Struggles at the Desktop

Monitoring the home security system at 3835 Members Club Boulevard

[Warning: This article may not be suitable for readers of a sensitive disposition. It describes encounters with information technology that may be disturbing to some.]

“Nowadays if there is an error in the input program the computer not only detects it but gives the approximate description and location of the error and recommends procedure for correction.” (Gerald S. Hawkins, in Stonehenge Decoded, 1965)

When IBM hired me as a trainee Systems Engineer in 1969, it was not because of my data processing skills. That day in late August, when I walked into the Katherine Street office in Croydon, Surrey (shortly before the branch moved into the new building on Cherry Orchard Road), I did not know the difference between a punched-card and a paper-clip. It was not a classical career beginning, and not a carefully-planned strategic move. In an indecisive third year at Oxford, I had applied to take the Certificate of Education after the completion of my degree in Modern Languages, but soon began to have doubts. On a weeklong visit to a local primary school in Purley, Surrey, before the first term started, I had innocently queried the headmaster as to why the classes did not appear to be learning multiplication tables by rote. “Oh, Mr Percy!”, he replied with a condescending smile. ‘We don’t do tables any more!” For this was the era of ‘child-centred’ learning, where every infant had to discover for him- or her-self that 7 x 8 resulted in 56, and so on. I recall the way that tables and mental arithmetic were drilled into my generation about fifteen years earlier, and how the pattern of number combinations has stayed with me ever since. In 1968, however, I was entering the world of Progressive Education.

Perhaps my aspirations were also checked by my term of teaching-practice. Having had a term of almost total inactivity, owing to my being on crutches because of a rugby injury, I was informed, in December 1968, that I was urgently needed as a replacement at Bognor Regis * Comprehensive School, as the previous teacher of Russian had been fired for getting one of his pupils pregnant. I did not learn the cause of the summons until I arrived: the school was also going through a painful merger of a grammar-school with a secondary modern, which also dampened what remained of my enthusiasm. Halfway through this term, I decided that a quick return to the classroom was perhaps not the most life-enhancing prospect to be contemplated. Taking advice from some outfit that suggested that my interest in chess, bridge, crosswords and logic puzzles might open up some doors in the computing industry, I secured interviews with some manufacturers, of which NCR and IBM were the most satisfactory. I took care to complete my Certificate of Education so that I could have a back-up career lest the corridors of business found my talents wanting.

[* Bognor Regis is a coastal town in West Sussex. It gained its regal addendum after King George V recuperated there, and the monarch’s dying words have been apocryphally reported as ‘Bugger Bognor!’. When Ursula Kuczynski (agent SONIA) needed a place for her children to stay while she returned to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1938, she left them with a friend in Felpham, which is part of Bognor. There is no truth to the rumour that I was in 1969 undertaking, under deep cover, some early sleuthing into Sonia’s contacts.]

Unfortunately, IBM was a little slow to snap up the opportunity to make me an offer, so I had to write to them to explain to them that this entrepreneurial youth was thirsting to make his contribution to the computing revolution. Perhaps the company was waiting for such a show of initiative, since I was rewarded with an appointment at the Head Office in Chiswick, to meet one of their Personnel Managers (no ‘Human Resources’ in those days: employees were certainly not ‘associates’, and customers were assuredly not ‘guests’). I was delighted to find that this benevolent soul had also studied Russian at Oxford. He started to quote me a quatrain of Pushkin’s, which I was happily able to complete. I passed the interview. I was in.

Before I started the eight-week basic training course at Sudbury, Middlesex, I had a week in the office, where I was directed to a small room, and given a Programmed Instruction text on IBM’s System/360 to work through. These matters were all rather daunting to me, and I recall I had to interrupt my study to ask the Systems Engineering Manager what the meaning of some concept was. It all comes back to me quite clearly: I wanted to know what was special about the sixteen ‘registers’ of any 360 computer system. Registers were (and no doubt still are) the mechanism by which the locations of computer memory were addressed, but they also seemed to have some properties that lent themselves to high-speed arithmetic. Somewhat confused, I asked the manager whether he could explain their nature to me. “Oh, I never really understood all that stuff”, he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.” I think we adjourned to the squash court soon after that, and I gave him a good runaround in return.

The Systems Engineering class was tough. All new recruits were required to go through the same basic training, to make sure they were immersed into the IBM way of doing things. I recall a few students who had already served several years with IBM’s rival, ICL, and were thus already very familiar with the concepts and practice of data processing. Most of the graduates straight from university had scientific backgrounds, and had used computers in their laboratory work. There were times when I wondered whether I would make it. My ability to learn seemed to correlate exactly with the ability of the individual instructor to present topics in schemas that matched how my brain was able to integrate new ideas, namely very logically, with clear step-by-step evolution, and no grand jumps that left canyons of unexplored territory behind. Gradually, things began to make sense. I completed the three stages of the training about a year later, and was ready to roll.

Unfortunately, IBM was not sure at that time exactly what the role of systems engineers was, as anti-trust threats had meant that the company could not hand out systems engineering resources to its customers for free. At the same time, we were neophytes eager to learn by practical experience, while the projects we were given were haphazard, not always suitable, and not always educational. I soon learned that I liked coding, appreciated the value of well-designed and well-implemented systems, and became very frustrated with poorly written documentation. And I did have a knack for working out what was at fault when things went wrong, although that experience was marred by a disastrous project where I was asked to make some changes to a Vehicle Scheduling Package for a prominent and demanding customer. There was no guide to how the product worked, and I stumbled for weeks in trying to tweak it to meet the idiosyncratic needs of the customer. I received no help: the project was simply abandoned, I believe. But two lessons started to emerge in my mind: i) the knowledge that there was a logical explanation for every computer failure, and ii) the importance of good diagnostics being built into any product.

I move forward seven or eight years, and two jobs later. I was working as European Customer Service Manager for a small American software company. Our flagship product was known as a transaction-processing monitor, an adjunct to the operating system that handled communications with a network of terminals and managed the user programs that the customer wrote to provide on-line business functions. One of the challenges with this software configuration was that a motley set of technologies all operated in one partition, all clamoring for resources, and all potentially stepping on each other. Much of the code was written in low-level Assembler language, which provided greater manipulative power, and faster execution speeds, but also provided opportunities for corrupting storage occupied by other software. Frequent were the ‘core dumps’ (we still called them such, even though ferrite cores had been superseded as memory components by then) that were mailed in by customers when the system blew up, and we were unable to detect what had happened over the telephone. Then the support team would compare the state of computer memory with source listings of our product, in order to find out where our product (it was frequently the fault of the product) had gone wrong.

One particularly stubborn problem endures in my memory. A prestigious customer had experienced an execution failure, not recreatable, that caused the partition to explode. (The customer was actually the institution where the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, for whom Sonia had acted as courier in 1942-43, was working when he confessed in January 1950: there is no truth in the rumour that I was sent in by MI5, under subterfuge, to undertake an audit of its security procedures.) The requisite hundreds of sheets of print-out were sent in. No one could work out what had happened, and I devoted hours and hours to it. Eventually, I determined that it looked as if an error routine in IBM’s telecommunications package, VTAM, had failed to save properly the register contents that had been passed to it (and which had to be restored when the routine had completed its work), as all processes used those same registers I had been puzzled about back in 1969. I called the customer with my tentative suggestion, and asked him to pursue the matter with IBM. The next day he called back: indeed, one of the error handlers was incorrectly saving and restoring registers. He apologized for not searching for, and applying, the fix that would remedy the problem. Much goodwill was gained.

The second experience that reinforced my earlier lesson was in helping to roll out a new feature in the product, something called ‘Multiple Record Hold’ (MRH). The previous version had allowed only one file record to be held at a time, which was a heavy constraint. If a user application wanted to prevent anyone else accessing a customer record, say, while it then checked an inventory record that it might want to deplete, the systems designer was in a bind. MRH addressed that problem. But our developers designed and coded the feature too quickly and carelessly. Several occasions would arise where the programmer would try to invoke the feature inappropriately (for example, invalid keys, or multiple requests to the same file), or the software detected something illogical. It would return an ‘L’ code to the program, indicating such. But the programmer had no idea what it meant. There must have been several dozen places in the source code where an ‘L’ error code was returned. We, as support personnel, had to trace through the record of programmatic requests, and the source code listed, to detect at what point in the logic the ‘L’ had been returned, and then provide an explanation. But it could all have been made so simple: an auxiliary area existed where a return code could have been posted, and a corresponding piece of documentation could have explained what every code meant, with an enormous benefit in productivity. I was just about to start coding this enhancement when I was invited to work as Director of Technical Services for the parent company in Norwalk, Connecticut. At that time the flagship product was on the way out: the feature was never implemented. And so my wife and I, with ten-month-old son, moved to the USA.

[In parenthesis, for the more technical among my readership, I should also mention here that an unusual feature of this product was that the Control Program was written in a high-level language, COBOL, a decision presumably made in the interests of clarity and maintainability, not in the cause of performance. But when some advanced features were added to the product, it became necessary for the CP [not the Communist Party] to access low-level bitstrings, something COBOL cannot do. Thus an Assembler (low-level) language subroutine called GETBITS was added, to return statuses for further decision-taking and logic-branching. I recall very clearly how one of our most demanding – and shrewdest – customers in the UK, when undergoing performance problems, ascertained, through the use of a testing device, that GETBITS was consuming 6% of all machine cycles on its 370/145 – an enormous amount. Furthermore, when I inspected the new CP code, I discovered that, in many circumstances, the GETBITS routine was being invoked, but the CP was then taking branches that were completely independent of the results of the call! When I vaguely suggested to the President of the Company (who had probably written much of the original code himself) that I could rewrite the whole CP in Assembler language on my weekends, and deliver a much faster system to our customers, he declared, very seriously, that anyone who attempted that would be fired. He still relocated me to report to him in Connecticut, but later gracelessly told me that he only did so because the Director of R & D persuaded him. On such whims do whole lives change.]

The reason for this long introduction is that I recently had to replace my home PC, and experienced massive problems. For some months, my old HP Pavilion had been warning me of its imminent demise. The fan had broken, and the device was presumably in danger of overheating. I would get a warning message each time I re-booted, and occasionally Windows would blow up. So shortly before Christmas, I bought an HP Envy Desktop, preparing to install it after my winter break. I did not buy a printer or monitor: I had an HP Photosmart printer that was working well, and, only a year ago, I had had to replace the monitor that had suddenly died on me with a new model. This new monitor had HDMI support, but, since my PC was so old, it did not support an HDMI connection, and I thus had to use the older-generation VGA connector. This apparently meant that I had no sound support on my computer, but that was no great loss, even though I could not listen to music while I was working. I got used to it. Early in January, I thus loaded up the printer with new ink cartridges, backed up the files on the old PC, checked the cable configurations to ensure I knew what socket went in where, and unpacked the new machine.

To start with, all went very smoothly. True, Windows10 was a bit of a shock, with some features apparently dropped, and some weird patterns of activity occurring, such as random duplication of keyboard strokes. But overall it worked, and I restored my files (well, partially: but that’s another story.) Then I suddenly realised that I was not getting any sound from the computer, despite the new HDMI connection. The driver was okay, the system told me that the graphics was working properly, and yet no sound emanated from the monitor. It took me a while to work out that, all that long year ago, I had been sold a monitor with no sound support. Well, it was my fault for not asking, I suppose, but I think the salesperson was at fault, as well. Maybe he just wanted to move that product off the shelf. After all, why would I want to move from an antiquated broken monitor that supported sound to a spiffy new one that didn’t? There’s a lesson.

Next, I tried the printer. And here is where the problems started. Word documents would not print at all; PDFs would print, but very faintly. Crossword grids from the Web printed out partially. Emails from my queue printed fine, however. (I have one to prove it, as it relates to my problems.) What was going on with my device, which had been working so well a day beforehand? What caused such erratic behavior, where some items came out fine, but others were ignored? I did not believe it was a dirty printhead problem (something I had encountered and fixed a couple of years ago). My first step was, on my next trip into Wilmington (thirty-five miles away) to go to Best Buy, the store where I had bought both the printer and the PC, and ask for their advice. They immediately said ‘buy a new printer’, hinting that many users suffered from the same or similar experiences, as it would be too expensive to investigate the problem, and printers were so cheap. But I wasn’t going to give up that quickly.

After looking on the Web for users with similar complaints, I tried a number of things. I reloaded the printer driver (the current version was dated October 2015, which was perhaps not encouraging). I deleted the device, and added it back in. I reset it. I set it up as a default printer. I tried printing test pages. At some stage I logged on to the Microsoft and HP support forums, where ‘experts’ (but not employees of the respective companies) would generously offer suggestions to fix the problem. Nothing worked. Eventually, an HP employee joined the forum, and tried to help me. I shan’t go through all the steps he recommended, but he ended up giving me secret codes to enter on the printer itself, to determine why it wasn’t able to operate any off-line functions either. But even this process did not work as he outlined, as it was interrupted by another message. At this stage, we agreed that I should call up HP customer support.

Since the problem appeared to be with my newly warranted PC, I called the number for desktop computers, and was soon speaking to a support representative (in India), to whom I gave all the relevant information. Then, when I described my problem, he said that I needed to speak to the Ink-jet support group, and gave me another number to call. I went through the same process, was given a case-number, and started providing details of my problem. But when I gave the representative the Serial ID of my printer, she (in the US, this time) told me that I would have to pay for support, as the device was no longer under warranty. This did not completely surprise me – I have paid for such telephone support from HP beforehand – but I was not actually in the mood, given the trials I had already experienced, for having to pay for diagnosis that I really felt was HP’s responsibility. I somehow convinced her that she should at least provide an initial investigation of the problem for free. So we downloaded some software that allowed her to control my computer while I watched.

What happened next was rather disturbing. The representative asked me what make of router I was using, and when I responded ‘Ubee’, she expressed a degree of shock, almost one of recognition, as if the Ubee-Photosmart combination was a known toxic one. I tried to determine whether that was the case, but received no reply, as she started manipulating the Ubee tables on my PC. Clearly, she knows what she is doing, I said to myself. And then the connections were lost. First, the phone contact disappeared. She sent me a message indicating such, so I quickly sent her a text, imploring her to call me back. Then that connection went dead, too, and I was left stranded, with the shape of my router tables unknown, and the problem unresolved.

At least I had a case number. I called back, but this time was routed to another call-centre in India. Even though I gave the representative there the case-number, and told him what had happened, he claimed he could do nothing for me. I rung off in exasperation, hoping that the contact in the USA would call me back. But nothing happened. I suspect that the supervisor of the representative trying to help me in the USA had interrupted the process, probably reprimanding the young lady for not charging me for such support time, and thus had broken off all contact. I shall never know. Even when an HP customer relations person (who had presumably kept an eye on the forum, and had been alerted by the HP technician who joined it) contacted me afterwards, he was powerless to find out what had been going on. But to abandon a customer half-way through a process when the device was under the control of a remote technician was scandalous, in my unhumble opinion.

So I gave up, and bought a new printer, from Epson. Never again any HP products for me.

Perhaps it was all a strange coincidence, but one afterthought came to me. If my printer had enough intelligence in it that, when I ran out of ink, and inserted new cartridges, it could send a message in real-time to HP Central to encourage me to buy a replacement set, maybe it was also smart enough to detect that it was now being driven by a more modern, faster computer, and that a process akin to what we systems engineers used to call ‘graceful degradation’ should occur, so that the user would have to buy a new printer? That was the immediate recommendation of the technician at the company who sold me the printer, remember. After all, Apple has admitted slowing down its devices to preserve battery power, and Volkswagen fudged emissions when engines detected that they were running under laboratory tests. I would not be at all surprised if something like that happened.

And then my wife’s laptop computer started having problems. She would be told that an important Security update needed to be installed on Windows10, after which the process would hog her computer for hours on end, only to fail with the message ‘0x800700c1‘, when it was 99% complete. We ignored it for a while, since I was mightily consumed with sorting out my own PC, but I at last got round to investigating. ‘Contact Microsoft Support’ was the guidance, so I went on-line, and was soon directed to a document titled “You receive the error message ‘Something went wrong’, when attempting to install the latest version of Windows10.” I was amazed to learn that the company offered ‘many steps that I could try’, as there were ‘many possible reasons your device may be unable to update to the latest version of Windows’. This was extraordinary. A specific error message had been issued, yet the software had no clue as to what circumstances had cause it to fail, and the user of a consumer product was supposed to experiment with all these approaches in order to resolve the problem? What on earth would the Little Old Lady from Dubuque do?

I decided to request an on-line chat with a support person. This did not take long, and I was put in touch with Parthiban, in India. We set up the protocol by which such persons take over control of the computer, and he soon decided that the problem was due to a corrupt database, and a conflict with Norton Security. He initiated the update again, but he had to sign off before the process completed, leaving me with a link that I could invoke in case of failure. I was given a case-number, and waited for an hour or so. And then the installation failed again. So the next day, I used the reinvocation, and was before long involved in another on-line chat, with Deepthi. Now Deepthi did not appear to know what he (or she) was doing, as I could watch him wandering aimlessly around HP configuration options. My mistrust was justified, as he suddenly signed off the session without letting me know why.

Accordingly, the next day, I reinvoked the link, and noticed that I was 93rd in line, so decided to try again later. The queue had then diminished to 21, so I tried it again, and was soon engaged in an on-line exchange with Praveen. His diagnosis was that some cookies needed to be removed, and Norton Security had to be disabled for a while, as it was inhibiting the execution of the Microsoft Update routines. So I watched as he cheerfully went through the whole process leading up to the installation of the updates. Then he left me to watch for an hour, until the update failed again.

Yet, when I tried to re-invoke the link to resume my interchange, I was told that it was no longer valid. This time, I resolved to speak to a real person, called the support number, and, after a wait of about fifteen minutes, I described my problem to the support representative. She took my number, and soon I was talking to another agent, named Tony. (By asking him what time it was where he was working, I determined that he must be located somewhere in the Mid-West.) Anyway, while he seemed to be unable to look up my Call Number, and discover what approaches had already been applied, Tony sounded much more confident, and judged that I needed a larger partition size to run the routines. So I watched as he downloaded the Minitool Partition Wizard (how come Microsoft does not supply this facility?), which ran for about half an hour. That task having been successfully completed, he said he was going to re-install the whole of Windows10, so that I would not have to deal with a separate Security Update. I was getting a bit anxious as this process started, so I begged him to stay on-line until it completed, indicating that he could multitask with other customers while the update continued. Yet he was so confident that his solution would work, he said we should ring off: he did however commit to calling me in another hour to check how things were going.

Predictably, the update failed. After about an hour and a half of installation, verification, preparation and execution, I received a short message, with no diagnostic code: ‘Windows installation has failed’. And this saga would not be complete unless I informed you that, no, Agent 4 (Tony) never called me back, despite his promise. I had been abandoned again.

Before finally agreeing to give up completely, and simply to ignore the messages emanating from Microsoft that were constantly bugging my wife, as she worked at her computer, informing her that her security was at risk, and that updates still needed to be installed, I decide to post a plaintive appeal on the Microsoft Support Forum. I summarized all that had occurred, and expressed my frustration at Microsoft’s shoddy installation software, and its even more unprofessional support agents, who appeared to apply guesswork in trying to resolve problems, and repeatedly left consumers like me hanging dry. My appeal was quickly picked up by a Microsoft employee who has been very patient in going through my experiences. Yet his final recommendation, after I gave him the status of my Windows10 System Build, and maintenance applied, sounded very much like the process that Agent 4 had undertaken. When I pointed this out, he urged me to try what was (he said) a very simple process: indeed, he himself had written the on-line document that guided it. So I sat down, went through his steps, disabling Norton Security and trying again when that package told me that one of Microsoft’s modules was unsafe, and had had to be removed. About ninety minutes later, the Microsoft software, having gone through download, installation, verification, and preparation, started its execution. After half an hour, I received exactly the same message that had appeared in the previous try: ‘Windows installation has failed’.

The Forum Observer responded promptly, requesting that I send him (via OneDrive) a couple of log files from an obscure Windows folder. I am not sure why no one had thought of inspecting such data before (I had in fact suggested such a course of action several days earlier, as I suspected such files should exist somewhere). I had not used OneDrive (Microsoft’s file-sharing service on the Cloud) before, but I retrieved the logs, followed the instructions from my iPad, created the OneDrive link, and posted it on the Forum page.

And then I received the following amazing message from the moderator:

“A Windows upgrade requires DISM utility to work and in your case DISM fails which then triggers a rollback.

Error initializing DISM Session: [0x800700c1], [gle=0 x800700c1]

Right-click Start>Command Prompt (admin) and type in:


If that fails with 193 post back the DISM log present at C:\Windows\Logs\DISM\ again through Onedrive”

As John McEnroe would say: ‘You cannot be serious!” And don’t you just hate it when your DISM fails? So I went ahead, and yes, the SCANHEALTH failed with a 193, and I posted on the forum the link to the DISM log on OneDrive. Isn’t this exciting?

The next news was not good. My contact thought that the damage ‘was beyond repair, and that I would either have to reset Windows or do a clean install. He pointed me to another link, where a Mr Carmack had published a document titled ‘Clean Install Windows 10”. Mr Carmack attempted to sell the process by describing it as ‘a game-changing learning experience that will make you permanently the master of my PC’, going on to write that ‘to stretch this out over days or weeks you’ll learn better how each change affects performance.’ But typical home users of PCs do not have ambitions of becoming geeks, taking up Windows maintenance as a hobby. The only game I wanted changed was the one of getting Microsoft to fix its software. The steps that Mr Carmack outlined are monstrous (see, and must be very prone to error. And, even if I went through all this, what were the chances the problem would recur? I replied in this vein, thanking the moderator again, suggesting it was perhaps time to give up. ‘So what are the implications of simply ignoring the attempts by Windows to install the Security updates? Maybe the laptop should simply be replaced?’, I asked.

There is an easier way, replied the moderator. He outlined some other steps, recommending that I do a reset, ‘as it might remove the corrupt driver which is preventing the upgrade’.  He had no idea what might have caused the problem, and suggested yet another site ‘where the experts might be able to help you better’. But, if a driver has been identified as defective, I wondered, why could it not be replaced? At this stage, I concluded that I had had enough. My wife and I would live with whatever nonsense Microsoft imposed on us, and replace the laptop with something from Apple when the time came.

It was difficult for me to imagine that my wife’s PC was the only one on the planet undergoing such experiences. She is a woman in a million, I know, but I do not understand how her rarity should extend to the tribulations on her laptop computer. And the exercise also reminded me how little way the software industry (or Microsoft, at any rate) has come in fifty years. The company delivers an upgrade to a system that is in many ways incompatible with the previous versions, and it has disabled certain functions. The on-line documentation frequently does not match how the screens of system information appear, so one is left groping. The diagnostic codes given when the software encounters problems are meaningless and obscure. One can find jokey tutorials on YouTube, but they are badly designed, often delivered in mumbles, and do not explain enough about the Whys of a particular feature. The support personnel who try to help the bewildered consumer are poorly trained, not provided with proper tools, and thus engage in guesswork. And, of course, we fogies have to deal with tracking down those tiny labels with product serial numbers, pasted in the most inaccessible places on the equipment, that have to be read with a magnifying-glass.

What galls me even more is that we (in the USA, anyway) are currently facing a bombardment of in-your-face advertising from Microsoft that promotes its new expertise in Artificial Intelligence as ‘Empowering Imagination’. It depresses me to think how such technology will be abused by a company so obviously inept at managing the release and maintenance of its own software. Perhaps the techniques of neural networks should be applied to Microsoft’s own configuration and diagnostic problems before they are imposed upon an unsuspecting world? Yet again, we have been here beforehand. I recall the surge of enthusiasm about AI about thirty years ago, when all number of hyperbolic claims were made about the advent of rule-based systems. Now we hear it again, with all sort of nonsense about systems that will be able to teach themselves how to be more effective, and thus achieve all manner of breakthroughs in medical diagnosis, or fraud detection, or whatever. Computers can be programmed to give results that appear to reflect intelligence, such as beating grandmasters at chess, but that does not mean that they are inherently intelligent.

Maybe this generation of AI is different, but a caveat remains. A key principle of computing science has been the verifiability of systems – the fact that code must be inspected to determine whether the logic has been implemented according to specifications. (If proper specifications actually exist, of course, which is a whole other problem: see Multiple Record Hold.) Thus I used to experience the process of ‘structured walk-throughs’, where one’s peers would wade laboriously through the code a colleague had written to apply more stringent tests that might escape the test data environment. If the onus of decision-making has now been delegated to the computing system itself, who now takes responsibility when something goes wrong? I was both amused and perturbed to read, in the New York Times, earlier this month, how engineers at Google have started analyzing how computers using neural networks reach the conclusions they do, as if the experts are concerned about the level of auditability that these systems provide. “Understanding how these systems work will become more important as they make decisions, like who gets a job and how a self-driving car responds to emergencies”, the article declared. (I write this the day after the Uber self-driving car in Tempe killed a pedestrian during a test-run.) Their concerns are appropriate: I smell litigation over unexplained, and inexplicable, disasters. The paradox is that, if the processes of AI are verifiable, the technology is considered mundane and unimaginative, while, if they are not, it is uncontrollable and dangerous.  What do you think, HAL?

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

A few years ago, the Times of London informed me it could no longer issue a cheque for the occasional fees for published Listener crossword puzzles without my submitting a complex form that confirmed that I was a proper US-resident tax-payer. The cost to complete the forms required was almost as much as the crossword fee, so I didn’t bother. Last year, my bank in the UK (with whom I have had an account since 1965) told me that I would have to change my deposit account into a long-term instrument that would mature in three years, as it was no longer allowed to pay interest on accounts to overseas customers. This month, I received a letter from Barclaycard (with whom I have had a sterling credit card for about forty years) advising me that my account would have to be closed in early April unless I could provide proof of a residential address in the United Kingdom. Thus another convenience (for paying magazine subscriptions, downloading files from the National Archives, purchasing gifts, even ordering a copy of my own book from amazon to send to a reviewer – all in sterling) disappears. I have maintained my UK citizenship, have paid all tax at source, as appropriate, and have always declared all my (puny) UK-based income to the US Internal Revenue Service. It is comforting to know that the British authorities are cracking down on the real risks to currency and tax fraud, and thus discouraging me from any further investments or expenditure in the UK, while allowing all that other soiled money from Russia and other places to be brought into London for the purposes of acquiring valuable assets and helping the economy.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, Technology

Sonia and the Quebec Agreement

[I have been reading the continuous appeals that come from my thousands of readers across the globe: ‘Give us more on Sonia!’ You can obviously not have enough of her. So, coming soon: Sonia and the Great Train Robbery, Sonia and Lord Lucan: The Hidden Affair, and Sonia and the Brexit Conspiracy. But for now, a return to World War II  . . .]

The Quebec Conference, August 1943

In the foreground, President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Behind King – Anthony Eden and Brendan Bracken. Note, on Bracken’s left, a British official using his PDA to send a text message to Josef Stalin.

“Whereas it is vital to our common safety in the present War to bring the Tube Alloys project to fruition at the earliest moment; and whereas this may be more speedily achieved if all available British and American brains and resources are pooled; and whereas owing to war conditions it would be an improvident use of war resources to duplicate plants on a large scale on both sides of the Atlantic and therefore a far greater expense has fallen upon the United States;

It is agreed between us

First, that we will never use this agency against each other.

Secondly, that we will not use it against third parties without each other’s consent.

Thirdly, that that we will not either of us communicate any information about Tube Alloys to third parties except by mutual consent.”

(Introduction to the Quebec Agreement, August 19, 1943)

The first suggestion that Ursula Beurton, née Kuczynski, agent SONIA of the Soviet Union’s military intelligence (GRU), had transmitted to her bosses in Moscow, very soon after the event, the details of the Quebec Agreement, appears to be in Chapman Pincher’s 2009 book Treachery. The Quebec Conference constituted an important achievement in the conduct of the war, as one of its protocols was the agreement by which Roosevelt and Churchill committed to share atomic weapons research, now driven by the US-controlled Manhattan Project. If Pincher’s claim could be shown to be true, it would add another arrow to the bow of that band of historians who like to assert that the Cold War was provoked largely by the deception and distrust that the leaders of the two western democracies displayed towards Joseph Stalin. It would bring the advent of the Cold War forward a couple of years from an event frequently described as marking it, the defection in Ottawa of the Soviet cypher clerk Igor Gouzenko in 1945. It would also confirm the presence of a highly-placed Soviet mole in British government or intelligence agencies. On the other hand, should the evidence turn out to be implausible, it would indicate that Russian military intelligence is still engaged in disinformation exercises. This article shows that the contradictions and anomalies in the accounts of the leakage of this secret leave the published claims about Sonia’s activity open to a great deal of scepticism.

The agreement itself was significant, as British efforts to continue the Tube Alloys project (the name by which the research activity was disguised in the UK) early in 1943 were on hold. The country realized that it had neither the resources nor the time to deliver the bomb independently before the probable end of the war. On the other hand, many Americans were suspicious of Britain’s post-war plans for commercialisation of the technology, as well as being concerned about the number of foreign-born scientists working on the project in Britain and Canada. Some officials were understandably also very wary about the Anglo-Russian agreement on exchange of scientific information, which had been signed – with the knowledge of some, but apparently not of Roosevelt – in September 1942. Moreover, Roosevelt’s haphazard approach to strategy, delegation, and communication only made the status of cooperation even more shaky, a situation that Churchill was not willing to endure any longer. A visit to London in mid-July 1943 by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, and Vannevar Bush, Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, led to negotiations that paved the way for the signing of the agreement on August 19. The significance for the Allied war effort was that the Soviet Union took no part in the negotiations, and was not formally notified of the proceedings. Thus a high degree of security was wrapped around this item on the Quebec agenda, lest Stalin be offended by the private plotting of his allies in their war against Nazi Germany.

The danger implied by the betrayal of such sensitive information can easily be overstated, however. Chapman Pincher concluded that ‘what Stalin regarded as his allies’ perfidy inevitably affected his attitude when, on 28 November, he met Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran to discuss both the war and the postwar situation’, even suggesting that the dictator might have interpreted the snub as ‘the first icy gust of the cold war to come’. This is, of course, pure conjecture on Pincher’s part: Stalin may, it is true, have been ill-disposed towards Roosevelt and Churchill at this time. He was still annoyed at the delays in opening the second front, and he had responded acrimoniously to Churchill in October when the British premier told him that he was suspending the Arctic convoys.  He was also irritated by the fact that his denials over the Katyn Forest massacre had recently been loudly rejected by the Polish government-in-exile. So ascribing Stalin’s peevishness to the conferring of his allies – when Stalin refused to travel any further than Iran to meet them, while Roosevelt and Churchill crossed half the world – and attributing the blame of the cold war on them, is a bit far-fetched.

Moreover, Stalin knew exactly what had been going on: he had dozens of spies in the UK, the USA and Canada keeping him informed of progress on the research into atomic weaponry. Yet Britain long remained a richer source of knowledge than the USA. The spy John Cairncross had been working for the Minister Without Portfolio, Lord Hankey, since September 1939, and had started providing copies of secret documents ever since Moscow sent out a questionnaire on the subject in the summer of 1941.  (Cairncross was transferred to GC&CS – Bletchley Park – in August 1942.) The fact that the UK and the USA signed an agreement would not have shocked the Soviet leader. Of course, if Stalin had discovered precise clauses that threatened the Soviet Union, his reaction might have been far more negative than if he had simply gained the impression that cooperative efforts between the USA and the UK were being regularised. Yet, while politicians soft on Soviet horrors, such as Roosevelt himself, and Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Minister, were reaching out to Stalin as a fellow-democrat and ‘man of peace’, Stalin harboured no illusions. He continued to regard the ‘imperialist’ powers as permanent adversaries, believed in the threat of ‘capitalist encirclement’, and was preparing for the time it would take for the Soviet Union to gather strength again after the war to face the inevitable conflict with his wartime allies. That is why he was so desperate to lay his hands on nuclear secrets. In fact, knowing about the shift of development exclusively to the USA helped his plans.

The emphases in the Agreement should be noted, too. While the first three clauses (listed above) are important, it is worth pointing out that a fourth clause was spelled out in much more detail, recognizing the dispute about commercial opportunities after the war, and providing a mechanism for its resolution. (see The detail applied to this clause suggests that more time was spent on it, and that the question of post-war rights was the primary occupation of the participants. One could now judge this focus as a distraction that was inappropriately mercenary at a time when the survival of western civilization was at stake. Moreover, the three main clauses – so casually laid out – contain their own seeds of controversy: the commitment to keep secrets to themselves shows a remarkably naïve perspective on the power of the respective governments to prevent espionage, while Stalin, if he did indeed read the verbiage, might have interpreted the conditions as a way of neutralising the threat by forming a stronger alliance with one of the parties – probably the USA, given Roosevelt’s warmness towards the Soviet Union – so that Great Britain would not be able to act independently. (One of Stalin’s first acts at Tehran was to peel Roosevelt away from Churchill for private talks, thus driving a wedge between them.) The force of the second clause must also be questioned: neither the US Congress nor the House of Commons (nor even Churchill’s Cabinet) had approved the condition, and the issue of how transferrable it was to the President’s and Prime Minister’s successors was also problematic. Both Roosevelt and Churchill would later affect surprise at the clauses they had approved in Quebec.

An important aspect of the event is that it was essentially two-layered. That some sort of announcement was in the works was common knowledge among the members of the Tube Alloys project: the team of scientists waiting in Britain was hoping for a positive message from the vanguard of James Chadwick, Rudolf Peierls, O. R. Frisch and Mark Oliphant, who had been sent out to the USA in early August, that the differences of opinion had been reconciled, and that the team could continue its work as a joint project with the Americans. Thus the fact that some tentative agreement had been made would be no surprise: Peierls, in his autobiography, Bird of Passage, even states that they heard news about progress in the negotiations before they left for the USA. This claim would appear to be supported by Margaret Gowing, who described (in her official history) how Sir John Anderson, Lord President and Churchill’s envoy, had been sent out to Washington at the beginning of August to negotiate the terms of an agreement with Bush and Dr. J. B. Conant. Matters progressed quickly, with the result that Anderson, on August 10, took with him to Quebec, to pass to Churchill, the draft of a paper identified then as ‘the Tube Alloys Agreement’. Wallace Akers, who was head of the Tube Alloys project in the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research, apparently grew so excited that he gained approval from Anderson to invite the four scientists from Britain to the USA, with the result that they arrived – with a haste that stretches credulity, and which discomforted their hosts – just over a week later.

The detailed text of the agreement, however, would have been considered a much more confidential matter, and Churchill and his team went to great lengths to keep the specifics secret. While, over sixty-five years later, the nature of the affront to Stalin when he learned about the agreement could be severely exaggerated, at the time, when Churchill and Roosevelt were completely unaware of the infiltration by Soviet spies in the fabric of government, the need for security was intense. Churchill was already so nervous about the risk of Ultra secrets being betrayed to the Germans via Soviet connections that he allowed only a heavily processed version of decrypts to be released to them. He was similarly guarded about nuclear secrets. On the other hand, Stalin knew that a conference was taking place: he sent to the two leaders an unpleasant telegram concerning Italy’s surrender on the last day of the sessions, and the tone of this message intensified Churchill’s fear of him.

In the first version of Treachery (page 5), Pincher claimed that the Russian archives showed that ‘on Saturday, September 4, 1943 – only sixteen days after the signing – Sonia, sitting in Oxford, supplied the Red Army Intelligence Center with an account of all the essential aspects of the Quebec Agreement’. Later in the book, on page 187, he wrote that “On 4 September, Sonia also transmitted a list of the atomic scientists chosen to work in America.” Pincher could provide no precise text for this document, but went on to write that the GRU archives recorded: “On 19 August 1943, in a secret personal message to Marshal Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill reported about their agreed plans for the surrender of Italy and other matters but there was no word about the fact that they had also made an additional secret agreement about the use of nuclear weapons.” While Sonia’s prime role had been to service the communist scientist and spy Klaus Fuchs, Pincher concluded that Fuchs could not have been the source of this item of information. Sonia had not seen Fuchs since mid-August (he argued), and there was no mechanism by which the details of the agreement could have been passed to him in that time-frame.

What complicates Pincher’s thesis, however, is how, in Treachery, he selectively cites an earlier source, Ultimate Deception, (How Stalin stole the bomb), by Jerry Dan, actually the pen-name of one Nigel Bance. Dan’s book, published in 2003, consists of a detailed account of the Soviet Union’s quest for nuclear technology, gained from interviewing GRU and KGB sources in Russia, and using a rich vein of original documents, some of which the author reproduces in his book. (Dan’s work is a curious mélange of fact and fiction that needs to be parsed very carefully.) Dan’s critical sentences (p 208) about Sonia and the scientists are worth quoting in full: “General Groves, the newly installed head of the Manhattan Engineering District, the US codename for their atomic bomb project, agreed to the British request that a number of its scientists should work in America. Lord Cherwell, Wallace Akers and Michael Perrin, his deputy, met to decide what names to put forward to Groves, who reserved the right of refusal. Advised by two of his scientists, Mark Oliphant and James Chadwick, a list was finally agreed . . .  Word quickly spread in the scientific community as to who was on the list. Fuchs provided the names to Ruth [=Sonia], who then transmitted them to a grateful Moscow on September 4.”

A few items here are noteworthy. The first is that Dan, despite his privileged access to archival sources, makes no mention of the Quebec Agreement itself in describing Sonia’s transmissions of September 1943. The second is that he implies that the process, extensive and drawn-out (‘finally agreed’), must have taken several weeks to accomplish. (Some of the scientists were not yet British citizens, and had to be naturalized.) Yet he claims the list was in Sonia’s hands in early September: this does not make sense. The third is that Oliphant and Chadwick are defined as playing a key role in the selection of the scientists – yet they had both travelled to the USA with Peierls and Simon in August, and were still being briefed by Groves in September. Peierls recorded that the selection did not take place until after Niels Bohr arrived in the United Kingdom in October. Margaret Gowing, in Part 1 of her official history, Britain and Atomic Energy 1939-1945, confirms this. In addition, she wrote that ‘by the time the Combined Policy Committee formally ratified the proposals for collaboration in December 1943, the various missions and visits had been approved by General Groves, and the various British scientists concerned were already in, or on their way to, the United States’, thus reinforcing a more leisurely timetable. The idea that Fuchs (or anyone else) provided them to Sonia in early September cannot be taken seriously. Pincher carefully avoids endorsing Dan’s comment about Fuchs while using him as a buttress for his argument. This theme of the betrayal of the list of scientists occurring impossibly early will recur, and will be analysed in depth later.

Pincher’s account thus raises some provocative questions. The only text that he cited is clearly not an archival source record: it is a piece of commentary inserted at a later date. (From Dan’s examples, this appears to be a common practice in Soviet archives.) A truly current historical entry would not be able to report on the absence of any communication on something that had been withheld. Why was Pincher able to quote only the later analysis, and not the source? What exactly had Sonia provided in her message? What ‘essential aspects’ had been communicated? And how do we know that it was indeed Sonia who sent it? And, if had been Sonia, given that her son Peter was born four days after the radio message was sent, how did she meet her informant? Did he or she visit her house in Oxford? If so, would that not have been an enormous risk for the individual? Or did she really travel (she would take the train to Banbury in her various rendezvous with Fuchs) to make the encounter with her contact?

In 2009, Pincher had a definite theory. He was confident enough to name the MI5 officer Roger Hollis as ELLI, the spy within MI5 – later identified but not named by the Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko in 1945 – and declared him the informant. Pincher made some imaginative jumps in promoting his thesis that Hollis would have gained access to the information through his colleague at Tube Alloys, Roger Perrin. Pincher relied, however, on a 2002 work written (in Russian) by Bokcharev and Kolpakidi, Superfrau iz GRU, for the insight that ‘on 4 September, Sonia reported data on the results of the conference’. Pincher hypothesized that Hollis had reason to travel to the Oxford area from his office in London at that time, and, since Hollis was an old friend of Neville Laski’s, at whose house Sonia was accommodated, he had justifiable reasons for visiting her to pass over the information.

In the revised (‘Updated and Uncensored’) version of Treachery published in 2012, Pincher   appeared to bolster his claim by citing that, in July 2011 ‘the Moscow-based historian Dr Svetlana Chervonnaya reported having discovered a Soviet document confirming that Sonia had sent the information about the Quebec Agreement on 4 September 1943 and that, after translation into Russian, it was taken straight to Stalin’. Again, is this archival record merely a retrospective annotation? Once more, no text of the source document was provided. Were intelligence officers under Stalin thus methodical in reporting such routine events? After all, it is well-known that Stalin devoured all intelligence gained from his spy network. Why would this fact be worth recording? And, if the GRU was anxious, in the first decade of the 21st century, to make a case about western treachery from the 1940s, why not show the world the proof?

I can find no trace of any document pertaining to the Quebec Agreement on Dr Chervonnaya’s website Nor can I find any reference to it in the Vassiliev papers, which are available on-line through the Wilson Center in Washington. I have not read Superfrau iz GRU. Sonia chose not to (or was not allowed to) mention this critical event in her memoir Sonjas Rapport. The VENONA transcripts for this period appear to contain no references to Quebec, although one cable does cover a visit to the UK made in late August by the spy Cedric Belfrage, of the British Security Commission in New York. The other classical works about the opening up of the Soviet archives are likewise silent on any disclosure of the Quebec Agreement to Soviet Intelligence at the time. It is by no means clear who is quoting and echoing whom in these rumours of espionage. Yet Pincher’s poorly sourced claim has already started to become adopted by historians and biographers. In his 2011 account of the life of the Soviet spy in Canada, Fred Rose, David Levy, citing Pincher, accepts without question the fact that the details of the Quebec Agreement were leaked by ‘a highly-placed mole in British intelligence’, although he ambivalently declines to echo Pincher’s claim that that person was Roger Hollis. “Stalin apparently arrived in Tehran feeling himself the victim of a low blow, a dirty Anglo-American trick”, is nevertheless his confident conclusion.

In 2016, William Tyrer published an article titled The Unresolved Mystery of Elli in the International Journal of Intelligence. In this piece, Tyrer re-presented some of the arguments that Pincher gathered for his case that ELLI was Hollis, including the communication of the details on the Quebec Agreement, but concluded that the cases for ELLI being either Hollis or the known KGB agent Leo Long (as Christopher Andrew had claimed) were then ‘even weaker’.  Without either analyzing in detail some of the stronger evidence that Pincher provided to bolster his case, however, or the many anomalies and contradictions in it, Tyrer came to the unsupported conclusion that the idea that ‘Hollis was ELLI or a supermole appears to be more and more unlikely.’ Part of his argument rested on his claim that it was Fuchs, not Hollis, who was in the best position to provide Sonia with the information. While accepting without question the validity of the origin of the story of the leak to Stalin, Tyrer departed radically from Pincher’s analysis, going on to note the following: “But Sonia’s source for this information about the Agreement was very likely Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet atomic spy. At the time, Fuchs was part of a contingency of British scientists waiting in England for news that Roosevelt and Churchill had signed the Quebec Agreement. When the Agreement was finally signed, the British scientists, including Fuchs, were permitted to travel to the U.S. While the Agreement was kept a close secret – even Liddell at MI5 appeared to not know about it – Fuchs was probably sufficiently connected to hear its details.”

So what was the basis of this ‘connection’? How solid is that ‘probably’? Tyrer appeared to derive this conclusion from the evidence of the Russian writer on intelligence and military affairs, Vladimir Lota, who, Tyrer asserts, had access to some GRU files ‘off limits to other researchers’. Tyrer offered in a footnote that Lota wrote: “On 4 September, U. Kuczysnki reported to the Center information on the outcomes of the conference in Quebec. She had also learned that English scientists Pierls [sic], Chadwick, Simon and Olifant [sic] had departed for Washington. U. Kuczynski had received this information from Klaus Fuchs . . .” Tyrer added a detailed reference in The Russian Military Review for this nugget, and even provided a long URL for confirmation. Yet this passage needs to be inspected closely to test its validity.

Tyrer credited Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya (the same person who aided Pincher) with the information: her opinion on the Fuchs/Hollis controversy is unknown to me. Yet some questions arise. Would GRU records really have referred to Sonia as U. Kuczynski, her birth-name? Why would Lota use this formulation, when she was known through her memoir as Ruth Werner, her proper name was then Ursula Beurton, and the archives refer to agents through their cryptonyms? And why would Chervonnaya indicate to Pincher that she had discovered this nugget herself, while informing Tyrer that Lota had exclusive access to the archive where it was found? Why would Pincher interpret her guidance as incriminating Hollis, while Tyrer uses it to point the blame towards Fuchs? Nevertheless, despite the uncertainties, and the fact that Pincher and Tyrer offer contradictory analyses of how the secret was leaked, Tyrer’s somewhat speculative contribution has started to pass into lore. If you inspect the very thorough and apparently authoritative text of the Wikipedia entry on the Quebec Agreement ( , you will find there the confident assertion that Sonia betrayed the secret to Moscow, and that it is attributed to Tyrer’s article on ELLI. There is no mention of Lota, or Chervonnaya, or Bokcharev and Kolpakidi, or a verifiable GRU archival source document – or even Chapman Pincher or Jerry Dan.

While Tyrer’s theory is orthogonal to the issue of ELLI, and whether Hollis did indeed own that cryptonym, this sequence of events seems highly unlikely (as Pincher would no doubt have agreed). As explained earlier, Peierls, Frisch and Oliphant had arrived in Washington the same day on which the Quebec Agreement had been signed, August 19, so the second piece of information – that Peierls and Co. had departed – would appear to have originated some time before. (A symptom of the confusion over dates here is that the historian Nigel West, in his study of Soviet penetration of the Manhattan project, Mortal Crimes, not only has the Peierls team crossing the Atlantic after the Quebec Agreement, but also sets it in August 1942.) Pincher himself recorded (again citing Russian archives) that Sonia did not see Fuchs between mid-August and November 1943. The spies and scientists were indeed ‘waiting’ for news about a hypothetical agreement, but when did they learn the news? The official historian of the atomic project, Margaret Gowing, wrote that Chadwick, Peierls and Oliphant did not even learn about the Los Alamos project from General Groves until September 1943. Fuchs had to gain a non-immigrant visa for the USA, but did not apply until October 22 (according to Norman Moss), which was granted on November 18 (much to the consternation of Milicent Bagot in MI5, as the National Archives at Kew confirm). Richard Rhodes, in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, describes how, as late as November 1943, Chadwick asked Frisch whether he would like to work in the United States, informing him that he would have to become a British citizen to gain his clearance. Fuchs and twenty-nine other scientists left soon afterwards, even though General Groves did not complete the approval process until December, after they had left the country.

Irrespective of exactly what insight was revealed illegally to Sonia, from all standpoints – temporal, logistical, security – it would seem impossible for Fuchs to have been the messenger. Yet the text in the passage by Lota that Tyrer supplies shows another anomaly. The ‘also’ is a strange construction to use when it introduces an event (the departure of Peierls & Co.)  that preceded the activities (concerning the Quebec Agreement) to which this event is additive! Is it not more likely that ‘this information’ that Lota writes about is the immediately antecedent statement about the departure of Peierls & co., in apposition to ‘the outcomes of the conference’, and not any revelation of the details of the Quebec Agreement itself? If the group had left for Washington in time to arrive on August 19, the departure must have been about a week beforehand. Since Fuchs had an appointment with Sonia in mid-August, it would suggest that it was on that occasion  – before the Quebec conference was held – that he passed on the news that Peierls & Co. had left. This scenario – that he reported solely on the departure of the vanguard, rather than the selection of the larger team of scientists approved for immigration – is far more plausible. He could not have known the details of the ‘Quebec Agreement’ at that time, although it is presumably quite possible that Rudolf Peierls, soon after August 10, when he learned of his invitation to rush over to the USA, had passed on to his protégé that an agreement in principle (‘the Tube Alloys Agreement’) had been forged, and that it would probably be endorsed at the meeting in Quebec. On the other hand, if Sonia did indeed learn more about the Quebec Agreement itself before her transmission of September 4, it surely must have come from someone else.

While Pincher also made a gratuitous and unfounded claim that the director-general of MI5, Sir David Petrie, ‘would have received a copy of the Quebec Agreement’, his argument that Sonia’s informant must have been Hollis relies primarily on the supposition that he probably heard about it from Michael Perrin, Akers’s deputy. Perrin was Hollis’s liaison in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, who arranged the original approval for Fuchs to be employed. Pincher states that Perrin ‘knew that the agreement had been signed because he had been given the “all-clear” to dispatch the first batch of scientists.’ Pincher wildly distorts the facts: Perrin certainly did not have that authority. Gowing informs us that the first meeting of the Combined Policy Committee did not take place until September 8, and that Chadwick had to make a further visit to the USA to discuss interchange with Groves. The decision on scientists had to await the return of Chadwick and his team from the USA. Unless Pincher was carelessly confusing the departure of the advance team in August with that of the larger contingent in November, his statement about Sonia’s providing the list of approved scientists as early as September 4 must be pure hokum, and casts much doubt on the veracity of his sources. And, as Tyrer sensibly countered, if Hollis’s superior officers David Petrie, Dick White and Guy Liddell did not know about the Agreement (Liddell refers to it for the first time in 1945), how would Hollis have been able to get his hands on it? As Michael Goodman’s official history of the Joint Intelligence Committee informs us, neither the JIC (nor even the Cabinet) knew about the details of the atomic weapons program until Hiroshima occurred. But using this argument as a way of showing that Pincher’s obsession with Roger Hollis was misguided and forlorn, and thus turning the finger of guilt on Fuchs, does not seem a profitable research avenue to pursue.

Moreover, Pincher’s explanation for the anonymity and obscurity of this piece of evidence is also illogical. Why would the GRU hold back on such an obvious coup, and not release the information until everyone involved was dead? Pincher believed the survival of relatives was part of the reason. In her memoir, Sonjas Rapport, (published in 1977) Sonia refrained (under the control of the GRU itself) from identifying Fuchs at all. He was still alive, and reputedly still not in great odour with the Soviets, as he had confessed, in their view unnecessarily, to espionage. After he died in 1988, however, she was allowed to speak up. Pincher records that she admitted her role as a courier for Fuchs in a television programme, and in the English translation of her memoir, Sonya’s Report, published in 1991, she added several paragraphs about Fuchs. For instance, she included the misleading observation that Fuchs must have ‘behaved naively’ when interrogated by William Skardon ‘the most psychologically astute interrogator of the British secret service’ – a judgment that severely overstates the ex-detective’s capabilities.

Then what about her coup with the Quebec Agreement? Even though Sonia was quick to make some political points in her memoir (such as the demands from the British public for the opening of the second front), she said nothing about the development of the joint plans for atomic weapons research, or how it doubtless betrayed the goodwill of the gallant Soviet people. Pincher wrote that this was ‘presumably because of continuing need to protect its source’ (in his view, Hollis). Yet Hollis had died in 1973: why would the GRU need to protect him? The GRU, however, did not relax its influence even after Fuchs died. Pincher also informed us that Sonia went to her death without revealing her coup over the details of the Quebec Agreement. “The GRU had been unwilling to release the secret while she was alive and did so only in a one-upmanship clash forced on it by old KGB officers”, he added. (Pincher did not explain how he came to this conclusion.) Yet his narrative does not make sense. For any department of Soviet intelligence to conceal such a propaganda coup is quite out of character: one can imagine an initiative to distort a historical event for political purposes as highly likely. If archival information has surfaced that sheds light on what happened seventy-five years ago, why not publish it? (Tyrer suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the GRU is waiting for the death of Hollis’s widow, reminding us that Hollis died in 1973. I have not been able to track the birth or death of Edith Valentine Hollis, née Hammond, but Tyrer informs me that he saw her, in ‘a very healthy state’, only five or six years ago, in Catcott, Somerset.) And were there no confirmations of the Agreement from American sources that survived in the archives of the KGB and the GRU? (Stalin always liked confirmation of reports from the rival intelligence service.) What has been going on?

First of all, if the details of the Quebec Agreement were truly revealed in September, and if the cases for Hollis and Fuchs are both weak, who was the third party responsible? Could it have been Rudolph Peierls? As was explained earlier, Wallace Akers had invited Peierls and his colleagues to the USA at the beginning of August.   Unfortunately, Peierls does not cover the details of this visit in his memoir, but he may have been deceptive – not for the first time. Peierls (who recruited Klaus Fuchs) was a highly dubious character, as I have explained in Misdefending the Realm, and was not to be trusted to keep secrets to himself. When Fuchs was arrested in 1950, Peierls also came under suspicion. Could he have been the intermediary? Even with these facts, and with the assumption that Peierls did learn, very soon afterwards, the details of the agreement that had been signed, it is difficult to imagine how he could have communicated a message without detection across the Atlantic. He was a very cautious man, and overall worked very assiduously to make sure that his fingerprints were not on any trace of espionage. If he did tell Fuchs anything, it must have been whatever condensed message he had received about the status of negotiations, and the purpose of his voyage, before the Quebec Agreement was signed

Tyrer has, however, researched who would have known about the Agreement, and, having delved into the archives at Kew, has come up with a list of British officials who were informed of it. Much of this information can be confirmed by Gowing, since Appendix 4 in her history contains the text of the Agreement and the list of members of the Combined Policy Committee that was chartered with supervising the project in Washington: her text adds useful commentary. Thus the extended list includes names such as Sir John Anderson (Lord President of the Council, who drafted the agreement), W L Gorrell Barnes, J. M. Martin (Churchill’s secretary), Captain E Clifford (Office of the War Cabinet), Colonel J. J. Llewellin (the British Cabinet Minister Resident in Washington), Field-Marshal Sir John Dill (head of the British Joint Services Mission in Washington), and C. D. Howe (Canadian representative). Dill, Llewellin and Howe were all members of the Combined Policy Committee. Tyrer added that it was likely that Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s Chief Scientific Advisor, also received a copy, a fact that is confirmed by Gowing, as well as by the Oxford Companion to World War II. Might he be a link?

Even though Cherwell, the scientist known as ‘the Prof’, was not even in the Cabinet, he knew far more than the members of that body (apart from Churchill and John Anderson, presumably). Gowing also presented the startling information that Cherwell (partially to dissuade the Americans of the commercial competitive threat) had promoted the argument that the atomic bomb would be required after the war in case the Soviet Union acquired it. Cherwell therefore does not hold the profile of someone who would leak deliberately. Indeed, while this opinion in fact mirrored what Churchill himself was telling the Americans, it was astonishingly bold thinking for the summer of 1943. There would have been American generals who sympathized with that perspective, but Roosevelt and his aide Harry Hopkins would have been taken aback, given that their main political agenda was maximizing the opportunity to cooperate with Stalin in creating a peaceful post-war order. Hopkins was undoubtedly a bit naive. He seems to have been cleared of passing secrets to the Russians (something he was accused of), but he was more sympathetic to them, far too trusting of Stalin, and has even been characterised as a Soviet ‘agent of influence’.  He surely did not pass on any secret documents directly, but he might have said something to a spy on Roosevelt’s staff, in the same fashion that Cherwell might have confided in a trusted colleague, and the message could have been passed on. It should also be pointed out that Roosevelt had, unbeknownst to the team that went to London, already decided that the Agreement should go ahead. Thus Cherwell’s comparatively belligerent attitude would not have disqualified him from remaining a confidant: he might provide a clue to who the perpetrator was.

One of the objections to the claim that Roger Hollis was ELLI has been the fact that Soviet intelligence experts have reportedly expressed bewilderment at the proposition, and no evidence has appeared in Russian archives equating Hollis’s name with that cryptonym. (One can read claims that the defector Oleg Gordievsky knew that ELLI was Hollis, but was persuaded to keep quiet about it by MI5 and SIS as terms of his freedom after he escaped to the West in 1985. Gordievsky is still alive: I should like his attention drawn to this piece . . . ) On the other hand, some Soviet officers have reputedly pointed the finger at Victor Rothschild as an agent working for the Soviets, and Lord Rothschild was obliged to protest, late in life, that he had never been a spy, and even looked for vindication from Margaret Thatcher’s government that would disprove such an assertion (an impossible task). As I have shown in my book, Misdefending the Realm, Rothschild was at least an ‘agent of influence’ who exercised a dangerous effect on MI5’s attitude towards communists when he was employed by the Security Service during the war. His primary biographer, Norman Rose, underplayed his leftist beliefs and contributions towards Zionist ambitions in his book, Elusive Rothschild. Roland Perry went as far as naming Rothschild as a Soviet spy in his undisciplined The Fifth Man, a work that should be treated very circumspectly.

Did Rothschild have an opportunity to leak the details of the Quebec Agreement? He was a well-respected scientist, and a close friend of Lord Cherwell and of Churchill himself. His status allowed him to move freely around government institutions, especially in his role as an auditor of security on behalf of MI5. He was also a very close friend of Duff Cooper, who headed the Security Executive (and, as Rose reports, would join Cooper in making fun of David Petrie, the head of MI5). On the surface, it would appear much more likely that he would have learned about the Quebec Agreement before Fuchs or Hollis did. He might also have had a mechanism for contacting Sonia, through her father, Robert, or her brother, Jürgen, in London, or his friends. By the summer of 1943, Sonia’s landlord, Neville Laski, was living next to the Kuczynskis in Hampstead. (Remarkably, MI5 noted this fact on August 16, while Peierls was in transit to the USA: was this mere coincidence?) Laski was more right-wing himself, and a solicitor for the Home Office (and maybe even MI5), but his wife, Cissie, came from a fervently Communist family. Her brother was the Communist Jack Gaster, who married Isaiah Berlin’s close friend, Maire Lynd. If the Laskis moved out to their house in Oxford at weekends (as Pincher claims), Rothschild might have been able to pass messages to her for Sonia to transmit.

Yet this theory would appear to fall down over chronology, as well, certainly if Rothschild’s source were posited to be Cherwell or Churchill. Churchill did not return to London from his extended tour of Canada and the USA until September 19, after which date Cherwell soon received the news. Cherwell wrote a letter to Churchill deprecating the terms of the Agreement, but not until October 19. Unless information about the agreement, sent by encrypted telegram, had been carelessly shared with Rothschild (or some other), the timetable of Sonia’s reported transmission must exclude him. The notion that Robert Kuczynski could have been a vital link in the chain has been pointed out by several historians. Robert Chadwell Williams, the author of a 1987 biography of Fuchs, Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, wrote: “Her father continued his relationships with highly placed British officials, including Stafford Cripps, and passed Sonia information from Churchill’s War Cabinet.” (p 59) Cripps must be added to the list of suspects, although the chronology is still dubious.

Yet another prominent name should be added to the mix. In his monumental work, Hitler’s Spies, David Kahn informs us (p 311) that, on September 1, 1943, the Nazi spy JOSEFINE commented on the Quebec Conference. While the only extract that Kahn cites is information about the cross-Channel invasion, this fact shows that details of the conference were being passed to foreign embassies. For JOSEFINE (as Kahn also points out) was a pseudonym for the military, naval and air attachés at the Swedish Embassy in London, who were presumably passing information through the diplomatic bag to Stockholm. In his history of MI6, Nigel West explains that the identity of JOSEFINE was later unveiled by ‘one of MI5’s ablest officers’, whose name was Anthony Blunt. The leaks appeared to have originated with William Strang in the Foreign Office, who may have carelessly passed on information to Johan Oxenstierna, the Swedish naval attaché. Moreover, Blunt, as head of B1(b), was responsible for opening and inspecting the contents of diplomatic bags before they were shipped onwards, so, if information about atomic weaponry was also included in the report, he would have been in an excellent position to pick it up, and Sonia would have been redundant.

And a final avenue to be explored is the role of C. D. Howe, the Canadian representative on the Combined Policy Committee. I notice that in his afore-mentioned biography of Fred Rose (‘Stalin’s Man in Canada’), David Levy reports that Howe, head of the Department of Munitions and Supply, had in 1943 been approached for the formula of the explosive RDX by the Russians – the very same quest that resulted in Rose’s term in prison. ‘Canada was willing to supply it but the Americans were opposed’, writes Levy. Howe was a very influential Canadian businessman and politician, and he had been informed of the Manhattan Project in June 1943. His Wikipedia entry enigmatically records that ‘Howe had an excellent reputation, even in the Soviet Union’, although it does not explain the nature of his exchanges with Soviet representatives. Maybe he was a dubious choice for participation on the committee: perhaps his communications were entirely innocent. Yet it does appear problematic that a trusted member of the secret committee apparently had unofficial meetings with Soviet operatives seeking strategic technology.

Thus, if a leak really did take place, was Sonia truly involved, and did she in fact transmit this message herself? As I have shown in my on-line saga, Sonia’s Radio ( Sonia’s husband, Len Beurton, was probably operating a wireless set out of the property they maintained in Kidlington, Oxfordshire. While TNA records show that Beurton returned to the domestic home shortly before Sonia’s labour, the Kidlington property was no doubt still in use. He would have been in a far fitter state to broadcast the news, and Sonia, aware that her decoy transmitter was being surveilled by Britain’s radio detection organs, would not have risked sending details of such a sensitive matter over her own equipment. That is, of course, if we can rely on these unseen Soviet archives that attribute the news to Sonia. It seems far more likely that the much more porous American administration  – outwardly much more sympathetic to Soviet Russia than even Anthony Eden’s Foreign Office, and populated at the highest level by Soviet spies – passed on the news to Moscow. For example, the spy Lauchlin Currie was one of Roosevelt’s administrative assistants, and Harry Hopkins might have given him the information. Harry Dexter White was also regularly passing on strategic information from the Treasury.  For some reason, intelligence officers in the GRU might have wished to muddy the waters by giving the credit to Sonia instead of revealing that the information was leaked through a KGB medium, or through a different country altogether.

The status of the GRU at this time, however, is particularly poignant. In the summer and autumn of 1943 the KGB (in fact named the NKGB at that time) voiced serious concerns about the reliability of its own atomic espionage network. The USA ring had been very slow in building contacts with access to inner secrets of the Manhattan project; KGB leaders asked questions about the duplication of effort between the GRU and its own organization; and strong doubts were starting to be raised about the reliability of the Cambridge Five – had they been turned by British intelligence? In mid-August Merkulov (head of the KGB) approved the transfer of GRU resources to the KGB, with the eventual outcome that Fuchs was assigned to a KGB handler in February 1944. Remarkably, the KGB had considered recruiting Fuchs when it discovered that he was one of the elected scientists set to work in the USA. Kukin, who had replaced Gorsky as head of the London station, was informed only then (in November) that Fuchs had been an agent of the GRU since 1941 – another indication that a leak came from elsewhere. Thus the GRU historians, working retrospectively, might have become a little carried away in describing this considerable coup over their overweening rivals.

In any case, there exists a great danger that a process of ‘ahistorical drift’, whereby the existence of an unverifiable story gains acceptance by being repeated in more serious historical studies, will take place with this event. One strong conclusion from all this noise might be that Fuchs passed on critical secrets to Sonia on two occasions. In August, he revealed the departure of Peierls & Co. In November, just before he left the UK (on the occasion when Sonia gave him his instructions for assignments in the USA), he may have known enough to tell her something about the Quebec Agreement, and certainly would have known of the list of approved scientists. Peierls could indeed have been the source of information by then. Then we would be left with a clumsy conflation of the two episodes in the Soviet archives, with Fuchs as the sole informer. Alternatively, another party did inform Sonia about the Quebec Agreement in early September, and she combined that information from him or her with her report from Fuchs.

One critical indication that Sonia would have been receiving intelligence elsewhere is that, before the rendezvous in November, she must have been passed instructions from a well-informed GRU contact, namely what Fuchs should do in the USA to meet his new contact. The GRU (or KGB) already knew that Fuchs (and the others) would soon be on their way to the USA. This item is extremely important: the necessary presence of alternative GRU channels of communication appears to have been overlooked in the various histories of its role in espionage in Britain. Thus, as Kukin’s testimony suggests, the meeting between Fuchs and Sonia in November was probably triggered more by Moscow Centre’s need to inform Fuchs of new subversive arrangements in the USA than it was by Fuchs’s (now redundant) requirement to inform Sonia of his imminent departure. In the latter half of November, therefore, there must have been some intensive wireless communication taking place between the Kremlin and the Soviet Embassy in London. The attribution of the leaks to Fuchs in August could well be a smokescreen designed to distract attention from more sensitive channels elsewhere.

An analysis of the various rendezvous between Fuchs and Sonia merits a study of its own. If, as Pincher, Williams, and others imply, the two arranged to meet about every three months, the encounters of August and November were extremely fortuitous. For them to have timed the first at exactly the date by which Peierls had heard about the coming agreement, but before he left for the USA, and the second for the time when Fuchs would have heard that his voyage had been approved, but just before he boarded the Andes on November 24, shows remarkable imagination. Sonia’s pregnancy should surely have been a consideration when they arranged, in August 1943, their next Treff. Mike Rossiter, in his 2014 biography of Fuchs, The Spy Who Changed the World, introduces a new gloss. He echoes the three-month intervals, but also claims that, as the Soviet Union’s own atomic project (Enormoz) got under way, Sonia was ordered to meet Fuchs ‘with increasing regularity’. Rossiter clumsily compromises the whole story by claiming that it was in September that Fuchs ‘became aware that he would probably be going to the United States’ – an account that satisfies neither of the scenarios. He does not indicate the source of these insights. Perhaps Fuchs and Sonia used the dubok (‘hiding-place’), which Sonia describes in the English version of her memoir, to leave messages requesting unscheduled meetings, but that must have been a very haphazard way of doing business. Maybe they used other human intermediaries, or maybe Fuchs even visited her lodgings, despite Sonia’s protestations to the contrary. Sonia ignores all this drama, only mentioning – rather implausibly – that Moscow Centre asked her to come up with a rendezvous in New York when Fuchs was about to be relocated. The inevitable conclusion from this analysis is that all attempts to plot the movements and exchanges of Fuchs and Sonia invariably include a large amount of guesswork.

It seems much more likely that the KGB took charge of this highly important project. Sonia regularly visited her relatives in London, and maybe they visited her in Oxford. Moscow was no doubt able to monitor the progress of the post-Quebec approval processes much more closely through its spies in London, and merely used Sonia as an intermediary to Fuchs, to make sure he would be as productive across the Pond as he was this side of it. The transfer of so much responsibility to Sonia looks like a clumsy attempt to boost their heroine’s reputation, and a wily ruse to shift attention away from her father, and from the role of some more highly-placed spies in Britain’s political administration.

Thus the most charitable interpretation of this garbled communication is that the historians involved have all confused a vague indication of improving US-Anglo relations as the Quebec Agreement itself, and the news of the departure of the vanguard with the final selection of scientists made in November. But it takes a remarkable coincidence, or a large measure of collusion, for all of them to misread similarly the evidence they claim to have discovered in the Russian archives, and to get the chronology so stupendously wrong. If claims are made that Stalin did indeed learn about the terms of the Quebec Agreement as early as September 1943, a credible explanation of how the agent responsible received the information is a vital part of the argument. Knowledge of the timing, format and exact content of the message would be a critical component of the analysis. The echo of the bewildering account of the list of scientists being passed on shouts out for documentary evidence. The puzzle behind this story can be represented in the following scenarios:

  1. No secret information about the Agreement was in fact sent to Moscow in September (in which case the GRU is involved in disinformation, a hoax);
  2. Secret information was sent, but not by Sonia (in which case the GRU should explain why it is attributing the leak to Sonia);
  3. Sonia (or her husband, Len Beurton) did transmit confidential information about the Agreement (in which case a comparison of source documents, and the text in the GRU archive should help identify who was responsible).

A proper resolution of this affair can therefore only come from the following steps:

  • Verifying the existence of a real document in the GRU archive, dated September 1943, that relates to the signing of the Quebec Agreement, and assessing whether this is a full and accurate transcript of the Agreement, or simply a summarization, or even an anticipation, of it, and whether it is genuine, or may have been inserted at a later date;
  • Verifying the existence of a dated document from the same period that speaks of the transit of scientists based in Britain to the United States, and assessing whether it refers to the recent past departure of the advance party in August, or the approval of the final team assembled in November for future departure in December;
  • Determining the source of the intelligence;
  • If the source is claimed to have come from the UK in September 1943, developing a hypothesis as to how the informant could have learned about the Agreement, or acquired a copy of it, especially given Sonia’s late-stage pregnancy;
  • Investigating whether the intelligence might have been gained elsewhere (e.g. through US sources), and whether it was falsely ascribed to Sonia or her husband.

Until the original documents referred to by such as Lota and Chervonnaya surface, a question-mark must linger over the claimed breach, through Sonia, of the security of the Quebec Agreement and the intelligence on the list of approved scientists. Yet if such documents do come to the surface, they may well help in the identification of ELLI.

“The historian must have a mulish obstinacy, a refusal to be gulled; he must be incredulous of his evidence or he will trip over the deliberately falsified”. (Sherman Kent in Writing History, p 7)

Breaking News: I have just discovered that Oxford Digital Media is releasing a film about Sonia’s espionage, titled The Spy Who Stole the Atom Bomb. See a trailer at I have not yet ascertained where it will be shown, but I regret that I was not engaged  as a consultant.  Please contact me if you have additional information. I have sent ODM an email suggesting that the producers of the film might want to read ‘Sonia’s Radio’.  8:30 PM, February 28.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

Soviet Espionage: Transatlantic Connections

Perceptive readers of my November 2017 blog will have noted that, while I confidently outlined the political climate in the UK in 1940, in the months after Kritvitsky’s revelations, I was more circumspect about the conditions in the USA, and why his warnings were ignored there. Had a band of moles been inserted deeply and clandestinely into US institutions, in similar fashion to the how the careers of the Cambridge spies were prompted? Was the F.B.I., the equivalent of MI5, trained to be on the alert against Communist subversion? Did the two counter-espionage services collaborate? Why was Krivitsky’s evidence to the Dies Committee, in an open forum (unlike the clandestine way Krivitsky provided testimony to British intelligence) not taken seriously? Were there links between the Soviet spies in the UK and the Americas? In summary, were the patterns of denial the same? Above all, I needed to understand better why the evidence provided in September 1939 by the Soviet courier Whittaker Chambers (who had broken off contact with the NKVD in 1938) had been ignored by J. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I., and by President Roosevelt. This was apparently a far more scandalous act of negligence than that which occurred in the UK. What was going on?

I realised that I needed to dig around a lot more. I had many years ago read Chambers’s memoir Witness (1952), and more recently some of the major works on Soviet espionage (Dallin’s Soviet Espionage (1955), Lamphere’s The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story (1986), Andrew’s and Gordievsky’s  KGB: The Inside Story (1990), Weinberg’s and Vassiliev’s The Haunted Wood (1999), Haynes’ and Klehr’s In Denial (2003), and Haynes’, Klehr’s and Vassiliev’s Spies (2009)) without taking careful notes of the history of the KGB and GRU in America. A review of them has since reminded me that the state of play in the US was different from that in the UK in at least four significant ways: 1) The USA did not officially recognise the Soviet government until Roosevelt’s administration took the plunge in October 1933, which meant that the Soviet Union had no diplomatic presence in the US to mastermind operations, or to provide a channel for sending information back to Moscow; 2) The Soviet Union was slow to conclude that the USA was going to be a far more important country to track closely, with its influence on global affairs overtaking that of the British Empire, and its technological developments providing a rich lode of secrets to be stolen; 3) Since the New Deal was philosophically very sympathetic to the Soviet Union’s totalitarian instincts, the US government was in fact recruiting intellectuals and professionals with seriously leftist opinions and instincts, which meant that the problem of infection of the corridors of power via subterfuge was no longer necessary; and 4) While Soviet spies and couriers were able to cross between Europe and North America with impunity, there was an almost complete absence of exchange of intelligence about them between the different security services. Yet none of these books analyses in depth the ideological background of the dozens of officials who ended up spying for the Soviet Union, or why they considered that such treacherous behavior was necessary. I continue my search.

To start with, I have been boning up on other aspects of the transatlantic connections. I referred in my November blog to the cultural denial in the US over Soviet infiltration, and the threat it represented. While on holiday in California and Maui in December, I read M. Stanton Evans’s Blacklisted by History (The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies) (2007), and the memoir by one of the spies unmasked by Igor Gouzenko’s revelations in Canada in 1945, Gordon Lunan’s Redhanded (Inside the spy ring that changed the world) (2005). Lunan was a Scotsman who emigrated to Canada in 1938, and spent five years in prison for his role as a courier between some of the atom spies. He died in 2005. I have also read, this month, Lewis E. Lehrman’s Churchill, Roosevelt & Company (2017), which has an illuminating chapter on Harry Dexter White, the U.S. Treasury official who collaborated with John Maynard Keynes at Bretton Woods, and who was a Soviet spy.

Re-examining the McCarthy hearings is critical because a) they have suffered from a host of leftist distortion in the decades since, and b) their proceedings reveal a mine of information about the allegiances of dozens of US government officials around the war years. The name of Senator Joe McCarthy is almost always linked to the notions of ‘witch-hunt’ and ‘hysteria’ in today’s press. For example, on one page of Gordon Corera’s recent book Cyberspies appear the following two statements: “Venona’s revelations helped fuel the McCarthy era of witch-hunts in Washington amid fears that the Soviets had reached deep into the establishment”, and “That [Philby tipping off Maclean & Burgess] intensified the spy hysteria sweeping Britain and America.” Comparisons are also fluidly made between McCarthyism and the Trump administration. In a letter published in the December 22/29 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, the irrepressible Edward Horowitz wrote: “The paranoid style in American politics embodied by the late senator [McCarthy] and his followers seems to have been ominously resurrected in 2016”, while in the London Review of Books of January 4, Gordon Lears, in an otherwise very level-headed piece, wrote: “In its capacity to exclude dissent, it is like no other formation of mass opinion in my adult life, although it recalls a few dim childhood memories of anti-communist hysteria in the early 1950s.”

But wait! ‘Witch-hunts’? Whereas there is no such entity as ‘witches’, and thus hunts for them are bound to be abortive, Communist spies were a very real menace in the 1930 and 1940s, and for a long time after. To classify attempts to root out such subversives as ‘witch-hunts’, at a time when Stalin had been engaging in the most monstrous show-trials (or sentences without trial) of the century, resulting in the deaths of millions of innocents, displays an incredible degree of hypocrisy. And to classify as ‘paranoia’ or ‘hysteria’ the energies of those trying to defend the nation against such infection reflects an enormous naivety about the nature of the threat. Do such people not realise that it was Stalin’s plan to strengthen his country after the war before taking on the inevitable showdown with ‘the imperialists’? Did they really want to transform the USA into a totalitarian prison-camp on the lines of Stalin’s Russia? What is more, McCarthy’s role is frequently distorted. It is often overlooked that the better publicized investigations were undertaken by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), i.e. not by the Senate, to which McCarthy belonged.

The lore of McCarthyism focusses on attempts to deprive writers and actors (darlings in the public eye) of their right to a living, but, in reality, the thrust of the Senate hearings was very much on political infiltration, particularly in the State Department and the Army. Stanton Evans performs a very thorough job in explaining how the well-researched inquiries by McCarthy and his team were constantly stalled and deflected by career officials, primarily in the State Department. It was not considered a disqualification for a diplomat or civil servant to be (or have been) a communist, and McCarthy was instead attacked as the subversive. As Evans writes: “Throughout, the White House, Department of Justice, and other agencies of the Truman government showed far more interest in tracking down McCarthy’s sources than in uncovering alleged Soviet agents or Communist Party members, or in addressing the lax security standards deplored by the LRB [Labor Relations Board]. In the view of the Truman administration, the problem with Joe McCarthy was not that he didn’t have inside sources of loyalty data but that he all too obviously did. Which was from a national security standpoint beneficial, as information on such cases was sorely needed.”

Yet there were dozens of Soviet sympathizers in Roosevelt’s administration, many of whom engaged in real espionage. And this is where Evans misses an opportunity. Oddly, in his text he never mentions Walter Krivitsky (who was intensely interrogated by the Dies committee in 1939, and was a friend of Whittaker Chambers). Surely the highly public episode of Krivitsky’s denunciation of Stalin and his techniques merited some examination? Stanton provides some analysis of what happened before 1941, but fails to explain how all these persons had been hired, or whether there was a deep plot by Moscow to recruit early at academic institutions (along the lines of the Cambridge-Oxford strategy). He provides no thorough analysis of the different strains of socialist, from the democratic New Dealer, through the committed totalitarian and the dedicated Communist, to the Stalinist devotee and actual spy for the Soviet Union. He fails to explore the question of whether subterfuge was actually necessary – unlike in Britain, where Philby, Burgess and Maclean at least had to go through some display of ideological realignment before being recruited by the various government services.

The problem was that, from Roosevelt’s own leadership, the proliferation of government officials with open sympathies for Stalin’s Soviet Union was not something to be regretted. It had been going on for some time, and had been tolerated. This became clear in 1939. The pattern of subversion had started with Whittaker Chambers, who, when he became the leading courier for Soviet intelligence in 1932, was instructed to cut all his ties with the Communist Party. But it was Chambers himself who, shocked by the Moscow show-trials, and the persecution and murder of agents in situations like his, decided to cut himself loose, defy an order to travel to Moscow, and then go into hiding – all before the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact provoked tremors in such persons –  and then confess all in 1939. In September, he was convinced by Isaac Don Levine (the same man who befriended Krivitsky, and ghost-wrote for him) to speak to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. At this meeting, Chambers named eighteen contacts in influential positions in government. Berle informed the White House, but Roosevelt did nothing: Chambers was not interviewed by the FBI until 1942.

As Andrew and Gordievsky write: “Roosevelt was not interested. He seems simply to have dismissed the whole idea of espionage rings within his administration as absurd. Equally remarkably, Berle simply pigeonholed his own report. He made no charges about Hiss until 1941, when he mentioned Chambers’s charges to Hiss’s former employer, Supreme Court Justice Feliks Frankfurter, and to the diplomat Dean Acheson. Both dismissed them out of hand. Berle took no further action; he did not send a report of his interview with Chambers to the FBI until the bureau requested it in 1943. Among others who brought Chambers’s story to Roosevelt’s attention were Ambassador William Bullitt, labor leader David Dubinsky, and journalist Walter Winchell. Once again, the president brushed the charges aside.”

And when Krivitsky provided his testimony to the Dies Committee, Roosevelt was equally defiant. In November 1940, as Gary Kern reports, Roosevelt replied to him: “I do not agree with you. I do not regard the Communists as any present or future threat to our country. In fact, I look upon Russia as our strongest ally in the years to come. As I told you when you began your investigation, you should confine yourself to Nazis and Fascists. While I do not believe in Communism, Russia is far better off and the world is safer with Russia under Communism than under the tsars. Stalin is a great leader, and although I deplore some of his methods, it is the only way he can safeguard his government

This is quite an extraordinary statement of political philosophy. Expressing a conviction that the Soviet Union might become an ally (implicitly against the Nazis: the US was not yet at war) was one thing. After all, Churchill was issuing similar messages. And, in the summer of 1940 in Britain, the campaign against a ‘Fifth Column’ likewise included Communists (and pacifists) among its targets – an initiative which, because of Guy Burgess’s moves, would likewise be restricted to ‘Nazis and Fascists’. But Roosevelt went further: he denied that communism was a threat to the country, and effectively gave his seal of approval to Stalin’s dictatorship. The millions who had been slaughtered under Stalin’s despotism had no say in the debate whether the country was ‘better off’, and to suggest that the only alternative to Stalinism was a perpetuation of Romanov tsarism reflects a monumental naivety. The fact that Roosevelt considered that Stalin’s government deserved to be safeguarded implies that the American president believed that the victims of Stalin’s purges were all guilty of attempting to undermine him, presumably as part of the rings of ‘capitalist encirclement’. Or else he was woefully ill-informed about the dictator’s regime. In any case, the conceptual similarities between New Dealerism and totalitarian control could not be more clear.

Another explanation might be that it was Roosevelt’s intellectual flabbiness – his vanity, his deviousness, his manipulativeness, all features accepted by his biographers – that led him to make such statements. He was notorious for sending contradictory messages to his subordinates, and for refusing to have any commandment confirmed in writing, as he implicitly did not believe in any kind of ‘cabinet’ decision-making, and wanted to reserve for himself the flexibility to change his mind at will, often bypassing his immediate ministers and ambassadors. This behavior was all part of his assumption that his role was to cooperate with Stalin on a higher plane, and thus ensure the safety of the world. Whichever case is true, it shows an example of unbridled hubris, and contempt for the democratic process. If he had seriously felt that certain state secrets should be passed to Stalin, he could have arranged for such communications (as did Churchill, with the massaged Ultra messages). Yet, instead, he condoned a furtive and uncontrolled process of leakage. Such behavior was irresponsibly ingenuous, and arguably treasonous.

What is more, a real Soviet agent had confessed to the security authorities, and named spies in Roosevelt’s administration. There was no exact equivalent in the United Kingdom of 1940, since no native Briton with a communist background had been recruited solely as a courier. The Cambridge group were indeed all spies. The closest analogue is perhaps Goronwy Rees, who was recruited as a spy, but had a Damascene conversion (or, if not a real conversion, a shocking revelation that the cause was unjust) after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact. If he had gone to the authorities then, and named names, there must have been a possibility that his testimony would have been taken seriously: that is why Guy Burgess wanted him killed. Yet Chambers identified such persons as Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss and Lauchlin Currie – and Roosevelt did not care. (Chambers wrote that FDR laughed out loud when informed of what was going on.) If Churchill had been offered significant evidence that equivalent figures (say John Maynard Keynes, Alexander Cadogan, and Orme Sargent) had been providing confidential material to the Soviet Union, they would have been purged (UK-style) immediately, and a wholesale cleansing of the stables would have occurred. And how close Krivitsky came! It is my belief – and that of others – that Krivitsky knew more than he was prepared to divulge when he was interrogated in January 1940, but the incompetence of MI5 and SIS on that occasion was dwarfed by the nonchalance of Roosevelt.

So what had been happening with US governmental institutions? Initial study gives the impression that no deep subversion in American universities had been taking place (although Harvard does feature prominently in the resumés of the offenders). Yet there were links with the Soviet espionage structure in Britain, which had been developed several years earlier. The curricula vitae of some of the agents bespeak much, hinting at hitherto unexplored relationships. In alphabetical order, here are some details of those spies (most of whom were revealed by Whittaker Chambers), many identifiable in the Venona transcripts, who had transatlantic links (with cryptonyms in parentheses):

Solomon Adler [SACHS or SAX]: Adler was born in Leeds in 1909, and studied at New College, Oxford (1927-1930), where he took a first, and then a master’s degree in economics at the London School of Economics. He moved to the USA in 1935 to perform research, and at some stage joined the Treasury Department. He became a US citizen in 1940, and was posted to China, from where he advised Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Identified by Chambers in 1939, he was a subject of a loyalty test in 1949, after which he returned to the UK to teach at Cambridge. He then moved back to China, and died in 1994.

Cedric Belfrage [CHARLIE]: Belfrage was born in 1904, and attended Gresham’s School, Holt, the same institution that educated W. H. Auden, Donald Maclean, Bernard and Peter Floud, James Klugmann, Brian Simon and Tom Wintringham. He reportedly went to Cambridge University (college unknown), leaving soon thereafter, in 1927, for Hollywood. He joined the Communist Party in 1937, and was recruited by British Security Coordination with responsibility for the Western hemisphere in December 1941. Identified by Chambers in 1939, his spying came to an end when he was inadvertently compromised by Earl Browder, head of the CPUSA in 1943. Nevertheless, at the end of the war, he obtained a post with the military government in Germany (like Jürgen Kuczynski). He appeared before the HUAC in 1953, and was deported back to England in 1955, as he had never taken up US citizenship. He then wrote some sophistical and self-serving volumes of autobigraphy.

Lauchlin Currie [PAGE]: Currie was a Canadian citizen, born in Nova Scotia in 1902, who was educated at the London School of Economics. He moved to Harvard for a doctorate in economics, became an American citizen in 1943, and was hired by Harry White at the Treasury. After a spell at the Federal Reserve Board, he joined the White House staff as an administrative assistant to Roosevelt in 1939. Two years later he was sent to China, and fulfilled other missions for FDR. He became deputy administrator of the Foreign Economic Administration in 1943, but resigned after the death of Roosevelt. Chambers had identified him as at least a ‘fellow-traveller’ in 1939: Venona confirmed his role, and Currie escaped to Colombia in 1950. He was stripped of his US citizenship in 195

George Eltenton [DORIN]: Eltenton was British, a communist sympathiser, and a physicist who at some stage studied at the Cavendish Laboratory. He visited the USSR in 1931 under the auspices of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR and from 1933 to 1938 worked at the Institute of Chemical Physics in Leningrad. In 1942 while working in the USA he made indirect contact with Robert Oppenheimer with a request for information for the USSR about atom bomb technology. He approached the noted nuclear physicist through Haakon Chevalier. He was picked up in June 1946 by the FBI, and admitted trying to obtain documents on behalf of the Soviet consulate. He moved back to Britain in 1947. His wife Ada was an even more ardent communist than George, and worked at the nest of fellow-travellers and spies that was the Institute for Pacific Relations.

Elsie Fairfax-Cholmeley [GIRL FRIEND]: Fairfax-Cholmeley was the daughter of British missionaries in China, also a communist. At some stage, she became the second wife of Israel Epstein [MINAYEV], born in Warsaw, another Soviet spy, recruited in China in 1937. In a 1942 report, it was stated that she managed to escape from Hong Kong. She and her husband apparently visited Britain in 1944, but were able to reach the USA that year, where Fairfax-Cholmeley worked for the Institute of Pacific Relations alongside Anthony Jenkinson, or/and for United China Relief. Probably in 1951, the Epsteins left to return to China. Elsie died in 1984.

Michael Greenberg [YANK]: Greenberg was British, born in 1914, and attended Manchester Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was described as “the sort of fellow one could take to lunch at the Pitt Club” by Sir John Colville. A Chinese scholar, he was an effective Communist proselytizer as he knew how to put on social graces. He claimed that, in the City of London most people shared the Marxist analysis of capitalism that he had learned in Cambridge in the 1930s, but that they were, by contrast, quite content with the implicit inequalities.  He was a friend of Michael Straight, and won a scholarship to Harvard in 1939. Roland Perry states that he had by then been recruited by KGB. He became editor of Pacific Affairs, a journal published by the Institute of Pacific Relations. In 1942, Greenberg was appointed China specialist for Board of Economic Warfare, within Foreign Economic Administration. He was given the cryptonym ‘YANK’, as he had by then gained US citizenship. He resigned in 1946 after Bentley’s defection, and was questioned by the FBI in 1947. He did not admit to passing on information, returned to the UK, but was denied both US & GB citizenship. He died in 1992.

Anthony Jenkinson: Little is known about this Briton, except that he was a member of the Institute of Pacific Relations, working alongside Elsie Fairfax-Cholmeley. His name was mentioned alongside that of Fairfax-Cholmeley and Michael Greenberg in the Us Senate Sub-Committee report on the Institute for Pacific Relations.

Herbert Norman: Norman was a Canadian whom Chambers described as ‘an alumnus of the Cambridge circle’, alongside Greenberg and Straight. He was born in Japan, to missionary parents, in 1909, and, having taken his graduate degree in history at the University of Toronto, studied at Trinity College from 1933-1936, under the tutelage of John Cornford. Amy Knight (in How The Cold War Began) presents evidence that he joined the Communist Party in 1934. He entered the graduate program at Harvard in 1936, to study Japanese history. Stanton describes him as ‘a Cambridge grad who specialized in far East Affairs and would rise to a high-ranking job in Canada’s diplomatic service.’ He was also closely involved with the Institute of Pacific Relations. After suspicions of his having been a communist spy were voiced in the 1950s, he committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the Swedish Embassy in Cairo, in 1957 – a method of departure from this life experienced by several Soviet spies.

Michael Straight [NIGEL]: Straight was born in the US in 1916, but moved, after his mother’s remarriage, to Dartington Hall. He studied at the London School of Economics in 1933, and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined a Communist cell, and the Apostles. He became Secretary and President-elect of the Cambridge Union. Straight was recruited by the GRU in 1937 by Anthony Blunt, who passed on orders that he should return to the USA to gain information on the US banking industry. He spied in the USA, but confessed to his deeds when about to be re-hired by the US government in 1963, in the process naming Blunt and Leo Long.  He was a close friend of Roosevelt, and a speechwriter for the president. He claimed that Rothschild’s wife was in love with him (Blunt encouraged him to have an affair, according to Roland Perry); he married Belinda Compton, sister of Catherine Walston, who was to become Graham Greene’s lover. Guy Burgess tipped him off about Krivitsky during the former’s abortive trip to Moscow with Isaiah Berlin in the summer of 1940. Thereafter Straight moved to the State Department to watch Krivitsky’s movements, leading to the latter’s assassination. Straight died in 2004.

Julian Wadleigh [104TH]: Wadleigh was born in the US in Greenfield, Mass. in 1904, but moved as a child to the UK, where he attended Furzie School in New Milton, and then Marlborough College. He took his undergraduate degree at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Greats from 1922 to 1925.  His father, a clergyman, was based in Switzerland, c/o Haskard & Co. in Florence. He was known as the ‘bolshie American’ at Oxford, which indicates that his left-wing views were well-developed at that stage. He was awarded a second-class degree at Oxford, and subsequently enrolled at the London School of Economics, where he met his wife. He moved to the US for a fellowship at the University of Chicago, and then joined the Department of Agriculture in 1932. (His wife left him for a Canadian economist, but returned in 1936). Wadleigh then joined the Trade Agreements Division of the State Department in 1936, soon meeting Eleanor Nelson, a leftist, who put him in touch with communists in Washington. He was introduced to an intermediary named ‘Harold Wilson’ and then to Whittaker Chambers. Wadleigh was aware of Stalin’s purges and the murder of Ignace Reiss, but still went to Turkey in 1938. When he came back, Chambers told him he was defecting. He and his wife divorced, but both remarried (his wife marrying Carroll Daugherty, who was also named by Chambers), after which Wadleigh went to Italy and stayed with his brother Dickie, an intelligence officer. Even though his identity was revealed by Chambers, Wadleigh was able to write articles in the New York Post in July 1949 explaining why he spied for the Communists, and did not lose his job. He died in 1994.

I believe this list alone provides some great opportunities for further research. It includes the careers of Britons who seem to have avoided the radar-screen of espionage history writing up until now. It is hard to find firm evidence of the educational careers of these spies as they studied in the UK, yet it must exist somewhere. The pattern hints at extended rings of subversives – not only at the known hive of evil-doing at Cambridge University, but also at networks at Oxford and the London School of Economics. (How many familiar with the inextinguishable ‘Cambridge Five’ would not recognise the names of Leo Long and of Michael Straight, let alone those of Michael Greenberg and Herbert Norman?) It suggests extended efforts by the NKVD/KGB and GRU to export some of the expertise it had developed in Britain to the United States. And it all reflects some extraordinary light on the reactions of the respective governments of the two countries to the discovery of reputed Soviet espionage in their midst. Did they communicate at all, as these dubious persons crossed the Atlantic Ocean? Apparently not, since many in the United States maintained an intense dislike for Britain as a former colonial oppressor. Yet the National Archives are gradually revealing more about some of these goings-on. For example, in 2006, files on George Eltenton were declassified, and scope for further integrative research presents itself.

Lastly, there is the Canadian connection. In September 1945, the Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in Ottawa, taking over a hundred documents with him. These files identified a ring of Communists, or communist sympathisers, who had been handing over secret material to the Soviet Union. The response of the Canadian government was markedly different from that of the USA or the UK. In the USA, where a large amount of support, even collusion, over the betrayal of confidential information was evident, and the process was delegated to the Senate to hear testimony from witnesses, the latter were able to invoke the Fifth Amendment in order not to incriminate themselves. In the UK, where the identification of spies was largely reliant on information gained from counter-espionage means (such as the Venona transcripts), the authorities were strongly opposed to revealing to the Russians that they had decrypted their secret messages, and thus were dependent on gaining confessions from suspects before any trial could be conducted. That was the case with Klaus Fuchs, as it was indeed also with Alan Nunn May, who was spirited to England, and confessed, as a result of the Gouzenko revelations. May was arrested on March 5, 1946, the same day that Churchill gave his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Fulton, Missouri.

The Canadian government, on the other hand, exploited wartime conditions to set up a Commission to investigate the evidence and interview the persons identified. Named the Kelloch-Taschereau Commission, it was set up on February 13, 1946, when it began hearing Gouzenko’s testimony. Two days later, the suspects were arrested, and were required to give their evidence, in a fashion that bypassed many of their traditional rights. Yet, as a mechanism for showing the world the deep subversive activities of Soviet espionage, it was a very successful exercise. The commission issued an interim report on March 4, 1946, and its final version (which can be inspected in full at ) in July of that year. The trials of the suspects took place between March 1946 and March 1947: Gordon Lunan, who was considered one of the most important, had acted as a go-between for GRU colonel Rogov and three others accused, namely Edward Mazerall, Durnford Smith, and Israel Halperin. (It was Halperin’s address-book that led to Klaus Fuchs, and Herbert Norman was likewise unmasked by this object.) Under pressure, and fearing a possible death penalty, Lunan confessed in February 1946, and agreed to cooperate.

The definitive book on the Gouzenko affair is Amy Knight’s How The Cold War Began (2005). Yet I believe this work suffers from a common malaise in academic history of this genre: it suggests that the Cold War was caused by a mistrust of Stalin by the West, and that the ‘hunt for Soviet spies’ (as the phrase appears in the subtitle of Knight’s book) was somehow misguided. But there was no hunt. The names came out in broad daylight, and the intentions of Soviet intelligence were clear: to steal secrets from the West. In the USA, the identification of spies by Chambers had been ignored. Moreover, most governmental authorities had determined well before September 1945 that Stalin had misled the Allies at Yalta, and was not to be trusted. The roots of that breakdown went back to Warsaw in 1944, with Stalin’s cowardly refusal to assist in the uprising. Yet the follow-up was anaemic. Knight writes, without a trace of irony: “In chronicling Gouzenko’s story, this book renews a debate that began in the McCarthy era and divides historians to this day. To what extent were the people accused of passing secrets to the Soviets during the 1940s really spies, and to what extent were they merely individuals sympathetic to the communist cause and unwittingly drawn into the Soviet espionage network?” As if that distinction has any substance or merit: they were spies, and they knew it. For example, Fred Rose, one of her primary subjects, went into hiding when the CP was banned, and then approached the GRU in 1942: Knight reports that. Her implicit sympathy for communist ‘ideals’ pervades her work, and she shows all the conventional disdain for McCarthy and his operations (‘the frenzy of the espionage scare’).

Gordon Lunan originally published his memoir as The Making of A Spy. In 2005, it was re-issued, and updated, as Redhanded: Inside the Spy Ring that Changed the World. The title reflects the fact that Lunan admits his role as a spy: indeed the work is lacking in self-pity, and gives the impression that, for all the injustices of the process, and the way he was interrogated, his sentence of five years in the penitentiary was deserved. Moreover, it is a touching and well-written account of growing up in England in the 1920s and 1930s, a world that will be recognized by those who have read, say, George Orwell’s memoirs and fictionalized accounts of those times. Lunan was born in Kirkcaldy in Scotland in 1914: his family moved to Leeds when he was four years old. He was educated at Mill Hill School (although that institution’s website does not appear to be aware of his existence), after which he drifted into leftist circles, although he claims he never joined the communist party. He explains his decision to move suddenly to Canada in 1938 as in impulsive one made in order to ‘see the world’, and he quickly associated himself with ‘anti-fascist’ causes when he arrived there. He nevertheless managed to be recruited by the Wartime Information Board in 1943, where he was approached by Rogov of Soviet military intelligence. He provides some strong insights into government corruption, and is forthright in describing how the war commission undermined individual rights. He also offers a ruthless exposé of prison conditions, yet never suggests that his punishment was unearned. Lunan died soon after the book was published.

Yet there is humbuggery in Lunan’s account, as well. The account of his emigration is very dubious: he describes watching a May Day parade in London in 1938, where protests against the government’s inaction in Spain were being made. It was then, he writes ‘that I finally decided that war would surely come and that I had better see more of the world before the sword of Damocles dropped’. But escaping from the world of advertising in London to a similar milieu in Canada was hardly ‘seeing the world’. Is it possible he was despatched there by the CPGB, or by Soviet controllers? Installed in Canada, he was easily taken in by the hypocrisy expressed by the Nazi-Soviet pact, which was hardly the reaction of someone only on the fringes of the Communist Party. He sounds much more like a hard-line Stalinist: he completely ignores the monstrosities of Stalin’s prison-camp. His final appeal in the book shows all the self-serving cant of the communist apologist: “We must use the democratic rights we still have – to vote, to speak up in our communities, to write letters to the press and to the politicians – to show that we count. But to do so, we must first arm ourselves with a knowledge of our own history and the ability to take a critical look at world events, at history in the making.” Well, of course, comrade. Do exactly that. But nobody had those rights in the communist paradise, did they? There is a mountain of self-delusion in such statements. Yet it is a familiar refrain: ‘we thought we were helping Stalin, who was an ally in war, and were told that our governments were not doing enough to help him’. One can read this sad message again and again: last year Hamish MacGibbon trotted out the same explanation in Maverick Spy, the book about his spy father, James.

The reaction to the Gouzenko revelations shed a lot of light on the attitudes of the respective governments. Moscow Centre – promptly alerted by Kim Philby as to what was going on – was appalled, and after initial protests, by July 1946 had brought back home all its diplomats suspected of spying. The Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, was typically spineless: he initially wanted Gouzenko to return to the Embassy. He declared to the House of Commons that what he felt most important was ‘to see that nothing should be done which would cause the Russian Embassy to believe that Canada had the least suspicion of anything which was taking place there.’ No ‘hunt for spies’ in Ottawa, but abject appeasement. Mackenzie then travelled to Washington and London and had to be dissuaded from continuing to Moscow, since he was confident that the Soviet leader ‘would never have countenanced such activities’. The American press generally expressed naivety about what was going on, with Time and the New York Herald Tribune even condoning the espionage. One might have imagined that the British and American governments might have wondered whether, if a relative backwater like Ottawa was so riddled with Soviet spies, perhaps Washington and London might be similarly infected. Gouzenko, after all, had identified Nunn May, and given broad hints to the identity of Alger Hiss. But the USA was beset by indolence and nonchalance, and, in the United Kingdom, MI5 had by this time similarly transformed itself into an institution that condoned communism (as my book Misdefending the Realm explains). Thus, apart from a robust stance by Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, the British administration was suffused with the hope that the whole shooting-match was vastly overblown, and by the desire to keep matters firmly undercover. It was only when the courier Elizabeth Bentley revealed to the FBI all that she knew, on November 2, 1945, that the authorities started to become alive again, reinforced by the fact that decrypts from the Venona programme (though concealed from the public) started coming off the production line in 1946.

In summary, the common assessment of the Gouzenko affair is one of surprise and shock. The reaction of the Western Allies has been characterised as one of surprise, because they had no inkling of what was happening, and of shock, because Stalin was supposed to be an ally with whom they were ‘cooperating’. The negative attitude of Stalin had been ascribed to the fact that he was insulted when he discovered that the USA and Britain were sharing atomic secrets behind his back. But the democracies had had ample warning, from Chambers and Krivitsky, of what Stalin was up to, while Stalin had no misconceptions about the long-term adversarial relationship. He had had hundreds of spies working for over a decade, pillaging Western technology and secrets: he would not have expected anything less. As for Knight’s thesis that the Gouzenko affair signalled the beginning of the Cold War, enlightened opinion seems to have forgotten even this incident. The London Review of Books of January 25 carries a review of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History, under the headline ‘Who started it?’ Yet the index to Westad’s book contains no entry for Gouzenko, or even for Soviet espionage. Has a new generation of historians overlooked what went on?

If the democracies had developed mechanisms for sharing intelligence in the 1930s, I suspect a more robust counter to Stalin’s espionage might have been effected. And I believe that a lot remains to be uncovered in the relationships between the activities of the spies in the UK, the USA, and Canada, and how the authorities acted – or failed to react – in response. The lack of intelligence-sharing between the UK and the USA existed for reasons of territoriality, traditional mistrust, and political inclination. The most notorious lapse was probably the role of Kitty Harris, sometime wife of Earl Browder, the head of the CPUSA, as Donald Maclean’s courier and lover. But there were clearly other incidents. The renowned distaste for communism by the head of the F.B.I., Edgar J. Hoover, had been long muted – a phenomenon that merits further study. And I shall continue to look out for an explanation of the intellectual and academic relationships – especially as Harvard is concerned. In a future blog entry, I also plan to disclose the curious relationship between Alexander Foote and the testimony of one of the witnesses before the Canadian commission. Anyone with any insights or sources that can contribute to this debate, or who can shed more light on the more obscure of the characters listed, is encouraged to contact me at

P.S. Shortly before he died, in 2014, Chapman Pincher advised me to study his new edition of Treachery, which included a number of new items of research, some based on Russian archives. I at last acquired the 2012 edition (‘Updated and Uncensored Version’), and have started reading it. Yet it is difficult to detect what is new unless one performs an exact comparison with the first edition. Indeed, I have found some useful fresh nuggets and insights, but the work is still flawed because of its relentless a priori argument that Roger Hollis was the GRU spy ELLI. It is impossible to conceive that such an insignificant and incompetent officer could have masterminded the whole Sonia deception, and hoodwinked his colleagues and superiors about what was going on. I continue to believe that Pincher was fed a bundle of false clues in order that he would be distracted from the main quarry.  More to be reported later.

January Commonplace entries appear here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

Isaiah in Love

(Since I shall be on holiday/vacation in California and Maui for the remainder of December, I am posting this month’s blog early, as a special gift to all my readers – and especially to the members of the Murmansk Chapter of the Coldspur Appreciation Society  –  and presenting a piece that I wrote five years ago. When I started my research for what was then going to be a master’s degree, the focus was very much on Isaiah Berlin, and I decided then to write up some initial findings on various episodes in his life that Michael Ignatieff’s biography bypassed. I have used parts of this essay in a previous post (‘Some Diplomatic Incidents‘), and have explored in depth some aspects concerning Berlin’s role in intelligence  in my book Misdefending the Realm. I have also described the strange coincidence that found Berlin in Estoril at exactly the time (early January 1941) when Soviet agent Sonia received her permission to travel to the UK (see ‘Sonia’s Radio: Part VIII)’. The essay could also be updated in the light of more recent findings. For instance, I have now discovered that Berlin’s claims to have stayed at the Palacio Hotel in Estoril, Portugal, in that January, appear to have been completely fabricated, which must cast some doubt on the accuracy of other details he provided on his journey from the UK to the USA. Exploring those murky events warrants a dedicated blog later in 2018. I thus present ‘Isaiah in Love’ unchanged. I shall update the Commonplace files on my return. A happy seasonal festival to all my readers! December 12, 2017.  P.S. Please note that I now list, for ease of access, all previous monthly blog entries on the ‘About’ page.)

December Commonplace entries duly posted here. (December 31)

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *   *    *    *    *

One of the more bizarre episodes in the life of the great intellectual historian Sir Isaiah Berlin occurred when Guy Burgess invited him to join him on a trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. Burgess, probably anxious to make contact with his spymasters after the purging of the London station, had persuaded his mentor Harold Nicolson that Berlin, a native Russian speaker, should be appointed as press officer at the embassy in Moscow. Was Berlin merely a cover? Did Burgess have other motives for enticing Berlin to Russia? Maybe – but Berlin was in any case eager to fulfill a long-time desire to visit the Soviet Union. The necessary paperwork was arranged, and Berlin and Burgess left Liverpool for Moscow, via Montreal, the US, and Vladivostock. They never completed the journey. In New York, Burgess received the news that he was to be recalled to London. Unlike ‘recalls’ to Moscow, where agents would probably be sent to the Lubianka, for no other reason than that they had been exposed to Western influences, Burgess was simply fired by MI6 on his return.  There, in the treatment of agents under a cloud, lay a key difference between the West and Soviet Russia: in Moscow, a bullet in the back of the head; in London, a transfer to the BBC. Yet, despite Berlin’s ease in gaining a visa from the Soviet Embassy in Washington, the Foreign Office quickly scotched his hopes of taking up his post in Moscow, and he was left twiddling his thumbs. Adapting to circumstances, he quickly earned a reputation for his deft analysis of the American scene, and through the British Embassy was offered a semi-permanent job with the British Press Service. While successful in this role, Berlin wanted to return to the United Kingdom first, one strong reason he gave his biographer being that he was did not want to be thought cowardly in avoiding the Blitz back in England. Was this desire not to end up as a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel, like the elopers Auden and Isherwood, whom Waugh so sharply lampooned as Parsnip and Pimpernel, some neat retrospective insight? Put Out More Flags did not appear until 1942. The timing is unclear: Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Berlin states that Burgess came to Berlin’s rooms with his plan ‘in mid-June’, while Henry Hardy notes in Volume 1 of Berlin’s Letters that it was ‘in late June’. On June 23, Berlin wrote to Marion Frankfurter, wife of Felix, the associate justice on the Supreme Court, joining in the condemnation of Auden, Isherwood and Macneice, and added: ‘ – if I could induce some institution in the U.S.A. to invite me, I would. But cold-blooded flight is monstrous.’.

Ignatieff’s biography covers this period, but depicts the philosopher’s return to the United Kingdom, in the winter of 1940-41, as an insignificant interlude. In doing so, Ignatieff was largely reliant on Berlin’s account of that journey. After describing how Berlin returned on a sea-plane with Lord Lothian, the British Ambassador, as far as Lisbon (whence Lothian moved on alone, leaving Berlin to await a regular flight), he devotes a paragraph to Berlin’s time in Oxford and London, mentioning along the way a lunch with Guy Burgess and Harold Nicolson at the Ministry of Information. He then writes: ‘A month into term, a letter arrived from the Ministry of Information ordering Berlin to return immediately to New York. Having reassured his parents, arranged his leave from New College, and having proved that he wasn’t running away from the Blitz, Isaiah now returned to New York with a clear conscience.’

But did Berlin really have a clear conscience? While he evidently did not want to be seen as an escapist, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought that of him, since his journey to Washington had been on government business. Nevertheless, all the evidence suggests he had a hidden agenda that he was never comfortable making public, and points towards his motivation for returning to Europe being a desire to meet with his current hero, Chaim Weizmann, at an important rendezvous in Lisbon to discuss Zionist matters. Why, as his life was fading to a close, would he wish to conceal such activities from his biographer? Both his Zionist enthusiasm and scepticism were well-known; after the creation of the Israeli state, he had had misgivings over the way it had developed, as well as over the pusillanimity of the British government towards it. He had had to be careful about promoting ideas too energetically while being employed by that same government. So why would he try to prevent his attendance at a meeting in Lisbon becoming part of the record?

That he intended to meet Weizmann in Lisbon seems clear from a reading of the biography and his Letters 1928-1946. The following conclusions are derivable:

1) Berlin contrived a convoluted story about the renewal of his post in Washington. The first impression he leaves is that he was offered a permanent job with the British Press Service there in 1940, but negotiated that he had to return to the UK first. A letter to his parents, dated October 5, from New York, states that his job is ‘practically fixed’. But in his Introduction to Washington Dispatches (1980), he muddies the waters by indicating that he returned home without an understanding that he had an offer to continue the job in Washington. When in the UK, he reports that he received a sharp letter from the Ministry of Information asking him to explain why he hadn’t reported for duty, at which he claims that he had never been told about the appointment, an observation which the Ministry admitted was true. (Henry Hardy, the editor of the Letters, points out this contradiction in a note.) On the other hand, he writes to a friend, Marie Gaster (January 3, 1941) and gives a very different account, claiming he was not offered anything attractive in Washington, and wanted to return to the UK to look for something more appropriate. He further suggests that, much against his will, he was then encouraged to take up the job with the British Press Service, and ‘return to America at once’. (Hardy suggests that this account ‘offers a possible explanation of what really happened’, but it gives the appearance of yet another smokescreen.)

2) Berlin indicates that his return to the UK should have been considered as a personal trip, because he takes pains, in a letter to his parents (October 5, 1940), to make arrangements for the cost of the four links in the journey (New York-Lisbon-UK-Lisbon-New York) to be paid partly by them. If he was in any way on government business, because an appointment had come to a close, or he needed to be interviewed for another position, he would surely have had his expenses paid for him by the UK Government. In fact, in another letter to his parents (January 10, 1941), when stuck in Estoril, he writes that, ‘unlike the private passengers, I can claim a Govt. priority from the Air Attaché.’ And, indeed, the manifest for his voyage from Lisbon to New York, on the SS Excambion, does indicate that his fare was paid for by the British Government.

3) Berlin always intended to see Chaim Weizmann during his visit, probably to explore a position with the Jewish Agency. Ignatieff reports on that preference in the biography. In another letter to his parents (September 3, 1940), he writes: ‘I should like to hop back [sic] to England, see some people, Lord Lloyd [Secretary of State for the Colonies], Weizmann, etc., arrange with Oxford, & skip back [sic] again, preferably by Clipper.’ ‘Hopping and skipping’ was not the normal mode of travel across the Atlantic during the early years of WWII, but it helps suggest to posterity that Berlin was in a hurry to get back, implying again that he had a permanent position waiting for him in the USA that he was eager to assume. He also made a reference to possible ‘ice on the Clipper’s wings’ in January, which might necessitate a slower return by boat. The Weizmann papers in fact show that Weizmann did enjoy a thorough de-briefing from Berlin soon after his arrival in the UK. Berlin was asked to describe the disruptive effect a visit from a Foreign Office functionary, a Mr Voss, had had on Jews in the US. Weizmann expressed his desire that Berlin could delay his trip back to the States so that they could journey together. Communications must have broken down, because, shortly before his departure, writing from Oxford, Berlin tries to contact Weizmann, after abortive phone-calls, with a note of urgency detectable in the message, at the Dorchester Hotel in London in December 1940, saying that he would ‘make a gigantic effort to see you before I go’, and asking Weizmann to ‘write or wire me in Oxford where & when you are to be expected in Lisbon and whom I could ask, while there, about your probable whereabouts?’ Berlin was due to leave on January 3, from Bournemouth airport. Lastly, he writes to his old friend Maire Gaster (wife of the Communist activist, Jack Gaster) again, just before his flight to Lisbon, informing her that he is very miserable at the prospect of leaving the UK for New York, but that ‘there is no doubt that there is a job to perform & my new God Dr Weizmann is wooing me ardently into doing it.’ For some reason, communications broke down, or Weizmann lost his enthusiasm for having Berlin work for the Jewish Agency. Berlin was deceptive when explaining this offer to his biographer: he told Ignatieff that Weizmann had urgently pressed him to accept a position with the organization when in New York, but that he had ‘diplomatically declined the Chief’s embrace’. On the other hand, he was perhaps playing for time.

4) Berlin had been impressed with Weizmann when he met him early in 1939. At the time, Weizmann was heavily involved, as head of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, in negotiating with the British Government the form of the Jewish homeland in Palestine, as well as the shape of a Jewish Fighting Force to be established in Palestine as part of the British Army. But talks had stalled. Lord Lloyd, the Colonial Secretary, was fatally ill, and would die on February 2, 1941. Anthony Eden, representing the Arabist Foreign office, was executing delaying tactics; Weizmann decided to extend his stay in London until he could witness the proclamation of the communiqué announcing the Jewish Unit. Of all this, Berlin seemed to be unaware. He wrote to his parents (January 10, 1941), in the Excambion, on Hotel Estoril Palacio notepaper – about to leave, but still moored – that he intended to buy dried fruit for the journey later in the day. The timing means, that, despite his – and his employers’ – desire for him to report quickly to the States, he would have been able to have a few days with Weizmann, and almost a week in Lisbon for any meetings before embarking on his voyage. Mysteriously he told his parents that ‘Chaim said he was going – the 15th’, which suggests that he was very much out of date. Weizmann did not leave England for the United States until March 10. Finally, Berlin bizarrely informs his parents, in a letter from New York (January 28, 1941), that he spent ‘two agreeable days in Portugal about which I wrote to you from Lisbon’ – a gross understatement of the time he spent there. As for Weizmann, he completely ignores this interval, his autobiography Trial and Error skipping directly from meetings with Churchill in September 1940 to the bland statement: ‘In the spring of 1941 I broke off my work in London for a three month trip to America.’

Was there a secret Zionist meeting in Lisbon, at which Berlin and Weizmann had hoped to meet? As the Nazi net closed around the capitals of Europe, the Portuguese capital had become a popular city for assignations of every kind. For example, an important Jewish charitable organization, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was compelled to close its offices in Paris as the Germans approached in 1940, and relocate to Lisbon. With official German authorization, Dr. Josef Löwenherz, described as ‘the leader of Jews in Vienna’ visited Lisbon in neutral Portugal (apparently in 1940 or 1941) to meet with representatives of the World Jewish Congress, including Dr. Parlas, described as ‘secretary to Chaim Weizmann’ (but who does not appear in the Index to Weizmann’s memoirs), and with WJC financial affairs director Tropper. Löwenherz wanted to negotiate an agreement for the mass emigration of Jews from German-controlled Europe. But if Berlin attended such meetings, he says nothing about them. And, as a government employee, he had to be very careful about adopting Zionist causes too vigorously.

Berlin’s enthusiasm for Zionism was typical of the contradictions that appeared to grip him at times, and cause perennial self-doubt. While he believed fervently that a home in Palestine was essential to protect the beleaguered and oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe, in the United Kingdom (as well as the United States) Berlin would often encounter Jews who had gradually been assimilated and who were taken aback by the whole idea of Zionism. Some found the notion that the world could be divided into Jews and Gentiles to be as bizarre – and even as offensive – as the notion that it could be divided into Aryans and non-Aryans. And Berlin was not consistent himself. In his government role, he was often asked to calm the more urgent Zionists, and he often called upon the secular Jew Victor Rothschild to help him in his mission. Such gestures, of embracing a vague ‘Jewish’ but unreligious culture but resisting the more extreme aspects of Zionism, sometimes got him into trouble. Ignatieff represents Berlin’s views on cultural identity in the following way: ‘individuals must have secure cultural belonging if they are to be free’. While that sounds more like T. S. Eliot than Isaiah Berlin, Berlin appeared never to come to terms with the paradox that assimilated Jews whom he encountered could be happy with their situation, having cast off so many cultural remnants, whereas he always had feelings of being an outsider. Right up to the time of his death he expressed feelings of alienation, of not being accepted in English society, unaware, perhaps, that an insistence on tribal separateness constituted the real irritant to a pluralist culture. But many Jews established in Britain were not interested in aspirations for a homeland for Jews. As Kenneth Rose writes of (some of) the Rothschilds: ‘By a century and a half of assiduous assimilation they had emerged from the ghetto of Frankfurt to the broad, sunlit uplands of Buckinghamshire; they were not prepared to see their security eroded by a sentimental attachment to Zionism.’ Later on in life, Berlin saw Zionism in action – the terrorism, the jingoism – and began to realize that it was becoming just another of those Grand Solutions of which he was instinctively suspicious. His enthusiasm for it nevertheless sometimes blinded his judgment, and caused him some missteps. Ignatieff recounts the way that Berlin, stung by a critical review by the Stalinist Isaac Deutscher, was antagonized by ‘Deutscher’s political dogmatism and his hostility to Zionism’, and decided to destroy the historian’s chances for being appointed to a professorship at Sussex University, saying that Deutscher was ‘the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable.’ But anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism: in an exchange with the critic Christopher Hitchens, Berlin tried to wriggle out of the charge of trying to scotch Deutscher’s ambitions, and thus suppressing free speech.

In any case, a momentous encounter causes the plot to take a sudden switch, as in a Hitchcock film. In his letter to his parents dated January 28, 1941, after he arrived in New York, Berlin gave a thumb-nail sketch of the voyage across the Atlantic. ‘A mixed, very mixed company, a Duchess, a lot of rich expatriated Americans, the Times correspondent from Lisbon, a plump Jewess from Geneva called Frieda Vogel who insisted, to the general amusement that she was a Turk, a member of an old Turkish family, etc.’ Indeed, some breathtakingly clear camera footage of the arrival in New York of the Excambion appears to confirm some of this picture. These are not images of starving refugees delirious at their first sight of the Manhattan skyline, but of comfortable-looking citizens in furs and plush coats, chewing gum and smoking cigars, looking happily at familiar landmarks. They receive perfunctory inspections of their landing passes, and make landfall without stress. On the other hand, it must have been a much more arduous inspection for escapees from Nazi Europe; US immigration officials were urged to be very careful in discriminating between US citizens and aliens. And from a study of the ship’s manifest, one can fill in a few details in Berlin’s account. The Times journalist was Walter Edward Lucas, returning with his American wife, Lenore (née Sandberg). The duchess was 27-year-old Solange de Vivonne, described as widowed; Frieda Vogel, single, aged 39, and travelling with her mother, had indeed been born in Istanbul. Yet Berlin fails to identify someone who must have been the most famous passenger on board at that time, someone very close to the Roosevelts in the White House – Eve Curie, who had in 1937 published an extremely successful biography of her mother, Marie Curie, the Nobelist scientist, and was travelling from the UK on a lecture tour. When interviewed in one of the lounges on the Excambion, as it moved from Quarantine to Pier F, in Jersey City, Madame Curie gave a promotional speech for Great Britain, and pleaded for more tangible aid to the war effort there. Berlin, himself a government propagandist, surprisingly makes no mention of her or her role. Maybe his attentions were drawn elsewhere during the ten-day voyage. For, as he decades later told his biographer, it was on that ship that he first saw a striking lady. ‘He had noticed the tall, elegant, shy woman, and wondered who she was.’

The woman was named Aline Strauss, and would fifteen years later become his wife. Aline was travelling with her son, Michel, aged four. She was a widow, and had fled south from Paris as the Germans approached, staying in Biarritz, then Nice, and running to Portugal after the Vichy regime published its anti-Jewish edicts. (Ignatieff reports all this.) But it could have not been easy exiting France and crossing Spain to get to Lisbon, especially with her parents in tow. Susan Zuccotti, in her book The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews writes: ‘Hoping to leave legally, Aline Strauss wrestled with government bureaucracies for weeks. Her top priority was to obtain entry visas to the United States for herself and her family – a supremely difficult challenge, for few such visas were being issued at the time. She also needed to secure French passports for herself and her family, transit visas through Spain and Portugal, French exit visas, and proof of ship passage. The entire process was complicated by endless bureaucratic obstruction and by the intricate time frame involved. Visas were often valid for only a limited period, and by the time they were all in place, a ship might have sailed. Miraculously enough, Aline Strauss finally succeeded. She left France with her son in January 1941; her parents, to avoid giving the impression of a family exodus, followed three months later.’ Apart from the ‘With one bound Jack was free’ nature of this adventure, one wonders whether concerns about ‘a family exodus’ would really have been that intense under the circumstances, and how Aline’s parents managed to organize their departure with similar dexterity in Aline’s absence. For a historian such as Zuccotti to go all the way to Headington House in Oxford to interview Aline Berlin, and take back no explanation of the ‘miracle’, is disappointing.

Did Aline get help? Did she have connections? Probably. As Chaim Weizmann once said to Berlin: ‘Miracles do happen. But one has to work very hard for them.’  And the account of the trek offered by her son, Michel, in his 2011 publication Pictures, Passion, and Eye is far more revealing, showing the tenacity and resolve she had to adopt. What Michel adds is that Aline had to make repeated visits to the US Embassy in Nice to get her exit visa, not being allowed to see the consul or vice-consul, since the necessary affidavits had not arrived from the US. After receiving assistance from the American Embassy in Vichy, she did manage to gain access to the vice-consul in Nice, and acquired the necessary visas. But then she was unable to acquire the necessary exit visa from the Vichy government, and had to start the whole process again, having to invent a justification for her journey by claiming that she was getting married in America.  The Vichy government even demanded that the banns for such a marriage be read, until the Consulate lawyer issued a paper stating that in America, banns did not have to be read. Finally, she had the exit visas; the miracle had occurred, and she and her son made their way by train, from Barcelona to Madrid, and on to Lisbon – not without further scares – until they were able to rest at a small hotel in Estoril, in all probability not the Palacio, where Berlin was staying, to wait for the departure of SS Excambion.  One surprising datum from the ship’s manifest, however, is the description of Aline Strauss’s marital status as ‘married’ not ‘widowed’ – a simple mistake, perhaps, or possibly a reflection of her desire to be taken as attached, and thus unavailable, by possible suitors on board. But she was on the less prestigious list of ‘Aliens’, for whom immigration officers performed additional checks. Was it not dangerous to represent herself this way, especially as the method by which she had gained an exit visa was a laborious and stressful process in which she claimed that she was to be married in the USA?

Who was Aline Strauss? She had been born Aline de Gunzbourg – in England, in 1915, away from the war zone – and had been brought up in an apartment block in the Avenue d’Iéna in Paris, enjoying contacts with some of the most celebrated names of French society, such as the Rothschilds. She was a close friend of Liliane Fould-Springer (a great-aunt of the actress Helena Bonham-Carter), who lived in another apartment in the block, and who was later to marry Elie de Rothschild, her childhood sweetheart. As Ignatieff reports: ‘Aline’s father was Baron Pierre de Gunzbourg, an illustrious banker and philanthropist of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg. Her father had settled in Paris and had married the daughter of a Jewish family from Alsace, who had made their fortune in heating oil.’  In fact, there was another Rothschild link here, because her grandfather had set up a company to sell American oil in other European countries with the Rothschilds. (There was also intermarriage between Rothschild and de Gunzbourg: for example Marguerite de Gramont (1920–1998), daughter of the Count de Gramont, Officier of Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre, was later to become Baroness de Gunzbourg, and Aline’s cousin, Bertrand Goldschmidt – of whom more later – married Naomi de Rothschild, who was the daughter of Victor Rothschild’s cousin Lionel, in 1947.)  Aline spent considerable time in the United Kingdom. She would pass several summers in a rented house in North Berwick with relatives, and regularly played golf in England with some of the world’s best-known players: she can be seen in photographs on the course at Stoke Poges, for instance, in the early 1930s. Indeed, she was a golfer of renown. After winning the National Ladies’ Championship of France in April 1934, she represented her country in the tied match against England, and, in July of that year, lost in the semi-final of the country’s International Championship to the eventual winner, Pam Barton. But Aline also had her share of tragedy. Her husband, Jules Strauss, a well-known art-collector, died young of cancer in 1939. She had also lost a brother (while he was a conscript in the army in 1933) and a sister (who fell to her death from a horse in an accident in Windsor Great Park in 1925).

The story now resembles a world conceived by Alan Furst, but with the clumsy plotting of Raymond Chandler. Aline Strauss had a few other encounters with Berlin in the US before their love affair blossomed, several years later, in England. The first few appear at first glance to be chance meetings at which the two really did not connect. From an inspection of Ignatieff’s biography, and Berlin’s Letters, they run as follows:

i) Berlin spots the elegant shy woman on the Excambion. (January 1941)

ii) They meet at the Rothschilds on Long Island, where Aline is playing golf with Cécile Rothschild. Isaiah is impressed; Aline less so. (undated)

iii) Aline visits Victor Rothschild’s apartment at the Hotel Pierre in New York, to find Isaiah there. She ignores him, since she is pre-occupied with gaining news from Rothschild about her brother Philippe, then working for the Resistance in France. (November 1942)

iv) Aline and Isaiah meet at a tea arranged by Victor Rothschild in New York. Berlin reports that ‘marriage has crushed her, she is meek and unhappy’, although Aline of course does not talk about any problems. (Spring 1946)

What has been going on here? Berlin was known for his perceptiveness about other people’s state of mind, but how has the callow Isaiah suddenly become an expert on woman’s psychology?  And why the emphasis on the failure of these two engaging personalities to connect? The studied reinforcement of the distance between the two is overdone, and thus generates a degree of scepticism.

Many aspects of this account do not ring true. Aline Strauss was certainly ‘tall and elegant’, but hardly shy – although those who know her say that she is diffident in front of high-powered intellectuals. She was travelling with her son; she had moved in dazzling social circles, had been in the limelight in the world of golf, and had shown great enterprise and fortitude in escaping to Portugal while dealing with obstructive officials in Southern France. She was acquainted with several other passengers on the Excambion, and, upon her arrival in New York, left her son in the care of nannies in order to take up a hectic social life. There may have been more alluring companions on the ship than Isaiah Berlin, but it was unlikely that she shrank back to her quarters, or avoided company out of shyness. Even more telling, on the occasion of his marriage to Aline on February 8, 1956, Berlin informed a reporter from the Hampstead and Highgate Express that their first ‘meeting’ had been ‘in the middle of the Atlantic in 1941’. A ‘meeting’ suggests an introduction, and exchange of names, at least. So why did he tell his biographer that he wondered who she was?

The next two encounters also stretch the bounds of credulity. Here was a refined Jewish woman, attracted to intelligent men, being introduced to another Jew with roots in St Petersburg, while both of them had strong connections with the Rothschilds. Moreover, this was no ordinary Jew. Berlin was the first Jew to be elected to a fellowship at All Souls, and had been described as the best conversationalist in Britain (in truth, more of a monologuist), noted for charming both the men and the ladies with his quick-wittedness and intellect. His gift of good companionship, and his ability to lift people’s spirits, have been well-recorded. Yet Aline Strauss ignores him. And then, a few years later, Berlin meets her again, at a tea-party on Long Island, evidently not surprised to find her married (he makes no comment).  Despite his lack of close acquaintance with the lady, he is immediately able to detect signs of stress, although Aline has been married for only a little over two years and is pregnant with her first son by Hans Halban, to be born on June 1, 1946. What is more, the archives indicate that her husband, who had also recently returned from a visit to the UK, was present at the meeting. It had apparently been set up by Victor Rothschild to facilitate the move by the Halbans to Oxford, where Hans was taking up a job at the Clarendon Laboratory, so that they would have ready friends there. How did this sophisticated lady, on such a happy occasion, with a birth imminent, at a positive meeting set up by their mutual friend, soon to welcome the arrival of her Resistance hero brother and his family in New York, and the prospect of an exciting new life in Oxford ahead, give such signals of attrition and stress to a man she had hardly noticed on previous encounters?

Were there problems with her marriage already? Certainly Hans Halban had had his difficulties.  Halban was a nuclear scientist who was working on the Manhattan Project in Montreal. Ignatieff, again, does not quite get the story right. He reports that, in 1943, ‘Aline met Halban, a physicist of Austrian extraction who had worked on the French nuclear programme and had escaped to America in 1940, carrying with him important information about the production of heavy water, a component in the manufacture of atomic weapons.’ According to Ignatieff, they married and went to Montreal. But Halban’s journey had in fact been more circuitous, and tinged with controversy. Halban was indeed an Austrian, of half-Jewish descent, who had been educated at Leipzig, and worked with Irene Joliot-Curie, and with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen before being invited to Paris to collaborate with Frederic Joliot-Curie at the Collège de France, where he was granted French citizenship. As the Nazis approached, he had escaped with his colleague Lew Kowarksi to the UK with a valuable canister of heavy water (stored temporarily at Wormwood Scrubs, where MI5 was also located for a while, and then at Windsor Castle). Winston Churchill invited him to work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge; he was greatly aided by John Cockcroft and Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), both of whom became lifelong allies. Halban was eventually appointed to the technical committee of the Tube Alloys Project, the codename for research into atomic power and weaponry. His team was later reconstituted in Canada, in order to be close to the US atomic research efforts, and where resources for their experiments would be more available. Halban moved to Montreal in 1942.

But Halban had the knack of acquiring some highly dubious characters to work for him. The connections and conspiracies that evolved among his team constitute some of the most significant espionage activities of the century, and are worth listing. In Cambridge, he employed one Engelbert (Bertl) Broda, who was in fact a Communist agent (code-named ‘Eric’). Broda had come to the UK in 1938, found his way to Cambridge University, and was by 1942 assisting Halban in his work on atomic reactors and controlled chain reactions. In that seedbed of communist subversion, Vienna in the early 1930s, Broda had probably been the lover of another Soviet agent, Edith Tudor-Hart. Tudor-Hart was acquainted with the master-spy Kim Philby via the latter’s first wife Litzi Friedman, whom he married in Vienna in 1933, and may have been responsible for recruiting him to spy for the Soviet Union. Broda was eventually to return to Austria in 1947, having been a steady provider of atomic secrets to the Soviets in the intervening years. MI5 also suspected Broda of being responsible for the recruitment of the spy Alan Nunn May, who also worked for Halban – and followed him to Montreal in 1943.  Nunn May was closely connected to the notorious group of Soviet agents known as ‘the Cambridge 5’. He was a friend of Donald Maclean at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, was tutored by the Communist sympathiser Patrick Blackett, and had joined the Communist Party on the early 1930s. He was able, however, able to get past security checks, as he was a ‘secret’ member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and had been recommended by the prominent scientist James Chadwick to join the Cavendish team. He was recruited by the GRU (the Army side of Soviet intelligence) while on the Tube Alloys Project, and it was only through the testimony of the Soviet cipher-clerk Igor Gouzenko, who identified him after defecting in Toronto, that Nunn May was arrested, and subsequently confessed to his espionage activities. He was jailed in 1946, and when released a few years later, went to work in Ghana, having married Bertl Broda’s former wife, Hildegarde.

But there were other snakes in the grass who worked closely with Halban. Bruno Pontecorvo, the spy who suddenly defected to the East in 1950, had worked with him in Paris, and escaped to the US as the Nazis approached.  He then not only gained employment in Canada under Halban, but also rejoined him at Harwell in 1948 under John Cockcroft’s leadership. Working there, too, was yet another notorious spy, Klaus Fuchs, maybe the most brilliant of them all. Having recruited Nunn May, Broda had been responsible for the KGB’s recruitment of Fuchs, who continued his spying activities after the war. In 1946, Fuchs was hired at Harwell as Head of the Theoretical Physics Division, and gave the Soviets some of the most critical and useful information about the USA’s nuclear achievements and potential, which directly affected Stalin’s military decisions, such as initiating the Korean War. When Soviet wartime radio traffic was decrypted in the Venona project, evidence pointed to a spy at Harwell, and Fuchs’s background made him an obvious suspect. He was arrested in January 1950, confessed under interrogation, and was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment, though released after nine. He then left for the German Democratic Republic (DDR), (leaving London on a plane with a ticket in the name of Strauss!), and in September 1959 married a Central Committee employee, Margarete Keilson (a widow, six years older), whom he had met as a fellow Communist in Paris in the 1930s. He later indicated to Markus Wolf, the head of the DDR’s foreign intelligence division, that he had expected the death penalty. While Halban’s role was reduced in the post-war organization at Harwell, it was perhaps a signal of recognition for his skills and knowledge that so many spies gathered around him during his career.

While he tried to re-build, in Canada, the team that had worked for him in Paris (to the consternation of the Americans, who did not trust the French implicitly), Halban’s managerial skills were tested. His colleague Kowarski declined to accompany him to Montreal, frustrated by the politicization of dealings with patents, and Halban’s treatment of him. Later, another physicist on the team, Bertrand Goldschmidt, reported how the team was frustrated by lack of access to raw materials, and that ‘their demoralization was to be further increased by the difficult character, the authoritarian manners and the poor managerial abilities of Halban, their leader’. (Goldschmidt was in fact a cousin of Aline Strauss, and was the person responsible for introducing her to Halban in Canada when they were on a ski-ing trip early in 1943.)  Despite his reputation for acting alone, and not being the best communicator, Halban had nevertheless managed to bring other members of his Parisian team to Montreal. One was Georg Plazcek (who married Halban’s first wife, Els Andriesse, after Els followed Halban to Montreal, but then left him); another was the afore-mentioned Communist agent, Bruno Pontecorvo. Pontecorvo had failed security checks for joining the Manhattan project in the USA, but had been able to get hired in Canada.

The Americans were very suspicious of Halban. Their misgivings increased when he visited  France after the liberation of Paris in 1944, with the purpose of discussing the issue of patents with Joliot-Curie. They wondered whether he was planning to pass atomic secrets to the French. Knowing the situation was tense, Halban had travelled to England, but waited there for approval for his visit to Paris. On gaining it from Sir John Anderson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he left on November 24, and was given hospitality by the UK’s Ambassador to France, Duff Cooper, who was staying at Victor Rothschild’s elegant house in the Avenue Marigny. Halban had been caught in a complex conflict of loyalties. He had taken patents created in Paris with him to the UK in 1940, and given them to the UK government. And as the Americans started to wonder about why so many French scientists were working on the project in Montreal, they tried to apply stricter controls on participants without firm allegiances to the USA or the UK. This process resulted in the passing of the McMahon Act of 1946, which restricted access to nuclear secrets even to accredited citizens of countries who were US allies (like Great Britain and Canada), and thus solidified the preliminaries to the Cold War. Halban denied giving secrets to Joliot-Curie, but the Americans were annoyed, knowing that Joliot-Curie was a member of the Communist Party who had made threatening noises about contacting the Soviet Union if he were not treated respectfully. They thus applied pressure on the British to replace him – which they did, demoting Halban to head of the physics committee, and bringing in John Cockcroft as leader in Montreal. Nevertheless, Halban was soon put under detention in the US for a year, and not allowed to work. Ironically, the man who replaced him in Montreal was the spy Alan Nunn May. Any secrets that Halban might have confided to Joliot-Curie were dwarfed by the revelations of Nunn May, Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Broda, as well as those made by Guy Burgess’s fellow absconder, Donald Maclean, working in Washington.

The week of the meeting between Berlin and the Halbans that was set up by Victor Rothschild can be pinpointed, as Berlin completed his assignment in Washington on March 31, and left for the UK on the Queen Mary on April 7. Clearly, Halban had been under stress, which might have affected his marriage. Here was a man, born von Halban in Austria, of half-Jewish background, who was sometimes taken for a German, but who then adopted French citizenship (and dropped the ‘von’ from his name on that occasion) when he worked in Paris. After his escape to France, he was employed by the British government, and owed it his allegiance, signing the Official Secrets Act, before leaving to work in Canada in co-operation with the United States government. He was intensely concerned about the patents he had brought with him from France, and his loyalties were thus pulled in multiple directions. His health was not good: he had a weak heart, which had necessitated his travelling by cruiser rather than aircraft during the war, and Bertrand Goldschmidt attributes his dictatorial and impatient manner partly to that affliction. He was harsh with his stepson, Michel, who explained his own asthma attacks as being caused by Halban’s treatment of him: this must have distressed his mother. But in the spring of 1946, Halban was coming to the end of a frustrating nine months’ period of cooling his heels in New York, eagerly waiting for June to come round, a date on which he would be free to return to Europe. One might have imagined a positive outlook from both Halban and his wife.

Isaiah Berlin, on the other hand, had just returned from experiencing one of the most significant adventures of his life – his encounter with the famous Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, in Leningrad. Berlin had been able to fulfill his longtime desire to visit the Soviet Union after the British ambassador in Moscow from 1942 to 1946, Archibald Clark Kerr, had suggested to him that he survey the scene, and write a report on relations between the Soviet Union and the West. Having carefully gained approval from the Foreign Office, Berlin was initially subject to obstructive tactics by the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Molotov eventually granted him official accreditation as a member of the British Embassy, and Berlin was given a visa in September 1945. It is ironic that Berlin breezed through his visa application with the Soviet authorities in Washington in 1940, before that particular journey was cancelled. Clark Kerr, made Baron Inverchapel in 1946, had shown a remarkable talent for engaging Stalin’s confidence, and no doubt influenced the approval process. The historian John Costello has written of Clark Kerr’s enthusiasm for communism. He had consorted with Stig Wennestrom, a Soviet spy from Sweden, in the 1930s, and in his role as ambassador to China in the late 1930s, had also been a keen admirer of Mao Tse-Tung. He then developed a special relationship with Stalin himself, going to so far as being a supporter of Stalin’s demands for the repatriation of Russians as the war came to a close. As Costello writes (in Mask of Treachery) ‘The ambassador was so cozy with the Soviet dictator that he secured the release from prison of a Red Army deserter whose sister was on the British embassy staff. Instead of facing a firing-squad, Yevgeny Yost found himself presented – like some medieval serf – as a valet to Inverchapel when he left Moscow and returned to London at the end of the war.’  Clark Kerr had also been a close friend of Anthony Burgess, and, on visits back to London in the 1940s, held parties which communist sympathizers and Soviet diplomats attended: his suggestion that Berlin travel to Moscow was thus an eerie echo of the abortive exploit of 1940.

Ignatieff covers the journey in depth, so only the key aspects of his encounter with Akhmatova, whose first husband, Gumilev, had been executed in 1921, and whose son had suffered in the Gulag, need be retold here. On a visit to Leningrad, Berlin had casually asked about her in a bookstore, and had been led to her apartment. He ended up talking to her all night about Russian friends, about art and literature. She told him her bitter life-story, her love affairs, her exile, and encouraged him to speak of his own personal life. He admitted to her that he was in love with one Patricia de Bendern (née Douglas), whom he was to visit in Paris on his way back. (Extraordinarily, the previous August, Patricia, despondent after the collapse of her marriage, had proposed to Berlin, a suggestion which he assessed as unlikely to have a happy outcome, and thus declined.) What Akhmatova made of all this is unknown, but Berlin’s account of their meeting suggests it was erotically charged.  At eleven the next morning, when he returned to the Astoria Hotel, he exclaimed to Brenda Tripp, his companion from the British Council: ‘I am in love, I am in love.’

Akhmatova went on to write a cycle of elegiac poems about Berlin and his visit, titled Cinque. But the encounter caused her problems, too. The fact that Berlin had eluded Stalin’s secret police in managing to meet Akhmatova infuriated the dictator, who had essentially been blackmailing her, forcing her silence in public by holding a sword over the head of her son. When Zhdanov, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, sent him a report on the encounter, Stalin was reported to have said: ‘So our nun has been seeing British spies’, accompanying his reaction with a vulgar epithet. The matter was complicated by the fact that Randolph Churchill, the son of Stalin’s old rival Winston Churchill – sometime ally, sometime adversary – had also been present, according to Berlin’s account, outside Akhmatova’s residence. Seeking Berlin out, he had reputedly called boorishly to him, although he had not been able to gain entry. Akhmatova thought enough of her own importance, and the way Stalin behaved afterwards, to state to Berlin, years later, when she visited Oxford, that she thought their encounter provoked the Cold War – a probable overstatement, though an accurate insight, no doubt, into the fact that Stalin did not like to be thwarted or challenged. Akhmatova’s biographer Roberta Reeder makes the point that Stalin used her as a victim to teach a lesson to the Soviet people, and the writer Konstantin Simonov represented Stalin’s attack on her as a general one on the intelligentsia, cosmopolitanism, and even the independent westernized spirit of Leningrad itself. Stalin had delivered a speech in February 1946 that reaffirmed the superiority of communism, which in turn prompted Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in March, so the fresh challenge from his former ally was on his mind when he heard that Randolph was meddling.

Most commentators have pointed out that Stalin was exaggerating in describing Berlin and Churchill as ‘spies’, since Berlin’s mission to prepare a dispatch about American-Soviet-British relations had been approved by the Soviet Foreign Office. Eluding one’s minder was not evidence of espionage, but the Soviet authorities were obviously suspicious of any covert activity, or attempts to contact Soviet citizens without supervision. Berlin took pains to declare his lack of involvement with any intelligence activities at any point in his life. ‘I had nothing to do with intelligence in any country, at any time, and took no interest in what he [Alexander Halpern] did,’ he wrote in his profile of the Halperns, maybe a little disingenuously. (It should be pointed out that he informed his parents – in a letter of June 2, 1944, from Washington – that Halpern ‘works for us here’, suggesting a close familiarity with Halpern’s activities.) There is a difference between ‘having something to do with intelligence’ and ‘formally working for the Intelligence Service’, the latter being what Berlin appears to want to disassociate himself from. While nominally working for the British Embassy in New York and Washington, Berlin had actually been seconded to the assuredly covert British Security Co-ordination, an organization dedicated to propaganda and intelligence-gathering. And another little-known relationship that Berlin had in the world of intelligence was with Efraim Halevy, who was head of Mossad (Israel’s Intelligence Organization) from 1998 to 2002. A casual search of the Internet will give a careless browser the news that Halevy was Berlin’s nephew: he was in fact a nephew of Berlin’s aunt. Their relationship was close: Halevy was born in London in 1934, and his parents were friends of the Berlin family in Hampstead. Isaiah, along with his parents, attended Halevy’s bar mitzvah. But you will not find an entry for him in Ignatieff’s biography of Berlin. That is doubly remarkable, as the Letters, Volume 2, reports that Halevy accompanied Berlin on the 1956 trip to the Soviet Union. As the editors report: ‘As Secretary-General of the National Union of Israeli Students, he was in Moscow ostensibly to assist in planning for an international youth festival to be held in Moscow the following year, but his main intention was to make contact (normally impossible) with young Russian Jews.’ They go on to say that Berlin and Halevy did succeed in the early hours of one morning in getting away to meet Berlin’s aunt Zelma Zhmudsky, although Halevy was later reprimanded and delayed at the border for the ‘crime’ of escaping surveillance. More significant is the fact that Halevy delivered the seventh annual Isaiah Berlin lecture in Hampstead, London, on November 8, 2009, choosing the title: ‘Diplomacy and Intelligence in the Middle East: How and why are the two inexorably intertwined?’ After lauding Berlin’s contribution to the Jewish people, the Israeli nation, and the Rothschild Foundation, he went on to say: ‘Shaya, as we all called him, was not a neutral bystander as history unfolded before our eyes. He was often a player, at times a clandestine one, as when he met me in the nineties to hear reports of my many meetings with the late King Hussein of Jordan and his brother Crown Prince Hassan, who had been his pupil at Oxford. In retrospect, I regret not taking with me one of my secret recording machines to allow for these titillating exchanges to become part of recorded history. Alas, one more Israeli intelligence failure.’ That is hardly the evidence for someone who was never involved with intelligence, and to commemorate Berlin via a lecture on the subject suggests a pride in his achievements in that sphere. But this aspect of Berlin’s life is smoothly finessed, as is information about the Rothschild Foundation. Kenneth Rose’s biography of Victor Rothschild practically ignores that whole segment of Rothschild’s life. It appears that many people would prefer it to remain a mystery.

Berlin returned to the USA to tidy up his commitments in Washington, and to have the equally fateful meeting with the Halbans. But questions have arisen about his version of what happened in Leningrad. When György Dalos was researching his account of the event for his book The Guest From The Future, and interviewed Berlin in 1995, Berlin significantly downplayed the romantic aspect of his feelings. ‘No’, he said, ‘there was no Utopia for me’, and his feelings towards Akhmatova were expressed in terms of fascination, respect, admiration and sympathy – not love. Perhaps he said so to protect the feelings of his wife, Aline, whom he had taken to the Soviet Union in 1956, and whom Akhmatova, possibly with a sense of jealousy, but also because she was fearful that the thaw in the oppression of writers such as her might only be temporary, declined to see. Berlin always stated that his meeting with Akhmatova was the most important event of his life, but he felt guilty for the mayhem that occurred afterwards – including the growing anti-semitism in the Soviet Union that was fostered by Stalin. (Akhmatova was not Jewish, but Berlin had relatives who suffered under Stalin’s persecution.) The focus of that new purge, the uncovering of a so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, was derailed only by the dictator’s death in 1953, a couple of days before those indicted were to go on trial. By the time Berlin returned to the Soviet Union in 1956, matters had improved considerably. Khrushchev’s celebrated speech debunking Stalin (February 1956) had resulted in a release of political prisoners, including Akhmatova’s son, Lev, who was freed on May 14 and officially exonerated by the Supreme Soviet on June 2, shortly before the Berlins arrived. Akhmatova had not been re-admitted to the Writers’ Union, and still felt threatened, but there is no doubt that she felt peeved at the realisation that her ‘Guest From the Future’ had turned out to be just like other men, and had transferred his affections to someone else.  Berlin himself reported the long silence on the telephone after he spoke to Akhmatova about his marriage, a pause followed by: ‘I am sorry you cannot see me, Pasternak says your wife is charming’, after which came another long silence. Roberta Reeder, in Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet, writes: ‘Her grief and disappointment, as in the past, were transformed into poetry, into a cycle entitled Sweetbriar in Blossom’, in which Akhmatova compares herself to Dido abandoned by Aeneas.

Later commentary, namely Josephine von Zitzewitz’s article in the Times Literary Supplement of September 9, 2011,‘That’s How It Was’ (effectively a review of a book published with that title, ‘I eto bylo tak’, in St Petersburg in 2009) represented further research into records from contemporaries at the scene, as well as study of archives in Britain. This analysis suggests that Berlin must have known that Akhmatova was still alive beforehand, that the original encounter may not have been as spontaneous as suggested, that there may have been further encounters between Akhmatova and Berlin (namely five, to match the number in Cinque), that details of those present are incorrect, that the incident with Randolph Churchill was invented, and that the meetings may have been more intimate that Berlin admitted. One key plank concerning the first part of this claim, not explained in the piece, is Berlin’s friendship with Alexander and Salomea Halpern (née Andronikova). Berlin had been introduced to this couple by a friend in New York, found them appealing (especially Salomea), and they became close friends. Salomea had been a noted beauty, and a very close friend of Akhmatova’s in pre-war St. Petersburg, sharing a circle including the poets Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova’s husband, Gumilev. Indeed, Mandelstam had fallen deeply in love with her. It seems inconceivable that Salomea Halpern would not have besought Berlin to try and visit Akhmatova while he was in Leningrad, yet Berlin later claimed to have asked naively inside an antiquarian bookseller’s whether she was still alive. (In a letter to Maurice Bowra, dated June 7, 1945, he refers to Akhmatova’s forced seclusion at that time in Leningrad, thus showing knowledge of her status.) This association has further wrinkles: Alexander Halpern, like Berlin, worked for the British Security Coordination in the US, helping to set up propaganda on a dummy radio station in Boston, and his role as head of Special Operations Executive’s (SOE’s) Political and Minorities section included responsibilities for the sensitive category of Ukrainians. Moreover he had been an official in Kerensky’s Provisional Government in 1917, as well as being an advisor to the British Embassy in St. Petersburg. If Stalin’s intelligence network had been doing its job, such a relationship would surely have come to his attention. Salomea herself was an enigma: by the 1950s she had become a rabid Stalinist herself, and when she moved to London after the war (so Berlin himself informs us), Russian writers were encouraged by the Soviet authorities to visit her primitive salon in Chelsea. ‘Salomea’s opinions were evidently noted favourably in Moscow’, notes Berlin.

The conclusions of Zitzewitz’s article are enigmatic: Berlin may have wanted to protect Akhmatova, but it does not explain why, since Akhmatova died in 1966, he would have needed to continue to shield her from the facts concerning his visit when he recalled the encounter, both in his 1980 essay Meetings With Russian Writers in 1945 and 1946, and in his conversations with Ignatieff shortly before he died. Moreover, a faulty memory cannot really explain all the distortions of the truth. As in other aspects of his life, Berlin frequently presented facts in a disturbingly deceptive manner. Akhmatova challenged Berlin on his sense of reality: after she received an honorary degree at Oxford in June 1965, she visited the Berlins at their opulent Headington House, and declared: ‘So the bird is now in its golden cage.’ (She then went on to have a long-awaited reunion with her close friend, but now a political adversary, Salomea Halpern, in London.) Ignatieff notes that, after Akhmatova’s death, Berlin wrote to a friend, Jean Floud, that he would always think of her as an “uncontaminated”, “unbroken”  and  “morally impeccable” reproach to all the Marxist fellow-travellers who believed that individuals could never stand up to the march of history. This avowal was doubly ironic: Jean Floud was the sister-in-law of another Soviet agent, Bernard Floud, and she misguidedly came to his defence in a letter to the Times. And Berlin would later undermine his heartfelt comment about fellow-travellers in his praise of another woman.

In April 1946 Berlin returned to England, and Oxford. The Halbans sailed back on July 1; Peter had been born on June 1, and their two children followed them on the Queen Mary in September. Berlin resumed teaching at New College, now a celebrity with a reputation gained from his Washington dispatches. Hans Halban was pleased to assume a post as Professor of Physics at the Clarendon Laboratory, after an offer from his old friend Lord Cherwell. By all accounts, he had eight successful and productive years working there. At first, the Halbans lived in a rented mock-Tudor house outside Headington; a year later, the family moved into Hilltop House ‘a finely proportioned Georgian House with a large garden at the top of Headington Hill’, as Michel Strauss reported. In 1953, Aline and Hans found a larger Georgian house on six acres of land in Old Headington, Headington House, which was to become the Berlins’ domicile after Hans and Aline divorced, and Hans moved back to France, in 1955. As Victor Rothschild had hoped, Isaiah became good friends with the Halbans during the next few years. Ignatieff relates: ‘Isaiah became part of their life, taking Aline to concerts, dining at their house and gradually becoming a family friend. She felt at ease with him; he made her laugh and provided her with a safe and blameless escape from a marriage that was becoming more difficult by the year.’

An example of this new intimacy was apparent in 1949. The way Ignatieff reports it, it was an accident: ‘when he went to Harvard, she was on the same boat heading to visit her mother in New York, and they spent ten happy days together on a crossing which included Marietta and Ronald Tree and other friends.’ The least ingenious of sleuths might conclude that there had been some planning to this highly enjoyable voyage, perhaps a subtle twist to Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband? Berlin’s diligent amanuensis, Henry Hardy, and his co-editor, Jennifer Holmes, inform us that Berlin had indeed suggested that Aline join him and his friends on the voyage, and she travelled from Paris to pick up the Queen Mary when it docked at Cherbourg. As luck would have it, the ship, driven by a gale, ran aground there, and had to limp back to Southampton for repairs. Isaiah and Aline took the opportunity to leave the rest of the party marooned in a dock on the Solent, and to return to Oxford until the ship was ready to sail again. Earlier, as he waited off the Isle of Wight on January 2, while the ship was being inspected by divers, Berlin wrote to his parents: ‘Life is terribly gay & agreeable: breakfast in bed with every kind of delicious juices & eggs: then promenades with Mrs Halban, the Trees, Miss Montague, Alain de Rothschild’. Ignatieff (provided with this insight by Isaiah and Aline in the 1990s) states that it was on board ship that they became inseparable friends, but the evidence suggests that they had already formed a strong bond. And at some stage they started an affair. Michel Strauss confides that his mother used to have trysts with Isaiah, before their liaison became official, in a flat in Cricklewood (a touch that would have delighted Alan Coren). Michel also informs us that Hans Halban had been seeing Francine Clore (née Halphern), a cousin of his mother’s, in the 1950s, ‘at the same time my mother was seeing Isaiah Berlin’. The gradual dissolution of the marriage, and the new re-groupings, were becoming obvious to their friends.

Halban’s social stature had improved in his time at Oxford. A significant feather in his cap was being elected to one of the initial fellowships at St Antony’s College. The College (for graduates only) had been founded in 1950 by a bequest from a successful French businessman with merchant interests in the Middle East, Antonin Besse. After some preliminary stumbles in negotiation between Besse and the University, Bill Deakin had taken over the Wardenship of the College, impressing Besse with his common sense and vision. Deakin (who had worked with Isaiah Berlin in Washington during the war) was a historian who had seen fierce action with SOE among the guerrillas in Yugoslavia, and had acted as literary assistant to Winston Churchill in the latter’s historical writing. While Deakin had been a fellow at Wadham College, many of the initial staff members were from New College, and Isaiah Berlin had been very active in advising the Warden on appointments and administration. Halban was offered a Fellowship; when interviewed in 1994 by Christine Nicholls, the historian of the college, Berlin said that it was because Lord Cherwell had thought it a good idea that a scientist be represented – a somewhat surprising explanation, given that the mission of St Antony’s was to improve international understanding, and diplomacy had not been the strongest arrow in Halban’s sleeve. Maybe the fact that the elegant Mrs Halban would be able to join in social events was an extra incentive. Indeed, Headington House had its uses. As Nicholls’s History of St Antony’s College reports: ‘The grandest social event of all was the ox-roasting. In 1953, at the time of the Queen’s coronation, an Anglo-Danish committee, on which Deakin sat with a Danish chairman, wanted to do something to thank Britain for its help in wartime. The chairman asked Deakin whether his college would like to roast a Danish ox ….. Hans Halban and his wife Aline, who had a large house with land on Headington Hill, agreed to the roasting taking place there.’

The choice of Fellows was a little eccentric. A certain David Footman was elected at the same time as Halban. His expertise lay in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, but he had been dismissed from the Secret Service because of his support for Guy Burgess. Intriguingly, Deakin, who enjoyed fraternizing with Secret Service personnel, had said he wanted a Soviet expert who was free of any commitment to Marxism, and therefore welcomed Footman to the college. But there were questions about Footman’s loyalty: the Foreign Office did not give him a clean bill of health, and Sir Dick White (who headed both MI5 and MI6 in his career) admitted he should have been more skeptical about his trustworthiness. Footman had had contacts with the Soviet spy-handler Maly, and, when Guy Burgess defected, Footman was the first to be notified of the event by that dubious character Goronwy Rees, close confidant of Burgess; Footman in turn informed Guy Liddell – Victor Rothschild’s boss in MI5. Thus the first appointments at St Antony’s were very much made by an old-boy network, about which Berlin must have eventually had misgivings. As early as 1953, he was to write to David Cecil, when looking for advice on career moves: ‘In a way I should prefer Nuffield because St Antony’s seems to me (for God’s sake don’t tell anyone that) something like a club of dear friends, and I should be terribly afraid that the thing was becoming too cosy and too bogus.’ His words got back to the sub-warden at St Antony’s, James Joll, who had also lectured at New College and had been a pupil of Deakin, and Berlin was duly chastised. (James Joll was later to receive a certain amount of notoriety by virtue of his harbouring Anthony Blunt when the latter was being hounded by the Press after his public unmasking.) In any case, the chroniclers at the college did not seem surprised when the Halban marriage fell apart. The History laconically reports: ‘Halban remained at St Antony’s until he resigned on October 1, 1955, upon taking a chair at the Sorbonne. When Halban resigned his fellowship and left for Paris, he asked his wife to choose between Paris and Berlin. She determined on the latter and became Isaiah Berlin’s wife.’ The source was James Joll. After returning to France as a professor at the Sorbonne, Halban was invited to direct the construction of a nuclear research facility (a large particle accelerator) at the Orsay facility in Saclay, outside Paris, for the French Energy Commission. When the divorce between Mr and Mrs Halban was finalised, Isaiah and Aline were married at Hampstead Synagogue on February 7, 1956, with Victor Rothschild as Aline’s witness. For over forty years, they enjoyed a stable, loving, and rewarding marriage. Practically the last thing he said to his biographer was how much he loved Aline, and how much she had been the centre of his life ­– no doubt a sincere claim, but one made with the intent of comforting Aline and stilling any doubts she may have had about competition from other relationships.

There was, however, at least one more twist to the story before Isaiah and Aline were able to be together. Berlin had seemed to be destined for the life of a bachelor: his correspondence shows that he was able to keep up a lively and affectionate dialogue with attractive young females, but they did not appear to view him as romantic material. (One exception was a pupil, Rachel Walker, of Somerville College, who fell in love with him, but whose attentions he found discomforting.) In the early 1950s he still professed to be in love with Patricia de Bendern, even as she misused him, continually playing with his affections. Moreover, Berlin had been telling friends he wanted to get married. Then, out of the blue, in the summer of 1950, Berlin started an affair with the wife of an Oxford don. When Ignatieff wrote his biography, the woman’s identity was thinly veiled, but the story came out when Nicola Lacey published, in 2004, her biography of the woman’s husband, H. L. A. (Herbert) Hart. Hart was a prominent professor, one of the great legal philosophers of the twentieth century. Berlin had known Jenifer and Herbert for a long time; indeed, Henry Hardy describes Jenifer as ‘a close and lifelong friend of IB’. Herbert was a don at New College, and Jenifer had been an admirer of Berlin’s intellectual talents ever since she first met him. Unlike Aline Berlin, who claimed to struggle to understand what he was saying at their first encounter, Jenifer Hart recorded in her own memoirs, Ask Me No More, her first impression of Berlin, in 1934: ‘It was here [New College] that I first met the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose conversation I found so dazzling that, already in an excited state, I was almost reduced to hysterics.’ Ignatieff describes the historic seduction as one initiated by Berlin when he was sick, and Jenifer came to visit him: Hardy and Holmes note that, much later, both Isaiah and Jenifer would claim that the other initiated the affair. Berlin’s state of mind was probably at a low point; on May 11, 1950, Aline Halban gave birth to her third son, Philippe, her second with Hans. For what Berlin had gauged as a rocky marriage several years ago was perhaps re-energizing itself, and his opportunity was fading. Isaiah was anguished over his affair with Jenifer, believing that he had to explain himself to the husband, also a close friend; Herbert Hart (who had homosexual tendencies, and once declared to his children that the problem with their parents’ marriage was that ‘one of the partners didn’t like sex, and the other didn’t like food’) refused to accept the reality of the situation. The Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa has written about Berlin’s ‘adulterous affairs with the wives of university colleagues’, which makes Berlin sound like a satyr of Ayeresque proportions. It is possible that Llosa has inside information that would expand the list of Berlin’s amours: no other lady, apart from Mrs Hart and Mrs Halban, has been identified, but of course it is as difficult to prove that somebody definitely did not have another lover as it is to prove that any senior British Intelligence officer was for certain not an agent of the Soviets. (Though the sexual mores of the intelligentsia of that time seem bizarre even in this enlightened age: Isaiah Berlin was in love with Patricia de Bendern, who was sleeping with A. J. Ayer, who was two-timing her with Penelope Felkin, who was married to Elliott Felkin, who had been the first lover of Jenifer Hart, who initiated Berlin into sex: a veritable La Ronde on the Isis.)

And here the timing looks a little awry. It is impossible to plot the exact trajectory of the affair of Isaiah and Aline, since the prime source of facts about it is Berlin himself, and he has proved to be an unreliable witness, events blurring from a faulty memory forty years later, and maybe a desire to believe that the course of true love had been more honourable than it really was. Ignatieff writes that ‘the affair continued for several years, but Berlin’s affections slowly began to transfer towards another woman, also married to an Oxford colleague’. Berlin’s affections for Aline had of course been harboured for many years already: in a letter to Alice James (August 12, 1955), he writes about his impending marriage: ‘I have loved her long and very silently for fear of upsetting what seemed to me a household.’ And then, after claiming his innocence, and rather ingenuously stating that ‘No “deeds” occurred’, he writes further: ‘I am naturally in a state of enormous bliss; & think myself fantastically lucky & cannot conceive how such happiness can have come my way after eating my heart out for years (I first saw her in 1941) nor does Dr Halban seem to mind much now’. It seems very incongruous for a man who had loved in vain for all those years to have set upon a sudden affair with another woman only five years previously, and indicate to his biographer that his affections slowly began to transfer to another woman. In any case, the usual accompaniments to such affairs took place: secret assignations, surreptitious telephone calls overheard, private detectives tracking movements, confrontations, temporary separations and tearful reunions. Berlin tried the same tactic of confronting Halban, pointing out to him the philosophical challenge of trying to keep caged someone yearning to be free (neatly paraphrasing a saying of Herzen about the impossibility of providing a house for free people within the walls of a former prison), and how such behavior would be counterproductive. At the end of 1954, another deus ex machina saved the situation. Halban was offered the position in Paris, and gave Aline the famous ultimatum. She decided to stay: Halban somehow must have been persuaded to give up Headington House, no doubt with some monetary payment to assist the process, and after waiting for the divorce to come through, Isaiah and Aline became engaged. Jenifer Hart happened to hear the news at an All Souls lunch, and was notably shocked and upset. According to Ignatieff, she came to Isaiah’s rooms and he could only comfort her as best he could: ‘Cry, child, cry’ (since emended by Henry Hardy, after inspection of the tapes, to ‘Weep, my child, weep’). Marx and Belinsky meet Mills & Boon.

Yet Jenifer Hart’s world contained another momentous secret: she had been a member of the Communist Party, and a Soviet agent, suspected by MI5 of passing on secrets from the Home Office to her Communist handlers. In her autobiography, Hart makes no secret of her Communist affiliation, but claims that she abandoned her allegiance at the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939. (Protestations made by former Soviet agents under gentle Security Service interrogation are notoriously untrustworthy, as the experience with Anthony Blunt showed. Unfortunately, statements made by their more innocent friends, such as Rothschild and Berlin, likewise have to be treated with circumspection.) She was one of the group that regularly mingled at the apartment in Bentinck Street that Victor Rothschild rented to Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Others are not so sure that she abandoned her role in espionage that soon. The historian Professor Anthony Glees even lists her, in his Secrets of the Service, in a rogues’ gallery of Soviet spies, in the same class as Blunt, Philby, Maclean, Burgess, Long and Fuchs; other analysts, such as the veteran tracker of communist subversion, Chapman Pincher, consider her as relatively small fry. But there seems no doubt she was a traitor. She concealed her membership of the Communist party, being told by her masters to go underground. She gained employment at the Home Office, where she had access to information on telephone taps, without declaring her affiliation, and signed the Official Secrets Act. She married Herbert Hart, and recommended him for work at Bletchley Park, where he worked on decrypts of Nazi radio traffic. Glees believes that she would have had to pass on secrets to prove her commitment to the cause: that was the pattern that the Stasi followed in East Germany, and what the KGB demanded of its agents in the UK and the USA. Her role was revealed by Anthony Blunt and his associate Phoebe Pool, who was incidentally a very close friend of Jenifer Hart’s. Pool stated that Hart had been recruited by Bernard Floud – another agent in the Oxford Ring that mirrored the Cambridge Five – who committed suicide shortly after being interrogated by MI5. Arthur Wynn, another recently uncovered agent, was her handler. She might have escaped more public attention, but she made some unguarded comments to a journalist in 1983, expressing overtly unpatriotic opinions, which provoked interest in her all over again, actions which caused her to threaten Professor Glees. She blustered, but eventually backed down from the threat of a libel action, as her previous disloyalty was undeniable. As Markus Wolf, the Chief of Foreign Intelligence for the German Democratic Republic, wrote in his memoirs, Man Without A Face: ‘No co-operation with an intelligence service will ever leave you. It will be unearthed and used against you until your dying day.’  Moreover, Hart’s life was one of hypocrisy: she claimed to be a socialist, but clearly believed that socialism was not for her, as she took advantage of all the benefits of a liberal education, watched her investments (like that other armchair socialist A. J. P. Taylor), sent her children to public schools, jointly inherited a large house in Cornwall, and travelled around the world with her husband on the proceeds of a trust established by an American entrepreneur. And as the cycle of Berlin’s life came to a close, she revealed in the book a last ironic twist: Aline de Gunzbourg had been a schoolmate of hers in Paris, and she included in the memoir a photograph of her class at the Cours Fénelon, which clearly identifies herself and Aline.

All this might not affect Isaiah Berlin’s legacy, except for the fact that he wrote a very flattering foreword to Hart’s memoirs just before he died. (The volume was published only after his death in 1998.) In some matters, he was blunt. He spoke of Hart’s betrayal of her husband. He named Michael Oakeshott, the conservative philosopher, as an early amour, and added: ‘Nor was he her only lover’, but did not divulge that he himself was one on that list. And he showed some awareness of her shady past. He recognized her communist commitment, but was indulgent with her failing. ‘At any rate, Jenifer was much taken in by what I have described, and that is what made her drift towards the Communist Party; a great many friends had done the same, and in peaceful, civilized England communism must have seemed mainly a strong remedy against illiteracy and injustice, an illusion which persisted in the West for a very long time.’ He even recognized her role as a Soviet agent while working at the Home Office, but was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. ‘The Party was probably pleased to have an agent in so sensitive a place, but in fact Jenifer never did anything for the benefit of the Party – gave no secret information  – this has never been refuted in all the examinations of Soviet penetration that took place in later years.’ How did Berlin know that for sure? Did he really believe it? (The only sure fact about the whole affair appears to be that there is no record of Clement Attlee’s receiving a report from MI5, and then commenting: ‘So our monk has been seeing Soviet spies.’) But what reflected really poor judgment was his going overboard in his testimony to Hart’s character: ‘Before her unyielding integrity, her acute moral sense, even the cynical or complacent or indolent or wheeler-dealers, were bound to quail, or at least feel uncomfortable.’ There is a world of difference between having vague sympathies for Communism (such as Berlin himself might have harboured had he not been inoculated in his youth by the barbarity of the Revolution), and breaking an oath of loyalty to one’s government to betray secrets to a foreign power. So is this the implacable foe of Soviet totalitarianism, disgusted by the violence he saw as a boy in Petrograd, and by the cruelty of Stalin’s institutionalized terror that he witnessed in the 1950s, speaking? Is this the man who would not stay in a room with Christopher Hill because of his ideology, and who prevented Isaac Deutscher from getting a chair at Sussex University because of his totalitarian sympathies? Berlin liked to see the positive aspects of people he knew (witness his Personal Impressions), but he could have performed a favour for an old friend and lover without putting her on a false pedestal.

Having one’s judgment about treachery affected by one’s friendship and liking for someone is a familiar symptom: Graham Greene notoriously offered an apology for Kim Philby’s sincerity of  beliefs when he wrote his introduction to Philby’s My Silent War – ‘who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?’ Such a plea clearly echoes the famous statement by E. M. Forster that he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country rather than a friend, a view that calmly glides over the fact that friendships of the kind Forster enjoyed (as well as a climate that tolerated eccentricity and openly unpatriotic opinions) were one of the benefits of living in a liberal democracy. The patrician Lord Annan, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, said of another traitorous rascal, Leo Long, in his memoir Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany: ‘Whether he was still passing information to the Russians I do not know, but my activities in Berlin against the KPD, of which he can hardly have approved, did not affect our relations.’ But, as Jacques Duclos, general secretary of the French Communist Party, said in 1949 at meeting in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Lenin’s death: ‘Any man of progress had two homelands, his own and the Soviet Union.’ The bargain that British traitors made was to replace their own patriotism with that of another country. The brave Soviet defectors thought poorly of such cowardice. Ismail Akhmedov, who saw at first hand the horrors of Stalin’s police state, said of Philby in In And Out Of Stalin’s GRU: ‘This traitor was never a fighter for the cause. He was, and still is, a sick alcoholic weakling’, and Akhmedov contrasted the relatively comfortable choices the Cambridge Five made with the perils the Old Bolsheviks suffered – ‘the true champions’. ‘To completely close the circle he will pass into oblivion, into an empty abyss during one of his drunken hours, as did Burgess, and join the company of butchers, henchmen, headhunters – call them what you will – the despised enemies of the unfortunate Soviet people still yearning for their freedom.’  This is what Berlin had spoken up for all his life – the right of the pluralist and independent citizen to be protected from the horrors of ideological dictatorship. And yet his final literary act was to praise one of Stalin’s agents, one of the fellow-travellers he had so sharply scorned after Akhmatova’s death, and thus did he betray Akhmatova and all she stood for. Pluralism does not extend its arms to embrace a creed which irrepressibly denies the essence of pluralism itself.  And as an echo to his tribute, the first in the series of his Letters – loyally and indefatigably edited by Henry Hardy – is dedicated to that same woman, Jenifer Hart (although one cannot determine Hart’s treachery from the biographical glossary at the back of the book.) According to Hardy, Hart gave ‘heroic assistance’ in the editing of the Letters, and it was Aline’s suggestion that the first volume be dedicated to her. It seems also to have been a gesture from Berlin’s widow to the woman who introduced her third husband to carnal delights, maybe overlooking her guilty past. Berlin’s love for his wife meant that he diminished ‘the most important event in his life’, and betrayed Akhmatova’s memory. In the long run, Stalin’s long arm stretched out and plucked his revenge.

Roger Hausheer, in his introduction to Berlin’s Against The Current, wrote: ‘Berlin’s works may seem to many to offer a vision of life shot through with pessimism, and indeed, it cannot be denied that in this conception of man and the ends of life there is a powerful element of tragedy: avenues to human realisation may intersect and block one another; things of inestimable intrinsic value and beauty around which an individual or a civilisation may seek to build an entire way of life can come into mortal conflict: and the outcome is eradication of one of the protagonists and an absolute unredeemable loss.’ Thus the messiness of an individual life echoes the messiness of history, and so it was with Berlin, saved from irredeemable loss by Aline’s slowly emerging love for him. He was reputed not to have cared about posterity’s verdict. He was very willing for his letters to be published – and for all those nasty little secrets, those jealous quips and barbs, the attempts to cover up for an indiscreet remark or move, those internecine aspects of college politics, those actions and favours initiated for not perfectly honourable motives, to come out in the wash. And what they show, for all the great sweep and humanity of his ideas, is that Berlin was simply human, like everyone else. He was essentially unsure of himself and his identity, maybe feeling his fame was undeserved, anxious to be loved and liked, wanting to please, jealous of competitors, and he struggled to balance the private persona with the public image. He did not want to upset anybody, and thus reinvented his life-story again and again. The unpredictability of life, and the inability of big ideas to result in satisfactory conclusions in which no one was hurt, were central to his thinking, and his own life resembled his view of history. In ‘The Song Before It is Sung’, his highly fictionalized version of the relationship between Berlin and the conspirator against Hitler, Adam von Trott, the novelist Justin Cartwright provides a fitting epitaph on Berlin’s distortions. ‘After years of reflection, old people reorder their lives. We all do it our way. We construct our self-image as if we are hoping for some retrospective distinction, a vision of the person we believe we are supposed to be; without being able to see a template, we carry on relentlessly, like bees obeying an order they don’t understand, until death makes it all irrelevant. Why is it important to practice willful amnesia and invent myths?’

And in his desire to define his legacy in his own terms, controlling the narrative for the biography that Ignatieff wrote, Berlin echoed the opinions of one of his favourite historians, Giambattista Vico. In his essay, One Of The Boldest Innovators in the History of Human Thought, he describes how Vico developed an almost mystical notion of how history can be understood, contrasting it with the analytical methods of science. Berlin paraphrases the obscure Vico to demonstrate the inevitable biases of the historian too close to his subject: ‘All history in the end relies on eye-witness testimony. If the historian was himself engaged in the affairs of he was describing, he was inevitably partisan; if not, he would probably not have direct access to that vital information which only participants possessed and were hardly likely to divulge. So the historian must either be involved in the areas he describes, and therefore partisan, or uninvolved and liable to be misled by those who had an interest in bending the truth in their own favour; or, alternatively, remained too far from the true sources of information to know enough.’ As the influential historian of his own life, Berlin demonstrated that partisanship. He died on November 5, 1997; Ignatieff’s biography came out in 1998, and clearly could have benefitted from some tighter editing and fact-checking. With Volumes 3 and 4 of his Letters still to be published, and a more objective and thoroughly researched biography still to be written, Berlin has successfully simplified and sanitised a life that was far more complicated and paradoxical than the record currently shows.

Lastly, one must consider the role of Lord Rothschild, omnipresent and influential, either an aristocratic Zelig, a fixer par excellence, or the deus ex machina himself. The Rothschild family welcomes Berlin after his appointment at All Souls, and it is Victor who provides Berlin with a taxi home from Cambridge to Oxford by aeroplane. It is Rothschild who cancels Burgess’s visit to Moscow, and he who is the facilitator of Isaiah’s and Aline’s encounters in New York, and their eventual friendship in Oxford. Rothschild entertains Herbert and Jenifer Hart at Tring, and it is Rothschild’s flat in Bentinck Street that Guy Burgess shares with Anthony Blunt, and where Burgess’s cronies, including Jenifer Hart, meet. Rothschild, Fellow of the Royal Society, heads counter-sabotage operations in MI5 during the Second World War. As the war winds down, Rothschild makes his house in Paris available to the newly installed Ambassador, Duff Cooper, who takes care of Hans Halban during his brief mission to see Joliot-Curie. His kinship relationship with Aline is strengthened when Aline’s cousin marries his cousin’s daughter. When Isaiah and Aline get married, the bride’s witness is Victor Rothschild. It is Rothschild who assists Weizmann in enabling Israel’s nuclear research programme, using his contacts in British intelligence, making frequent visits to Israel, and encouraging the French to assist in the project. On one of these missions he encounters Flora Solomon at the Weizmann Institute, who recalls to him that Kim Philby once tried to recruit her, thus leading to Philby’s unmasking. Berlin works on unspecified business for the Rothschild Foundation. Rothschild hobnobs with President Roosevelt and Edgar Hoover, and ensures that Churchill’s gifts of cigars are free from sabotage. He chairs the high-level think tank under Prime Ministers Heath and Wilson, and advises the Shah or Persia in his role as head of research for Shell Oil. It would not be surprising if the archives some time showed that, late in 1954, Rothschild made a discreet call to Mendès-France, the Prime Minister of France, to suggest quietly that it would help a few matters greatly if the eminent scientist and expert on nuclear power, Hans Halban, could quickly be offered a prominent post in the French administration.

(© Antony Percy 2012)

Leave a Comment

Filed under General History, Literature/Academia, Politics

Krivitsky, Churchill and the Cold War

An Unpublished Letter

In August, 2016, I wrote the following letter to the editor of Prospect magazine:

“In her review of Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-41 (Prospect, August 2016) Lara Feigel writes: ‘He (Churchill) sent in foolishly large numbers of troops to help France in 1940 because he was upset to lose such a close ally to a German occupation, while he failed to help the Soviet Union swiftly in 1941.’

This appears as a reckless judgment. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been in effect for almost two years, and Stalin had been supplying the Germans not only with strategic intelligence, but with oil and war materiel to aid the Nazis’ prosecution of their war against Britain. Churchill had meanwhile supplied Stalin with urgent warnings about Hitler’s plans for Barbarossa, intelligence that Stalin stubbornly ignored. Moreover, since the original casus belli had been Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain could be said to have had a moral obligation to declare war on the Soviet Union rather than come to her aid, given the latter’s rape of Eastern Poland and the Baltic States in 1939-1940.

When the Soviet Union was attacked, Churchill immediately declared support for a regime he implicitly loathed, and diverted valuable resources to the Soviet cause, at a time when the USA was not yet in the war. The dangerous convoys to Murmansk started as soon as September 1941, an effort for which little gratitude was received from Stalin. Instead, the Soviet dictator, aided by his manipulative ambassador, Ivan Maisky, and his spies in such crucial places as the Ministry of Information, pressed for the opening of a Second Front, the premature execution of which would have been disastrous for the war effort. Stalin no doubt knew that.

One could assert that the Soviet Union deserved all that came to it. The long-suffering people of that country, however, unlike those in Britain, had no control over the policies of their leader: Churchill, meanwhile, had continually to consider his political opponents as well as the views of the public. The notion that Churchill somehow failed the ‘gallant vast Soviet Union’ is simply ridiculous.”

My letter was not published. Rather than use this opportunity to complain about the way that professional historians are allowed to make highly controversial assertions without there being any open forum for dissident voices to challenge them (perhaps a topic for a later blog), I want to use the letter as a prologue to expand on the messages from my book, Misdefending the Realm.

The Cold War

A dominant narrative in much of recent histories of the Cold War runs as follows: Roosevelt and Churchill had an excellent opportunity to cooperate with Stalin as WWII ran down; the relationship was betrayed by the fact that nuclear secrets were not shared with Stalin; atomic spies were working for world peace; McCarthyite witch-hunts persecuted many innocent leftist activists; any trust that could have been built up with Stalin (who wanted ‘peace’) was destroyed by political extremism. The agreements at Yalta fell apart. In that way did the Cold War start. Amy Knight’s How The Cold War Began (2005) is one such work, suggesting that undue fuss was made over communists who did not actually spy, and that Stalin was justifiably offended by the USA’s bomb being exploded at Hiroshima, the opportunity for international control of atomic power was lost, and the Cold War thus began.

I believe this narrative is a travesty. To begin with, believing in ‘partnership’ with a totalitarian murderer in the interest of ‘world security’ was a mistake of disastrous proportions. In this regard, we have to challenge the judgment of the leaders of the western alliance. Churchill never successfully reconciled his odium for communism with his belief that he could do business with Stalin. Roosevelt, for all his political skills, was a victim of his own vanity and was influenced by a nest of communists in government. He drove an unnecessary wedge between himself and Churchill in a play of appeasing Stalin, and trying to win the dictator’s trust. Stalin expertly exploited Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s weaknesses. Moreover, he gained an immense advantage in negotiations because of the spies he had operating in Britain and the USA. Yet this dimension of an intelligence disequilibrium, by which forces of oppression were able to take advantage of the democracies, is frequently overlooked, or even turned on its head. Every now and then, another book or article appears chanting this tune of missed opportunities by the western powers, claiming, for instance, that Alger Hiss was innocent, the concern about communist infiltration was ‘hysteria’, and the disdain for the Soviet Union was ‘prejudice’. Accordingly, historians such as John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr (the authors of the excellent In Denial) have to write a letter to the press reminding editors and historians of the VENONA transcripts, and pointing out how Roosevelt’s administration was riddled with Communist spies. Only last month, Jonathan Mirsky admitted, in the Spectator (October 14): “. . . Alger Hiss, an actual communist spy – as lefties like myself could not admit for years.” Lara Feigel’s criticism of Churchill’s apparent passivity is the latest symptom of this pro-Stalinist malaise.

In my book, I make the case that MI5 calamitously let the country down when it failed to heed the warnings of the defector Walter Krivitsky in early 1940, and, with a woeful regard for security, carelessly let a report on his interrogations slip into the hands of the Soviet spies Jenifer Hart and Guy Burgess. The result was twofold: Krivitsky was killed a year later, and Burgess was able to effect the infiltration of further spies and communist sympathisers into all areas of government before Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Yet the narrative in my book mainly stopped before Barbarossa. I did not undertake any projection of ‘virtual history’ to suggest how the lack of heeding Krivitsky’s warnings affected British policy towards the Soviet Union. I did not project how the disclosures from Stalin’s spies in Britain affected the conduct of the war, or how events might have unfolded differently as the Cold War took over from the heat of 1945 when Germany collapsed. I did not consider whether the Soviet Union could have been prevented from extending its empire into the territories in whose defence Britain had gone to war. The promotional campaign for my work has concentrated on the longer-term possible outcomes of MI5’s mistakes, and I want to analyse them here.

Security and Cooperation

The topics that dominated internal wartime discussions about handling the Soviet Union were ‘security’ and ‘co-operation’. Security, because the Soviets were determined that their borders not be infringed a third time, after the Germans had invaded Russia during the First World War, and then again in 1941. ‘Collective security’ had failed as a protective strategy in the 1930s, and an agreement with the western democracies was necessary for the Soviet Union to become strong again.  (What was frequently forgotten, however, was that much of Stalin’s historical security problem had been self-inflicted, since he had jeopardised his country’s defences – and ability to wage war – by the purges of the Red Army.) Stalin wanted to carve up Germany when the war was won, and rationalised the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic States as a desire to have ‘buffer states’ between themselves and Germany. He recapitulated this theme as they planned the occupation of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, demanding a leading role in administering these countries at the conclusion of the war. The notion of ‘security’ also played into Roosevelt’s hands, as he had dreams by which the ‘Big Three’ would dominate the forthcoming world government body, the United Nations, and thus prevent further wars. ‘Co-operation’ was a watchword for the Foreign Office diplomats, who believed that a positive approach to defining joint goals for peace, and ensuring the security of Europe after the war, without a vengeful Germany being able to make any recidivist moves, would be likely to be reciprocated by good will and accommodating gestures by Stalin.

Yet there were major problems with this negotiating tactic. First of all, the Soviet Union had engaged in an odious compact with Nazi Germany to invade sovereign states: it was equally as guilty of border infringement. A deep moral question surrounded the notion of ‘buffer states’. ‘Buffer states’ were reliable cushions against possible aggression only if they were dependable, led by governments sympathetic to Soviet aims. In order to be dependable, they had to be controlled. And if they were controlled from Moscow, that meant they became part of the Soviet Empire, and were no longer buffer states. The Soviet Union’s military boundaries were in fact extended. That reinforced the notion of a perpetual communist threat to the rest of Europe, and gave life to ‘domino theory’. Nothing would have pleased the Soviets more than the Communists winning post-war elections in France and Italy. Moreover, the role of Poland was especially poignant in this debate. Britain had gone to war over Germany’s invasion of Poland, and the Polish government-in-exile had been one of the most loyal administrations during the war. While one might ask questions as to exactly how ‘democratic’ pre-war Poland had been, and what the ambitions of its government-in-exile were, it did nevertheless appear that Roosevelt and Churchill were prepared to sacrifice Polish democracy (and national boundaries) in a dire gesture of appeasement to Stalin, who intended to impose his authoritarian communism over that country as the war wound down. Why should that privilege be granted to the Soviet Union? What kind of ‘security’ was that?

The notion of ‘cooperation’ is a dangerous one, as well. If two parties are going to ‘cooperate’, they must have common values and goals. (This is the dominant conclusion from Plokhy’s book, listed below, one that I must admit to have reached before I read his work.) To suggest that Britain and the Soviet Union shared the same vision for what the shape and structure of postwar Europe should be would indicate that at least one party was lying, and trying to deceive the other. ‘Cooperation’ is not a goal, but a process. If security meant only that the Soviet Union’s ability to crush independence of thought in the states it would come to ‘liberate’ after the war, it was not a goal worth cooperating over. That security on which Roosevelt (especially) pinned his hopes simply granted a degree of legitimacy to Stalin’s despotism, and committed eastern Europe to almost fifty years of communist oppression. If (as Plokhy suggests) the Soviet Union needed twenty years of security in order to prepare for the next major clash between ideologies, why would the potential victims of that revolution facilitate their enemy’s recovery? How did Britain and America’s political strategists become so deluded over these matters?

What I find deficient in most of the histories of this period is their single-dimensionality. They almost uniformly ignore, above all, the influence that Stalin’s spies had on the fabric of British and American institutions and strategical thinking, and thus on Stalin’s ability to negotiate to his advantage.  I present here a summary of some of the primary relevant works. Victor Rothwell’s oddly titled Britain and the Cold War 1941-1947 (1982) provided an analysis of Foreign Office ruminations, but was correctly encapsulated by A J. P. Taylor in the London Review of Books, as ‘What one clerk said to another’, since it ignored the multiple organs outside the Foreign Office who laid claim to contributing to the forging of British foreign policy. Martin Kitchen’s Britain’s Policy Towards the Soviet Union 1939-1945 (1986) has worn very well, despite a disappointingly equivocal and bland conclusion about the merits of the two participants, and is enlivened by the author’s dry humour. It is understandably parsimonious in covering the activities of Stalin’s spies, not even mentioning the 1940 mission of Burgess and Berlin to Moscow to influence the Comintern. It is balanced well by Stephen Miner’s Between Churchill and Stalin (1988), which contains some penetrating observations about the reality of Soviet policies, with concentration on Cripps’s tenure as ambassador, and draws parallels between the appeasement of Hitler and that of Stalin. Geoffrey Warner provided a rich and insightful contribution to the compilation Diplomacy and Word Power: Studies in British Foreign Policy, 1890-1950 (1996), but his chapter, From ally to enemy: Britain’s relations with the Soviet Union, 1941-1948, surprisingly makes no reference to the influence of espionage and Soviet propaganda on the UK. I have on this site previously drawn attention to the strengths and weaknesses of Bradley Smith’s Sharing Secrets with Stalin (1996). Martin H. Folly’s Churchill, Whitehall and the Soviet Union 1940-45 (2000) focuses laboriously on the strategy of ‘cooperation’ between Britain and the Soviet Union, but it includes only one reference to espionage, and that appears on the last page, in the conclusion, when Donald Maclean receives a belated mention. It lacks any pressing political context, or critical impulse. Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices (2007) overall provides an excellent analysis of the war leaders’ strategic options, and covers the intelligence dimension very well, although he is somewhat too trustful of secondary sources (such as Read and Fisher on the Lucy Ring), and rather too sunny over the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship. S. K.  Plokhy’s Yalta (2010) has a more American perspective, and is excellent in its focus on the complexities of the Yalta negotiations, although occasionally too discursive. I shall say little about Susan Butler’s irresponsible Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership (2015). The work with which I initiated this piece, Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War 1937-1941: Into Battle (2016) is a much livelier compendium, but likewise can find no room for such organisations as the Joint Intelligence Committee, let alone the machinations of Guy Burgess’s friends in influencing propaganda. (Yet I struggled to find the assertion that Lara Feigel highlights: on the contrary, Todman writes, on p 692, that “If America was the ‘arsenal of democracy’, then over the winter of 1941-42, Britain was an arsenal for totalitarianism.”) But how can incisive history be written about this period without considering the implications of intelligence, espionage and counter-espionage?

Asymmetrical Relations

The notion of ‘co-operation’ suggests one of partnership. Yet the imbalance in the field of espionage is just one facet of many disparities that governed the partnership between the Allies. In reality, it was a highly asymmetrical relationship that existed between the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the USA, and it had the following dimensions:

1) Moral Equivalency:

Leftist commentators have frequently categorised the discord of the Cold War as a clash between ideologies, namely ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’, echoing the Leninist line. But it was really nothing of the kind. It should be better described as a struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, and Stalin’s version of the latter was just as distasteful and murderous as Hitler’s. Roosevelt (and, to a lesser extent, Churchill) was quick to classify Stalin as ‘peace-loving’ when it suited them, suffering temporary amnesia over the fate of millions of Soviet citizens for whose death he was responsible, and the fact that Stalin’s ideology required the overthrow of the democracies which the two leaders defended. Moreover, the UK and the USA did not plan to install ‘right-wing’ governments in Europe (as Stalin feared): they wanted to foster liberal democracies that would rely on commerce and free enterprise to bring prosperity – ‘bourgeois’ notions that Stalin detested. To him, ‘democratic’ meant ‘anti-fascist’, and ‘anti-fascist’ meant communist. Stalin’s plans, on the other hand, were authoritarian and despotic, and citizens of such countries as Czechoslovakia would soon learn what the Poles had already predicted  ̶  that they had swopped one tyranny for another. ‘Liberation’ thus had two meanings: when the western allies brought liberation, it mean freedom, open elections, and withdrawal (apart from Germany) by the liberators; when the Soviets were the agents, it meant imprisonment, persecution, murder, and imposed communism. Yet British and American representatives, during negotiations, were loath to mention uncomfortable facts like the Purges or the Nazi-Soviet pact, as it might have risked embarrassing their ‘partner’. Likewise they were craven over the discovery of the murders of Katyn Forest, and did not challenge Stalin over the massacre of thousands of Polish officers. Overall, they were reluctant to take any moral higher ground, lest ‘co-operation’ be endangered.

In one respect, Great Britain was morally impaired. The Atlantic Charter of August 1941, signed by Roosevelt and Churchill, had promised political self-determination to oppressed countries. While Roosevelt considered that this principle applied to all peoples, Churchill obtusely decided that it applied only to enslaved European countries, and not to British colonies. Stalin was not morally superior in pointing out this contradiction, but he was correct in identifying the hypocrisy of Churchill’s interpretation of the Atlantic Charter. Britain’s obdurate retention of imperial pretensions (something that the postwar Labour Government oddly hung on to, overruling Attlee’s inclinations) was a severe stumbling-block in its ability to negotiate with confidence and integrity, and it caused a rift between Roosevelt and Churchill that Stalin was able to exploit. Yet this comparison should not be taken too far: Beaverbrook, for example, compared the need for the Soviet Union to control buffer states as a strategic frontier to Britain’s use of an outpost at Gibraltar. The treatment of the colonies by Great Britain was frequently cruel, even brutal, but the use of a territory acquired legally by treaty to defend sea-routes can by no means be equated to the tyrannies imposed by Stalin on neutral countries. Foreign Office opinion, however, had, in 1940, been exceedingly bland about the injustices of the Baltic States’ being sacrificed in the cause Stalin’s defensive whims. When a Foreign Office dignitary like Orme Sargent could later write: “Is not the Russian attitude about Warsaw exactly the same as General Eisenhower’s about Paris?”, it should have been obvious that the propaganda battle had been lost. Britain had not been able to articulate a consistent moral stance.

2) Pluralism vs. Totalitarianism:

Reading the accounts of Whitehall’s development of strategy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union provides the analyst with a bewildering sense of how fragmented the approach was. Not only did multiple Foreign Office members contribute learned papers on how Stalin’s moves should be interpreted; input came from the diplomats in the Embassy (in Kuibyshev or Moscow), from the Ambassadors Cripps and Clark Kerr, from visiting ministers like Eden (the Foreign Minister), or Beaverbrook, from the Chiefs of Staff and the Ministry of Political Warfare, from the Joint Intelligence Committee, and the Ministry of Information – and, of course, from Churchill himself. His pragmatic Chiefs of Staff were almost always at loggerheads with the more idealistic Foreign Office, which contained its own differences of opinion. Moreover, Churchill presided over a coalition government that contained crypto-communists like Cripps and Ellen Wilkinson, and he was answerable to a public that had access to a free press. Communist sympathisers freely published their opinions, and Soviet agents of influence performed their role in official propaganda. Lastly, Churchill had several insistent governments-in-exile on his doorstep, continually asking for special treatment.

Stalin had no such bureaucracy to deal with. Unlike his counterparts in Whitehall, he surely did not maintain a Post Hostilities Planning Sub-Committee. He made all the decisions himself, and his minions (even Molotov) would not suggest any plan of action without having gained approval from the Generalissimo beforehand. His intelligence officers, when they listened in to private conversations, were amazed that British diplomats could challenge their superiors – a phenomenon unknown in the Soviet Union. General Brooke (Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, later Viscount Alanbrooke) was in turn amazed at the obsequiousness that Stalin’s generals displayed to their boss. And, while Stalin frequently baited his counterparts with suggestions that he was powerless to act because of how his public might react, that was a charade. Eden (for example) was naive enough not to challenge him. British diplomats ingenuously imagined that Stalin’s more inflexible policies were drawn up because of pressure from Politburo hardliners, who were responsible for Stalin’s occasional foul moods. They even convinced Churchill that Stalin was subject to their malign influences, a frustration that Churchill echoed. (There were no such beasts.) The Soviet public had no access to objective information about the course of the war, and no vehicle through which to express any opinions. Stalin manipulated his citizenry to such a degree that the British complained that their contributions to assist the Soviet Union’s war efforts never received any recognition or gratitude. Stalin publicly minimised the role the Allies were playing, took aid for granted, and complained about British sailors’ antics in Murmansk. He hated any foreign influence reaching his Soviet citizens.

3)  Espionage:

Whereas British diplomats continually expressed concern that they might not be ‘trusted’ by Stalin, their sincerity doubted, and the partnership with the Soviet Union might therefore be thrown at risk, Stalin manipulated them by a massive betrayal of ‘trust’ – namely the presence of a large web of spies in all departments of government. This infiltration ironically increased after Krivitsky’s interrogation early in 1940, as Guy Burgess was (probably) able to divert attention away from Communists towards a phantom Nazi Fifth Column. Thus several of Stalin’s Englishmen and Englishwomen, and their sympathisers, soon came to be established in positions of power, influence, or access. For example, Anthony Blunt and Victor Rothschild were employed by MI5, and Kim Philby by SIS. Donald Maclean was in the Foreign Office, while one of the Oxford Group of spies, Christopher Hill, an open Marxist, wrote pro-Soviet propaganda in the Foreign Office Research Department, and became the Northern Department’s expert on Soviet affairs. Burgess himself worked with his crony Harold Nicolson at the Ministry of Information, liaising with SIS, while his friend the Czech communist Peter Smollett (né Smolka) took charge of the Russian desk to push Soviet propaganda. James MacGibbon and Bernard Floud worked in Military Operations (M08). Leo Long was in Military Intelligence in MI14, and John Cairncross at Bletchley Park in GC&CS. Jenifer Hart worked at the Home Office, and Isaiah Berlin and Cedric Belfrage were in British Security Information in New York. E. H. Carr now had an influential position at the Times, and James Klugmann influenced policy for SOE in Cairo. The crypto-communist Stafford Cripps was ambassador in Moscow, while ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson, the lover of Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, had a junior post in Churchill’s coalition government. Cripps’s revolutionary colleague Walter Monckton also worked in the Ministry of Information. The Stalinists Andrew Rothstein and Denis Pritt freely gave their opinions to the press. The atomic spies, Klaus Fuchs, Alan Nunn May, Wilfred Mann and Melita Norwood (and maybe others) did their mischief. This crew was oddly complemented by the unlikely Soviet enthusiast Max Beaverbrook, who, despite his dislike of communism, became the most fervent spokesperson for diverting resources to the Soviet Union, because he thought it would increase productivity in the labour forces of the factories at home, and also enable him to keep his rival Ernest Bevin at bay. As a last unhelpful contributor, Beneś, the Czechoslovak prime minister in exile, was a fervent Moscow enthusiast, and used his own secure communications facilities in Surrey to pass on many secrets to Stalin. It was thus not just the notorious ‘Cambridge Five’ who were doing Stalin’s work.

The outcome was that Stalin was far better informed about all aspects of British strategy than even the Joint Intelligence Committee, and Churchill lost control of propaganda. The wartime chairman of the JIC, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, was not initially granted access to Ultra secrets (a decision overruled probably in 1941); the JIC knew nothing of the proceedings of the XX Committee that managed turned Nazi spies, as that group was answerable to no one except the W Board. Most astounding of all, the JIC was taken by surprise (as were members of Churchill’s War Cabinet) when the USA dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they had no knowledge of the Manhattan project. All this information  ̶  as well as the complete D-Day plans –  went promptly to Stalin via his spies. The project to distribute covertly Ultra extracts to Stalin was a disaster, since he was receiving unedited transcripts from Blunt, Cairncross, and MacGibbon, and he thus disparaged the other summarised source. And because of the contributions of the Cambridge Spies, Stalin also had complete access to Britain’s planned negotiation stances before – and after  ̶  Yalta (where the spy Alger Hiss even attended as an adviser to Roosevelt), which meant the Soviet leader was prepared for any compromise or tactic offered. Folly writes, without a trace of irony, that “Stalin’s realism increasingly came to be fused with an admiration for his intelligence, which became almost a mystique; some policy-makers, including Cadogan, seem to have developed an inferiority complex towards Stalin, in terms of their belief that he was far-sighted, extremely well-briefed, and knew exactly what he wanted.” Historians now know better whence Stalin’s expertise came. And because he received more information illicitly rather than being given freely by the Allies, Stalin started to mistrust them, suspecting, for instance, that they might strike a separate peace with Hitler. He was used to total obedience at home, and expected similar subservience abroad. Yet his counterparts were right to treat Stalin warily: he was essentially ‘untrustworthy’ (as Chamberlain had rightly pointed out in 1939). If they had behaved otherwise, they would simply have been like Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’. Stalin lied about his ambitions, and would say anything to achieve them. Moreover, Churchill, Menzies, and others rightfully feared leakage of vital secrets to the Germans. Stalin utterly failed to appreciate this dynamic: a few in the Allied camp (though of course ignorant about his spies) understood it all too well, but they were drowned out by the ‘co-operators’. Finally, SIS had no spies in the Soviet Union: the intelligence breach was entirely one-sided.

4) Culture:

British diplomats and military representatives were quick to characterise their Soviet counterparts as ‘Asiatic’ or ‘backward’, and thus lacking in the arts of diplomacy. They frequently spoke to them condescendingly, and the Soviets were frequently offended by the behaviour of the officers sent on the military missions. Yet this did not prevent the Foreign Office imagining that its opposite numbers could perhaps be taught to act like gentlemen, and that conciliatory gestures would be answered in kind. When this did not happen, they professed surprise. Churchill, in particular, would express his distaste for Bolshevism, and his mistrust of its leaders, when away from them, but would fall under Stalin’s charm when in his presence, and offer emotional speeches of effusive praise for the skills and personality of his temporary ally. Eden and Roosevelt both believed they possessed the perfect techniques for handling Stalin, and building a relationship with him. But seeking to protect Soviet-British relations, and maintaining the ‘partnership’, necessarily meant appeasing Stalin. Eden expressed personal messages of good will towards Stalin in the hope that they might reduce his ‘suspiciousness: Stephen Miner rightly dubs such thoughts ‘fatuous’. Churchill recognised the weakness of appeasement after Yalta, but had to be persuaded by his secretary, John Colville, to remove the Chamberlainite phrase ‘peace with honour’ from his subsequent speech to Parliament that explained the concessions made over the composition of the Polish government engineered by Stalin.

Stalin knew how to manipulate such weaknesses. He adapted his negotiating style very skilfully, using classical passive/aggressive techniques. He used Molotov to bring bad news, after which he would appear as the conciliator. But he was quite ruthless: like Hitler, he did not take treaties seriously. And he respected hard and unobsequious military men (like Tedder, Ismay, Brooke and Portal), who stood up for what they believed in, and were firm but polite, much more than he did the appeasing patricians like Eden, or the bogus revolutionaries like Cripps (whose asceticism and priggishness he found ridiculous). He saw through Roosevelt’s attempt to keep Churchill out of discussions, but was happy to indulge the American president’s delusions. He mercilessly exploited the divisions between Roosevelt and Churchill, for example in the prologue to Yalta, where Roosevelt avoided any western pre-planning for the conference. He was thus able to throw scorn on émigré Poles who had not taken any part in the fighting for wanting to take control of Polish elections, and easily overcame objections about Poland’s new borders. He left Roosevelt, Churchill and their advisors nonplussed because they had not anticipated the contradictions in Stalin’s claims about democratic elections, and he blithely allowed the Allies to endorse the shared concept of ‘liberation’ of Nazi-controlled territories, even when in the Soviet case it involved enslavement. As Miner wrote: “The Soviets did not expect goodwill gestures, they discounted western sincerity, and, most importantly, they did not respond in a like manner.”

5) Warfare:

In one respect the Soviet Union carried a moral and psychological advantage. Having suffered from the predations and cruelty of the Nazi invaders, its forces had beaten back the enemy hordes, and by the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, had occupied Poland. The country suffered enormous losses in the battles against the Germans, as Max Hastings and Daniel Todman, among many historians of the period, have recorded. The Soviet Union lost about 9 million combatants in battle, or from death in captivity, compared to the British Empire’s figure of under 400,000. Fighting as an infantry army in the Soviet Army was perilous: the chances of surviving captivity were minimal, and if any soldier showed cowardice or a hint of desertion, the NKVD’s commissars were there to shoot him. (Hastings gives a figure of 157,000 shot for military disciplinary reasons in 1941-42 alone.) This philosophy extended to the attitude towards those taken prisoner during Barbarossa (of whom about 3 million would die in German camps): the Soviet Union believed such soldiers should have committed suicide rather than be captured, and it treated them as traitors when they were returned after the Yalta agreements, whether they had forcibly fought as ‘Vlasovites’ in Hitler’s armies or not. When pushed back to their native territory, the Nazis showed fiercer resilience, and Soviet casualties were large. Stalin forced his battalions to move fast in order to get to Berlin first, and he had a strong argument in his favour when he claimed that his forces had performed the lion’s share in the task of beating the Germans into submission. The WWII losses incurred by the Soviet Union (a total of 25 million, including civilians) rightly engendered an enormous amount of sympathy and respect in the West.

On the other hand, the leaders of the democracies could not allow their armies to suffer huge casualties through quixotic enterprises, such as a premature operation across the Channel, or sending divisions to the Caucasus to help Stalin. As they gradually progressed through Germany after eliminating Hitler’s final push in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944, the armies of the western powers faced a different set of morale problems. They were fighting on foreign soil, not removing invaders from native territory. The infantry men thought the war was practically over, and the United States soldiers in particular wanted to return home rather than become the last casualties of the war. They saw surrendering Germans enjoy a more comfortable existence than their own, as their commanders pressed them forwards. Wars are not won by holding positions in attack. They did not understand why the Germans did not surrender, and bring the whole business to a close. Stalin was able to exploit the fact of ‘might being right’ as he brushed off the appeals by Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta to discuss the composition of the Polish government, and insisted on the new boundaries for the Polish nation. These decisions enlarged Soviet territory, and resulted in massive migrations of German citizens from the land now given to Poland, as well as of Poles left stranded east of the Curzon line.

Churchill & Strategy

All this goes to show that it was a very unequal partnership at work. Given the complexity of these relationships, could matters have evolved otherwise, without the subjugation of central Europe to Stalin, if the warnings about Stalin’s subversive activities had been taken seriously? After Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill were anguished by what they saw as Stalin’s betrayal over Polish borders and arrangements for governance. Yet Stalin had not betrayed the agreements forged at Yalta: he had outwitted his allies in having the wording defined to his advantage. Moreover, it was too late by then. Churchill’s physician, Dr. Moran, said the trouble had started at Teheran, but in truth it antedated even November 1943. (Teheran was largely a waste of time.) It went back to 1941.

Churchill’s role in this sad story was well-intentioned, but careless. He was not a great strategist, but a military man, impulsive, and prone to gestures. He frequently incurred the frustration of his military commanders (as the diaries of Viscount Alanbrooke show, for example) by interfering in details, or throwing out wild ideas that should never have seen the light of day. Alanbrooke considered Stalin much superior to both Roosevelt and Churchill as a military strategist (although Ian Kershaw categorises Stalin’s knowledge of military matters asthose of an ‘informed amateur’.) Churchill’s inability to curb the picaresque Beaverbrook (even sending him to Moscow to further his individual cause of unbridled support) provoked anguish with his Chiefs of Staff, as well as with others members of the War Cabinet.  And he showed much ambivalence in dealing with the Soviet Union. Away from direct negotiations with Stalin, he was privately vigorous in his denunciations of the communist regime. In those moments he echoed the more consistent anti-communist (and anti-Stalinist) opinions of the War Office, whose voices the Foreign Office considered ‘prejudiced’ rather than displaying sound judgment, and found them unhelpful to the cause of ‘good relations’ with the Soviets. (Much of Churchill’s rhetoric, it must be admitted, now sounds trite and woolly.)  But, when dealing personally with Stalin, like others, Churchill fell victim to the Generalissimo’s charm and grasp of detail, often became sentimental, and made concessions that were not necessary or appropriate. He mistakenly treated moments of personal rapport as signs of strategic harmony.

The trouble had really started with Churchill’s radio broadcast of June 22, 1941, after the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union. The historian A. J. P. Taylor, in English History 1914-1945, described this message as something that ‘settled the world for many years to come’. Churchill’s words are well-known: “It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people. We shall appeal to all our friends and allies in every part of the world to take the same course and pursue it, as we shall, faithfully and steadfastly to the end. We have offered the Government of Soviet Russia any technical or economic assistance which is in our power, and which is likely to be of service to them.” He added that “the Russian danger is therefore our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe”. This was a highly quixotic gesture, and a giant leap of faith. Churchill had certainly believed for some years that the Soviet Union would be required as an ally in order for Hitler to be overcome, but did he need to go overboard? He did not ask his military advisers, or the Joint Intelligence Committee, to analyse the various scenarios concerning the invasion, such as the risk of a quickly victorious Germany turning back to re-assault Great Britain. Most commentators thought the Soviet Union would crumble in weeks, so how could Britain have prevented that, and contributed to an outcome where Hitler was swiftly repulsed? In truth, whatever aid the Allies were able to give (at enormous cost) to the Soviet Union turned out to have little impact on the war. Churchill would have been better off preserving his materiel and forces for a possible German counter-attack. Stalin ungraciously came to regard what aid Britain did offer as an entitlement. The Communist Party of Great Britain, moreover, was a continuous thorn in the flesh of the war effort. The message of sudden co-operation with a power that had been reviled as vicious, and had for the past twenty-one months been abetting Germany in the war effort was too much for many – not just military men, but even Labour politicians – to swallow.

A successful strategist has to discriminate between facts and assumptions. He has to show imagination about outcomes. And he has to be able to convert the strategy into decisive tactics, communicating clearly to those chartered with executing them. Moreover the strategy must possess enough consistency to provide guidance over time, yet allow adaptation should some of the underlying assumptions turn out to be flawed. Churchill’s strategy concerning the Soviet Union did not obey any of these rules. A policy, in 1940, of pursuing trade agreements in spite of dismay over Russia’s invasion of the Baltic States was followed by moralising proclamations in the Atlantic Charter. He sent an ambassador to Moscow (Cripps) who was a more effective representative for Stalin’s ambitions than he was of Britain’s policies towards the Soviet Union.  Churchill’s expressed revulsion for communism was undermined by his sudden enthusiasm for Stalin’s dictatorship. He had defended the Crippsian notion that the Soviets had a right to increase its strength in the Baltic States, changing his mind when it was too late, and then reversing himself again after Teheran. (That debate had caused a rift between Attlee and Beaverbrook, with the ironic result that the latter resigned from the War Cabinet.) He did not consult with his War Cabinet or his Chiefs of Staff before making his radio announcement, after which both groups reacted with alarm. He then upset his wished-for allies in the United States by promising to send arms to the Soviet Union. He told his advisors that they should forget about the evils of communism, but expressed dismay when the Ministry of Information projected such a message. He enmeshed himself in awkward entanglements over the second front, raising expectations that could not be met. He allowed contrary messages to flourish, and made life difficult for his ministers through impulsive gestures, such as sending Beaverbrook on a mission to speak to Stalin, and allowing the press baron to broadcast irresponsible messages in the USA. He thus lost the propaganda battle, and confused those serving his administration. Moreover, the left-wingers in his Cabinet pressed Churchill to commit to postwar social reforms for which he was unready: he wanted to defer ‘peace plans’ until the war was won. The coalition government had been insisted upon by Churchill was supposed to represent national unity, but the marked differences in personality and politics meant that it rarely spoke with one voice. Co-operation had thus been a struggle in domestic politics.

Allied Co-operation

The lack of unity extended to the transatlantic alliance, where the two leaders gradually developed markedly different philosophies about the objectives of the war. Matters started well. Roosevelt had performed a skilful, though eminently cautious, job in assisting Britain (giving surplus destroyers, and signing the Lend-Lease agreement, even though they were largely symbolic gestures) before Germany declared war on the USA. He and Churchill were certainly united in their belief that Hitler was the existential enemy they had to defeat, and Roosevelt recognised the importance of the European theatre, but goals became complicated after that. Minor discord occurred as early as Barbarossa, when Churchill’s offer of unqualified support to Stalin took Roosevelt by surprise. In some ways, this gesture was a reminder of May 1940, when more sceptical US politicians wondered what the purpose was of diverting arms to Great Britain if it were going to succumb inevitably to Germany. The Atlantic Charter (of August 1941) was well-intentioned wording that made them both feel good, but then was effectively ignored when it suited them  – Churchill, concerning the colonies, Roosevelt in trying to please Stalin. Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to gain Churchill’s commitment to giving India independence after the war. Roosevelt was less concerned about protecting Britain’s Empire, about which he was disdainful, and a little jealous, and he later had a broader Pacific war to contend with. He was even more scornful about France’s colonial pretensions after its defeat, while Churchill wanted to see a resurgent France as a counterpoint to Germany after the war.

Churchill and Roosevelt did not respond to Stalin’s demands consistently. After Germany declared war on the USA in December 1941, it should have been the goal of the western allies to present a united front to the Soviet dictator over the cause of their shared beliefs in liberal democracy, and to defend the rights of the minor states. But they both foolishly attempted to bargain (or prevaricate) with Stalin over his desire to maintain the boundaries won during the pact with Hitler, predominantly the control of the Baltic States. They thus disagreed about the urgency of settling European boundary issues, and how power should be exercise after the war.  Roosevelt referred to the necessity of gaining the Polish-American vote for his fourth presidential campaign: Churchill sent Eden to Moscow to do a deal over recognition of Britain’s interests in India in exchange for allowing Stalin to keep the Baltic States. He later separately bargained with Stalin, in the notorious ‘percentages’ deal, whereby British influence in Greece was traded for Soviet dominance in other Balkan countries.

Moreover, they were divided in responding to Stalin’s demands for the Second Front. Hitler had abandoned a cross-channel invasion, at the peak of his powers, when Britain was almost powerless to defend itself. There would be only one chance to execute a reverse operation successfully, and it would require a massive amount of planning, personnel, and materiel. The western leaders made promises to Stalin they could not keep. Roosevelt, while committing to his ‘Europe First’ policy, underestimated the complexities of a cross-channel invasion. Churchill set his eyes more on ‘the soft underbelly’ of Nazi-controlled Europe, as he wanted to make inroads via Italy in the hope of reaching Austria and Berlin before Stalin. Roosevelt’s belief that he and Stalin, and their respective countries, were the future leaders on the world stage, grew increasingly stronger, and he began to cut Churchill out of negotiations. Churchill seethed, but was powerless to do much, as his country was becoming bankrupt, and losing influence, though he could not face the truth that the days of maintaining an empire were over.

Roosevelt had grand plans for securing postwar peace through a Wilsonian United Nations project, while Churchill’s focus was more on spheres of influence in Europe – a notion Roosevelt disliked. Thus Roosevelt was less concerned about the threat of Stalin, and saw the dictator in a more benevolent light: he had always been partially blind to the evils of Stalin’s regime. (He noticeably omitted Stalin’s dictatorship from the list of totalitarian threats when the Lend-Lease program from the ‘arsenal of democracy’ was announced in December 1940.) He even told Churchill in March 1942 that Stalin ‘liked him [FDR] better’, and preferred dealing with the US diplomats than with the British. Churchill and Roosevelt had long since used the language of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom-loving’ to describe their murderous ally, and forgotten both the freedoms they had been chartered to defend when war was declared in September 1939 and December 1941 and the mass slaughters that Stalin had invoked on his own people. The Soviet Union in 1944, with its armies moving confidently across Europe, was a very different beast from the cowering and helpless entity which the Nazi aggressors so blatantly hoodwinked.

Such dissensions and concessions were dangerous. In the classic phrase used by Chamberlain, Roosevelt and Churchill ‘missed the bus’. In 1943, as Stalin turned the tide (with the help of his English spies) against the Germans at Kursk, his confidence increased. No longer did he have to seek favours from his allies. But he could still manipulate them. In 1943, he made the gesture of dissolving the Comintern  ̶   in name only, as if to signal that plots to subvert the western democracies were a thing of the past. The Foreign Office overall believed this gesture because its civil servants wanted to, as they did with many of Stalin’s insincere promises. MI5 believed it was a fraudulent move, but the Security Service was not listened to, or did not press the point. Yet it should have been obvious to the Joint Intelligence Committee (if it had read the transcripts from the highly clandestine ISCOT project, which decrypted transmissions between Moscow and its guerrilla armies in Europe) that the plans for introducing communism by force in central Europe had not gone away. The Chiefs of Staff had their suspicions of Stalin’s true intentions confirmed by his passivity at Warsaw in August-September 1944, where he refused to help the uprising against the Germans because the insurgents were democrats inspired from London, not communists. Moreover, Roosevelt did not see Stalin between Teheran, in November 1943, and Yalta in February 1945, when FDR was a very sick man. Stalin had prevaricated, saying he had to stay in the Soviet Union to manage his forces. He was also highly scared of flying, and very wary about assassination attempts. The mountains had to go to Mahomet. And Mahomet was fully prepared to exploit the fissures in the two edifices.

Alternative History?

What could have happened differently? Could the ideals of resisting totalitarianism have been converted into a sturdy defence of the democratic aspirations of the central and eastern European countries? Had there been an opportunity when Churchill (and later, Roosevelt) could have presented a bolder front to Stalin without pushing him into a renewed alliance with Hitler? My contention is that, had Churchill known the details of Krivitsky’s revelations, and a tougher and confidential follow-up had occurred, he would have had an opportunity to cleanse the stables, influence public opinion, and present a far more pragmatic and determined face to Stalin when Barbarossa occurred. If Stalin’s strategy for subversion of British governmental institutions had been known to him, Churchill might have not behaved in such a starry-eyed fashion when he pledged assistance to the dictator in June 1941. Yet such a scenario is unavoidably complicated by a series of events that would have had to happen. Chamberlain was prime minister when the Krivitsky interrogations took place, and there is no evidence that Churchill ever heard about the defector, or read the report that MI5 produced. I therefore present a series of steps that could have led to an outcome where Stalin would not have been able to ride so roughshod over the long-suffering citizens of the countries that eventually lay behind the Iron Curtain. I shall next analyze these individual steps, and allocate a score to the degree of difficulty associated with each, in consideration of the political and organizational challenges at the time. (1 = straightforward; 5 = highly complex).

Krivitsky would have had to be secreted somewhere, and paid to give a fuller account of the hints he gave concerning spies in the undergrowth. The whole process would have to be highly secret, and if a report were to be written on his interrogations, it would have had to be subject to very tight controls. Chamberlain and Churchill would have had to be notified. An investigation would have had to take place into the backgrounds of identified Soviet agents (primarily Maclean and Philby), which would have led to warnings of friends and associates with similar backgrounds. That process would have had to be converted into a policy of positive vetting for future employment, and the sacking of communists (or ex-communists) from government posts. It would have required a new strategy for handling the Soviet Union to be developed, executed with a firmness that would not have allowed the customary dissents in the Foreign Office and elsewhere. Roosevelt would have had to be informed, and sold on the measures, so that a similar exercise could take place in the USA. Churchill would have had to change his tune on the destiny of the Empire after the war, and to take more closely to heart the precepts of the Atlantic Charter. Churchill and Roosevelt would have had to resolve their differences, agree about goals for democratic constitutions in central Europe, and present a united and forceful opposition to Stalin’s wiles.

1) Safeguarding Krivitsky (1): This could have been an easy task. The diaries of Guy Liddell, where he describes his discussion with Krivitsky on the day before the defector sailed back to Canada, have been redacted. But there had been a plan to spirit him (and his family) to a safe place in Scotland, and, had he been paid enough, his memory would probably have enabled him to recall more crisply the identities of the figures he hinted at in his testimony. He assuredly knew more about the profiles of the agents than he was prepared to divulge for free to institutions he still regarded as hostile. The historian of MI5, Christopher Andrew, has offered excuses that MI5 did not know how to handle defectors, and was inadequately staffed. But that does not add up to a valid explanation: it was the service’s duty to develop such skills, and in Jane Archer it had a superbly qualified officer who was in the process of being wastefully sidelined.

2) Confidential Report (2): Irrespective of the evolution of the process of interrogation, the distribution of the report that outlined Krivitsky’s revelations was a mistake of disastrous proportions. If the heads of intelligence (Kell, Menzies) had given a minute’s thought to the implications of a defector’s claims that Britain’s government was infested with Stalin’s spies, and the nature of those accusations being widely-spread in Whitehall, they should have placed an embargo on any publication. It was a completed abdication of tradecraft, showing how amateurish the mechanisms of counter-intelligence were. Thus a grade of (1), given the obviousness of the correct action, is corrected to a (2) by the reality of a security organisation that could have benefited from some more military discipline.

3) Notification of Chamberlain and Churchill (1):  The reporting lines were confused. MI5 answered to the Home Office: SIS (who was represented in the interrogation) to the Foreign Office. The two intelligence services were not invited to join the Joint Intelligence Committee (which focused very much on imperial military matters until then) until late May 1940. Chamberlain, still prime minister at the time of the interrogations, was rather disparaging about intelligence, but Churchill was an enthusiast, and would have jumped at an opportunity to read such a report, or even meet the defector. Gary Kern, in his A Death in Washington writes that Krivitsky’s friends reported that MI5 had arranged for him to meet Churchill, but the encounter never happened. One unfortunate episode that occurred is that MI5 at one stage suspected that Churchill’s nephews, Esmond and Giles Romilly, were the characters hinted at by Krivitsky: if Churchill had come to hear of this, he might have discounted Krivitsky’s reliability. Yet Churchill had a very good relationship with Vernon Kell, the head of MI5, going back to World War I, and one might have expected him to brief him, or his intelligence advisor, Desmond Morton (who had worked for SIS as an expert on communism) on the case. Churchill was to fire Kell in May 1940 – for reasons probably associated with the Nazi Fifth Column: no evidence seems to exist that Churchill was aware of the Krivitsky interrogations at the time. David Stafford, in his Churchill & Secret Service, indicates that Churchill was fully occupied with possible German espionage in the first nine months of the war: there is no mention of Krivitsky, or John Herbert King, the Foreign Office spy identified by Krivitsky, in Stafford’s work. Overall, however, one cannot help thinking that Churchill would have taken the report very seriously.

4) Investigation of Krivitsky’s Allegations (1): Commentators nowadays accept that, with some degree of sleuthing, the main characters hinted at by Krivitsky could have been identified. That would have turned the spotlight on Donald Maclean and Kim Philby. Both had to explain away leftist backgrounds at their interviews (for the Foreign Office and SOE/SIS respectively, with Philby’s recruitment taking place later in 1940). But Philby’s past in Vienna was well-known (by such as Hugh Gaitskell). Trails would have led to the Cambridge University Socialist Club, and the Apostles, and searching interviews could have taken place. With the knowledge of Philby’s activities in Spain, and Krivitsky’s testimony, Philby would have had a much tougher time in 1940 explaining away his past. The links would have led to Anthony Blunt, who, it must be remembered, was himself withdrawn from Military Intelligence training because of his communist past, and to Leo Long and Guy Burgess.

5) Removal of Communists (2): It is not whimsical to suggest that a ban on communists in government service, or at least in positions where security was affected, would have been possible in 1940. Later, when the Soviet Union was a ‘gallant ally’, and propagandists were championing its cause, public opinion would have objected violently to any such measures. Nervousness about the Unions, and their required productivity, no doubt existed, but the Labour Party was adamantly opposed to the Soviet Union’s excesses, even before the Coalition government was formed in May 1940. It is sometimes forgotten that Churchill, during the Fifth Column ‘panic’ that month, was as keen to cut down on Communists as he was fascists, and a lively debate about the wisdom of hiring communists for sensitive positions continued throughout 1940 (which Burgess and Rothschild successfully countered). But at a time when the Soviet Union was providing war materiel to Nazi Germany to spite the efforts of the Political Warfare Executive, a properly executed campaign could have succeeded. King had confessed, and, while it would have been difficult to gain any outright admission of guilt from the Cambridge crew, their subversive careers could have been averted. It should be remembered that Krivitsky’s revelations led to the removal of over a dozen spies, and that Maclean, Blunt, and Philby had all been challenged over their communist pasts at their interviews. As it happened, Burgess’s reputation as a fixer, and his many connections and protectors, may have warded off investigations, but Burgess had been scared enough about betrayal by Goronwy Rees (to whom he confessed his Comintern allegiance in 1939) that he wanted him killed. In a different climate, Rees would have spoken up about Burgess’s working for the Soviets  ̶  a fact that might have been concluded in any case by the mission to Moscow in August 1940.

6) Different Strategy for Handling the Soviet Union (3): During the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Britain still discussed trade agreements with the Soviet Union. Britain needed her timber to build ships: the Soviet Union needed machine-tools, and certain raw materials. Yet no discernible strategy for dealing with Stalin’s Russia emerged: it was all very fragmented and tentative. Churchill had admittedly for some time believed that Hitler would betray the Soviet Union, and that the latter would eventually come in on the side of the Allies. He even thought that such a move would be essential to secure the Allies’ victory. But this policy never was converted into a consistent set of principles by which the country would be prepared for the event. A proper strategist would have set up some guidelines around which negotiations should take place, and public opinion guided: a recognition that the Soviet Union was a durable ideological enemy, and planned to destroy the democracies; that alliance with it should be cautious, as the countries’ goals were different; that the public should be reminded of the slaughters that had taken place in the name of communism; that Stalin should be approached with reserved toughness, and no attempt at appeasement; that offers of help should be conservative, and not affect the imperial war effort; that promises should not be made that could not be kept; that discussions of ‘trust’ and ‘cooperation’ were virtually meaningless when dealing with Stalin’s state. Yet forging and communicating such a stance was alien to the British, pluralist way of doing things, and Churchill, who did not think along such lines, was too impulsive. The Foreign Office would have challenged such a stance for its ‘pessimism’. Thus this step is somewhat problematic.

7) Coordination with Roosevelt (4):  For Stalin’s thrusts and subversion to be thwarted, Churchill would have needed a similar exercise to have taken place in the USA. The country was at the beginning of the war fiercely anti-communist: in fact its opposition to totalitarianism cast aspersions on the Nazis and the Communists, and it was determined to stay out of the conflict, remembering when it had come to the rescue of Europe just over twenty years before. Roosevelt had to tread the path of bringing the USA into the war very carefully. Yet he had authoritarian instincts himself, and his wife – a committed leftist – was an influential figure over him, and the country. Moreover, the USA authorities were very slow to react to Krivitsky’s revelations, or other warnings of Soviet spies in place. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was furious with Krivitsky for suggesting his bureau had been neglectful in allowing Soviet spies into the country. Whitaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss in 1939, but Roosevelt ignored Adolf Berle’s subsequent report about communist penetration, and Hiss was not even interrogated until 1942. Roosevelt was not impressed with the deliberations of the Dies Committee, for he had developed an early admiration for Stalin, and appeared to have forgiven him his transgressions. He thus minimised the significance of Krivitsky’s story. The elimination of Stalin’s network of spies and agents of influence in the USA would therefore have been a tough challenge to overcome. That group was, however, less influential in helping Stalin negotiate with, and confound, the Allies than were the agents installed in Great Britain.

8) The Atlantic Charter (4): The Charter was signed in August 1941 by Roosevelt and Churchill, i.e. after the Soviet Union had been invaded, but before Pearl Harbor, and the declaration of war against the United States by Germany. The symbolism of the event was important, as it indicated the nominal support of the United States for the Allied cause. A key ingredient of the agreement was the commitment to self-determination by peoples, a broad hint that the countries of Europe that had been invaded by the Nazis or the Communists (or by both) should have the right to determine their own form of government after the war. This motion was enthusiastically taken up by the governments-in-exile of the affected countries. But it was also noted by the putative leaders of those colonies, British, French, Dutch, especially, who took it as a signal that such entities would also be granted independence when the hostilities were over. That had never been how Churchill, a confirmed imperialist, had conceived the charter. Roosevelt tried to finesse the issue by postponing any interpretation until the conflict ended, but Churchill got himself into severe trouble with Roosevelt, for wanting later to grant the Soviet Union the ownership of the Baltic States as a bargaining tool. Churchill also had problems with Stalin, who pointed out the prime minister’s hypocrisy in pushing back against Soviet plans for other central European countries, in particular Poland, when he had no plans to let India and other colonies elect the governments they wanted. It would have taken some highly imaginative and influential figure to sway Churchill at this time: ironically, during the war, the Labour members of his coalition were almost as keen to protect the notion of Empire as he was. If Roosevelt had challenged Churchill head-on on this issue, rather than working behind his back to undermine him, the outcome could have been different, and the two leaders might have been able to face Stalin with more resilience.

9) Roosevelt and Churchill United: (3) As Churchill’s (and Britain’s) influence during the war waned, Roosevelt increasingly excluded him from discussions, in the misguided belief that he (Roosevelt) and Stalin were a more substantial pairing out of the Big Three. This breach occurred primarily because of Roosevelt’s disdain for, and disapproval of, the British Empire, but he also had designs on taking over some of Britain’s military bases, and economic opportunities, after the war. The United Nations was the light that guided FDR’s mission, and he started to tire of the complications of European territorial disputes. He and Stalin (he thought) would ensure that ‘security’ dominated the post-war landscape, even though it might mean the peace of a Schillerian churchyard. Roosevelt wanted an earlier second front across the Channel, where Churchill prevaricated, partly because he hoped to reach Vienna and Berlin before Stalin. Thus their visions of the post-war world diverged (as did, of course, Stalin’s), and the fault-lines meant that Stalin was able to exploit their disagreements. If an opportunity to influence Stalin did exist, it would have been early on, in 1942, when he was on the defensive, and needed all the aid he could get. Conditions could have been set for such assistance. Stalin might have reneged on them, of course, but he would have been on much weaker footing. As he started to repel the Nazis in 1943, his confidence gained, and he viewed his Western Allies more scornfully. With the personalities and motivations they had, it would never have been easy for FDR and WSC to reconcile their differences. And, as Molotov pointed out, giving in to Stalin’s demands just led to more.


The conclusion must be that the overwhelming benefit that could have been gained by a purge of communists in administration would have been a much more effective negotiation with the Soviet Union. Stalin would not have been aware of the discord and hesitations in the Allied camp, and would not have been able to bluff or threaten his way into consummating his aggressive territorial and governmental demands. Churchill would have been able to keep a tight hold on his stance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and influence public opinion accordingly. True, Britain would not have been able to discipline communists in an illiberal way (the Communist Party was never actually banned), but it would have been able to exclude them from positions of influence, or when there was a security risk. Admitted loyalties to a foreign power would have been censured. We can recall that Cripps was expelled from the Labour Party because of his defence of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland.

It would have changed the terms of negotiation. Stalin’s overtures suggested that he was susceptible to western approval. As early as November 1941, when his country was on the verge of collapse, he was asking for agreement on war aims, and seeking acceptance of the Soviet Union’s frontiers gained in collusion with Hitler. Thus he was assuredly looking for some positive sign of approval from the western powers to gain expiation for his past offences, and to give his post-war security plans a certificate of acceptance. It must be admitted that even if he had been sharply reminded of such illegality, and Roosevelt and Churchill had set stringent conditions for providing aid, he might still have ignored them when the tide later turned in his favour, but the historical record suggests that tougher negotiation at the time could have been successful. Once Stalin learned that ‘buffer states’ were a valid concept, however, and that some diplomats believed he was entitled to vanquish independent countries, the door was open for him to exploit the opportunity. A lack of access to the secrets of his allies would have weakened his ability to bargain.

Whether the behaviour of Roosevelt and Churchill could have changed is more problematic. The attributes that made Churchill an inspiring leader of the nation – his rhetoric, his buccaneering spirit – meant that he was no more than an adequate chief executive. He reorganised his Cabinet skilfully, but he did not seek their opinions, accordingly set course, and rally them around a plan of action. Many of his cabinet meetings drifted without focus. His attachment to the Empire was unswerving. Yes, he probably could have been persuaded that a less generous and more principled attitude to the Soviet Union, one more in tune with that of his Chiefs of Staff, would have been more appropriate, and thus more effective by not kowtowing to Stalin, but he would probably still have fallen prey to Stalin’s deviousness. And Beaverbrook, the anti-communist, caused as much havoc as any of Churchill’s leftist advisers.

Roosevelt had similar operational dysfunctionality, often bypassing his lieutenants, and not issuing precise orders. Yet his instincts were frequently on target. His clever manipulation of Congress to aid Britain before the USA entered the war was invaluable, but he thought he could equally deftly handle Churchill and Stalin. He was too easily affected by Stalin’s charm, however, and betrayed some major blind spots. His failure to recognise that the USA and Great Britain had far more in common, and at stake, than did the USA and the Soviet Union, betrayed his democratic ally, and the principles for which they were fighting. He was not so interested in the fortunes of central Europe (apart from the Polish vote), and became carried away with his Wilsonian vision for a resuscitated League of Nations, the United Nations.

Thus the Cold War would have happened anyway. Nothing could really stop Stalin after 1943, when he began to repulse the Germans, and started his march into central Europe. Might made right. But with more resolute demands from the West, a more hopeful configuration of states might have emerged. The Iron Curtain might have been moved further east. The Baltic States might not have been saveable, but perhaps a democratic Polish government could have been insisted on, a moderate socialist administration established in Czechoslovakia, and a pluralist set-up in Hungary assured, to complement the independent spirit of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Thus not so much liberty – for which the war had been declared in the first place – might not have been lost for so long, and the collapse of communism might have occurred many years earlier.

(Latest Commonplace entries can be seen here.)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Politics

Misdefending The Realm


“Which are we, Carruthers – workers, peasants or intellectuals?”

‘Misdefending the Realm’ was published by the University of Buckingham Press on October 26, and is available in the UK, as they say, ‘at all good booksellers’. But in case there are no booksellers at all left in your area, you can see it listed at amazon ( ). It will be published in the USA next spring.  I have prepared a page dedicated to coverage of the book at  ‘Misdefending the Realm’  .

Here follows the blurb:

“When, early in 1940, an important Soviet defector provided hints to Britain’s Intelligence about spies within the country’s institutions, MI5’s report was intercepted by a Soviet agent in the Home Office. She alerted her sometime lover, Isaiah Berlin, and Berlin’s friend, Guy Burgess, whereupon the pair initiated a rapid counter-attack. Burgess contrived a mission for the two of them to visit the Soviet Union, which was then an ally of Nazi Germany, in order to alert his bosses of the threat, and protect the infamous ‘Cambridge Spies’. The story of this extraordinary escapade, hitherto ignored by the historians, lies at the heart of a thorough and scholarly exposé of MI5’s constitutional inability to resist communist infiltration of Britain’s corridors of power, and its later attempt to cover up its negligence.

Guy Burgess’s involvement in intelligence during WWII has been conveniently airbrushed out of existence in the official histories, and the activities of his collaborator, Isaiah Berlin, disclosed in the latter’s Letters, have been strangely ignored by historians. Yet Burgess, fortified by the generous view of Marxism emanating from Oxbridge, contrived to effect a change in culture in MI5, whereby the established expert in communist counter-espionage was sidelined, and Burgess’s cronies were recruited into the Security Service itself. Using the threat of a Nazi Fifth Column as a diversion, Burgess succeeded in minimising the communist threat, and placing Red sympathizers elsewhere in government.

The outcome of this strategy was far-reaching. When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s troops in June 1941, Churchill declared his support for Stalin in defeating the Nazi aggressor. But British policy-makers had all too quickly forgotten that the Communists would still be an enduring threat when the war was won, and appeasement of Hitler was quickly replaced by an appeasement of Stalin. Moreover, an indulgence towards communist scientists meant that the atom secrets shared by the US and the UK were betrayed. When this espionage was detected, MI5’s officers engaged in an extensive cover-up to conceal their misdeeds.

Exploiting recently declassified material and a broad range of historical and biographical sources, Antony Percy reveals that MI5 showed an embarrassing lack of leadership, discipline, and tradecraft in its mission of ‘Defending the Realm’.”

One day I might write a blog about the process of seeing a project like this come to fruition, but now is not the time. Instead I wanted to introduce readers to a sample of the cartoons that I selected to illustrate the period under the book’s microscope, that between the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. (The sketch I selected for the frontispiece appears above.)

Ever since I first set eyes on Osbert Lancaster’s precise illustrations of architectural patterns, accompanied by their witty and ironic commentaries, I have been an enthusiast of the cartoonist and architectural critic. In another universe, I might have claimed that his influence propelled me into a career in theatrical design, but, alas (though at no great loss for the world of drama), all it did was to confirm me as a perpetual fan of his work. My father had acquired a few of Lancaster’s volumes, and I particularly recall how, before the age of ten, I pored over Homes, Sweet Homes & From Pillar to Post (combined later in one volume as Here, of All Places, with additions describing American structures), as well as There’ll Always be a Drayneflete, with their precise draughtsmanship, all too-human and familiar caricatures of citizens in history, and their satirical, but not malicious, commentaries. (Of course I was too young at the time to appreciate the texts.) The books displayed a sense of the unique continuity of habitation on the British Isles – unique, because of the lack of invasion over the centuries  ̶  which brought history alive for me.  The first date that a schoolboy in the 1950s would learn was 1066, and I can recall as a child regretting that I would not be around to enjoy the millennium of that occasion. There must have been something about the durability of certain things among monumental change that captured my imagination, and a strong aspect of that element can be found in Misdefending the Realm.

Lancaster wrote some entertaining memoirs as well (All Done From Memory and With an Eye to the Future), which are liberally sprinkled with his drawings. For those readers unfamiliar with him, you can also read about him in his Wikipedia entry at ( One fact I recently learned is that his second wife, Anne Scott-James (with whom he collaborated on the equally delightful Pleasure Garden), was the mother of the historian Max Hastings, whose books on WWII I have especially enjoyed. (I have read The Secret War, Retribution, and Armageddon this year. Hastings sadly did not have a good relationship with his mother, who died aged 96 only a few years ago.) As for Osbert, to gain a sense of the man, readers may want to listen to his second Desert Island Discs interview, by Roy Plomley (see The subject’s understated but very patrician demeanour, and his aristocratic pronunciation of such words as ‘Alas’, suggest that the whole performance could have been a parody executed by Peter Sellers or Peter Cook.

‘Which are we, Carruthers . . .?’ is one of Lancaster’s most famous pocket cartoons. Lancaster was responsible for the success of the genre of ‘pocket cartoon’ after convincing his art editor at the Daily Express to publish such in the newspaper, as part of Tom Driberg’s column, early in 1939. The feature ran for the best part of forty years, interrupted primarily by Lancaster’s commitments abroad. Thus he provided a very topical commentary on many of the events that occurred in the time that interested me. As I declare when introducing Lancaster’s cartoons among other illustrations (I also use several Punch cartoons from the same period): “He skillfully lampooned authority figures during World War II, but never maliciously, and his insights into the ironies and absurdities with which the war was sometimes engaged brought entertaining relief to persons in all walks of life.”

I love this particular cartoon, which appeared in the Daily Express on July 18th, 1941, at the end of the period on which my study concentrates, because it suggests so much in such simple lines. Who are these blimpish and aristocratic characters, no doubt enjoying a tiffin in their London club? They have presumably been told that the Russians are now our allies, and that they had better acquaint themselves with the principles of Marxism, and learn more about the workers’ paradise over which Stalin prevails. It all appears to be something of a shock to the system for these two gentlemen, yet their confusion underlies the nonsense of the Marxist dialectic.

‘Carruthers’ is a poignant name, as it appears most famously in Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, where Carruthers is a Foreign Office member who goes sleuthing over German skulduggery in the Baltic Sea before the First World War. Ever since then, the name ‘Carruthers’ has epitomised that doughty and loyal comrade that any intrepid wayfarer would want to be accompanied by, as in the way that Times obituaries used, not so very long ago, to describe such men: ‘someone you would want to go tiger-shooting with’. Yet this Carruthers does not look like a tiger-shooter, or even an SIS spy. He looks more Wodehousian, perhaps a rather dim-witted younger son of an earl, and his territory is probably more Lord’s and Ascot, with a trip to the grouse-moors in August, than the coasts of the Baltic.

These two are supremely ‘superfluous men’, as Turgenev might have identified them, although they probably lack the artistic talent that was characteristic of the Russian novelist’s grouping. Lancaster’s caption wryly suggests that these fellows are not intellectuals. The pair of clubmen might well have been encountered in Boodle’s, or the Beefsteak, perhaps, of which club Lancaster himself was a member.  Lenin and Stalin would certainly have considered them parasites, ‘former people’, and they would have been on the list as members of the class enemy to be exterminated as soon as possible, as indeed such people were treated in Poland and the Baltic States. They are clearly bemused by the radical division of the world found in Life in the U.S.S.R. Yet their simple question drives at the heart of simplistic class-based Marxian analysis.

That same Marxism, which grabbed so many intelligent persons’ fascination at this time – something that endures seventy-five years later, despite all its nonsense  ̶  should surely by then have been shown as bankrupt. In my book, I describe how much damage the young Isaiah Berlin caused in his effervescent biography of Karl Marx, which gave an utter and undeserved respectability to the studying of Marxism, while gaining the eager approbation of such as Freddie Ayer and Guy Burgess. By 1940, it should have been obvious that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a cruel nightmare, with Stalin, as a power-mad ex-peasant, ruling over a prison-camp more horrible than anything Hitler had yet prepared. Yet even MI5 fell victim to the appeal of ‘intellectual Marxism’. When the German general von Paulus was captured at Stalingrad, his interrogators tried to impress upon him the doctrines of the new world of communism. “You should know that Germany’s workers and peasants are among the most prominent supporters of Hitler”, he replied. Even Churchill hailed the Soviet Union as a ‘peace-loving nation’ in June 1941, and Roosevelt was to fall even more sharply under the delusion that Stalin was a man of peace.

What was different about Britain was that buffers like these two were tolerated. Even if they were on the way out, there was no reason that they should have to be eliminated through a bloody slaughter. Lenin is said to have abandoned hope of a revolution in Britain when he read about strikers playing soccer with policemen: class war would never reach the destructive depths into which it sank in Russia after the Communist takeover. And that is one of the points in my book: that liberal democracy in the Britain of the 1930s was certainly flawed, with the aristocrats in control, and position of power excluded from those without the proper background or standing. It did not have enough confidence in its structure and institutions to resist Fascism resolutely, and the Communists took advantage of that fact to propagandise the British, and cause the monstrosities of Stalin’s penal colonies, famines, purges and executions to be overlooked. Stalin ended up enjoying a massive intelligence superiority over the British and the Americans at Yalta. Yet the UK was eventually able to evolve into the more democratic and more fair country of Attlee’s administration, the days of imperialism were clearly over, and the realm was still worth defending.

For the endpaper of the book, I used the following cartoon, published just after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 23rd, 1941. That is all the caption says.

It reminds me so much of a famous photograph of a gathering of communists during the Spanish Civil War, dated February 5, 1937. Could this not have been a caricature drawn by Lancaster?


Here we see the ice-cold demeanour of the French apparatchik, Maurice Thorez, the flamboyancy of the street bully in the leather-jacket, Antonio Mije, and the pious gaze skywards in the beatific pose of Francisco Antón (who eerily looks rather like the young Osbert Lancaster). They epitomise all the ghastly aspects of the Soviet totalitarian machine, the efficiency, the cruelty, and the self-righteousness. ‘What an absolute shower!’, as Terry-Thomas might have called them. Thus I can see this set piece as a tableau vivant by Lancaster himself, akin to his famous sketch of John Betjeman and others performing the madrigal ‘Sumer is icumen in’.


“A musical evening laid on for the Uffington Women’s Institute by Penelope Betjeman. At the piano: Lord Berners; back row: Adrian Bishop, Karen Lancaster and Osbert on the flute, Penelope, seated, playing ‘a strange instrument resembling a zither’; standing at the front, Maurice Bowra and John Betjeman.” [source: Cartoons and Coronets]

In my book, I use a total of ten of Lancaster’s cartoons, each one representing the theme of a single chapter, or pair of chapters. I gained copyright permission from the Daily Express owners, yet strangely the institution could not offer me images of the originals themselves, even in its fee-based archive on the Web. Nor is the Lancaster Archive of any use. I relied on my own collection of cartoon books. For readers who may be interested in pursuing this historical side-alley more extensively, they may want to investigate the following.

The richest guide to the work of Lancaster is probably Cartoons and Coronets, introduced and selected by James Knox, and designed to coincide with the exhibition of the artist’s work at the Wallace Collection, 2008-2009. The Essential Osbert Lancaster, a 1998 compilation, selected and introduced by Edward Lucie-Smith, contains an excellent introduction to Lancaster’s life and offers a rich representation of his graphic and literary work. Lancaster provided an illuminating foreword to his 1961 compilation of pocket cartoons, from 1939 to that year, titled Signs of the Times, which offers a solid selection of his wartime sketches. The Penguin Osbert Lancaster (1964) is a thinner and unannotated selection, including excerpts from Homes, Sweet Homes and From Pillar to Post. Earlier, Penguin also offered a fine glimpse into his wartime work in Osbert Lancaster Cartoons (1945).

And then there are the (mainly) yearly selections, all of which (apart from the very rare first 1940 publication) I have in my possession. They are worth inspecting for Lancaster’s Forewords alone. Many of the captions appear very laboured now (compared, say with Marc Boxer’s Stringalongs), and the references are often recondite, but the cartoons still represent a fascinating social commentary. Here they are:

Pocket Cartoons (1940)

New Pocket Cartoons (1941)

Further Pocket Cartoons (1942)

More Pocket Cartoons (1943)

Assorted Sizes (1944)

More and More Productions (1948)

A Pocketful of Cartoons (1949)

Lady Littlehampton and Friends (1952)

Studies from the Life (1954)

Tableaux Vivants (1955)

Private Views (1956)

The Year of the Comet (1957)

Etudes (1958)

Mixed Notices (1963)

Graffiti (1964)

A Few Quick Tricks (1965)

Fasten Your Safety Belts (1966)

Temporary Diversions (1968)

Recorded Live (1970)

Meaningful Confrontation (1971)

Theatre in the Flat (1972)

Liquid Assets (1975)

The Social Contract (1977)

Ominous Cracks (1979)

My book also contains a few cartoons from Punch, likewise culled from my ‘Pick of Punch’ albums from the years 1940 to 1942. (Permission for use was also gained from the copyright-holder.) But, if you want to see any more, you will have to buy the book. You will also be treated to three Affinity Charts, which show the complex relationships that existed between various groups when war broke out, as well as a Biographical Index of almost three hundred persons who feature in the work. Enjoy!

The regular set of new Commonplace entries appears here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Media, Personal, Politics

Sonia’s Radio – Envoi

To be published by the University of Buckingham Press on October 26 (in the UK; March 2018 in the USA)


“The science of intelligence analysis is the piecing together of many different segments of information, rather than total reliance on a single source. The overall picture is gained by interlocking a series of small pieces together until the final picture shows a completed intelligence jigsaw puzzle and not a myth.” (Nigel West, A Thread of Deceit: Espionage Myths of World War II, p 126)

(To conclude the story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’. For the complete story, please see ‘Sonia’s Radio‘.)

Sonia acted as courier for the atom spies Klaus Fuchs and Melita Norwood, until both contacts were broken off at the end of 1943, with Fuchs and his mentor Rudolf Peierls sailing to the USA to join the Manhattan Project, and Melita Norwood having a child soon after Sonia’s Peter was born. In October, as the Gestapo pressed the Swiss authorities to close down the remaining radios of the Red Orchestra, Alexander Foote suggested to his leader, Rado, that they take shelter in the British Embassy. Moscow, not unexpectedly, dismissed this idea scornfully. Foote was arrested in November 1943, an event that caused John Curry (now back in SIS) to write to Shillito in February 1944, asking him whether MI5 had any trace on Foote. He replied in the negative. MI5 was curiously maintaining a file on every single International Brigader except Foote, it seemed. When Sonia’s first husband, Rudolf Hamburger, was arrested in Persia as a Soviet spy in late 1943, it caused a minor frisson with Shillito and MI5, but no dramatic action ensued. The intelligence agencies were obviously trying to keep a lid on things.

Sonia is mostly reticent about her work at this time, although she writes that she travelled regularly to London, and she installed a (more powerful) radio in her new residence in Great Rollright, where she moved in 1945. But in the summer of 1946, Moscow Centre broke off contact with her, perhaps for security reasons. In July 1946, Fuchs had returned to the UK to take up a post at AERE, Harwell, although MI5 did not notice the fact until several months later. The Security Service did begin to wonder, however, in the wake of the defection of Gouzenko in Canada in 1945, whether Fuchs might have been passing secrets to the Soviets. He was accordingly put under surveillance, but knew about the watch being put over him, since Kim Philby had alerted Moscow Centre about the investigation. Matters stayed relatively quiet until July 1947, when Foote gave himself up to the British authorities in Berlin. Interrogated soon after, he explained his relationship with Sonia as members of the Rote Drei network. MI5 suddenly woke up to the fact that it had a genuine Soviet spy under its watch, with the result that the extraordinary interview of Sonia was undertaken by officers Serpell and Skardon at ‘The Firs’ in September 1947. The hapless investigators made the statement to Sonia that they ‘knew’ she had not been involved in espionage since she came to the UK, but wanted to know more about her work in Switzerland. Yet they failed to gain any confession from her. She had received a warning of Foote’s disclosures, Foote himself telling a friend of hers that she should be on her guard. That may well have been part of Foote’s cover, of course, to indicate that his loyalties remained with the Communists.

When Fuchs was eventually persuaded to confess to his espionage, and then arrested in February 1950, Sonia made a bolt with her family to East Germany. MI5 was so disorganised and inefficient that, several months later, in May, MI5 officers Graham, Reed and Marriott decided that they should perhaps interview this Ursula Kuczynski woman. They learned only in August that she had left the country. Fuchs did not positively identify his former courier from photographs until December 1950, by which time he knew the coast was clear. Sonia died in July 2000, still loyal to the Communist cause.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

When I set out on the project of Sonia’s Radio, I was not sure there would be a successful outcome to my quest. All I knew was that the episode of the discovery of Sonia’s wireless transmitter, and the subsequent lack of follow-up, were simply too provocative to be explained by mundane circumstances. Thus I became engaged on an assignment of detective work, trying to piece together a plausible explanation of what happened based on very incomplete evidence. It has been a classical ‘Collingwoodian’ exercise in history-writing. Percipient readers will have noticed that each month’s episode appeared without a clear indication of where the whole saga might lead.

Is the case solved? Well, not completely. I do not have in my hand the piece of paper  – unlike my experience in discovering the item in the National Archives that proved that Guy Burgess had set out to Moscow in 1940 on a mission to influence the Comintern against Hitler   ̶  that shows incontrovertibly that SIS had arranged for Sonia to immigrate from Switzerland to Oxfordshire as a known Communist spy, so that the British authorities might eavesdrop on her transmissions. I cannot even prove that Alexander Foote was recruited by Claude Dansey to the Z Organisation, or that he was actually the medium through whom Ultra secrets passed to Stalin.  But my former supervisor (and now collaborator) Professor Anthony Glees, who is necessarily a tough man to convince, and who studied the Sonia phenomenon intently in the 1980s, has told me that he thinks that I have ‘cracked’ the Sonia riddle. By that, he means that he agrees that Sonia had set up her wireless set to be discovered, as a decoy operation from what was happening in Kidlington, and that MI5/SIS was taken in by any dummy transmissions she made from that address, while the more dangerous activity took place a few miles away, undetected and unsurveilled. If my conclusions are correct, they do point to a massive cover-up by SIS and MI5 over what turned out to be a highly embarrassing episode. SIS arranged for a dangerous operator to be installed in England, who then abetted Fuchs’s and Norwood’s treachery under the noses of MI5. Is it any wonder why this story has been hushed up?

I shall no doubt continue to dig around, and may pick up further clues, but what lessons can I draw at this stage from the project?

1) Lack of Academic Curiosity:

It astonishes me that, outside a few dedicated amateurs, and a similar number of professionals (such as Professor Glees and Nigel West), the interest in resolving the paradoxes implicit in the Sonia case appears to be depressingly low. After all, Sonia has been elevated and advertised as ‘the Spy of the Century’, even more notorious (or illustrious) than Kim Philby, or her close friend and colleague in China, Richard Sorge. Her excursion to England is one of the most inexplicable series of events that one could imagine for that time, riddled with questionable decisions and underhand deals. The story of Soviet spies is one of the enduringly popular themes of the British popular and serious press, with books coming out regularly about them, especially as new information from the National Archives is released. Two new biographies of Burgess last year followed another best-selling account of Kim Philby by Ben Macintyre, and this year a biography of the complete Kuczynski family was published. And yet the machinations of Sonia, and how she was allowed to operate in wartime Britain, have not received the attention they deserve. The dedicated Chapman Pincher still was chasing the trail up to his hundredth birthday, but with a bee in his bonnet that irredeemably flawed his conclusions. And where are the street protests over the deceptions and camouflages of the official histories? It is all very odd.

In addition, I have been very disappointed at the lack of scholarly rigour evident in many of the books that cover the matters in which I was interested. I have noted a failure to follow through, lazy referrals to other ‘authorities’, a lack of recognition by the author that he (and it has been exclusively ‘he’) simply does not know what happened, or how groups were organised, or who did what, indicating a lack of perseverance in following up leads and inspecting dubious assertions. Even when obvious loopholes or gaps in the official history appear, the various chroniclers who have addressed intelligence aspects of the hostilities just raise a hesitant query, and then move on. And the history of signals security in WWII conveniently falls through all the cracks of the authorised histories: the story of the Y interception organisation and the RSS does not fall tidily in the domain of the military, or of MI5, SIS, GCHQ, even that of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Yet it also touches the GPO as well as the general public, with the team of ‘Voluntary Interceptors’ employed to track signals a vital cog in the operation. Thus no one takes responsibility for it. I have located (and acquired, pending mail across the Atlantic) a book titled The Official History of British Sigint (Volume I – Part II and Volume II), written just after the war by the official historian of British Sigint, Frank Birch, but Volume I, Part I (which would appear to contain some relevant insights) very oddly does not seem to be available. (See Moreover, it is impossible to find on amazon or abebooks. Maybe it was withdrawn – even pulped  ̶  because it displayed sensitive information. Could that be so? I have sent an email to the Military Press to seek guidance: my message was acknowledged, but no follow-up occurred. I called the Press, and left a message for the woman who responded, but there is still silence. It is all very strange. Will the coming official history of GCHQ perhaps remedy this shortcoming? I wouldn’t count on it.

2) Modest Public Response:

I should like to write that I have had received a swarm of useful information from readers of my saga. But it would not be true. I have received a varied set of feedback. The most intense was from a person in the world of media who wants to stay anonymous. He has published articles on espionage, and claims to have access to unpublished Soviet archives, some of which he has shown to me. A portion of it has been useful  – but one cannot wholly trust anything that comes out of Soviet/Russian archives. (As Max Hastings has observed: “In Modern China, as in Russia and to some degree Japan, there is no tradition of objective historical research. Absurd claims are thus made even by academics, unsupported by evidence.”) What is sometimes represented as official Soviet archival material has clearly been doctored  –  in this case, probably to support Sonia’s decoy activities. Overall this correspondent’s reserve, and reluctance to explain his sources  –  as well as the fact that he does not want his name to become public   ̶   discourage me from taking too seriously what he has provided. He wrote (before Chapter 9 appeared) that he disagreed with my analysis of Sonia, and he has recently confirmed his scepticism, but he has not written anything that explains to what degree or why. He went quiet for a while: perhaps Chapter 9 overwhelmed him. Towards the end of  this month, however, I did receive a message from him that alerted me to Hamish Macgibbon’s coming book on his father, James Macgibbon, who admitted to being a GRU spy. My contact speculated that Sonia might have been his intermediary and handler, known as ‘Natasha’. Because of chronology and geography, I find that unlikely.

The most fascinating response I received was from a former lodger of Sonia’s, who recalled the time he lived at ‘The Firs’ at Great Rollright: in her memoir, Sonia describes taking this gentleman’s mother breakfast-in-bed when she was pregnant with his brother. The correspondent is still living in the UK, and has maintained a fascinated interest in Sonia ever since his father realised in the 1980s who his family’s 1947 landlady had been. And I received a number of positive comments from persons who had no particular connection with Sonia, or anything to contribute about her, but who were generally just interested in stories of espionage. But overall, coldspur’s lack of visibility hindered the project.

3) The Untrustworthiness of Sources:

The dedicated reader will be familiar with my diatribe titled ‘Officially Unreliable’ from a few months back, where I analysed some of the mistakes and oversights that pepper ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ histories, including vacant and unsupported attempts to debunk rumours that might otherwise have not received any further airing. Yet another trend is pervasive  ̶  the tendency for historians and journalists to give far too much credit to presumed authorities who were witness to the events, as if the latter had far too much integrity for their word to be doubted. Thus I must include the influence that Gladwyn Jebb and Isaiah Berlin had on Verne Newton, that of Patrick Reilly and Dick White on Anthony Glees, Kenneth Cohen on Nigel West, Lord Rothschild on Peter Wright, Wright and Johnston (and many others unidentified) on Chapman Pincher. I could list others. The overall impeccable Harry Hinsley wove his spell on practically everybody, while countless earnest journalists and biographers went, armed with their notepads and tape-recorders to Moscow and Oxford and Arundel, to the wells of such as Kim Philby, Isaiah Berlin and Dick White, to learn how things really were, and solemnly transcribed their utterances. Yet all these sources had secrets to hide. Moreover, archival resources likewise have to be challenged and cross-verified. There is no doubt that some memoranda have been planted in the UK’s official records, to give a false trail.

Have I been scrupulous enough in questioning the sources who provided ammunition for my hypothesis? Malcolm Muggeridge? Edward Crankshaw? Victor Cavendish-Bentinck? Maybe not. But I believe there is a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, cross-checking the testimony of those who apparently had no motivation or potential gain to be made other than wanting a sometimes inconvenient truth to be disclosed, and, on the other, taking as gospel the observations of those who had a career and a reputation at stake, or were imbued with an over-developed sense of loyalty that demanded of them that institutions be protected at all costs. By extending the search beyond the obvious main actors on the stage, and the bit-players who observed them, to those in the wings who wondered whether the drama would ever involve them, one can make patterns, and develop hypotheses that provide a far more coherent explanation of what went on than was ever bequeathed in the utterances of the Great and the Good.

4. Exploiting the National Archives: ‘Traffic Analysis’

The volumes of material declassified to the National Archives in the past twenty years have provided a rich lode for the historian anxious to make his name. Yet the focus has almost exclusively been vertical, i.e. drilling down into the records of a famed spy or agent. Thus we have had such stirring stories as David Burke’s The Spy Who Came In from the Co-Op (about Melita Norwood), Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag (about Eddie Chapman), and Stephen Talty’s Agent Garbo (about Juan Pujol), to name just a few. Far more arduous is the task of scouring the archives horizontally (for there is no indexing to support such a quest) to look for the activities of less than illustrious characters, and develop chronologies and story-lines about them, or to track themes that may be echoed or commented on in unlikely places. Yet only by that method can one find the links between what appear to be disparate cases, such as the involvement of Hugh Shillito in both the Green and the Kuczynski affairs, or the commentaries of Guy Liddell and the Madrid Abwehr  unit on radio-detection finding during the war that reveal much on the way that the RSS was led, and how espionage was carried out.

In addition, I have applied a methodology of what I call ‘traffic analysis’ to the archives – on the model of ‘traffic analysis’ in radio cryptography, where conclusions about the significance of messages can be made without having access to the texts of messages themselves, but alternatively on such phenomena as wavelengths, locations, call signs, regularity, and periods of silence. (“Traffic analysis is the science of extracting useful information from intercepted traffic, irrespective of whether the actual content is intelligible”, as Nigel West defines it in his Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence.) Thus gaps in the archive, redacted words, deleted pages, cross-references to records not made available, handwritten annotations, attempts at anonymity, decrypted signatures, hints at organisations, information on weeded documents that still appears in the index to the folder, and published descriptions (on the website) of records that have been identified but then withdrawn, or maintained by the holding government department, ‘for reasons of security’, all have delivered value in the development of workable hypotheses.

5. Outstanding Questions: Here are a few . . .

a) Sonia: The investigation into Sonia is not over. For example, as part of my discovery process into who had owned the property in Kidlington where Len Beurton spent so much time in 1943, I contacted the Land Registry in Cheltenham. Its website does not support electronic inquiries, so several weeks ago I wrote a letter, explaining that I need to know who were the owners (not the residents, who would have been on the electoral roll, and whose names I could have discovered via other sources). I invited the office to contact me by email, indicating that I could give a credit card number by telephone to pay for any services. I never even received an acknowledgment of my letter. Can anyone out there help?

And why did Shillito not dig further in what was going on in Kidlington? And was operating  a radio transmitter under the skirts of an aerodrome truly an effective camouflage? The Soviets appeared to think so. I do not know, but I am sure other information on Sonia’s and Len’s activities will appear. For example, my anonymous contact refers to his ‘chum’ in Moscow, who has access to the Soviet Military Intelligence archives. She must have some story to share. I have encouraged him to invite this lady (whose website on intelligence matters can be inspected at ) to take a look at ‘Sonia’s Radio’.

b) Alexander Foote: Was ‘Footie’ really recruited by Dansey? I am hopeful that some documents will eventually be released that will prove it. Perhaps now that a good case has been made about his employment, it will prompt the authorities to declassify further documents. I almost regard it as providential that the government decided, in October 2015, just as my doctoral thesis was coming to the boil, to release a document that proved that the purpose of Burgess’s 1940 mission to Moscow was to help engage the Comintern in the war effort. That clinched it for me, and kept my thesis alive: perhaps it will happen again.

c) Sedlacek: Were Sedlacek and Roessler the same person? That is one of my fanciful hypotheses, indicating perhaps that the curriculum vitae of Roessler was carefully created by SIS after the war. Foote’s identification of Lucy as Sedlacek cannot have been a simple error, and MI5, when it re-issued Handbook for Spies without correcting the identification, must have wanted to reduce the amount of attention given to the problem. We have a famous photograph of ‘Roessler’ in mandatory homburg and trenchcoat, but no photographs of Sedlacek.

Rudolf Roessler (Agent LUCY)

Yet, if SIS hired him, and gave him a phony British identity and passport, his photograph must presumably lie in the archives of Petty France (or now, Globe House) somewhere. Can anyone help?

d) Radio-Direction Finding: This matter has the potential to be the longest-running open item. How and why Sonia’s and Len’s transmissions were overlooked by the RSS is still a mystery. If the watch was still out for illicit transmissions from German agents, all suspicious and unaccounted for radio noise would have to be investigated. For me, the most challenging aspect of the activities of the XX Committee (which turned German agents, and controlled their transmissions back to Germany or Spain) has been its failure to ask itself: wouldn’t the Germans wonder why Britain’s most efficient radio-direction finding capabilities failed to pick up the constant stream of messages between the German Control and the agents in Britain – especially the large-volumes of traffic between GARBO and Madrid? (Johnny Jebsen, working for the Abwehr, but with determinedly fragile loyalty, did indeed doubt the agents’ integrity.) And why were the Germans not amazed that their agents could escape detection for so long? Amazingly, no decent history of RSS exists, and what has been written is scattered and contradictory.

In an attempt to discover what the British and Germans were thinking, I have thus started to inspect the dozens of National Archives files on GARBO, and a startling result has started to emerge. It may have been that the Abwehr in Madrid, which sent its instructions for transmission protocols, callsigns, and cyphers, in invisible ink on letters purportedly carried by courier, or mailed, and to which GARBO responded similarly (but actually transported in the SIS diplomatic bag), ‘managed’ by Tomas Harris and MI5 officers, believed that it was leading GARBO and his network to transmit in a way that camouflaged the messages, making them look like British military traffic. That would have given the Germans a justification, and the British an alibi, for pretending all was well. But it is all rather too fantastic at the moment, and I am hoping to get professional guidance on the degree of preposterousness inherent in such assertions. It requires a knowledge of radio, and wavelengths, and cycles, and of the methods by which military and air units deployed radio during the war, that I simply do not have. I need help.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Web Woes (an update):

1) The Bank: I had a pleasant call with my contact at the Bank, but he seems utterly unmoved by the lack of progress on fixing the simple problem of customer guidance on the web site. The problem remains unfixed, almost nine months after I drew notice to it.

2) The History Today on-line subscription: The matter was resolved. Carelesssness with special characters (£ and $) was the problem.

3) I had a new bad experience with an American stock company. I could not pay in a dividend check as the perforation had split the machine-readable numbers on the bottom of the check. I called the number listed on the certificate to request a replacement, and an automated system guided me to the company’s website. Having registered (and provided all manner of personal details for future security purposes), I found the page where I should have been able to find the form that allowed me to request a replacement. It was not there, but instead a message told me to call a different number. I called that number, where an automated answering system directed me to the website. I returned to it, and sent an email describing the loop the company had created, and requested my replacement that way. I have not heard back from the company after a week, so have had to write one of my infamous letters.

4) AOL: I was required to upgrade my AOL system to a new interface: the current 9.8.2 would not be supported in a month or two. I did so, and then clicked on the request to have my Saved Mail and Favorites imported to the new system. “This operation could take a few minutes. Do not close down your system”, the message said. Two hours later, it was still running, and then I was suddenly locked out. I invoked the Windows Task Manager, to find that AOL alone was running, taking 50% of my CPU cycles. I had to close it down. I went to the AOL Support page, where one window invited me to report my problem by email. But it did not contain an email address! I tried to engage in a Chatroom conversation, and, after waiting ten minutes for an agent to become free, described my problem. The agent said I had to call a Help number for that problem. I called that number, and, after fifteen minutes on hold, spoke to a real person who said that, yes, there was a known problem with Import. “Then why did you not advertise that fact, instead of encouraging your users to execute the process?”, I asked.  “And how would that affect the deadline that AOL had set on support for the old system?” “And did you know about the uselessness of the email invitation?’ “And should I re-install the system?” “And will you get back to me with an explanation via email?” She answered ‘No’ to the last question, but had no answers for the other four. Then, while she invoked her second-line support, I lost the connection with her.

What is the matter with Internet support these days? Do executives ever test out their web interfaces before they release systems? And where is Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his ‘Open Data’ initiative, in the wake of the Equifax scandal? Data ‘open’ enough for you, Sir Tim? (See August coldspur.) And don’t get me started on emails from Facebook containing invitations to be ‘Friends’ from ladies with exotic-sounding names . . .

Finally, on Sunday, October 8, I shall be giving a speech at the St. James Community Center titled ‘Stalin’s Revenge’, based on the key episode in my forthcoming book. The book will be published in the UK on October 26, and in the USA in March next year. Its title is Misdefending the Realm, and is being promoted by Palamedes: please see You may order your copies on now. More on what no one has yet called ‘the publishing event of the season’ in my next blog: at least the book will appear in the centenary month of the October Revolution.

This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

Sonia’s Radio – Part IX

Supply, North Carolina, August 2017

Sonia had always had the dream that, when her spying days were over, she would open a little cafe in coastal Carolina.

Here ex-agents of Soviet Intelligence meet, over cabbage soup and grits, to discuss the old times.

“Shchi da kasha – pishcha nasha!”

(The story so far: Sonia, who has trained Alexander Foote, the secret SIS employee, in wireless transmission techniques, has made an ingenious escape from Switzerland to England, and installed herself and her two children in Oxfordshire. There they wait to be joined by her husband, Len Beurton (from a marriage gained by dubious methods), who has not been able to gain an exit visa from Switzerland because of his past as an International Brigader. The UK consul in Geneva helps him with false papers, however, and he arrives in the UK in the summer of 1942. He and Sonia are watched, and in January 1943 an illicit radio transmitter is discovered in their rented accommodation. For the full story so far, please see Sonia’sRadio.)

Oxford Movements

Sonia’s account of the installation of her radio is mostly very humdrum. Without explaining whether she and Len were assisted in their search for new premises after they were given notice to move out of their bungalow in Kidlington in the autumn of 1942, she wrote that  they ‘looked for a detached house where I could transmit’. They found suitable accommodation in a coachman’s house at ‘Avenue Cottage’ in the Summertown district of Oxford, part of the property of Judge Neville Laski and his wife. Soon after they moved in, Sonia approached the chatelaine, as she ‘needed her permission to erect an aerial leading from our roof to one of the stables’. Mrs Laski agreed: the aerial looked rather like a normal one for any radio receiver, Sonia added. Len thus clambered up and installed it, and they secretly inserted their little transmitter behind a loose stone in a thick wall.

And then she made the astonishing observation that, while amateur radio transmissions were forbidden, she and Len ‘had to count on my transmitter being discovered at some point’. Moscow Centre thus wanted her to train a new operator, and they found Tom, a fitter at a car plant, who was eager to do the job instead. How Sonia imagined that, if her transmitter were discovered, she would simply be let off with a warning, to continue spying, but now handing her material to a substitute, is not explained. In addition, it seems unlikely that Moscow would have lightly approved the casual recruitment of an apparent sympathiser to execute such an important security-sensitive assignment. Was this what she, and her bosses, sincerely believed at the time? Or was it simply a careless recollection in tranquillity, the absurdity of which was not recognised by her or her censors?  Whatever the explanation, the statement appears to cast further doubt on the accuracy of her overall testimony.

And what was Mrs Laski thinking? It would appear that Sonia had been carefully installed at Avenue Cottage. While Neville Laski was reputedly a conservative and respectable non-Zionist, his wife, Seraphina (known as ‘Sissie’), was the daughter of Moses Gaster, the prominent Zionist academic. “Mrs Laski had a social conscience and worked for various welfare organizations”, wrote Sonia. Her brother was the notorious lawyer, Jack Gaster, who married Isaiah Berlin’s close communist friend, Maire Lynd, called for revolution in the same manner as did Neville’s brother, Harold, and remained a staunch communist until his death in 2007. Moreover, Chapman Pincher interviewed the Laskis’ second daughter, Pamela, shortly before she died in 2008, and claimed that she told him that Sonia ‘insinuated herself into the company of Sissie’. Moreover, ‘Pamela disliked Sonia and became suspicious when she strung up an aerial from the cottage to a shed in the Laskis’ garden.’ She was twenty-two years old at the time: did she articulate her suspicions to anyone? Pincher apparently did not ask her.

And is it not strange that Neville Laski would not ask any questions about the suspicious-looking aerial, especially if he knew the background of his lodgers? Is it possible that he was taken into the confidences of the authorities? In the 1930s, he was providing covert intelligence to the Colonial Office on Zionist activity, so he may have had contacts in government. Certainly Harold Laski would have been well acquainted with the Kuczynski clan, but Neville’s political position was reportedly less sympathetic to their extremist views. According to the biographers of Harold Laski, Neville, in considering the arrival of émigrés from Nazi Germany, was too concerned about communist contamination of the Jewish Agency. Yet the National Archives (KV 6/41) show that Neville and Sissie were living next to the Kuczynskis in London by August, 1943, perhaps an unusual relocation given Neville’s opinions. Maybe there was some closer affinity between the two families. Whether it anteceded the arrival of the Beurtons is not clear. Perhaps Neville was acting deceptively; possibly he simply changed his opinions.

Yet one more intriguing fact comes to light: Alexander Foote’s files at Kew (KV2-1611-3) inform us that the Laskis’ son, Philip, was in Lausanne, Switzerland in April 1941, staying with the Countess de Chelmisnka, and had at that time sent a letter to his mother, at 302 Woodstock Road, Oxford, that was intercepted by the authorities. The file states: “Disjointed letter, written by apparently very unbalanced young man after the finish of an ecstatic love affair with someone of higher social standing he does not wish to mention. . . . He refers to his not being able to come to England.” Perhaps it was in code. Laski also referred to the fact that a Polish diplomatic courier would be bringing a letter by hand for his father. Chapman Pincher tells us that Sonia’s son Michael Hamburger ‘recalled playing with the young Laski boys, Philip, who was about the same age, and John  . . .’, but this clearly cannot be right. Anthony Blond writes (in Jew Made in England) that Philip, a homosexual, married a Bourbon princess in Barcelona during the war. Michael Hamburger was born in 1931, Philip Laski in 1918. What games was Hamburger playing? And why did the authorities believe that this report had a place in Foote’s file? As I show later, Lausanne was where Beurton was living in 1941: the fact seems too coincidental to be ignored.

In any case, if Sonia was concerned about the attentions of the much feared organs of MI5 and Special Branch, she did not have to wait long. Hugh Shillito had been an officer in B Division (B 10.e) when Sonia established herself in Oxford in early 1941, and had in March wisely recorded the conventional opinion that ‘an eye should be kept on her’. After the new Director-General, David Petrie, reorganized MI5 in the summer of 1941, Shillito was moved to the new F Division, and, as F2.b, was responsible for covering possible espionage carried out by the Comintern (F2b) and communist refugees (F2c). As will be shown later, in 1942 he was massively consumed with tracking another communist ring, but was reawakened to the possible threat from Sonia when her husband Len arrived in the country on July 29. Noting the discrepancies in Beurton’s account after his disembarkation, on September 15 Shillito initiated an interception of all correspondence, effective September 19, since the Beurtons had apparently by then moved to Avenue Cottage. A report dated October 10 shows that the Laskis were included in this sweep. Beurton was interviewed by Vesey (B4a) on September 18, where Beurton apparently made ‘a good impression’. Vesey had previously pointed out the discrepancies in Beurton’s account, and questioned the issuance of his passport, but had been fobbed off by a feeble excuse by the Passport Office in Geneva.

But then matters take an interesting twist. On November 30, Shillito made a request to the GPO about a possible telephone check at 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington, stating that Beurton had gone to live there, also asked for interception of post and telegrams, and provided as his justification that ‘this man has recently returned from Switzerland where he is thought to have been in touch with agents of a foreign power’. On December 19, he contacted Major Ryde, of Special Branch in Reading (with whom he had communicated about Sonia back in March of 1941), asking for the Police to make discreet inquiries about Beurton ‘as he may have been engaged in espionage on behalf of the U.S.S.R. against Germany from Switzerland’, his membership of the International Brigades adding credence to this hypothesis. Yet, if, as Sonia reported, ‘the owners of our bungalow gave us notice as they required it for their own use’, why and how would Len return to Kidlington for the winter?

This request might be unexceptional if its purpose had been solely to capture mail from abroad from correspondents who might not have been informed of the Beurtons’ movements. But the memo on file is very explicit: it states that Beurton has gone to live in Kidlington. Moreover, there are other memoranda, as late as August 1943, that refer to Len’s other place of residency. Shillito wrote to Mr Denniston in E5 (Aliens Control) of MI5 on August 16, asking whether he knew anything about the Kuczynskis, who then lived next door to the Neville Laskis in London, stating that Beurton currently lived at 134, Oxford Road, Kidlington. A further request from Shillito, to update the GPO on the status of the Home Office Warrant, informed Colonel Allen that Beurton moved that month from Kidlington to Avenue Cottage. Was this simply a case of marital discord, after the stress of being separated? Apparently not, as their son Peter was born on September 8, 1943. Maybe it was an attempt to make them look estranged, and to confuse their watchers, or perhaps the feint was required because the relationship between Sonia and Len had to be concealed from the Laskis. It is another anomaly in Sonia’s highly unreliable chronicle.

Yet, after Beurton had joined the RAF Station in Cardington on November 18, another HOW request by Shillito, dated December 13, 1943,  cancelled the current operation for Avenue Cottage, and required the reimplementation of the warrant for Oxford Road, Kidlington, since ‘it is desired to cover both his home and service address’. This cannot simply be an administrative error. One possible explanation is that Sonia’s residencies were all arranged by the authorities, and that Beurton was ‘encouraged’  to stay in Kidlington after his arrival in order to keep the attention off Sonia. But whom were they trying to mislead? And why would Beurton need to maintain two addresses, and move between them? Sonia carefully reminded her readers that she was still living at Avenue Road in 1943, but curiously stated that in May 1945 the owner [sic] ‘wanted her home back’.  (She reported that Mrs Laski organised the street party to celebrate peace  ̶  and even included a photograph [see below]. But is this another deception? It is problematic, given the evidence that the Laskis were by then living in London. ) Moreover, the Beurtons were renting the coach-house, not occupying the main premises. And why did she refer to ‘the owner’ rather than to ‘Mrs Laski’, or even ‘the Laskis’? Perhaps it was a simply a mistake in translation: the German reads: “Im Mai 1945 wollte die Besitzerin nach ‘Avenue Cottage’ zurückkehren”, which would appear better as “In May 1945 the occupant wanted to return to ‘Avenue Cottage’.” Was Sonia providing an alibi for Mrs Laski? It is all very strange.

Neville Laski

Neville, Sissie & Marghanita Laski in 1916

Who can spot Mrs Laski? She is presumably at the centre of things. Or Sonia – with her three children?

Sonia and her children in 1945

The conundrum does return the spotlight to Chapman Pincher’s allegations. In Treachery, he suggested that the claim that the owners of the Kidlington bungalow wished to return there was ‘another part of her legend’, as Sonia needed to reside closer to Oxford railway station in order for her to meet Klaus Fuchs and deliver his documents to London. According to Pincher, living in Oxford allowed her to service both Fuchs and Roger Hollis, Pincher’s bête noire. But Pincher (like Sonia herself) never mentions that Beurton maintained the place in Kidlington, or at whose expense. Was Kidlington an area for secret meetings, and was Beurton acting as a courier for an unidentified third party, perhaps? Or perhaps he operated a radio there, and the device at Summertown was a ruse to distract the authorities? Professor Glees (in a private message) has supported the notion that this could have been the masterstroke of Sonia’s practice of deception – to display her wireless equipment openly, and then not exploit it, so that it would completely disarm any agency that was surveilling her, all the while the genuine transmissions taking place at the second residence.  But why does Shillito make no observation on this rather bizarre living arrangement? It is the lack of commentary that is as intriguing as the dual residency itself.

Though perhaps one should not abandon the notion of administrative confusion too quickly. As late as April 1946, J. H. Marriott, now F2.c, wrote to Kim Philby in SIS, asking whether he knew of the whereabouts of Sonia’s first husband, Rudolf Hamburger, giving an address in Lausanne, and commenting somewhat enigmatically that Sonia (in February 1941) ‘stated that to the best of her knowledge Leon Beurton was still residing there’. On May 1, a letter under Philby’s name responded that SIS’s agent in Switzerland was making enquiries in order ‘to find out whether Leon Charles Beurton is still living at No 129’. Marriott then called Philby on the telephone to let him know that ‘the man is no longer in Switzerland, and when last heard of in November of last year was . . .  in the Coldstream Guards’. Did Shillito not pass on intelligence to his successors? Were MI5 and SIS really that disorganised? It is difficult to pin down Shillito’s career at this point: he was F2b/c in December 1943, and appeared to be following Green and his associates through 1944. We owe it to West’s and Tsarev’s Crown Jewels (thanks to a leak from Anthony Blunt) to gain the information that Shillito left MI5 in October 1945, and was replaced by an officer named Spencer. In December 1944, Liddell reported that Hollis considered Shillito ‘lazy’, but that unworthy description does not match the officer’s dedication and energy as shown in the events of 1942. It is much more probable that he simply became demoralised, left in disgust, and may not have executed a smooth handover. After all, he might have asked himself, why had he been recruited to hunt down communist spies if the sister intelligence service was importing them behind his back? In any case, Spencer did not appear to last long.

Prompted by Shillito’s recommendations to Major Ryde back in 1942, however, the Oxford City Police Department moved into action. A report written by Detective-Inspector Rolfe to the Chief Constable, Charles R. Fox, was forwarded by Fox to Major Phipps in Reading on January 21, 1943. It referred to a letter received from Major Phipps a month beforehand, and described a visit made to the Beurtons’ residence. Rolfe did not actually meet the Beurtons, it appears, but he did speak to Mrs Laski, who claimed not to know much about the couple, although she was able to impart some details about Mrs Beurton’s relatives. It seems that Mrs Laski told Rolfe about the wireless set, since the report reflects some descriptive aspects that Rolfe could not have ascertained otherwise: ‘They have rather a [large? – that corner of the page has been torn off] wireless set and recently had a special pole erected for use for the aerial’. This would imply that Mrs Laski was either unaware of the law, believed that the set was used only for reception, or thought that the Beurtons’ operations had been approved. Yet if she knew it was ‘large’, she must have seen it. And why was the Detective-Inspector’s interest not piqued enough to demand an inspection of it, given the suspicions that Shillito had voiced?

Major Phipps’s letter to Shillito of January 24 confirmed the epithet ‘large’ for posterity, and he specifically drew attention to its existence, something ‘you may think  . . . is worthy of further inquiry’. Yet nothing happened. Or if it did, there is no record of it. The next communication from Shillito is dated April 21, when he followed up with Phipps on the paragraph in Rolfe’s report that described Beurton’s imminent call-up for the R.A.F.  On July 5, he wrote to John Curry in SIS, in response to the latter’s letters concerning Sonia’s first husband, Rudolph [sic] Hamburger, and made an astonishing statement that served to diminish suspicions about the Beurtons. “Since their return to this country the BEURTONS have been living together at Oxford in a house for which they have been paying 3 ½ guineas per week. It has not been possible to find out very much about their activities since they live very quietly, but what information there is does not arouse suspicion.” So what about the two residences? And the large wireless set? Moreover, by now Sonia had been meeting Fuchs regularly. Was she not being watched? Shillito’s conclusion represents an astonishing lack of imagination and resolve: it is almost as if he had been ordered to stop his investigations.

A highly plausible conclusion would be that Sonia expected her wireless set to be discovered; she was not concerned about it; she even welcomed it. For it was a distraction, a decoy. She knew that she would be watched, and the best way of diverting attention was to display the bogus equipment in plain view, while the real transmitter still lay in the premises in Kidlington, where Len could operate it.  #  Her comment about expecting to be discovered can now be interpreted as an accurate observation, with the dubious story about the eager fitter at the car plant an alibi for her alternative residence. As for the authorities, if SIS really had been planning to eavesdrop on her transmissions, the discovery of a wireless set would have been the last thing they wanted, for the law would have required Sonia to be fined and forced to desist, with the equipment confiscated. Better, no doubt, to pretend they never heard about it. But if Sonia did use the set in Summertown, she would no doubt merely have sent anodyne unencrypted messages about the great British proletariat cheering on their gallant Soviet allies, and calling for the opening of the second front. The RSS and GC&CS would have learned nothing at all.

# Note: Nigel West has written to me the following: “I have two explanations for SONIA’s traffic. Firstly, it was probably very low power, and was only intended to communicate with the embassy in London, and not Russia. Secondly, the Abwehr taught GARBO how to emulate authentic British Army radio traffic. These signals were ignored by RSS. It may be that the GRU adopted the same tactics.

Shillito’s Project

Hugh Shillito’s inaction must be interpreted in the context of another project that had absorbed him in 1942, the case of Oliver Green. Oliver Green, like Beurton and Foote, had been a member of the International Brigades in Spain, and MI5 had been tracking him since 1937. Much of the information about Green’s career comes from Shillito’s report, written in July 1942, when he was making a case for Green’s prosecution [see TNA: KV 2/2203(2)]. Maxwell Knight’s M/9 team reported that Green had been recruited by the Comintern while in Spain. He returned to Britain in May 1938, but not much is recorded after that until a conversation at the bugged CPHQ in King Street was captured in January 1940. An exercise by the CPGB of recruiting CP members in the services, and collecting information from them, came to light. Green came to  MI5’s attention because R. W. Robson, who was on the Control Commission of the Communist Party, had been heard to ask a Bert Williams whether he knew of Oliver Green’s whereabouts. Williams responded in the negative, but Robson, implying a high degree of secrecy, then asked Williams to try to ascertain where Green was living.

For some reason, the trail went dark after this. Green did not appear again until he was arrested in May 1942 for possessing forged petrol coupons, and a Special Branch search discovered incriminating materials (including War Office Weekly Intelligence Summaries) at his house. He was imprisoned for fifteen months, and when Shillito was informed of the find by Special Branch, he took an interest in the case, and in July was expressing to his colleagues around MI5 that Green should be prosecuted for espionage. Shillito sought advice from the legal department of MI5. Yet he received some objections, some hinting at deeper investigations underway at the time. The solicitor Hale of SL(A)2 suggested on July 7 (incidentally the day before the Swiss consulate issued Len Beurton with his false passport) that such a move might disrupt Shillito’s work. “His prosecution would on the other hand inevitably disturb the ground on which your present enquiries, designed to round up all these miscreants, are proceeding and this I would take to be the decisive consideration.” One can sense an implicit fear that the British public might be confused if it should turn out that the communists in the UK were not wholly supportive of the British war effort. “The foregoing opinion is of course based on the assumption that H.M.G. have not at the present time any sufficient reason for wanting to bring home to the public mind the fact that our alliance with the U.S.S.R. has not made the C.P.G.B. a strictly loyal and correct British political party,” added Hale. Certainly the stresses of dealing with the Soviet Union, as a difficult ally, were intensely felt at that time. In September, 1942, the controversial Anglo-Russian agreement on the exchange of scientific information was signed, and pressure was exerted by Moscow on the opening up the second front. There were certainly voices in government (such as that of Gladwyn Jebb, at that time promoting post-war cooperation with the Soviets) who did not want to rock the boat.

A further hint from Roger Fulford (standing in for Roger Hollis, away on sick leave) two days later identified a group that could be the ‘miscreants’ referred to by Hale: “As the Green case stands there is no evidence to link him with the C.P.G.B. or the Robson organisation.” This is a provocative note, as the ‘Robson organisation’ has never been identified, either in the archives, or any publication. As West and Tsarev wrote in 1998 in The Crown Jewels, listing documents leaked by Anthony Blunt of MI5 to his Soviet masters in April 1943:  “ . . . MI5 reports on CPGB members and a survey conducted by Millicent Bagot of F2 (b) about the cultivation of the members of a GRU ring known as the Robson-Gibbons group (about which nothing has ever been published); and an investigation of another low-level GRU case, that of a man named Green, conducted by Hugh Shillito which revealed MI5’s methodology, including the use of bugging equipment that had exposed six of Green’s fellow conspirators.” Petrie agreed with Fulford a few days later: he did not want to disturb ‘the much more serious matter of the Robson inquiry’, an opinion with which the Home Office’s Sir Alexander Maxwell (whose secretary was the spy Jenifer Hart) agreed.

So where did Gibbons come from? Boris Volodarsky added a little more detail in 2015, in his Stalin’s Agent. Gibbons was Danny Gibbons, also an officer of the British Battalion of the International Brigades. Volodarsky simply states that ‘MI5 later tried to cultivate members of the “Robson-Gibbons” GRU spy ring’. Yet, if that were so, it might suggest that MI5 were trying to use the same tactics with communist agents that they had successfully deployed with Nazi spies – turn them, and play them back with disinformation. (Volodarsky appears to be the only historian making this claim.) That would, however, have been a questionable strategy at a time when SIS and GC&CS were surreptitiously trying to provide the Soviets with accurate intelligence derived from the Enigma decrypts. Moreover, Fulford was wrong in assessing that there was no evidence to link Green with Robson and the CPGB. The bugs exploited in 1940 were proof enough – although such evidence could never be presented in a court of law.

Meanwhile, Shillito persevered. He succeeded in arranging an interview with Green in prison, which took place early in August. (The published version of Liddell’s Diaries provides a good summary, in his entry dated August 11, 1942.)  The outcome was that Shillito was able to extract a confession from Green, who admitted that he had been recruited in Spain, and had built up a team of agents. He said he had forged the coupons (he was a printer by trade) so that he would have enough petrol to visit the members of his cell. One of the important facts he impressed upon Shillito was that the Communist party itself did not engage in espionage work: he, Green, had been told to break with the Party on his return from Spain (an instruction he carelessly ignored). He also told Shillito that half-a-dozen other members of the British Battalion had been recruited by the Russians at the same time. Perhaps the most dramatic part of Green’s revelations – as far as they would have relevance to the future incident of Sonia’s radio  ̶  was the information he offered about the radio communications of his cell of spies (see below), and the fact that he knew that the Soviets had an agent in MI5.

During August and September, Shillito dug around some more. He contacted Petrie directly, as Fulford was away. At some stage, the FBI was informed, and asked for more information. Shillito contacted Kimball of SIS about Soviet Intelligence’s recruitment techniques for members of the International Brigades. He reviewed the Krivitsky files. He sent messages to the Regional Security Liaison Officers (RSLOs), asking for information on the identified suspects in Green’s organisation. The record then goes quiet for a while, the next major entry indicating that Shillito has started to have doubts: perhaps Green was being boastful about his network? On November 11, however, he sprang back, asking Anthony Blunt (B1B) to have Green followed. But then he became more excited about the radio communications. On November 21, he sent another letter to the RSLOs, citing the fact that Green had revealed that one of his agents had admitted to a stranger in a bar that he had been doing work for the USSR, and was using a wireless transmitter to get information out of the country. Shillito stressed the urgency of being able to identify the place and time this remark was made, and by whom. He also made the following very telling observation: “The facts are that I have been engaged for some months in investigating a proved case of Soviet espionage involving a number of people, some in high positions. I need hardly say that the matter is one of the utmost delicacy, particularly as some of the persons implicated are in Government employment and still unidentified.”

It appears that Geoffrey Wethered, a lawyer who was an MI5 officer, and at that time the Birmingham RSLO, helped Shillito formulate his inquiry. It was his opinion that the police did not need to know the full facts, and that the other RSLOs should therefore make very discrete inquiries of their local police forces. Wethered had apparently also been closely involved with the interrogation of Green, as he provided original notes that indicate that there were two or three transmitters involved. In addition, he recommended that Shillito contact the Radio Security Service (RSS) to trace any transmissions that may have occurred.  Yet there is no evidence that Shillito followed up with the RSS. The next reported items are Shillito’s noting (on November 28) that Green is about to be discharged from Brixton prison, and the very next day voicing, for the first time, his suspicions about Sonia to Hollis and Liddell. He asked the police to make discrete inquiries about Len Beurton, and stated that he thought the Kuczynskis were spies. On December 2, he delivered a comprehensive report on Green, one endorsed by Petrie a couple of days later: Petrie even wanted to discuss the report with Hollis (who had returned from sick leave  and replaced Curry as head of F Division on October 7) and with its author. In the first half of January 1943, we can read further evidence that Shillito’s inquiries into Green were advancing. On January 23, the Oxford police report the discovery of the Beurtons’ wireless-set. And the record then goes silent.

Several aspects of the events of 1942 are very provocative. The first is the almost incontrovertible proof that Blunt would have known about the details of the Green investigation, and would thus have forwarded them to his masters, with the inevitable outcome that agents’ behavior would have been adjusted. Sonia, in particular, would have executed a diversionary plan. The second is the reference to Shillito’s investigation into people ‘in high positions’. It is very unlikely – despite references by Petrie and others – that such a group would have been part of a cell managed by an officer of the CPGB (the ‘Robson Group’), and these suspects thus remain a mystery. The third aspect is the similarity in the occurrences of clandestine radio operations within the Green cell and the sudden discovery of the Beurton equipment, and the lack of any appropriate action taken to follow up. The fourth is the fact that the only mention of radio-detection finding comes from Green himself, apart from Wethered’s recommendation about RSS. Extraordinarily, Shillito either ignores, or is unaware of, the function: his bosses appear to share such ignorance. The fifth is the timing: that, as soon as the Green case reaches a peak, with Petrie’s interest rising, the discovery of the Beurton radio surprisingly appears to cause a complete shutdown of investigatory work against suspected communist spies.

From Liddell’s diaries, one can conclude that Petrie was seriously concerned about the Communist threat, but his enthusiasm for heading MI5 starts to dissipate at this time.  Liddell would, as early as summer 1943, report that Duff Cooper, who was chairman of the RSS Committee (and also Chairman of the Security Executive, which oversaw all the intelligence services), doubted whether Petrie would ‘last the course’, as if something about intelligence operations had severely shocked the Director-General. It is true that he was caught in a squeeze at this time, with pressures from SIS to absorb his counter-espionage functions, and also from the Cabinet Secretary (Edmund Bridges) and the Metropolitan Police, who were urging that the Police should reassume responsibilities for counter-subversion. But perhaps he was also asking himself the question:  if a domestic intelligence organisation was inhibited in prosecuting dangerous communist spies, why did it exist? (In fact Petrie retired in 1946: the authorised history of MI5 is bland and uninformative about the last years of his incumbency.) And, of course, all this synchronicity does not come to light until Shillito’s involvement with the two cases is overlaid in a single chronology. It was his recognition of the shared membership of the International Brigades on the part of Green and Beurton that excited his interest. And, though he was not aware of it at the time, there was an important pattern of similar telegraphic activity between the Beurtons and the Green network.

Green’s Network

The interrogation of Green in August 1942 revealed a host of fascinating information about wireless transmissions. The National Archives file at KV 2/2204 (2) provides all the details.

Green managed several wireless operators. One constructed his set himself: this was in fact not a tough challenge, as all the materials were available on the Black Market in Fetter Lane in London. Batteries were preferably used, so that RDF [radio detection-finding] could not detect a set’s location when the mains were turned off. (It appears that the operators suspected that the now well-publicised techniques that the Gestapo used against the Red Orchestra were being employed by the British authorities.) “Transmissions were made about once a fortnight late at night or early in the morning when very few wireless owners would be listening in.”  Green disclosed that the set was located close to an airfield, so that the transmissions might be taken for official military communications.

Green referred to one of his agents as ‘the nervous operator’, whose set possessed dimensions of 12” by 6” by 4”. It was kept in a garden, concealed in a hollowed-out post. High speed morse was used – recorded on a slip of paper rather on the lines of a pianola roll, then sent out automatically at high speed. The operator, who lived in Northwood, Middlesex (surely not accidentally, near Northolt Airport), was aware of RDF vans, which suggests that the GPO was attempting to perform the task allotted to it, or at least making its presence felt. The extra apparatus necessary for high-speed morse was likewise purchased in London after the outbreak of the war. An Appendix in this file (see below) indicates that the device used to store messages was probably a ‘punch perforator’, which had become obsolete ten years before the war. Not all transmissions were made at high-speed, as one operator could detect the real-time uncertainty of his Russian counterpart in dealing with English letters.

More insights were recorded. Green gave hints about an infrastructure of support that helped operators in need. Thus the ‘nervous’ operator was equipped with a co-resident ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ to conceal the fact that he would not have been able to afford the semi-detached house from which he transmitted. Even more astonishing is the fact that, when he became alarmed after hearing a conversation in a public bar, where someone admitted to ‘working for the U.S.S.R’, he requested a change of residence, and ‘a new detached house in a cul-de-sac was found for him’. Who these resources were, or how they operated, is never explained. Either MI5 was distinctly incurious, or it simply failed to register its follow-up in the archives. Yet the hints of such an organisation, and its apparent pervasiveness, are quite shocking for our understanding of Soviet subversion.

Green’s radio operators appear to have all been International Brigaders, some of whom had been trained in Moscow. They were probably instructed by William Morrison, who between May 1935 and October 1937 had operated the illicit radio in Wimbledon that maintained almost daily contact with the Comintern in Moscow (the MASK project).  Morrison’s file at the National Archives (KV/2-606) tells that he had been in Moscow for almost two and a half years before that: when interrogated by MI5 in 1939, some time after he deserted from the International Brigades, he offered the names of some of the operators he had trained, such as Sydney Fink and George Ives. He may have held back on the identities of those he knew to be in Green’s network. Indeed some of Green’s agents were also ex-fighters in Spain, such as Lon Elliott and Joe Garber. In January 1943, Shillito was on the heels of the operator who lived in Northwood, ‘a clever radio technician with a Canadian passport’ who constructed his own set. He was the one who had been afraid of the RDF vans, the approach of which turned out to be false. Green’s own radio operator was Stanley Rayner, who died in February 1947. A note indicates his file was destroyed. All this came out in 1952, when a re-investigation of the Green case was launched after the prosecution of Fuchs and the escape of Sonia.

The relevance of Green’s testimony to the Beurtons’ case is crisp. The availability of technology for amateur building of wireless-sets matches what Sonia describes: the method of concealing the set is also identical to Sonia’s. The pattern of using stored capabilities for burst-mode transmission is also consistent with Sonia’s story. Two facts stand out, however. One is the availability of the support network. If an underground system of providing ‘safe houses’ was in place, it was probably used by Moscow Centre to provide accommodation for the Beurtons – including the bungalow in Kidlington and the coach-house belonging to the Laskis. Perhaps Arthur Salter, MP, the owner of Sonia’s later residence ‘The Firs’, was a member of the same network.  And the fact that Green mentioned the advantages of operating a transmitter close to an airfield explains why the Kidlington address – so near to Oxford Airport – was maintained despite Sonia’s assertions to the contrary. Shillito’s hunches were correct.

One of several Appendices to Shillito’s report likewise discloses more than appears on the surface. Several excerpts from an untitled and unsigned Appendix B, compiled by an ‘expert’ invited to comment, are worth citing verbatim:

  1.  “The punched slip would almost certainly be prepared by means of a punch perforator of which there must be thousands in junk stores all over the country. It is an instrument which became obsolete at least ten years before the war, being replaced by instruments like typewriters, mostly made by the firm of Creeds, which punched up the slip (a long paper tape) as the operator typed the message.”
  2.  “The radio transmitter described seems rather small and under powered for use with high speed transmission, but it would not be wise to attach too much weight to this comment, as it really depends on the valves employed. The use of batteries instead of power from the mains for the transmitter is quite sound as the method of detection by cutting off power street by street had been used in many countries and has been suggested, but not I think actually used, in this country. It seems curious to me that the radio transmitter itself should be carefully hidden in a hollow post in the garden if the perforator and automatic sending gear are left in the house – perhaps his garden was unusually well equipped with hollow posts.”
  3.  “There would be no method of identifying the operator’s touch when automatic transmission was being employed, but it is almost certain that contact would first be established by an exchange of signals sent by hand and there would be many occasions when an exchange of operating instructions would have to be made by hand. Equally I should have expected the incoming traffic to be sent by hand, and read by ear as to avoid having to equip the agent here with recording apparatus. All the same quite small and simple recording apparatus would be suitable.
  4.  “I am inclined to think that when he says that he placed his transmitter near an air force wireless station, he is referring to the frequency rather than the locality. Working close to the frequency of a regular short wave transmitter would tend to baffle interception, but it would also make the task of the station intended to receive the message more difficult.”
  5.  “I think it possible that his description of the transmitting station is really a composite picture of several; and for instance that the nervous operator with the small transmitter was not in fact using the automatic sender.”
  6. “The fact that the cypher messages from Moscow contained English letters not occurring in the Russian alphabet suggests, though it does not prove, that the messages were not in a code but in a cypher; i.e. that the original text in English was encyphered by some mathematical rearrangement of the letters and not by selecting code groups corresponding to the English words from a prearranged codebook. In any case the cypher is almost always used by agents because they are unwilling to have incriminating code books in their possession.”
  7. “The method of using hollow trees, etc., as post boxes for the passing of information from one agent to another without making contact is well known, and the B.3.c files have information on the marking of posters.”

The overwhelming conclusions from evidence such as this is that a) the ‘expert’ was perhaps not quite as authoritative and knowledgeable as he should have been; b) that MI5’s interest in, and familiarity with, such matters were surely lamentable, and c) that the Soviet agents were well-prepared to avoid radio-detection mechanisms. Why was the expert not educated on the practices of radio-detection finding, and the processes by which the authorities located illicit transmissions? (One might also wonder why the Abwehr, or indeed the Soviet Union’s Red Orchestra, did not use proven store-and-forward capabilities, but that is a topic for another discussion.) And why did this expert misread and dismiss so quickly the strategy of placing transmitters close to airports? If, as he suggested, it was a matter of baffling interception, he might have been implying that British RDF was so precise that it did not require selective power cut-off, but by indicating that the receiving station’s ability to pick up the messages correctly might be impaired by the use of proximal wavelengths, he greatly undermined his argument. Yet the implications for MI5 are even more alarming. Why had the Security Service not been aware of a technology that had been obsolete for a decade, and why had it not pressed for a more innovative approach to countering such techniques? Indeed, MI5 was taken by surprise.

After reading Shillito’s report, Guy Liddell, the head of counter-espionage in MI5 (B Division) – no longer directly responsible for handling Communist subversion, but well experienced with it, and conscious that the threat would return –  made some disturbing comments, recorded in the Green file, on December 8, 1942. “I presume that in connection with this case a study has been made of the enquiries that were made some years ago into the illicit wireless activities of the C.P.G.B. It would be interesting to know exactly when illicit wireless activities recommenced. We have certainly had one case of a Russian station in this country which was coming up fairly regularly on a call-sign. The matter was taken up by A.D.B.3. [presumably Assistant-Director, B3, Dick White] The Russians were I think approached but denied all knowledge. This new development of high speed morse may raise serious problems for R.S.S. If it is possible to pin down time and dates when transmissions have taken place and to get details about frequencies it would be of the greatest value but A.D.B.3 would be better able to say exactly what was required.” What ‘Russian station’ was he referring to? And why had the authorities not been able to detect Green’s operators? The history behind Liddell’s assertion, and its implications, are covered in the next sections.

Wireless Conventions

Ever since wireless technology had been introduced in the beginning of the twentieth century, it had been regarded by governments as both an opportunity and a threat. The conventional means of transmitting diplomatic traffic, the cable, was predictable, tangible, and constrained. Security was addressed by encryption techniques: traffic was routinely copied and inspected by the authorities, as the incidents of the Zimmermann Telegram (in 1917, when the Germans issued a cable encouraging Mexico to take up arms against the USA), and the Arcos Affair (in 1927, when the British government disclosed that it had decoded cables transmitted by the Soviet Union’s commercial front in London) proved. The Official Secrets Act of 1920 empowered the Secretary of State, in peacetime, to issue a warrant to cable companies requiring them to hand over all cable messages: foreign-owned cable lines were routinely tapped. Ironically, it was Great Britain’s severance of vital German cables in WWI that prompted the German government to invest more in radio techniques.

The new technology, on the other hand, was intangible, mobile, and unstructured, with signals being broadcast for anyone to receive, unlike the point-to-point topologies of cable. Thus pressure quickly arose to regulate such activity, partly because of the chaos that would ensue if the problem of interference on assigned wavelengths were not addressed, but also from a security standpoint, with possibly hostile elements transmitting unregulated subversive material within national boundaries. Moreover, while most of the cable operators were nationalised industries, radio technology was introduced and controlled by independent commercial businesses, which made government supervision more difficult. As for the increased concerns for security during wartime, ever since the St. Petersburg Conference of 1875, it had been acknowledged that governments should have the right to restrict the transmission of telegrams that appeared to put the security of the state in peril. Yet that covenant was oddly phrased to refer to private, as opposed to diplomatic, transmissions. Furthermore, how could any authority detect whether a transmission was a threat unless it were able to decipher the underlying message?

Radio imposed new strains, because, instead of a government or security service routinely inspecting cables routed through one or two agencies, transmissions could come from anywhere, and would require a hefty investment in interception capabilities to be captured. While the major international concern was still the allocation of wavelengths, and the prevention of interference, the problem of sensitive information being concealed in non-transparent codes and ciphers (or a mixture of the two) carried over from cable to radiotelegraphy. Lengthy discussions over the new challenges proceeded in the 1920s, but were complicated by the fact that the USA had not been party to the agreements. Not until the Madrid Conference of 1932 was an attempt to unify the cable and radiotelegraphy codes, and to address the outstanding problems, made. The International Telecommunications Union was then formed.

The language of the regulations that arose from Madrid was precise in some areas, but loose or non-existent in others. Agreements on political matters were elusive: the Soviet Union was now a stumbling-block, refusing to have radiotelegraphic arrangements included in the general treaty. Such matters were complicated by the fact that the USA, which still allowed transmission of cables via independent companies, had not yet recognised the Soviet Union. Madrid’s emphasis on security was still very much on the avoidance of interference, although the agreement did include a clause that required all transmitting stations to be licensed by their national states. As Francis Lyall writes in his history of international communications: “In particular radio broadcasting within Europe remained insoluble. Accordingly provision was made for these problems to be dealt with by agreement within Europe provided that services authorised by other administrations elsewhere were not caused by interference.” No workable enforcement mechanisms on frequencies was defined. The ball was simply kicked in to the long grass.

The danger of unauthorised use of radio transmissions (and the implied threat voiced by the Soviets in 1932) was soon perceived by the British government in the mid-1930s, in the celebrated (but little-known) case of the Comintern’s radio interactions with agents in Britain, which were detected by the authorities. This project, known as MASK, has been thoroughly covered by Nigel West. It is worth quoting some significant extracts from his book:

“GC&CS’s monitoring station at Grove Park, Camberwell, headed by Commander Kenworthy, first began intercepting Wheeton’s signals in February 1934.”

“Through the use of direction-finding equipment located at the army intercept station at Fort Bridgewoods, outside Chatham, at the Air Ministry W/T Section at Waddington, headed by Wing-Commander Lywood, and the Royal Navy’s receiver at Flowerdown, near Winchester, GC&CS’s technicians were able to show that Moscow was also communicating with a Comintern station in Vienna using the call-sign 3PD, and others in Shanghai, Paris, Athens, 3OS and 9RP in Prague, Spain, Basle, Zurich, Copenhagen and the United States.”

“Once the address from which the illicit transmitter had been operating, 401 Durnsford Road, had been ascertained, the sole occupier was watched, and his identity established as Stephen Wheeton.”

These passages, and the fact that the messages were able to be decrypted with the help of one of the agents, show several relevant facts. One, that the Soviet Union was busily occupied in using radio technology to subvert its enemies. Two, that conventional detection-finding technology had powerful worldwide scope. Three, that a concerted effort by all three of His Majesty’s Armed Forces was required to reveal the extent of the Soviet Union’s activity, and to localise the offending transmitting station to a suburb in London. Four, that (in all probability) a radio-detection van was deployed to complete the exercise by homing in on a single house in Wimbledon. (In fact, one of the most significant MASK messages, that of May 20, 1936, alerted Moscow that it was necessary ‘to close down the station owing to Post Office enquiries in neighbourhood regarding interference’, which offers irrefutable proof that local residents were calling in the GPO when their own radio reception was being distorted.)  Certainly, the nature of this operation should have alerted MI5 to the techniques that the Soviet Union would continue to adopt. The comprehensive messages, which were exchanged between 1934 and 1937, moreover identify a host of persons with communist sympathies who would have come under MI5’s surveillance. It was, indeed, the evidence of William Morrison (see above, who took over from Wheeton when the latter fell ill) who helped the authorities identify some of the persons whose names appeared in the MASK traffic.

The use of radio communications by governments is more enigmatic. Some provisions were made in the covenants of the 1932 Agreements, but they barely touched on the complexities. For instance, Article 39 (‘Installations for National Defence’) stated: “The Contracting Governments reserve their entire liberty with regard to radioelectric installations not covered by Article 9, and especially with regard to military stations of the land, sea or air forces”, but the main provision thereafter was to ensure that full attention was paid to distress calls, and that the latter would not be interfered with by military traffic. The main focus of the convention was still on radio frequencies. It appears that rules for diplomatic traffic were set by unofficial agreements, and local edict. Thus it is a little surprising to read the following judgment of the historian Phillip Davies, in his MI6 and the Machinery of Spying: “The transfer of the Radio Section to the Foreign Office [in 1945] had also, in part, been made possible by a shift in diplomatic convention concerning the use of independent radio communications by embassies, previously banned by the Madrid Convention.”

No mention of any such ban appears in the agreements from the Madrid Convention (see .  Indeed, proof of contrary practice before the war appears in Keith Jeffrey’s history of SIS (MI6) where he asserts that SIS stations abroad were quite capable of employing wireless equipment, so long as they received the permission of the local British minister, and that, furthermore, radio was the only effective means of communication during (for example) the Czech crisis. (One might question what ‘effective’ means in this context. German records show that telephone conversations between Prague and London were routinely tapped, not just those between Masaryk and Beneś, but also those between London and the envoy, Lord Runciman, thus aiding Hitler’s negotiations at Bad Godesberg.) Yet Davies uses the existence of such a ban to criticise Richard Gambier-Parry, the head of Section VII, the Communications Section of SIS, who, in 1947, defended the legality of the Diplomatic Wireless Service (DWS) at the Telecommunications Conference in Atlantic City. The DWS had been set up during the war as a secure radio mechanism, and had evolved from the Special Communications Units that were used for sending, among other items, the Ultra messages to British posts abroad, including embassies. Gambier-Parry claimed that diplomatic wireless ‘was a matter of diplomatic privilege and was not covered by the Madrid Convention which the conference had been convened to revise’. He recognised the sensitivity of the issue, but was merely observing that diplomatic wireless had been used ‘by a number of governments’ for some years now, and had never been challenged by any international authority.

The reason this is critical, and relevant, is the curious way that radio operations by foreign governments were allowed and managed in wartime Britain, the role the Soviet Embassy played in transmitting Sonia’s secret messages, and the method by which Britain’s interception services tried to monitor what was going on. Wartime imposed tougher restraints. Jeffrey again, writing on the SIS station in Geneva after war broke out: “There was a SIS wireless set at Geneva, but it could be used only for receiving messages as the Swiss authorities did not permit foreign missions in the country to send enciphered messages except through the Post Office.” No complete ban, but a restriction on sending out intelligence, no doubt in order to assist the country’s perceived neutrality. (It is very provocative and significant that Jeffery remarks that ‘SIS’s secure radio communications’ were being used in Europe as early as March 1941.) Thus, in principle, governments were apparently able to set their own rules for how the representatives of foreign legations could operate radio equipment, if at all. For example, the American military attaché in Cairo, Colonel Fellers, in 1942 had to send his encrypted reports on British troop movements to Washington via the Egyptian Telegraph Company. The signals were still picked up and quickly decrypted by the German interception station at Lauf, near Nuremberg, until the Americans changed the codes that autumn. Just before D-Day, the British government stipulated that all cables issued by foreign governments had to be sent en clair. Yet it could not – or would not attempt to  ̶  control wireless, and the Germans picked up communications from the Polish government-in-exile, as well as messages from Abwehr agents inserted into Britain.

The United Kingdom faced a unique challenge, as it was host to so many governments-in-exile. In fact it had approved the use of radio facilities for the Polish and Czech governments: the Czechs were generously provided with a dedicated communications facility in Woldingham, Surrey. This turned out to be two-edged sword, for, while the transmitter was used to contact loyalists in Czechoslovakia, eventually leading to the assassination of Heydrich, it was also used to communicate with the Soviet Union. Beneš and others on the Czech government-in-exile were strong allies of the communist regime, and passed on information that certainly harmed Britain’s ability to negotiate with its often dubious partner. Yet, as Bradley Smith reports, the Czechoslovak government at the same time provided Whitehall with details of Soviet operations and intentions, again showing how delicate it was trying to satisfy the varied military and security interests at the time.

Thus Britain’s preparedness to deal with illicit and dangerous radio domestic transmissions could be summed up as follows. At the outbreak of war, it had recent experiences of intensive exchanges from the combined Soviet/native communist threat, but probably too quickly and ingenuously transferred that menace to the direct Nazi enemy and its supposed agents in Britain. It knew that a hefty investment in detection capabilities, provided by the military, and complemented by GPO vans, was necessary to locate private transmitting wireless sets – the use of which was incidentally illegal. The MASK intercept shows that an educated public knew what to do when radio interference occurred, and that the illicit operators were well aware of the threat from radio-detection vans – certainly in built-up areas of London. The authorities would have concluded that the technological capabilities of Britain’s enemies were at least as advanced as its own – and in the case of the Germans, probably superior, given its lead in exploiting radiotelegraphy. It knew that a very strong decryption capability would be required to make sense of the overwhelming majority of messages intercepted. (The true art and value of ‘traffic analysis’, whereby important conclusions were derived on the basis of traffic patterns, volumes, call-signs, locations etc., other than message content, had not yet been recognised.) And it accepted that an over-aggressive approach to policing radio usage by foreign embassies in London might lead to reciprocal moves that would harm its intelligence efforts overseas.

Wartime Radio Detection

I have not yet been able to inspect the full records of the Radio Security Service at the National Archives (and nor can I find any work of history that has performed probable justice to them). My judgments on how the Radio Security Service operated in the first years of the war are thus necessarily tentative.  I refer readers to my analysis at for a refresher on the conclusion that no Nazi spies were operating on UK soil, and that the switch of focus to European broadcasts resulted in the transfer of responsibilities from MI8 to SIS. The impression gained from the histories is one in which very little monitoring of domestic wireless transmissions then occurred, and, with the entry of the Soviet Union on the side of the Allies in June 1941, a complete embargo on interception of Soviet messages was supposed to have taken  place. As I showed earlier, that was not true, especially with the project initiated by Denniston (ISCOT) in 1943 that again investigated Soviet diplomatic traffic, but the archives do hint at more serious efforts to deal with broadcasts from foreign missions that were made without the necessary approval of the British government.

The archive describing GC&CS’s tasking of the RSS [series HW 34] is spasmodic and sketchy. It does tell us that mobile detection units were operating out of Barnet, Bristol and Gateshead – in other words not limited to the Metropolitan Area, and that these units (known as ‘snifters and ferrets’) responded primarily to instructions issued by the Discrimination Group, which was the Section within RSS that ‘used its elaborate records to distinguish between suspicious and innocent intercepts’ (Hinsley & Simkins). A listing of the principal groups identified is given, for example Group 20 (Jugoslav diplomatic links), Group 21 (French diplomats and agents types), and Group 12 (Russian transmissions). Thus it must be that certain broadcasts were identified as ‘Russian’, either by their call signs, or by the language used in handshaking before encryption took over. The archive laconically reports that, in 1942, RSS started monitoring of Foreign Governments from the UK, ‘mainly Polish, Czech, Yugoslav, French, Russian’. These were all, of course, allies.

The archive elsewhere classifies the Group 12 as ‘Russian Clandestine’ (‘many odd circuits were tracked’), which would point unerringly to the fact that the authorities knew that Soviet agents were communicating with their masters. In other words, this was not solely unauthorised embassy traffic, which would have been categorised as ‘Soviet Diplomatic’. HW 34/23 discusses Russian transmitters in the country, going back to December 1940, but more specifically between October 1941 and December 1943. Messages’ call signs were recorded in March and April 1942. In September 1943, Russian transmissions were detected coming from Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire, and SOE was instructed to inform the Russians not to transmit from that address without permission. Brickendonbury Hall was the SOE Training Centre (originally set up by Kim Philby and Guy Burgess), and, during the short-lived period when British and Soviet Intelligence were attempting to cooperate, Soviet NKVD officers must have attended Brickendonbury and, like ET, attempted to call home.

Transmissions from the Soviet Embassy were another problem. In a way, the problem was easier for the interceptors. They knew where the embassies were located, all in the general area of the West End of London, and it would have been very easy for a detector van to roam around searching for illicit communications (as opposed to touring the countryside looking for agents). Yet even that exercise was fraught with confusion. One comment, which does incidentally cast some doubt on the accuracy of location-finding, states that a transmission believed to be emanating from Wimbledon turned out to be coming from the Soviet Embassy. The volatile Maurice Frost, who had originally joined MI5 from the GPO as an expert in these matters, wrote to Ted Maltby, who headed RSS at Hanslope Park, and reported to Gambier-Parry, on March 16, 1942, that ‘the investigation into the Rosary Gardens and Kensington affairs paid a very handsome dividend even if they have failed to result in laying a spy by the heels’. Perhaps echoing this investigation, a memorandum written in May 1943 recorded that RSS ‘found and watched’ transmissions between the Soviet Embassy and Moscow during March and April 1942, and that the indications were that they were not ‘diplomatic traffic’, with the implication that they had been decrypted.

And one side of government did not always know what the other was doing. The Air Ministry apparently had given the Russians permission to transmit, from their Embassy premises, on a circuit that had been constrained by the Foreign Office to purely diplomatic traffic. Another note indicates that Commander Denniston (recently demoted from leadership of GC&CS, and now working on the ISCOT project) was detecting illicit traffic from the Soviet Embassy on June 3, 1943 – illicit because it had not been ‘declared’. Richard Aldrich writes, while reporting the meeting then held between Maltby, Denniston, and Curry and Hollis of MI5, that ‘these messages had attracted interest because they had nothing in common with the old Comintern style of transmissions, and it was noted that they might be KGB traffic as they showed “great technical skill”. Collecting this material stretched Britain’s interceptor resources, since the traffic had lasted for eight hours in every twenty-four hour period.’

To what degree these arrangements were performed by treaty as opposed to informal agreements is not clear. During their fitful efforts to cooperate on intelligence matters, the British and Soviet governments apparently agreed to expanded radio-communications between their countries. Susan Butler writes that, some time before the Tehran Conference in late 1943, “Britain had already set up reciprocal radio stations with the U.S.S.R. in their respective capitals”. And such an assertion is dramatically underlined by Bradley Smith, who tells us that as early as June 1941, SIS established a direct wireless link with Moscow, using a highly secure one-time pad, in order to transmit, among other things, a massaged version of the latest Ultra decrypts. Even without an official approval that early in the relationship between the two allies, the Soviets would have learned what was going on, and it would have been difficult for MI5, as the domestic security agency, to override the Foreign Office’s tacit approval of such a reciprocal Soviet arrangement between London and Moscow.

Yet Britain’s policy towards its allies, in respect of the security of radio usage, appears disorganised. As Gambier-Parry started to extend his secure network for SIS, he grew increasingly more concerned about the uncontrolled propagation of radio sets than about the need to monitor the content of illicit transmissions. He wrote to Claude Dansey, on August 26, 1943 (incidentally proving that Dansey was intimately involved with the issue), about ‘the problem of clandestine wireless sets, which will seriously hamper the activities of RSS, and may result in our own agent communications being interfered with, or even compromised.’ Yet only a few months earlier, the Y Board (the joint services/intelligence committee responsible for interception policy) had approved the visit of a Soviet Navy delegation to study British radio intercept procedures, while in November 1943 a Major Till was trying to persuade Maltby of the danger of the Polish General Staff having ‘even a smell of a suggestion that we have ever thought of monitoring their traffic’. Thus a lack of strategic coherence and resolve is apparent: timidity in the face of the curiosities of an acknowledged bully, timidity in not being prepared to handle objections from an ally with little bargaining power.

One can imagine the complexities facing RSS as the volume of wireless traffic increased during the war. A primary concern must still have been the possibility of unidentified German agents broadcasting from the mainland. This was complicated by the knowledge that an unknown number of communist agents were probably transmitting as well, occasionally complemented by rogue operators like the NKVD visitors. Then there were the Poles and the Czechs, legally transmitting, alongside other allied legations and governments-in-exile exploiting confusion in the government ranks to establish their own links. There were many unauthorised sets floating around, as Gambier-Parry reported. At the same time, MI5 was controlling a number of turned Nazi agents in the XX System, who were transmitting frequently to their apparently credulous controllers overseas, and SIS was establishing secret radio links abroad in order to distribute sensitive Enigma information, as well as providing facilities for SOE to communicate with its agents in Europe. Did the known presence of the Beurtons with their own transmitter complicate matters further? It must have been extremely difficult to decide who should know what under what circumstances, and how much guidance should be given to the ‘Y’ organisation of ‘listeners’ as they tuned in to suspect frequencies amongst all this radio noise.

One significant paradox that the RSS committees must have had to face was the fact that, while RDF capabilities successfully located some illicit communist transmissions, the agents of the Double-Cross (XX) System (or the operators who stood in for them, sometimes on the air for two hours at a time) miraculously managed to evade the attentions of the vans. Agent GARBO (Juan Pujol) started broadcasting to Madrid in August 1942, as many as twenty messages a day. Stephan Talty writes that ‘monitoring stations as far away as Gibraltar picked up the suspicious traffic and reported it to the authorities’, which indicates it must have been detected by ‘listeners’ in Britain. Someone must have pointed out this loophole in the whole deception exercise at some stage: if the news leaked out that Britain had an efficient, but highly selective, location-finding service, the Nazis would have smelled a rat, the credibility of its agents in Britain would have been blown, and that aspect of the D-Day deception strategy made useless. (Is it possible that the Soviets, during the period of the Pact, shared their pre-war experiences in London with their Nazi allies?) Perhaps the RSS decided to soft-pedal the whole exercise precisely for that reason. And that explains the paucity of information about location-finding in the official histories.

The tension between the native concerns of MI5 over RSS and the more complicated agendas of SIS and the Foreign Office are never more clear than in what Liddell writes in his Diaries. As the leading MI5 officer overall responsible for the XX system, Liddell had every right to be concerned about the policies of RSS’s detection function, and to be eager to be properly informed. When Gambier-Parry is appointed to head RSS, he voices initial enthusiasm (March 5, 1941), and appears to trust the sifting of ‘suspicious traffic’ that RSS will undertake (March 16). Yet doubts set in when he reads of RSS’s documented mission (April 10), as he fears it will concentrate too much on what he calls ‘Group’ (presumably the original Group, generic German) traffic and will thus ‘neglect the possibility of illicit transmissions in this country’. Gambier-Parry attempts to diminish his concerns (May 10), and a meeting on May 20 produces a lukewarm recognition of the problem. An abortive search in June shows up Poles trying to communicate with Warsaw, and by the end of the year (December 31), Liddell expresses his frustration that the discriminators inspecting all traffic seem to be interested only in various Enigma (ISOS) transmissions. (This maybe echoes the somewhat arcane methodologies at which Hinsley and Simpkins hinted in their history.) He clearly believes that some important transmissions from communist agents are being withheld from MI5 by Gambier-Parry –  perhaps on the instructions of Claude Dansey, though Liddell does not mention his name. On January 17, 1942, Liddell records that a transmitter located in the Kensington Palace Road was actually operating from the Soviet consulate, but had been found by accident. To him, RSS is failing in its mission.

The jeremiad continues in 1942. This was the year, of course, in which Oliver Green was arrested: Liddell acknowledges that Green’s spies have been working since 1939 (August 13), and complains about lack of new technology to assist in detection (September 29). He notes on December 7, when Shillito’s investigation is in full swing, that Green ‘states that certain of his subordinates have been communicating with Moscow in high-speed Morse. He has refused to give their names or the location of their stations.’ This is important, as it is clear that Liddell now has reasonably solid proof, from the evidence that has arisen from Shillito’s interviews with Green, that a number of Soviet agents have been operating illegal wireless-sets, and he might well wonder why RSS had not been able to detect them. Remarkably, at this time Valentine Vivian, deputy director-general of SIS, who had incidentally undergone a nervous breakdown that summer, states that he wants the RSS committee (which discussed intercepts) to go into liquidation, and Liddell expostulates strongly in his diary that it might be because the committee (or presumably the members of it from MI5) had ‘in the Russian business talked out of turn’, hinting at undisclosed controversies over Soviet counter-espionage.

Yet by 1943, the matter appears to go off the boil  ̶  or else Liddell is worn down. In March, the RSS Committee is split into the Radio Security Committee and the Radio Security Intelligence Committee. Hinsley and Simkins recorded the latter’s mission as ‘[settling] interception priorities and discuss any question relating to the production and use of the ISOS material’. Despite the fact that Dick White will chair the RSIC, Liddell, a member of the higher-level RSC, is unimpressed with the new set-up: ‘should be ineffective and uninteresting’, he murmurs, on March 11, 1943. The RSS Committee consisted of Menzies, Petrie, Gambier-Parry, Vivian, and Liddell:  maybe Liddell thought it was weighted too much by SIS personnel, and focused too much on Nazi espionage. It certainly did not have any Section F (’communist subversion’) representation. And January 1943 had been the month in which Sonia’s wireless was found, so the threat of communist subversion should have been fresh in the committee’s mind.

Thus Liddell’s comments for December 8, 1942, that appeared only in the Green file (see above), are much more informative than anything he is prepared to disclose in his Diaries. He clearly is referring to the Comintern MASK operation. He knows about the Green network, and describes one station whose call-sign was coming up regularly. Therefore, he must have been told that there were Russian signals that had been traced, but presumably was not given any information about any location-searching, or was perhaps told, on the other hand, that the problem was a low-priority, and not worth pursuing. He talks explicitly about high-speed morse as a potential challenge for RSS, even though the report from the ‘expert’ would have taught him that this technology was ten years old. And then there is the outstanding paradox that shows his limited imagination: he seriously wants access to the information, in order that the miscreants may be hunted down, but also presents the truly shocking revelation that ‘the Russians were approached’, but denied all knowledge of the illicit traffic. (Was it truly Dick White who approached them?) What did MI5 expect them to say, given their experience with MASK? That, now as allies against the Nazis, they would own up and close the network down? And if Liddell vehemently disapproved of the decision to engage the Soviet Embassy, why did he not express his outrage?

It is hard to make sense of Liddell’s behavior. It appears he did not merely suspect there might be agents transmitting illicitly. He knew there were, and ranted at RSS for nor having the wherewithal to hunt them down. Of course, his concern would also have been that, if RSS was not detecting Soviet spies, it might well be overlooking hitherto unidentified Nazi radio operators as well. Nigel West’s observations about emulating British Army radio traffic should not be forgotten. But, then again, at some point Liddell must have been brought into the programme that demanded that these agents not be hunted down, but be watched and allowed to operate, and he began to dissemble in his journal entries. The interval (when apparently nothing happened at all) between Green’s meeting at CP HQ in January 1940 and his arrest in March 1942 – not because he had been detected transmitting messages, but because he had been discovered with forged petrol coupons in his possession  ̶  is simply too outrageous to be interpreted as due to a lack of interest. Was the arrest of Green perhaps an unfortunate unexpected consequence that complicated the task of surveillance? MI5 had known about Green in 1940, and about Morrison in 1939. They had always wondered why the MASK operation had been closed down in 1937, and in what form it would be resuscitated. They knew about Beurton (and presumably about his partner, Foote), and about all the International Brigades links. Yet, in spite of all Liddell’s remonstrations about RSS’s inefficiencies, when the Beurtons’ wireless transmitter was discovered in January 1943, MI5 turned off the heat.


While documentary evidence may never surface to confirm the hypothesis, the most likely explanation for what happened runs as follows.

Dansey’s Z Organisation successfully planted an agent (Foote) into the Soviet spy network in Switzerland, and then helped to engineer Sonia’s transfer to the UK, where SIS could extend its infiltration in, and surveillance of, communist espionage rings. Foote’s knowledge of codes gave them a leg up on decryption efforts. The Beurtons and Oliver Green and his team were all seen as part of the ex-International Brigades network, and thus treated the same. Senior Officers of MI5 had to be brought into the loop, since Sonia was operating on UK territory, and they were thus informed of the plan to let Sonia – and by implication, Green’s network – to carry on broadcasting, so long as the spies did not reveal any secrets that might have been perilous to the war effort if they reached German eyes. Keeping an eye on medium-sized fish in the hope of catching bigger creatures became the modus operandi, an excuse for not acting with resolve. All the time, of course, Anthony Blunt (who joined MI5 in the summer of 1940), was telling his bosses everything.

All such plans were disrupted when Oliver Green was suddenly discovered with the illicit petrol coupons and the stolen documents in his house. Now, dedicated lower-level officers in MI5 such as Vesey and Shillito could not be prevented from performing the task they had been chartered to do – catching communist spies, and then prosecuting them. Excuses were made as to why prosecution could not proceed with Green. When Sonia’s radio was discovered, however, the subterfuge could not be concealed any longer from officers carrying out investigations, and Shillito (in particular) was ordered to hold back. It is possible that even Petrie himself was not aware of the project, given his interest in prosecuting Green late in 1942, followed by rapid disillusionment. Shillito’s comments in the summer of 1943 on the Beurtons’ apparently placid and uncontroversial life may now be interpreted as a note to the files (a Soviet-style spravka) that would carefully conceal what was really happening. But one can understand why he (and his colleagues) might have become demoralized. He was recruited to hunt down communist spies; he successfully did so, but then was told to hold off.

MI5 was caught wrong-footed. It had failed to act firmly after the MASK experience. By 1940, its overall alertness to the Soviet threat had by then also waned, and it had been infiltrated itself by communist spies. It had reorganised in 1941, and the task of communist counter-espionage was given to a tenderfoot group. It had not developed a strong understanding of radio detection-finding techniques, and was out of date in its competence. The Soviets knew more about burst-mode operation, radio-detection vans, interference with private wireless reception, and the value of shelter by airports than MI5 did. The critical RSS unit was in 1941 moved even further from its influence. MI5 lacked political clout when competing with the needs of SIS and the Foreign Office. It ended up floundering, hoping against hope that no menacing activity was taking place on its watch, and being unprepared when it did. And its mission was severely complicated by the radio transmissions of the Nazi double-agents it was running.

The first half of 1943 was a period of high tension in Anglo-Soviet relations, with the doves (such as Eden and Jebb) pressing for greater cooperation with the Soviets, while the harder military men were starting to see through Russian duplicity. The Anglo-Russian agreement on scientific interchange was not revealed to the Americans at first: there was backlash after Roosevelt discovered it in December 1942. The JIC was becoming fed up with Soviet obstructionism (February 2), but the War Cabinet was nervous about public opinion: it decided not to publicise the links between the CPGB and Moscow. Both British and US inspection of Soviet diplomatic traffic started, in February and June 1943 respectively, when stories of the Soviet Union’s plans for post-war eastern Europe started to be picked up. In April 1943 the Germans announced the discovery of the graves at Katyn: despite Stalin’s protestations, Churchill believed that the Soviets were responsible. But Stalin had been misled over the timing of the Second Front, and the war still had to be won. A policy of keeping the dictator’s favour overrode more hawkish attitudes. In May 1943, Stalin made the symbolic (and empty) gesture of ‘abolishing the Comintern’, giving encouragement to those who saw Stalin as a ‘freedom-loving’ partner. He manipulated the Allies well.

Sonia – with the help of Blunt’s revelations, and her bosses’ guidance  ̶  had exploited this confusion, and hoodwinked both intelligence services. Her radio was found, and, in the belief of the security services that, with the help of RSS and the GPO, they had identified the sole danger, they no doubt eavesdropped on her transmissions. What little she probably communicated was listened to, and found to be harmless. That fact would be confirmed when Sonia was a few years later visited by MI5 at her home in Rollright, when officers Serpell and Skardon made a feeble attempt to interrogate her, telling her that they were sure she had not engaged in espionage on British soil. By then, she had successfully worked with Fuchs, transmitted from Kidlington, and routed his critical documents to the Soviet Embassy, which was then suitably equipped with its own radio transmission equipment. The damage had been done. In her memoir, she poked fun at the British authorities with subtle hints that superficially appeared as untruths, but which in fact pointed at a reality that has hitherto remained a secret. The Fuchs scandal almost destroyed MI5: had the public known that the intelligence services had arranged Sonia’s installation in England, and been duped by her ruses, several careers would have been prematurely terminated.

New Sources:

Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler

Unlikely Warriors by Richard Baxell

International Communications by Francis Lyall

Battle of Wits by Stephen Budiansky

Harold Laski: A Life on the Left by Isaac Kramnick & Barry Sheerman

Stalin’s Agent by Boris Volodarsky

The Clandestine Radio Operators by Jean-Louis Perquin

Hitler’s Spies by David Kahn

Agent Garbo by Stephan Talty

New Commonplace entries can be found here.



Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

Web Woes

Last January, I received an email purporting to come from my bank. It looked legitimate: it had a clean logo, in the right colours, but it contained a predictable spelling mistake, and did not originate from a valid bank email address. Yet I was concerned how the sender had obtained the fact that I was a customer of the bank, and gained possession of my email address. Had there been a serious security breach? Having occasionally received spoof emails from other institutions, which I forwarded to the address they gave for reporting such, and subsequently received grateful acknowledgments, I did the same with this one. I looked up the address to which such suspected spoofs should be sent (abuse@  . .  .) , and waited for a response.

And waited. And waited. I lingered a couple of days, and then sent another message to that address, inquiring whether the mailbox was being monitored, and requesting a reply. There was still no response, or even an acknowledgment. That was depressing, and utterly unsatisfactory. I thus went to the website again, trying to find a manager responsible for email fraud. The website was singularly unhelpful: it did not allow any chatroom discussion of security topics, and I entered a hopeless loop of going back to being invited to send further emails to the given ‘abuse’ email address. The bank provided no lists of executives to contact, no bank head office address to write to, only a couple of telephone numbers, neither of which looked suitable for my problem.

I tried one of the numbers, and after going through security checks, I spoke to someone (in Ohio or Iowa, I believe). She could not help me, but agreed to forward me to someone who could. I was thus transferred to a number in Atlanta, where I again introduced myself and my problem, and went through security checks. That person also decided that he was not in the office that could help me, but knew which section was responsible, and transferred me to another number.

I waited about twenty minutes before someone accepted my call. I again described my problem, and went through the same security checks. I was then told that that office was responsible for ATM security, but not for possible spoofing breaches. When I described my frustration to her, she said that she did not know what the policy was, but it was maybe unrealistic of me to expect any response from the Abuse department. I replied that these days it was very easy to set up an automated email reply system that would at least confirm that a customer’s message had been received, and indicate what kind of action was being taken, and added that it seemed to me that the Bank did not look as if it took reports of spoofing attacks, and possible security breaches, very seriously. She assured me that that was not so, and agreed to track down the Abuse Department. I was then left hanging on the telephone for another five minutes.

When she returned, she gave me the name and address of a ‘Resolutions Services and Support’ office, but no telephone number, no name of an executive responsible, and could not explain why that was not so. When I asked her what I should do next if I sent a letter to that office, and received no reply, she encouraged me to write ‘Response Required’, to ensure that I did receive a reply. This I did. But I was not hopeful.

Fifteen years ago, when the Web started to become a useful communications mechanism, corporate websites were full of data about organisation, functions, executives, addresses, telephone numbers, etc. Nowadays, it seems that their prime purpose is to provide a blatant marketing presence, and to make it extremely difficult for the inquiring customer (or prospective customer) to identify a department or person he or she might wish to contact. In addition, we have the blitz of customised advertisements: I cannot bring up the BBC website to check the cricket scores, or surf to a news site to ascertain Kim Kardashian’s views on this year’s Man Booker Prize nominations, without waiting for half a minute while dopey high-resolution advertisements for car dealerships half an hour away, that I am never going to visit, are loaded. Somebody, somewhere, is paying for all this, and will one day work out that it is all a waste.

After composing a letter, and sending it to the address given, I had one last try at finding a real person’s telephone number. Eventually I found one, in the Public Relations department. I called it, and left a message describing my problem (it was a Saturday), thinking I had done all I could. And then, out of the blue, a couple of hours later, I received a very polite telephone call from a Bank employee, who said that he was the Executive in charge of Security. His friend in the PR department had picked up my message, and alerted him to it.

As we discussed my problem, Mr. Watkins (not his real name) apologised, but said that, owing to the vast amount of spear-phishing emails that the Bank received these days, it had decided not to acknowledge any messages received from its customers, as it only encouraged more traffic that could overwhelm the system, and he started to brief me on the security challenges that any bank of its size has to counter in 2017. I responded that that might be so, but in that case why did the Bank simply not include some text to indicate that it inspected every genuine message that came through to its hotline, but that it would probably not respond individually to every item? Would that not provide for a better management of customer expectations?

At this stage, Mr. Watkins started to give me another little lesson about technology, at which point I decided to explain my credentials. While I am no longer au fait with all the issues to do with website maintenance and data security, I was one of the two executives who launched the Gartner Group’s Security product back in 1999. When I described my background, Mr. Watkins became even more amenable, and we moved on to a new plane. He seemed very proud of the fact that the Bank spends millions and millions of dollars each year on security. He essentially agreed with my recommendations, gave me his telephone number, and encouraged me to stay in touch while he investigated the problem.

Over the next few weeks, Mr Watkins was jauntily positive. There had been meetings, attended by database administrators, web designers, lawyers, security experts, public relations people – even manicurists, for all I know. It was important that everyone had buy-in to this significant portal of the bank’s business, and every detail had to be examined. And then, early in March, he proudly told me that the new functions had been implemented.

But they hadn’t. There are two entries to the bank system – a public one, and a subsequent secure sign-on that leads to a private area where customers can maintain their accounts. The Bank had attempted to fix the public ‘help’ area, where they had incorporated the text I suggested (although they made an egregious spelling mistake in doing so, spelling ‘fraudulently’ as ‘frauduleny’), but they had not touched the private zone. When I pointed this out to Mr Watkins, he was incredulous, and eventually I had to send him screenshots to prove that those spaces existed. I gently pointed out to him that it was as if the Bank’s executives had never tried to log on to their system as retail customers. He was suitably chastened, and promised to get back to me. More meetings with lawyers and psychotherapists, no doubt.

Nothing happened for a while. I continued to perform my on-line banking, and regularly checked the ‘Help’ section of the secure banking site to see whether it had been fixed. On March 20, Mr Watkins wrote to me as follows: “I’m writing as a brief status update to let you know that the changes you’ve identified below are scheduled to be implemented within the next 2 – 3 weeks.  In addition, I’ve had our team perform a comprehensive review of all of our web pages to ensure as much consistency as possible.  I will update you again once the necessary changes are complete.”

I waited again. No update from Mr Watkins, so six weeks later, on May 2, I emailed him again, pointing out that the unqualified advice still sat there, unimproved, in the private area, but did confirm that the rubric in what was called the Security Center was now clean and (reasonably) correct. (It had new spelling problems: ‘out’ for ‘our’, but no matter  . . .) I gave him the url of the offending area. Because of some personal issues, he had to hand my message over to his personal assistant to work on. He was under the impression he had already informed me about the changes the Bank had made.

I had to start again with Christine (not her real name). After she sent me an email informing me that the changes had been made, and how I should report suspicious emails, I had to explain to her that there was a discrepancy between the two zones, and I informed her of the fresh spelling problem. “Thank you for the feedback,” she replied. “We are currently working with our teams to review and will keep you posted.” More teams, more confusion. Less chance of a correct fix. I remembered Charles Wang of Computer Associates, who said once that, when a programming project started to drag, he would take a person off the team, so that it would run faster.

Another few weeks passed by. On May 25, I emailed Christine, and copied in Mr. Watkins, asking where things stood, only to receive the following reply from Mr Watkins. “I’ve tasked the multiple teams involved in producing and delivering these web pages to pull together a broad effort to reconcile all content.  These teams are currently researching what this will involve and we plan to meet back with them to discuss their assessments during the week of June 12. Please rest assured that there are no idle hands involved in this work but given the significant size and complexity of this effort, I’m focused on a) updating any current pages while b) ensuring the proper controls are in place to ensure ongoing alignment and consistency.”

Well, ‘resting’ I probably was, but ‘assured’ did not exactly describe my composure. I waited again. And then, on June 21, I learned from Christine that a new executive had been brought in to ‘address the issue going forward’ (as opposed to ‘going backward’, I suppose). I was invited to join a conference call, so that my concerns could be addressed. I declined, however. I did not need a conference call, and I instead carefully pointed out again that, while the problem had been fixed in the Privacy and Security Center, the text had not been incorporated in the private area, for which I provided the link again. All that Christine did was to provide me with instructions on how I should use the Bank’s web-page to report problems (as if it were not supposed to be self-explanatory by now).

I took one final stab at explaining the problem, pointing out how badly designed the whole website was, with its circular paths and inconsistent terminology, and I provided an explicit analysis of the problems with the Bank’s customer interface. I expressed my amazement that Bank officers could not identify the anomalies in the system, and fix them. I copied the message to Mr. Watkins.

On July 1, a new communicant appeared – probably not the executive brought in by Mr Watkins, as he introduced himself as being ‘on the team that oversees the on-line banking platform’. Arthur (again, not his real name) kindly provided me with a long explanation of all the changes that the Bank was introducing, including not just my recommendations, but many other improvements, as well. I thanked him, and promised to keep my eye open.

Well, it is now July 25, as I write, and the same old text appears under ‘Report Fraud’ in the private banking section, with no indication that messages will not be acknowledged. A simple change that I could have implemented on my own website in under five minutes (literally) still baffles the combined expertise of the Bank after seven months. Is this a record? Banks complain that they are stifled by regulation, but if they cannot even manage changes of this magnitude off their own bat, what hope is there for them? Is this story not an example of corporate incompetence and internal bureaucracy gone mad?

*                   *                  *                      *                      *                      *

The second incident concerns a recruitment at my old Oxford college, Christ Church (an institution, I hasten to add, for the benefit of my American readers, that is not actually the equivalent of Oral Roberts University, despite its name). The Hilary Term issue of the college magazine proudly announced that Christ Church was welcoming Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a Research Student and member of the Governing Body, with a mission to ‘grow Computer Science at Christ Church’. For those readers who might not know about Sir Tim’s remarkable achievements, I point you to He is known as the ‘inventor’ of the World Wide Web, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, and took his degree at Queen’s College, Oxford. As a retired information technologist, I admire and applaud his achievements.

Yet some things that Sir Tim wrote in this promotional piece in Christ Church Matters puzzled and disturbed me. He characterised ‘several connected initiatives’ in which he has been involved for some time as Open Data, Open Standards, and Human Rights on Web. As an expert in data management for some decades (I was a data and database administrator in the 1970s, have experienced several generations of data-base management systems, was the lead analyst and product director for Strategic Data Management at the Gartner Group for a decade, and successfully forecast how the market would evolve), I believe I understand fairly well the issues regarding data security and data sharing. I found Sir Tim’s pronouncements about Open Data naïve and erroneous, and his thoughts on the role of Open Standards confusing, and maybe misplaced. But what really provoked me was what he wrote about Human Rights on the Web. “We have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity”, he wrote, adding, somewhat rhetorically, about the concerns of the Foundation: “Is it [the Web] open, non-discriminatory, private and available to all, including minorities and women? Is it a propagating medium for truth and understanding, or more so for untruth and discord? Can these parameters be changed?”

Now I regard such questions as reasonably interesting, although I’m not sure what ‘minorities’ he was referring to (philatelists? Zoroastrians?), or why ‘women’ should come at the end of his list of concerns. But how could computer science be sensitive to such transitory social labels, or the gender of its users? Quite simply, what he proposes is either outside the realm of computer science, or lacking any toehold in what computer science has already generated about issues of data management (for instance, in the works of Sir Tim’s outstanding forbear, Edgar Codd, another Oxford man, an alumnus of Exeter College, and also a winner of the Turing Award). I found his pronouncements about serving humanity simply arrogant and pompous. Accordingly, early last March, I wrote a letter to the editor of Christ Church Matters, and to the Dean (whom I met last year, as my blog reported), which ran as follows:

“Am I the only reader of Christ Church Matters to be somewhat surprised, even alarmed, at the expressed rationale behind the new computer science initiative? The achievements of Sir Tim Berners-Lee are spectacular, and I have no doubt his intentions are honourable, but do the goals that he espouses not tread on the space of social advocacy, even corporate mission, rather than scientific investigation?

For example, the notions of ‘web-based data’, ‘Open Data’ and that ‘we [= who?] have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity’ are certainly controversial. Data are not exclusively managed by web applications, but frequently shared. Indeed, it is a principle of good database design (a topic frequently overlooked in university computer science courses) that data be implemented for potential shared use, irrespective of delivery vehicle. There is thus no such entity as ‘Web-based data’. Professor Wooldridge’s statement that ‘when Governments generate data, there is huge potential value of that data is made freely available and open for all to use’ provokes enormous questions of privacy and security. To assume (as does Sir Tim) that ‘we’ can be confident enough to know how ‘all of humanity can be served’ has a dangerously utopian ring to it. Etc., etc.

The point is that technology is neutral: it can be used for good, or for ill, effect, and people will even disagree what those two outcomes mean. How is ‘all of humanity’ served when Islamic fanaticists can exploit web-based encrypted information-sharing applications to exchange plans for terror? Who benefits when private medical data is presumably made available for ‘all to use’? When is data private and when open? It is all very well for Sir Tim to assert that that his main motivation is ‘the personal empowerment of people and groups’ (is that phrase not both tautological and self-contradictory?), but that is a belief derived from his own sense of mission, not from a perspective of scientific inquiry.

Maybe these matters have already been discussed, and have been resolved. If so, I think it would be desirable to have them explained publicly. I believe those helping to fund such initiatives should be made aware that the boundary between science and evangelism appears to have shifted considerably.”

My letter was kindly acknowledged by the Dean, with a promise of follow-up, but I have heard nothing more. I suspect that I am seen as a minor irritant, getting in the way of some serious boosting of the college reputation, or maybe hindering access to vital government funding. But the question remains. There are researchers into computer science, and there are commercial enterprises. They frequently enjoy a symbiotic relationship, but there comes a time when enterprise have to make risks and decisions that go beyond what consortia and standards-groups can achieve. Ironically, Sir Tim’s statements about benefitting humanity sound uncannily like those of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who also has evangelical designs on improving the world. But the rest of us should be very wary of anybody who claims that omniscience to know how ‘humanity’ is best served, and who appears to be unaware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And computer scientists should not start dabbling in evangelism.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Regular readers of this website will recall my reference to The Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming, in my March blog. Since then, I have read his first Thomas Kell novel, A Foreign Country, and this month, the follow-up A Colder War (published in 2014), both of which I recommend. (Although I do not understand why we need to know every time Thomas Kell lights up a cigarette, or that he throws the butt of one into the Bosporus.) But my point here is to describe how unmistakably set in time these thrillers are – not so much by the political climate, although Iranian nuclear secrets and rebellious Turkish journalists give one a sense of that  ̶  but more by the use of technology. For the narrative is densely imbued with BlackBerries, iPhones, Facebook, TripAdvisor, SIM cards, SMS and O2 services  ̶  but not the dark Web, Snapchat or Twitter (or even Sir Tim’s Open Data initiative). Will it make the book soon seem dreadfully outdated, or will it be praised for its verisimilitude?

The pivot of the plot is indeed one such technological matter. (Spoiler Alert.) In what appeared to me as a very obvious mistake by the hero, an unencrypted text message leads to the eventual betrayal. And one other passage caught my eye  ̶  for a different reason. Cumming writes, about a surveillance operation at Harrod’s: “While most of the members of the team were using earpieces and concealed microphones, Amos had been given an antediluvian Nokia of the sort favored by grandparents and lonely widowers. Kell had banked on the phone giving plausible cover.”

I recognized that scene. Three or four years ago, I went into a branch of my bank to pay in a cheque (it may have been a check). The cheerful spirit behind the counter asked me whether I knew that I could pay in checks via my cell-phone (or mobile, as it would be known in the UK). Without saying a word, I then solemnly produced my venerated Motorola C155, manufactured ca. 2005, reliable, rugged, and not very handsome, and showed it to the woman. She then let out an enormous giggle, as if to draw the attention of her co-workers to this antediluvian instrument. As can be seen, it looks more like the shoebox phone from Get Smart (the 1960 TV series, not the 2008 movie).

But it did its job – just made and received phonecalls. My carrier forced me to replace it a couple of years ago, but, my fingers are too stubby for the keypad on the new thin model, and I never use my phone to access the Web. Enough woes in that. I miss my C155  ̶  ‘as favored by grandparents’.

*                            *                      *                      *                      *

Another saga started. In May, I had received a letter from History Today, inviting me to renew my subscription on-line. “Renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier”, it boasted.   I thus logged on to its website, but was frustrated in my attempts. I sent an email to the publisher, listing my failures. I explained that the system did not recognise that I was in the USA, did not allow me to enter my subscription reference, and quoted a sterling fee rather than the $99 mentioned in the letter. And when I signed on to my account, it gave me no option to renew, just to upgrade to access to the archive.  I received a prompt reply, which merely stated that the website had been going through some maintenance, but that once this were completed, I should be able to renew my subscription on-line.

I held off for a while, and then received another letter in the mail, which again proclaimed that ‘renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier’. It offered a price of $79, which I interpreted as a special offer, maybe making amends for the earlier technical problems. I thus logged on afresh, and made the renewal, but did notice that the confirmation came through with a charge against my US dollar credit card for £99. An obvious mistake, no doubt to be cleared up simply. I sent an email pointing out the error. After a couple of days, I had received no response apart from an email confirming my renewal, and encouraging me to contact the sender (the third name in as many messages) if I had any problems. I thus sent off another email, pointing out the discrepancy between the amount specified in the invitation letter, and somewhat impatiently requested a credit to be made against my credit card.

Yet another name replied, with the following message: “Thank you for your recent email.
I can confirm the reason they are different amounts and different currency is because it has been converted from USD to Pounds. So it will always show what we have received as payment here is England rather than the amount you paid is Dollars. If there is anything else that I can help you with please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

So, as the month wound down, I sent another message, pointing out that a fee of $79 would convert to £61, not £99. I am awaiting their reply. It is possible, I suppose, that they mistakenly took the exchange rate as 1.31 pounds to the dollar, rather than vice versa, although the letter lists the optimal online archive upgrade as a more accurate £30/$45. We shall see. If e-business speeds are predictable, I shall probably be able to provide an update to this transaction in January 2018.

The next episode of Sonia’s Radio will appear at the end of August. This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Literature/Academia, Media, Personal, Technology

Sonia’s Radio – Part VIII

Soviet Radio Operator – Dickson Island, 1937

(The story so far: Alexander Foote, working secretly for Claude Dansey’s Z organisation, has been recruited by the Comintern to act as a radio operator in Switzerland, under the supervision of Sonia, born Ursula Kuczynski. Since Sonia’s visa is about to expire, her bosses order her to marry a British citizen, Len Beurton, a colleague of Foote’s from the International Brigades, also working for Sonia, so that she may gain British citizenship and resettle in England. Dansey hopes that Foote may thus reach a dominant position in the Swiss network. Sonia then makes plans for her voyage to England. In earlier chapters in this saga (II and VI: please refer to SoniasRadio for refreshment), I have described the circumstances of Sonia’s arranged marriage to Len Beurton, and her subsequent application for the British passport that would enable her and her two children to escape to the United Kingdom in wartime. Here I concentrate on the way that the application was handled by the British authorities, and what the implications were after Sonia took up residence in Oxfordshire.)

The most remarkable fact about Sonia’s voyage, in the winter of 1940-41, is not that she accomplished the arduous wartime journey from Switzerland across France, Spain, and Portugal, eventually to the United Kingdom, with two young children in tow. What is truly inconceivable is why Moscow Centre ever thought that the mission should have been undertaken in the first place. The circumstances should have dictated to the Soviets that trying to install, as an illicit agent in Great Britain, a German-born legal resident with Sonia’s reputation would be a pointless exercise. *  The facts were as follows: The Nazi-Soviet pact was in effect, and thus the potential sharing of intelligence between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes should have acted as an alarming deterrent to the sanctioning, by the officers in Britain responsible for immigration, of any unusual entry by communists. Sonia’s family (the Kuczynskis) – and especially her open rabble-rousing brother, Jürgen  ̶  were already suspected by the British authorities of being dangerous subversives, with Jürgen, the leader of the exiled German communist party, considered an especial hazard, and  accordingly interned. After the first candidate for betrothal (Foote) had suspiciously reneged on the agreement, Sonia had openly arranged a pro forma marriage in Switzerland to another former member of the International Brigades that fought illegally for the Republicans in Spain, someone known to the domestic authorities, in order to gain British citizenship. She had then applied for a UK passport, approaching the Passport Office in Berne, which was universally known as a front for the country’s Strategic Intelligence Service (SIS), sometimes known as MI6. The nanny hired by Sonia to take care of her children had then, out of pity for Sonia’s apparently ill-treated husband, or from despair at the prospect of being separated from Sonia’s daughter, reportedly ‘compromised’ [Moscow Centre’s term] Sonia by trying to alert the British consulate about Sonia’s shenanigans. Lastly, Moscow should have concluded that inserting an agent to work with a radio transmitter in a country known for its expertise in detection of alien wireless traffic would be a high-risk endeavour. It was almost as if SIS had been arranging for Sonia’s smooth transit behind the scenes. Who was bluffing whom?

[* The GRU referred to Sonia as its ‘illegal station head’ in the UK: she was in fact after 1941 a  ‘legal’ operative, even though her British passport may have been acquired via deceptive, even illicit, means.]

Chapman Pincher, in his 2005 book Treachery, gives the most comprehensive account of Sonia’s deceptions and escapades at this time, but his interpretation is flawed because he is continually at pains to show that the MI5 officer Roger Hollis was Sonia’s prime informer, and successfully concealed the whole affair. In this respect, Pincher completely ignores the connivance of senior SIS officers (and surely that of their counterparts in MI5) at Sonia’s marriage and passport applications, whereas the archive very strongly suggests that lower-level officers in MI5 were frustrated, in their attempts to keep Sonia out, by their superiors conspiring with SIS. On the other hand, Pincher claims access to letters written by Sonia, interviews with her relatives, and Russian archival material – none of which I have seen. I shall therefore have to quote him with extreme caution. In addition, I recently learned that Sonjas Rapport (her memoir), when published in English, apparently included clarifying comments not present in the original German, and I have had to wait for the arrival of the English publication to complete this research. #   The Soviet archive (what little has been released) appears to have been doctored, so a scrupulous cross-checking of testimony is constantly required.

[# The English version has some significant additions, including a somewhat rueful, yet defensive, Afterword, and a section on Sonia’s dealings with Klaus Fuchs (who was left unmentioned in the German version). I have not undertaken a detailed comparison of the texts, but some changes are startling. For example, ‘Im Sommer 1939 kam Rolf noch einmal zu uns’ (‘In the summer of 1939 Rolf visited us again’) is now rendered, with a combination of vagueness and precision, as ‘In 1939, Rolf came to see us for the last time.’ I pointed out the original chronological error, which completely misrepresents her husband’s movements, in Chapter VI: no doubt the author realised that subsequently revealed information about Rolf’s return to China would challenge her version of events. I have also just read John Green’s sympathetic portrayal of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, published this summer, where he confidently states that Sonia did not see Ernst (real name Johannes Patra), the father of her second child, Janina, between 1935 and 1955. That account dramatically destroys the episode of the sentimental reunion between Sonia, Rolf and Ernst in the summer of 1939 that Sonia described in Sonjas Rapport, and on which I cast serious doubts in Chapter VII of this saga.]

The Passport Application

Contrary to Sonia’s later claims that Moscow Centre did not order her (in her words ‘suggest’) to move until late autumn of 1940, the plans for England were established soon after the war started. On March 11 of that year the British Consulate in Geneva transmitted the application by Sonia [Ursula Beurton,  previously Hamburger, née Kuczynski] for a passport, based on her February 23 marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files), to the Passport Office in London. Sonia’s references were given as Dr. Churchill, D. M. Macrae-Taylor and Mr. Blelloch. The last individual is mentioned in Sonia’s autobiography, holding an elevated position in that leftist establishment the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which was based in Geneva. Her father, Robert, had conveniently worked for the ILO after leaving Germany in 1933, before taking up a post at the London School of Economics.  Sonia had written to her parents thanking them for giving her an introduction to Blelloch and his wife, who was the daughter of a left-wing journalist Robert Dell, at the Manchester Guardian. Ten days after Geneva submitted the application, J. M. Stafford of the Passport Office in London wrote to Captain Mars of MI5, asking for records of Sonia. After another week, Captain Mars replied that MI5 had no records of ‘Ursula Beurton’ and only a possible trace of her ex-husband ‘with a communistic smell’. It appears that this was enough to satisfy Mr. Stafford. Captain Mars was clearly no sleuthhound.

Yet even details like these are disturbing. The submission by H.B. Livingston, His Majesty’s Consul in Geneva, indicates that Sonia knew no British subject in Switzerland who could vouch for her, so she ‘obtained the signature of Mademoiselle Ginsberg, Assistant Librarian at the League of Nations, who is well known for her communist sympathies’. This would appear to be ‘Marie’, credited in Sonia’s memoir with supplying her with a Honduran passport, and Len with a Bolivian one. The National Archives at Kew (KV 6/45) tell us that Ginsberg had been recruited by Israeli Intelligence in 1938. Alexander Foote later suggested that this transaction occurred as an insurance policy should Sonia’s strategy of marrying Len not work out successfully. Sonia herself provided the references of Dr. Stella Churchill (psychotherapist, Labour councillor, and supporter of the Spanish Republic), Duncan Macrae-Taylor (the husband of her sister, Barbara) and Blelloch, all resident in England.  Yet Livingston’s letter accompanying her application stated that Sonia was ‘not a British subject’, as if the marriage did not automatically give her that status, declaring: “There is reason to suspect that the main purpose of the marriage was to confer British nationality on the applicant to enable her to enter the U.K., the local Swiss authorities having refused to extend her residence permit”. Livingston goes on to confirm the divorce from Rudolf Hamburger that occurred the previous October. “A certified copy of the decree of divorce has been produced to me”. (The marriage certificate issued by the Canton of Vaud states that the divorce was not effective until December 28, 1939.)  Yet Sonia must have misrepresented the parenthood of the second of her two children, whom she wanted entered in her passport, if it were indeed to be authorised, as Livingston goes on to write that she ‘had two children by the former marriage’. He also seemed to be unaware of the perjury performed by Alexander Foote that facilitated the award of the divorce.

Sonia did indeed suggest in her 1977 memoir that in early March 1940 she had given the impression to the English consulate in Geneva that the underlying motive for her marriage had been to gain a UK passport, and reported that that official was not overjoyed to hear that news.  Yet this startling revelation is softened by a subtle change in the 1991 English translation. The original “Das englische Konsulat in Genf empfing mich unfreundlich, als ich auf Grund der Eheunterlagen einen englischen Paß beantragte” (‘The British consul in Geneva received me coldly when I applied for an English passport by virtue of my marriage documents’) is now presented as ‘Armed with our marriage certificate, I visited the British Consul in Geneva to apply for a passport; his response was distinctly cool.’  The latter formulation suggests the disdain was wholly incidental, removing any suggestion of the coolness being provoked by Sonia’s method of approach, or the evidence behind her application.  Did her bosses perhaps later suggest that this was a provocative statement that needed to be toned down? Apparently the consulate was not fooled, as Livingston’s memorandum makes very clear.

Why did she volunteer that information? And why did it not constitute an objection to the approval of her application? Were the SIS officers managing the strings beneficially for her? Did her brazen behavior indicate that she even knew that? We should recall that the Geneva consulate was one of the last solid bastions of SIS as the Nazis extended their tentacles across Europe. The authorised historian of SIS, Keith Jeffery, explained that Claude Dansey, the head of SIS’s even more clandestine Z organisation, moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of war to supplement SIS’s Passport Control Officer, assistant and wireless operator, in the hope of more effectively trying to penetrate Germany (which, it must be remembered, is what Foote and Beurton had been doing under Sonia’s guidance). Dansey in fact made his first base in Zürich, with his cover as consul, but was recalled after Menzies became Chief of SIS in November 1939. Read and Fisher add that Dansey’s goal had been to absorb the main body of Z into the SIS as its Swiss section, yet he maintained control himself of some individual agents.

Unfortunately Dansey’s second-in-command (named by Read and Fisher as one Rex Pearson) had a drinking problem, and was replaced by Frederick Vanden Heuvel in February 1940. Vanden Heuvel was promoted to consul in May, and soon after moved to Geneva. Thus there was some discontinuity in the execution of consular duties in Geneva at the time of Sonia’s passport application. Jeffery’s history also claims that the Swiss operation was hampered in its communications, with the Swiss authorities reportedly banning the use of embassy radio for sending enciphered messages. Up until the fall of France in June 1940, the diplomatic bag was used via Paris, so Sonia’s application presumably went by that route. En clair cables were used for brief and non-confidential matters, but how the two Passport Offices communicated thereafter is not clear. For a while diplomats were able to make the laborious journey with their bags through Vichy France and Spain to Portugal, and then by plane to London, but even that avenue soon disappeared.

It was two months later that Milicent Bagot became involved with Sonia’s application. Though not an officer, Bagot was a very significant figure in MI5. Christopher Andrew describes her thus: “[Jane] Sissmore’s successor as the Security Service’s most influential woman in the 1940s and 1950s was to be the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, a classics graduate from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, who joined the Service from Scotland Yard as a twenty-year-old secretary in 1931 at the same time as [Hugh] Miller and [Guy] Liddell, and is believed to be the model for John le Carré’s character Connie.” (Defence of the Realm, p 131) Andrew goes on to describe Bagot’s ‘encyclopedic knowledge which impressed even J. Edgar Hoover’. Bagot pointed out to an officer named Cazalet that MI5 certainly did have records of Ursula Kuczynski, as well as of her father, and shrewdly reminded her superiors that the marriage was probably one of convenience. A memo on file records an anonymous but strong opinion that Sonia should not be granted a passport. Some officer must have thought that there were enough subversive Kuczynskis in the country already. Thus, on May 25, Cazalet recommended to Stafford that Sonia should not be given a passport, but if it could not be refused, it should be for limited validity, and should not be usable for travel. He added that her husband, Beurton, was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and was believed to be in Germany. Sonia was in fact the subject of Individual Case No. 186 in the Black List, and thus subject to special surveillance.

At least MI5 was tracking the movements of suspect persons with communist affiliations, but maybe Cazalet should have shown more interest in the fact that the elusive Beurton was now in Switzerland, probably alongside Alexander Foote, who, with exactly the same profile as a communist sympathiser and International Brigade member, had been responsible for bringing Beurton to Switzerland and Germany. (Why was Foote not on the same Black List?) Would that information not normally have provoked a surge of activity in an alert and well-led counter-espionage organisation? Did MI5 and SIS not cooperate? And what was SIS thinking? If a member of the International Brigades, a known communist, had turned up on its doorstep, and expressed a desire to make a pro forma marriage to another known subversive, might they perhaps have investigated a bit more, and even tried to determine what Beurton’s partner-in-crime, Alexander Foote, was up to in Switzerland?

Perhaps MI5 officers were instructed to hold off.  Because, by then, events had taken their own course. On May 28, Stafford (of the Passport Office in London) replied that it was now too late to decline the application: the Passport Office had authorised issue on April 24. It shows either an extraordinary degree of negligence, or a remarkably high level of collusion. How could senior MI5 officers have ignored the recent happenings regarding Sonia’s family? On January 20, her brother Jürgen had been interned for his subversive opinions and behaviour, after publicly supporting the Nazi-Soviet pact. This immediately prompted the communist lawyer and MP, Dennis Pritt, alongside the fellow-travellers Dean Hewlett Johnson, John Strachey, and Harold Laski, to appeal for Jürgen’s release. MI5 and SIS were frustrated: the Home Office was persuaded by the Soviet sympathisers that Kuczynski was ‘an intellectual, and not an OGPU agent’, and hence issued instructions for his release on April 17, on the basis, presumably, that OGPU agents could only be uneducated thugs. That event happened on April 25 (the day after Sonia’s passport was approved), accompanied by the insight that membership of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was not sufficient cause for continued detention. The record in the National Archives indicating that MI5 was overruled is dated May 8. Did MI5 receive some political message at this time that they should be indulgent towards Sonia as well? She presumably knew nothing of the protests that had gone on back in London. Her only comment was: “Ten weeks later, on 2nd May, 1940, I held the precious document in my hands, much envied by other German refugees.” Indeed. They must have been puzzled how she achieved it so easily, even if she showed no surprise.

Departure Problems

So Sonia received the all-clear. Yet it was some time during that summer, as she made plans for her departure, that Sonia had problems with her nanny, Olga Muth, which affected her situation in Switzerland. Sonia does not provide exact dates, but the events are broadly confirmed by Alexander Foote’s testimony under interrogation. Sonia described Olga as devastated by the fact that, since she had only a German passport, she would not be able to accompany Sonia and her children to England. “She could not live without Nina”, Sonia wrote. At this time, however, it is not clear that Sonia was planning to take her children with her, although she may not at that time have understood the exact status of her offspring concerning legal residence in the UK. “She [Olga] had decided to betray us in the hope that if something happened to me she could keep the child and take her back to Germany”, Sonia explained. What transpired was that Olga did approach the consular representative in Montreux to inform them of Sonia’s misdeeds, but her broken English was so bad that no one paid any attention to her. Sonia moved her kids away, and confronted Olga, who had a breakdown, but soon after moved to Germany.

With Muth safely out of the way, Sonia then confused her story again, as she claimed that ‘in the late autumn of 1940 Centre suggested that Len and I move to England’, blandly contradicting her account that she had already been planning to leave the children in their new lodgings in Geneva while she was abroad. Even though Sonia had asked, back in March, for her children to be entered on her passport, she may not have considered taking them with her at this stage. Len’s later testimony to the Passport Office in Geneva asserted that he was to accompany her to England, leaving the children behind, and then return to Switzerland to continue his medical treatment for tuberculosis. Of course, he was not tubercular, and not receiving medical treatment, and this attempt to conceal his past would catch up with Len later. But when he was prevented from travelling because he could not acquire a transit visa through Spain, on account of his membership of the International Brigades, it would presumably have cast suspicion on Sonia’s motivations and heartless behavior if she had left her offspring behind. She thus prepared her departure through Vichy France, and then via Spain to Portugal’s Lisbon where she hoped to reach England by plane or ship.

Foote confirmed, in an interview by MI5 in July 1947, Olga Muth’s attempted betrayal. Yet in his memoir he ascribes it to different motives – the fact that Olga [disguised as ’Lisa Brockel’] was disgusted with Sonia’s marriage to Len [‘Bill’], out of her respect and affection for Sonia’s husband, Rolf [‘Alfred’]. “She thereupon rang up the British consulate and denounced Sonia and Bill as Soviet spies and told them where the transmitter was hidden.” Whether this account is a fabrication devised by Foote’s ghost-writer, Courtenay Young, cannot be verified, but we can read enough consistency in the stories to trust that Olga did indeed try to alert the consulate, but, for whatever reason, the British authorities did not want to know. Yet Foote added, in his interrogation, that Moscow Centre was told of the betrayal, and regarded it as ‘compromising’, and, further, that it provoked their order for Sonia and Len move to England. Why, if Sonia was ‘compromised’ in the eyes of the SIS outpost in Switzerland, it made sense for her to move to the United Kingdom is not explained, apart from the fact that the latter was the only country for which she owned a valid travel-pass. That had, of course, been the plan for a long time: maybe the date of departure was simply brought forward. And perhaps the timing was provoked by other external circumstances, such as the announced release of Klaus Fuchs from internment.

The alternative (Soviet) suggestion would be that Sonia would have been compromised in the eyes of the Swiss authorities, if, horror of horrors, they had discovered that Sonia was involved in espionage, and using an illegal wireless transmitter. But that does not make sense. Sonia had to leave the country, anyway, as her visa had expired, and the Swiss authorities knew exactly what was happening. Even though Sonia included an ambiguous story about a German national, Hermann, who was discovered with a transmitter, it is not clear that she was in any real danger because of her own radio work. If the Swiss authorities had been informed, and wanted to move on her, they would presumably have done so immediately. Switzerland’s security service was turning a blind eye to such subversive behavior so long as it was directed against the Nazis, and not towards the Swiss government, and the Swiss authorities were in fact colluding with foreign intelligence organisations.

Thus, with one more bound, Sonia was free. She never explained how she arranged to take her children (Micha and Janina) with her, moving in her narrative quickly to a scene of leaving Len at the roadside as the three of them boarded the bus on December 18. (Janina, her daughter by her lover in Shanghai, Ernst, was only four-and-a-half at the time.) Yet a hitch had apparently occurred. As indicated earlier, in March, 1940, Sonia had requested that her children’s names be added to the passport, and this indeed happened, as a letter from the Geneva consulate indicates. Yet someone must have warned her that, since her children were identified as German nationals, there might be a problem allowing them to land in the United Kingdom. On November 29, 1940, Stafford indicated that he had received a request from the consul in Geneva that Sonia’s children would indeed be allowed to land. The bureaucracy must have moved with amazing speed. On December 10, Cazalet of MI5 stated that the department had no objection (although he misunderstood the problem, believing that the children were not already included on the passport). Communications took place via open cables. Perhaps Sonia and Len must have come to a late conclusion, when Len learned that the Spanish government would not allow him entry, that the children would be safer (and happier) with Sonia, that their presence was essential to her cover, and that Moscow must have approved such a decision (which, after all, could have hindered Sonia’s effectiveness). Instead of rebuffing this somewhat impertinent and hasty request, the consulate appears to have done all in its power to accelerate the approval of ensuring that the completion of the journey would be successful.

Intelligence Strategies

At this critical point of Sonia’s departure, it is useful to take stock of the positions of the various authorities. MI5, monitoring known communists and members of the International Brigades, has shown some interest in Len Beurton, but surprisingly none in his colleague and mentor, Alexander Foote. While lower-level employees express surprise that the known subversive Ursula Beurton would have her passport application approved after an obvious sham marriage, senior officers are bewilderingly silent. SIS, in its Swiss outpost, suffers from a similar split personality. Sonia’s representations are treated with justified suspicion at lower levels, but senior officers seem keen to allow Sonia to leave the country. Vanden Heuvel must have known what was going on, in order to be able to handle Sonia appropriately, and as a contact to receive intelligence from Foote. He must have been aware of Foote’s perjurious role in Sonia’s divorce proceedings, and of Beurton’s presence on the Black List. His staff was perhaps subtly instructed to abet Sonia’s journey in order that Foote might assume a more prominent role in the Comintern spy network. They are obviously relaxed about the prospect of a known Communist radio-operator taking up residence in the UK at a time when the Soviet Union was still aiding the German war effort, maybe believing that she would be frightened into inactivity, or that her affairs would be easily monitorable.

On the other hand, SIS in Britain might have developed plans for using Sonia when she came to Britain. They could have quietly welcomed her arrival, planning to encourage her into indiscretions, so that she might lead them to other cells, or allow the authorities to intercept her traffic, and thus gain further insights into Soviet ciphers to complement what they learned from Foote. Maybe SIS calculated that letting Sonia go was a cover for their playing ignorance about Foote’s role: it is highly unlikely that they trusted her enough to allow Foote to negotiate a deal with her, as she would have had to pass on such information to her bosses. But that could certainly have been Dansey’s thinking. The benefit of having Foote installed as a more influential though phony Communist in a Comintern spy-ring far outweighed the risk of having Sonia prowling around in England looking for secrets to betray. And if she did engage in espionage, the authorities would be surveilling everything she did. Moreover, if MI5 had hauled her in and broken her down, she might have expressed her suspicions about Foote’s bona fides, which would have put the British authorities in a highly awkward position.

Moscow Centre appears unconcerned with what SIS knows about Sonia, and is determined to carry out its plan to install her as a spy, ruthlessly exploiting her new British citizenship in order that she may betray her adopted country. They surely cannot be aware of any duplicitous activity on Foote’s part, as they would thereby have had any suspicions immediately confirmed about his loyalties – something he managed to stave off even when he reached Moscow in 1945. Yet the insouciance of Soviet Intelligence about the whole affair, and the way it ignored what must have appeared as rank stupidity on SIS’s part, is extremely difficult to explain. How did the officers rationalise the craven indulgence of the British authorities, unless they simply judged that they were clueless, or fatally infected with bourgeois sentimentalism? The casualness of Soviet Intelligence would appear to make sense only if it was supremely confident about the ability of its penetration agents to pull strings in MI5, SIS and other government departments, and thus ignore signs of Soviet espionage, or, at the other extreme, if it harboured a very low respect for Sonia’s skills and chances of survival, and her ability to avoid detection. We know the little respect they maintained overall for the fate of their agents, since many exposed to western influences were simply recalled and shot, but that does not make sense in Sonia’s case. They trusted her implicitly. The ease with which the whole process transpired, however, could have affected how Sonia was instructed to act when installed, and she came to understand that she would have to be very careful with her contacts and with her radio transmissions.

Interlude in Lisbon

We have to rely on Sonia’s account for details of the arduous journey across Europe. The fact that she wrote a letter to her parents from Lisbon describing the ordeal adds a degree of verisimilitude to the account.  On December 23, 1940 the party arrived in Madrid, and by the next day reached Lisbon, the main exit point for refugees (and others) from Europe to the USA and Britain during the war. Lisbon was a city of desperate refugees: Ronald Weber describes the thousands, mostly Jews, who filled the city’s streets that winter, waiting for a chance to board one of the steamers sailing to the United States. The British unit MI9, responsible for setting up escape lines for stranded military men and agents, predominantly from France, was using the few airplane flights to England to repatriate its charges. Among this turmoil, Sonia admitted that all three of them were ill. Some time after Christmas, she had a meeting with the British consul, in order to gain approval for the voyage to England. She was told that she was about ‘the most insignificant person on the long list’. There were many destitute citizens without the means to survive, and those would take priority, since Sonia had access to funds (actually Moscow Centre’s Swiss bank account). Yet one obscure but revealing item in the archives indicates that the Portuguese issued her an exit visa as early as December 31. Sonia moved to Estoril, down the coast, and stayed – in relative comfort, to be sure – at the Grande Hotel.

One of the conundrums concerning her eventual arrival relates to the question of her destination in the United Kingdom. Her file at the National Archives (KV 6-41) includes a transcript of an intercepted letter that she wrote to her father on January 4, 1941, from the Grande Hotel, where the heading indicates that the letter was sent to 78 Woodstock Road, Oxford. The text expresses some desperation on Sonia’s part, because cables sent by her to her father had not been answered, and she does not know where to go upon her arrival in England. It shows Sonia’s request for the addresses of her father, of Brigitte (one of her sisters), and of the Taylors (her sister Barbara and her husband). She needs them, she says, because she does not know where they will land. Yet why would she ask for her parents’ address if she could send a letter to them? And why would she not just travel to her parents’ house from wherever she landed? And why would Barbara’s address be important in these circumstances? (Sonia naturally does not quote this letter in her memoir.) The report of the interrogation on arrival at Liverpool, however, records that Sonia’s immediately expressed intention was to visit her father at the address given above, and that she admits to having a sister, Mrs. D. B. Taylor, living in Red Ruth [sic]. The conflict between her frustration and ignorance in Lisbon and her comfort in Liverpool is partially explained by the existence of a photograph of the letter and envelope in the Taylors’ file at the National Archives (KV 2-2935-2). The letter was addressed to Dr. R. Kuczynski at 25a Upper Park Road in London, and forwarded to 78 Woodstock Road in Oxford. Sonia did thus not know about her exact destination while she was waiting for her passage in Portugal.

Milicent Bagot noted that Robert Kuczynski had moved to the Woodstock Road address on December 13, 1940, and was followed there by his son Jürgen, immediately after the latter’s release from a further spell of internment. She informed the Oxford Chief Constable of the fact in a letter dated January 26, 1941. Bagot unfortunately did not specify who lived at the house at the time: the Bodleian Record for 1941 indicates that a Mr. G. Churchill, a ‘friend of the Bodleian’, was resident there that year. It is possible that this gentleman was George Churchill (b. 1910), son of Sonia’s first referee, Dr. Stella Churchill. That hypothesis needs further investigation, but it would tie in with Sonia’s claim that the house was the domicile of friends of her parents. Chapman Pincher claims that Sonia had been ordered by her bosses to move to Oxford in October 1940, but I can find no evidence of this directive, and the letter from Lisbon would perhaps conspire against that theory. The location does, of course, support Pincher’s thesis that Sonia was sent to the United Kingdom to handle Roger Hollis, since the MI5 officer was now working at nearby Blenheim Palace, whither most of the Security Service had been evacuated in September 1940, but this seems coincidental. Pincher bizarrely ignores the Hotel Grande letter, which in its more familiar guise, would not help his argument. But he does point out that ‘somehow Sonia received that information [about her accommodations address], before or on her arrival in Liverpool’. The original of Sonia’s communication does point to the fact that the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) probably went to work on her behalf behind the scenes. But how did it get a message to her?

In what at first appears as one of those strange coincidences of war, the historian of philosophy and intelligence officer Isaiah Berlin stayed in Estoril while Sonia was there. He had been ordered by the British Ministry of Information to return to New York for work as a member of the British Library of Information, a propaganda unit, and had had strings pulled to get him a berth on a safer American ship, the Excambion. After arriving in Bournemouth on January 1 for the flight to Lisbon (according to his father, Mendel), he had apparently been stranded in Hampshire for a few days because of bad weather, but eventually set off, and was put up at the Palácio Hotel in Estoril (where SIS appeared to have a standing set of rooms reserved for its agents, and where Berlin had stayed the previous October). Berlin’s father, Mendel, recorded that Isaiah was held up in Bournemouth for eight or nine days, because of bad weather. Yet this must be a mistake, and Mendel’s arithmetic does not work. The Meteorological Office reports for Southern England at that time indicate it was cold and wet, but not so inclement as to inhibit flying. What is more, in another letter, Berlin writes that he spent two days at the Palácio before his voyage on January 10. And Mendel overlooks a strange visit to Oxford that Berlin apparently made just beforehand.

Berlin sent a letter on Dorchester Hotel notepaper to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann some time late in December. (He was assuredly not staying at the hotel: the Dorchester was where the Weizmanns kept their London residence, and Berlin was seeking them out.) He informed Weizmann that he was due to leave from Bournemouth on Friday January 3, but would be spending the Tuesday and Wednesday – namely the New Year holiday  ̶  in Oxford. He also expressed the hope that he would see Weizmann in Lisbon if they were unable to meet before he left. Strangely, this is a theme that loses its urgency by the time Berlin reaches Lisbon, but the Oxford visit is left unexplained. Moreover, Mendel wrote that he and his wife accompanied Berlin to Bournemouth on January 1: this entry ‘in the family memoir’ either represents a very faulty memory, or else a clumsy attempt to conceal Berlin’s brief excursion to Oxford, and to minimise the time his son spent in Lisbon. Could Berlin have been visiting the Kuczynskis in Oxford, in order to pick up an urgent message? He lived only a mile from them in Hampstead, and it is highly likely they knew each other.

“The Palácio Hotel greeted me like a long lost friend and gave me a wonderful double bedroom in which I slept comfortably for 14 hours after an exceedingly rough flight”, Berlin wrote to his parents on hotel writing-paper from the ship. There is no documentary evidence that he was in Portugal to intervene on Sonia’s behalf, even though on the same day that this marxisant Section D officer in SIS, recently returned from an abortive trip to Moscow with the arch-spy Guy Burgess, left Lisbon for the USA (January 10), Sonia was informed by the consulate that she and her children would be taken to England by ship. Her passport was endorsed that day (‘Category “C”’), and she was soon informed by the British consul that her passage had been approved in principle. She and her children sailed soon afterwards (about the 17th). Did Berlin put in a good word at the consulate to accelerate her departure?

The circumstances of Berlin’s voyage are puzzling, from the muddled story of the delay onwards. Presumably staying at the Palácio was par for the course. The hotel’s website states: “The Hotel Palácio was the chosen home of numerous members of European royalty and was also the haunt of British and German spies, who could often be found in its bar.” Berlin hints at companion-travellers, but is coy about them, apart from an American financial journalist named Scriven, who flew with him from Bournemouth, also stayed at the Palácio, and with whom Berlin shared a cabin on the ship. Yet his introduction of Scriven is enigmatic, as Berlin’s first letter mentioning him, from on board the Excambion, merely suggests that they were sharing a cabin after meeting at the hotel. His next letter, however, from New York on January 28, refers to Scriven as his friend who accompanied him on the flight from Bournemouth. Was this explanation simply careless? Would Berlin’s parents not have encountered Scriven if he had been stranded with them all in Bournemouth for over a week, and thus not need an explanation by letter?

Edward Scriven was an American who had arrived in London in 1939 to open the London branch of Arthur C. Nielsen’s market research organisation. Berlin describes him as ‘head of a firm in England who supplies trade statistics to private firms and our Govt. departments’. Remarkably, that was very similar to the role that Sonia’s father, Robert Kuczynski, as a renowned economic statistician, was executing at that time, as demographic adviser to the Colonial Office. Were they acquainted? Scriven was apparently returning home since the war prevented him expanding the business in Europe, but why would he sharing a flight with Berlin, that was scheduled to leave nine days before the departure of the Excambion, on which ship he was allotted a berth with the Oxford don? This was not the time for weeklong holidays on the Portuguese coast. Maybe Berlin knew him already, and then acted as a courier, passing on information about where Sonia should stay in England, and addresses of contacts. If so, it would not have been the last time that Berlin acted as an intermediary to intelligence agents. It is unlikely he met Sonia in person, but he could have left a letter for her. Mendel Berlin’s testimony may have been crafted a little too precisely, with the purpose of laying an alibi (a not uncommon occurrence in Berlin’s life), since Berlin was loath to reveal anything concerning his intelligence-related engagements. Could Berlin have been working both for British and Soviet intelligence to facilitate Sonia’s voyage? The evidence is all circumstantial, but Pincher asked a very pertinent question, and I do not believe any more plausible method of communicating has been suggested.

Arrival in the UK

As for Sonia, after a voyage lasting three weeks, where the ship sailed in convoy with twelve others, trying to avoid the U-Boats, she and her offspring arrived on the SS Androceta in Liverpool on February 4. On her arrival, Security Control was ready for her. When questioned by the immigration authorities, she was very vague about her movements, and her testimony revealed some highly suspicious contradictions.  She could not recall when she had first met her husband. (She clearly states ‘January or February 1939’ in her memoir.) She claimed that Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, suffering from tuberculosis, a fact that was patently not true. He had (she said) happily now recovered, but could not join her as he could not obtain a Spanish visa, since the Spanish authorities regarded him as a hostile character still of military age, even though he was medically unfit.  She told Security Control that she had last arrived in Switzerland just before the war, but the Home Office report states that she said had been there only since February 1940, ‘where she married Beurton’ – which would have meant that she had not been present when her divorce was granted, and would have had to enjoy a whirlwind romance with her future husband (whom she married on February 23). (How could such widely different accounts emanate from the same interrogation?) She was able to provide her interrogator with the address of her sister (Barbara, Mrs D. B. Taylor) in Redruth, Cornwall, as well as the Oxford address, even though the intercepted letter indicated that she did not know where any of her relatives were living. Incidentally, Barbara and her husband were both reported to be members of the CPGB and thus under surveillance, even though John Green indicates that Barbara was the least politically active of the Kuczynski tribe: her spouse, Duncan, was astonishingly an intelligence officer in the RAF. Why did MI5 not pick up on these anomalies? If it had had shown the tenacity and attention to detail that such disclosures deserved, its officers might have been able to follow up with a more penetrating interrogation of her, but the spirit was missing. After all, had they not just approved and facilitated her entry to Britain?

And why Oxford? It might simply have been a convenient central meeting-point for the Kuczynski clan: the Taylors from Cornwall, Brigitte from Bristol, and her parents and brother from London. The children of her brother Jürgen and his wife Marguerite had been evacuated to Oxford, courtesy of their friend Celia Strachey (wife of John, who had helped engineer Jürgen’s release), so they knew the city. Perhaps they had to thrash out strategy. Jürgen was apparently not excited about her arrival. Alexander Foote told his interrogators that Jürgen feared that Sonia, as a spy, would draw attention to his own espionage and propagandist work in London, where he was openly communicating with the Soviet Embassy. Yet the secrecy itself was provocative. If Sonia were innocent, and had married a Briton, it might have been expected that her family would welcome her back warmly in London. The Kuczynski clan no doubt felt that having her close to them would be too dangerous, and draw the attention of MI5 and Special Branch, and thus chose Oxford as a rendezvous, but had trouble letting her know secretly, and in time.  Hence Sonia’s urgent letter, which in fact betrays the fact that a secret destination was being planned. But choosing Oxfordshire as a place for a newly-arrived German-born woman to live in isolation must have raised suspicions. Sonia declares in her memoir that she went to Oxford because her parents were staying with friends there because of the air-raids in London, but she never explains how she learned about her destination, or the specific address.

As has been shown, Milicent Bagot had also been keeping a close eye on the movements of the Kuczynskis during January. Bagot, who, it must be remembered, had in May pointed out that Sonia’s marriage to Beurton was probably a sham, had also recommended, on November 23, that Jürgen Kuczynski should be re-interned. He was in fact released, after a hubbub in the Home Office, on January 22, in time to make the rendezvous. His file at Kew (KV 2/1872) shows that he was considered thus: ‘An extreme communist and fanatically pro-Stalin. One of Moscow’s most brilliant and dangerous propagandists. From various sources it is claimed that he is an illegal contact with the Soviet Secret Service.’ (April 9, 1941) A report from Huyton Camp, where he had been interned, dated January 29 (while Sonia was en voyage) reveals that an informer had said that Jürgen was a ‘GPU agent at large’. There was a continuous war between Bagot and the fellow-travellers such as the lawyer and M.P. Denis Pritt who had influence, and repeatedly came to his defence. Bagot did not receive the support she deserved, but the Kuczynskis clearly realised that they were all regarded with suspicion.

‘With difficulty’ (understandably), Sonia and her offspring managed to find a hotel in Liverpool (it was during a wartime blackout, of course), and, even more remarkably, succeeded in reaching Oxford by train the next day. What is extraordinary about this highly onerous journey, which surely must have been accomplished with some external support, is that MI5 was fully informed about all its aspects. Sonia was picked up by watchers as soon as she left Liverpool, and they informed the Chief Constable of Oxford on January 26, 1941, of Sonia’s father’s taking temporary lodgings in Oxford. Sonia claimed that, because of the air-raids, her parents had been living with friends in Oxford, but they had to return to London soon after as the room was needed by their friends’ relatives. By February 24, she has moved to 97 Kingston Road. That day, the Chief Constable of Oxford confirmed to MI5 that her sister Barbara Taylor was staying at that address with Sonia, who finessed the events of her reunion in her memoir. About Barbara, she wrote nothing. On February 25, a Mr Ryde (probably of Special Branch, in Reading) wrote to Shillito of MI5, enclosing his report on Sonia. Shillito is of the opinion that no further action was required, but that ‘an eye should be kept on her’.  Yet another sister, Renate, wrote from 76 Woodstock Road on March 23 that she would be returning to London that week, and has ‘a lot to tell’ her brother Jürgen. Sonia moved again: on March 25 MI5 noted that she was now staying at the Rectory at Glympton, near Woodstock. There was much Kucyznski buzz in Oxford that February.

Work as a Spy

The next period of Sonia’s career is critical to the story. Yet it is difficult to describe accurately her actions in building an espionage network and using her wireless equipment to send illicit messages to her controllers. Her own memoir is bland, but known to be untrustworthy. The British archive gives ample evidence of the appeasement and indulgence of the authorities to Sonia’s activities, as well as to the effort of repatriating Len to join her, but understandably reveal nothing about her broadcasts. Some details ‘released’ from official Soviet archives look to be obvious fakes. The accounts of such as Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher are useful, but, frequently relying on unnamed ‘insider’ sources, are often embellished with details that fail the tests of chronology, psychology, procedure, or identity. Pincher includes multiple confidences from ‘impeccable’ British intelligence sources, unidentifiable transcripts supposedly provided by GCHQ, otherwise unrevealed documents from Soviet archives, and unreliable personal reminiscences from Sonia’s relatives. It is difficult not to conclude that much of the guidance offered by British intelligence officers is disinformation designed to encourage Pincher in his Hollis-hunt, and to distract him from more murky scenarios. Some of his suggestions are quite ridiculous (as, for example, the claim that RSS sent transcripts of Sonia’s broadcasts to Hollis and Philby for decryption), and he chooses to ignore the remarkable series of events by which the consulate in Switzerland provided a forged identity for Beurton so that he could rejoin his wife in England. One source is solider than all the others, however. The VENONA transcripts (partial decipherments of diplomatic cables between London and Moscow during the 1940s) give one rare glimpse into Sonia’s interaction with officials at the Soviet Embassy, and her practice of wireless telegraphy.

The earliest indication of Sonia’s activity appears to be given by an entry in the files of the Soviet Department of Defence, if the transcripts of these documents, which have authoritative-looking identifiers, can be relied upon. (They have been provided to me by a source who prefers to remain anonymous: I suspect they derive from the possessions of a CIA agent, who acquired them by undisclosed means.) It records that ‘soon after Sonia arrived in Britain and established radio communications with Moscow Centre, Ivan Proskurov, then head of Military Intelligence, responded with a message of encouragement’, and two days later (the entries are sadly not dated) sent her detailed instructions. “The assignments on information remain the same. Pay special attention to obtaining information concerning Germany, its army and military economy.” The first message signed off with ‘Warm regards to you and your kids. Regards from Frank [the codename for her ex-husband, Rolf Hamburger].’

I see several reasons for questioning the authenticity of (many of) these documents. First of all, the language here is avuncular and unbusiness-like, very much out of character for normal communications between Moscow and its agents. Rudolf was at that time under detention by the Chinese, causing the Soviets to request his release in June, so was hardly in a position to send his ex-wife his regards. The documents are undated, but the ‘soon after’ (and I am not sure who made that clarification), suggests to me ‘weeks’ rather than ‘months’. Sonia arrived in early February 1941, but did not construct her transmitter, and make contact with the Soviet Union, until late May – or possibly even later. It is not totally bizarre to imagine that, even during the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Moscow might be seeking dramatic new intelligence on Germany’s army and military economy, but it is absurd to suppose that Sonia, as a new arrival in Britain, would be in a position, from the Oxfordshire countryside, to identify, cultivate, and recruit agents with fresh knowledge in that domain. Moscow already had her brother, abetted by his father, openly giving information to the Soviet Embassy. I have to conclude the documents are fakes, disinformation designed to show, retrospectively, the honourableness of Soviet espionage aims at the time.

According to her own autobiography, Sonia travelled every two weeks to London to see her family, and to make her rendezvous with her Soviet contact, as pre-arranged in Switzerland. Her chronology is flawed. She made several abortive attempts (‘I do not recall how often I travelled to London’), which suggests a passage of several months, before her contact showed up. During this time she learned (from her brother?) that Rolf had been arrested. Next (‘at last’, but in fact as early as April, so she could not have accomplished many visits to London), she found a furnished bungalow to live in, in Kidlington, and in May made contact with her Soviet Embassy contact, Sergey, one we now know as Nikolai Aptekar, in London.  She explained that she had all the parts of her radio ready, and could begin transmission ‘within 24 hours’. She noted that a few days passed since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22), before she received any response to her call-sign, but that may have been a symbolically significant item of disinformation. She then stated that she started transmitting messages twice a week by radio, travelling every fortnight or so to visit her father or her brother in London, who supplied her with valuable information to send to Moscow. She stated that she was introduced by her brother to Hans Kahle, Klaus Fuchs’s associate in Canada, now working as a military correspondent for Time and Fortune magazines. Moscow Central agreed (so she averred) to her suggestion that she meet him regularly as well, as he has access to strategic information. She tells us that she reported such information on her radio to Moscow, ‘who frequently asked follow-up questions’. Thus the requirements of the earlier spravka were being fulfilled.

Sonia as Broadcaster

All thus suggests a high level of radio transmission activity in the summer of 1941, which one might have expected Britain’s Radio Security Services to have picked up – before Sonia’s transmission techniques significantly changed. There is little verifiable confirmation of her activity at this time, but we are fortunate to have the VENONA transcript of a single cable sent by the London residency to Moscow on July 31, 1941, by BRION (probably Boris Schwertzov, Assistant Military Attaché), describing a meeting that Sonia held the previous day with an intermediary codenamed IRIS. [For more information on the VENONA program, see .] IRIS, indeed a woman, has not been identified, but she appears in an earlier 1940 cable after performing espionage in Liverpool. This 1941 cable reports Sonia’s list of expenditures on radio parts, as well as the information that she had tried on four consecutive nights (July 26 to 29) to make contact with Moscow without receiving a reply. The timing of the claim for expenses would seem to undermine the validity of Proskurov’s communications given above.

A hint that Moscow might have been concerned about the quantity and detectability of illicit transmissions taking place is given by Sonia when she explains that at some stage she was given a miniaturised transmitter. She does not provide a date (and her story is not strictly sequential), but it probably was some time later, as she states that ‘after I had succeeded in making some military contacts’, she had a meeting with Sergey – who may have been a completely different person from the earlier ‘Sergey’  ̶   when she was given a small parcel measuring about six by eight inches, in which was lodged a small transmitter that she was able to conceal. Sonia then rather illogically comments that, while she transmitted from England ‘for five or six years’, amateur radio activities were strictly forbidden. So what was the relevance of a less obvious transmitter if she still had to encode messages and send them over the airwaves?

The failure of the British authorities to track Sonia’s transmissions has caused a lot of anguished debate. When Peter Wright, the author of  Spycatcher, was investigating the case that Roger Hollis might have been a Soviet mole (under Sonia’s control), he doggedly tried to track down further transcripts of interactions between Moscow and London. He claimed to have found a trove of materials that originated in Sweden, known as HASP, derived from partially successful attempts by the Försvaerts Radioanstalt (FRA) to decipher the Soviet Embassy’s traffic between Stockholm and Moscow in the period December 1940 to April 1946. Nigel West reports that 390 such messages were passed by the FRA to GCHQ in 1959. Wright went on to say “But there was one series of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow Centre, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner Sonia, alias Ruth Kuczynski.”

The reason this was important was that Wright had been fed the story by his bosses that Sonia did not become active for Soviet Intelligence until Fuchs returned from the USA in 1944! “In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could ever have been broadcasting her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between 1941 and 1943”, continued Wright. Yet Wright, even though he claimed that ‘Kremer’s messages utterly destroyed the established beliefs’, does not divulge what was in these messages. I can find no reference to Sonia in the transcripts available at Nigel West has recently confirmed to me that no further Sonia-related material exists in VENONA beyond the cable listed above. There is no reason why Sonia should appear in Stockholm-based cables, or why Kremer’s messages should have been routed there. Moreover, Wright implied that GCHQ was responsible for radio interception at the time. It was not. That function belonged to RSS (the Radio Security Service), which was incorporated into SIS in 1941, and was not handed over to GCHQ until after the war. GCHQ was intently focused on decryption of German messages, and would not have known about any internal illegal transmissions unless RSS had brought them to its attention, since the security services agreed that all Nazi agents who had entered the country with radio equipment had been rounded up, and either executed, or ‘turned’ in the Double-Cross operation.

Chapman Pincher got the story even more wildly wrong, although he rightly pointed out that the team of Voluntary Interceptors (who listened out for possibly illicit broadcasts) sent their transcriptions to RSS for analysis. But Pincher claimed (in Too Secret Too Long, 1984) that a former senior officer in RSS, later identified, in Treachery, 2009, as James Johnston, had told him that undeciphered messages from Sonia, that must have been trapped by the interceptors, were sent to Roger Hollis, responsible for Soviet counter-espionage in MI5, and after 1944, also to Kim Philby in SIS, for analysis and further instructions. As if Hollis or Philby would have known where to start with enciphered messages that probably used one-time pads, which would have confounded even the experts in GCHQ! Pincher then goes on to claim that Hollis and Philby were thus able to hush up the whole series of events, convincing their colleagues in MI5 and SIS of the irrelevance of such findings.

In his later book, Pincher says more about the HASP archives (taking his feeds from Wright). In true Hinsleyesque style, he also offers the tantalising denial of a story that must have irked him: “A claim that British intelligence was ingeniously using her [Sonia’s] transmissions to feed disinformation to Moscow is equally without foundation.” Whose claim that was, and why he could so confidently reject it, is not explained, but one cannot help concluding that there was at least one party who was trying to air an inconvenient truth, even though I have been unable to detect any published claim that Sonia was being manipulated by SIS while in Britain. Yet, by his curt dismissal of such an assertion, Pincher weakened rather than strengthened his story, and drew attention to a plausible hypothesis. So there appears to have been another faction who thought that, by feeding Pincher those unlikely stories about the power of Hollis, it could safely distract attention from any investigation into the theory that Sonia’s role and activities were known to SIS, and may have been connived at for reasons of counter-espionage.

By then Anthony Glees had come to Hollis’s defence in The Secrets of the Service (1987), and reminded readers of the unlikelihood of Sonia’s being able to transmit so many messages undetected during the war. “Someone sending wireless traffic from an illegal source would have been picked up before they cleared their throats”, he wrote, thus suggesting either a) that Sonia’s claims about her multitude of transmissions were false, or b) if they were true, that there was a cover-up that must have gone beyond Hollis, since Glees dismissed the notion that the detection-finding mechanisms and processes were so poor that Sonia’s transmissions could not have been picked up. Glees, using his knowledge about how MI5 and GCHQ worked, very logically demolished Pincher’s case, declaring that i) it was not Hollis’ job to attempt to decipher messages; ii) if he had been her accomplice, Hollis would have warned Sonia not to transmit at all, rather than conceal her messages later; iii) it was highly unlikely that Sonia was in contact with any MI5 employee if she continued to broadcast; and iv) especially after June 22, 1941, when the heat turned off monitoring the Soviet Embassy, Sonia could have contrived to get her messages to the Soviet Embassy to be transmitted onward. “If Hollis were guilty of being Sonia’s contact”, Glees wrote, “it would be the absence of a wireless, rather than its presence, which would be suspicious.”

Sparring Techniques

The debate was then picked up by W. J. West, in his 1989 book The Truth About Hollis (also published as Spymaster: The Betrayal of MI5). West brought a new perspective to the issue. He responded that Glees (and those who advised him) could be wrong, first, because the attention and focus of the volunteer interceptors were directed at German traffic, and second, because of the technology used. The interceptors had no recording equipment, writing everything down by hand. “The Soviets”, West added, ‘”were able to defeat any attempts at monitoring by the simple process of transmitting morse with a tape machine run at a speed which prevented its being taken down manually.” While this observation slightly misrepresents the role of the Voluntary Interceptors (who were given frequencies to track), the revelation shone a markedly new light on the process of interception, indicating how advanced techniques might have been able to avoid traditional goniometric methods. No doubt this technology was part of the miniaturised package that Sonia had been given.

Moreover, MI5 had by then recognized the problem of high-speed morse. Guy Liddell reported in December 1942, after Oliver Green’s communist ring in Birmingham had been uncovered, that Green, another International Brigades veteran recruited by the Comintern, had admitted that his team used, early in 1942, that same technique to communicate with Moscow. Liddell noted, on December 7, 1942 that Green had ‘refused to give their [the agents’] names or the location of their stations’ (KV 4/191).  Moreover, a telling memorandum exists in the Green files, from Hale to Shillito, that hints at a deeper strategy: “His [Green’s] prosecution would on the other hand inevitably disturb the ground on which your present enquiries, designed to round up all these miscreants, are proceeding and this I would take to be the decisive consideration” (KV 2/2203). This communication represents proof that a project of surveilling suspected communist subversives was under way, and that a premature prosecution would frighten off other spies. Shillito’s inaction later suggests that some political constraints held him back.

On December 8, at a regular meeting with SIS, Liddell declared that the new technology would pose a problem for the Radio Security Service, and he then also referred to the fact that ‘we’ had experienced with some regularity the transmissions of a Russian station, identifiable by its call sign. The astonishing fact about this revelation, however, is that it appears not in Liddell’s Diaries that describe the same meeting, but in the Oliver Green files! It is as if Liddell was censoring himself because of the sensitivity of the admission – a definite case of the dog not barking in the night-time. Thus, instead of Liddell’s implicit suggestion that the new techniques might have posed a problem because it would have been RSS’s first encounter with illicit Soviet signals that happened to use high-speed morse, the Green papers prove that customary detection and direction-finding, that had been at least partially successful, would then have been impeded because of the new burst-mode transmissions. The files thus show evidence of investigations into clandestine radio transmissions by suspected Soviet spies, and it could well have been Sonia’s exchanges that were detected.  So why did Liddell mask the full account of Green’s ring using detectible techniques in 1941? I shall return to this vital question in the next episode.

As for the new techniques, another file on Green at the National Archives (KV 2/2204) describes in detail the established technology of the ‘punch perforator’ in which messages were converted, and the dimensions of a transmitter that exactly match how Sonia described her set. It also refers to the use of battery-driven power that would hinder detection-finding techniques that relied on mains power being selectively withdrawn. One sentence reads: “The use of batteries instead of power from the mains for the transmitter is quite sound as the method of detection by cutting off power street by street had been used in many countries and has been suggested, but not I think actually used, in this country.” Readers who have seen accounts of Gestapo techniques in Belgium, France and Germany will be familiar with this approach. Green was, however, not tracked down by interception of radio messages (or so we are told), but by a chance discovery of incriminating material, and the claims he made about the transmissions made by his cell members do not appear to have been confirmed. We simply do not know for certain whether previous messages sent by Green’s ring had been monitored, or whether what had been picked up earlier was from other agents.

One can see how this off-line process would work. A manual key of some kind would still have been required to translate the enciphered text into morse code. But that process would have been undetectable. An off-line procedure like this would have allowed a tape to be transferred to the miniature transmitter, and the messages to be sent in burst mode. *   T. J. West reminds us that the Soviet spies, the Krogers, were able to send their messages in the 1960s in a similar fashion, and remain undetected. Yet even if this technique had been used successfully, it does not answer all the questions. I have shown how Sonia was not able to deploy the technology until, at the earliest, late 1941, and she had been broadcasting regularly before then. Why were her earlier messages not picked up? Even if Sonia overstated her activity during that summer of 1941, we have it on excellent authority from the VENONA cable that she was busy on four successive nights trying to make contact with Moscow, and that her efforts were either not detected, or, if they were detected, were ignored. Was Sonia really just a disposable agent to Moscow Centre? Did they not care? Or did they guess what was going on, play Sonia along, offering ‘chickenfeed’ to the British authorities until they had a securer system in place? After all, the ability of the Swiss to detect illicit radios was known before Sonia left that country, and the Nazis started detecting the Soviet Rote Kapelle transmissions in June 1941: did the Soviets not think the British had similar technology and techniques at hand?

[* West refers to a photograph in a 1937 book by Peter Smolka (later Smollett), a Communist spy who infiltrated the Ministry of Information in WWII, titled Forty Thousand Against the Arctic, which shows the equipment in question. I reproduce it here.


A radio operator in the Soviet polar base of Dickson at the mouth of the Yenisei River (see, showing her playing telegraph chess. The spools are presumably the containers for the perforated tape. I am not sure whether the lady in the second photograph is admiring such a container.]

Fuchs, and Beurton’s Return

Sonia’s major claim to notoriety was based on her role as a courier to the atom spy, Klaus Fuchs. As with many of the events in her life, she represents the chronology wrongly in her book, where (in the English version only) she describes her first meeting with Fuchs as taking place towards the end of 1942. As I have pointed out in my doctoral thesis (to appear in book form later this year), it was in the interests of the British authorities, Soviet Intelligence, as well as Fuchs himself, to give the impression that Fuchs committed to espionage much later  ̶  namely well after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia  ̶  than he actually did, as the timing encouraged those involved to give his treachery a semblance of moral rectitude. Conscience-driven scientists believed it was their responsibility to share all the atomic secrets with their gallant ally, as it did not appear that the US and GB governments wanted to do so, or the scientists did not trust the authorities to deliver comprehensively. Yet the evidence shows that Moscow’s planning to exploit Fuchs’s sympathies and skills had evolved much earlier, and that Sonia’s mission to Britain may even have been conceived with the goal of installing her as Fuchs’s courier.

The Soviet attaché, Kremer, was already familiar with Fuchs when they met in Birmingham in August 1941, and Fuchs’s latest biographer, Mike Rossiter, notes that Fuchs met the Kuczynski family in Hampstead in early April 1941. Fuchs had been interned with the Kuczynskis’ friend, Hans Kahle in Canada, and while it cannot be determined exactly who initiated the move, in August Fuchs was effectively recruited by Sonia’s brother, Jürgen, and introduced to Sonia soon after. (Rossiter, reliant on his some of his conclusions on unverifiable Soviet archives, oddly suggests that Sonia did not take over the handling of Fuchs until after Kremer was recalled to Moscow in July 1942.) Fuchs’s first reports were received in Moscow in September, and Sonia started a productive arrangement with him that would continue until he was transferred to the USA in October 1943. Much of the material was too bulky to be transmitted by radio, so Sonia would also use drop areas to pass on what Fuchs gave her to contacts from the Soviet Embassy. Sonia also ‘recruited’ the valuable and prodigious spy Melita Norwood, who worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which covered the ‘Tube Alloys’ project, as well as other minor figures in British services.

Meanwhile, what of Len Beurton? Sonia is typically misleading in her memoir, ascribing Len’s continued absence in Switzerland to Rado’s desire to keep him there as a radio operator, despite Moscow’s ‘order’ that he should resettle in England. (It is interesting that Sonia should at this stage indicate that Len had received the same ‘order’ [‘Betrag’] as she had, when earlier she had characterized her instructions to move to England as a ‘recommendation’ [‘Vorschlag’].) She even indicates that she was the boss: when Len asked Moscow whether he should follow Sonia, as she wished, or stay in Switzerland, as Rado had requested, Moscow apparently replied that he should do as she said. That was not Soviet Intelligence’s way of working. Yet Len’s problems were still to do with his inability to gain French and Spanish visas, and Sonia writes that the British consulate was at first unwilling to issue him with a false passport, a mechanism (she claims) it was applying to other candidates of military age trying to get home.

Sonia thus invoked the help of the International Brigade Association, in the shape of Hans Kahle, and then wrote to her ally Eleanor Rathbone, the left-wing MP who had done so much to help German communists establish themselves in Britain before the war. Sonia claims that Ms. Rathbone put a question in the House of Commons, specifically making an appeal for Len’s repatriation in order that he might serve his country. That seems unlikely: I can find no trace of such a specific question in Hansard, but there is no doubt that Rathbone’s secretary, Richard Law, wrote a letter for help to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, and Cadogan replied positively the next day. A follow-up letter from Law was required, dated March 4, which perpetrated the lie that Beurton had had a ski-ing accident in Switzerland that had prevented earlier return, and also mentioned his treatment for tuberculosis, which might be considered to be spreading the explanations a little too thickly. On June 3, Livingston even wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, from Geneva, saying that ‘in April Beurton was examined by a French military doctor, who declared him unfit for military service.’ Such a ruling would have reduced the threat that Beurton might have represented as a combatant in any war. Beurton had reportedly applied again for Spanish and French visas: the Spanish visa was granted, but not the French.

The response it received clearly spurred the consulate into action, and it provided Beurton with a false passport in the name of John William Miller, as well as a doctor’s certificate (as Sonia reminds us) confirming that tuberculosis had incapacitated him for military service. The office thus falsified the evidence again. The result was that Beurton left Geneva for Lisbon and the UK on July 11 (information communicated in an en clair telegram, as if he were someone of importance). He arrived on July 29 at the Bournemouth Airport at Poole, the return segment of the same VIP route that Berlin had taken two years before. There was no lengthy, uncomfortable sea voyage for him. Beurton promptly admitted that his passport was false, denied his tuberculosis, and gave a feeble explanation about the money that he claimed had been left him. He even ascribed the tuberculosis story to advice he had received at the consulate, forgetting that it was a rigmarole he must have shared with Sonia two years beforehand, since she gave it as an excuse for his absence when interrogated in Liverpool. All in all, he betrayed a sense of indignant entitlement, and gave a sorry performance to his interrogators, who had clearly not been prepped appropriately. Beurton even stated that he was disappointed that the British authorities in Lisbon had not contacted Poole, in order to ease his passage through Control. And he introduced a new lie. As the Security report (of which a large portion has been redacted) records: “He did not leave Switzerland in the early part of the war because he and Mrs. Hamburger were waiting for the divorce proceedings to be completed in the Swiss courts.”

All this brazen behavior provoked a justifiably stern reaction in MI5 – at least in its lower echelons. Vesey cast serious doubts on the whole exercise, and wondered why SIS would issue a passport on such flimsy evidence, and questioned Beurton’s story about the source of his money. SIS responded in a letter to Vesey, claiming that the Passport office was ‘not of course aware of the issue of the individual circular concerning Beurton’, which assertion was patently nonsensical. By December 1942, Shillito in MI5 wrote that he was of the opinion that Beurton could be a Soviet spy. Beurton remained under close watch, and his mail was intercepted, as he was is ‘thought to have been in touch with agents of a foreign power’. Yet nothing more serious was undertaken, and Beurton joined his wife in Summertown, Oxford.

The conundrum of why Sonia’s radio traffic was ignored will be examined more closely in the next chapter of Sonia’s Radio. It appears that up until the winter of 1942, she had gone about her secret business successfully. As has been shown, most of the information that Fuchs passed before he left for the USA was no doubt too long and complicated to be sent by radio transmission, but there is no doubt about Ursula’s use of clandestine radio, which was strictly forbidden in wartime Britain. Yet a major new provocative event was about to take place. Sonia describes how, in the autumn of 1942, she moved into a cottage in the grounds of the house of Neville Laski, the brother of the fellow-traveller, Harold Laski. (Harold Laski, like Eleanor Rathbone, had conspired with such as Strachey, Wilkinson and Cripps either to assist entry into Britain of Comintern agents, or free from internment CP members like Sonia’s brother.) With Len’s help, Sonia strung up her radio in her new accommodation: what is even more incredible is that the existence of this apparatus was known to MI5. On January 25, 1943, D. M. Campbell, reporting on behalf of Major J. C. Phipps, wrote that ‘the Beurtons own a large wireless set’. In December 1942, Shillito had voiced his belief that the Beurtons were Soviet spies. The following month, incriminating evidence was handed to him. Yet nothing was done about it. Why was such obvious illicit behaviour not pounced upon, and why were the offenders not prosecuted?

New Sources:

The Lisbon Route, by Ronald Weber

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945, by Neill Lochery

Sonya’s Report, by ‘Ruth Werner’

Letters 1928-1946, by Isaiah Berlin

A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War, by John Green

Mortal Crimes, by Nigel West

The Truth About Hollis, by W. J. West

Forty-Thousand Against the Arctic, by H. P. Smolka

The Spy Who Changed the World, by Mike Rossiter

New Commonplace entries appear here.

1 Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History