Burns. Tom Burns.

I am looking at a letter from Tom Burns dated November 4, 1969, offering me an editorial position at the Tablet. My salary was £1000 a year; I worked there for the next two years. I remember Tom, then in his second year as editor of the London-based Catholic magazine, as affable, somewhat remote, seemingly always on his way to or from the Garrick Club, that haven for writers, barristers, and actors founded in 1831 “to tend to the regeneration of the Drama.”

Life was certainly dramatic for my new boss, who took over the editorship in 1967 and almost immediately found himself caught up in the controversy following Humanae vitae, of which he was a vociferous critic, despite intense pressure from church authorities and from many Tablet readers and his own very conservative views on most other issues. I soon learned of his courage and firm convictions, but most of my time was spent working under the assistant editor, John Wilkins, and we would joke that when Tom returned from one of his Garrick lunches, an article by some right-wing friend in hand, John would take it with a gruff “thanks,” then surreptitiously stuff it into one of his desk drawers. A week or two would pass, during which Tom would wander into the small, somewhat chaotic office John and I shared and inquire where the article had got to. General mystification. More often than not, when at last John “found” the missing piece, it was no longer topical, and was formally spiked. As the English say, our beloved editor never “twigged” what we were up to.

Nor did I twig that my boss was a far superior player in the world of subterfuge than his staff could ever have been. This new biography, written by one of his three sons, convincingly portrays Tom Burns as having played an important part in securing an Allied victory in the Second World War.

Thomas Ferrier Burns was born on April 21, 1906, the seventh of nine children of a Scottish father and a Chilean mother of English and Basque descent. He was educated by the Jesuits, but did not go to university, only briefly to Paris, before being taken on by the new Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward. By 1931, the firm had published 191 titles, and Burns had established himself in English Catholic circles, the friend of Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Eve-lyn Waugh, and Graham Greene, all of whom he published. Other acquaintances were Augustus John (whose son, Henry, would accompany Burns to Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where together they would expound the “truths” of Catholic doctrine), Gwen John, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and T. S. Eliot. All this while he was a regular presence on the debutante circuit, noted on one typical hostess’s register as “smart young man, dances well, safe in taxis.” Then in 1935 he fell in love with Anne Bowes-Lyon, first cousin to the future consort of George VI. Their intense affair, ended only by wartime separation, is one of the many revelations in his son’s book.

In 1936, Burns left Sheed & Ward to join the larger (and secular) firm of Longman. The same year, he also engineered a buyout of the Tablet, installing his friend Douglas Woodruff as editor while he became part-owner and manager. His background as a “consummate communicator and social networker,” and the fact that he had embarked on a lifelong love of Spain, made him a natural choice subsequently to take charge of Roman Catholic affairs at the government’s newly formed Ministry of Information. There he was expected to develop links with the Franco government—as well as influential Catholics in the United States.

It was not long before he was being tested as a potential recruit of the Special Services. Summoned to the War Office, he was confronted by a bull-necked brass-hat throwing unexpected questions: “Can you gouge a man’s eyes out with your thumbs—from behind? Can you find the kidneys with a sharp knife?” Evidently his replies did not suggest the required killer instinct, and instead he was sent to the British embassy in Madrid as first secretary and press attaché, with responsibility for Spain, Portugal, and Tangier—and his spying days began in earnest.

Tom Burns had no formal espionage training (although his son found a Mauser pistol and a miniature camera in his father’s desk many years after his adventuring ceased). By the time Burns was appointed to Spain, Germany had overrun Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and was rolling into France. It was crucial that Franco not “throw in his lot with Hitler and Mussolini,” as such a move would have risked the loss of the Atlantic and Mediterranean ports to the Axis: in effect, it could have cost the democracies the war.

There were German sympathizers in every department of the Spanish government, and news was generally reported with a strong Nazi bias. Burns’s German counterpart, the sinister Hans Lazar (complete with trim moustache, monocle, and swept-back hair), controlled an impressive propaganda and intelligence machine, while the British ambassador was the onetime appeaser Sir Samuel Hoare, who considered Burns politically suspect, ill-disciplined, and entirely amateur (not to mention Catholic). In addition, both men were reporting to a Foreign Office where the notorious Soviet spies Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt were in the ascendant and already plotting how to mark down this “extremely right-wing militant Catholic” as an enemy of his country. In the words of one of the Foreign Office plotters, a good Catholic was by definition a bad Englishman. Philby even organized a “Miss Moneypenny” to be Burns’s personal assistant, with orders to seduce him. She failed.

How Burns overcame all these menaces—as well as several glaring mistakes of his own—is the story that his son, for many years a distinguished reporter for the Financial Times, tells with much verve. Burns senior had a pivotal post, straddling civilian and military departments, diplomacy, propaganda, and intelligence, and by 1942 had more than a hundred and twenty people working under him. He was trusted by Franco’s government because, from the outbreak of the Civil War, he had sided with the Nationalists, believing Franco would unite Spain and bring order and security.

How important was his role? Jimmy Burns’s account appears in the United States at the same time as Ben Mac-intyre’s bestseller Operation Mincemeat, about the brilliant disinformation coup of April 1943, in which a uniformed corpse, misleadingly tagged “Major Martin” and chained to a briefcase carrying false information about an Allied invasion of southern Europe, washed up on the Andalusian coast. A conscientious local German agent and gullible supervisors back in Berlin did the rest. Macintyre does not mention Burns once in his account, but Burns’s son considers him “among the unsung heroes of Mincemeat.” Jimmy Burns also names a young Spanish doctor who was involved in the postmortem, and who suspected that the dead man had not drowned, but never divulged his doubts to the Germans. He too does not feature in Macintyre’s book—the more surprising, as Papa Spy is listed in its bibliography.

Tom Burns certainly knew about Mincemeat—he was one of four at the Madrid embassy who did—and had been given an elaborate cover story about having met the phantom major. Maybe he was just a bit player; but overall his part in Operation Torch (the invasion of North Africa), the gradual turning of the Spanish people toward the Allied cause, and the numerous propaganda successes he masterminded make his story well worth reading. At the age of thirty-seven he at last married—choosing Mabel, the younger daughter of Dr. Gregorio Marañón, a much-respected figure in Spanish politics, in the most glamorous society wedding in the whole of Spain that year.

After the war, Burns returned to London, and his old profession of publisher. He edited the Tablet till 1982, and became a ubiquitous presence once more in Catholic society. In 1993, just two years before he died, he published a memoir, The Use of Memory, but not only does his great love Anne Bowes-Lyon go properly unmentioned, he never ventures into detail about his wartime work. Jimmy Burns believes his father continued to work for British intelligence in some capacity after the war.

In some ways an odd book, Papa Spy has been poorly edited, with many annoying repetitions and typos (even an Ian Flemming), and that it is written by a son about his father is almost incidental. The tone is deliberately formal, whether discussing Burns’s sexual adventures (in an anecdote not related here, Burns père once told his confessor, “I know what the church teaches, Father, but I do so like to roger”), or his political and religious beliefs. But Jimmy Burns has uncovered prodigious new material that brings to life British and Spanish high society, the day-to-day jostlings of wartime Madrid, and the complex, shifting allegiances of its secret underworld. Kim Philby believed that “Catholics had been given too great a role in influencing British policy towards Spain.” Tom Burns was foremost among them.


Related: The Tightrope, by John Wilkins

Published in the 2010-09-24 issue: 

Richard Cohen is the author of By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions (Modern Library) and Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life. His new book, How To Write like Tolstoy, is due out next May from Random House.

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