Anti-Bolshevik Collaborators? Reilly, Ford, Savinkov, Churchill

Anti-Bolshevik Collaborators? Reilly, Ford, Savinkov, Churchill

Excerpt­ed from an arti­cle for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the unabridged text with end­notes, please click here. To sub­scribe to posts from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and will remain a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Q: Churchill, Ford and Reilly

 “I believe Churchill crossed paths with Sid­ney Reil­ly, the famous ‘Ace of Spies,’ vivid­ly por­trayed by Sam Neill.  I’ve read that Hen­ry Ford, like Reil­ly and WSC, was a strong anti-Bol­she­vik. Did they ever meet to coor­di­nate their activities?”

A: Not a threesome

It’s a log­i­cal ques­tion, but there is no evi­dence of coun­sel between Reil­ly, Ford and Churchill. All three were stri­dent­ly anti-Bol­she­vik, but there their char­ac­ters diverge. For one thing, Ford was a vir­u­lent anti-Semi­te. This would not have appealed to Churchill, let alone Reil­ly (the for­mer Sig­mund Rosenblum).

Churchill did praise Ford in 1918, when WSC ran the Min­istry of Muni­tions. Churchill placed an order for 10,000 “cross-coun­try cater­pil­lar vehi­cles from sev­er­al Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ers. Ford’s “vast orga­ni­za­tion,” he wrote, exe­cut­ed “this con­tract with­out detri­ment to their oth­er oblig­a­tions.” Whether they met per­son­al­ly at the time is doubtful.

A decade lat­er, plan­ning his North Amer­i­can hol­i­day, Churchill had “promised Mr. Ford to see his Works at Detroit.” But I found no cor­re­spon­dence between them. Lat­er, Ford became a pas­sion­ate iso­la­tion­ist, which would ren­der him no ally of Churchill’s.

Sid­ney Reil­ly was a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. Churchill’s con­nec­tions with him ran from the Great War to the ear­ly 1920s. But Churchill lat­er down­played their rela­tion­ship. In 1931, Reilly’s wife was prepar­ing to pub­lish his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, and Churchill expressed con­cern to his intel­li­gence advi­sor Desmond Mor­ton: “I have for some time heard talk of Reilly’s mem­oirs and papers being pub­lished. It is quite pos­si­ble they con­tain some indis­creet stuff.” The pub­lish­er reas­sured him: “Cap­tain Reil­ly includ­ed sev­er­al lofty appre­ci­a­tions of your­self, but I have delet­ed them on the sup­po­si­tion that you would not care to have your name too fre­quent­ly men­tioned in a book of this nature.”

Reilly, née Rosenblum…

…was born the same year as Churchill, in either Grod­no (Hrod­na, now Belarus) or Odessa, Ukraine (sources dif­fer). Like his ally Boris Savinkov, he rebelled against both the Czar and the Bol­she­viks. Both fit­ted Churchill’s col­or­ful descrip­tion of Savinkov: “a ter­ror­ist for mod­er­ate aims.…freedom, tol­er­a­tion and good will—to be achieved wher­ev­er nec­es­sary by dyna­mite at the risk of death.”

The real Reil­ly in 1918, from his pass­port pho­to. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Reil­ly land­ed in Britain in 1895 and was soon involved in clan­des­tine affairs. Before the Rus­so-Japan­ese War, he spied for the British and Japan­ese in Port Arthur. There he stole Russ­ian plans for the har­bor defens­es, con­vey­ing them to the Japan­ese for a naval attack. Reilly’s actu­al accom­plish­ments are murky and con­tro­ver­sial. One of these was in Ger­many, where he posed as a welder in the Krupp Gun Works, sup­pos­ed­ly steal­ing Ger­man arma­ment plans. Some his­to­ri­ans have him play­ing a dou­ble role, such as sell­ing muni­tions to both the Ger­mans and the Russians.

Reil­ly had a long rela­tion­ship with Mans­field Smith-Cum­ming (“C,” the first head of Britain’s Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice (MI6). After the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion Reil­ly slipped into Rus­sia, attempt­ing to aid anti-Bol­she­viks and top­ple Lenin. Here he met and plot­ted with Savinkov. Wikipedia has a lengthy entry on Reilly’s career.

Churchill and Reilly

Churchill’s roman­tic nature “drew him to mav­er­icks and buc­ca­neers, unortho­dox fig­ures who defied con­ven­tion,” wrote David Stafford. “The extrav­a­gant plots of Reil­ly and Savinkov inter­est­ed Churchill, who gave them all the sup­port he could, and although their plots failed he remained mes­merised by the poten­tial of covert action behind ene­my lines to cause mis­chief and mayhem.”

In August 1921, Stafford not­ed, Reil­ly wrote “a lengthy assess­ment of the Russ­ian sit­u­a­tion that he passed to Churchill. The two met and Churchill spoke of tak­ing him to meet Lloyd George.” The report pre­dict­ed “a gen­er­al upris­ing against the Bol­she­viks that could pro­duce a new and more mod­er­ate Russ­ian gov­ern­ment.” It was, sad­ly, a daydream.

As the Sovi­ets con­sol­i­dat­ed their pow­er, Churchill took a more resigned view of top­pling their regime. David Stafford sug­gests that Churchill began dis­tanc­ing him­self from Reil­ly to keep clear of con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the noto­ri­ous Zinoviev Let­ter. Pub­lished in 1924 by the Dai­ly Mail, undoubt­ed­ly with Reilly’s con­nivance, it called for a Marx­ist upris­ing in Britain led by com­mu­nists and the Labour Par­ty. Though it might have influ­enced the 1924 elec­tion, it has since been proven a forgery.

“Irrepressible Marlborough” 

Reil­ly con­sid­ered Churchill the only use­ful British politi­cian in the anti-Bol­she­vik cause. Short­ly before his death he told a friend: “Only one man is real­ly impor­tant, and that is the irre­press­ible Marl­bor­ough [WSC]. I have always remained on good terms with him…. His ear would always be open to some­thing sound.”

In June 1927 the Sovi­ets final­ly announced Reilly’s fate. “One Sid­ney George Riley [sic], they claimed, had been caught ille­gal­ly cross­ing the Finnish fron­tier. He had sub­se­quent­ly con­fessed to com­ing to Rus­sia “for the spe­cial pur­pose of organ­is­ing ter­ror­ist acts, arson and revolts….”

Backing away

By 1927 “Churchill was deny­ing every­thing.” In Decem­ber that year, Pepi­ta Bobadil­la Reil­ly appealed to Churchill for infor­ma­tion. The reply came from his pri­vate Sec­re­tary, Eddie Marsh:

[Your let­ter] of the 13th December…appears to have been writ­ten under a com­plete mis­ap­pre­hen­sion. Your hus­band did not go into Rus­sia at the request of any British offi­cial, but he went there on his own pri­vate affairs. Mr. Churchill much regrets that he is unable to help you in regard to this mat­ter, because accord­ing to the lat­est reports which have been made pub­lic Mr. Reil­ly met his death in Moscow after his arrest there.

It was “a clas­sic let­ter of deni­a­bil­i­ty,” writes David Stafford, “as though Churchill hard­ly knew who Reil­ly was, nev­er mind had been a will­ing and active par­ty to his anti-Bol­she­vik plans. Clear­ly he wished to keep this episode in his shad­ow life hid­den.” Nev­er­the­less it was a heart­less let­ter, untyp­i­cal of Churchill’s usu­al mag­na­nim­i­ty. But no one, Stafford con­cludes, “ever had Churchill in his pocket.”

Hearts and minds

Rather than Hen­ry Ford, Boris Savinkov would have made a more like­ly tri­umvi­rate with Reil­ly and Churchill. The evi­dence is that they con­sult­ed, though prob­a­bly not togeth­er, and were unit­ed in their wish for a free Rus­sia.  Of the two, Churchill was clear­ly more tak­en with Savinkov. When he was arrest­ed, tried and “con­fessed,” many Britons includ­ing Reil­ly denounced him. Not Churchill, as he wrote to Reil­ly himself:

I do not think you should judge Savinkov too harshly…and only those who have sus­tained suc­cess­ful­ly such an ordeal have a full right to pro­nounce cen­sure. At any rate I shall wait to hear the end of the sto­ry before chang­ing my view about Savinkov.[16]

He nev­er did. In Great Con­tem­po­raries he pon­dered Savinkov’s fate should such a char­ac­ter have come from more civ­i­lized lands:

All would have been spared to him had he been born in Britain, in France, in the Unit­ed States, in Scan­di­navia, in Switzer­land. A hun­dred hap­py careers lay open. But born in Rus­sia with such a mind and such a will, his life was a tor­ment ris­ing in crescen­do to a death in tor­ture. Amid these mis­eries, per­ils and crimes he dis­played the wis­dom of a states­man, the qual­i­ties of a com­man­der, the courage of a hero and the endurance of a martyr.

Reil­ly too was born in Rus­sia, with all that meant for own life. Yet Reil­ly is men­tioned nei­ther in Great Con­tem­po­raries nor The World Cri­sis, Churchill’s mem­oir of the Great War. “Like Clare Sheridan’s adven­tures in Moscow,” con­cludes David Stafford, “here was an episode of secret war that he wished to keep quiet.”

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