The art of living dangerously

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Tinker, racer, soldier, spy. There were few quiet moments in the world of St John Horsfall

All these Aston celebrations made me think of a wonderful interview I did in 1998 with Ian Girling, St John Horsfall’s mechanic. Girling lived with the Hosfalls in 1947 while building the charismatic driver’s famous Speed Model Aston, the ‘Black Car’, and became close to him. “Such a nice guy,” recalled Girling, “quiet but full of fun. When his cousin once came to visit, we wired up the lavatory seat to a Scintilla magneto.”

Jock Horsfall’s racing is well remembered, but his wartime exploits in MI5 were long secret. It’s now well known that he drove “The Man Who Never Was”, the corpse that fooled the Germans over the attack on Sicily, to Scotland to rendezvous with the submarine transport in Holy Loch, but there was much more in his ‘black CV’. Tasked with probing airfield security, he would wriggle though grass with his Minox to photograph operations, risking a bullet, and if he got through, give the CO a bollocking with his acting colonel rank.

“He rarely carried ID,” said Ian, “just talked his way out of trouble.” If he ended up in the Guard Room he had a special War Office number to ring.

As well as collecting agents returning from abroad he had other tricks, said Girling.

“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 ¼Ib of butter beforehand to line his stomach, so that although they got more and more drunk, he would stay sober.”

Few tales like this are provable, but Ian sent me a file of stuff Len Deighton would appreciate – Horsfall’s War Department pass, wartime photos (including one that should have got him shot, of a fellow agent transmitting fake spy messages to test security), and some wonderful Top Secret letters mixing secret IDs with bluff old-boy frankness about MI5 spying operations – on the Americans. One ‘Dear Jock’ letter talks of “our Lisbon representative” returning a “batch of foodstuffs” to ‘Ecclesiastic’ after photography and requesting “similar food prepared in a similar way”.

Horsfall explained to Girling that the ‘foodstuffs’ were doctored details of US fighters, showing falsely downgraded performance, which our spy Ecclesiastic (a cleaner) was placing in the Lisbon American Embassy for the German spy on duty to find. Apparently the Americans were too proud of the new Mustang and Lightning to doctor their own material, and never knew what their allies were doing…

Talented and charming, Jock Horsfall might have added many tales to his history had an ERA not pitched him into oblivion at Silverstone in 1949. As SA says elsewhere in this issue, he was a proto-Bond before Fleming sat down at his Olivetti, and the Aston Martin connection couldn’t be more appropriate.

Gordon Cruickshank