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Sir John Cecil Masterman (January 12, 1891 – June 6, 1977) was a noted academic, sportsman and author. However, he was best known as chairman of the Twenty Committee, which during World War II ran the Double Cross System, the ingenious scheme that controlled double agents in Britainmarker.

Academic background

Masterman was educated at the Royal Naval Colleges of Osborne and Dartmouthmarker, at Worcester Collegemarker, Oxfordmarker, where he read Modern History. He studied at the University of Freiburg where he also was an exchange lecturer in 1914, and that was where he was when World War I broke out. As a result he was interned as an enemy alien for four years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Ruhleben. Although this would have been galling to a naturally competitive young man as Masterman, he took the opportunity to further polish his German.

After his return from captivity, Masterman became tutor of Modern History in Christ Church, Oxfordmarker, where he was also censor (1920–26). In the 1920s he became a noted player of cricket, tennis and field hockey, participating in international competitions, and in 1931 he toured Canadamarker with the Marylebone Cricket Club; he was acknowledged as a master gamesman in Stephen Potter's book Gamesmanship.

After the war he returned to Oxford, becoming Provost of Worcester College (1946–61) and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Universitymarker from 1957 to 1958. He was also knighted for his services in 1959.

Two Oxford mysteries

An Oxford Tragedy

In 1933, he wrote a murder mystery novel entitled An Oxford Tragedy, set in the fictional Oxford college of St. Thomas. It was written in the point of view of Oxford don named Francis Wheatley Winn, who was Senior Tutor at St. Thomas'. He served as Watson to the novel's Sherlock Holmes, an amateur sleuth named Ernest Brendel, a Viennesemarker lawyer "of European reputation".

He was giving a series of lectures to the Law Faculty, as he had a good reputation as a detective with the quality of "a man to whom secrets will be confided". When an unpopular tutor was found shot in the Dean's rooms, he took it upon himself to solve the crime. He of course solved the case, and the murderer thus exposed committed suicide.

The novel itself was quite unusual for its time in providing an account of how murder affects the tranquil existence of Oxford dons. While it was a variation of the old theme of evil deeds done in a tranquil setting, it did establish the tradition of Oxford-based crime fiction, notably in the works of Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin.

The Case of the Four Friends

Considering the acclaim that An Oxford Tragedy had garnered, Masterman did not publish a follow-up until 1957. The novel, again starring Ernest Brendel, was called The Case of the Four Friends, which is "a diversion in pre-detection".

In the novel, Brendel is persuaded by a group of friends to relate a story of how he "pre-constructed" a crime, rather than reconstructing it as in the conventional manner. As he says, "To work out the crime before it is committed, to foresee how it will be arranged, and then to prevent it! That's a triumph indeed, and is worth more than all the convictions in the world".

His tale then was about four men, each of them either a potential victim or potential murderer. The pacing of the story is quite slow and the narrative is interrupted from time to time by discussion between Brendel and his listeners. Even so, the novel maintains its interest on the reader throughout, partly because of the originality of its approach.

Regrettably, this novel was the last of his crime stories and he would no more works of fiction. However, his best known work was still to come, and it would involve his wartime experiences as part of the Twenty Committee.

The Twenty Committee

When World War II broke out, Masterman was drafted to become the chairman of the Twenty Committee, which was a group of Britishmarker intelligence officials, including wartime amateurs, who held the key to the Double Cross System, which turned Germanmarker spies into double agents working for the British. Its name was a pun based on the Roman numeral XX and its double-cross purpose.

Strictly speaking, the Committee was responsible for providing information for the agents to be transmitted to the Abwehr and other German intelligence agencies, deceiving them of Allied intentions and war plans. It was Section B1(a) of MI5marker, established by Lt. Col. T.A. Robertson, who had the task of finding, turning and handling the agents themselves.

(Although Masterman ran the system, he credited Dick White of MI5 with originating the idea.)


Information about the double-cross system remained secret after the war. In 1961 Masterman began pressing the British intelligence establishment for permission to publish a book about it. Roger Hollis, the head of MI5 at that time, refused to authorize publication, as did Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home.

However, Masterman was not to be deterred. Revelations on the Cambridge Spy Ring in the 1960s resulted in low morale throughout the intelligence community, and Masterman felt that the publication of a book about the double-cross system would restore public confidence. He pressed his suit once again on the matter.

In April 1970, when the government again refused, he decided to have it published in the United Statesmarker, where he felt he would be out of reach of the Official Secrets Act. He was aided by Norman Holmes Pearson, a member of the Yale Universitymarker faculty, who nominated Yale University Press as publisher. Pearson was more than happy to help Masterman because he also served in the Twenty Committee (though not a member) as the wartime head of the counterintelligence division of the Office of Strategic Services. Yale had contributed many scholars and students to the OSS, and Chester B. Kerr, director of the press, saw the importance of the book historically and commercially.

For a time British authorities threatened Masterman with legal action, but in the end bowed to the inevitable and allowed publication, with the proviso that sixty passages in the manuscript be deleted. Kerr would only acquiesce to a dozen. The book, The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939–45, was finally published in February 1972, with a foreword by Pearson, who guardingly did not refer to his work in the Committee. Masterman himself wrote the book without revealing anything about ULTRA, still highly secret, that greatly aided the double-cross system. The ban on ULTRA would be lifted in 1974.

Published works by J.C. Masterman

  • An Oxford Tragedy, 1933 (mystery)
  • Fate Cannot Harm Me, 1935
  • Marshal Ney: A Play in Five Acts, 1937
  • To Teach the Senators Wisdom, or, An Oxford Guide-Book, 1952
  • The Case of the Four Friends, 1957
  • The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945, Yale, 1972 (printed privately in 1945)

See also

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