[The story so far: During the Phoney War, Britain’s cryptanalytical expertise is soundly established at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, but the country’s fragmented approach to security, and to the challenge of detecting illicit radio transmissions, leaves it open to subversion. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union has arranged for its illegal radio operator in Switzerland, Ursula née Kuczynski (code-name ‘Sonia’), to undertake an illegitimate marriage for the purpose of gaining British citizenship, so that she may re-enter the UK and work as a courier in the planned purloining of atomic secrets. Her place as chief radio operator for the Comintern’s Swiss spy ring is taken by the abettor in her marriage to Len Beurton, Andrew Foote, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who is not all that he seems.
To read the previous installments, please go to Sonia’s Radio – Part 1 and Sonia’s Radio – Part 2. A consolidated, and slightly edited, version of all three items appears here. To improve clarity, there is some repetition of material from Part 2 in this installment. Readers who would like a Word version of this story should request one at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
The successful invitation to Churchill to form a government in May 1940 brought a more resolute and coherent approach to the conduct of the war, a greater appreciation of the value of the collection and interpretation of intelligence – but also an undue measure of panic. Just before Churchill formed his coalition, the hitherto largely dormant Joint Intelligence Committee had expressed its concerns about internal elements that it rather inaccurately portrayed as a ‘Fifth Column’. Attention to the phenomenon of such a group had been heightened by the Nazi successes in Norway and the Low Countries, and a nervous public feared a similar threat within the country’s own borders. Whereas a true ‘Fifth Column’ would involve persons ready to take up arms in the event of an invasion, who would have been in communication with hostile forces (certainly not an impossibility in contiguous lands like Poland, Czechoslovakia, or even the Netherlands, with historically fluid borders and ethnic overlap, where Volksdeutsche could be found), the existence of such an element was unlikely in the British Isles, outside Mosley’s British Union, with its highly questionable practice of storing weapons on private premises. The various committees unnecessarily muddied the waters by grouping all elements opposed to the war (i.e. not only Nazi sympathizers, but communists, pacifists, and IRA supporters) under the rubric of a ‘Fifth Column’.
Churchill was perturbed enough about such a menace to institute, on May 28, a new body, the Security Executive, set above MI5 (the Security Service), SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6) & GC&CS (the Government Code and Cypher School), after the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, had commissioned a report from Neville Bland on ‘the Fifth Column menace’. Bland’s judgment may have been affected by his previous role as Ambassador to the Netherlands: his report did nothing to dispel rumours, and Joseph Ball, second-in-command to the Executive’s head, Lord Swinton, with a track-record as Chamberlain’s chief fixer and negotiator through back-channels with foreign diplomats, was selected to run a sub-committee on the peril on June 11. A mass internment of ‘aliens’, mainly Germans and Austrians, but including many refugees fiercely opposed to Hitler, had been started in May, with the future atom spy, Klaus Fuchs, being one who was rounded up and sent to Canada. Yet the ‘neurosis’, as counter-espionage officer Guy Liddell called it, soon passed. The sinking of the Arandora Star on July 2, with much loss of life of internees and POWs, caused much heartache and rethinking. By July 16, Churchill himself was telling the House of Commons that the danger of Fifth Columnists had been exaggerated, momentarily forgetting his own role in the crack-down. With the British Union leader Oswald Mosley in jail, and the presence of any pro-Nazi faction seen to be illusory, the emphasis switched to the catching of newly arrived Abwehr spies, accompanied by a hesitant realisation that the Communist Party might now be the prime domestic malignant threat against the war effort.
Given that the Soviet Union was still a nominal ally of Germany, and providing a mass of war materiel that compensated for the effectiveness of Britain’s economic blockade, one could criticise Britain’s attitude towards communists as unduly complacent. Yet there were several reasons for the hesitation. For one, a coalition government containing several Labour Party members was much more positive about the prospect of socialism, and thus broadly sympathetic towards Stalin; their attitudes even infected many Conservative MPs. (Duff Cooper and Harold Nicolson both got into trouble with Churchill for too hurriedly trying to promulgate ‘war aims’ that in fact hinted at some post-war ‘revolution’.) A general nervousness could be detected in ministers concerned about left-wing rebellion in the factories and even in the forces. Perhaps equally as significant, Guy Burgess and his cohorts had started to have their ideological colleagues appointed to key positions in MI5 and the Ministry of Information. Moreover, many believed – including Churchill, notably – that the pact between Hitler and Stalin would not last, and that the Soviet Union would before long join the Allies. Thus attempts to intern communists during the remainder of 1940 were stuttering, and easily resisted. On January 9, 1941, the Security Executive again accepted that the CPGB was still seeking to destroy the government, but by this time solid intelligence was confirming the rumours of Hitler’s plans to invade the Soviet Union, an event which would change the equation permanently. A week later, Home Secretary Morrison declared that he doubted that the House of Commons would approve of the internment of Communists: true, the Daily Worker was banned soon afterwards, but Stalin’s Englishmen and Englishwomen had by then successfully inserted themselves and their allies in the corridors of influence. By February, as Roger Moorhouse reports, a decision by the BBC not to employ communists reportedly ‘angered the public’.
MI5 struggled during this period. It was overwhelmed by the need to investigate so many suspected aliens, its recruitment policies were frantic, without any proper qualifying, instructional or organisational policies in place, and its leadership was at sea. Churchill fired Vernon Kell, its Director-General, on June 10, and while his deputy, Jasper Harker was nominally promoted to replace Kell, he was effectively on the sidelines, what with the insertion of Swinton and Ball as the heads of the Security Executive. These changes, as well as the bizarre introduction of a prominent London solicitor, William Crocker, as joint head of the Counter-Espionage B Division (to which Liddell had been appointed head on June 11), severely affected officer morale. Spurred on initially by the hunt for the Fifth Column, Liddell took interest in the ideas of Maurice Frost of the BBC, who claimed to detect coded messages to spies in the broadcasts of Germany’s propaganda vehicle, the New British Broadcasting Station. He took a liking to Frost, and was encouraged by Swinton to recruit him as head of a new Section W to work on radio security, initially alongside Herbert Hart. This was a mysterious group – Christopher Andrew’s authorised history amazingly makes no mention either of Frost or Section W – but Hinsley & Simkins report that it included an SIS representative, and was charged with ‘the task of searching for all possible enemy channels of wireless communication’, and thus had to liaise with RSS, the reconstituted MI8 group. Yet this claim raises as many questions as it answers: how could a BBC man bring fresh insights to the detection of transmissions from German agents, when the GPO was already providing that service for RSS?
The ‘official’ history of MI5, written after by the war by John Curry, complemented by the insights of Nigel West, suggests that the whole endeavour was a blatant power-play by Lord Swinton, who wanted to dismantle B Division, and replace its functions with a team led by his own people. Frost was not just an employee of the BBC: he was also on the Security Executive. Crocker (a future president of the Law Society), was a member of the Executive as well, but he was in addition Joseph Ball’s private solicitor (he acted for him when Ball sued Goronwy Rees in 1957). What is more, Crocker had acted on behalf of Guy Liddell in the latter’s custody case before the war, after Liddell’s wife left him with their children for the USA. Crocker lost the case, and Liddell hence harboured some resentment, which made the management of B Division almost impossible. The chaos introduced by Swinton and Ball contributed highly to the low morale and inefficiencies that dogged MI5 until David Petrie took charge in the spring of 1941, and Liddell and White spent an enormous amount of time fighting Swinton’s ideas. Frost had been brought in to handle a problem that by July 1940 had been largely debunked. But once installed, as Swinton’s man, he began to try to build an empire.
It should be noted that the focus of W Section was on a threat from ‘the enemy’, namely its radio signals, once believed to be guiding Luftwaffe planes as beacons inside the nation, and then represented by coded messages from the propaganda station, the NBBS, coming from overseas. Despite the Hitler-Stalin alliance, Soviet-originated messages were specifically not in its remit. Yet the lack of a clear mission was evidenced in the fact that Liddell did not make a formal employment offer to Frost until the very day that Churchill admitted the Fifth Column panic. Frost thus set up his group at the end of July 1940 at a time when its relevance was already diminishing. Whereas, in June, the Security Executive had been severely scared about a German takeover of broadcasting, and Liddell was eagerly helping Frost set up his group, by August the emphasis in Liddell’s division had switched to using as double-agents the very few Nazi spies who had been caught. His mission diluted, Frost declared he wanted to manage this effort instead. Yet his arrogant, sly and ambitious manner quickly started to grate on other officers.
Liddell made a move to fold Section W into B Branch by the end of the month, prompting Frost to complain to Crocker and Swinton, though his crony Crocker himself was forced to resign at the end of August. T. A. (‘Tar’) Robertson, a future hero of the Double-Cross system, had declared he could not work with Frost, and by the end of November even Swinton had concluded that Frost had to go. Roberson formally took his XX (Double Cross – ‘Special Agents’) group away from W Section in December, and moved under Dick White as B1a. Yet, even in late November, Frost was still nurturing ambitions to be a supremo of both W and B Divisions. Remarkably, he lasted longer than Swinton, and did not leave MI5 until January 1943. And Liddell did not get his way until Petrie came on board. While Hinsley writes that W Division was eventually subordinated to B Division in August 1941, the change probably occurred earlier. Curry’s organisation chart of July 1941 shows Frost still in charge of three groups, including B3B, ‘Illicit Wireless Investigations and RSS Liaison.’ Frost had apparently replaced Simpson as head of B3. Curry laconically writes: “By this time they had lost the services of Lt.-Col. Simpson [see below], their only officer who could have developed and administered thee necessary technical organisation on their behalf.” What he thought of Frost is not recorded, but it could not have been positive.
Liddell, meanwhile, had to deal with further reports of illicit radio transmissions unrelated to Nazi subversion: on September 13, he recorded that three governments in exile (Czechs, Poles and Hungarians) were broadcasting without supervision, although other accounts indicate that the Czechs were officially granted wireless facilities at Woldingham after their Dulwich station was destroyed. Liddell was never sure who out of these governments-in-exile was trustworthy. The Czechs Beneš (who had passed on fake documents from Berlin that encouraged Stalin to purge the Red Army) and Moravec were at that time no doubt providing useful intelligence to their allies, the Soviet Union, and conspiring in more dangerous ways. On September 27, Liddell noted in his diary that a SIS source had informed them that the Soviets were encouraging the Czechs to commit sabotage in Britain, yet he appeared to do nothing about it. And Liddell had other problems of communication and administration. On September 24, when the Double-Cross system was starting to be developed properly, he mentioned the frustrations of the Cambridge Police when trying to deal with MI5 and the new organisation of Regional Security Liaison Officers. As stated earlier, the emphasis was quickly shifting from detecting coded German messages to exploiting the radios that real German spies had brought into the country with them, but Section W was bypassing the Regional Officers in its investigations.
Further organisational changes occurred – some for the better, as Liddell’s and others’ frustrations reached even Churchill. A high-level W Committee was established to set policy and structure for deception using German double-agents, the W Section evolved into the XX Committee, responsible for turning round such agents, and at the same time (at the end of December) Petrie, an officer in the Indian Police, was invited to become head of MI5. He insisted on performing an analysis of the organisation first, and, after submitting his report, took up his post in March 1941. Petrie seemed to underestimate the Soviet threat. Ironically, at a meeting of the W Committee on April 5, one of the staunchest opponents of communism, but certainly not the best salesman of his ideas, the MI5 officer John Curry, pressed for action against the Comintern. But his protest was too late: the tide had turned. The spy Anthony Blunt had become Liddell’s private assistant in February: in the reorganization that Petrie soon initiated, Curry was effectively sidelined. While Liddell still occasionally noted illicit wireless use, the role of B Division was changed to concentrate solely on ‘enemy’ activities, with a new F Division set up to relieve B of aliens control and subversive activities.
Curry was in fact appointed to head this newly constituted F Division, but the real work on surveilling the Comintern and communist subversives was handled by deputy-director Roger Hollis of F.2 (‘Communism and Left-Wing Movements’), and Curry felt he did not have a real role. (Liddell’s Diaries are bespattered with Curry’s whining.) As Petrie’s report of February 14 had noted, echoing Swinton’s desire for breaking up B Division, but leaving the core in place: “Equally I can see no harm, but much good, in transferring to a new division or group everything connected with Communism, Fascism, Pacifist movements, Celtic and Nationalistic organisations and the like.” A well-intentioned sentiment, no doubt, but a little alarming in the way it included a movement for worldwide revolution in a ragbag of mostly harmless malevolents. Meanwhile, Frost had actually survived the winter; in May he was imaginatively recommending a joint MI5 & SIS wireless committee, no doubt alive to the issues of monitoring activity both at home and overseas engendered by RSS’s newfound role. On May 20, 1941, Hugh Trevor-Roper became the secretary of the Joint Wireless Committee, chaired by Liddell, with RSS (now a part of SIS) thus playing a leading role in overall strategy. But how had RSS found its new home, and how did it deal with GC&CS?
While MI5 was struggling, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS, commonly known as ‘Bletchley Park’), had exercised a similar hectic recruiting drive as MI5, but did succeed in integrating its hires more smoothly, partly because it had a very clear mission. At the outset of the war, despite a familiarity with a large range of foreign cryptic transmissions, it exercised a sharp focus on enemy, namely German, communications. (Italy and Japan were not yet in the war.) That was not to say that it lost interest in Soviet radio traffic: a Russian émigré named Ernst Fetterlein had been instrumental in cracking Soviet codes in the 1920s, and was still an influential figure, although he did not join the move to Bletchley Park in 1939. In the period 1934-1937, GC&CS, in the persons of Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman, had successfully deciphered an exchange of messages, known as ‘MASK’, between the Comintern and a CPGB member in London, which should have constituted a clear warning about Moscow’s intentions and methods. Overall, however, Soviet diplomatic traffic was considered to be undecipherable, as for many years it had been using the much more secure technique of ‘one-time pads’. (Later in the war, the discovery that some pads were in fact re-used, or that the random number generators deployed with then were not truly random, enabled Bletchley Park to decode several German and Soviet messages.) Tiltman was to become one of the most successful cryptologists during the war, though primarily on Nazi codes.
The official (or authorised) histories are very evasive in describing the efforts extended towards Soviet signals at this time. Some accounts suggest that attention to Soviet communications was discarded when war was declared purely because of prioritization of tasks, but others hint that more was done during the period of the Pact. Certainly less secure Russian weather-reports were tracked with interest, and the historian Donald Watt even wrote, in 1968: “There have also been rumours current at various times that British cryptographers were able to monitor Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1939 and were thus aware of the closeness of Nazi-Soviet contacts, but that, as with the American decipherment of Purple the information derived from this was confined to so small a circle for security reasons that no use could be made of it even within the Foreign Office or in correspondence between the Office and British missions abroad.” No account of this activity appears in the official histories, but Robin Denniston, in his memoir of his father, A. G. Denniston, who headed GC&CS up until 1942, indicated that there was an active Sigint effort directed at Soviet codes until Barbarossa occurred in June 1941.
A clear distinction should be made at this stage between the interception and collection of signals, on the one hand, and their decipherment, on the other. The well-merited praise that Bletchley Park has received since the ‘Ultra’ story broke in 1974 should not disguise the fact that it relied on a large, highly-skilled group of amateurs and professionals (the ‘Y’ organisation) to detect and record Morse signals, not always of high quality, with speed and reliability. Moreover, much intelligence was gained purely from the analysis of traffic activity itself, without its meaning being discerned. Thus Direction Finding (DF, locating the origin of signals through goniometric techniques) and what became to be known in 1943 as ‘Traffic Analysis’ (TA, interpreting strategic and tactical plans by the detailed inspection of call-signs, and the volume and frequency of transmissions) became as important as pure cryptography, a fact that some at Bletchley Park were slow to recognise. Nor was brilliance with codes ever enough: the value of a ‘crib’, whereby the substance of a message was carelessly repeated, or a known text – possibly one forwarded by an enemy agency, and then intercepted, was an enormous contributor to the process of breaking ciphers. (For that reason, the texts of communiqués to be delivered soon afterwards by embassy staff to potentially hostile nations were frequently sent en clair, to prevent the opposition’s gaining a free crib from an encrypted message. On the other hand, the phenomenon of documents being stolen by Soviet spies, and then being used to assist cryptographers as they matched the substance of secret messages, has been acknowledged, but not broadly examined.) In addition, the process of deciphering German signals early in 1940 was greatly aided by the fact that agent SNOW had been turned, and his codes thus known. Lastly, another sometimes overlooked factor in the whole process was the courageous capture, by Allied seamen, of documents and equipment from sinking enemy craft.
GC&CS had always been responsible for deciphering whatever RSS (MI8) came up with, but, as the role of RSS evolved into European surveillance, given the absence of illicit signals emanating from the UK, some conflicts of mission and responsibility arose, as Part 2 of this account described. One problem was the decipherment of Abwehr signals performed by Gill and Trevor-Roper, working for RSS at Wormwood Scrubs. Another was the more disciplined outlook of Military Intelligence, which still relied on non-military personnel for the delivery of data. An important contributor to the debate was the expert Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson. He had had a long and successful track-record in telegraphy since the previous war, had in fact been responsible for the way RSS had been set up in December 1938, and had been seconded at that time to advise MI5 on all wireless-related issues. At some stage Simpson was awarded the C.M.G. (Yet he also does not appear in the Index of Andrew’s authorised history.) He apparently failed to convince Vernon Kell in 1938 that MI5 should take over RSS, and was thus sidelined at the beginning of the war to the leadership of a small rump group in MI5 titled B.3, which had been set up to investigate reports of possible illicit radio activity, and was also chartered with liaising with RSS. In February 1940 he expressed concern about the capabilities of the Post Office personnel engaged on the task of illicit wireless detection, and wanted changes to make RSS more effective. His authority and expertise (he was the author of ‘Notes on the Detection of Illicit Wireless’) makes it even more extraordinary that Frost was brought in to replace him.
Thus by the summer of 1940 RSS had also grown to a size where its activities and large staff of civilian personnel made Military Intelligence consider that it was a cuckoo in the nest. In addition, several other territorial disputes had come to the forefront. RSS was treading on the turf of SIS as well as GC&CS, by virtue of its analysis of communications of the German intelligence section, the Abwehr. And while GC&CS resented RSS’s becoming involved with decipherment, and the Counter-Intelligence Section of SIS thought that RSS was invading its own space, RSS itself believed that the establishment and growth of MI5’s Section W was stepping on its own bailiwick of handling plain language codes. In addition, the officers in B Division had soon realised that having follow-up investigations of possibly illegal wireless activity managed in Section W outside B Division was organisationally dysfunctional. The whole set-up was a disaster: it was no wonder that Liddell and other officers considered resigning in the autumn of 1940.
Yet it took a while for these conflicts to be resolved. As far as the tensions between RSS and GC&CS were concerned, a critical meeting had been held on March 20, 1940, whereby the ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) group was set up. Official accounts tend to credit Strachey instead of Trevor-Roper with the solving of the Abwehr hand cipher intercepts (later known as ISK, with ‘K’ for Knox): Trevor-Roper himself was not modest in pointing to his own achievements in traffic analysis. Irrespective of the exact contribution of either, something that may never be verifiable, the issue was resolved relatively harmoniously, but little has been recorded of precisely what RSS did over the next twelve months. Nigel West reports that ISOS had become so important that ‘120 intercept positions were dedicated to the source by June 1941’. The broader issues of responsibility remained. “By the autumn of 1940 the work of the RSS, originally limited to the monitoring of illicit wireless activity in the United Kingdom, had been extended to the coverage of the communications of the Abwehr and associated enemy intelligence and security agencies anywhere in the world”, writes Hinsley. The focus of RSS had changed dramatically: something had to give.
John Curry, in his ‘official history’ of MI5, indicates that MI8 first made its proposal for transferring RSS to MI5 on October 9, 1940. This proposal was no doubt encouraged by Simpson, clearly not overstretched by his modest liaison and follow-up duties in B.3, and he instead made detailed recommendations about the interception structures and procedures that RSS needed in the new environment. He was strongly in favour of a new section being set up with its own dedicated personnel and equipment. Hinsley points out that MI8 believed such a change would enable it to concentrate on wireless intelligence that had some relevance more germane to its military mission, an assessment that perhaps revealed the gulf between the collection of intelligence and the development of military strategy that was epitomized in the ineffectiveness of the Joint Intelligence Committee at the time. With Simpson in place in MI5, MI8 had identified RSS’s natural home. The ball had been thrown into the court of the Security Executive.
Trevor-Roper’s boss, Major Gill, next submitted, in November, an important report which explained how the analysis of a large number of undecipherable messages pointed towards a substantial network of German agents across Europe, and that this phenomenon merited greater attention. The following month, the now unpopular Major Frost exploited Simpson’s overture by making an extraordinary power-play for RSS to be incorporated into his Section W. For Liddell (and presumably Simpson, though his reactions are not recorded), this would have been worse than MI5’s losing the function entirely, but, in any case, the management of MI5, already under stress, deemed RSS’s considerable exploration of signals emanating from European territory obviously outside MI5’s charter. The Security Service therefore considered it more suitable for SIS to take over. Swinton and Petrie (now having started his investigation into MI5) agreed, and the Secretary of State for War authorised the transfer of RSS to SIS on March 7, 1941, over the objections of the Department of Military Intelligence, which threw doubts on the ability of SIS to detect and intercept enemy transmissions. Since this ability was not inherent in MI5’s skillset (outside the recently acquired Simpson) either, it is not surprising that the objection was quickly overruled, although Swinton relied on the force of his authority rather than making this rather obvious point.
The exercise was completed in May. Negotiations took place over its strict mission: Richard Gambier-Parry, responsible for communications in Section VIII, took over control of the group under Felix Cowgill, who proposed a charter that Liddell in MI5 could not accept. A joint committee was set up, meeting first on May 20, under the secretaryship of Trevor-Roper, who thought poorly of the officers he encountered in SIS (Gambier-Parry, Maltby and Vivian, specifically), ‘the corrupt racketeers of the Secret Service’, as he called them in his diary. It was not a good omen. Moreover, MI5’s loosening its ties with RSS would come back to hurt them. As soon as Liddell heard that Gambier-Parry had taken over, he expressed a concern in his diary that MI5’s overall interests (namely detecting all illicit radio transmissions in Britain, including communist ones) might be jeopardised by a potential exclusive focus on ISOS and ISK (i.e. Nazi Enigma and hand-cipher) messages. In May, Gambier-Parry responded, not very encouragingly, by suggesting that, since traffic was two-way, RSS would probably pick up half of such conversations from abroad. Liddell’s fears would later be realised. Moreover, Simpson, outmanoeuvred by Frost, had unsurprisingly moved on, and while MI5 had had an ally in MI8, Cowgill would present a new set of challenges.
Meanwhile, the highly competent assembler and operator of illicit wireless sets, Ursula Beurton, aka Sonia, steadily marched towards her goal of installation in the UK as a spy for Soviet military intelligence (the GRU). She received her passport, issued a few days earlier, on May 2, 1940, from the Passport Office in Geneva, which was in fact the traditional cover for SIS in foreign countries. How well had SIS communicated with its colleagues in MI5 over this alarming move? As previously reported, MI5 had reacted sluggishly to the request, and not responded in a timely fashion. Yet the Security Service was familiar with the Kuczynski clan as a set of subversives: on May 8, the Home Office overruled MI5’s request that Sonia’s brother, Jürgen, be interned. Indicating perhaps that senior officers were somehow not concerned about Sonia’s motives, the very shrewd Milicent Bagot next pointed out to the MI5 officer, Cazalet, that Sonia’s marriage was probably a sham, and a recommendation was made – too late, as Stafford noted on May 28 – that she not be given a passport. But Sonia was in no hurry. She bided her time, as she had no doubt heard about the problems that Klaus Fuchs, the agent who represented the purpose of her mission, had been experiencing.
After a spell on the Isle of Man, Fuchs reached his internment destination of Nova Scotia in early July, 1940. Yet almost immediately, appeals for his release were made. His employer at Edinburgh University, Professor Max Born, had already done so on May 22 (although he soon expressed a change of heart, perhaps realising his indiscretion). The Royal Society also requested his release – alongside that of other scientists – in July. Max Beaverbrook, in charge of aircraft construction, was making urgent appeals for the release of alien scientists to help in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The patience of Rudolf Peierls, Fuchs’s sponsor and mentor, also ran out at this time. Political pressure was applied, and Fuchs was eventually released from internment on October 19. He left Halifax on December 19, accompanied by his Communist colleague, Kahle, and arrived in Liverpool on January 11, 1941. And it appeared that Sonia timed her return to be closely coincident. On November 21, the Passport Office in Geneva, despite MI5’s warnings, had generously added two of her children to her passport, so that they could accompany her, and after a prolonged and rather mysterious stay in Lisbon, the British consul there told her they could sail on January 14. They arrived in Liverpool on February 7, and moved to Oxford the next day.
Little occurred in the first half of 1941. Fuchs had to become re-established at Edinburgh, and then placed on Peierls’s team, with Peierls being careful not to express too much haste and enthusiasm, and it was not until late May that Fuchs joined Peierls’s division of the MAUD committee at Birmingham University, working on diffusion techniques of atomic weapons research. He had reportedly been given ‘full clearance’ for his work, despite his communist past, and some vague doubts as to his reliability expressed by Roger Hollis of MI5. Fuchs somewhat belatedly signed the Official Secrets Act on June 18, i.e. a few days before Barbarossa. As for Sonia, her father had been waiting for her in Oxford (and Bagot, now Hollis’s assistant, had diligently informed the Oxford Chief Constable of this fact). Sonia also visited her fellow-spy Melita Norwood, her contact at the Soviet Embassy, Simon Kremer, as well as her family in Hampstead. Thus it is highly probable that she met Fuchs at this time, as Nigel West claims. Yet the concerns expressed by minor officials in MI5 about the overall intentions of the Kuczynski clan were overlooked. The wary officer Shillito made the conventional recommendation that ‘an eye be kept’ on Sonia, but it was obviously not enough for all her movements to be properly shadowed. Even the fact that MI5, on April 9, declared Jürgen Kuczynski an ‘extreme communist & fanatically pro-Stalin’, was not enough for its attitude to Sonia to be revised. And she thus prepared for the next stage of her mission, to act as Fuchs’s courier.
Lastly, what happened to Alexander Foote, whom Sonia had trained as her replacement in Switzerland? The structure and processes of the ‘Lucy Ring’, as the GRU’s spy network in Switzerland was known (after Lucerne, the hometown of the key agent, Roessler) is one of the major enigmas of World War II. Exactly how anti-Nazi officers were able to provide the ring with a stream of current information about German battle-plans has not been satisfactorily explained. The memoirs of all the participants cannot be trusted: Foote’s own account, published after he defected from the Soviets in 1947 and was interrogated, was ghost-written by an MI5 officer, Courtenay Young, who exploited his charge. The works of both Sonia, and the leader of the ring, Alexander Radó, are notoriously unreliable, as their content was controlled by Soviet Intelligence. The authors of the first major study of Lucy, Accoce and Quet, admitted that they had fabricated a large part of their story, namely the fact that an Enigma machine had been smuggled out of Berlin to Roessler, by officers opposed to Hitler. The idea that Roessler could transcribe radio signals, single-handedly operate an off-line Enigma machine, translate messages, and route them quickly to qualified radio handlers in other cities in Switzerland for re-enciphering for Moscow, all while holding a full-time job, and without the Gestapo detecting the equipment and transmissions, is simply ludicrous. Post-war German accounts of interception of Soviet radio communications cast massive doubts on the whole chronology claimed by some of the participants. Roessler himself was very coy about the methods he used, although he did name some contacts shortly before his death. Foote was a very capable radio operator – but was that all he was?
The story of Foote’s eventual escape to Paris, his journey to the Soviet Union, defection, and interrogation, is one for a future chapter, but it is just noted here that it would have been very difficult, in a small country like Switzerland, for an Englishman to have escaped the attention of the local SIS organisation – in fact represented by a more clandestine group called ‘Z’, managed by the maverick and unpopular Claude Dansey. Moreover, several aspects of Foote’s story do not ring true, as his files at the National Archives frequently indicate. The story of his discharge from the RAF in December 1936, and whether it was dishonourable or not, is bizarre. In his interrogations, he is advised not to talk about his previous associations with British intelligence, which hints at intriguing but untold adventures, while he also quickly showed Fascist sympathies during his questioning, very much out of keeping with his multi-year activities supporting the Soviet Union’s agenda. When in Lausanne, he was able to arrange, apparently single-handedly, with a facility quite out of keeping with his known very practical skills, a complex scheme for moving funds from the USA to his boss Radó, to keep the Lucy network alive. One might well wonder whether he received help from the SIS station in this complex endeavour. When under pressure from Gestapo incursions into Switzerland in the search for communist spy transmitters, he suggested to his boss Radó (and to Moscow) that they seek shelter in the British Embassy, a highly dubious and risky venture, considering his role as a Soviet agent, unless it were already known to Embassy Staff. How would he have introduced Radó to the British officials? (Moscow very quickly quashed the idea.) His eventual defection, and Moscow’s apparent insouciance about it, are very provocative.
Read and Fisher actually claim that Foote was recruited by the Z organisation, and prominent members of the intelligence world in Britain, such as Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1939 to 1942, in the 1980s made bold statements that Britain actually used members of the Lucy organisation to feed Ultra material to the Soviets, a claim that, however unlikely, and on the surface operationally unnecessary, was perhaps too thinly and shrilly denied by Hinsley, the official historian. Yet Malcolm Muggeridge and others supported Cavendish-Bentinck’s claim. What was their purpose if the assertion was not true? That story – and others – will be examined in a future installment. But the evidence so far points to a less than open and respectable relationship between SIS and MI5 over the opportunity offered by Sonia and her radio, and suggests that an accurate account of Foote’s relationship with British Intelligence has not yet been told.
In summary, Lord Swinton made a difficult situation even worse. At a time when clear-headedness and maximum efficiency were required to address the Nazi threat, he ran roughshod over the career intelligence officers, trying to insert his own creatures into an environment he did not understand. It is perhaps not surprising that the Soviet threat received diminished attention in this pell-mell. Nevertheless, it appeared that Sonia still attained a free pass to which she had not been entitled. Was there something else going on?
Principal Sources (in addition to those listed in Part 2):
The Bodleian Library, Special Collections
Breach of Security, edited by David Irving
The Searchers: Radio Interception in Two World Wars, by Kenneth Macksey
A Man Called Lucy, by Pierre Accoce and Pierre Quet
The Hut Six Story, by Gordon Welchman
The Red Orchestra, by V. E. Tarrant
Bletchley Park’s Secret Room, by Joss Pearson
Operation Lucy, by Anthony Read & David Fisher
Intelligence Chief Extraordinary: The Life of the Ninth Duke of Portland, by Patrick Howarth
The Spying Game, by Michael Smith
The Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park, ed. F.H. Hinsley & Alan Stripp
Thirty Secret Years: A. G. Denniston’s Work in Signals Intelligence 1914-1944, by Robin Denniston
Codename Dora, by Sándor Radó
The Wartime Journals, by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Ultra Goes to War, by Ronald Lewin
With My Little Eye, by Richard Deacon
The Rote Kapelle, the CIA’s History of Soviet Intelligence and Espionage Networks in Western Europe, 1936-1945
A Thread of Deceit: Espionage Myths of World War II, by Nigel West
The Ultra Secret, F. W. Winterbotham
How War Came, by Donald Cameron Watt