Surprised was the least of words to describe how the London suburb neighborhood Ferguson Smith, full name Ferguson George Donaldson Smith but was mostly known through his pet name Fergie, lived for the last six decades reacted when they found out the quiet man who was with them through all those long years was a decorated Cold War spy catcher and had even been involved in two most daring spy catching events in the middle of the 20th century.
“He was a real gentleman, but I would never have guessed he had done such amazing things,” his window cleaner was quoted as saying upon learning of his secrets immediately after his death.
Yes, Ferguson Smith, WWII hero turned Cold War spy catcher died at a very ripe age of 98 last September 15.
His ordinary life as a quiet man who was fond of the mountains, poetry and was learning Spanish was in direct contrast to his very adventurous existence as a Soviet spy hunter right after WWII. He was also a close aide to the former king, the Duke of Windsor, when he visited United Kingdom following his stepping down from the throne. Travelling with the Queen when she went on tour overseas had also been part of his career accomplishments.
Born in Aberdeen, Smith attended Aberdeen Grammar School where he was a star student — captain of both the school’s rugby and the cricket teams. his early years marked his love for climbing and his leaving school to join Metropolitan Police.
“A waste of a good education,” his mother’s exact thought on his decision.
After being on the beat for eighteen months, he got drafted in 1936 into the Special Branch. He stayed on that job until he retired in 1972.
WWII Soldier and Hero
His Special Branch work was interrupted during Second World War. He volunteered to be a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot in 1941 and was chosen to train in Canada. After his aircrew training, he was assigned into the 101 Squadron, the unit which flew Lancaster bombers from Lincolnshire’s Ludford Magna, its base.
The said unit had suffered more mishaps compared to any other RAF Bomber Commands. This was due to the fact that planes flown by Smith and his comrades were fitted with special antennae that brought disorder upon the German messages passed to their night fighters which hunted down Allied bombers. Planes with these antennae were the Luftwaffe’s prime targets.
Despite all these, however, Smith was able to compete 30 missions. It was in the battle of Berlin in 1944 that the WWII navigator did his most heroic act — although his plane was badly damaged over Berlin and suffering grievous wounds on his back, chest and leg, he was still able to free two gunners who were trapped in their turret, guided the plane to its shelling target and maneuvered the said air craft into an Allied emergency landing strip. Both he and the pilot were immediately awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses for their heroism.
Cold War Spy Hunter
Right after the war, Smith returned to the post he left in the Special Branch. he then went on to hunt Soviet spies who were leaking information of British nuclear secrets to former-ally-turned-adversary in the Cold War years.
His catch included German-born nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs who had worked in the US for the Manhattan Project which yielded the first atomic bomb and was later recruited at the Atomic Energy Research Center in Harwell, England. Turned out he had been passing secrets to the Russians top-level secrets since 1943. he was arrested in 1950. Still Smith was able to pin on him more evidence when he heard an incriminating conversation between Fuchs and a German scientist while hiding in a cupboard in Brixton prison.
He was also a key element in the capture and disbandment of the Portland Spy Ring, the group which sold British nuclear secrets to the USSR. His greatest catch was perhaps that of George Blake who was a double-crosser — working for the British Secret Intelligence Service but in 1955 had given KGB all British secrets and agents’ details which crippled M16’s work behind the Iron Curtain.
George Blake had been a dangerous enemy who brought upon death to hundreds of British spies while in their line of duty. Smith was the one who orchestrated his capture in 1961. Blake was jailed but had managed to escape to USSR in 1966.
He was also involved in the arrest of John Vassall, the clerk who worked in the Admiralty but resorted to spying for the Russians as he was blackmailed by the latter over his homosexuality.
In 1966, as reward for his exceptional work, he was promoted to head of the Special Branch and Deputy Assistant Commissioner to Scotland Yard.
He retired to his London suburb home in 1972, indulged himself in much poetry and lived quietly with his wife, Margaret, and their children.
An espionage expert, speaking his mind regarding Ferguson Smith’s career, said the British people owed a debt of gratitude to this spy hunter who, according to him, had to resort to ‘brutal’ means to be able to achieve his aims.
‘There was a real fear of Communist spies in the 50s and 60s. At the time espionage and counter espionage were about face to face contact, it was all meeting in dirty macs on park benches. It was much more psychological, you had to be able to read people. The things you see in James Bond now, that was the kind of stuff happening then. It was much more brutal, people were killed much more quickly,’ Neil Root, espionage expert, explained in an interview.