Occupational Hazards of a Secret Agent

In this guest blog, Paul M H Buvarp, a PhD candidate at the School of International Relations at St Andrews, explores the risks of working as an undercover propagandist during WW1.

War is a messy affair. Decisions are made and filtered through bureaucracies and offices, creating often very inefficient systems prone to mistakes and misunderstandings. Secrets are difficult to keep, plans are difficult to authorise and it is nearly impossible to receive clear directives. Perhaps the most vulnerable class in this regard in the First World War were those who depended particularly on secrecy, authorisation and direction — the secret agents.

Rowland Kenney (1882–1961) was one such secret agent whose frustration with the system ranged from humorous to downright despairing. Kenney was sent to Norway in 1916 to be the spearhead of the British propaganda campaign there. As an agent of the Foreign Office News Department, he received a cover identity as a Reuters Correspondent, which enabled him to make close connections with the press elites in the country. He was, by all accounts, very successful. By the end of the war, and in a period of only two years, he had personally been responsible for over one thousand pro-British articles appearing in the Norwegian press, and had held a significant role in shepherding the fall of the Berlin-influenced Norwegian national news agency and the creation of a London-friendly agency in its place.

The secrecy of his mission was essential not only because of his personal safety, but also because of the nature of his work. Kenney was of the belief that propaganda was at its most effective when it was not known to be propaganda. In one of his earliest reports, he wrote of his German counterpart in Norway and how that agent’s heavy-handedness and obviousness had turned the press and the people against his message.

It is difficult to tell to what extent his cover was upheld, i.e. whether some of his Norwegian contacts were aware of his true mission. There is nothing on paper to sharply suggest any of them did, and in fact, when he is referred to in Norwegian documents and memoranda, he is referred to as Reuters Correspondent. However, maintaining this identity was no easy task.

Oslo's Grand Hotel today
Oslo’s Grand Hotel today. Image by Asbjorn Floden (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the summer of 1917, for example, the British Legation in Oslo received a visitor by the name of Ellison from Britain. It is not made explicitly clear who exactly Ellison was, but it is suggested that he was one of the many British do-gooders who spent the war going from place to place, dipping their toes in other people’s business. He appears—at least in Kenney’s writing—to have been unfortunately indiscreet. On Oslo’s main street stood the Grand Hotel (which still stands today) which doubtless was a centre-point for both Norwegian and foreign dignitaries, agents and elites in wartime. On the first day of Ellison’s visit, Kenney and Ellison were speaking in the foyer of the hotel, and Ellison evidently made the point that Kenney was in effect a secret agent of the Foreign Office. Kenney, mortified, acknowledged to his handler that it might have passed unnoticed, but that it may also have ruined his work.

A continuing theme throughout Kenney’s papers from the First World War is his constant battle to register his address with the Foreign Office, as well as to have them send certain necessary materials. Presumably, the Legation was under surveillance, and in order to maintain his secret position it was important that messages and packages could be received privately. While the idea carries merit, Kenney was more than a little annoyed when after nineteen messages had been sent about his new address, packages were still sent wrong. His twentieth message got the job done, only after it was passed through the Legation and encrypted in code.

Perhaps the most basic necessity to remain covert was the nature of payment for Kenney’s work. Payments were slow and unpredictable, and in order to elicit some form of response, Kenney sometimes had to threaten with resignation, or even borrow money privately from the British Minister’s private pocket. The Foreign Office payments naturally had to be disguised, so as to not blow the cover of his Reuters employment. When Kenney one day found his payment coming directly and openly from the Foreign Office, he was not amused: “The cat is out of the bag, and the spy hunters are dogging your tracks all over the place, but why, oh why, do your people do these things?” Being a secret agent was no easy task.

The First World War was in many respects an unprecedented challenge for governments and bureaucracies. It created a demand for a massive coordinated system, the likes of which had never before been seen. That the system was not as streamlined as it should have been is no surprise, and it is a credit to Kenney’s hard work, dedication and good luck that he at all succeeded. Notably, Kenney is still absent from the history books, so it might be safe to say that he has kept his cover very well.

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