In a quiet street on the outskirts of Ostrava in Communist Czechoslovakia, a British secret agent carefully unearths a package containing highly classified documents.
Working with practised ease, he replaces it with cash, which he puts in a food tin, along with instructions for his contact, and buries it in the pre-arranged spot. It is just after 7pm on December 13, 1951, and he is conducting what should be a routine ‘dead drop’.
But then, from the shadows, armed soldiers appear. Did they stumble across him by chance – or, more likely, was the mission compromised?
The BBC correspondent Frank Gardner’s father served as an MI6 spy during the Cold War
Slipping the documents inside his coat, the MI6 man, 29-year-old Robert Gardner, ignores the soldiers’ repeated warnings and makes a dash for his car where his female assistant, Daphne Maines, 26, waits shivering at the wheel, engine running.
They speed off through a series of roadblocks but a spray of gunfire brings the car to an abrupt halt and a bullet lodges in Daphne’s upper thigh. The intelligence officer is unscathed, save for wounded pride and a bruised forehead.
Later there are howls of outrage from Czech officials, who announce the couple were caught ‘red-handed’ in an ‘act of espionage’ and give Gardner 24 hours to leave the country. The incident made headlines around the world and would not have escaped the notice of Ian Fleming, who began writing his first James Bond novel three weeks later, or, for that matter, a young John Le Carré, then an intelligence officer in neighbouring Austria.
Robert Gardner’s assistant Daphne Maines was wounded during one incident
And though he would only learn of it many years later, the story has long been of interest to the BBC’s much-admired security correspondent, Frank Gardner. For The Mail on Sunday can reveal that Robert Gardner was none other than Frank’s father, operating under the cover of Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Prague.
Frank, who has written two spy thriller novels about an MI6 operative and is one of the country’s most recognisable and distinguished journalists, has never spoken of the incident or his father’s past. Even when Frank appeared on the BBC genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2015 it was never mentioned. But now, 68 years on, Daphne’s daughter, Fiona Macleod, has been in touch with Frank to compare notes about the Ostrava episode.
Frank, left paralysed after Al Qaeda terrorists shot him in Saudi Arabia in 2004, asked: ‘Do you think your mother forgave my father? It would put my mind at rest.’
From what Fiona says of her mother, she would not have blamed him in the least. Accompanying a dashing spy on secret missions was all rather thrilling for Daphne, though her family believe she would have balked at being called a prototype Bond girl.
When she wasn’t helping Robert, she was personal assistant to the British Ambassador.
Robert Gardner carried out a number of missions as part of his clandestine role
In her letters home from the time, Daphne alludes to other missions with Gardner and important meetings, and describes a whirl of embassy cocktail parties, imploring her mother to send ‘silk stockings’ and ‘linen gloves’.
When her children were young, Daphne – who later married a GCHQ codebreaker – made light of her ill-fated mission, joking that she received the bullet wound on a tiger shoot in India.
Even when they were older and she could no longer conceal the whole truth, she remained circumspect about the details, though she conceded there had been ‘a chase’ adding: ‘They thought I was a spy, you know.’ Fiona, a consultant microbiologist, believes her mother was used as cover by Robert. ‘It was easier for them to be seen as a couple rather than him being out on his own,’ she says. ‘I did sometimes wonder whether she too was a spy or whether they were having a relationship. But I think they were simply professionals doing a job.’
Three years before the shooting, Soviet control in the East had hardened when, with Moscow backing, the Czech Communist Party seized power, spurring Britain to intensify its intelligence-gathering operation in the region.
Against this background, Robert Gardner was posted to Prague in the spring of 1951, and assiduously cultivated a network of informants, who were apparently rounded up after he was caught in Ostrava.
Once the embarrassment passed, the incident might have proved an entertaining anecdote for future years but for a distressing postscript that weighed heavily on both Robert and Daphne.
In February 1953, the Czech authorities announced nine ‘spies’ had been put on trial in Ostrava. All were said to have worked under Gardner’s direction, though the court proceedings were secret.
Days later Prague Radio reported that two of the ‘traitors and spies in the service of British Intelligence’ had been found guilty of ‘high treason’ and espionage and sentenced to death. Two others were jailed for life and the others got sentences of between 12 and 25 years.
The two men facing execution were Bohumir Micek and Josef Kohout. According to state radio, Micek told the court he had close links with the Gestapo when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia during the war.
Micek added that he was asked to set up a spy network in Ostrava and to supply economic, military and political information. He said he managed to procure material on Ostrava’s heavy industry and the Czech security services.
Kohout meanwhile said he was trained at an espionage training centre ‘under the command of a British officer’. The court heard he ‘returned to Czechoslovakia as an agent of British Intelligence but was arrested before he was able to send his first report’.
Another recruit, Stanislav Ptacek, gathered information on a Bratislava munitions factory while Stanislav Pejsek, a doctor, was claimed to have ‘betrayed both his country and his calling’ though it was not specified how. Prosecutor Vladimir Benes told the court that among the British aims in sending agents to the Ostrava region was to secure intelligence on targets to be bombed in a future war.
Of the Ostrava incident itself, it was reported that Gardner placed 40,000 Czech crowns in bank notes – the equivalent of £9,000 in today’s money – at the dead drop.
Prague Radio said that when he was searched ‘it was found that the package which he had dug up and put in his pocket contained the originals of secret documents of importance to the security of the Czech Republic’.
It added that some of the material was dated three days earlier. ‘As the circumstances indicated, far-reaching, thoroughly organised and executed espionage activities were being carried out.’
Arriving back at Heathrow, Gardner was pictured with a plaster over his forehead and the left side of his face was ‘scarred as if by splintered glass’.
Speaking to waiting reporters he said: ‘I think I want a night’s sleep. I cannot in my official position say anything.’
Of his later career, little is known beyond diplomatic posting to The Hague and Singapore. He married in 1958.
Daphne, meanwhile, remained in hospital for ten days after the shooting, had two operations to remove the bullet and was interrogated for 36 hours.
‘She had a guard outside her room in hospital and she couldn’t go to the toilet without the guard present,’ said Fiona. ‘She would have to leave the door open in case she supposedly flushed secret documents away.
‘When she started the Prague job she stayed in digs with a family called Hoch. It was a huge house with maids and my mother and a colleague lived in a self-contained flat within it. Mother believed her maid was going through her things and obviously the maid could have been a Czech spy. For whatever reason mother later moved into a cottage in the grounds of the embassy.’
She added: ‘Outside work she led the high life. It seems to have been one long round of cocktail parties. After being discharged from hospital she was given 24 hours to leave. Eventually she was driven out through East Germany, but even that wasn’t without incident because the car crashed on ice.
‘Back in England there were all these reporters on the doorstep wanting an interview, but of course she wasn’t allowed to say anything.
‘Even her family didn’t know what she was doing. She always said she was just a secretary.’
The shooting happened just before Daphne’s year-long posting was due to end. Fiona added: ‘My mother and Robert Gardner certainly did a lot of driving around together in Czechoslovakia. In her letters she would mention “going out for a run” with Neil – she always used Robert’s middle name. No embassy girl would go out jogging – this referred to trips away in his car.
‘But she told me she was never encouraged to ask questions.’
In one letter home, dated July 30, 1951, Daphne writes: ‘Tomorrow evening it’s the square dancing but I don’t know if I’ll have time to go because Neil is coming for breakfast at 6am.’
Born in Timperley near Altrincham in 1925, the eldest of two daughters, Daphne was clever, fluent in French, and described as ‘highly resilient’.
After first working for the Treasury she was a secretary at the British High Commission in Delhi before being posted to Prague. After the Ostrava affair she was posted to Washington and in 1954 met and fell in love with her future husband, the GCHQ codebreaker Norman Macleod, who was then working with America’s fledgling National Security Agency.
They married the following year and settled in Cheltenham. In later life, Daphne taught Pitman’s shorthand and typing. She died in 2008 aged 83. Robert Gardner died two years later. His Times obituary detailed his achievements as musician and composer.
Fiona added: ‘She hated fuss but would secretly have loved all this attention, because in married life it was all about Dad and how he was a maths genius and a codebreaker. She was not someone who liked outward shows of emotion. My sister and I had no doubt we were loved, but at home she was very strict and proper with strict protocols. You always had to use a butter knife and have tea from bone china cups – that kind of thing.’
Last week, Frank Gardner politely declined to discuss his father’s secret career.
In an interview with The Mail on Sunday two years ago, he revealed that as a young man he was approached by MI6 and passed the initial vetting exam.
He decided against spying after the interviewer said he would not be able to claim any public credit for successes. ‘I am far too vain,’ he said. ‘I still get people who think I am a spy or a mouthpiece for MI6, but that’s ridiculous. I live my life in the open.’
headline news: The Daily Mail’s front page report of the incident in 1951
UNDER COVER: Spy Robert Gardner, top, with injured face after the incident and, above, BBC man Frank. Left: Daphne Maines in Prague in 1952
It’s the gripping tale Frank Gardner’s never told – and it ended with two of his dad’s informants executed and his glamorous assistant shot in the thigh
This would not have escaped the notice of 007 author Ian Fleming