Sidney Reilly's name may not be that fearsome, but his nickname is a whole different kettle of poison darts: the Ace of Spies. He is considered to be the first super-spy and the most likely real-life inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond. His life is shrouded in mystery, myth and maybes, but that's exactly what you want from a spy, isn't it?
Born in Odessa, Russia, in 1873 or 1874, as either Georgi, Solomon, Shlomo or Sigmund Rosenblum, he made his way to Britain by either faking his own death and single-handedly saving a British intelligence expedition in Brazil or robbing and murdering two Italian anarchists in Paris for their revolutionary funds. Either way, Rosenblum ended up wealthy and in London, where, because of his linguistic abilities, he found himself recruited as an informant on émigrés for Scotland Yard's Special Branch.
After cuckolding — and possibly murdering — an elderly reverend and marrying his young and now exceedingly rich widow (taking her family name of Reilly), Rosenblum embarked on a life of espionage, sabotage, arms-dealing, philandering and bigamy. He adopted so many disguises and identities, spinning so many lies, that, according to some, he began to believe them. He was a delusional, pathological liar or, some might say, the perfect spy.
Reilly was brought into the Secret intelligence Service (later known as MI6) in 1909 and he served under Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming.
The year 1914 marked the beginning of World War I and Germany's massive campaign against Russia. Reilly was in Germany and secured a job for himself in the Krupps armaments factory from where he procured top-secret drawings and production schedules. When he was discovered he escaped leaving behind two dead security guards.
From there he went to Russia and set himself as a successful businessman and organized the St Petersburg flying week. Using his position he got German visitors to confide secrets about aircraft engineering. German naval builders Blohm & Voss were convinced to make him their sole representative for exports to Russia, and his business acumen was so astute that his commercial ventures denied British interests a great deal of business.
1917 saw him parachuting into Germany with false papers. He posed as a German officer and spent time in the mess overhearing whatever gossip or information he could. He even managed to attend a High Command conference in the presence of the Kaiser himself. After that Reilly set himself up as an officer's driver.
The next year he was in Russia trying to thwart an alliance between the Russians and Germans against the western front. He planned to kidnap Lenin and Trotsky and parade them in the streets in their underpants, subjecting them to public ridicule. Also on the agenda was an alternative government in Russia with Reilly himself as the Prime Minister. This became known as the 'Reilly plot'. Unfortunately another anti-Bolshevik plot to kill Lenin failed and the police were on their guard. Reilly barely escaped the British consulate at St Petersburg.
Disguised as a Russian peasant, Greek traveler and Turkish merchant, Reilly finally boarded a Dutch trading ship and reached London. There he divorced Countess Nadine Massino and started a relationship with a Caryll Houselander 30 years his junior. In 1923 he married Pepita Bobadilla who he met at a chance meeting, but remained determined to overthrow the Russian regime. Reilly went back to Russia to find out more about them and was never seen again in the west. Eventually it emerged that The Trust was a Soviet scheme to entice enemies of the state into the hands of the Russian police.
His wife at the time claimed that he was killed trying to cross into Russia from Finland, but she and the British and Russian governments believed him to
be alive. Subsequently, Russian refugees claimed to have seen him in a Russian hospital, others said they saw him go insane after torture. Even under torture, Reilly made notes of Russian interrogation techniques on cigarette paper and hid them in the walls of his prison, hoping to use it to some advantage should he ever make it out. More sinister information came up writing Reilly off as a Russian agent helping to penetrate the British secret service and Foreign Office. Only unlocked KGB files can answer the last riddle.
Sources: factbehindfiction.com, shortlist.com, crimelibrary.com