some of the early 20th century’s dirtiest deals. He was a con man who held a dozen passports, described by the U.S. Government as ‘world class’, a chemist, a businessman, a master of disguise, a forger, and was fluent in a number of languages. He could fool the rich and famous and bring down governments, and then vanish like a ghost. His headed notepaper bore the double-headed Russian eagle with the legend Mundo Nulla Fides – ‘Put No Faith in The World’, or, literally – ‘Trust No One’. Anyone who came into contact with this man of mystery soon understood the deep significance of that motto. 

Sidney Reilly would have loved to look like Daniel Craig ...
And, as with Messrs. Craig, Connery, Moore and Brosnan, women couldn’t get enough of our Sidney. Any serial bigamist who had an estimated eight wives at the same time, with a mistress alongside each, deserves our attention.

He left a legacy of riddles. How did he become the fictitious Sidney Reilly,  claiming to be a ‘British gentleman’ of Irish descent? Did he die in front of a Soviet firing squad in 1925, or did he live on with yet another identity until the 1940s?
He was born to the Rosenblum family, either as Georgi, Shlomo or Sigmund – (sources differ) in  Odessa in Russia on March 24 1874 or 1873.  His father was a Jewish doctor, Markus Rosenblum, who had given up medicine to become a shipping agent and broker. Yet even these biographical details are suspect, as according to Reilly’s latest biographer, Professor Richard Spence of the University of Idaho[1]  there is no record of a Markus Rosenblum living in Odessa at that time. Reilly never mentioned Odessa as his birthplace. He cited both Clonmel, Ireland, and at other times, St. Petersburg, Russia as places of origin.
Reilly learned from an early age in a virulently anti-Semitic environment that plain survival was the noblest cause of all. The oppressed Jews were blamed for everything, including the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Pogroms – violent and murderous attacks on Jewish communities, were a regular occurrence, with the cry  Bei zhidov, spasai Rossii! (Kill the Yids and save Russia!) ringing through the streets. If you were a Jew in this climate, it made sense to have money – as much as possible. Money made life easier, it offered protection in tight corners and oiled the commercial wheels. Having money – and being prepared to kill for it -  became the guiding rule of Sigmund’s life.
For his entry into the international affairs of Great Britain we have a choice of scenarios. Professor Spence favours young Sigmund, with a qualification in Chemistry, arriving in London from France in 1895. Another current biography by Britain’s Andrew Cook[2] favours the lad stowing away on a British merchant ship bound for South America. There he took on the identity of a South American called Pedro, and became a cook at a British mission. When the mission was attacked by local Indians, it was Pedro to the rescue, bravely saving the endangered Brits whilst scaring off the local tribesmen. One of the mission members was a certain Major Fothergill, a British agent, who showed his gratitude to ‘Pedro’ with a generous cheque for £1,500. Rosenblum found a passage back to England. In London, he was soon mixing with a panoply of bizarre characters  who operated on the fringes of late Victorian society. If they had money – Sigmund was interested. He had begun trading as a chemist making profitable patent medicines with his own firm, Rosemblum & Co, then with the Electric Ozone Company, ostensibly carrying out research into the use of Ozone in the filtration systems on submarines. This brought him into contact with Basil Zaharoff, a fearful character of tremendous wealth and political influence, who had built his fortune on arms sales.
Basil Zaharoff displaying his many 'honours'.
Zaharoff was known as ‘The Merchant of Death’ (he excelled in bribery, blackmail, with a reputation for having competitors assassinated). Twice young Sigmund’s age, he took the callow chemist under his dark wing. They were made for each other. Zaharoff taught his devious young protégé  three rules he would always live by; that the best way to gain influence over a man was through a woman, that one should bet on all sides in a contest, but bet the most on the strongest man, and in politics, one should “begin on the left…and then work over to the right…”.
As if Zaharoff wasn’t depraved enough, it is thought that young Sigmund came into frequent contact at this time with the so-called ‘Beast Incarnate’, the black magician, Aleister Crowley.
Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed
'Great Beast'.
Posing in London as a Russian nobleman, Count Svarov, Crowley claimed to have returned from a spying mission to Russia on behalf of the Foreign Office. Such a fanciful yarn was bound to attract Sigmund’s attention. Crowley’s ‘magickal’ maxim ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’ would have appealed immensely to the libidinous Rosenblum. But neither Crowley nor Zaharoff had been his first London contact.
One of the great Fortean mysteries of all time is still the indecipherable Voynich Manuscript, which is today lodged in the rare books department at Yale University. In the 1890s, the man who would eventually unearth this arcane tome at a Jesuit monastery in Italy, Wilfrid Michael Voynich, bibliophile and rare book dealer, ran his business in London. Not long after his arrival in England Sigmund realised that London was a hotbed of exiled Russian anti-tsarist revolutionaries. Information was his currency, and before long he was working for the Tsar’s secret police, the Ohkrana.

Wilfrid Voynich
Wilfrid Voynich, a Pole, had been an anti-tsarist nationalist who, like Sigmund, had trained as a chemist and had escaped from a Warsaw prison where he had been held for his political activities. Voynich had valuable contacts  among the many Russian political exiles in London, and as a rookie in the information business, Sigmund clung to Voynich like a limpet. Even more valuable to him was Voynich’s wife, Ethel Lillian Boole Voynich, the daughter of the prominent mathematician, George Boole. Another committed revolutionary, she took to Sigmund, unaware that every piece of information she let slip might end up in Scotland Yard or on the Tsar’s desk in St. Petersburg.
In 1899 she wrote a novel, The Gadlfy, whose central character, Arthur Burton, is said to be based on her interesting young friend.
Although a substantial sum at the time, the £1500 Sigmund had been given by Major Fothergill was dwindling away. His espionage wages from Scotland Yard – and elsewhere-  were not yet paying enough to run his hedonistic lifestyle.
Sigmund needed capital.
Through his connection to Superintendent William Melville at Scotland Yard, he came into the orbit of Sir Henry Montague Hozier, the Managing Secretary of Lloyds of London.  Whatever similarities there were in the two men’s character, they were in the area of serial infidelity and a nose for intelligence work. Hozier would eventually become Winston Churchill’s father-in-law. It was one of his associates at Lloyds in the Naval Intelligence Division, Albert Kaye Rollit, who would unwittingly move Sigmund closer to the money he needed. Rollit, Melville and Hozier were all Freemasons - as was Sigmund Rosenblum. They shared another passion – race horses, which eventually saw Sigmund being introduced to the 65 year old Reverend Hugh Thomas, another fan of all things equine. Thomas was very well-heeled for a clergyman, with his own stud farm, property in London and a Welsh estate. He also held an impressive portfolio of stocks and shares. Sigmund soon put the first of Basil Zaharoff’s rules into action. Thomas’s wife, Margaret Callahan Thomas, was the 23 year old daughter of an Irish sea captain, Edward Reilly Callahan.
Reverend Thomas had a bad heart. He had tried manfully for five years to produce an heir to his estate, but Margaret’s hoped for pregnancy had failed to materialise. Enter the young stud, Sigmund. By the summer of 1898 she was not only in love with the swarthy young spy, but carrying his child. Naturally, the old clergyman thought he’d scored at last.
He planned to celebrate the pregnancy by taking Margaret – and Sigmund - to sunnier climes, but as they were about to leave for the continent, he died from heart failure in a Newhaven hotel room. There may well have been some complicity in the Reverend’s death between Sigmund and Margaret. There is no record of the nurse who was supposed to be present at the death. The death certificate was signed by a doctor variously called S.W. or T. W. Andrews. The Royal College of Surgeons had no such member listed at the time. With his skill as a forger, it is possible that the death certificate was forged by Rosenblum.
Five months later Margaret, now a rich young woman, married Sigmund at Holborn Registry Office. He set about liquidating the late Reverend’s assets, a process which culminated in an auction at Christies. Now with adequate funds, he cleared off to Spain, possibly on a spying mission for Melville. Margaret was not invited.
In December 1898 he returned.
Six months later, with a passport in the name of Sidney George Reilly, he and Margaret left their house in London’s Upper Westbourne Terrace and Sigmund Rosenblum vanished. He may have been involved in a major counterfeiting operation which had pumped millions of fake roubles into the Russian economy. If Sigmund was to face any charges on this, then his cover with the Ohkrana and Scotland Yard may have been blown; so, he had to go abroad – to China.
The next few years of Reilly’s life becomes a complicated roller-coaster ride of business dealings, illicit affairs and, of course, the further development of his spying career around the world – especially in Russia.
By the time the First World War began he was regarded by the British Secret Service (MI6) as their top man. Code-named ST-1, this hard, cold enigma treated his women with contempt – and by this time Margaret was history.
His daring exploits beggar belief. At one time, at Cannes on the Mediterranean coast, he managed to talk his way on board the private yacht of the French Rothschild family to procure Persian oil concessions for Britain by disguising himself as a Catholic priest. At the height of World War I he turned up at a meeting of the German High Command dressed as a German officer, where he sat in, unnoticed, then reported back to MI6.  But it was in Russia where the enduring legend of Sidney Reilly  would be fully formed.
Reilly was fascinated by all things Napoleonic. He collected anything to do with Bonaparte. His plans for Russia following the overthrow of the Romanovs by the Bolsheviks in 1917 have an almost Napoleonic flavour. Reilly really believed that he could be the one man who could give back to Russia her former imperial glory. He would do it by intrigue, secret deals and dirty tricks, just as he did everything else. If spying had been a ‘gentlemanly’ occupation before Reilly, then the new rules of play under his direction would be as far from cricket as one could get.
But not everyone who worked for His Majesty’s Government found this brash braggart to their taste.
Robert Bruce Lockhart
Robert Bruce Lockhart was an erudite, keen young diplomat who had been sent to the new Bolshevik Russia in 1918 by the British government as an envoy to keep Lloyd George’s cabinet informed on the new Soviet state’s intentions. Lockhart was a pragmatist. On an earlier posting to Russia he had repeatedly warned London that the power of Lenin and Trotsky would eventually mean that the west should at least have a dialogue with the new socialist regime. Yet his advice fell on deaf ears. King George V and the deposed Tsar Nicholas II were close cousins. If there was any way the radical new usurpers could be toppled, despite simultaneously running the Great War, then Sidney Reilly would find it.
MI6 despatched their ace of skullduggery to Moscow, without informing Lockhart.
In addition to fermenting counter-revolution,  the centre piece of Reilly’s grand scheme was to arrest Trotsky and Lenin and, rather than execute them, parade them through the streets of Russia on a cart, minus their trousers.
‘Better they look fools than martyrs’ was Reilly’s Russian strategy.
In Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called), the British Embassy had been vacated by senior diplomats, who had returned to the comfort of England rather than face the rigours of advancing communism. In their place in the embassy was a brave, highly-decorated Royal Navy submarine captain, the 37 year old Francis Cromie. Courageous though Cromie was, he was out of his depth in Reilly’s field of espionage.

Captain Francis Cromie
In Russia, Reilly  had established yet another identity for himself as Comrade Relinsky, an officer with the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police and fore-runner of the KGB.  He also became a fictitious Greek businessman, Mr. Konstantin. To the Americans he was ‘one of theirs’ with the odd name ‘Ser Ruis’. Each of his ‘characters’ in Russia soon had a wife. His identity would change even on train journeys between Petrograd and Moscow.  He would board as the Greek at one end, and disembark at the other as Relinsky.  There is no doubt that, with his previous experience working for the Tsarist Ohkrana, Reilly was feared by certain members of the new Cheka, who, like him, would have had much to hide about their previous affiliations. The sight of Reilly in their midst would fill them with fear lest he talked, providing fertile ground for blackmail, something Sidney excelled at.
By August 1918 there were serious Allied plans afoot to intervene in the new Russia. Trotsky and Lenin were told that Allied troops had been sent to Murmansk and Archangel to protect British armaments lest they fell into the hands of the Germans and to form a bulwark against the Kaiser’s troops.  But behind the scenes a different plot was developing. If the Allied force could join with the sizeable, disaffected tsarist factions, then the threat posed by the Bolsheviks – and any inspiration they might give to the rest of the world’s workers – could be removed.
When a party of Lenin’s Latvian Praetorian Guard secretly visited Captain Cromie at the Embassy in Petrograd, he listened carefully to their offer – that, with the right amount of finance, they could mobilise several thousand Latvian troops who would fight alongside the Allies to bring Lenin and Trotsky down. Cromie  sent the keen   counter-revolutionaries to Moscow to meet Lockhart and Reilly, posing as the Greek, Konstantin. Reilly immediately organised the transfer of 1,200,000 roubles in funds from London, which (although not all) was passed on to the ‘rebels’.
The money had, in fact, gone straight into the coffers of the Cheka; the whole thing had been a Bolshevik ‘sting’, set up to discover the real intentions of the Allies. Handing the money over had been a gamble, but risk was Reilly’s game and the Cheka agents had done a convincing job.
Such was the bold sweep of Reilly’s plans at this time that Bruce Lockhart had been forced to accept that Allied policy was now the spy’s full responsibility. Reilly’s scheme included blowing up bridges, the delivery from secret locations to Moscow of several batteries of  British heavy guns, and he had discovered the location of a sealed trainload of gold which was bound for Germany – for Sidney, an irresistible bonus should he get his hands on it. In Petrograd, Captain Cromie would proceed with plans to scuttle the Baltic Fleet. Reilly’s Napoleonic dreams seemed achievable.
Head of the Cheka: 'Iron'Felix Dzerzhinsky
The Cheka were now fully aware that Russia was under serious threat, but the organisation’s leaders, ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerzhinsky and his deputy Jacob Peters  played it cool and bided their time. Peters was in a dangerous situation – Reilly had known him in London and there seems no doubt the hidden truth of the Cheka deputy’s dubious political past was enough for Sidney to be able to make Peters complicit in his schemes.
However,  what happened on Friday August 30th 1918 forced their hand.  In Petrograd that morning the city’s Cheka boss, Moisei Uritsky, was assassinated. Was Reilly behind this? Probably, as it seems possible Uritsky may have known too much about Reilly and Peters. Worse was to come that evening when a young woman, Fania Kaplan, fired two shots at Lenin as he left from giving a speech in a factory. Lenin survived, but was seriously wounded. There is a strong possibility that Reilly was also behind this plot.  These two events, plus the threat of Allied intervention, all now combined to create what would be known as ‘The Terror’.
Hundreds were arrested or executed that night. The following day, Saturday 31st, the Cheka invaded the British Embassy, arrested everyone, and shot Captain Cromie dead. Even the brave Cromie’s death may have been the result of Reilly’s scheming. He saw the naïve captain as a loose cannon who knew too much.
The game was up, and although Allied troops had indeed landed in Archangel, their network of support in Russia had been destroyed, as nearly every British diplomat or agent had been imprisoned. Reilly, of course, vanished, but in his perambulations by train between Moscow and Petrograd he was almost caught. The Cheka had boarded the train looking for him. Reilly bumped into a Bolshevik sailor in the corridor. He attacked him, stole his uniform and bundled  the unconscious mariner through the window onto the track. Now kitted out as one of the Soviet Navy’s finest, ‘Comrade Relinsky’ asked the marauding Cheka agents if he could ‘help to look for Reilly’, an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Despite Reilly’s efforts, the Soviet Union was to survive for over 70 years, but he carried on his devious work. In Britain in 1924 he helped to forge the infamous ‘Zinoviev Letter’, a scurrilous Russian fake exhorting British workers to revolt. It’s appearance in the Daily Mail  brought down Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government.
His death, as one would expect, has been as big a conundrum as his life. There are suggestions that he survived as a businessman for many years either in the USA or in Israel, as ‘George Rosenblum’.  Biographer Andrew Cook believes Reilly was probably executed in Russia, on Stalin’s orders, on November 5th 1925.[3]
Whatever the truth – do we really want to know? In Reilly’s case, we can never stamp ‘case closed’ on the file – everyone loves an enigma.

Honoured By Strangers
is available as an e-book
from Constable & Robinson /Little, Brown Ltd.


[1] Spence, Richard B. Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly.
Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002.
[2] Cook, Andrew Sidney Reilly: ST1 (On His Majesty’s Secret Service)
Tempus Books, UK 2002.
[3] IBID. See also Boycott, Owen, How Fate, and Stalin, finally dealt the ‘Ace of Spies’ a losing hand.
The Guardian, September 7 2002.


Bruce Lockhart, Robin: Reilly Ace of Spies MacDonald, London 1968.
Written by  Robert Bruce Lockhart’s son,  this is a stirring yarn which incorporates all the fact, fiction and myth surrounding Reilly, yet lacks any sources, footnotes or a bibliography.
It was the basis for the 1983 12-part TV drama Reilly Ace of Spies starring Sam Neill.
Bruce Lockhart followed his book with Reilly: The First Man  in 1987 as a sequel.

Kettle, Michael Sidney Reilly: The True Story of The World’s Greatest Spy  (London 1983)
Reilly, Pepita and Sidney The Adventures of Sidney Reilly  (London 1931) supposedly partly written by reilly himself, although this seems doubtful; ‘Pepita’ was one of his bigamous wives.
Websites: for Reilly, the Zinoviev letter, etc.,

Finally, my own book,
Bainton, Roy Honoured By Strangers – The Life of Capt. Francis Cromie CB DSO RN 1882-1918
e-book, Constable & Robinson 2014 Airlife, Shrewsbury 2002  features many of Reilly’s exploits and dealings with Cromie.

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