Thorley’s “Stylish Secret Agent of the Old School”
The following information has been extracted from a number of sources, including Behind the Battle Intelligence in the war with Germany by Ralph Bennett, Ian Fleming: A Personal Memoir by Robert Harling, Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, The A to Z of British Intelligence and Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence by Nigel West, A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars by Nicholas Rankin, Speedbird: The complete history of BOAC by Robin Higham and Disaster in the Air by Col Edgar A. Haine.

Vladimir Wolfson

 Vladimir and Dorothy Mary Wolfson (née Davis) moved with their daughter Pamela and son Geoffrey Mark to “Thorley House” circa 1937. As Dorothy wrote in 1969, and as recorded in ”The Book of Thorley - Chronicles of a Century” that was published in 2003, “[When we began] to search for a permanent English home, we were in no doubt as to what we wanted…. I came to Thorley House and wandered through the village… I phoned my husband in his city office and said, ‘I think I have found the very house’ and he said, ‘Clinch!’. Suddenly then, everything seemed an enchantment – a dream come true.”

Vladimir Wolfson was a white Russian émigré who had been born in Kiev in the Ukraine in 1903. The son of Alexander and Bella Wolfson, he had escaped to Britain following the Revolution of 1917 and had become a British subject by naturalization in 1925. Vladimir had been evacuated from Odessa on a ship of the Royal Navy whose captain had paid for his subsequent education in Britain, including his time at the University of Cambridge where he had come to know Rab Butler. After University, Vladimir had joined the Shell Oil Company, serving in Palestine and Egypt, becoming the first Secretary of the Jerusalem Rotary Club on its foundation in 1929. Dorothy had been born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa in 1890 and was the twin sister of Nora Ingram Davis who had married Brigadier-General Edgar William Cox, a senior intelligence officer on the British General Staff throughout most of the First World War. Their father, Peter, had been the proprietor of the “Natal Witness” daily newspaper for almost fifty years and their mother, Mary, a prominent businesswoman who devoted a great deal of her time to social welfare and the interests of women in South Africa. Vladimir’s and Dorothy’s daughter Pamela and son Mark (the name by which he was generally known) had both been born in Jerusalem, Pamela in 1929 and Mark in 1934.

Vladimir had been recruited by Naval Intelligence in 1926 and appointed as a Lieutenant in the Special Branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). He had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1934 and by the latter part of the 1930s had become influential in the recruitment process for the Secret Intelligence Service as well as for Naval Intelligence. He was mobilised on the outbreak of the Second World War and, as Pamela once remarked during a conversation about her father, was “whisked away one evening at the beginning of the war to identify Rudolf Hess as he was one of the few people who had met him previously.” Vladimir was given a pivotal wartime intelligence role in the eastern Mediterranean as Assistant Naval Attaché, Istanbul, where he played a key part in opening channels of misinformation to the enemy and getting deceptive material to German agents. He was also instrumental in organising a system to help Allied servicemen escape from Greece, Bulgaria and Rumania and travel via Turkey back to the Middle East. On his initiative an Anglo-Turkish Security Bureau was created, to act as a conduit to the Secret Intelligence Service for information about wartime travellers to and from the Balkans. In 1943 Vladimir was awarded a military OBE for his work in the Aegean and promoted to the rank of Commander. In 1945 he received the Greek Distinguished Service Medal for “outstanding service while in close collaboration with the Greek Authorities in the Middle East”.

Vladimir was said to have been “more English than any Englishman” and to have been “determined to do everything possible for his adopted homeland”. As such he was much admired by Ian Fleming who also worked for the Special Intelligence Service and had a commission in the RNVR. Fleming reportedly viewed Vladimir to be “a stylish secret agent of the old school” and is thought to have had him in mind when developing the character of Darko Kerim, head of station T (Turkey) in From Russia, With Love.

Vladimir continued to serve in the RNVR after his wartime appointments came to an end and was promoted to Captain in 1951. He was instrumental that year in Ian Fleming finally giving up his commission in the RNVR when unable to spare the time for the mandatory annual fortnight’s training. Fleming made an unsuccessful plea to Vladimir for a special exemption from this training, on the grounds that ‘‘as foreign manager of the Sunday Times and Kemsley Newspapers, I am engaged throughout the year in running a worldwide intelligence organization and there could be no better training for the duties I would have to carry out for the DNI [Director of Naval Intelligence] in the event of war. I also carry out a number of tasks on behalf of a department of the Foreign Office and this department would, I believe, be happy to give details of these activities to the DNI.’’

After his wartime service, Vladimir joined BOAC where he was appointed advisor on policy in Europe and in early 1952 placed in charge of its nine associated companies. He also became a member of the British Broadcasting Corporation's management panel. He was tragically killed whilst travelling on one of BOAC’s de Havilland Comet aircraft when it crashed on 10 January 1954 after suffering an explosive decompression at altitude near the island of Elba off the coast of Italy en route to Heathrow Airport. Dorothy continued to live in Thorley until her death in 1983, latterly moving from “Thorley House” to “Sparrow’s Nest”. Pamela died aged 89 in August 2018 and Mark, who was the Conservative MP for Sevenoaks from 1979 to 1997, aged 84 in November of the same year.

Philip Hargrave
 November 2020

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