Born: 24 March 1873
Died: 5 November 1925
Intelligence involvement: Worked for British Special Branch, the Secret Service Bureau and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6). Also reportedly doubled for Japan, Germany and Imperial Russia.
Culture involvement: Exploits retold many times, notably in Memoirs of a British Agent and its film adaptation British Agent. One of the inspirations for James Bond.
Bio: Sidney George Reilly was a Jewish Russian-born spy of the most extraordinary type. Exactly who he was and who his father was is a bit of a mystery but he was originally named either Georgi Rosenblum or Salomon Rosenblum and after faking his own death in Odessa he fled the Tsarist regime and, traveling via either France or Brazil depending on who you believe, he arrived in London in late 1895.
He was first recruited into intelligence work by William Melville, working for the Special Branch of the British police. When Melville took a fake retirement from Special Branch to become the covert head of the Secret Service Bureau (later MI5) he took Rosenblum with him as a spy. When Rosenblum married a wealthy heiress in mid-1898 he and Melville crafted a new identity for him: Sidney George Reilly.
Reilly was soon put to work spying in the Far East and in Russia and after over 20 years of service he was inducted into the Secret Intelligence Service, the forerunner to MI6, in 1918. He was dispatched to Moscow with a mission to infiltrate and disrupt the Bolsheviks as part of the longrunning anti-Bolshevik SIS effort that also included Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome and Robert Bruce Lockhart. Lockhart in particular was close friend with Reilly, and later outlined their adventures together in his Memoirs of a British Agent in 1932. His son wrote the book Ace of Spies, an effective biography of Reilly.
Reilly very much fed into his own legend, claiming to have spied for several different countries across four continents and listing numerous supposed wives and mistresses. He certainly loved the high life, fast women, adventure, deception and gambling. As such he was not only a very talented spy, in spite of his fabrications and exaggerations, but also served as a major inspiration for the character of James Bond. Lockhart was friends with Ian Fleming and recounted their missions together.
In 1925, Soviet secret police pretending to be anti-Communists lured Reilly back to Russia and captured him. He was imprisoned for several weeks of interrogation and then executed. The Soviet’s public story is that he had been shot while trying to cross the Finnish border, and even after his execution rumours circulated that he had defected and had become a Soviet adviser.
There are a great many books on Reilly, the best of which is probably Andrew Cook’s (he also includes details of the Reilly story in his book on William Melville). The most interesting book on Reilly, especially for what it leaves out of the story, is Lockhart’s Memoirs of a British Agent, which you can download here (PDF, 829KB). The complete MI5 file on Reilly, his life, work and death was published a few years ago, and can be downloaded here (PDF, 23.4MB).
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