Paul Dukes, one of Britain’s most celebrated spies, was in serious danger.
He was being hunted by the Soviet secret police and knew that he’d be executed if caught. The only way to avoid capture was to constantly switch identities.
|Dukes in disguise as a Russian|
But by the summer of 1919, life in Soviet Russia had become so dangerous that he needed to get out of the country immediately. Mansfield Cumming, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), did everything he could to help.
He employed an intrepid young naval officer, Augustus Agar, equipping him with two state-of-the-art speedboats that could be used to cross the mine-strewn Gulf of Finland. The idea was to pluck Dukes away from under the noses of the Bolsheviks.
Agar crossed from Finland to Russia in his speedboat and managed to land an anti-Bolshevik agent by the name of Gefter.
Gefter made contact with Dukes and told him of a planned rendezvous with Agar on the night of 14 August. Dukes. The two of them were to row out into the Gulf of Finland and meet with Agar’s speedboat.
|Dukes as himself|
At around 10 o’clock, under a sky still streaked with light, the two men rowed out into the gulf. They glanced anxiously at the skyline: both had noticed the banks of threatening storm clouds.
‘After a while the sky blackened, the wind freshened, the wavelets became waves, their caressing grew into lashings,’ wrote Dukes.
|Dukes loved switching identities|
Seawater soon began to drag the boat deep into the water. A waterlogged boat would have presented major difficulties in any weather conditions, but it was disastrous in the teeth of an advancing storm. Before long, Dukes and Gefter were up to their waists in water.
Agar, meanwhile, was steering his speedboat through the Gulf of Finland’s minefields. He reached the Lissy Nos Point and then cut the engines. He’d made it to the rendezvous on time.
He scanned the water in the hope of sighting Dukes’ flashlight signal. But there was no sign of life in the darkness.
|Home, but dangerous: St Petersburg|
After a long wait, he flashed a signal to the shore. Still no sign of Dukes. Ten minutes passed - then twenty. Eventually the first rays of light began to streak across the eastern sky and they were obliged to restart the speedboat’s engines and head back to Finland.
Agar was depressed by his failure to rescue Dukes and Gefter, fearing that they’d been caught by the Cheka. In fact, their plight had been even more dramatic.
The two men had been in sight of Agar’s skimmer when their rowing boat slipped beneath the waves. With a strong current against them, they had no option but to swim for the shore.
The water was icy and the spray made rapid progress impossible. Dukes was a strong swimmer and eventually reached the shore close to collapse. Gefter was washed up in an even more critical condition. His skin was white and he was suffering from acute hypothermia.
|Lenin: the enemy|
The two men attempted to walk to safety. Gefter was barefoot for he’d kicked off his boots in the water. Now, the rocks lacerated his feet and they were soon bleeding badly. Dukes attempted to carry him, but he was too heavy and the two men sat down exhausted. As they shivered in the chill air, Gefter slumped forwards and collapsed. He’d stopped breathing.
‘In sudden terror I began to rub him with great energy,’ wrote Dukes. ‘I lay down beside him, covered his mouth with mine and blew down his throat. Alternately, I filled his lungs and pressed on his belly.’
After a terrifying few minutes, the lifeless Gefter vomited a bucketful of seawater. His eyes flickered and his hands stirred. He eventually managed to sit himself upright and a little colour returned to his face. Dukes carried him to a fisherman’s cottage and left him there to be nursed.
He then made his return to Petrograd and went back into hiding. But with no money at his disposal, he had no option but to make a second escape attempt almost immediately.
|Augustus Agar to the rescue|
Agar had meanwhile returned to London in order to report to Mansfield Cumming. When he arrived at the Whitehall office, he was told that Cumming had asked him to wait in the corridor outside. The door soon opened and a tall, dark-haired man emerged from the room.
‘Something about him and his manner arrested my attention and seemed to me to be familiar,’ wrote Agar, ‘but whether it was the eager look in his eyes, or a certain tense expression in his face, I cannot say.’
Agar hesitated for a moment: he could not take his eyes off the man.
‘Then, in a flash of intuition, a thought came to my mind. I was the first to speak.
“Are you Dukes?”
‘“Yes,” he replied.
Agar introduced himself, bringing a smile to Dukes’s face.
‘“C has a habit of arranging these little matters like this.” At which point we both laughed and shook hands and entered C’s office together.’
Two more of Cumming's agents were safely home after a highly dangerous undercover mission.
An edited extract from my new book, Russian Roulette, now published in the UK and available here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. USA and foreign editions in 2014
'A gripping history of derring-do... [readers] will find themselves as gripped as they would be by the very best of Fleming or le Carre' - Sunday Times.