5 November 1925: Britain’s real-life James Bond is killed

The new Bond film, Spectre, starring tough guy Daniel Craig as 007 is not short on action. A stadium gets blown up, a bunch of baddies get what’s coming to them, beautiful women go weak at the knees… You can probably guess the rest if you haven’t already seen it. But for all that, author and 007 creator Ian Fleming never forgot who the real hero was. “James Bond is just a piece of nonsense I dreamed up”, he once said. “He’s not a Sidney Reilly, you know!”

To this day, Sidney Reilly, dubbed the Ace of Spies, remains an enigma. That’s just how he would have liked it. He invented so many aliases, and so many different disguises, that the truth of who Reilly really was is shrouded in mystery. We do know, however, that his name wasn’t Sidney Reilly. It was Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum.

Rosenblum had been born in 1874 in what is today Odessa in Ukraine, but was then in southern Russia. He had, as Giles Milton notes in Russian Roulette, an “emotional hated of Bolshevism”. That was partly down to his being “a social and intellectual snob”. He hated the fact that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had done away with the Russian elite. Reilly would do anything to bring down the Bolsheviks. And he very nearly did.

The newly created British Secret Service Bureau that Reilly joined in 1918 was still finding its feet. But it was aware that in signing up Reilly, it was taking a risk. It was said that Reilly had amassed a $2m fortune selling weapons to the Russians during the First World War. Reilly was known to be talented and ambitious, if not unscrupulous and ruthless. He was also a gambler, a bon viveur and had a fondness for women.

Taking a chance, the Secret Service sent Reilly to Russia under the cover of being a diamond trader. The government kitted him out with 16 large diamonds and £50,000 in today’s money. Reilly also asked for £1m to fund the Russian opposition, but that was too great a sum for a war-ravaged country. His other disguises included a Levantine merchant, a Baltic merchant, and a Greek businessman named Mr Constantine.

Reilly sent back a wealth of information to London, and even went against orders to set up an audacious plot to kidnap one Vladimir Ilyich Lenin – the head of the Bolsheviks. The plot was uncovered by the secret police, the Cheka, and Reilly only just made it back to Britain alive. At one point, he had even posed as a Cheka agent searching for himself! But back in Russia, he was sentenced to death.

Without the consent of the Secret Service, Reilly was “lured” back to Russia in 1925 in the hope of making contact with the leader of the counter-revolutionaries, Boris Savinkov. It was a trap. Savinkov was already dead, and Reilly was captured. He was shot on 5 November, 90 years ago, near Moscow. But his legacy would one day help to foster the creation of Britain’s most dashing big screen hero: Bond. James Bond.

Also on this day

5 November 1688: Dutch army deposes England’s king in the ‘Glorious Revolution’

On this day in 1688, William of Orange  landed in Devon with a Dutch army to kick off the Glorious Revolution,  and depose King James II. Read more here.