September 2000


Sidney Reilly

Sam Neil portraying Sidney Reilly
in Reilly: Ace of Spies

Previously unpublished photo, c 1898
Courtesy Andrew Cook.

Sidney Reilly

Please note: the following information is based on old books and stories more than likely invented by Reilly himself and passed on by George Hill. For the best and newest explanation of Reilly's exploits, please check out Andrew Cook's book, "Sidney Reilly: ST1 (On His Majesty's Secret Service)" listed below.

My never-ending fascination with espionage could not be more satisfied than with the story of British agent Sidney Reilly. Although information about him leans towards the fanciful, even at its most basic his story is beyond belief. His bravery alone has encouraged me to take a few more risks in this life. Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, once said, "James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up. He's not a Sidney Reilly, you know!"

Born near Odessa, Russia, on 24 March, 1874, young Georgi's beginnings were the stuff of novels. He was arrested when a young man for espionage (he had sewn a message into the lining of his coat and acted as a courier for The Friends of Enlightenment who, in reality, were an early Marxist organization) and thrown into jail. Upon his release, he learned of his mother's death and was then told by his uncle that he was the result of an adulterous affair between her and her Jewish doctor, Rosenblum. Having been as anti-Semitic as most Russians in those days (a common saying was 'God Save the Tsar and Damn the Jews!'), an embarrassed and betrayed Sigmund Rosenblum (it was revealed to him that his name had not even been Georgi) fled Russia for South America as a stowaway on a British ship.

In South America, Sigmund became a cook for a British mission, masquerading as a South American named Pedro and saving the group's lives during a harrowing attack by a local tribe. One of the surviving members of the mission was a British agent, Major Fothergill, who gave Sigmund a check for £1,500 in gratitude. Upon learning Rosenblum's true identity, he arranged a passport and passage for him back to England, where Sigmund changed his first name to Sidney. Thus began Rosenblum's life as a spy for the British Secret Service (MI6). He later changed his surname to "Reilly" (his first wife's father's family name) because, "In Europe, only the British hate the Irish, but everyone hates the Jews."

His exploits, both real and those of legend, are too numerous and detailed for me to go into here, but suffice it to say that his ruthless approach was credited with changing the very nature of espionage in the 20th Century. Before Reilly, spying had been a "Gentlemen's game"; Sidney changed all that. He was cold, hard, and practical, and he got results - whatever the cost. From the D'Arcy Affair (procuring Persian oil concessions for the British disguised as a priest and talking his way onto the Rothschilds' yacht and persuading D'Arcy right under their noses), to impersonating a German officer during World War I and sitting in on a meeting with the German High Command, to the near-successful overthrow of the early Bolshevik government in 1918 teamed with Boris Savinkov, his life story is, at the very least, inspirational.

As far as I can tell, there is nothing but speculation as to how Reilly met his death. The Bolsheviks claimed he was killed at the Finnish border in 1925 and then again a few years later; yet it is more likely that he was imprisoned and became an advisor to Feliks Dzerzhinsky, head of Lenin's secret police (the Cheka or Vecheka). He was reportedly spotted as late as 1944. I find it very fitting that not even the death of Sidney Reilly can be proven. The surviving Soviet files on Reilly were supposed to be opened in 1999, but I can find no information on this anywhere.

As with John Reed, I have had a difficult time finding information about Sidney Reilly. There are a few books, all out of print except the first, that shed some light on this most famous of spies:

  • Sidney Reilly: ST1 (On His Majesty's Secret Service)
    Finally!! The definitive book on Reilly by Andrew Cook brings us the latest available documentation (Soviet, American and British) on this elusive double-agent. Read below for Mr Cook's comments:

    "I read everything I could find on Reilly after I saw the 'Ace of Spies' tv series in the 1980s. The Lockhart book is very readable, but completely lacks references to sources. This is because a good proportion of the book is based on anecdotes Reilly told about himself, which were passed on down the years through friends and colleagues by a process of 'Chinese whispers', until Lockhart picked them up in the mid 1960s.

    "Michael Kettle's book is at least based upon his own research, although crucial elements of this have now been proven to be erroneous.

    "My book is based upon privileged access to over 2000 still classified or unpublished documents from MI5, MI6, the FSB (formerly KGB) and not least the families of many people centrally involved in Reilly's story. The truth that emerges about Reilly is very much at odds with the "legend" he and writers like Lockhart and Kettle have created. However, to me, fact is often more fascinating than fiction. He was such a remarkable confidence trickster that he even convinced close colleagues in MI1c (MI6 as it is known today) that he had been working for the organisation for years and was C's top agent! In fact, Reilly was only a bona-fide spy for less than four years (he was effectively fired in late 1921). Of all the agencies that kept records on Reilly, the US Bureau of Investigation (now the FBI) file probably best sums him up - a 1919 report concludes by saying that he is a 'world class confidence man'!

    "At the end of my book I remark that it is tempting to think that a longer book could have been written about the person Reilly was not and the things he did not do, as opposed to who he really was and what he actually did.

    "My book is published in England on 7th October (note: it is now availble) and should be out in America next year. You can get a copy of the book by ordering from the www.sidneyreilly.com Web site."

  • Reilly: Ace of Spies
    Robin Bruce Lockhart, 1967, several reprints (Lockhart is the son of Sir Robert H.B. Lockart, who was implicated with Reilly in the anti-Bolshevist Lockhart Plot)

  • Reilly: The First Man
    Robin Bruce Lockhart, 1987 (Sequel to above; refutes much of what was previously published and offers an explanation into Reilly's last years. I found it disturbing in its conclusions)

  • Britain's Master Spy: The Adventures of Sidney Reilly
    Sidney Reilly (Pepita Reilly), 1986 (First 100 pages supposedly written by Reilly himself; remainder of book written by bigamous wife Pepita as she tries in vain to get him back from the Bolsheviks)

  • The True Story of the World's Greatest Spy: Sidney Reilly
    Michael Kettle, 1983

Of course, there is the excellent television adaptation of Lockhart's book, Reilly: Ace of Spies. The entire series is available in a DVD set and it is as exciting and spellbinding as the first time I viewed it on PBS in 1984. You can buy it at Amazon.com and, in Britain, at Amazon.co.uk.

Reilly on the Internet:

  • Sidney Reilly
    This brief outline should be your first stop.

  • Addendum: May 8, 2002 AP Article:

    Legendary spy executed by Russians in 1925, British documents show

    By THOMAS WAGNER, Associated Press

    LONDON (May 8, 4:20 p.m. ADT) - A secret file released by British intelligence seems to confirm that Sidney Reilly, Britain's "Ace of Spies," was executed by undercover Soviet police in 1925.

    The account - contained in one of 212 secret MI5 files being made public Thursday - says the Soviets captured Reilly as he sneaked in from Finland and gunned him down in a forest after questioning him for weeks.

    Reilly, who was portrayed in the TV miniseries "Reilly, Ace of Spies" in Britain and the United States in 1983 and 1984, is considered by many to be the greatest British spy.

    Born in Russia and educated in Britain, Reilly's exploits ranged from saving diplomats in the jungles of South America to infiltrating the German High Command during World War I.

    In New York City in 1914, he bought munitions and helped counter German sabotage of American factories supplying the Allies. He also obtained German naval secrets for Britain, reputedly made and lost several fortunes during his life, and had many love affairs and several wives.

    Born the illegitimate son of a Jewish doctor in Odessa in 1874, Reilly changed his name from Sigmund Rosenblum to Sidney George Reilly.

    Toward the end of his life, one of Reilly's main goals as a British spy was to topple the Bolshevik regime in his homeland.

    In May 1918, he had to flee Moscow when his plans were foiled. He is believed to have secretly entered the Soviet Union several other times until he was arrested and reportedly executed in November 1925, shortly before Joseph Stalin came to power.

    Conflicting stories and legends about Reilly have made accounts of his life difficult to write.

    In one of the most respected efforts, Gordon Brook-Shepherd wrote a book called "Iron Maze," which portrayed efforts by Allied secret services to topple the Bolshevik regime while Lenin was in power.

    With unusual access to British, French and U.S. archives from that period, the author said Reilly had been arrested by Lenin's political police force after it lured him over the border from Finland.

    After receiving an order to execute him if he failed to become a double agent, the police questioned and threatened Reilly for several months in the Lubyanka jail in Moscow, trying to force him to name other British agents, according to the "Iron Maze."

    One night, police gave that up, took him for a walk in a nearby forest, as they had before, and shot Reilly in the back without warning, the book said. He remained alive, so police rolled him over and shot him again through the chest.

    The Reilly file released by the MI5, which contained many typed and handwritten documents, appeared to confirm the book's account.

    In particular, it contained a six-page, typed statement by an unidentified informant. Dated March 9, 1927, it seemed to be the English translation of an account given by a pro-Western Russian spy.

    "I knew your English spy, Sidney Riley (Reilly), quite well," it began, adding that he had once saved the British agent by telling him the Bolsheviks were looking for him in Moscow.

    After a long account of Reilly's exploits as a secret agent, including his fondness for women, the informant tells how the "Ace of Spies" was suddenly arrested after crossing into the Finnish frontier.

    "The Bolsheviks at first wished to conceal his arrest but the English somehow or other found it out, and the Bolsheviks in order to escape the possible demands by the English of his release murdered him when he was taken out for exercise," the informant said.

    The police did that, he said, by taking Reilly out in the hills around the prison and shooting him several times with a revolver.

    The informant also accused the Bolsheviks of planting an article in the press saying Reilly died after being wounded while trying to sneak across the Finnish border.

Normal disclaimer: photo of Sam Neill copyright by its owner.

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