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Remembering... Captain Norman Dewhurst MC

Remembering...Captain Norman Dewhurst MC

You only live twice – the incredible story of a real James Bond

By Dennis Abbott

Captain Norman Dewhurst MC had a distinguished military career – and for much of it he wasn’t even in uniform. A debonair, globe-trotting spy, he was one of Britain’s most successful intelligence operatives during two world wars and later hailed as a “real James Bond”.

There was little sign of what was to come when Lancashire-born Dewhurst enlisted in the King’s Regiment (Liverpool) on 10 September 1906.

The 1968 book about Captain Dewhurst's life, photographed with kind permission of the National Library of Belgium.

After basic training, the first two years of Private Dewhurst’s Army life was nothing exceptional. He enjoyed the camaraderie of the barracks, even the terrible food, and learnt how to swear like a trooper. He sailed through his weapons handling tests and took pride in his parade ground drills. Indeed, one of the highlights was being selected to take part in a march-past for King Edward VII and a royal visitor from abroad, German Kaiser Wilhelm II.

At the end of 1908 he was posted to pre-partition India, serving in Ambala, Lahore and Peshawar on the North-West Frontier famous for the Khyber Pass. Dewhurst earned several promotions while overseas, rising to the rank of Colour Sergeant.

Gallipoli

After the outbreak of the First World War he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

His first taste of action – and very nearly his last – was in Winston Churchill’s ill-fated Dardanelles campaign against Turkey. Dewhurst was lucky to survive after being hit in the neck (the bullet missed his spinal cord by millimetres) and was later badly wounded by shrapnel during the brutal fighting that followed the heavily-opposed landings on V Beach at Cape Helles, Gallipoli, on 25 April 1915.

His regiment lost 11 officers and 553 men in a single day.

Dewhurst was shipped for treatment to the Anglo-American Hospital in Cairo and was soon back on his feet.

2Lt Dewhurst as a commissioned officer in the Royal Munster Rifles in 1914. Image taken from H.J Edmonds biography.

T.E. Lawrence

He expected to be sent back to his regiment but was instead transferred to the Cairo Intelligence department. Upon arrival, he was told he would be working with a fellow 2nd Lieutenant, T.E. Lawrence, better known later as Lawrence of Arabia.

The pair hit it off and Dewhurst appreciated Lawrence’s sense of humour. Lawrence, in turn, was impressed by Dewhurst’s mechanical skills and asked him to look after his Triumph motorbike.

Dewhurst was then transferred to the Eastern Mediterranean Special Intelligence Bureau at Salonika in neutral Greece, which he described as “a hotbed of intrigue”. All the warring nations had spies in the city but they were easy to spot because Salonika had only one decent café.

Working for Z

Dewhurst’s work involved getting allied agents to, and from behind, the German and Bulgarian lines. It wasn’t a job for the faint-hearted.

He realised it was probably time to get out after a hazardous trip to enemy-occupied Kavala with British Vice-Consul Geoffrey Knox. If the pair thought their movements had gone un-noticed, they were quickly disabused of the notion. Knox opened his door the next morning to find one of their agents chopped up in a sack.

Dewhurst next found himself on the island of Syra working for station chief “Z”, better known as Compton Mackenzie who later found fame as the author of Whisky Galore. In the final year of the war, he was operating from Athens and carrying out undercover missions in Bulgaria.

His endeavours were recognised in the 1919 Honours List when he was awarded the Military Cross. In addition to the main campaign medals, he was also decorated with the Serbian White Eagle with Swords and Greek Order of the Redeemer.

Russian butler

After the war Dewhurst was appointed as Deputy Assistant Commissioner in Riga at the British Mission to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

After living the past few years in the shadows, he threw himself into the diplomatic social scene and enjoyed the high life. While not earning a fortune, he could afford a housekeeper and had his own butler, who was previously in the service of the Russian Romanov royal family before the revolution.

Dewhurst returned to Britain in 1921 and, after briefly rejoining his regiment in Plymouth, resigned his commission.

US citizen

He then went into business, initially in Riga where he ran a car showroom, and then in the United States, living in New York, Florida and Rhode Island. He acquired US citizenship and became secretary of the British and Canadian Veterans Association.

In 1936, he was surprised (but thrilled) to receive a call from MI6, who wanted him to go back undercover.

He was posted initially to Mussolini’s Italy, carrying out undercover missions in Milan and at the naval base near Rapello. On returning to London, he was trained in lock-picking, codes, wireless telegraphy and document photography. He was then sent to Germany, where the Nazis were preparing for war with a massive military build-up. Dewhurst, who spoke German fluently, operated in Hamburg then Munich, cultivating high-level contacts in the military and administration.

Captain Dewhurst walking the streets of Munich in 1937.

Amorous alibi

To avoid arousing suspicion, he dated several German women and became a member of hiking, skiing and skating clubs. He made sure he was seen regularly in Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus bierkeller.

On one occasion, he invited a young woman for a picnic outside a Luftwaffe base where he intended to gather information. The couple were in a restricted area and Dewhurst thought his luck had run out when two vehicles carrying German officers spotted them. He pretended that he and the woman were enjoying an amorous moment. As one of the vehicles drew close, Dewhurst recognised one of the officers – it was a contact from Munich. The couple were left in peace.

Dewhurst was relieved when he finally received orders to leave Germany in December 1937. He boarded a train for France and, as it passed the frontier, he uncorked a bottle of champagne.

After a six-month break in the US, Dewhurst was told his next mission would be back in Latvia.

Soviet offer

Many of his old friends were in the government and Dewhurst was able to move about freely at first. But on 17 June 1940, the Red Army took control of the country and most foreigners left.

Soviet intelligence kept tabs on Dewhurst and even tried to lure him into becoming an agent for them. The situation was becoming too hot to handle. Cramming all he could into a small suitcase, he booked a flight to Helsinki. Finland was allied to Germany at the time and Dewhurst was twice questioned by the police at the behest of the Gestapo.

With the help of an actress girlfriend, he procured a flight ticket to Stockholm and, from there, managed to get a plane to Britain in March 1942.

Accommodating landlady

He regained his British citizenship and enlisted in the Royal Air Force on 11 November 1942.

After training, he was posted as an AC1 (equivalent to Private) to 222 Squadron in Hornchurch. The camp was over-crowded and Dewhurst was confident he could get permission to billet with nearby relations. He asked a ticket collector at the rail station if she knew anyone who could provide a comfortable roof over his head. He was given the address of a “fine-looking redhead” and was in bed with the landlady “within half an hour”. It meant he could truthfully confirm he had “relations” nearby.

It was too good to last. Dewhurst was posted to a training base for Free French officers at St Albans and then onto the RAF Intelligence Unit at Orwell Grange near Cambridge.

He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and given responsibility for buying continental style clothing for agents being parachuted into occupied Europe.

Narrow escape

Promotion to Flying Officer for “special duty” followed on 22 August 1944 and he was ordered to Brussels after its liberation.

He narrowly avoided being killed when a flying bomb hit the building next door to the unit’s HQ on the Avenue de Tervueren. More than a dozen personnel died and Dewhurst was treated for blast wounds. The damage was so extensive that the unit was moved to 122 Boulevard Auguste Reyers.

As the Allies advanced across the Rhine, Dewhurst and his team moved up to Haltern am See, where they celebrated the German surrender with a feast of partridge and champagne.

He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on 5 June 1945 and moved with his unit to Bad Zalzuflen, where he was employed on counter-intelligence duties for the next 18 months. He was also responsible for sourcing food and liquor for the officers’ mess. Both were in scarce supply in Germany so he made frequent visits to Brussels to stock up.

Dewhurst was officially demobbed on 27 September 1947, two days before his 60th birthday. He was on leave in London and didn’t hear the news for several days. He wanted to stay in the RAF but his request fell on deaf ears so he had no choice but to collect his clothing coupons.

Back to Brussels

Unimpressed by ration-hit Britain, he made a snap decision to move back to Brussels and bought a return ticket at Victoria. He still had the return half more than 20 years later.

He settled into retirement and, keen to maintain links with the military, he joined the British Legion.

He was invited to join the committee in 1955, serving alongside two other well-known figures in the branch’s history, Lieutenant Colonel George Starr DSO MC and Group Captain Peter Townsend CVO DSO DFC.

In 1968, fellow branch member H.J. Edmonds published a book based on his conversations with Dewhurst. Although only 1,000 copies were printed, it was eagerly read by his friends, from near and far alike. The National Library of Belgium still retains a copy in its archives.

Dewhurst was also one of the secret agents profiled by former Sunday Times defence correspondent Michael Smith in his 2011 book about MI6 entitled Six: The Real James Bonds.

Captain Dewhurst passed away in Brussels at the age of 81. A small notice was published in Le Soir on 27 February 1969 announcing his death on behalf of his family and the British Legion.

A reference to two of his most cherished decorations – the Serbian White Eagle with Swords and Greek Order of the Redeemer – was the only clue that his was not a typical military career.

 

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