St John Horsfall - secret agent

St John Horsfall is most famous for his driving the Spa 24-hours solo. But compared to his wartime exploits as an M15 agent, this was almost a breeze. Bill Boddy reports

St John Radcliffe Stewart Horsfall (John or ‘Sinjin’ to his friends) was born on July 31, 1910 at Morningthorpe near Norwich but was brought up in Dunwich, Suffolk. The youngest of six boys, it could be said he was born into a motoring family: Mrs Horsfall liked driving and had a rare six-cylinder Hillman until a fire destroyed it, and a Benz, though her husband was content with a single-cylinder Rover, kept until 1921.

In the spacious grounds, St John Horsfall and his brother James, who later raced motor boats, taught themselves to drive. Motorcycles were acquired, St John's first a Humber bought for 7/6d, from which he graduated to a 350cc Velocette and a grass-track racing HRD. After James acquired a Blackburne-engined Aero Morgan St John got a Matchless-Morgan three-wheeler, which ended up against a telegraph pole. In 1931 he was apprenticed to the Ford Motor Company at Trafford Park, Manchester, and became a test driver. Motor racing was his aim, and in 1934 he obtained an Aston Martin International, by which time he had become a stockbroker, and disposed of the MG Midget that had been his everyday car.

Horsfall sensibly tried out the Aston in a JCC One-Hour High Speed Trial at the Track and was pleased to see that it could keep station with a younger Le Mans Aston driven by a chap from the factory. Both gained special awards.

He then drove Denis Campbell's Ulster AM at Phoenix Park in 1936 until a piston melted, and after several co-drives failed to materialise, Horsfall decided on a faster car. Towards the end of 1937 he bought Dick Wilkins' black 2-hire Speed Model Aston Martin (the famed JMC 388), the tuning of which had the benefit of Freddie Dixon's scrutiny. It won the 1938 Leinster Trophy, and the cup for fastest lap over the Tallacht circuit, and was second to Louis Gerard's Delage in the 1938 Donington TT. Lesser successes included victory at the March Brooklands' Meeting, 8.4sec ahead of Bira's scratch Maserati, and another win there at Easter, when the now-famous black AM led in the Second Short Handicap over the outer circuit, with a lap at 107.57mph.

Horsfall was also gaining single-seater experience with an ERA shared with Tony Rolt. He excelled in the seven-lap Locke King Trophy Race at the 1929 Whitsun Meeting coming third, with a lap at 124.51mph, the first time an ERA had raced on the outer circuit, as the cars were quite unsuited to such a task. Freddie Dixon had worked some of his magic on the high chassis and stiff suspension and, some said, had deleted the differential. There was speculation as to whether the ERA could have broken the Class-F lap record held since 1931 by Earl Howe's Delage at 12705mph, had the war not intervened, especially as Horsfall had taken another third place at the final BARC Meeting, a brave drive in the ERA which did a lap at 124.82mph. But in motor racing, while speculation is stimulating, it is the results which matter...

Horsfall's war service saw him plunged into espionage for the Special Branch of the War Office: during The Great War his mother had been personal driver to a very important member of that then very secret organisation, MI5, and at the start of the war Jock's cousin, Sir Eric Holt-Wilson, was a member of MI5 too.

One assignment for which the former racing driver is well known was that of driving the dead body of the decoy 'Major Martin' from London to Greenock, to be taken by submarine and launched into the Mediterranean off the Spanish coast which, as had been hoped by the British authorities, resulted in the German High Command believing that our invasion would be concentrating on Sardlinia and not Sicily. It seems that the choice as van driver on this most unlikely mission was given to Horsfall because he was known to be both fast and reliable! The van itself has been described as a fast Ford V8 but our exclusive picture shows it to have been a battered forward-drive Ford 30cwt vehicle, suitably camouflaged, probably used as it would be inconspicuous on its arrival at Holy Loch. It was probably the van which had been used to carry the ERA to race meetings before the war.

When peace broke out, St John took up the sport where he had left it. In the black car, he won his class at the reopening of racing in '46 at the Bois de Boulogne.

Horsfall was now employed by Aston Martin Ltd at Feltham, working on the development of the DB range of these cars designed by the very brilliant but, as I so well knew, modest Claud Hill. This enabled him to gain one of his greatest triumphs when, with Leslie Johnson and the prototype DB1 Aston Martin THX 259, they won the prestigious 1948 Spa 24-hour Sports Car Race at 72.7mph. It was a fine achievement and a unique boost for the famous marque. They were justly awarded the ERA Trophy for this victory on the continent. The following year saw Jock, as he was now popularly known, competing an ERA in the Isle of Man, which lost by just four seconds to Bob Gerard's similar can The famous 'black car' also took part in that memorable race driven by Tony Rolt, but its fuel tank split after 120 laps.

Now in his stride, Horsfall went to Spa again in 1949 with the Speed Model Aston now known as the Spa special. He elected to drive the entire 24 hours, and although clearly seen to be exhausted at the pit-stops, finished second to the Chinetti/Lucas Ferrari in the 2-litre class, without calling on his co-driver, Paul Frere. It was a feat of which any driver would be proud, a solo effort of 1821 racing miles at an average of 76.25mph, placing the Aston fourth overall. Splendid, even though the Sports Editor of The Motor was critical, saying it might have endangered spectators or drivers, although he did not deny the courage and determination required.

Sadly, it came to an abrupt end at Silverstone on August 20, 1949, when Jock was entered the Daily Express BRDC International Trophy Race with Peter Bell's ERA RUB. On the 13th lap the car hit a bale at Stowe and overturned, killing Horsfall instantly. It was the same corner at which John Bolster had crashed Bell's other ERA and been badly hurt the previous May. As a tribute to Jock, his elder brother asked Rex Hays if he would make a model of JMC 388, which remains a coveted award of the AMOC.

After Horsfall's death the black Aston was retained by Jimmy Horsfall. Its original engine was refitted, a new body made and, in 1973, Rivers Fletcher bought it for the late Bob Roberts, whose Midland Motor Museum is a fitting reminder of his love of such cars. Ten years later Nigel Dawes took it on but it was a further decade before he had completed a meticulous rebuild, just in time to run it at the 1993 AMOC Horsfail Memorial Trophy Meeting.

This most famous Speed Model Aston passed next into the possession of another great enthusiast, Ian Williamson, who was delighted to display it in the Brooklands Society's tent at last year's Goodwood Festival of Speed, remembering it had served its time at the famous Surrey Motor Course. He also drove it at Prescott in 1996 and had raced it at the Horsfall Memorial Meeting at Silverstone, coming second on handicap, and greatly enjoyed taking part with in the 1997 Mille Miglia Retrospective. Thus does a famous and versatile car live on, as another reminder of the extraordinary life and times of St. John 'Jock' Horsfall.

The secret life of St John Horsfall

Ian Girling worked with Jock Horsfall from 1947 until Horsfall's death, and recalls their time together.

"I actually lived with the family at Cliff House for some seven months while he and I built his second Speed Model Aston into a Formula B car, running on methanol. It was eventually modified back into a sportscar, now known as 'the Spa Special'. As Jock was financing it himself, money was not too plentiful, but it was a labour of love. He was such a nice guy quite quiet, but always full of fun. When his cousin Kath came to visit, we wired up the lavatory seat to a Scintilla magneto — it gave her quite a shock.

"I had a hand in the preparation of the car for the Spa race in '49. Jock was worried that Paul Frere had not had experience in the car, so he drove the entire 24 hours on his own. He would have been even further up if we hadn't had to tie the front wings up with rope.

"He spent the whole war in MI5, and one of his duties was testing the defences of airfields, army camps and naval establishments. When he found weaknesses he would take the CO to task with the equivalent rank of a full Colonel. He would also transmit fake radio messages from all over the country to see if they were intercepted. Once he was standing in the grass on an airbase, photographing Mosquitoes landing, and an eagle-eyed pilot spotted him. When the base police arrived he threw his Minox camera into the long grass and claimed he had just been shading his eyes. Of course he had to come back at night and find the camera. He rarely carried ID, he just talked his way out of trouble. Only once did he fail to satisfy an army corporal, and had to divulge a War Office number to vouch for him.

"He would try to get port officials and the like drunk to see what they would reveal, and he actually had a special butter ration for this. He would eat ¼lb of butter beforehand to line his stomach, so that although they got more and more drunk, he would stay sober.

Often he went off to collect our agents returning from abroad, and was also involved in 'disinformation', passing misleading information to the Germans. I have documents which show that the department even spied on the Americans, copying details of their new 'planes, downgrading the performance figures, and then releasing that to the Germans via our double-agents.

"I was with Jock after he had agreed to drive Peter Bell's ERA following John Bolster's accident. He was very worried that John had encouraged Bell to produce more and more power from the ERA's engine without improving the handling, and that you just could not use the power. However, with just two weeks to go before the Silverstone race, even with Jock's skill and experience there was just not the time to make worthwhile improvements to the rood-holding. The result we all know. I was so stricken that I couldn't bear to visit a race at Silverstone for years afterwards.

"The other brothers weren't really interested in racing, though Jeffrey worked with Freddie Dixon and Harry Ferguson on the four-wheel-drive project. His mother was very keen, though. And brave — she once leapt into the sea to save someone, even though she was 60 and recovering from flu. The butler followed with her bathing-suit, and she was so exhausted he had to propel her back up the path.

"As to women, Jock said, 'I will never get married until I stop racing. I've seen the look on wives and girlfriends in the pits when their man doesn't appear'.

"Jock was a very special person, a fine engineer and a really wonderful man to work and be with. I still, at times, visit his grave and am still saddened at the loss to the sport and his many, many friends."