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The Ulster man who was both a real-life James Bond and Q

Leona O'Neill uncovers the astonishing life of Omagh-born spy and surveillance equipment inventor Harold 'Lee' Tracey, who was going to have a pauper's funeral until the RAF stepped in this week to honour him

Distinguished service: Harold ‘Lee’ Tracey drilling a hole in a wall to demonstrate listening devices in 1999
Distinguished service: Harold ‘Lee’ Tracey drilling a hole in a wall to demonstrate listening devices in 1999
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

When 93-year-old Harold 'Lee' Tracey died in the sleepy Shropshire town of Oswestry it was feared that he would receive a pauper's funeral.

For the Tyrone-born former RAF man had no next-of-kin to pay for funeral costs and had kept himself mostly isolated after the death of his beloved wife Maria in 2014.

For a time it seemed like Lee would go quietly into death alone, until the Shrewsbury RAF Association stepped in and gave him a full military funeral at the town's crematorium.

Last Tuesday young cadets from the 1165 Air Cadet squadron, members of the RAF associations and the Royal British Legion were among the 250 people who saluted the quiet, reserved former airman they never knew, as his coffin was carried to the crematorium.

Harold 'Lee' Tracey in his RAF days
Harold 'Lee' Tracey in his RAF days

Very few of them knew of the secret life he had once led. And, as an undercover operative, that is exactly the way he would have wanted it.

It was no wonder Lee kept few people close and let only a select few into his life, for he led the life of a spy that would rival that of James Bond and took many of his secrets with him when he died.

In death, as in life, he may have wanted to slip out undercover and unnoticed.

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For his long and mysterious life as a secretive MI6 operative working in the shadows saw him covertly sneak silently into hotel rooms to place listening devices behind paintings, use the cover of darkness to slip into embassies, and to plant bugs in diplomat's shoes, in everyday pens on politician's desks and in president's plants. For many years Lee stole secrets directly from the mouths of Britain's perceived enemies.

Lee was born in Omagh in 1926. When his father died five years later, his mother put both him and his sisters up for adoption and he grew up in an orphanage in Stony Stratford.

When he reached working age, he was employed by Kodak, joined the Air Training Corps and, aged 18, he was called up by the RAF at the height of the war to serve in intelligence and surveillance.

In 1947 he was recruited to MI6 where he worked as an agent and consultant, often working undercover, taking up jobs as a newspaper photographer and journalist in media outlets in the UK and Canada so he could carry out his work undetected.

He continued to work in the field of intelligence for the rest of his illustrious career.

In 1961 Lee was recruited by his ex-squadron leader to join the security forces which is where he met his future wife, the actress and singer Maria Wagg.

Hero’s send-off: Harold ‘Lee’ Tracey was given a fitting funeral organised by veterans and members of the RAF, Air Cadets and British Legion
Hero’s send-off: Harold ‘Lee’ Tracey was given a fitting funeral organised by veterans and members of the RAF, Air Cadets and British Legion

In the Seventies, while still working for MI6, it is believed Lee operated a series of companies that were actually ''covers'' for MI6, through which the agency was able to buy and sell equipment without attracting too much attention.

Allen International was a company that specialised in spy gadgets. It had an office and a showroom above a bedding shop in London and even at one stage supplied the type of gadgets invented by the character Q (inset right), for the James Bond movies.

In 1978, Lee founded Audiotel International, which took over the development and sales of his products. It was through this company that Lee invented and developed some of the surveillance equipment that is still being used by intelligence agencies today.

One of his inventions was the Scanlock Receiver, which was a product ahead of its time used to detect bugs. The first Scanlock was sold at a price of £940 and was announced in an article about boardroom electronic warfare in New Scientist of July 1975.

The Scanlock Mark 1 was followed by the Mark 2, Mark 3, Mark 4 and the next generation Scanlock Mark VB. It was an immediate hit and became popular in the UK and in continental Europe and is still used today.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Audiotel's managing director Dave Oakley said that the spirit of Lee is still very much alive in the company.

"Lee was our founder," he said. "Whilst working for the government he designed items such as the Staircase Receiver - the Scanlock - which uses clever maths and harmonics to compress the radio spectrum allowing operators to scan a huge radio spectrum in seconds. So basically it is a really unique and effective bug identifier."

Dave said that he wants to ensure that Lee's legacy lives on and is keen to pay tribute to him in the company's museum at its premises in Northamptonshire.

"I have been with the company for 23 years," he said.

"Although I didn't know Lee personally I am obviously very aware of his work.

"We did try to get hold of him for our 40th anniversary celebrations but we couldn't get in contact with him.

"But he is remembered here in the company, he is remembered on our website and is frequently talked about because of the products he invented.

Q in James Bond
Q in James Bond

"Lee's Scanlock Receiver is still an ongoing product," he said. "We are looking at releasing a new version of that later this year and somehow I will try to get his name involved. The Scanlock Tracey or the Lee Scanlock Receiver, we will try and do something to incorporate his name in there.

"I'm also trying to get hold of the people in charge of his will to see if there is anything we can buy for our museum. I would love to see his notes, his memoirs and his original designs to showcase them in our museum and really pay tribute to him."

In a 1999 Channel Four documentary, The Spying Game - The Walls Have Ears, Lee showcased how he would use silent drills to bore through hotel walls and spy on diplomats, and bug an ambassador's office using nothing but a pen.

"The pen bug was created for a specific purpose," he told the documentary makers. "This was so that you could visit someone and leave the pen and come back for it. Because what you were after was what was said in the minutes after you left. They had tiny little batteries which lasted only two or three hours so it was pointless to use as a general bugging device."

In another segment he explained and demonstrated how he would drill holes in doors and use lady's stockings to hide surveillance equipment.

"One of the best places to hide a 'drop device' was in door cavities," he said, "because you can get a whole stream of batteries in there with the bug and you give it a chance to last a few months or even a year.

"The trick is to drill down into the door to reach the hollow part inside, place your string of batteries in a lady's stocking and feed them all into the cavity. I would use a cork with a microphone attached to secure it all into the hole.

"A final touch would be to place some dust - I would always bring a small container of it with me - over your work with a make-up brush.

"So when someone comes along to check, runs their finger over the door, then they think it has never been disturbed and is therefore fine. They are usually too lazy to get up and take a proper look."

Lee was with his company Audiotel until the mid-80s when he left to pursue other business ventures.

He continued to work as a freelance engineer, often in the field of surveillance, for a number of customers including the West Midlands Police, PAR Ltd and Pixel Power Camera Limited.

In 2013, way past his retirement age, Lee was still developing gadgets and other electronic devices, such as a bodycam for police officers.

Lee's inventions, many of which are top secret, still classified and therefore cannot be talked about, are still used in the world of surveillance and counter-intelligence today.

His company Audiotel remains to this day a market leader in surveillance equipment.

On Monday, strangers gathered to say a final farewell to a man who has taken many of his country's secrets to the grave.

Following his wife Maria's death in 2014, Lee became isolated and lonely until the RAF Association stepped in to provide support. He was introduced to volunteer befriender Nick Nicholson, who visited him regularly to offer companionship. At his funeral on Monday, Nick paid a special tribute to the stranger who had become his friend.

"He had an incredible life in intelligence for the RAF and out of the RAF," he said.

"There are stories he told me that I could never retell. Lee was a wonderful, highly intelligent gentleman whom I will miss tremendously. I'm so pleased that we were able to give him this send-off.

"Whilst giving the eulogy I looked up, and it was then that a tear came to my eye when I saw the number of people who had made the effort for Lee."

Standard bearers from local RAF associations, the Royal British Legion and the 1165 Air Cadet squadron walked in front of the hearse containing his coffin, draped in a Union flag.

A guard of honour was provided by cadets from the RAF 60 Squadron at RAF Shawbury.

In attendance was Cadet Sergeant Nell Hayward, who also had fond memories of Lee.

"He would tell us about his time in the RAF and would set us decoding challenges, which were so difficult to work out. One day he even brought in special keys that had tiny cameras in and gave us one each."

Monday's service, led by Rev ing Commander Alastair Bissell, featured hymns and a reading, and ended with the Last Post played by RAF buglers. Stan Wilkinson, a bugler from the Rifles and Buglers Association, said Lee 'served his country well'.

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