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Oldfield, Sir Maurice (1915–1981), intelligence officer, was born on 16 November 1915 in the village of Over Haddon, near Bakewell, Derbyshire, the eldest of eleven children of Joseph Oldfield, tenant farmer, and his wife, Ada Annie Dicken. He was educated at Lady Manners School in Bakewell, where he learned to play the organ and began his lifelong devotion to the Anglican church. In 1934 he won a scholarship to Manchester University and specialized in medieval history. After the award of the Thomas Brown memorial prize, in 1938 he graduated with first class honours in history and was elected to a fellowship. The war upset his plans for an academic career.

After joining the intelligence corps, Oldfield's service was spent mostly at the Cairo headquarters of SIME (security intelligence Middle East) where his talent was spotted by Brigadier Douglas Roberts. Oldfield finished the war as a lieutenant-colonel with an MBE (1946). When Roberts joined the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), whose head was traditionally known as ‘C’, at the end of 1946 as head of counter-intelligence, Oldfield became his deputy from 1947 (until 1949). There followed two postings to Singapore from 1950 to 1952 and from 1956 to 1958, first as deputy and later as head of SIS's regional headquarters covering south-east Asia and the Far East. It was here that he established himself as a flyer. In 1956 he was appointed CBE. Throughout his life he never lost interest in the family farm and kept up his organ playing and regular attendance in church, both at home and abroad.

Following a short spell in London from 1958 to 1959, Oldfield was selected for the key post of SIS representative in Washington, where he remained for the next four years, with the main task of cultivating good relations with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1964 he was appointed CMG. His close ties with James Angleton, the head of the CIA's counter-intelligence branch, were reinforced by their shared interest in medieval history. But Angleton also persuaded Oldfield to swallow the outpourings of the KGB defector, Anatoly Golitsyn, who was claiming, inter permulta alia, that the Sino-Soviet conflict and President Tito of Yugoslavia's breach with Moscow were clear cases of Soviet disinformation. Soon after leaving Washington, Oldfield withdrew his belief in most of Golitsyn's fairy stories. If, however, he confessed his errors when on his knees, there was, understandably, no overt explanation of how someone of his calibre had been led up the garden path.

On his return to London, Oldfield became director of counter-intelligence and in 1965 C's deputy. He therefore had reason to feel aggrieved when he was passed over in 1968 in favour of Sir John Rennie from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whom he later succeeded as C in 1973. This made Oldfield the first member of the post-war intake to reach the top post. Under his leadership, SIS benefited from the good relations he cultivated with both Conservative and Labour ministers at home and from its improved standing with friendly foreign intelligence services with which he kept in personal touch. Oldfield was appointed KCMG in 1975 and GCMG on his retirement in 1978: the only C so far to have received this award. He was also the first to cultivate chosen journalists at meetings in the Athenaeum. This led to the smile on his pudgy face behind horn-rimmed glasses appearing in the press.

All Souls made Oldfield a visiting fellow in 1978, where he began a study of Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming, the first C, but soon lost interest in it through lack of material. He therefore welcomed Margaret Thatcher's proposal in October 1979 to appoint him co-ordinator of security intelligence in Northern Ireland. In Belfast he did his best to improve relations between the chief constable and the new general officer commanding, but the strains of office soon told on him. It was not only incipient cancer, but also alleged evidence on his unprofessional contacts that caused his return to London in June 1980. Subsequent interrogation resulted in the withdrawal of his positive vetting certificate, after he confessed he had lied to cover up his homosexuality. There is, however, no evidence that his private life had prejudiced the security of his work at any stage in his career. He died, unmarried, in London on 11 March 1981.

Nigel Clive, rev.

Sources  

The Times (12 March 1981) · R. Deacon, ‘C’: a biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield (1984) · personal knowledge (1990) · private information (1990) · WWW · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1981)

Wealth at death  

£113,300: probate, 15 April 1981, CGPLA Eng. & Wales