2007-03-26 03:08:06 UTC
March 26, 2007
Charles de Salis
Linguist, teacher and translator who served with distinction
as an intelligence officer during the war and afterwards
January 30, 1911 - February 27, 2007
Charles de Salis's introduction to the world of intelligence
was characteristically opaque. One afternoon in the autumn
of 1941, after a cursory interview and medical examination
at 54 Broadway, he was told: "You must take the Yoicks bus
at 6 o'clock".
Yoicks turned out to be a suburban villa in St Albans, used
as a hostel by secretaries working for the intelligence
services. The next day he went to Glenalmond, a larger house
the other side of the town, where he met two men who had
earlier interviewed him at the War Office. One of them was
De Salis's task, under Philby's supervision, was to assemble
a detailed account of Axis intelligence activities in
Portugal, which were considerable. In this he was aided by
agents on the ground, by intercepts of German signal traffic
from Bletchley Park, and by the novelist Graham Greene, his
So effective was this combination that by April 1943 SIS was
able to compile a comprehensive list of German agents and
their controllers, which was handed to the Portuguese
dictator Antonio Salazar. By then Salazar realised he had
backed the wrong horse and was looking for ways of
distancing himself from the Axis powers. The Germans were
expelled and their Portuguese agents arrested. Years later,
de Salis saw a version of this list, from Portuguese
archives, with detailed annotations in Salazar's hand.
But for the war, Charles de Salis would never have become an
intelligence officer. Brought up in Maidstone, Kent, and
educated at Maidstone Grammar School, he had gone up to
University College, Oxford, in 1929 to read modern
languages - French and Spanish - with the aim of becoming a
There, one of his tutors was the eccentric "Colonel" George
Kolkhorst, who wore a sugar cube round his neck "to sweeten
conversation". Kolkhorst did de Salis a backhanded favour,
awarding him a scholarship for a year at Madrid University,
a beneficence only slightly marred by its manner of
delivery. "I offered it to Hilton," the colonel said, "but
the silly fool turned it down."
In Madrid de Salis mixed with some remarkable people,
including the poet Federico GarcÍa Lorca, and cemented his
love of Spain and Spanish literature. It was his knowledge
of Spanish that attracted the attention of the War Office in
1941 when he was an officer in the Intelligence Corps.
At Glenalmond he enjoyed Philby's company. While the enemy
was Germany, Philby's secret life as a Soviet agent caused
no special difficulties. In August 1943 de Salis was posted
to Lisbon, under cover as a passport officer. Among others
serving there was "Klop" Ustinov, father of Peter, who
proved adept at "turning" German agents.
One of SIS's double agents in Lisbon was Otto John, head of
Lufthansa. He came under suspicion from the Gestapo for
involvement in the July plot against Hitler and was about to
be arrested when de Salis and a colleague managed to hide
him and smuggle him away to Gibraltar. John later became
head of the West German security service but in 1954
defected (or was kidnapped, as he claimed) to the East - and
then defected back again.
Less successful was de Salis's attempt to save Johnny
Jebson, an officer of the Abwehr who worked for SIS as a
double agent and was "run" by de Salis. When the Nazi
security services, the SD, took over the Abwehr, suspicion
fell on Jebson. Decrypts from Bletchley Park revealed he was
about to be kidnapped.
De Salis should have been informed at once of the great risk
his agent ran, but such was the sensitivity of Bletchley
material that the telegram sent to de Salis was deliberately
gnomic. "Tell Artist (Jebson's pseudonym) to be careful," it
De Salis passed on the message. "Am I not always careful?"
retorted Jebson. He was later kidnapped, returned to Germany
and liquidated. De Salis never forgave the officer who
drafted the telegram.
When de Salis was posted back to London in November 1944,
the target had changed. Soviet communism and the KGB had
taken over from the German intelligence services. Now Philby's
double life began in earnest.
One incident seemed to de Salis to be significant but only
in retrospect. A telegram from Cairo indicated a would-be
defector from the Soviet Embassy there. Prompt action was
needed, but Philby, uncharacteristically, did nothing for 24
hours. Then a second telegram arrived: the man had been put
on a plane back to Moscow. A valuable defector, at a time
when they were almost unknown, was lost.
De Salis was subsequently posted to Paris, where he gathered
material on the French Communist Party, to Copenhagen, and
finally, in 1960, to Rio de Janeiro. He took early
retirement from the service in 1966 to pursue his love of
teaching languages for ten years at Ashford Grammar School.
He lived in Appledore, Kent, and later in Rye, to all
outward appearance a donnish former diplomat. He was a
modest aesthete, an amusing raconteur and mimic, a generous
host to his many friends, in step and loved by all
Asked once by an Abstract artist what he thought of his
work, he deftly avoided comment by saying he was "a child of
He wrote poetry and translated works of the Spanish, French
and Portuguese writers he most admired. As recently as 2005,
when de Salis was 94, a judge in The Times Stephen Spender
Prize for poetry translation commended his translation of
The Song of Roland.
De Salis married in 1946 Katherine Gange, who had been
Philby's secretary, but she died just six months later as a
result of an operation. In 1948 he married Mary Young, who
died in 2001.
Charles de Salis, intelligence officer, linguist and
schoolmaster, was born on January 30, 1911. He died on
February 27, 2007, aged 96