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Once Navy - Always Navy

New Blue Plaque has been unveiled in Torquay to honour a WWII secret service hero 

Commander Philip Leslie Johns RN, who played a prominent role in both the SOE and SIS (Later MI6)  against Nazism in WW2.


He was born 18 Jan 1900 in Exeter and lived at Ebrington Terrace, St Thomas. His parents were Philip Charles (clerk and later a director in Tremletts Tannery at Exeter) and Mary Mabel Johns. Philip, known in the Coldridge family as Leslie, had joined the Royal Navy on 17 July 1917 aged 17 and at his own request would retire as a Paymaster Lieutenant in 1922. In 1923 at St Jude’s church, Kensington, he married Amelia (known as Millie) Sarah Coldridge of Teignmouth. After only 5 years of marriage they separated in 1928 and later were divorced in 1931. Later he married Canadian born Dorothy Elliott in Paris and they had two children Angela and Michael both born in Torquay. 5 years after Dorothy’s death in 1962 Philip would marry again, to Sussex born Veronica Anderson in San Francisco, and she died in Alicante, Spain in 1976. He died on 9 Mar 1993 in Hillsborough, Florida, USA.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE), in which Philip was to play a significant covert role, had been formed in mid-1940, a secret organisation concerned with espionage, sabotage, etc. in Axis dominated countries. Prime Minister Churchill had ordered the SOE to “set Europe ablaze” and this newly formed group was regarded by SIS colleagues as something of a troublesome upstart. The organisation was disbanded in early 1946. The Secret Intelligence Service formed in 1909 became the organisation for foreign intelligence gathering activities and later  was to be known as MI6. Its function continues to gather foreign intelligence.

Philip’s fascinating published memoir “Within Two Cloaks: Missions with SIS and SOE” recounts how his intelligence mission started in April 1939. While serving in Naval Control Operations in Antwerp, Philip was recruited by a civilian from the Passport Control Office (i.e. British Secret Intelligence) of the British Embassy in Brussels in neutral Belgium.

Shortly after September, Philip became an officer in Military Intelligence 6 (MI6) Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). He was to retain his cover as a Naval Control officer while maintaining a watch on known German agents and any contacts with the Belgian pro-Nazi party. He built up a clandestine network for coastal and port watching covering enemy shipping movements and especially submarines operating in the North Sea and North Atlantic. Through close friendly contact with the Head of Police Judicaire in Antwerp - responsible for registration and issue of identity papers - many suspected agents of the German SD (Sicherheitsdienst) and collaborators were identified. In 1939-40 he set up sleeper agents to provide intelligence by radio if and when Belgium was invaded which soon after, it was. In early 1941 Philip took over as Head of Station, Lisbon for 2 years, followed by a spell in Argentina. On being recalled to London he was appointed Head of the Belgian and Dutch Sections of SOE during the final 18 months of the war. In this period he served in those countries arranging the supply of arms and materials to the various Resistance groups for sabotage and harassment of the Nazi enemy and for the final armed rising of the underground units. In his memoir he comments and seeks to do justice, to the courageous exploits of the thousands of men and women of these two countries which have been much overlooked in English books published since. Philip's WW2 RN service record reads:


served with MI6 [the (SIS)] in the Brussels Station Belgium)



Naval Intelligence Division, Admiralty [HMS President: a stone frigate] (serving in Section III (Naval) of the SIS)

(04.1941) (07.1945)

Naval Intelligence Division, Admiralty [HMS President] * (serving from the spring of 1941 with MI6 (SIS) as Head of Station in Lisbon, Portugal

Dec. 1942

As Head of Station in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and from late 1943 in charge of Dutch & Belgian sections of the SOE

Nov. 1943

New York, USA Head of Belgian Section SOE


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Head of Station

July 1945

He retired with the rank of Acting Commander (S).

In recognition of his services in World War 1 Philip was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Cross in 1919.

Then after World War 2, in 1946 he was awarded the Officer Order of Orange-Nassau (for services to the Netherlands); and in 1947 was awarded the Legion of Merit (USA).

In 1948 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre (Belgium) the latter being re-established in 1940 by the Belgian Government in exile in London in recognition of bravery and military virtue during WW2. The Order of the Crown was bestowed to military and diplomatic personnel of other countries stationed in (or providing support to) Belgium, and were bestowed on him by HRH Charles, the Prince Regent. During World War 2, the Order of the Crown was extensively authorized for award to Allied military personnel who had helped to liberate Belgium from the occupation forces of Nazi Germany. Finally, he was further honoured when it was gazetted by order of King George VI that he may wear all his foreign decorations on all occasions when in uniform.

Philip and his first wife Millie started their early married life in Antwerp, Belgium. His cover was as London company director of the Fisk Tire Export Company (New York) (1923- 1945), manufacturers of automobile tyres.

Millie, who died in 1972, never knew anything of his undercover activities but was reportedly suspicious when she became aware that he was meeting a number of 'strange people'. This led to the subsequent breakdown of their marriage resulting in divorce.

Philip's second child Michael Philip (1934-2009) from his second marriage was born at the then next door Mount Stuart Maternity Home * on St Lukes Road South, while the family was residing at Ellington Court apartments in St Luke's Rd South, Torquay, Devon

With war imminent, and at age 4 years, Michael was sent to the USA to stay with the Fenton family with whom his father Philip was well acquainted through the Fisk Tire company, of which Mr Fenton was President. David, the Fenton's son and Michael Johns became very close friends. Michael's older sister Angela (born January 1933) at Mount Stuart, went to Canada together with her mother Dorothy where they lived with Dorothy's sister.




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This page last updated on November 12th, 2014


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This page last updated 12 November 2014