From The Daily Telegraph 22 December.
Peter Montagnon, who has died aged 92, was a Cold War intelligence officer, a pioneer in Harold Wilson’s Open University, and an innovative documentary-maker who co-produced and directed Kenneth Clark’s landmark series Civilisation.
One of four children, Peter Ernest Arthur Montagnon was born on April 24 1925 in Croydon, Surrey, and educated at Whitgift School. He failed to shine academically, but discovered a talent for storytelling, keeping his classmates enthralled when the teachers were out of the room.
At the age of 13, on the eve of war, Peter’s father removed him from Whitgift and sent him to work as an apprentice at the Monotype factory at Redhill, Surrey, where he was manager. Monotype had been converted from a metal typesetting works to an arms factory for the war effort, specialising in producing Bren guns.
It was an unusual environment for a middle-class boy, surrounded by young, earthy, working-class women. But he thrived, and fondly remembered visits to the cinema, holding hands with his – maternally inclined – workmates.
When the war ended Montagnon joined the Army, eventually settling in the Royal Corps of Signals. He went out to Malaya, where one of his key tasks was to help bug the prison cells of guerrilla leaders as the British desperately tried to contain the insurgency. He reached the rank of captain in November 1952, and his skills attracted the attention of MI6.
Within months he was pitched into the biggest and most audacious joint intelligence project of the Cold War – Operation Stopwatch/Gold – which aimed to dig a tunnel from West Berlin under the border and into the Soviet-controlled East.
This spectacular – and hugely expensive ($6.7 million) – eavesdropping operation would enable Allied spies to tap into telephone and telegraph cables through which the Soviet military command in Germany communicated with Moscow.
The plan was initially thrashed out between eight MI6 and six CIA officers over four days of meetings in London in mid-December 1953. Captain Montagnon, at 28, was the youngest and most junior member of the group.
Other members included Frank Rowlett (CIA), who had cracked the Japanese diplomatic codes in the Second World War, George Kennedy Young, later to be Vice-Chief of MI6, and Ian “Tim” Milne, former head of Section V (counter-espionage).
Taking down the minutes was a colleague of Montagnon’s from Section Y – the double agent George Blake, who in January 1954, slipped a copy to his Soviet handler, Sergei Kondrashev, while they were on the top deck of a London bus.
The Berlin tunnel was betrayed well before the first sod was turned, though the Russians let it run for a year so that Blake would not come under suspicion when they eventually allowed its discovery in April 1956. Montagnon, in common with everyone else, knew nothing of his colleague’s treachery until many years later.
Indeed he got on well with Blake, recalling him as “very affable and easy-going, a bon viveur who liked to eat well, and we used to go down to those wonderful Soho restaurants, and then wend our way back and carry on with our MI6 stuff.”
Full obituary with photographs.
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