One of those practitioners of the magical and occult arts was Aleister Crowley. Crowley is perhaps the best known ‘occult spy’ operating in the Second World War, and in fact long before. It is not surprising that through history occultism and espionage always have been linked. Undercover operations always need a veil of secrecy and occultists are capable at keeping their activities hidden from sight. Occultists like secret agents utilize codes, images and cryptograms to conceal data from outsiders. Occultists and spies are comparable from multiple points of view, as both occupy a shadowy underworld of secrets, misleading and disinformation. It is in this way not exceptional that regularly these two professions have shared the same members. In the 1930s there is the first solid evidence that Crowley was recruited by MI6 or the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service). This was to spy on German occultists with political links to the emerging National Socialist Party and Marxists revolutionaries.
One of Crowley’s possible targets was Albert Karl Theodor Reuss, the founder of the magical group the Ordo Templi Orientis. Another prominent member of the OTO in Germany, and controversially was later to become its Grand Master based in the USA, was Karl Johannes Germer. In 1933 Crowley met an eccentric Welsh aristocrat Viscount Tregedar. His haunted country house was near Newport in South Wales and was the site of famous wild parties to which he invited a wide mix of social types including Huxley and H.G. Wells. One of Tregedar’s more unusual house guests was, perhaps significantly in the light of later dramatic events, Rudolf Hess. Lord Tregedar had also visited the German home of Ernst Rohm, the head of the SA, and they even shared a male lover. Lord Tregedar belonged to an occult secret society in London called The Black Circle, which had the traditional thirteen members of a witch coven. In it the aristocrat was known as the ‘Black Monk’ and was even painted in the hooded black robe all the members wore for their ceremonies.
Another link between Crowley and the intelligence services was his friendship with the homosexual M.P. Tom Driberg. Driberg had been a society gossip columnist on the Daily Express and paradoxically he had joined the British Communist party in 1920. With contacts in the different worlds of politics, high society and the gay scene he was an ideal informant for MI5, although it was also rumoured he was a KGB agent. After Tom Driberg was brought in, he introduced Crowley to the writer of adventure, historical and ‘black magic’ thrillers Dennis Wheatley, whose wife worked as the transport administration officer for MI5. Wheatley was also personally recruited by Churchill to be part of a top-secret unit in the Cabinet Office planning for total warfare (including the use of poison gas and biological weapons).
Adventitiously Dennis Wheatley was likewise a dear companion of the mysterious essayist Joan Grant who composed top of the line books about reincarnation, such as “The Winged Pharaoh” taking into account her own particular life in Ancient Egypt. Grant practised Rosicrucian-sort sex magic rituals with her psychiatrist spouse. She was additionally a member of the International Order of Co-Freemasonry (which admits both men and women). When war broke out Crowley was eager to do his bit for king and country and continue his pre-war relationship with MI6. Both MI5, MI6 and the SIS approached and recruited occultists at the time because of their specialist knowledge and skills.
Another possible clue to Crowley’s wartime involvement with intelligence agencies surfaced in a report sent by the MI6 officer, British double crosser and Soviet mole Kim Philby to Moscow Control in 1942. Philby informed his Russian masters that MI6 were investigating a extorting racket linking Royal Air Force officers and members of British high society to drug smuggling, orgies (heterosexual and homosexual) and ‘black magic rites’. It was believed this racket was being run by agents of the German secret service based in their embassy in neutral Dublin.
As both Crowley and oddly the Soviet ambassador are supposed to have been involved in organising the alleged sex orgies and Black Masses described by Philby, it is more likely that MI5 were behind instead of the Germans. Intelligence services from all countries have always carried out ‘false flag’ operations and used the dark arts of blackmail and subversion to expose traitors and recruit foreign agents, politicians and dignitaries.
Another interesting truth: the assistant-director of British Naval Intelligence during the Second World War was the eccentric, colourful and ostentatious Lt. Commander Ian Fleming R.N.. He was of course to become world famous in the 1950s as the creator of the fictional British spy James Bond 007, who had a licence to kill. In fact it is believed that Fleming based his character ‘M’. the head of the Secret Service in the books, on his friend and colleague Maxwell Knight of MI5. Fleming likewise shared Knight’s interest in the occult, particularly astrology, divination and numerology, and he additionally knew Crowley. Hence we have a clandestine social and work related network of intelligence officers interested in occult and actual practitioners of the magical arts.
Maxwell Knight from MI5, was bisexual and a friend of Lord Tregedar. Knight had a private menagerie and when Knight’s wife died in 1936, from a suspected overdose of painkillers prescribed for her bad back, bad rumours circulated … It’s been told that she had committed suicide after participating in a magical ritual with Crowley. It was even suggested that she was murdered by her husband for her money and Crowley had advised Knight how to do it using his knowledge of drugs.
Back to Fleming. It may have been Fleming’s interest in astrology that led to his boss Admiral John Godfrey to recruit astrologers to cast the horoscopes of Hitler to see what he might be planning. One of the astrologers who it is known was recruited by SOE was a Hungarian-Jewish novelist, journalist and film-maker called Louis de Wohl. He claimed that he had been given the honorary rank of a captain in the British Army by SOE complete with an uniform. Although the Ministry of Defence denied this after the war it was a known practice.
When Rudolf Hess carried out his disastrous ‘peace mission’ and landed in Scotland he was immediately arrested. He had chosen a Scottish landing site near the ancestral home of the Duke of Hamilton and Hess demanded to see the aristocrat.
He missed the landing spot due to sabotage of the lights at the airstrip and crashed in the country side. This is also a very remarkable odd story, on which we’ll come back later. Commander Ian Fleming was keen that Aleister Crowley should be allowed to interview Hess in captivity.
This seems to have been suggested to Fleming in a letter from Aleister Crowley dated four days after Hess was captured. In those letters Crowley says: “If it is true that Herr Hess is much influenced by astrology an magick, my services might be useful to the Intelligence department.”
Although SIS asserted that Crowley never met Hess, it has been claimed that MI5 did arrange an interview between the two men at one of their interrogation centres. The Nazi Party’s reaction to Hess’ ‘peace mission’ was to disown the deputy-fuehrer and his actions. It was claimed he was mentally deranged and had been falsely and disastrously influenced by astrologers and occultists. Despite its unofficial interest, the Third Reich had always had an ambiguous official approach to occultism and secret societies. A few weeks after the failed mission an operation called ‘Aktion Hess’ was launched by the Gestapo (secret police).
This included banning performances or lectures on the occult, astrology, telepathy, clairvoyance and spiritualism and many of their publicly known practitioners were arrested and ended up in concentration camps.
Another occultist who was supposed to have been involved in or connected to the Hess affair was Cecil Hugh Williamson, the founder of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic at Castletown on the Isle of Man that is now located in Boscastle in North Cornwall. Williamson had been recruited into MI6 in 1938 by a family friend Major Edward Maltby, who coincidentally was the brother-in-law of the famous occultist Dion Fortune.
He was in charge of a section of SIS set up to deal with the unusual threat posed by esoteric and magical groups in Germany and occultists in the Nazi Party. Williamson agreed to work for Mi6 as an undercover agent and before the war made several trips to Germany posing as a folklorist to collect information.
When the war started Cecil Williamson was seconded to a specialist unit of the Special Executive Operation (SOE) based at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. Churchill had ordered the formation of the SOE to work with resistance groups in Europe and organise and take part in subversion, sabotage and assassinations. Williamson worked initially with Edward Maltby, who was then a Lieutenant Colonel and assistant-director of the communications section of MI6, the Radio Security Service that Lord Tregedar (see previous blogs) worked for in London. Williamson’s immediate boss was also an ex-Daily Express journalist Sefton Delmer who ran the Psychological Warfare Executive (PWE) involved in ‘black’ propaganda.
One of Cecil Williamson’s most controversial claims relating to his wartime work was his involvement in an anti-Hitler propaganda exercise organised jointly by the SIS and MI5 called Operation Mistletoe, which may included Crowley’s participation. This was supposed to have taken place in Ashdown Forest in Sussex and featured a magical ritual. Its aim was to convince those in the German High Command who believed in the occult that ceremonial magicians and witches in England were working against them. Allegedly Canadian troops were recruited to take part in the ‘ritual’ acting as ‘wizards’ and wearing improvised ‘robes’ made from sacking and decorated with symbols from the Key of Solomon. (a hexagram) It involved also a “magick mirror” and a dummy of Adolf Hitler.
According to an obituary of Cecil Williamson published in The Daily Telegraph newspaper when he died in 1999, he also carried out undercover operations with the SOE in occupied France.
As mentioned above, Dion Fortune had a link by marriage with Cecil Williamson’s MI6 recruiter Major Edward Maltby. Both he and another MI6 officer, Anthony Daws, belonged to a magical lodge led by Christine Hartley, one of Fortune’s students. Hartley’s magical partner Charles Richard Foster ‘Kim’ Seymour.
Interestingly and perhaps “highly coincidental”, Colonel Seymour, an Irishman who had served in the Indian Army, taken part in ‘covert actions’ in Iraq during the First World War and worked as a Russian translator, was employed by the War Office to intercept and study enemy messages. Using his specialist knowledge his job description included investigating links between British and German occult groups. Later Seymour joined the SIS and during the war he became the head of the Dutch section of the SOE.
Andrew Christopher. The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5
Jeffrey, Keith. MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949
Knight, Gareth and Fortune, Dion The Magical Battle of Britain
McGinty, Stephen. Camp Z: The Secret Life of Rudolf Hess
Pearson, John. The Life of Ian Fleming
Picknett, Lynn. Prince, Clive. and Prior, Stephen. with Brydon, Robert. Double Standards: The Rudolf Hess Cover-Up
Dr Richard. Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult
SOE in the Low Countries
The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies