Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (22 July 2016)

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Date of Auction: 22nd July 2016

Sold for £10,000

Estimate: £2,000 - £3,000

‘In 1940 he was recruited into M.I. 5 on counter espionage work. Here until 1945 he ran the large section which controlled the double agents in Britain with results which made it one of the most remarkable intelligence operations of the war. For five years Masterman and his organization controlled the whole of the German espionage system at its most vital point without rousing enemy suspicion. This paid handsome dividends in terms of counter espionage, straight intelligence and in deception; the apotheosis of this last aspect of the effort being in the plan, Fortitude, by which the Germans became convinced that the D-Day landings were to be in the Pas de Calais region rather than Normandy and retained large forces in that area to counter them.’

Sir John Masterman’s obituary notice in
The Times, 7 June 1977, refers.
The important Knight Bachelor’s, Second World War O.B.E. group of five awarded to Sir John Masterman, who served as Chairman of M.I. 5’s ‘XX Committee’ during the 1939-45 War, namely the group of officials charged with running the ‘Double Cross System’ which turned enemy spies into double agents: as a consequence he was closely associated with some of the most important deception plans of the war, including Operation “Mincemeat” - better known as ‘The Man Who Never Was’ incident - namely ‘Major Martin, R.M.’ whose corpse was temporarily stored in Masterman’s London office

Masterman continued to play a behind the scenes role in M.I. 5 in the post-war era, assisting in recruitment and acting as a peacemaker as the organisation came under scrutiny in the 1960s: in 1972, following considerable government opposition, he published
The Double-Cross System - one of the most important military intelligence histories ever to appear in print

The world of ‘spooks’ aside, he was a brilliant and versatile sportsman: he competed in Grand Slams at Wimbledon, played hockey for England and toured with the M.C.C.

Otherwise known as a writer of detective novels and academic, he served as Provost of Worcester College, Oxford (1946-61), and as Vice-Chancellor of the University (1957-58): he was knighted in the following year

Knight Bachelor’s Badge, 2nd type breast badge, silver-gilt and enamel, hallmarks for London 1948, in its Royal Mint fitted case of issue; The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, O.B.E. (Civil Division), Officer’s 2nd type breast badge, silver-gilt, in its Royal Mint case of issue; Defence and War Medals 1939-45; Yugoslavia, Order of the Crown, 4th Class breast badge, silver, silver-gilt and enamel, together with a set of related miniature dress medals and Oxford & Cambridge Athletic Sports’ Medals (2): Jubilee Medal 1864-1913, bronze, the reverse named ‘J. C. Masterman’, in its Mappin & Webb fitted case and Prize Medal for the High Jump 1913, silver, the reverse ‘J. C. Masterman’, in its fitted Gilliam case of issue, generally extremely fine (7) £2000-3000


Knight Bachelor London Gazette 13 June 1959.

London Gazette 8 June 1944.

John Cecil Masterman was born in January 1891 at Crescent Lodge, Kingston upon Thames, the younger of the two children, both sons, of Commander (later Captain) John Masterman R.N ., and his wife, Edith Margaret Hughes.

Originally destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, Masterman spent five years as a naval cadet at the Royal Naval College at Osborne and Dartmouth. But he became increasingly aware of his unsuitability for such a career and, much to the disappointment of his parents, he dropped out in 1908. In the following year, he was elected to a scholarship in modern history at Worcester College, Oxford.

Between gaining his first-class degree in 1913 and election as a student of Christ Church in 1919, the outbreak of war caught him towards the end of a post-graduate year in Germany, leading to his internment for the duration at Ruhleben camp outside Berlin. Masterman always regretted this misfortune yet his years as a captive in Germany were to prove invaluable in the 1939-45 War - that is his acquired fluency in German and his insight into the enemy’s mentality.

On his repatriation, he became a popular history tutor and censor at Christ Church in the 1920s, the same decade in which his sporting skills rose to prominence. His love of cricket brought him into contact with such figures as Douglas Jardine and he represented England at hockey, in addition to competing at Wimbledon. Indeed his sporting prowess was of the enduring kind: in the week of his 45th birthday he took part in a golf competition, played in the South of England squash competition and scored twice in a hockey match.

In the 1930s, he also turned to writing. A detective story,
An Oxford Tragedy (1933) and a novel Fate Cannot Harm Me (1935) were followed by an historical tragedy, Marshal Ney (1937), which was finally produced as a radio drama.

XX Committee

Called-up in June 1940, Masterman was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps and employed as a secretary at the War Office. Shortly afterwards, however, he was seconded to M.I. 5 and appointed Chairman of Twenty Committee - so called because the Roman numeral for twenty - XX - is a double cross. It was an inspired choice, for he acted with natural authority, so much so that senior officers were content to take direction from him. As cited by Masterman in his account of the Double-Cross System, XX Committee’s brief was:

To control the enemy system, or as much of it as we could get our hands on.

To catch fresh spies when they appeared.

To gain knowledge of the personalities and methods of the German Secret Service.

To obtain information about the code and cypher work of the German Service.

To get evidence of enemy plans and intentions from the questions asked by them.

To influence enemy plans by the answers sent to the enemy.

To deceive the enemy about our plans and intentions.

From January 1941 the disinformation passed on by double agents to German Intelligence was co-ordinated by the Committee, so successfully that it actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country: in fact, when captured German intelligence records were studied after 1945, it was found that almost all of the 115 or so agents targeted against Britain during the course of the war had been successfully identified and caught, and that many of these had been ‘turned’ into double agents.

As a consequence, XX Committee’s brilliantly co-ordinated flow of disinformation was responsible for some of the most successful deceptions of the war. High on the list of those successes must be Operation “Fortitude”, orchestrated by a handful of double agents, as a result of which the Germans diverted vital reserves to the Pas de Calais shortly before the Normandy landings in June 1944: in fact two armoured divisions and 19 infantry divisions.

Mention, too, should be made of Operation “Mincemeat” - the famous ruse involving a corpse attired in the uniform of a Royal Marine officer, complete with briefcase and secret plans; this convinced the Germans that the invasion of southern Europe would take place in Sardinia and the Balkans, rather than in Sicily:

‘If this sounds like the plot of a spy thriller, that is because it is borrowed from fiction. The idea started life in the pages of a novel by Basil Thomson, philanderer, spy-catcher and former tutor to the king of Siam. It took root in the mind of Ian Fleming, the wartime intelligence officer and author of the James Bond novels. Fleming then bequeathed it to a whole cast of other characters: an amateur adventurer named Charles Cholmondeley; the wealthy fly-fishing enthusiast Ewen Montagu; the racing car champion Jock Horsfall; a Spanish spy master, Salvador Gomez-Beare; and Alan Hilgarth, a treasure-hunter in the Indiana Jones mould who also happened to write novels. Monitoring the success of the operation was an ascetic Oxford don named John Masterman who ran Britain’s network of double agents and wrote detective novels in his spare time.

By sheer force of their imagination this unlikely group of chancers, novelists and eccentrics made this fiction into a reality. Whole weeks were spent constructing an identity for their corpse, finding clothes and personal possessions for him, and writing the documents that would deceive the Nazis.

To everyone’s delight, German spies in Spain fell for the ruse hook, line and sinker. Their head of intelligence in Madrid, Karl-Erich Kulenthal, took the captured documents to Berlin personally and even embellished the story of their discovery to make them seem more plausible. In Berlin, everyone from General Alfred Jodl to Hitler himself believed that the source of the information was “absolutely reliable”. The documents suggested that the invasion would occur simultaneously in Sardinia and the Balkans, and the Nazis redeployed their troops accordingly. When the real invasion arrived on the beaches of Sicily it was too late for them to do anything about it.’

So states Keith Lowe’s review in
The Daily Telegraph for Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat - The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War Two (Bloomsbury, 2016); see, too, the same author’s title Double Cross - The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Bloomsbury, 2012), for the full story of Operation “Fortitude.”

In terms of individual double agents, Masterman considered the Catalan businessman, Juan Pujol García, his most effective - he was to receive the Iron Cross as German agent ‘Arabel’ and the M.B.E. as our agent ‘Garbo’. Under the auspices of XX Committee, the Catalan established a network of 27 fictional agents in the U.K., the whole feeding the enemy misinformation by radio and a postal address in Spain. It was these activities that made possible the success of the aforementioned Operation “Fortitude.”

Another well-known character enlisted by XX Committee was Eddie Chapman, a pre-war ‘safe cracker’ who was serving out a sentence in a Jersey prison when the Germans invaded; he offered his services to the Germans, was trained as a spy - code-name ‘Fritz’ - and was parachuted into England in December 1942. On landing, Chapman surrendered immediately to the police and offered his services to M.I. 5. Thus was born agent ‘ZigZag’, who, on returning to the Germans, reported on their agents in Oslo and then misled them with fictitious reports about the accuracy of their V-weapons on being parachuted back into England. He, too, appears to have been awarded the Iron Cross, and was granted a pardon by the British authorities for his pre-war criminal activities.

For his own part, Masterman would recall how he chaired no less than 226 meetings in the period leading up to May 1945, but on only one occasion was a vote taken, for ‘all the other decisions were arrived at after discussion and without a vote.’ He continues:

‘But it was a fascinating job and one which compelled me to refuse all proposals that I should be transferred to other work. There were of course ‘high spots’ of interest and excitement. To listen to one of our wireless operators, imitating after a year of practice the style of one of the agents speaking to the Germans was a thrill; so too was the sight of a large tin container in the office which housed the body of ‘Major Martin’ - the ‘man who never was’; so again was a meeting about midnight with an agent who had just visited his German masters. He was a business man from a neutral country, well trusted by the Germans and - with much more reason - well trusted by us. The Germans proposed to him that, after his good work in England, he should move to America and set up an agency there. At that time the U.S.A. were still neutral. I interviewed him in a hide-out not far from Piccadilly Circus and asked him how the negotiations in Lisbon had gone. When he replied that all had gone well I asked what often turned out to be a key question. ‘Did they give you adequate funds?’ Payments made often gave a rough guide to the trust reposed in the agent by the Germans. ‘Oh yes, they gave me about £6000 or £7000 in American dollars.’ ‘And where is the money?’ ‘I think that I left it in my coat at the Savoy when I changed to come round to see you.’ My heart sank when I thought of all this money left in a coat thrown aside in a hotel bedroom, but my anxiety was quickly removed. ‘No, I’m wrong, I did change it over before I came out - here it is.’ Sure enough, American dollars to the value of some £6000 were handed to me and I well remember that I felt nervous as I walked at midnight through blacked-out London to deposit the notes in the office safe
(On the Chariot Wheel, Masterman’s autobiography, refers).

Masterman was awarded the O.B.E., which distinction he received at Buckingham Palace on 11 May 1945, and the Yugoslav Order of the Crown, which he received from King Peter at the Savoy, in the company of other M.I. 5 personnel. On learning of the former award’s approval, Sir David Petrie, Director-General of the Security Service, wrote to him:

‘With the removal of the “ban” on secrecy, I am delighted to be able to offer you openly my sincere congratulations on your honour. I have never failed to appreciate the importance of what you have been doing in your Committee, as well as the skill with which you have managed to harmonise the various interests represented on it, so ensuring the necessary bloodstream which has kept Robertson’s [Major T. A. ‘Tar’ Roberston] team in full vitality through these long troubled years. When we look at “OVERLORD”, to say nothing of great and hazardous undertakings, I think we can, without offence to modesty, say: “Si monumentum, etc.”. The award has come at just the right moment, and, in writing to you of the pleasure it brings me, I should like to offer you my sincere thanks and warmest congratulations.’

As cited above, Masterman subsequently published
The Double Cross System, based on a highly classed M.I. 5 report that he had been asked to write at the end of the war: a copy of which he took back to Oxford when he resumed his career as an academic. He wrote the book by way of defending M.I. 5 as it faced increasing criticism in the 1960s but it took successive governments and prime ministers before it was finally cleared for publication in 1972. The book begins with a description of the system early in the war, when the priority was the capture of enemy agents, and then describes subsequent operations when ‘turned’ agents were used to feed the enemy misinformation. M.I. 5 personnel are not mentioned personally but the remarkable activities of some of XX Committee’s double agents are related in detail.

Back at Oxford he was elected Provost of Worcestershire College in 1946, and remained similarly employed until 1961; he was Vice-Chancellor of the University in 1958-59 and was knighted in the following year.

According to his entry in the
Dictionary of National Biography, Sir John was ‘humane, humorous and loyal’, in addition to being ‘wonderful company and a very good friend.’ He died at Oxford in June 1977, aged 86, and his ashes were scattered in the lake at Worcester College.

Sold with a quantity of original documentation, including forwarding letter for his insignia from the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor, dated 24 July 1959, and warrant for the Yugoslav Order of the Crown, dated 20 February 1945, with related letter of translation from the Minister of the Royal Court of Yugoslavia; honorary degree diplomas from the University of Toronto, dated 26 August 1953, with a letter from the President of the University, dated 26 August 1958; University College, Nova Scotia, dated 9 September 1953; and Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, dated 20 April 1966, the whole contained in in an ‘E.II.R’ red scroll box; and a Medal of the London Annual International Exhibition of All Fine Arts, Industries and Inventions, gilt metal, named to the recipient’s father, ‘Lieut. J. Masterman, R.N., Catalogue No. 2253, Etc.’.