TO his friends and neighbours in the little south Worcestershire village of Ashton-under- Hill, which lies tucked beneath the southern slopes of Bredon Hill looking across to the Cotswolds, Lt Col Robertson was a good egg.

Even in his later life, ruggedly handsome with a Scottish bearing and obviously military background, the gentleman from Holloway Farm was an outstanding local cricketer, regularly making 50 in quick time before declaring to give someone else a go.

Once in a ‘needle’ match against Dumbleton, his fellow players threatened rebellion if their captain repeated the generous gesture. So the colonel made 100 – and then retired. “He was class,” recalled opening bowler Neville Bell.

But there was an air of mystery about Lt Col Thomas Argyll Robertson, once of the Seaforth Highlanders. “He would disappear for days on end and would never talk about where he had been or what he had been doing,” said Neville. It was only after the colonel died in 1994 that part of his story came out. He worked for MI5.

Among the many successes of his spymastering during the Second World War were fooling the Germans over the location of the D-Day landings and deceiving them into changing the target areas of the V1 and V2 rockets, thereby saving thousands of civilian casualties.

But now a new book has been published which puts ‘Tar’ Robertson – the nickname comes from his initials – right at the heart of one of the most controversial events of the 20th century.

The pages of Gentleman Spymaster by Geoffrey Elliott tell how in 1936, Robertson found himself at night in a telephone box off Piccadilly tapping into the phone conversations between Edward VIII and his younger brother Bertie, the Duke of York, later to become King George VI.

Desperate to keep abreast of the constitutional crises threatened by Edward’s love for American divorcee Wallis Simpson, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin called in MI5.

The account in the book is taken from notes later written by the colonel’s younger brother Ian, himself a British Army Major General, which makes for a pretty sound source.

Robertson said that in order for the secret service to check on “how the situation was moving”, he was directed to slip into Green Park after dark and tap into the phone line to 145 Piccadilly, the London home of the Duke of York.

It was down this connection the two brothers discussed the impending abdication. Robertson was later to freely admit he was the first person in the country to know the King was going to quit.

“This was not a task for which MI5 could seek official sanction,”

writes Elliott. “Nor would it have risked involving the Post Office, which then operated the telephone service.”

He describes how phones were tapped in the 1930s, but adds: “Taking Tar’s story at face value, his stroll in the park would still have needed the help of at least one trusted engineer to find the junction box in the bushes and pick out the line to tap amid the spider’s web of coloured wires.

“He would then either have to use earphones and taken notes or, if he had a bag of batteries, he might even have used a ‘Telecord’ machine proudly launched a year or so before by the Dictaphone company.

“But techniques aside, what are we to make of the story? There are no MI5 files to confirm or contradict his account. Nor is there anyone left with a direct recollection of events.”

The author concludes that Robertson’s detail does “put some flesh” on the bare bones of previously held theories and anyway, he had no reason whatsoever to invent anything. His life, even without the Royal episode, was colourful enough.

He was born on October 27, 1909, just a few days before the start of the monsoon season, in Medan, Sumatra, where his father was a colonial banker. After Charterhouse, the young Robertson was accepted into the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where one of his contemporaries was David Niven, later to become the debonair film star.

The pair became friends and there were many roistering nights to be had. As one commentator observed: “The twenties were wild at Sandhurst. As indeed they were everywhere else.”

Unfortunately, Robertson seems to have continued his excesses long after being commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders. He bought an MG Midget sports car, his suits and shoes were from the finest in town and he was soon “living stratospherically above his means”.

A dashing young Army officer dining and dancing the nights away in London. Although by no means a tight fist, his Scottish banker father wanted to rein him in.

“Though his lifestyle suggests a car crash was a persistent risk, the big collision, when it came, was with his father,” writes Elliott.

“Tommy was faced with a debt he could not settle and when he asked his father for money, the latter reacted with fury.”

Whether this was the catalyst is never made clear, but after only two years Robertson resigned from the Seaforth Highlanders.

He spent a few years working in a city bank in London and then, somewhat bizarrely, became an officer in the Birmingham city police force.

He was recruited into MI5 in 1933 by its founder Vernon Kell, not through any formal interview, but on the recommendation of Kell’s son John, who had been a contemporary at Charterhouse.

Robertson left MI5 in 1948 and after failing to land the job of Chief Constable of Kent, came to Worcestershire to farm. He had married in 1936 and his wife Joan’s parents (the Grice-Hutchinsons) were from Upton-upon-Severn.

After Joan died in 1980, he married again, Rachel Chance, the widow of prominent county figure Sir Hugh Chance.

Lt Col Thomas Argyll ‘Tar’ Robertson died on May 10, 1994, and was laid to rest in the churchyard of St John at Birlingham, near Pershore. A leafy, picturesque corner of Worcestershire in a loop of the river Avon with one pub and a cricket pitch on the village green.

In a way, the epitome of what the gentleman spymaster and his colleagues had determined to defend.

! Gentleman Spymaster (How Lt Col Tommy ‘Tar’ Robertson doublecrossed the Nazis) by Geoffrey Elliott is published by Methuen Books at £17.99.


CONTROVERSIAL: The Gentleman Spymaster by Geoffrey Elliott tells the story of the mysterious past of Lt Col Thomas Argyll Robertson and the successes of his spymastering by fooling the Germans during the Second World War.