What’s the link between a boy chorister at St Paul’s and James Bond? The answer lies in a quiet corner of the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, where a memorial can be found to Sir Percy Sillitoe, Director-General of MI5 in the early years of the Cold War.
As a boy, Sillitoe was a chorister in St Paul’s Cathedral Choir and boarded at the choir school in nearby Carter Lane. From the age of ten, he would have sung in something like nine services every week, developing the skills of concentration and precision that so many former cathedral choristers have shown in their chosen fields, from music to business and sport. Sillitoe was one of the senior choristers who sang in the memorial service for Queen Victoria in 1902, but by the end of that decade he was serving as a trooper in the British South Africa Police, transferring in 1911 to the Northern Rhodesia Police. In 1916 he became a political officer in Tanganyika before returning to the UK in 1920.
A distinguished career in policing in the country followed. n 1923 he was appointed Chief Constable of Chesterfield. He spent a year as Chief Constable of the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1925, moving in 1926 to become Chief Constable of Sheffield, where he became known for authorising his officers to use “reasonable force” to break the hold that criminal gangs had had on the city.
Moving to be the Chief Constable of Glasgow in 1931 he employed innovative methods to break the power of Glasgow’s notorious razor gangs, including the introduction of radios in police cars allowing communication between headquarters and vehicles, which previously relied completely upon the use of police phone boxes. He gave his name to the Sillitoe tartan, the black and white diced pattern on police cap bands in Scotland, originally based on that used by several Scottish regiments on the Glengarry.
Sillitoe was one of the first Chief Constables to recognise the potential of women to be effective police officers. When, in 1944, he moved to be Chief Constable of Kent there were just two policewomen in the county; within a year there were 150.
At some point, he joined the Security Service and was said to be responsible for MI5’s highly-successful ‘double cross’ operation during WW2 in which all Hitler’s spies in Britain were turned and used to send false information back to Germany about the Allies’ plans, including D-day. After the war, he became Director-General of MI5 and was in that post at the time of Burgess and Maclean’s defection to the USSR. The subsequent investigation was not kind to MI5 or to him, and he left the service in 1953.
After leaving MI5, Sillitoe was recruited by DeBeers to set up a clandestine operation employing former British intelligence agents as ‘the International Diamond Security Organisation’ – IDSO – to disrupt diamond traders in West Africa who were undermining DeBeers’ monopoly. It was a messy business in which significant numbers of poor Africans were ambushed and killed as they tried to convey diamonds out of Sierra Leone to middlemen in Liberia.
Ian Fleming later wrote a book about Sillitoe’s operation, ‘The diamond smugglers’, and it is not hard to see how the information he gained from researching that book would later be used in the James Bond fantasy, ‘Diamonds are forever’.