by Richard B Spence
Feral House, 2002. 527 .
Hardcover. $20.97 . ISBN:0922915792
The man best known to history as Sidney George Reilly has been called the “Ace of Spies”, and even the role model for James Bond. Some biographers have praised him as one of Britain’s most cunning and ruthless intelligence agents, while others have claimed that he actually betrayed British intelligence and spied for the Soviets. He has even been the subject of a TV miniseries called Reilly: Ace of Spies, that aired in the 1980s. Richard Spence, a professor of history, watched that series when it aired, and was fascinated. He decided to investigate the facts of Reilly’s life for himself.
Spence has done some very impressive research. Reilly’s previous biographers relied a great deal on what Reilly said about himself, and as Spence demonstrates, very little of that was true. Reilly took pains to obscure the details of his life. Spence has carefully combed the surviving records, and appears to have come closer than anyone to solving the mystery of Reilly’s origins and early life.
He was probably born Salomon Rosenblum somewhere in Russian Poland in 1874. He was illegitimate, and when this came to light in 1890, it precipitated a family crisis. His mother was forced to leave for Odessa, taking young Salomon with her. In 1892 he enrolled in a university there and became involved with some student revolutionaries. This brought him to the attention of the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police, and Rosenblum was forced to flee the country.
He completed his university studies in 1895 somewhere in central Europe. He appears to have studied chemistry. In 1895 he appeared in Paris, where he worked as an informant for the Okhrana, reporting on Russian radicals. (He may well have been recruited by them after his brush with the law in Odessa.) While in Paris, Rosenblum and his Okhrana case officer robbed and murdered two couriers carrying money for a Russian revolutionary group. Rosenblum took his share of the loot and went to England.
It was in England that Rosenblum took the name of Sidney Reilly, one of many aliases he would adopt. He began using what he called “The System”. This amounted to working for all sides, being careful to maintain a good relationship with the strongest, and maximizing his own profit. Reilly called himself “a practical man”. He was really, according to Spence, “a mercenary of a rather specialized sort...a freelance entrepreneur in the business of information and influence”. He had personal stationary made for himself bearing a double headed eagle with the motto “Mundo Nulla Fides”, which translates as “Put no faith in the world”, or perhaps more simply, “Trust no one”.
His association with British Intelligence began in England as well. He continued, for a time, to spy on Russian radicals for the Okhrana, but eventually made contact with the British and began to work for them also. His work for the Okhrana ended when he was caught distributing counterfeit Russian currency - the counterfeit notes were used to finance the very radicals he was supposed to be reporting on. By that time, the British had come to regard him as a valuable agent, and sent him to the Far East to get him away from Russian agents in England. While there, he nominally worked for the British, but seems to have sold information to the Germans and the Japanese as well, and engaged in a variety of lucrative (and frequently shady) private business dealings of his own. The Japanese were apparently dissatisfied with Reilly’s work, and put a price on his head.
By carefully tracing Reilly’s movements, Spence uncovers some tantalizing coincidences. For example, in June of 1919, a series of terrorist bombs exploded in the United States. These were blamed on the Communists, and triggered a massive Red scare in America. At the time, Reilly was working against the Russian Bolsheviks. Spence points out that Reilly was in America at the time the bombs were mailed, that they were mailed from a post office near an office Reill