Rogério de Menezes: a spy in the Portuguese Embassy


1943. a young pale man arrived at London. In a few days time he should be seated at his desk in the Portuguese Embassy, working as a typist. A modest job but a sensitive place it was. Portugal and the United Kingdom were engaged then in hard and most secret negotiation concerning the Azores facilities. The Axis secret service in Portugal knew it quite extensively and by that reason this young fellow was recruited in Lisbon as a spy. Cautious, the young man was suspicious about his surroundings. But what he ignored was that London, due to the interception and decoding of German radio traffic, knew from the very beginning his story and the dubious nature of his character.
Rogério de Menezes was a typical middle class son of a colonial civil servant. But he was a sad and lonely person. Orphan, he did not reach a degree in Law, as he was supposed to do. So in these hard times of the War a job in the Foreign Office in Lisbon was an excellent opportunity and a vacant place in the London Embassy something he intended to fight for. The opportunity emerged and he applied for the nomination. Washington was his preference, but he was exultant when he knew that the Minister intended to send him to London.
This high spirits were the cause of his misfortune.
During his nights, while playing billiard with former colleagues from the high school Menezes had usually some stories to tell and mostly news from the foreign press not known by the common people. As he worked in the press department of the Ministry, typing the press bulletin, under the direction of the writer Joaquim Paço de Arcos, he was aware of political and military events that the State Censorship forbade from being read in the country.
And it was in the smoky and relaxed ambiance of the Café Portugal, that between gossips, he said he should be in the London’s Embassy in a couple of weeks.
Menezes ignored but the friend he was chatting with was an informant of the Sicherheitdienst, the Nazi Party Intelligence Service. So a bell rang in this Axis secret service, for a new recruit was to be cultivated.
To make short a long story, Menezes accepted to work for the Germans and also for the Italians.
When he arrived at London he was carrying in his suitcase a bottle containing invisible ink he was instructed to work with before leaving Lisbon. With this tool he was supposed to write to his contacts in Portugal, sending letters hidden in the envelopes where letters for his sister were sent. Francisco Mendes and Manuel Castro were respectively the cover names he should write to as the information was for the Germans or for the Italians.
But British MI5 was after him. Charles Bingham, the father of the well known romance novels author, Charlotte Bingham was shadowing this Portuguese diplomatic clerk.
The first reports focusing his activities noticed that he was very fond on women, so some girls, acting for The Firm, were sent in order to entertain him and to fish any bit of information about what he was doing in his spare time.
But MI5 had a most secret way to trace his movements as an Axis spy. A letter from him was finally obtained by this method and in short Armindo Monteiro, the Portuguese Ambassador was embarrassed by the British Minister about this regrettable situation: an Axis mole was deeply infiltrated in his Legation.
This is the known part of the story. Working in the Public Record Office in Kew Gardens, and in the Portuguese Archives I reached some interesting conclusions about the case and wrote his biography.
First, Menezes recruitment was noticed by Bletchley Park code-breakers, able to break Enigma cipher machine and read the ISOS messages sent by the German station in Lisbon to Berlin about this new agent.
Second, the violation of the Portuguese diplomatic bag was a result of a systematic operation codenamed «Triplex», involving, among others, Anthony Blunt, one of the «ring of the five», the infamous Cambridge soviet penetration in the British intelligence community.
Third, London knew form the very beginning the modest danger that Menezes signified to the security of the nation, for most of this letters merely contained very well known facts that every man in the street was aware about.
Fourth, the rare exceptions to this were some data that were insistently passed to him by agents posing as «provocateurs» acting on behalf of the British Secret Service.
Fifth, London intended to use Menezes case as a «hard bargaining» tool towards Salazar, Portuguese Prime Minister, in order to force him down to counter act against the freedom of movements of the Axis agents in Portugal.
So the result of this puzzle was an amazing and extraordinary story. I wrote a book about it.
He is dead now, but his case is following me, each time I continue my research for further books about WW2 foreign intelligence networks in Portugal.
Meanwhile Guy Lidell Diaries was published». As I was reading the book, a remembrance about the original of the diaries I had consulted in London came to my mind. Lidell had been MI5 director of the counter-espionage during WW2 and he was quite well informed about this Portuguese incident. So what he tells is the truth without any masks.
Menezes was a minor spy. Harold Russell («Kim») Philby told that in his Moscow’s written biography, «My Silent War». But he was sentenced in the Old Bailey Criminal Court with the death penalty, later pardoned by the King, George the 6th.
Being a lawyer, I was impressed by this injustice of a minor young offender being submitted to such a harsh sentence.
As soon as Salazar expelled some German agents is Lisbon, Menezes sentence was commuted.
In 1945, «Times» of London newspaper issued a report about a statement made in the House of the Commons by His Majesty’s Government concerning foreign spies executed during the war. Menezes was in the list. When I met his grave this summer in Castelo Branco, I was paying my tribute to the man who died twice.
Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Stephens considered Menezes’ case as «one of the major triumphs of MI5 and Camp 020». «Kim» Philby called Menezes a «petty fish». This is the drama of the The Great Game: no one accepts defeats, everybody is always a winner.