What Daddy Did in the War

Papa Spy by Jimmy Burns

Books Espionage Family History The Catholic Church
Tom Burns in Madrid, 1941

Sons have always been fascinated by their fathers and in recent years many of them have explored the relationship in print. Blake Morrison was the modern trend-setter, doing so well out of it that he went on to write a book about his mum too. The latest in the line is Jimmy Burns, a former Financial Times journalist and author of, among other books, a biography of the footballer Diego Maradona. Unlike some of the practitioners of the genre, he has a fascinating and intriguing story to tell about his father. 

Tom Burns was a central figure in Catholic life in Britain from the 1930s until his death in 1995. He ran the publishing firm Burns and Oates, edited The Tablet and befriended and promoted all the key figures in the 20th-century English Catholic revival, such as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, the artist and writer David Jones, with whom he shared a Chelsea flat, and Father Martin d’Arcy, who enticed so many intellectual and aristocratic converts into the Church. Burns had a finger in every Catholic pie for half a century. These days we would call him a successful networker.

He was a handsome and slightly raffish Anglo-Chilean, who was clearly attractive to women and, unlike many of his Catholic friends, sexually confident. One virginal friend, on honeymoon in Spain, even sent an emergency appeal for Burns to rush out and help the newly-weds overcome their early difficulties, though how he went about his task and whether he was successful we are not, alas, told. His son also uncovered a cache of letters which detail his passionate relationship with Ann Bowes-Lyon, cousin of Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother).

Recruited by the Ministry of Information at the start of the Second World War, he was sent to the British Embassy in Madrid in 1940 to head its propaganda department and the five years that he spent there form the core of the book. Spain had just emerged from its bitter Civil War and although massive German military support had been a decisive factor in the Nationalist victory, General Franco was determined to keep his shattered and exhausted country neutral, a stance that was plainly in Britain’s interests. Burns’s Catholic and anti-communist beliefs had led him to support the Nationalist side throughout the Spanish Civil War and his role grew to embrace both propaganda and espionage. He developed contacts in the upper echelons of Franco’s government which were to provide Britain with a constant stream of accurate information about Spanish policy for the rest of the war. Not all his undercover dabbling proved successful. He recruited the fervently Nationalist expatriate poet Roy Campbell as an agent over a good lunch but Campbell went on drinking and loudly proclaiming the news about his new job to all who cared to listen. The appointment was rescinded the following day.

Burns’s other principal concern was to persuade the Spanish people that the Allies would win, for he knew that not every Spaniard was a fascist and that many harboured a deep and historic sympathy for Britain. He made plenty of enemies in the pro-Nazi Franco Falangist establishment while going about this work in his usual energetic fashion but Jimmy Burns reveals that there were almost as many people back in London who were actively trying to discredit him, undermine his work and have him sacked. Masterminding the anti-Burns campaign was none other than Kim Philby, who as we now know was a dedicated Soviet operative at the heart of the British intelligence service. That Burns was able to survive the machinations of Philby, Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, not to mention a variety of Whitehall warriors who were not Soviet agents but still hated Burns’s romantic Catholicism, was a tribute to his own cunning, the quality of his achievements and the strength of his social connections, all the way up to Churchill. At the end of the war in Europe, he still had to endure an investigation by Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Commitee, after a secret denunciation by the MI5 officer Guy Liddell. Burns was cleared but a well-merited decoration was blocked. 

He had other setbacks, of which the worst was the death in 1943 of the actor Leslie Howard, whose plane was shot down by the Germans off Portugal on his way home from a successful propaganda tour of Spain
organised by Burns. The suspicion is that the Germans thought Howard was a spy. Burns felt a deep sense of guilt about his death for the rest of his life. The affair with Ann Bowes-Lyon did not survive the separation enforced by war; she married an Army doctor instead. Burns consoled himself with Spanish socialites and embassy secretaries until he met and married Mabel, daughter of Dr Gregorio Marañon, a distinguished liberal Republican who had spent the civil war in exile in Paris. The youngest of their four children has now paid his filial dues with this thoughtful and perceptive account of a remarkable life.