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George Smith

Published 1st November 2021

During an extraordinary career, Detective Chief Inspector George Smith worked in Counter Terrorism and was a fully-operational MI5 officer. Now retired, the Horsham resident uses his experiences in the police force to write books in aid of a charity close to his heart. Here, in his own words, George describes his journey...

I joined the police as a cadet in Brighton Borough when I was 17. For two years, I went to college and trained internally too, with stints at social services and the probation service. I loved being a cadet, especially sailing at the Moray Sea School with the Outward Bound Trust, which I still support to this day.

I was fortunate to become the youngest detective in Sussex. I joined the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) as a Temporary Detective Constable (TDC) and at 23 was a fully-fledged DC. Four years later, I was a Detective Sergeant (DS), working in Shoreham before joining the Fraud Squad. At 32, I was promoted to Detective Inspector (DI) with the grand title of Director of Detective Training Headquarters.

I introduced the HOLMES system to Sussex Police. In the 1970s and early 80s, police forces across the UK had different ways of running murder investigations and there was a lack of communication. This was exposed during the Yorkshire Ripper case, when Peter Sutcliffe was interviewed by several forces but the information wasn’t shared. As a result, the Home Office created HOLMES (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System). The idea was that a DC in Sussex could walk into an incident room 300 miles away and know how everything works. The system proved to be very successful, but I did face resistance when setting up the training programme. There were old sweats in the force who’d been running major investigations for years and didn’t like being told that things had to change.

I was involved in the interrogation of Alfredo Astiz, an Argentinian commander who started the Falklands conflict by raiding South Georgia. They got the impression the British weren’t interested so raided the Falklands and then Margaret Thatcher sent in a task force. Astiz was arrested by the SAS and brought back to this UK by boat, which gave the government time to think.

Astiz was a senior officer at the Naval Mechanical School (known as ESMA), the base for torture and interrogation in Argentina. They did terrible things. ESMA would take prisoners bound hand and foot up in a plane and if they didn’t talk, would push them out and ask the next person. Sweden and France wanted to interview Astiz about the disappearance of a Swedish student and two French nuns who were all held captive by ESMA and never seen alive again. It was a delicate political situation and the UK government decided not to hand the prisoner over, but still wanted to be helpful. They didn’t want the Army or Intelligence services involved, so decided that Astiz should be interviewed by a police officer. As I was Director of Detective Training, I was deemed knowledgeable in rules and procedures and got the call.  

We went to a military facility in Chichester, where they built a secure unit consisting of a lounge, bedroom and a kitchen. Various newspapers were put in the room and we watched Astiz through two-way mirrors to confirm he understood English. During the interview, we asked only the questions given to us by France and Sweden. There was nothing about the Falklands conflict. We didn’t deviate, smile or ask additional questions. He refused to answer any of our questions, quoting the Geneva Convention.

He was a good-looking man who had the nickname the “blonde angel of death”. I had no doubt he was evil, but we had no choice but to hand him back to Argentina. It was all a political game.

Four years ago, I was called by a director making a BBC documentary about the case. They wanted me to take part, but I said “no” as the information was sensitive. I was surprised he had my 78-page interrogation statement in front of him. It had been made available under the Freedom of Information Act, so I took part in the documentary.

I became Detective Inspector (DI) at Shoreham. The most famous case I was involved with there was the Light House Club murders. A 19-year-old called Paul Teed travelled home from up north and, apparently, found his father, step-mother and half-brother dead at the night club. I can still picture the scene of devastation. I interviewed Teed along with a very good sergeant. We didn’t believe his story. We arrested him on suspicion of the murders, which weighed heavy on my mind. I remember going to bed at 4am and thinking, “this boy has found three of his family murdered and what sympathy have I shown him? I've arrested him!” 

Another senior officer thought the murders were gang-related, so I needed more evidence to charge Teed. There was a warrant for his arrest in Bradford, on a lesser charge, so with my Sergeant, I drove Teed to Yorkshire. I don’t smoke, yet stopped at every service station and smoked with Teed like we were old mates. He’d been released from our murder investigation so wasn’t handcuffed, but we chatted about the case and he finally admitted he’d been responsible. He actually cried on my lap as he confessed. He signed a statement and although pleaded not guilty in court, was found guilty of the murders.  After serving 23 years, he’s now a free man, having publicly admitted his guilt. 

The famous crime writer Peter James spent two days with me at Brighton CID. He penned the DI Roy Grace series, which are mostly based in Sussex. He also co-wrote another book, Death Comes Knocking, which is based on true crimes. There’s a chapter on the Light House Club murders and it’s a bit embarrassing as he describes me as being “the Grace of his time. Quiet, intelligent and ruthlessly professional.” 

At 37, I made Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) and was Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) on many murder investigations. Three years later I was recruited by MI5, becoming the first serving police officer to be an operational MI5 officer. The Home Secretary gave special dispensation to suspend my police rank. As a police officer, you have a duty to respond to a crime being committed, whether on or off duty. With the security services, the objective is often to observe and gain information. By suspending my police rank, I wasn’t legally obliged to intervene when confronted with crime. 

I worked in counter espionage and although it’s natural to think of James Bond, my experience was nothing like that. It is strange working with a secret identity though! One of the more unusual incidents was meeting a KGB defector, alongside agents from the CIA and FBI. The Russians often like English customs, so we actually went to a country pub. From experience, I know it’s best to stay sober on operations, so I would subtly pour away my pint in the gents toilets. The Russian drank a lot and was singing along to the jukebox. He was still singing as we left the pub and a police car slowed down to check us out. It didn’t stop, which is a relief as it would have been difficult to explain!

Later, I was involved with Counter Terrorism Command in the UK and Ireland. One incident I particularly recall involved pedal cycle bombs. Although I was Head of Brighton CID, I was Duty Command that Sunday in August 1994. We had a tip-off that two IRA bombs had been planted; one on Brighton Pier and one in Bognor. We cleared the pier but hundreds of people were milling around the entrance. We then received word that the bomb in Bognor had gone off in the saddlebag and an officer noticed a bike chained to a lamppost by the pier, amongst the crowd. We got everyone away and the bomb disposal team defused it. Luck was on our side that day. Had it detonated, many people would have died and I’d still be answering questions about it now.

I rarely discussed my job with my wife, Jill. She used to joke that she only knew what I did by reading the news. For me, the most important thing has always been my front door key. I didn’t bring work home. Of course, there are things that affect you. I remember dealing with a tragic case of cot death and for a long time after would check on our young children as they slept. Being a parent changes you. I remember attending a post mortem of a little girl and seeing the pathologist gently place her Teddy on a nearby shelf: as if watching over her. I still feel emotional talking about it.

There used to be a social club at Brighton Police Station with a decent restaurant. After a difficult case, it was a place the team could meet and talk. Unfortunately, there are no social clubs anymore and, in my view, the force is poorer for it. Yes, we have counselling services, but talking with colleagues in a social setting helped a lot. When I retired in 2010, I wanted a new adventure.

As a boy, I spent two amazing summers exploring Ramsay Island in Pembrokeshire. Ever since, I’ve dreamed of owning an island. I looked into the possibility of buying a Scottish island, but it wasn’t feasible. Instead, I bought 22 acres of Sussex woodland and became a nature anorak, taking a woodland management course, an off-road driving course in my Land Rover, and becoming a Trustee of the National Woodland Owners’ Association.

My late mother asked if I’d speak to her Women’s Institute group and I agreed. For the first time, I looked back at my career and it dawned on me how little my family knew of my life in the police force. That triggered the idea of writing a book. I’d always thought it impossible, as much of what I’d done was classified information. But Dame Stella Rimington, former Director General of MI5, had become a successful author without breaking the Official Secrets Act. So perhaps it was possible. 

My first book, A Secret Existence, tells the story of Ben Swan, a young DCI working in Counter Terrorism in Ireland before he’s recruited by MI5. In many respects, I was adapting my notes into a work of fiction, so it is inspired by real events. I enjoyed writing it, but when a completed copy arrived from the publisher, I felt like hiding behind the sofa! There’s a sense of embarrassment in putting your story out there for judgement. 

I’ve now written a sequel – Killers, Assassins & Spies. All royalties from both books are being donated to St Catherine’s Hospice in Crawley. The charity is currently supporting my daughter, who has terminal cancer. She’s an amazing lady. From the outset of her illness she would say to family and friends: “My cancer is the least interesting thing about me. Visit me for coffee. Talk about holiday and children. Not my cancer!” I hope people will find my books enjoyable, but more importantly, in buying a copy you will be helping a very worthy charity.



A Secret Existence and Killers Assassins & Spies by George A. Smith can be purchased from Amazon Books. For more about St Catherine’s Hospice visit www.stch.org.uk