Sonia’s Radio – Part III

[The story so far: During the Phoney War, Britain’s cryptanalytical expertise is soundly established at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, but the country’s fragmented approach to security, and to the challenge of detecting illicit radio transmissions, leaves it open to subversion. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union has arranged for its illegal radio operator in Switzerland, Ursula née Kuczynski (code-name ‘Sonia’), to undertake an illegitimate marriage for the purpose of gaining British citizenship, so that she may re-enter the UK and work as a courier in the planned purloining of atomic secrets. Her place as chief radio operator for the Comintern’s Swiss spy ring is taken by the abettor in her marriage to Len Beurton, Andrew Foote, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who is not all that he seems.

To read the previous installments, please go to Sonia’s Radio  – Part 1 and Sonia’s Radio – Part 2. A consolidated, and slightly edited, version of all three items appears here. To improve clarity, there is some repetition of material from Part 2 in this installment. Readers who would like a Word version of this story should request one at]

The successful invitation to Churchill to form a government in May 1940 brought a more resolute and coherent approach to the conduct of the war, a greater appreciation of the value of the collection and interpretation of intelligence – but also an undue measure of panic. Just before Churchill formed his coalition, the hitherto largely dormant Joint Intelligence Committee had expressed its concerns about internal elements that it rather inaccurately portrayed as a ‘Fifth Column’. Attention to the phenomenon of such a group had been heightened by the Nazi successes in Norway and the Low Countries, and a nervous public feared a similar threat within the country’s own borders. Whereas a true ‘Fifth Column’ would involve persons ready to take up arms in the event of an invasion, who would have been in communication with hostile forces (certainly not an impossibility in contiguous lands like Poland, Czechoslovakia, or even the Netherlands, with historically fluid borders and ethnic overlap, where Volksdeutsche could be found), the existence of such an element was unlikely in the British Isles, outside Mosley’s British Union, with its highly questionable practice of storing weapons on private premises. The various committees unnecessarily muddied the waters by grouping all elements opposed to the war (i.e. not only Nazi sympathizers, but communists, pacifists, and IRA supporters) under the rubric of a ‘Fifth Column’.

Churchill was perturbed enough about such a menace to institute, on May 28, a new body, the Security Executive, set above MI5 (the Security Service), SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6) & GC&CS (the Government Code and Cypher School), after the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, had commissioned a report from Neville Bland on ‘the Fifth Column menace’. Bland’s judgment may have been affected by his previous role as Ambassador to the Netherlands: his report did nothing to dispel rumours, and Joseph Ball, second-in-command to the Executive’s head, Lord Swinton, with a track-record as Chamberlain’s chief fixer and negotiator through back-channels with foreign diplomats, was selected to run a sub-committee on the peril on June 11. A mass internment of ‘aliens’, mainly Germans and Austrians, but including many refugees fiercely opposed to Hitler, had been started in May, with the future atom spy, Klaus Fuchs, being one who was rounded up and sent to Canada. Yet the ‘neurosis’, as counter-espionage officer Guy Liddell called it, soon passed. The sinking of the Arandora Star on July 2, with much loss of life of internees and POWs, caused much heartache and rethinking. By July 16, Churchill himself was telling the House of Commons that the danger of Fifth Columnists had been exaggerated, momentarily forgetting his own role in the crack-down. With the British Union leader Oswald Mosley in jail, and the presence of any pro-Nazi faction seen to be illusory, the emphasis switched to the catching of newly arrived Abwehr spies, accompanied by a hesitant realisation that the Communist Party might now be the prime domestic malignant threat against the war effort.

Given that the Soviet Union was still a nominal ally of Germany, and providing a mass of war materiel that compensated for the effectiveness of Britain’s economic blockade, one could criticise Britain’s attitude towards communists as unduly complacent. Yet there were several reasons for the hesitation. For one, a coalition government containing several Labour Party members was much more positive about the prospect of socialism, and thus broadly sympathetic towards Stalin; their attitudes even infected many Conservative MPs. (Duff Cooper and Harold Nicolson both got into trouble with Churchill for too hurriedly trying to promulgate ‘war aims’ that in fact hinted at some post-war ‘revolution’.) A general nervousness could be detected in ministers concerned about left-wing rebellion in the factories and even in the forces. Perhaps equally as significant, Guy Burgess and his cohorts had started to have their ideological colleagues appointed to key positions in MI5 and the Ministry of Information. Moreover, many believed – including Churchill, notably – that the pact between Hitler and Stalin would not last, and that the Soviet Union would before long join the Allies. Thus attempts to intern communists during the remainder of 1940 were stuttering, and easily resisted. On January 9, 1941, the Security Executive again accepted that the CPGB was still seeking to destroy the government, but by this time solid intelligence was confirming the rumours of Hitler’s plans to invade the Soviet Union, an event which would change the equation permanently. A week later, Home Secretary Morrison declared that he doubted that the House of Commons would approve of the internment of Communists: true, the Daily Worker was banned soon afterwards, but Stalin’s Englishmen and Englishwomen had by then successfully inserted themselves and their allies in the corridors of influence. By February, as Roger Moorhouse reports, a decision by the BBC not to employ communists reportedly ‘angered the public’.

MI5 struggled during this period. It was overwhelmed by the need to investigate so many suspected aliens, its recruitment policies were frantic, without any proper qualifying, instructional or organisational policies in place, and its leadership was at sea. Churchill fired Vernon Kell, its Director-General, on June 10, and while his deputy, Jasper Harker was nominally promoted to replace Kell, he was effectively on the sidelines, what with the insertion of Swinton and Ball as the heads of the Security Executive.  These changes, as well as the bizarre introduction of a prominent London solicitor, William Crocker, as joint head of the Counter-Espionage B Division (to which Liddell had been appointed head on June 11), severely affected officer morale. Spurred on initially by the hunt for the Fifth Column, Liddell took interest in the ideas of Maurice Frost of the BBC, who claimed to detect coded messages to spies in the broadcasts of Germany’s propaganda vehicle, the New British Broadcasting Station. He took a liking to Frost, and was encouraged by Swinton to recruit him as head of a new Section W to work on radio security, initially alongside Herbert Hart. This was a mysterious group – Christopher Andrew’s authorised history amazingly makes no mention either of Frost or Section W – but Hinsley & Simkins report that it included an SIS representative, and was charged with ‘the task of searching for all possible enemy channels of wireless communication’, and thus had to liaise with RSS, the reconstituted MI8 group. Yet this claim raises as many questions as it answers: how could a BBC man bring fresh insights to the detection of transmissions from German agents, when the GPO was already providing that service for RSS?

The ‘official’ history of MI5, written after by the war by John Curry, complemented by the insights of Nigel West, suggests that the whole endeavour was a blatant power-play by Lord Swinton, who wanted to dismantle B Division, and replace its functions with a team led by his own people. Frost was not just an employee of the BBC: he was also on the Security Executive. Crocker (a future president of the Law Society), was a member of the Executive as well, but he was in addition Joseph Ball’s private solicitor (he acted for him when Ball sued Goronwy Rees in 1957). What is more, Crocker had acted on behalf of Guy Liddell in the latter’s custody case before the war, after  Liddell’s wife left him with their children for the USA. Crocker lost the case, and Liddell hence harboured some resentment, which made the management of B Division almost impossible. The chaos introduced by Swinton and Ball contributed highly to the low morale and inefficiencies that dogged MI5 until David Petrie took charge in the spring of 1941, and Liddell and White spent an enormous amount of time fighting Swinton’s ideas. Frost had been brought in to handle a problem that by July 1940 had been largely debunked. But once installed, as Swinton’s man, he began to try to build an empire.

It should be noted that the focus of W Section was on a threat from ‘the enemy’, namely its radio signals, once believed to be guiding Luftwaffe planes as beacons inside the nation, and then represented by coded messages from the propaganda station, the NBBS, coming from overseas. Despite the Hitler-Stalin alliance, Soviet-originated messages were specifically not in its remit. Yet the lack of a clear mission was evidenced in the fact that Liddell did not make a formal employment offer to Frost until the very day that Churchill admitted the Fifth Column panic. Frost thus set up his group at the end of July 1940 at a time when its relevance was already diminishing. Whereas, in June, the Security Executive had been severely scared about a German takeover of broadcasting, and Liddell was eagerly helping Frost set up his group, by August the emphasis in Liddell’s division had switched to using as double-agents the very few Nazi spies who had been caught. His mission diluted, Frost declared he wanted to manage this effort instead. Yet his arrogant, sly and ambitious manner quickly started to grate on other officers.

Liddell made a move to fold Section W into B Branch by the end of the month, prompting Frost to complain to Crocker and Swinton, though his crony Crocker himself was forced to resign at the end of August. T. A. (‘Tar’) Robertson, a future hero of the Double-Cross system, had declared he could not work with Frost, and by the end of November even Swinton had concluded that Frost had to go. Roberson formally took his XX (Double Cross – ‘Special Agents’) group away from W Section in December, and moved under Dick White as B1a. Yet, even in late November, Frost was still nurturing ambitions to be a supremo of both W and B Divisions. Remarkably, he lasted longer than Swinton, and did not leave MI5 until January 1943. And Liddell did not get his way until Petrie came on board. While Hinsley writes that W Division was eventually subordinated to B Division in August 1941, the change probably occurred earlier. Curry’s organisation chart of July 1941 shows Frost still in charge of three groups, including B3B, ‘Illicit Wireless Investigations and RSS Liaison.’ Frost had apparently replaced Simpson as head of B3. Curry laconically writes: “By this time they had lost the services of Lt.-Col. Simpson [see below], their only officer who could have developed and administered thee necessary technical organisation on their behalf.” What he thought of Frost is not recorded, but it could not have been positive.

Liddell, meanwhile, had to deal with further reports of illicit radio transmissions unrelated to Nazi subversion: on September 13, he recorded that three governments in exile (Czechs, Poles and Hungarians) were broadcasting without supervision, although other accounts indicate that the Czechs were officially granted wireless facilities at Woldingham after their Dulwich station was destroyed. Liddell was never sure who out of these governments-in-exile was trustworthy. The Czechs Beneš (who had passed on fake documents from Berlin that encouraged Stalin to purge the Red Army) and Moravec were at that time no doubt providing useful intelligence to their allies, the Soviet Union, and conspiring in more dangerous ways. On September 27, Liddell noted in his diary that a SIS source had informed them that the Soviets were encouraging the Czechs to commit sabotage in Britain, yet he appeared to do nothing about it. And Liddell had other problems of communication and administration. On September 24, when the Double-Cross system was starting to be developed properly, he mentioned the frustrations of the Cambridge Police when trying to deal with MI5 and the new organisation of Regional Security Liaison Officers. As stated earlier, the emphasis was quickly shifting from detecting coded German messages to exploiting the radios that real German spies had brought into the country with them, but Section W was bypassing the Regional Officers in its investigations.

Further organisational changes occurred – some for the better, as Liddell’s and others’ frustrations reached even Churchill. A high-level W Committee was established to set policy and structure for deception using German double-agents, the W Section evolved into the XX Committee, responsible for turning round such agents, and at the same time (at the end of December) Petrie, an officer in the Indian Police, was invited to become head of MI5. He insisted on performing an analysis of the organisation first, and, after submitting his report, took up his post in March 1941.  Petrie seemed to underestimate the Soviet threat. Ironically, at a meeting of the W Committee on April 5, one of the staunchest opponents of communism, but certainly not the best salesman of his ideas, the MI5 officer John Curry, pressed for action against the Comintern. But his protest was too late: the tide had turned. The spy Anthony Blunt had become Liddell’s private assistant in February: in the reorganization that Petrie soon initiated, Curry was effectively sidelined. While Liddell still occasionally noted illicit wireless use, the role of B Division was changed to concentrate solely on ‘enemy’ activities, with a new F Division set up to relieve B of aliens control and subversive activities.

Curry was in fact appointed to head this newly constituted F Division, but the real work on surveilling the Comintern and communist subversives was handled by deputy-director Roger Hollis of F.2 (‘Communism and Left-Wing Movements’), and Curry felt he did not have a real role. (Liddell’s Diaries are bespattered with Curry’s whining.) As Petrie’s report of February 14 had noted, echoing Swinton’s desire for breaking up B Division, but leaving the core in place: “Equally I can see no harm, but much good, in transferring to a new division or group everything connected with Communism, Fascism, Pacifist movements, Celtic and Nationalistic organisations and the like.” A well-intentioned sentiment, no doubt, but a little alarming in the way it included a movement for worldwide revolution in a ragbag of mostly harmless malevolents. Meanwhile, Frost had actually survived the winter; in May he was imaginatively recommending a joint MI5 & SIS wireless committee, no doubt alive to the issues of monitoring activity both at home and overseas engendered by RSS’s newfound role. On May 20, 1941, Hugh Trevor-Roper became the secretary of the Joint Wireless Committee, chaired by Liddell, with RSS (now a part of SIS) thus playing a leading role in overall strategy. But how had RSS found its new home, and how did it deal with GC&CS?

While MI5 was struggling, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS, commonly known as ‘Bletchley Park’), had exercised a similar hectic recruiting drive as MI5, but did succeed in integrating its hires more smoothly, partly because it had a very clear mission. At the outset of the war, despite a familiarity with a large range of foreign cryptic transmissions, it exercised a sharp focus on enemy, namely German, communications. (Italy and Japan were not yet in the war.) That was not to say that it lost interest in Soviet radio traffic: a Russian émigré named Ernst Fetterlein had been instrumental in cracking Soviet codes in the 1920s, and was still an influential figure, although he did not join the move to Bletchley Park in 1939. In the period 1934-1937, GC&CS, in the persons of Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman, had successfully deciphered an exchange of messages, known as ‘MASK’, between the Comintern and a CPGB member in London, which should have constituted a clear warning about Moscow’s intentions and methods. Overall, however, Soviet diplomatic traffic was considered to be undecipherable, as for many years it had been using the much more secure technique of ‘one-time pads’. (Later in the war, the discovery that some pads were in fact re-used, or that the random number generators deployed with then were not truly random, enabled Bletchley Park to decode several German and Soviet messages.) Tiltman was to become one of the most successful cryptologists during the war, though primarily on Nazi codes.

The official (or authorised) histories are very evasive in describing the efforts extended towards Soviet signals at this time. Some accounts suggest that attention to Soviet communications was discarded when war was declared purely because of prioritization of tasks, but others hint that more was done during the period of the Pact. Certainly less secure Russian weather-reports were tracked with interest, and the historian Donald Watt even wrote, in 1968: “There have also been rumours current at various times that British cryptographers were able to monitor Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1939 and were thus aware of the closeness of Nazi-Soviet contacts, but that, as with the American decipherment of Purple the information derived from this was confined to so small a circle for security reasons that no use could be made of it even within the Foreign Office or in correspondence between the Office and British missions abroad.” No account of this activity appears in the official histories, but Robin Denniston, in his memoir of his father, A. G. Denniston, who headed GC&CS up until 1942, indicated that there was an active Sigint effort directed at Soviet codes until Barbarossa occurred in June 1941.

A clear distinction should be made at this stage between the interception and collection of signals, on the one hand, and their decipherment, on the other. The well-merited praise that Bletchley Park has received since the ‘Ultra’ story broke in 1974 should not disguise the fact that it relied on a large, highly-skilled group of amateurs and professionals (the ‘Y’ organisation) to detect and record Morse signals, not always of high quality, with speed and reliability. Moreover, much intelligence was gained purely from the analysis of traffic activity itself, without its meaning being discerned. Thus Direction Finding (DF, locating the origin of signals through goniometric techniques) and what became to be known in 1943 as ‘Traffic Analysis’ (TA, interpreting strategic and tactical plans by the detailed inspection of call-signs, and the volume and frequency of transmissions) became as important as pure cryptography, a fact that some at Bletchley Park were slow to recognise. Nor was brilliance with codes ever enough: the value of a ‘crib’, whereby the substance of a message was carelessly repeated, or a known text – possibly one forwarded by an enemy agency, and then intercepted, was an enormous contributor to the process of breaking ciphers. (For that reason, the texts of communiqués to be delivered soon afterwards by embassy staff to potentially hostile nations were frequently sent en clair, to prevent the opposition’s gaining a free crib from an encrypted message. On the other hand, the phenomenon of documents being stolen by Soviet spies, and then being used to assist cryptographers as they matched the substance of secret messages, has been acknowledged, but not broadly examined.) In addition, the process of deciphering German signals early in 1940 was greatly aided by the fact that agent SNOW had been turned, and his codes thus known. Lastly, another sometimes overlooked factor in the whole process was the courageous capture, by Allied seamen, of documents and equipment from sinking enemy craft.

GC&CS had always been responsible for deciphering whatever RSS (MI8) came up with, but, as the role of RSS evolved into European surveillance, given the absence of illicit signals emanating from the UK, some conflicts of mission and responsibility arose, as Part 2 of this account described. One problem was the decipherment of Abwehr signals performed by Gill and Trevor-Roper, working for RSS at Wormwood Scrubs. Another was the more disciplined outlook of Military Intelligence, which still relied on non-military personnel for the delivery of data. An important contributor to the debate was the expert Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson. He had had a long and successful track-record in telegraphy since the previous war, had in fact been responsible for the way RSS had been set up in December 1938, and had been seconded at that time to advise MI5 on all wireless-related issues. At some stage Simpson was awarded the C.M.G.  (Yet he also does not appear in the Index of Andrew’s authorised history.) He apparently failed to convince Vernon Kell in 1938 that MI5 should take over RSS, and was thus sidelined at the beginning of the war to the leadership of a small rump group in MI5 titled B.3, which had been set up to investigate reports of possible illicit radio activity, and was also chartered with liaising with RSS. In February 1940 he expressed concern about the capabilities of the Post Office personnel engaged on the task of illicit wireless detection, and wanted changes to make RSS more effective. His authority and expertise (he was the author of ‘Notes on the Detection of Illicit Wireless’) makes it even more extraordinary that Frost was brought in to replace him.

Thus by the summer of 1940 RSS had also grown to a size where its activities and large staff of civilian personnel made Military Intelligence consider that it was a cuckoo in the nest. In addition, several other territorial disputes had come to the forefront. RSS was treading on the turf of SIS as well as GC&CS, by virtue of its analysis of communications of the German intelligence section, the Abwehr. And while GC&CS resented RSS’s becoming involved with decipherment, and the Counter-Intelligence Section of SIS thought that RSS was invading its own space, RSS itself believed that the establishment and growth of MI5’s Section W was stepping on its own bailiwick of handling plain language codes. In addition, the officers in B Division had soon realised that having follow-up investigations of possibly illegal wireless activity managed in Section W outside B Division was organisationally dysfunctional. The whole set-up was a disaster: it was no wonder that Liddell and other officers considered resigning in the autumn of 1940.

Yet it took a while for these conflicts to be resolved. As far as the tensions between RSS and GC&CS were concerned, a critical meeting had been held on March 20, 1940, whereby the ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) group was set up. Official accounts tend to credit Strachey instead of Trevor-Roper with the solving of the Abwehr hand cipher intercepts (later known as ISK, with ‘K’ for Knox): Trevor-Roper himself was not modest in pointing to his own achievements in traffic analysis. Irrespective of the exact contribution of either, something that may never be verifiable, the issue was resolved relatively harmoniously, but little has been recorded of precisely what RSS did over the next twelve months. Nigel West reports that ISOS had become so important that ‘120 intercept positions were dedicated to the source by June 1941’. The broader issues of responsibility remained. “By the autumn of 1940 the work of the RSS, originally limited to the monitoring of illicit wireless activity in the United Kingdom, had been extended to the coverage of the communications of the Abwehr and associated enemy intelligence and security agencies anywhere in the world”, writes Hinsley. The focus of RSS had changed dramatically: something had to give.

John Curry, in his ‘official history’ of MI5, indicates that MI8 first made its proposal for transferring RSS to MI5 on October 9, 1940. This proposal was no doubt encouraged by Simpson, clearly not overstretched by his modest liaison and follow-up duties in B.3, and he instead made detailed recommendations about the interception structures and procedures that RSS needed in the new environment. He was strongly in favour of a new section being set up with its own dedicated personnel and equipment. Hinsley points out that MI8 believed such a change would enable it to concentrate on wireless intelligence that had some relevance more germane to its military mission, an assessment that perhaps revealed the gulf between the collection of intelligence and the development of military strategy that was epitomized in the ineffectiveness of the Joint Intelligence Committee at the time. With Simpson in place in MI5, MI8 had identified RSS’s natural home. The ball had been thrown into the court of the Security Executive.

Trevor-Roper’s boss, Major Gill, next submitted, in November, an important report which explained how the analysis of a large number of undecipherable messages pointed towards a substantial network of German agents across Europe, and that this phenomenon merited greater attention. The following month, the now unpopular Major Frost exploited Simpson’s overture by making an extraordinary power-play for RSS to be incorporated into his Section W. For Liddell (and presumably Simpson, though his reactions are not recorded), this would have been worse than MI5’s losing the function entirely, but, in any case, the management of MI5, already under stress, deemed RSS’s considerable exploration of signals emanating from European territory obviously outside MI5’s charter. The Security Service therefore considered it more suitable for SIS to take over. Swinton and Petrie (now having started his investigation into MI5) agreed, and the Secretary of State for War authorised the transfer of RSS to SIS on March 7, 1941, over the objections of the Department of Military Intelligence, which threw doubts on the ability of SIS to detect and intercept enemy transmissions. Since this ability was not inherent in MI5’s skillset (outside the recently acquired Simpson) either, it is not surprising that the objection was quickly overruled, although Swinton relied on the force of his authority rather than making this rather obvious point.

The exercise was completed in May. Negotiations took place over its strict mission: Richard Gambier-Parry, responsible for communications in Section VIII, took over control of the group under Felix Cowgill, who proposed a charter that Liddell in MI5 could not accept. A joint committee was set up, meeting first on May 20, under the secretaryship of Trevor-Roper, who thought poorly of the officers he encountered in SIS (Gambier-Parry, Maltby and Vivian, specifically), ‘the corrupt racketeers of the Secret Service’, as he called them in his diary.  It was not a good omen. Moreover, MI5’s loosening its ties with RSS would come back to hurt them. As soon as Liddell heard that Gambier-Parry had taken over, he expressed a concern in his diary that MI5’s overall interests (namely detecting all illicit radio transmissions in Britain, including communist ones) might be jeopardised by a potential exclusive focus on ISOS and ISK (i.e. Nazi Enigma and hand-cipher) messages. In May, Gambier-Parry responded, not very encouragingly, by suggesting that, since traffic was two-way, RSS would probably pick up half of such conversations from abroad. Liddell’s fears would later be realised. Moreover, Simpson, outmanoeuvred by Frost, had unsurprisingly moved on, and while MI5 had had an ally in MI8, Cowgill would present a new set of challenges.

Meanwhile, the highly competent assembler and operator of illicit wireless sets, Ursula Beurton, aka Sonia, steadily marched towards her goal of installation in the UK as a spy for Soviet military intelligence (the GRU). She received her passport, issued a few days earlier, on May 2, 1940, from the Passport Office in Geneva, which was in fact the traditional cover for SIS in foreign countries. How well had SIS communicated with its colleagues in MI5 over this alarming move? As previously reported, MI5 had reacted sluggishly to the request, and not responded in a timely fashion. Yet the Security Service was familiar with the Kuczynski clan as a set of subversives: on May 8, the Home Office overruled MI5’s request that Sonia’s brother, Jürgen, be interned. Indicating perhaps that senior officers were somehow not concerned about Sonia’s motives, the very shrewd Milicent Bagot next pointed out to the MI5 officer, Cazalet, that Sonia’s marriage was probably a sham, and a recommendation was made – too late, as Stafford noted on May 28  – that she not be given a passport. But Sonia was in no hurry. She bided her time, as she had no doubt heard about the problems that Klaus Fuchs, the agent who represented the purpose of her mission, had been experiencing.

After a spell on the Isle of Man, Fuchs reached his internment destination of Nova Scotia in early July, 1940.  Yet almost immediately, appeals for his release were made. His employer at Edinburgh University, Professor Max Born, had already done so on May 22 (although he soon expressed a change of heart, perhaps realising his indiscretion). The Royal Society also requested his release – alongside that of other scientists – in July. Max Beaverbrook, in charge of aircraft construction, was making urgent appeals for the release of alien scientists to help in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The patience of Rudolf Peierls, Fuchs’s sponsor and mentor, also ran out at this time. Political pressure was applied, and Fuchs was eventually released from internment on October 19. He left Halifax on December 19, accompanied by his Communist colleague, Kahle, and arrived in Liverpool on January 11, 1941. And it appeared that Sonia timed her return to be closely coincident. On November 21, the Passport Office in Geneva, despite MI5’s warnings, had generously added two of her children to her passport, so that they could accompany her, and after a prolonged and rather mysterious stay in Lisbon, the British consul there told her they could sail on January 14. They arrived in Liverpool on February 7, and moved to Oxford the next day.

Little occurred in the first half of 1941. Fuchs had to become re-established at Edinburgh, and then placed on Peierls’s team, with Peierls being careful not to express too much haste and enthusiasm, and it was not until late May that Fuchs joined Peierls’s division of the MAUD committee at Birmingham University, working on diffusion techniques of atomic weapons research. He had reportedly been given ‘full clearance’ for his work, despite his communist past, and some vague doubts as to his reliability expressed by Roger Hollis of MI5.  Fuchs somewhat belatedly signed the Official Secrets Act on June 18, i.e. a few days before Barbarossa. As for Sonia, her father had been waiting for her in Oxford (and Bagot, now Hollis’s assistant, had diligently informed the Oxford Chief Constable of this fact). Sonia also visited her fellow-spy Melita Norwood, her contact at the Soviet Embassy, Simon Kremer, as well as her family in Hampstead. Thus it is highly probable that she met Fuchs at this time, as Nigel West claims. Yet the concerns expressed by minor officials in MI5 about the overall intentions of the Kuczynski clan were overlooked. The wary officer Shillito made the conventional recommendation that ‘an eye be kept’ on Sonia, but it was obviously not enough for all her movements to be properly shadowed. Even the fact that MI5, on April 9, declared Jürgen Kuczynski an ‘extreme communist & fanatically pro-Stalin’, was not enough for its attitude to Sonia to be revised. And she thus prepared for the next stage of her mission, to act as Fuchs’s courier.

Lastly, what happened to Alexander Foote, whom Sonia had trained as her replacement in Switzerland? The structure and processes of the ‘Lucy Ring’, as the GRU’s spy network in Switzerland was known (after Lucerne, the hometown of the key agent, Roessler) is one of the major enigmas of World War II. Exactly how anti-Nazi officers were able to provide the ring with a stream of current information about German battle-plans has not been satisfactorily explained. The memoirs of all the participants cannot be trusted: Foote’s own account, published after he defected from the Soviets in 1947 and was interrogated, was ghost-written by an MI5 officer, Courtenay Young, who exploited his charge. The works of both Sonia, and the leader of the ring, Alexander Radó, are notoriously unreliable, as their content was controlled by Soviet Intelligence. The authors of the first major study of Lucy, Accoce and Quet, admitted that they had fabricated a large part of their story, namely the fact that an Enigma machine had been smuggled out of Berlin to Roessler, by officers opposed to Hitler. The idea that Roessler could transcribe radio signals, single-handedly operate an off-line Enigma machine, translate messages, and route them quickly to qualified radio handlers in other cities in Switzerland for re-enciphering for Moscow, all while holding a full-time job, and without the Gestapo detecting the equipment and transmissions, is simply ludicrous. Post-war German accounts of interception of Soviet radio communications cast massive doubts on the whole chronology claimed by some of the participants. Roessler himself was very coy about the methods he used, although he did name some contacts shortly before his death. Foote was a very capable radio operator – but was that all he was?

The story of Foote’s eventual escape to Paris, his journey to the Soviet Union, defection, and interrogation, is one for a future chapter, but it is just noted here that it would have been very difficult, in a small country like Switzerland, for an Englishman to have escaped the attention of the local SIS organisation – in fact represented by a more clandestine group called ‘Z’, managed by the maverick and unpopular Claude Dansey. Moreover, several aspects of Foote’s story do not ring true, as his files at the National Archives frequently indicate. The story of his discharge from the RAF in December 1936, and whether it was dishonourable or not, is bizarre. In his interrogations, he is advised not to talk about his previous associations with British intelligence, which hints at intriguing but untold adventures, while he also quickly showed Fascist sympathies during his questioning, very much out of keeping with his multi-year activities supporting the Soviet Union’s agenda. When in Lausanne, he was able to arrange, apparently single-handedly, with a facility quite out of keeping with his known very practical skills, a complex scheme for moving funds from the USA to his boss Radó, to keep the Lucy network alive. One might well wonder whether he received help from the SIS station in this complex endeavour. When under pressure from Gestapo incursions into Switzerland in the search for communist spy transmitters, he suggested to his boss Radó (and to Moscow) that they seek shelter in the British Embassy, a highly dubious and risky venture, considering his role as a Soviet agent, unless it were already known to Embassy Staff. How would he have introduced Radó to the British officials? (Moscow very quickly quashed the idea.)  His eventual defection, and Moscow’s apparent insouciance about it, are very provocative.

Read and Fisher actually claim that Foote was recruited by the Z organisation, and prominent members of the intelligence world in Britain, such as Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1939 to 1942, in the 1980s made bold statements that Britain actually used members of the Lucy organisation to feed Ultra material to the Soviets, a claim that, however unlikely, and on the surface operationally unnecessary, was perhaps too thinly and shrilly denied by Hinsley, the official historian. Yet Malcolm Muggeridge and others supported Cavendish-Bentinck’s claim. What was their purpose if the assertion was not true? That story – and others – will be examined in a future installment. But the evidence so far points to a less than open and respectable relationship between SIS and MI5 over the opportunity offered by Sonia and her radio, and suggests that an accurate account of Foote’s relationship with British Intelligence has not yet been told.

In summary, Lord Swinton made a difficult situation even worse. At a time when clear-headedness and maximum efficiency were required to address the Nazi threat, he ran roughshod over the career intelligence officers, trying to insert his own creatures into an environment he did not understand. It is perhaps not surprising that the Soviet threat received diminished attention in this pell-mell. Nevertheless, it appeared that Sonia still attained a free pass to which she had not been entitled. Was there something else going on?

Principal Sources (in addition  to those listed in Part 2):

The Bodleian Library, Special Collections

Breach of Security, edited by David Irving

The Searchers: Radio Interception in Two World Wars, by Kenneth Macksey

A Man Called Lucy, by Pierre Accoce and Pierre Quet

The Hut Six Story, by Gordon Welchman

The Red Orchestra, by V. E. Tarrant

Bletchley Park’s Secret Room, by Joss Pearson

Operation Lucy, by Anthony Read & David Fisher

Intelligence Chief Extraordinary: The Life of the Ninth Duke of Portland, by Patrick Howarth

The Spying Game, by Michael Smith

The Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park, ed. F.H. Hinsley & Alan Stripp

Thirty Secret Years: A. G. Denniston’s Work in Signals Intelligence 1914-1944, by Robin Denniston

Codename Dora, by Sándor Radó

The Wartime Journals, by Hugh Trevor-Roper

Ultra Goes to War, by Ronald Lewin

With My Little Eye, by Richard Deacon

The Rote Kapelle, the CIA’s History of Soviet Intelligence and Espionage Networks in Western Europe, 1936-1945

A Thread of Deceit: Espionage Myths of World War II, by Nigel West

The Ultra Secret, F. W. Winterbotham

How War Came, by Donald Cameron Watt

I have added a further ten examples of the Hyperbolic Contrast – in fact dating back to December 2015 – here. And the regular set of new Commonplace entries can be found here. (September 30, 2016)


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Doctor in the House

The London Eye

The London Eye

Towards the end of July, I made another visit to the United Kingdom – my first for two years. The primary purpose of the trip was to defend my doctoral dissertation at the University of Buckingham, but I intended to complement the ordeal with some more research at the National Archives at Kew, and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, as well as see some old friends, and make personal acquaintance with some contacts that I had established through email introductions. I arrived soon after the Brexit referendum took place, so post mortems on the result, and on the process, were high on the agendas of those I spent time with.

After landing at Heathrow, I took my rented car round to Croydon, where I met for lunch my first host, David Earl, and a few old friends at Croham Hurst Golf Club, and then went to stay with David and his wife, Mieke. Mieke, alas, had recently broken her hip in a fall in her native Netherlands, but she was still her irresistibly ebullient self. Unfortunately, during that initial weekend, my back started convulsing with agonizing spasms, with the result that I was lying immobile on the floor by Monday morning. This necessitated attention being diverted from Mieke’s condition to mine (a phenomenon she bore with good grace), and, after I had illicitly taken three of her (non-opioid) pain-killing pills with no effect, it was David who came to the rescue by acquiring some simple heat-pad strips. Their application had a truly miraculous effect within a matter of hours, thus enabling me to continue my journey to Battersea that afternoon. On the Saturday, I had also managed to drive out to Oxted to see another pair of very old friends, Peter and Pia Skeen (Peter having been my best man back in 1976). They generously fitted me in while waiting for their son, Torsten, and his family to arrive from Dubai that afternoon, and sensibly agreed that they would pay closer attention to their personal schedules when my next visit was impending.

I spent a few days with my brother Michael and his wife, Susanna, in Battersea. Susanna has been undergoing a very arduous treatment of chemotherapy for breast cancer, but if anyone has the indomitability and will to beat it, it is she. (She was scheduled for surgery the day I left the UK, August 9.) I was received with the utmost hospitality, and enjoyed some deep discussions on many topics with Michael, who has an excellent brain – especially on financial matters – and who in my opinion expresses more insight and common sense than several economists who have won Nobel Prizes. (You know who you are.) I encouraged Michael to write up his thoughts. Meanwhile, the days of that week were spent in the National Archives, at Kew, a drive of about thirty minutes away. I was able to inspect several files there – too late for my thesis, of course, but research does not stop for artificial timetables  ̶   on Guy Burgess, on the ISCOT programme to decipher Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1943, on GCHQ, on the Kuczynskis, and on miscellaneous other MI5 and Foreign Office material.

While at Kew, I was privileged to have a meeting with Chris Mumby, Head of Commercial Services at the Archives. Last year I had written to him, expressing my interest in the process of digitisation, and explaining how difficult it could be for a remote researcher to identify and inspect important files. Those that have been digitised are available for a very reasonable fee, but constitute only a small percentage of the total, while a request for the digitisation of any thick folder (for personal purposes, though with universal benefit) is penally expensive. I was also intrigued by the arrangement The National Archives had made with Taylor and Francis, a company that makes selective documents available to subscribers, and how that contract related to the Archives’ own initiatives. Finally, I had expressed my astonishment that everyone was allowed access to Kew for free – even foreign residents like me. The Archives bear certain statutory obligations, but the more successful they are in attracting visitors, the more their support costs go up, at a time of static budgets. Could the Archives perhaps not charge admission fees, and perhaps establish a tax-free charity that could allow well-wishers to make donations to alleviate operating costs? I found a very professional and attentive ear in Mr. Mumby, and have every sympathy with him and his colleagues in their challenges. Enough said, for now.

I also met for dinner an old friend, and a new acquaintance. I have been collaborating with the screenwriter Grant Eustace (see , with whom I used to play rugby at the Old Whitgiftians. He has produced a script based on aspects of my thesis, and I was pleased to meet him again, as well as his charming wife, Janie, at a restaurant in Kew, where we could exchange laments about dealing with the worlds of publishing and of other media. (A Hollywood producer had chanced upon my writings on ‘Sonia’s Radio’, but regrettably nothing came of it.) The next evening, I went up to Westminster to meet Andrew Lownie (see , who published a very well-received biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman, last year. It was Andrew who introduced me to a vital document, released to the National Archives last September, which essentially proved my emerging hypothesis about Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow in 1940. Andrew and I have exchanged insights and findings on Burgess and his murky dealings with such as Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Ball, and it was productive to sit down face-to-face at last. I had to express some disappointment: when his book was published last year, I sent him a comprehensive list of observations and corrigenda. This summer, the work was re-issued as a paperback, but, while it contained some corrections, and some expanded Notes, no indication was given that the text had been changed. Moreover, while some of my emendations had been incorporated, rather sloppily some had been overlooked, and the author had not added my name in the list of Acknowledgments. Andrew has apologised. He has had his own struggles with the publisher. And we remain on good terms.

On Saturday, Michael, Susanna and I took a trip out to Chiswick Park, off the A4, one of those extraordinary lungs within Greater London’s boundaries. Unfortunately, Chiswick House itself, ‘one of the finest examples of neo-Palladian design in England’ was closed on the Saturday, but we were able to take a leisurely stroll around the gardens.

Chiswick House

Chiswick House

Several renowned names are connected with the House: as the website ( declares, somewhat enigmatically: “Leader of fashion and political activist for the Whig party, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire referred to her home at Chiswick House as ‘my earthly paradise’. Her parties and political breakfasts at Chiswick were renowned and notable guests included the politician Charles James Fox who later died in the Bed Chamber in 1806.” We are left to guess what he was up to earlier – before breakfast, presumably. I present a photograph of Michael and Susanna at the fountain, for the record.

Michael & Susanna

Michael & Susanna

The next day, I made my way to Oxford, where I would stay at the Holiday Inn, within ‘Park and Ride’ access to the town centre. Most of Monday and Tuesday were spent in the new Weston Library of the Bodleian, where I had arranged to study the files of Sir Patrick Reilly and Sir Joseph Ball, as well as letters that Sir Rudolf Peierls, the sponsor of, and collaborator with, the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, had written to various scientists during the course of Fuchs’s arrest and conviction. All three sources were as revealing because of what they did not say as much as for what was explicit. I also was shown round the new library  by Jessica Brown of the Development Office, and specifically led to the carrell that I had donated a year or two back .

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The fixture is a slightly ostentatious but genuine gesture of appreciation for how Oxford has helped in my career: I do not believe I recognised it at the time, but Harold Macmillan’s 1975 observation that an Oxford education should teach you to detect whenever someone is telling you obvious rot (a dictum that he claimed he learned from the philosopher John Alexander Smith) has remained with me ever since, and has stood me in good stead in my life.

My supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, lives in Woodstock, just north of Oxford, and he kindly invited me for cocktails on the Monday, so I was pleased to see him again, and meet his charming wife, Linda. After more research on Tuesday morning, I repaired to my old college, Christ Church (known as ‘the House’) where Simon Offen, of the Development and Alumni office, generously entertained me to lunch, after which Cristina Neagu, the Keeper of the Special Collections in the Christ Church Library, showed me a fascinating array of old texts that have only recently been closely examined.  She also took me into the tower of the library, where an extraordinary camera (known, I think, as the ‘Graz’ machine) allows delicate documents to be photographed quickly, safely, and accurately, thus contributing to a series of world-wide collaborative projects after the images are passed to the Bodleian for publication (see I also bumped into the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd. Professor Martyn Percy, who gave me a warm and enthusiastic welcome, after which we discussed, among other things, our shared lack of genealogical propinquity to the Dukes of Northumberland. That evening, I dined alone at The Trout at Godstow, only a few minutes away from the Holiday Inn, which has always been one of my favourite hostelries ever since I first went there in 1966. And the following morning I made my way to Buckingham for my viva.

I was honoured to have Sir Anthony Seldon and Professor Christopher Coker as my internal and external examiners, respectively. Moreover, I was gratified, immediately on entering the examination room, to be told that my thesis had been accepted – without any recommendations for changes. While this left the notion of the ‘defence’ of my thesis hanging in the air, it was the best kind of surprise. Thus “Confronting Stalin’s ‘Elite Force’: MI5’s Handling of Communist Subversion, 1939-1941” is now in the record books, although I have requested a suspension of promulgation of the text pending my attempts to convert it into a book. I enjoyed some interesting exchanges with my examiners, but the whole process was over in about three-quarters of an hour. At the end, knowing that Sir Anthony’s first teaching assignment had been at Whitgift School in 1983, I asked him whether he had encountered my father, Freddie, who, although having retired by then, was still active as historian and archivist, and would have taken a very strong interest in new members of staff. ‘F.H.G. Percy!’, he exclaimed. ‘That great man! (or words to that effect)’. He had never connected my name to his. [Late in August, I received a very generous note from Sir Anthony, which ran: ‘Many congratulations on an excellent Ph.D., and in memory of your distinguished and great father.’]

Then back to Battersea, to celebrate with champagne. The next morning I was off to the House of Lords, as Lord and Lady Young of Cookham had kindly invited me on a tour of the Houses, and to lunch. Aurelia, Lady Young has been a close friend of Professor Glees since childhood, and the Professor had introduced me to her (via email), as he believed I might have some insights into the history of her father, the Croatian sculptor, Oscar Nemon, based on my researches into the treatment by MI5 and the Home Office of émigré Jews in the late 1930s. Diligent readers may recall my reference to this wonderful lady in an earlier piece, to be found at

Lady Young

Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

I was delighted to see the several busts crafted by her father in the Houses of Parliament: for some reason, I had never toured the place (was it not open to the public when I was growing up?), and it was very enjoyable to sit on the terrace with the London Eye in view. Lord Young, who has had a distinguished career in politics, is now a whip in the House of Lords. He was also at Christ Church, graduating shortly before I matriculated, so the photograph here probably represents our sharing memories of Christ Church personalities rather than his Lordship’s seeking my opinions on the security implications of Brexit.

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

The next day, I drove down to Dorset, to stay with another couple of old friends, Brian Wizard and his delightful wife, Sue, who own a very attractive cottage (actually, joined cottages) in Tarrant Monkton. Brian and I worked together in IT back in the 1970s, so we share a lot of memories of the software business, its heroes and its villains. Like me, Brian is very impatient of bureaucratic bumbling and obfuscation, and likes to write letters with a view to dismantling evasiveness and irresponsibility, so I was pleased to catch up with his latest exploits. The Wizards’ property rolls right down to, and then bridges, the River Tarrant, and as the photographs show, is a beautiful example of the art of country gardening.



Brian Wizard

Brian Wizard

Observant watchers may notice that Brian (notwithstanding his other excellent attributes) is a little challenged in the stature department: this feature, however, does enable him to walk around his cottage without stooping, while I am always in danger of bumping my head. I have thus asked him to consider raising the roof for my next visit. He and Sue regaled me with a very generous dinner in compensation for my discomfort.

On Saturday, onwards to Stow-on-the-Wold, a journey that reminded me that the British road system is quite good so long as you are travelling on radials from London. Still, it was a glorious drive through Cranborne Chase, followed by a rather boring patch until I arrived in the Cotswolds. There I was to stay a couple of nights with Derek and Maggie Taylor, Derek being a contemporary of mine at Christ Church, and the recent author of a couple of books (see ), about whom I have written on this blog. The Taylors had arranged a dinner where I was to meet an acquaintance whom I had not seen for almost fifty years – another House man, Nigel Robbins, who lives down the road in Cirencester with his wife, Stephanie. The next day, the three of us drove out to Snowshill Manor, an exquisitely situated house that was once owned by the eccentric collector Charles Wade.

From Snowshill Manor

From Snowshill Manor

In the evening we dined at the ‘Hare’ in Milton-under-Wychwood. There is little doubt in my mind that, if I ever returned to live in the UK, it would be somewhere in the Cotswolds. But English winters, after fifteen years in North Carolina? No, thank you.

So what about Brexit? Well, at my age, one tends to socialise with people whose views tend to echo one’s own, but I listened to – and read – a variety of opinions. First, some paradoxes. It seems bewildering to me that the European Union has been represented – both by some Remainers as well as by certain Leavers – as an exemplar of free-market global capitalism. (In his new book ,‘The Euro’, Joseph Stiglitz repeatedly makes the astonishing assertion that the problems of the euro are attributable to the ‘neoliberal ideology’ of its designers). The European Union is in fact a closed club, a customs union, with expensive barriers to entry, and the use of the euro imposes a number of stringent rules.  Some pro-EU observers assert that the nation-state is irrelevant in an era of globalisation, but, by the same token, the attempts of the Union’s regulators to maintain economic ‘stability’ will be as futile as those of an individual country. I also found it extraordinary how many Remainers drew attention to the loss in funding that would occur with Brexit, as if the Union were a rich uncle, and other countries were simply panting to hand over their hard-earned surpluses to subsidise British social projects. I was astonished at how many of the chattering classes, intellectuals, artists and luvvies, saw Brexit as the end of civilization, as if all cultural ties and links to Europe (of which Britain would still be a member) would have to be sundered if Article 50 were to be invoked. I was intrigued that, on the troublesome immigration issue, the more attractive business climate, the cultural pluralism, and the native language of Britain all conspire to make Britain a more attractive destination for entrepreneurial young persons. (I cannot see English plumbers looking for work in Gdansk or Bucharest.) I was appalled at the lack of preparation by David Cameron’s administration for the outcome of an ‘Exit’ vote in the referendum, something he should explicitly have considered even though he regarded ‘Remain’ as a foregone conclusion. My impression of Cameron, incidentally, was not improved by reading Sir Anthony Seldon’s book on the ex-Prime Minister, the paperback version of which came out shortly before I arrived.

Somewhat emotionally, I believe that it was timely and courageous to attempt an exit now, rather than later. (“Very bold, Prime Minister”, as Sir Humphrey would have subtly admonished.)  If the answer to the Union’s challenges is more integration, not less, then getting out as soon as possible is the right response. Even the Union’s stoutest defenders now recognize that the Euro is mortally wounded, and any efforts by the Eurocrats to make exit highly painful and onerous, and scare off any other pretenders, will only confirm how unaccountable and unresponsive the European council and parliament are – what has been called ‘the democratic deficit’. With a belief that budgets and political programmes are best exercised at the national level, and that part of our British democratic process has been [sic: can this continue with the implosion of the Labour Party?] ‘throwing this lot out and letting the others have a chance’ (would there ever be an official opposition in Brussels that was for decelerating the ‘European Project’?), I suspect something messy, but not nearly as dire or as wonderful as either camp would claim, will emerge. As for taking back control of legislation, however, I must confess to some doubts whether the British civil servants and parliament are any better than their EU counterparts, if the recent laws on hate-crimes are any indication. James Alexander Smith, we need you now. (I am more interested in Brexit than in the appalling saga of the US presidential elections, by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

Monday afternoon saw me spending an enjoyable couple of hours in Burford, where, among other things, I bought a copy of Clive James’s elegiac Sentenced to Life, and then I made my way to a hotel near Heathrow, so that I could return my rental car in good time the next morning. In the exit-lounge, as I waited to board, a young man offered me a seat, which I graciously declined. Have I suddenly become that old? It seems only a short while ago that I was offering my seat to the elderly. I shall be seventy in December: maybe everything up until this point has been achievement, and now begins the slow trudge downhill. But enough of gloomy thoughts: too much Clive James, perhaps. Better to relax on the plane  ̶  a little sparkling wine, and keep decline at bay by tackling the Times’s Saturday crosswords. Meanwhile, I mentally prepared myself for what I should do if an emergency message came on the intercom: ‘Is there a doctor on board?’, planning to rush over to deliver a soothing lecture on Isaiah Berlin and Guy Burgess to the afflicted passenger, but, mercifully for all, no call came. Instead I sank back to watch a Classic Movie – not ‘Doctor in the House’, but, from the same era, a piece of frothy nonsense titled ‘Funny Face’ (1957), which I had seen for the first and only time soon after it came out. It was redeemed, of course, by the bewitching Audrey Hepburn. I recalled several of the scenes very clearly, and the show put me into a nostalgic mood. ‘Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan’, and, after an unnecessarily long layover in Charlotte, I was overjoyed to see my ever-lovely wife and daughter waiting at Wilmington Airport to drive me home to Southport.

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

A very rewarding two-and-a-half weeks.

P.S. Susanna’s operation went well. She returned home to Battersea on August 14, and is recovering steadily, despite considerable discomfort and pain.

P.P.S. I have just spent several hours processing about 5,000 responses to my posts that had accumulated on my website since the beginning of 2015, and which I had carelessly ignored. This was no easy task: I had to inspect every individual response. Most were software-generated. The system did present them in batches of twenty, each of which I could mark, and then ‘block-process’ as spam, but some of the posts were hundreds of lines long, containing  dummy and real urls, requiring dozens of clicks to process each. Probably only 1% were genuine posts, with most of the rest coming from vendors of cheap merchandise, or people trying to sell me web optimisation services, and some bewilderingly not appearing to have any purpose at all. But when a responder shows his enthusiasm for ‘The Undercover Egghead’ by titling his response ‘Cheap Ray-Bans’, or another tells me how ‘utterly beneficial’  he found my piece on ‘Richie Benaud, My Part in His Success’ for his ‘True Religion Outlet’ posting, the haphazardness and futility of the exercise became clear. Presumably their originators believed that their posts would appear on Search engines without my having to ‘approve’ them. If I did miss, because of the purge, a sincerely targeted comment from any of my readers, I apologise. And if I had had the sense to mark each item of spam as such as soon as it arrived, I might have avoided the problem.

August’s Commonplace entries appear here. (August 31, 2016)

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My Experience With Opioids

One of the many paradoxes of life in the USA (like the sudden nervousness of the Republican Party about ‘open-carry’ laws that would allow rifles to be brought into the convention being held in Cleveland this week, or the driver with a ‘God Is My Pilot’ bumper-sticker who weaved his way illegally across lane dividers in front of me outside Wilmington a few days ago) is the country’s approach to drugs. While many states are now making the growth and sale of cannabis legal, the increase in the use of opioids is having a devastating effect on the overall health of the country’s citizens. In the USA in 2014, 28,600 persons lost their lives because of opioid overdoses. Where I live, in Brunswick County, I learn that more than half the candidates for positions in golf course maintenance withdraw when they learn that they will have to undergo a drug test.

Operating machinery under the influence of drugs is obviously a real risk. When I was working for IBM in Croydon in the early 1970s, when my colleagues and I went out for a jar or two at lunchtime at the ‘Porter and Sorter’, we probably would have failed any drug test, had it been applied, before operating any of the bank of machines that occupied an acre on the basement floor of Cherry Orchard Road, the beauty of whose environs had inspired Anton Chekhov to write perhaps his most notable play after he came to visit ‘for the waters’ in the late 1880s. (The data centre comprised an impressive range of computing power in those days, although it would have been eclipsed by the iPad that anybody casually uses today.)  Moreover, Thomas Watson Jr. would probably have had a fit if he had known that his male managers, salespersons and systems engineers no longer wore blue suits and white shirts, let alone went out to the pub at lunchtime. But, for recreational purposes, I have never ingested or inhaled anything stronger than a particularly nasty Balkan Sobranie in 1968, apart from the inevitable very occasional overindulgence with the grape or kindred spirits when celebrating such events as the Queen’s Birthday.

Yet I did have one life-changing experience with opioids. It all started in 1972, when I suffered a career-ending tumble on the rugby field that was diagnosed as a prolapsed disk. During the next year, all manner of treatments were tried. The most absurd was the encasement of my trunk in plaster of Paris, in an attempt to stabilise and straighten the spine, a remedy that was extremely uncomfortable and certainly not conducive to romance. I turned the condition into a party trick, encouraging persons not in the know to punch me in the stomach, rather as Sir Mansfield Cumming, the first director of SIS, would shock his audience by stabbing his wooden leg with a pen-knife when provoked to ire. When the plaster was taken off three months later, however, my scoliosis was just as bad as before, and my pain no less intense.

Eventually, in April 1973, I was called to hospital – to New Cross, where a large ward (immortalised by Chekhov in his 1892 short story, Ward No. 6) was occupied by patients suffering from a range of conditions, from herniated disks, like mine, to rheumatoid and other forms of arthritis. (One or two of those poor people were in dreadful pain.) There I was prescribed a regimen of three weeks’ bed-rest, which involved exactly that: minimal activity, lots of reading, talking to other patients and learning a lot, and inevitably chatting up the nurses, which had a very beneficial therapeutic effect  ̶  on me, I hasten to add. (I trust I did not offend any of the sorority through my attentions: I was still single then, and flirting with medical attendants was not then a criminal offence.) At the end of the three weeks, my back pain had diminished, but the rest-cure had not worked completely, so an operation was called for. With 50% of such cases going to an orthopaedic surgeon (and thus staying at New Cross), and 50% being destined for neurological treatment, I found myself in the latter category, and was sent to the Maudsley Hospital at Denmark Hill.

A day or two before I had the laminectomy, I was given a radiculogram (or maybe a myelogram), which involved a coloured dye being injected into the spinal column for better diagnosis through X-Rays, and thus guidance for the surgeon. This did not go well. I was not very excited about the prospect of the procedure when it was described to me, and I somehow managed to faint while on the trestle I had to lie on during the process, and fell to the ground. Whether the test was successful, I do not know, but I felt awful the next day, and was in such a state before the operation, with a headache, and my blood-pressure high, that the thought of an operation was really depressing. A couple of hours before the procedure, however, I was given my pre-medication. I was soon floating above the clouds, the warmth of the sun was gently embathing my whole body, and I was feeling a bonhomie towards all living creatures that would have made the Pope appear a curmudgeon. I could not have been more comfortable as I was wheeled into the operating theatre.

For part of the mixture administered to me was a generous helping of Omnopon. You can learn more about the compound Papavaretum at it appears that this opioid derivative is no longer used so frequently, because of side-effects, but it certainly worked for me. (I did not know what it was at the time.) And when I surfaced from the general anaesthetic, the first thing I heard was a soft voice encouraging me to wake up, and, when I opened my eyes, I found that the voice belonged to a most beautiful nurse. Perhaps I had landed in heaven after my trip through the clouds . . . But no, the environment was real, and I was taken to my personal ward in the Intensive Care area.

For a few days, I started to recuperate. But then, I suddenly started to be racked with appalling pains across my body, and a splitting headache. My temperature soared. While I was waiting for the surgical staff to be apprised of my condition (it took several hours to convince anybody I was really suffering), I lay there in agony. It felt as if a hot iron was gradually being moved up my spinal column to my brain. Then everyone suddenly sprang into action – with cold compresses, ice, fans, and massive penicillin injections every four hours. I had contracted MRSA, although I was never told as much at the time.

I could never stand injections, and I dreaded being woken up at four in the morning for the next dose. I would tense up, which made the process even more painful. Yet the beautiful nurse knew how to minimise the insult to the body: she would slap me on the buttock before administering the injection, which made it much less of a shock to the system. I thus hoped that she would be on duty as much as possible. Eventually, my fever came down, and the aches disappeared. But when the doctors tested my sciatic nerve, they found that the problem had not been addressed. I was much worse than I had been before the first operation (which had actually been performed by a trainee registrar). I would have to undergo a repeat – this time by the top surgeon himself.

So I prepared myself for another major operation. The beautiful nurse (who had been very kind to me) had by this time gone off for a long holiday in Greece, so I doubted whether I would see her again. But at least I had another pre-med to enjoy. That would be some compensation. I lay back, accepted the pre-med, and waited for the floating to re-start.

But it never happened! No clouds! No sun! No resolution of all the conflicts of the universe! I had been swindled! I even asked the nurses whether they had the prescription right. Yes, they had. The doctors had realised my parlous state before the first operation, but had judged that I was quite capable of undergoing the second without any artificial sedatives. And so it went. I was wheeled in, and went through the whole process, again, with ten days’ bed-rest before trying to move. (Customs change. When I had my last back operation in Connecticut in 1998, they had me walking around in hours, and out of the hospital in a couple of days.) It was not a simple outcome, as it happened. I contracted repeated infections on my spine, when the sutures refused to dissolve. I underwent further operations, and was eventually released from hospital in September 1973, having been admitted in April, but had further complications  ̶ and operations – that endured until the following year. I never played rugby again (nor did I get to Carnegie Hall), but was able to play squash and cricket for quite a while. And that was my experience with opioids.

And what happened to the beautiful nurse? Reader, I married her. And we look forward to our fortieth wedding anniversary in September of this year. Chekhov wrote about the whole episode  in . . . oh, well, perhaps not.


Croydon, September 24, 1976

This post appears before the end of the month, as I am leaving for the UK on July 21. A report of my trip will appear at the end of August. This month’s briefer than normal set of Commonplace entries appears here. (July 20, 2016)

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Sonia’s Radio – Part II

(For the story so far, please see Part I. This article brings the story up to May 1940, when Churchill was appointed Prime Minister.)

The failure to prosecute Sonia’s illicit radio activity has to be interpreted in the following contexts: the overall techniques for detecting unauthorised radio transmissions within British borders; the changing policy towards Soviet and Comintern wireless messages from the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact through the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and beyond; evolving attitudes towards communists residing in Britain at that same time; and the tensions between MI5 and SIS that arose partly from the fact that international radio exchanges traversed the bailiwicks of each department.

The  main challenges in wireless telegraphy that faced Britain’s authorities as World War II approached could be characterised as follows: 1) the interception and interpretation of diplomatic and military traffic from the nation’s adversaries; 2)  the detection of subversive alien transmissions from within the country’s borders (the responsibility of MI5, also known as the Security Service); 3) the provision of secure and reliable communications for the government’s own diplomatic and military agencies; and 4) the supply of the same facilities for the intelligence service to communicate with its agents abroad – primarily in Europe (the responsibility of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, and also, from July 1940, SOE, the Special Operations Executive). Much has been written about 1 (e.g. about ULTRA, the German enciphered traffic decrypted at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park) and 2 (e.g. on the Double-Cross System, whereby German spies were ‘turned’ to send deceptive messages back to their masters). Very little has been written about 3, presumably because governments are loath to have light shed upon the strengths and frailties of their cryptographic techniques, and the damage that was caused when they were broken, while 4 has enjoyed a good deal of publicity because of the considerable media attention given to the exploits of those who tried to help ‘set Europe ablaze’, in Churchill’s much reported phrase. That coverage includes successes achieved by agents parachuted into Europe as well as disasters like the ‘Englandspiel’, when the Gestapo was able to convince SOE officers in London that the radio transmissions of captured agents in the Netherlands were genuine.

In addition, because of reasons of history, technology and expertise, no clear organizational charters for addressing these tasks existed. For example, during the 1930s, the nominal responsibility for the interception of hostile transmissions had lain with the War Office, under an organization named MI1g. The surveillance of radio communications thus resided alongside that of oversight of messages sent commercially by cable, and was seen essentially as a function of military intelligence. Yet the tasks carried out did not reside exclusively within the Military Intelligence organization, which sometimes appeared to be less than totally committed to its mission. The official historian of British Intelligence , when describing the group’s execution, added the qualification:  ‘ . . . with the GPO [General Post Office] acting as its agent for the provision of men and material and the maintenance and operation of the intercept stations’. This division of labour, however, was clearly not satisfactory in a time of war. In November 1939, in the light of such pressures, a new organization, the Radio Security Service, was set up as MI8c – thus still under Military Intelligence. This reallocation of effort was an improvement, but nevertheless still represented an uneasy compromise.

Furthermore, the precise nature of these groups and their reporting structures is difficult to determine, as the various histories offer conflicting accounts. Philip Davies informs us that MI1g was a ‘very small body’ staffed and equipped by the GPO, which maintained only three fixed and four mobile operating stations, supported by a ‘nascent corps of volunteer intercept operators’ – no doubt a very enthusiastic crew, but not automatically suggesting the discipline that would be required of military intelligence. Davies ascribes the organizational changes that occurred in November 1939 to the report on the security services undertaken by Lord Hankey, at the request of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in August 1939, on the brink of war. (Other accounts suggest that funding for RSS had already been approved earlier that year.) Hankey identified three groups covering signals activity that were probably not working as efficiently as they could, and listed the processes: detection of illicit transmissions in the UK, the handling of radio beacons, and the challenge of communications from agents of SIS abroad. He recommended a new department be set up, absorbing all three. The outcome of Hankey’s recommendations was less dramatic: the unit in the GPO was set up as an independent group as the Radio Security Service (RSS), ‘placed under the War Office interception (Y) service, MI8, as MI8c’. Nigel West suggests that the head of MI5, Vernon Kell, may have contributed to this reorganization out of a fear that a network of agents within the UK would assist raiding German aircraft to home in on their targets, and wanted such illegal signals identified, and their originators arrested.

One frequent misconception – found in many books, and in profiles on the World Wide Web –  is that RSS had its origins within MI5 itself, the organization tasked with ‘defending the realm’, and thus needing to be aware of illicit signals activity emanating from within the country’s borders. It has been suggested that this historical background contributed to the later friction between MI5 and SIS over signals detection in 1941 (which will be analyzed in more depth later). The diaries of Guy Liddell (deputy to Jasper Harker of MI5’s Counter-Espionage B Division until he replaced Harker when the latter was moved upstairs in May 1940), provide evidence of this confusion. For example, when Chamberlain, defining one of the objectives of the study described above, asked Hankey to investigate the issue of information ‘leakages’ to Germany, portrayed by Liddell as a ‘wrangle’ between the War Office and SIS, Liddell discovered that Hankey too (no neophyte in these matters) was under the misapprehension that MI5 was responsible for wireless interception.

Quoting Davies’s cool judgment is the easiest way of summarizing the nature of this misrepresentation. Assessing the eventual takeover of RSS by SIS in 1941, Davies writes: “It is often asserted that SIS acquired RSS from MI5, over the security service’s objections, and that this was one of the sources of friction between the two agencies which marred their cooperation during the war. However, as pointed out by Hinsley and the former post-war Deputy-General of MI5, C. A. G. Simkins, in Volume IV of the official history of British intelligence in the Second World War, nothing of this sort took place. The RSS was acquired by the SIS from the War Office signals organization, MI8, with the very explicit backing of DGSS [Director-General of the Security Service] Sir David Petrie. However, the process by which this was developed was nothing like as consensual as Hinsley and Simkins suggest, with considerable resistance appearing, not from MI5, but from MI8 and even the DMI [the Director of Military Intelligence].”  Davies adds examples of the confusion in his Notes: “See, for example, West, MI6, pp. 148, 284 (although West also – correctly – identifies the RSS as having originally been under the War Office as MI8c), and in greater detail in his earlier, MI5: British Security Service Operations 1909-1945, pp 201-4. This version of events is also suggested in the first volume of the official history, Hinsley, et al., British Intelligence, vol. 1, p 277, although the official history corrects its position in the fourth volume on counter-espionage and security.” Davies’s commentary is a very important contribution to the narrative.

Thus, during the Phoney War (from September 1939 to May 1940), MI5 was out of the mainstream management of illicit signals detection, but still maintained a very strong interest in how it was executed, as the department was responsible for working with the police to investigate possible infractions of the law. The emergent RSS organization in fact worked alongside MI5 in the recently appropriated location of Wormwood Scrubs (whither the Headquarters of MI5 had moved in August 1939), allowing the Security Service to learn at close hand what was going on  ̶  a co-residency that coincidentally contributed to the historical confusion over responsibilities. Liddell and his officers frequently expressed frustration over the capabilities of the detection-finders, and its troops of ‘amateurs twiddling knobs’, being made aware of illicit signals from their old contacts in the Post Office. Liddell’s diary entries, at the end of 1939, are riddled with observations about illicit broadcasts being made, but not being followed up appropriately, even though the infractions turned out to be almost all harmless. He also expressed frustration with the laws that prevented the authorities from entering anyone’s premises in search of illegal apparatus.  Yet part of the overall strategy of radio communications was to give the Germans the impression that Britain’s detection techniques were not that efficient: MI5 was already using the double-agent SNOW (Arthur Owens) to relay information to the Nazis, and it did not want the Germans to start wondering why his broadcasts had not been picked up. What is more, no other evidence of German spies was found. Was this due to inefficiency, or to an absence of any subversive activity?

As 1939 turned into 1940, MI5’s interest seemed to switch from the detection of local radio transmissions to the analysis of broadcasts and messages emanating from Germany, primarily the threat represented by the New British Broadcasting Service, a propaganda vehicle of the Nazis. MI5 harboured the suspicion that the NBBS was sending coded messages to a ‘Fifth Column’ preparing to take up arms at the right call. Complex discussions took place between the War Office, SIS and GC&CS over whose responsibility this should be. While MI5 resisted attempts to have this task palmed off to its overstretched workforce, a continuing professional interest in the topic would eventually lead to Liddell’s hiring an executive from the BBC to set up a new group dealing with such ‘codes’. What did constitute a break-through, however, was the detection of wireless interactions on the Continent between German units and their corresponding offices or outlying agents: Liddell refers quite excitedly to the evolving decryption of such messages. It is not surprising that his diary had to be secreted.

Meanwhile, in the light of its failure to provide a cross-European network, SIS had its own reasons for improving its radio communications expertise, as Hankey had intimated. (At the outbreak of the war, for example, SIS agents in Switzerland could only receive radio traffic, not send it.)  The pre-war director of SIS, Hugh Sinclair, had concluded that he needed to own and maintain his own secure network, independent of the Foreign Office, for his secret communications with agents, and transmissions from embassies, overseas (i.e. separating task 3 from task 4). It can be seen that SIS was, somewhat anomalously, responsible for tasks 1 and 4, a grouping that turned out to be quite significant as the war progressed. In 1938 Sinclair moved the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) from Broadway to Bletchley Park, and the next year moved  most of the staff at the Barnes wireless station (then shared with the Foreign Office – task 3) to Whaddon Hall, which, like Hanslope Park, where RSS was eventually to reside, was also close to Bletchley Park. Sinclair had recruited Richard Gambier-Parry from the private radio industry in 1938 to manage this new network. Gambier-Parry immediately developed new radio equipment in Barnes, including more portable sets for agents going overseas, and set up new transmissions stations, for example in Woldingham, Surrey. When Sinclair died in November 1939, he was replaced by Stewart Menzies, not an uncontroversial choice, but one supported by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Menzies was not a strong leader, but he exploited his responsibility for GC&CS to his best advantage, gaining significant political support from Churchill.

As has been shown, the original mission of RSS had been to intercept and track down transmissions from enemy agents working from within Britain. According to Geoffrey Pridgeon’s account, The Secret Wireless War, the idea for engaging amateurs for this task had come from Lord Sandhurst of MI5, who approached Arthur Watts, then President of the Radio Society of Great Britain in the summer of 1939. MI5’s section to handle any spies who had been detected and apprehended also resided in Wormwood Scrubs, and it was there that Watts was interviewed. (Another contributor to the confusion over responsibilities.) While ‘amateur transmitters were impounded on the outbreak of war the short wave receivers were not’, writes Pridgeon: thus an enthusiastic body of capable interceptors was available. The rather transparent name of Illicit Wireless Intercept Organization (IWIO) was established, which eventually morphed into the RSS. The officer who headed this new organization was a Colonel Worlledge, described by West as ‘a veteran interceptor, who . . . was give an brief to “intercept, locate and close down illicit wireless stations operated whether by enemy agents in Great Britain or by any other persons not licensed to do under Defence Regulations, 1939”.’ This charter paradoxically suggested that the allegiance of persons operating such equipment could be determined prior to their apprehension, but at least it did not exclude the possibility of trapping (for instance) Communist agents as well.  Procedures were put in place for suspicious Morse signals to be transcribed by the force of Voluntary Interceptors (VIs) and sent to Howick Place in London, and Post Office direction-finding vans were ready to move in on the spies when their locations were discovered. On April 5, 1940, Liddell wrote: “Matters have been brought to a head by some radio-therapy organisation called Hanovia which has been broadcasting a colossal beam day and night. The discovery was made by Col. Worlledge and his boys with the vans.” Hereby Liddell perhaps betrayed his less than complete  respect for the organization.

The process of listening for enemy Morse signals was an arduous one, requiring intense concentration and patience. The volunteer hams who comprised the force were directed to tune in to particular German wave-bands at a certain frequency and then accurately and quickly transcribe what they heard. Call-signs might be changed, so operators started to learn the pattern of radio operations, the individual’s ‘fist’. Frequencies might be changed at set intervals, so listeners had to be attentive to signals suddenly stopping. Overall, however, the amateurs developed a higher level of skill than the professional Post Office operatives. Thus, by early 1940, the RSS had become very successful at picking up messages from German agents on the continent – but the department had not discovered any messages originating from British soil, apart from SNOW, the agent mentioned above. Yet this phenomenon eventually betrayed an important fact: communication with spies and their controls would obviously have been two-way. As Hinsley wrote: “Since Snow’s signals had not been heard before MI5 took control of him, the failure to intercept others was understandably attributed to the inefficiency of the watch or to technical problems, notably the difficulty of picking up low-powered high frequency signals except at very close or very long range. By December 1939, however, it had been recognised that the difficulty did not apply to transmissions made from Germany to agents: they had to be able to receive their control stations’ signals, and if they could hear them, so could the RSS.”

RSS was by this time energetically recruiting from the universities, as was MI5. Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the first academics to be hired by E. W. B. Gill, the bursar of Merton College, Oxford, who had been recruited in December 1939 to head up what was called the ‘discrimination’ unit of RSS. Trevor-Roper thus took up his duties at Wormwood Scrubs, and built solid relationships with Liddell and other officers, such as ‘TAR’ Robertson and Dick White. Their supervision of agent SNOW (and his periods of downtime), combined with rapidly improving goniometric techniques for location finding, were to provide a breakthrough in traffic analysis. Having detected wireless messages between a German ship, the Theseus, off the Norwegian coast, and an Abwehr station in Hamburg, RSS sent the transcripts to GC&CS at Bletchley Park, but surprisingly was told that they should be ignored. Not the most tactful of persons, Trevor-Roper, intellectually stimulated, then quickly broke the cipher on his own, early in 1940. Bletchley Park was annoyed at this territorial infringement, but RSS succeeded in breaking further ciphers, and a special group was set up under Oliver Strachey at GC&CS to process such messages. Thus was begun the powerful programme that later became to be known as ULTRA.

Meanwhile, what of Sonia (Ursula Hamburger, née Kuczynski)? The accounts of her movements are inherently not very reliable. The memoir of a close colleague and agent of hers in Switzerland, Alexander Foote, ‘Handbook for Spies’ (published in 1950), was in fact ghosted by an MI5 officer, Courtenay Young, who had his employer’s own agenda in mind when he doctored Foote’s story. Sonia’s record is equally dubious, conveniently passing over several facts, having been directed by the authorities in Moscow. The files at the National Archives, especially those covering Foote’s interrogation by MI5 after he defected from the Soviets in 1947, probably provide the most realistic picture of the bizarre events that preceded Sonia’s arrival in England.

What appears indisputable, confirmed by all accounts, is that, in the summer of 1938, Sonia had been instructed to set up a spy network in Switzerland with herself as radio operator, one that eventually became known as the ‘Rote Drei’ (the ‘Red Three’). She had left her two children (a son Michael, by Rudolf Hamburger, the second Janina, by her lover from China, Ernst) at Felpham in Sussex, and spent three months in Moscow. She returned to England in October, seeking a recruit for her team, probably someone with experience in the Spanish Civil War, who would be suitable for carrying out espionage in Germany. The Communist Party of GB recommended one Alexander Foote, a leftist who had seen action in Spain, but was importantly not a CP member (which would have otherwise have drawn the attention of MI5 to him). Through illness, Foote missed his appointment with Sonia, but had a meeting with her sister Brigitte after Sonia had returned to Switzerland. In January 1939, Foote met Sonia in Geneva: she then trained him in radio operation, at which he became very proficient. They were also both capable of building their own radio equipment. The following month, Foote introduced an ex-colleague from Spain, Len Beurton, to Sonia, as a second agent to operate in Germany. By then, however, Sonia had received fresh instructions from Moscow.

Here the story diverges. It would seem that the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) had determined that Sonia should return to Britain as a deep penetration agent, probably to initiate the transmission of purloined atomic weapons research to Moscow, as the Soviet Union had solid contacts with those carrying out atomic research in British universities at the time. But Sonia was not a British citizen, and entry would have been impossible in wartime. Foote’s account is not credible: he suggests that Sonia became so disillusioned about the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 that she decided to quit espionage, and set her mind on returning to England. “The main obstacle, apart from Moscow’s views, was her German passport”, he writes, as if Moscow Centre would have tolerated such bourgeois self-indulgence. Foote then laconically comments on her arranged marriage to Beurton, and acquisition of a British passport.

Sonia herself approaches the truth a little more closely. She indicates that Moscow was predictably concerned about the expiry of her documents, that she was given a choice of marrying either Foote or Beurton, but that she found Beurton more congenial. (They did become devoted: the marriage lasted until his death in 1997.) Having married Beurton in February 1940, she was able to exploit the reputation of English friends introduced to her by her father, including the leftist John Belloch of the International Labour Organisation, the son-in-law of the Manchester Guardian correspondent, Robert Dell. Belloch’s name indeed appears in the National Archives as one who gave a good reference for her in her passport application. Then Moscow ‘suggested’ that she and Beurton ‘settle’ in Great Britain.

The National Archives indicate, however, that a more sinister plan of action was undertaken. In October 1939, Sonia had gained a divorce from her husband, Rudolf Hamburger (who had by then returned to the Soviet Union, but was complicit in the subterfuge, as Moscow orders were orders), based on the perjurious testimony of Foote, who claimed that he had seen Hamburger conducting an affair with Sonia’s sister Brigitte in London. Foote’s testimony is occasionally contradictory: for example, at one stage he told his interrogators that Sonia was ordered to go to Britain, but on another misleadingly claimed that ‘Moscow instructed Ursula that she was on no account to work in England, even if she wished to do so; it was against Soviet policy for foreign nationals to work in their own country, and against that country’. Yet it is unlikely that he would have invented such a story that would incriminate himself so boldly.

What followed next was either an example of gross incompetence or an exercise in looking the other way for some larger political reason. Despite the fact that MI5 knew of the subversive intentions of the whole Kuczynski family (her openly communist brother was rabble-rousing under internment at the time), and that the Soviet Union was at that time still an ally of Nazi Germany, and supplying it with war matériel to be used against Britain, MI5 failed to respond in a timely manner about any concerns they had about the genuineness of Sonia’s marriage and passport application. Sonia was issued her passport on April 24, 1940. (Some voices in MI5 spoke up: their contribution will be analyzed later.) She then prepared to take her two young children with her to England, Len inconveniently not yet being able to accompany them because his role in the International Brigade in 1936 would have prevented him travelling through Spain. She would eventually arrive in Britain in January 1941, after an extraordinary journey with her children that took her to Lisbon, where she would be granted passage on one of the few ships that were able to set sail in those days. Thus did the British authorities connive in the facilitating of the entry into the country of one of the most notorious communist agents of her time. And outside Oxford she would set up her radio, in the grounds of a house owned by Neville Laski, the brother of the communist fellow-traveller, agent of influence, and would-be terrorist, Harold Laski.

Thus, in May 1940, when Germany invaded the Low Countries, and WWII began in earnest for Britain, an intriguing confluence of factors was at work. Britain was now led by a premier who had a fascination with intelligence and clandestine operations. Radio-detection, interception and decryption techniques were rapidly advancing. With a German invasion in the offing, a ‘Fifth Column’ scare provoked the authorities to a hyperactive response to the threat of subversives in their midst, a group that was not restricted to Nazi sympathisers only. In March 1940 the scientists Peierls and Frisch published their famous memorandum recommending Uranium 235 as the basis for an atomic bomb, and the Maud commission on nuclear fission was set up the following month.  On the same day that the Netherlands were invaded (May 14, 1940), however, the scientist and future spy for whom Sonia would eventually act as courier, Klaus Fuchs (who had worked with, and been sponsored by, Peierls), was interned and sent to Nova Scotia. Sonia would soon be safely installed near Oxford, but her energies would have to wait until Fuchs’s communist past was overlooked in favour of his potential contribution to atomic weapons research, and he was plucked out of internment to join what was now named the ‘Tube Alloys’ project.

Principal Sources:

British Intelligence in the Second World War, by F. H. Hinsley et al.

The Security Service 1908-1945: The Official History by John Curry

The Secret History of MI6,1909-1949 by Colin Jeffery

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew

MI5 by Nigel West

GCHQ by Nigel West

The Secret Wireless War: The Story of MI6 Communications, 1939-1945 by Geoffrey Pidgeon

MI6 and the Machinery of Spying by Philip H. J. Davies

GCHQ by Richard J. Aldrich

The Secret World by Hugh-Trevor-Roper

The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay

The Secret War by Max Hastings

Sonjas Rapport by Ruth Werner

Handbook for Spies by Alexander Foote

The National Archives

(Part 3 – and maybe Part 4 – will appear in the next few months. Their writing will require me to inspect first some archival material at Kew that is not available for download remotely.)

This month’s Commonplace entries available here.  (June 30, 2016)


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Revisiting Smiley & Co.

Last month I re-read John le Carré’s classic story of betrayal in Britain’s security services, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It must be almost forty years since I first picked it up, since my Pan paperback edition came out in 1978. I do not believe I completely understood what was going on at the time, although the television serial produced by the BBC a year later made things a little easier. Now, with my deep background reading into espionage and intelligence, it was much easier to understand the plot, and pick up the threads and references.

A now obvious theme that had not made much impression on me earlier was the veiled introduction into the plot of real-life incidents and characters. Thus Rikki Tarr’s involvement with the Soviet agent Irina, and her sudden extraction back to the Soviet Union, echo the Volkov incident, where the would-be Soviet defector and his wife were spirited out of Turkey to be killed in Moscow, after Philby had betrayed them. The Arabist father of Bill Haydon (‘our latter-day Lawrence of Arabia’) is a clear pointer to the political persuasions of Kim Philby’s own father, Harry St. John.  The Oxford club of ‘Optimates’ (‘an upper-class Christ Church club, mainly old Etonian’ – Chapter 29) while of conservative leanings, is a clear analog of the Apostles, based at Trinity College, Cambridge, where most of the Cambridge Spies were recruited. The formidable Connie Sachs was probably based on the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, who maintained scrupulous records on Communist suspects for MI5, and had a phenomenal memory. Under-Secretary Oliver Lacon, with his ‘tight-lipped moral complacency’, has all the patrician smoothness of Gladwyn Jebb, who was indeed responsible for liaising between the Foreign Office and the security services. Even the workname of Jim Prideaux, Ellis, is a sharp pointer to the infamous Soviet mole, ELLI, never accurately identified, but whose brief syllables provide eerie hints to the various characters who have been at one time or another suspected of being the person behind the cryptonym: Guy Liddell, Graham Mitchell, Roger Hollis, and the undeservedly overlooked Leo Long (‘LL’). Le Carré even introduces a naval intelligence officer named ‘Lilley’ (Chapter 16) to extend the joke and enrich the pageant.

But one aspect that newly impressed me was Le Carré’s skills in characterization, especially his use of different speech registers both to describe and distinguish the intelligence officers. This was a strength that I had picked up in the last Le Carré novel that I read, The Russia House. The idioms and manners of speaking that anyone uses are influenced by many factors: family, locality, education, friends, associations, interests, etc. If taken to extremes, such registers become mere caricature, or may be applied for humorous affect if out of character (for instance, if I started using Cockney rhyming-slang in an exaggerated manner, or used Bertie Wooster vernacular). If deployed subtly, however, they can add much credibility and distinctiveness. Hence Ricky Tarr’s cheeky-chappie sub-American slang makes him instantly memorable and situates him somewhat out of his element among the refined bosses of the Circus; Toby Esterhase’s struggles with British idioms plant him carefully as an anglicised mid-European intellectual, and thus an outsider; Percy Alleline’s sarcastic and pompous banter ( his ‘one instrument of communication’) sharply sets him up as the boss who keeps control by reminding his underlings of their inferior status; Roy Bland’s ‘caustic cockney voice’ incorporates disrespect; Bill Haydon’s sharp-witted barbs and lively images can be seen as a screen to conceal his real character and actions.

And then there is Smiley himself.  His character comes through not so much in his idiom, but more in his manner of speaking, understated, with well-placed silences, and tentative questions, all encouraging his interlocutor to speak more. Perhaps, when most intelligence officers are represented by Le Carré as having all the traditional human failings of ambition, jealousy, and disloyalty, he is everything we should expect in an intelligence officer responsible for guarding the realm – solid, dry-witted, pragmatic, apolitical, dogged, analytical – and a little boring. Those plodding and unspectacular attributes are what enable him to solve the problem. Yet Smiley’s triumph in uncovering the mole Bill Haydon is undermined by Le Carré in a discomforting – and, to me, unconvincing  ̶  way. Even though Smiley has been cuckolded by Haydon, on the disclosure of the latter’s treachery, he still harbours doubts about Haydon’s guilt:  ‘Yet there was a part of him that rose already in Haydon’s defence. Was not Bill also betrayed?’ (Chapter 36)  Le Carré continues: ‘Thus Smiley felt not only disgust; but, despite all that the moment meant to him, a surge of resentment against the institutions he was supposed to be protecting.’ But Le Carré presents those institutions as being the officers of the Circus: ‘such men invalidate any contract: why should anyone be loyal to them?’ To portray a traitor as someone who has inexplicably been betrayed by the survival of decent life after the ruins of war and the onslaughts of two varieties of totalitarianism, yet somehow because of that succumbs to a bankrupt and cruel creed, is a bit rich. Haydon was no hero for the communist cause, no purist like Milovan Djilas, carping at the obtuseness of Stalin and the extravagances of Tito.

Not only that. For it is part of Le Carré’s grudge (as is clear from some of his later works, as well as from Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography of him) that the Western system was as essentially corrupt as was Communism, and their security services thus equally at fault. And here the author falls into the familiar territory of moral equivalence, providing the false contrast of ‘capitalism’ with ‘communism’, and suggesting that there is really nothing to choose between them. As he has Haydon say: ‘In capitalist America economic repression of the masses is institutionalised to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen’, something that simply sounds absurd coming from someone as cultured and intelligent as Haydon. ‘He had often wondered which side he would be on if the test ever came; after prolonged reflection he had finally to admit that if either monolith [sic!] had to win the day, he would prefer it to be the East.’ What nonsense! It is a very unconvincing portrait: on the one hand suggesting Haydon is a victim, and then giving him the most vapid ideological reasons for staying with Stalinism. The logic is as sophistical as one of the main reasons that Kim Philby, Le Carré’s model for Haydon, gave for his own loyalty, and clearly echoes it. Despite ‘some things going badly wrong in the Soviet Union’, as Philby wrote in My Secret War, ‘finally, it is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito.’ It is as if Le Carré (who declared that he blamed Philby for his premature exit from SIS), unconvinced by Philby’s feeble defence of Communism, was unable to come up with any better rationale to explain Haydon’s treachery, and had to resort to a message of Haydon as someone with a justifiable chip on his shoulder, over which Smiley is taken in.

Moreover, Le Carré falls for that familiar Marxist-Leninist dogma, weakly adopting the terminology of that argument. The struggle was not between capitalism and communism, but between totalitarianism and liberal democracy, with its pluralist instincts and necessarily messy approach to making policy. The West was no ‘monolith’. The problem with resisting dogmatic and pernicious creeds is that liberal democracies struggle to defend themselves confidently, as it is difficult to make an ideological virtue out of such fragmentation, out of pluralism itself. But it was the defence of such liberal institutions as parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, regular open elections, an independent press, freedom of religion and conscience, trial by jury, etc. that Smiley was supposed to be guarding – not the transient careers and reputation of the officers of an intelligence service. In fact it was a misguided loyalty to MI5 that encouraged Liddell, Hollis and Dick White to attempt to cover up their mistakes – not only about the discovery of moles in their midst – but also (for example) over Klaus Fuchs, and force their boss, Percy Sillitoe, to lie to the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, over their surveillance of the atom spy, a deception that has not been properly revealed to this day.

Some of the brave defectors from the Soviet Union realised this self-delusion better than their emancipated cousins resident in the West. One of these, Ismail Akhmedov, in his memoir In and Out of Stalin’s GRU wrote, of Philby: ‘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.’  Philby’s hypocrisy was revealed in a video recording discovered and broadcast a few weeks ago. He was recorded giving a lecture on spycraft to some STASI (East German secret police) officers in 1981 (see . His final lesson for them? ‘Never admit to anything if you are caught.’ But Philby never had to undergo torture, or threats to his family of he did not admit his guilt, or the prospect of a shot in the back of the head without trial. If MI5 and Special Branch had found convincing proof of his guilt, he probably would not have been prosecuted successfully without a confession and an embarrassing trial, and would likely have been told instead (as was Anthony Blunt, in effect): ‘Why don’t you quietly retire, old boy, as we don’t want any nasty mess and bad publicity for the service, do we?’.

Yet this bias of indulgence towards Stalin’s despotism is well-entrenched in Western intellectual life. I have just read David Lodge’s ingenious, but bizarre and ultimately unfulfilling, ‘novel’ about the love-life of H. G. Wells, A Man of Parts, where Lodge offers the following observation: ‘It took him [Wells] a long time, for instance, to recognize how completely Stalin’s police state had betrayed the ideals [sic] of the Russian Revolution. But at least he was never taken in by Mussolini and Hitler, as many British pundits and politicians were.’ ‘At least’?? Who was ever taken in by that strutting Italian socialist-cum-fascist showman? As for Hitler, the number of intellectuals (or pundits or politicians) truly taken in by his ideology was dwarfed by the number of useful idiots and fellow-travellers who were duped by Stalin. Certainly, the odious message of Mein Kampf was a dire warning of worse to come, and the persecution of Jews was well under way, but, at the outset of WWII, the quantity of massacres and murders perpetrated by Stalin was orders of magnitude greater than that for which Hitler had thus far been responsible.

A strong residue of sympathy endures for the great Communist ‘experiment’, and Marxist apologists are still all too ready to overlook the famines, the purges, the Gulag – and the Maoist Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge . . .  In fact, wherever the communist attempt to make a ‘new man’ has taken root, it has meant the elimination of millions who either chose the wrong parents, or defied the new ideology, or who were simply innocent victims caught up in the terror. Unfortunately, it appears that John le Carré, who, while having welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall, continues to rail against capitalism as he maximises his substantial royalty cheques, did not, and still fails to, understand the relationship between free enterprise and liberal democracy. But he tells a rattling good yarn, and has a great ear for the registers of speech.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.  (May 31, 2016)


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Sonia’s Radio – Part I


The Book Cover       


Sonia’s  Inscription

A couple of years ago, I bought on-line, from a bookshop in Minneapolis, an item titled ‘Sonjas Rapport’ (‘Sonia’s Report’) by one Ruth Werner. It is rather a drab publication, a fourth edition of 1978, issued by Verlag Neues Leben, in East Berlin.  On one of the leading pages, it appears that the author has written an inscription for the buyer. It runs as follows: ‘Jeder Autor hat beim Aufschreiben seiner Erinnerungen Schwierigkeiten; Auswählen, Komprimieren und die Wahrheit sagen, das war für mich der Weg. Mit gutem Gewissen, Ruth Werner. 14 Avril 1977.’ [‘Every author experiences difficulties in recording his or her memoirs: to select, to condense and to tell the truth, that was the approach I took. With a clear conscience, Ruth Werner. 14 April, 1977.’]

What is going on here? Is this a hoax? Why would the inscription be dated ‘April 1977’ when the book was printed the following year? A Google search for the sentence is partially rewarding but also frustrating: it seems that this was something that Werner had declared when the book was first published. An occasion to celebrate her 75th birthday (in 1982) reproduces the sentence. See:   So, Werner presumably thought it appropriate to annotate the volume with her pronouncement, but indicate the date she first said it, at the time of the book’s launch, I imagine. The statement is, however, both anodyne and perplexing. Of course, every memoirist faces difficulties – but was telling the truth one of these challenges? And why introduce her ‘conscience’ unless she had something she was feeling guilty about?

So why did I seek this particular book out? Because Ruth Werner (aka Ursula Hamburger, or Kuczynski, or Beurton: agent SONIA) was one of the most notorious Communist spies of the century. (I direct readers to her Wikipedia entry to learn more about her life and career. See: Now, we must bear in mind that the reminiscences of spies are not at all trustworthy, despite their claims to clean consciences and honesty, and Werner’s work was no doubt controlled by Soviet military intelligence, the GRU. Yet I was especially interested in what she had to say, because of my research into Communist subversion in the early part of World War II. For Sonia managed to hoodwink an incompetent MI5 into letting her back into the United Kingdom, after her arranged marriage to Spanish Civil War veteran Len Beurton in Switzerland (by which she gained British citizenship), in the winter of 1940-1941. Soon thereafter, she became the primary contact for Klaus Fuchs, allowing the German Communist (now also a naturalised Briton) to give her atomic secrets for passing on to Moscow, and she started using radio equipment given to her by her London contacts (or maybe constructed by herself) to communicate information to her bosses in the Soviet Union. Falling upon a signed copy of her memoir was quite a coup.

Yet Sonia pulled off this massive espionage exercise when MI5 was completely aware of her political affiliations, and the probable intentions behind her marriage, as well as her relationship with her openly subversive brother, Jürgen, who was interned early in 1940, alongside some of his Comintern friends. Moreover, a couple of years later, in January 1943, a wireless set was discovered at the cottage in Oxfordshire which she was renting from Neville Laski, the brother of the notorious Communist sympathizer, Harold Laski! Yet nothing was done. What was going on?

Now that my doctoral thesis has been submitted, I can turn to some of the puzzling and controversial episodes of communist subversion in the period of the 30s and 40s (and occasionally beyond)  that have never been satisfactorily resolved (e.g. Kim Philby’s recruitment, Philby’s relationship with Stephen Spender, Guy Burgess’s protectors, Isaiah Berlin’s relationship with Soviet intelligence, Klaus Fuchs’s Aliens War Service permit, Victor Rothschild’s guilt, the early detection of Leo Long’s espionage, the role of Basil Mann, the death of Hugh Gaitskell, etc.). Why illicit broadcasts from Soviet spies were allowed to proceed unpunished is one of the most perplexing of these challenges. The journalist/historian Michael Smith even claims that, during World War II, a nest of communist spies was overheard discussing plans for the forthcoming war between the Soviet Union and the West. (That assertion must be tested.) Ursula Werner’s ability to remain untouched is part of that enigma.

Most of this story has been told before. One of the best accounts appears in Chapman Pincher’s ‘Treachery’, although the reader must be careful with Pincher’s narrative, as he provides no sources for his multiple claims, and since his goal is to show that Roger Hollis was the Soviet Super-Spy in the innards of MI5, his objectivity and accuracy (especially as regards chronology) cannot be readily trusted. For example, his argument is that Sonia was able to continue to perform untroubled because Roger Hollis and his counter-espionage partner in SIS, Kim Philby, were able to keep the authorities from investigating and prosecuting her. Yet it seems inconceivable to me that those two would be able to pull off such a coup, and convince their masters of the correctness of such a course of action, without drawing obvious attention to themselves. Moreover, MI5 harboured a more deep-seated problem of dealing with Communists than might have been contained in the unbrilliant mind of Roger Hollis.

Wireless and its associated techniques are a complex area, attracting both brilliant and slightly eccentric characters. As George Smiley says, when describing to his colleague Peter Guillam the encounter he had with Karla, in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “We all have our prejudices and radio men are mine. They’re a thoroughly tiresome lot in my experience, bad fieldmen and overstrung, and disgracefully unreliable when it comes down to doing the job.” (Chapter 23).  I can’t claim to have a good understanding of the technology involved, but I believe I have learned enough to conclude that the failure to act over Sonia (and maybe other spies at the time) was not a technical problem.

I do know that possessing unregistered wireless sets was illegal, as was using registered sets for transmission. I have learned that, in the first years of the war, the responsibilities for tracking, recording and decoding illicit radio transmissions (as well as messages originating from overseas) were calamitously split between such groups as the BBC, Military Intelligence (in a section called MI8), Section W in MI5, the Radio Intelligence Service and its offshoots (which was a reincarnation of the group within MI8 called MI8(c), and moved to SIS in 1941), and the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), whose name was changed to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in 1943. I know that MI8(c) and RSS very much focused their efforts on Nazi wavebands (‘the enemy’), even when the Soviet Union was still an ally of Germany, that is up to June 1941. (Older readers of this blog may be familiar with the BBC 1979 television programme ‘The Secret Listeners’, which described the corps of amateur wireless enthusiasts who aided the effort. It is viewable at   I recall that MI5 rapidly claimed, in its promotion of the Double-Cross System, that no unidentified Nazi spies remained at large in the UK, sending radio messages back to Germany, despite the administrative mess.  I know that Malcolm Frost, who joined MI5 from the BBC to run Section W, was a very arrogant and ambitious character, and that Guy Liddell (head of B Division, responsible for Counter-Espionage) felt threatened by him.  I know that the head of MI8(c) protested the move of RSS to SIS, and that his boss, the Director of Military Intelligence, tried to talk the head of the Security Executive (Swinton) out of it, but that Petrie of MI5 and Swinton forced the transfer through in May 1941.  I also know that, once MI5 had declined the offer to take over RSS itself in early 1941, Liddell started being very critical of RSS’s direction-finding techniques and discipline.

But what I don’t know is who called the shots, who made the fateful decisions to minimise the Communist threat and to allow people like Sonia to continue working, even after the defector Krivitsky had warned MI5 of the dangers of Communist infiltrators. I certainly do not yet know what is the source of Smith’s claim that the codes of the Soviet spy network in 1943 had been broken, and by whom, or whether the Joint Intelligence Committee knew what was going on. In the coming months, I plan to dig around relevant papers at the National Archives that are available on-line, various works of intelligence history (which are very contradictory about organisation and responsibilities on these issues), and the memoirs of such as the history don Hugh Trevor-Roper (who worked for RSS).  I thus hope to be able to offer a workable hypothesis as to why MI5 – or the government in general – was so indulgent with the Soviet Union’s subversive efforts with illegal radios. Anyone who has unpublished (or published) insights on these issues is encouraged to contact me at

Finally, a hint as to the muddle that was MI5 – and at the same time a reminder that it was such a pluralist muddle that we were fighting for in the struggles against the totalitarian states. Readers may recall those wartime films, where the Gestapo homes in on the desperate SOE agent, feverishly tapping out a Morse message on his (or her) radio set, perhaps in an attic in suburban France, hoping that he can complete it before the Nazis, with their goniometric equipment, can identify the location whence the transmissions are made. The Gestapo officers normally burst in just as the operator is winding down. And we know what happens next: the agent is executed – or maybe, after torture, turned to send false messages back to Britain. If the operator does not use a cyanide pill first, or puts a revolver to his or her head.

Guy Liddell’s Diaries report an incident when the German spy Wulf Schmidt, known as TATE, after being maltreated by a brutal Military Intelligence officer, is rescued by MI5 and persuaded to track down where he buried his parachute and wireless set after landing. MI5 sends out its men to Cambridgeshire to dig it up. But they forget to alert the local constabulary of their intentions. As Liddell records it (September 24, 1940): “The worst of it was that the police, L.D.V. [Local Defence Volunteers], etc. have been scouring the country for this wireless set during the last 48 hours. They eventually came upon some people who reported that some mysterious diggers had come down in a car and removed what appeared to be a wireless set. On making further enquiries they discovered that these people were officers of M.I.5.” On another occasion in 1940, Liddell complains that the police are not allowed even to enter any house merely on the suspicion that illicit transmissions may be going on.  (Maybe that reminds you of the current ban in Brussels on night-time police incursions into possible terrorist houses.)

Watch this space! I plan to provide the next installment in a couple of months’ time.

P.S.  The New York Times fails to learn. Despite my attempt to engage the newspaper a couple of months ago (see Refugees & Liberators), it has not got things straight. In an article on immigration to Germany in its Magazine of April 10, James Angelos wrote: “The scale of the influx last year – roughly one million asylum seekers in all, nearly half of whom made formal applications – was exceeded in German history only by the influx of ‘ethnic Germans’ who were expelled from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after World War II.”

P.P.S.  Again, for those of you who want to contact me, please send your message to my email address at If you use the box underneath maintained by WordPress, your message will probably get lost among the literally thousands of spam messages that I have not yet ploughed through. If I have not yet acknowledged your genuine message deposited there, I apologise.

This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.           (April 30, 2016)

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Hey Big Spender!

‘So let me get right to the point
I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see
Hey, big spender!
spend a little time with me’                                                                                                                     (from Sweet Charity, 1966: lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

Shortly after it was released in 1977, I saw the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Based on a memoir by the American playwright Lillian Hellman, it tells the story of a close friendship between Hellman and the mysterious ‘Julia’, a rich American girl who had gone to Europe, studied at Oxford, and then moved to Vienna in the hope of being treated by Freud. Having involved herself in rescue operations of Jews and Communists from under the noses of the Fascists, Julia is severely crippled by the latter. Hellman, struggling with her writing in the summer of 1934, goes off to Europe to try to find her friend, and a few years later undertakes a dangerous mission of smuggling money into Berlin to help save more souls. Later, she learns that her friend had been attacked and was near to death in Frankfurt, but had been spirited out of the country to London, where she died. Hellman tries to discover what happened, and attempts to contact Julia’s grandparents, but finds instead a wall of silence.

I thought the film rather overwrought and unlikely at the time, but knew next to nothing about Hellman (or even Dashiell Hammett, of Maltese Falcon fame, with whom she was living on Long Island), and had only a vague understanding about Austrian politics in the mid-1930s. So I put it to the back of my mind, thinking it was a harmless vehicle for Hanoi Jane and the ambassadress for the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Ms. Redgrave, and concluded that the luvvies at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences must have seen something I didn’t when it was nominated for eleven awards, and won three.

My interest in Julia was sparked a year or two ago as I was performing research for my thesis on communist subversion. The name of Muriel Gardiner came up, and I learned that she had been the model for Hellman’s Julia, who had featured in an eponymous chapter in Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento, and had also appeared in embryonic form in her 1969 memoir An Unfinished Woman. Muriel Gardiner was indeed a rich American who from 1922 to 1924 had spent time at Oxford performing graduate work in English Literature, had moved to Vienna to seek out Freud and be psychoanalysed by him, and had become involved with the communist movement there. But the coincidence ended at that point, as Muriel Gardiner was in fact very much alive when she brought out her own autobiography, Code Name ‘Mary’ in 1983. What is more, she wrote that she had never met Lillian Hellman.

Gardiner explains in her memoir that she had been prompted to write her account to set the record straight, several of her friends having pointed out to her the resemblance between her and Hellman’s Julia. She apparently read Hellman’s book soon after it came out: Sheila Isenberg (Gardiner’s biographer) says that she paid ‘little heed’ to it at first, as her time was consumed with looking after her husband, apparently stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and her interest was not stirred until the movie was released. But Isenberg then represents the chronology very awkwardly, suggesting that Gardiner had discussions with her friends about the movie, but ‘at first refused to say anything directly to Hellman’. Isenberg next reports, however, that ‘in 1976, she did finally write a letter to Hellman’. But since Julia was not released until 1977, the timetable does not make sense.

So what about the letter? It is an extraordinary compilation, a mixture of deference and polite puzzlement. Gardiner starts by describing Pentimento as ‘a beautiful book’  – a somewhat unfortunate choice of words, as later paragraphs will show. She wonders whether the character Julia could be a composite of several persons: “I do not at all think so, but cannot help wondering that I never – as far as I know – met Julia. Nor have I met you, though I heard of you often from our good friend, Wolf Schwabacher  . . .”  (Schwabacher was a lawyer, with whom Muriel and her husband, Joe Buttinger, shared a large house in Pennington, New Jersey, when she returned to the USA in 1940.)   Why would Gardiner bother to point out to Hellman that they had never met, and, even more to the point, why would she not have tried to arrange a meeting to discuss the topic first? An introduction would surely have been easy.

Gardiner’s biographer adds that Hellman had ‘first borrowed Muriel’s life’ late in 1940, when she created ‘the wealthy American Sara Muller, the wife of a European resistance leader’, in The Watch on the Rhine.  But Gardiner had missed the play and the film. Now her tactful approach gave Hellman an opportunity to explain all. Yet she signed off her letter by saying even that there was no need for Hellman to answer it. Why? If she was genuinely interested in what had happened, why give Hellman the out? Instead, Gardiner studiously avoided pinning Hellman down, and when she came to research her own memoir a few years later, she even made contact with the head of the Documentary Archives of the Austrian Resistance, in Vienna (a Dr. Herbert Steiner), to confirm that no other resistance fighter with the same profile had existed. Instead of pursuing Hellman a little more energetically, behavior that would have been much more conventional and acceptable, she went chasing hares.

Hellman accordingly took advantage of the invitation, and did not answer the letter, yet continued to lie about the person of Julia. Anyone interested in more details on this part of the saga can read Sheila Isenberg’s biography of Gardiner (Muriel’s War), or William Wright’s biography of Hellman (Lillian Hellman), or such articles as the New York Times review of Code Name ‘Mary’, at What is certain is that Hellman was not only a Stalinist, but an inveterate liar, and was called out as such. She died before her famous lawsuit against Mary McCarthy came to court. McCarthy had famously said of Hellman on the Dick Cavett Show on October 18, 1979 that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’ Hellman’s mendacity is made perfectly clear in a volume of conversations she had with the media between 1974 and 1979 (i.e. before and after the movie was made), published as Conversations with Hellman (1986), where she confidently begins by boasting of her memory, and swears to the truth of her story, and the strength of her friendship with Julia, but by the end is resorting to awkward equivocations as some of the inconsistencies come to light.

This February, I at last read Pentimento, and also rented the movie Julia from the University Library. The memoir is pure hokum. For example, Hellman describes Hammett and herself spending the summer of 1934 on Long Island, until Hammett agrees to pay her fare to go to Europe for two-and-half months, so that she can finish her play The Children’s Hour, and see Julia. She arrives in Paris, where she calls Julia in Vienna, and tells her she will join her. As Hellman tells it: “Then, two weeks after my phone call, the newspaper headlines said that Austrian government troops, aided by local Nazis, had bombarded the Karl Marx Hof in the Floridsdorf district of Vienna.” Hellman arrives there to find Julia in hospital, having been severely wounded in the fracas surrounding Floridsdorf. Yet the storming of the Karl Marx Hof (the worker community constructed by the Viennese socialist administration) had occurred in February 1934! And the first night of The Children’s Hour was on November 20, 1934, which made the whole construction a nonsense. It was hardly worth my reading on. (Hellman’s biographer Wright notes the first anomaly, but how come nobody else did at the time?)

The movie was even worse, second time around. True, the producers did try to fix some of the obvious problems in the original story  ̶  such as correcting the oversight that, when she returned to Europe in 1937 on a mission to go to a conference in the Soviet Union, Hellman was able to change, while in Paris, her itinerary to Moscow to go via Berlin without gaining permission from the Soviet consulate, and the plugging of some other obvious gaps. But the character ‘Julia’ drew such attention to herself with her nervous mannerisms, and flamboyant outfits, that it defied credibility. As Gardiner herself said to friends (Isenberg, p 378): “How absurd to think that the likes of Jane Fonda could have sat unobserved, wearing that ridiculous hat, waiting for Vanessa Redgrave in the middle of a restaurant in broad daylight in Nazi Berlin!” And why select a Jew for the dangerous job? Wright lists other anomalies, such as the fact that the whole premise of having to smuggle in dollars to Berlin was false. Why some researcher did not investigate all this before the film was made is astonishing. (One irony, to me, was that it would have made better casting sense to have had Julia, i.e. Muriel Gardiner, who was a very attractive woman, played by Fonda, while Redgrave’s – ahem  ̶  more austere beauty would have suited better the less than stellar features of Hellman. But the producers no doubt had to have an American playing Hellman.) As for Redgrave’s Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, it was a joke. She doesn’t appear much, and is swathed in bandages for half the time. Otherwise, she just sits there, looking saintly, peering devotedly into Fonda’s eyes.

The main focus of this piece, however, is on Gardiner, who has always been presented as a very honest person compared to the monster Hellman. Yet a careful examination of her memoir, and of other accounts of her adventures, indicates that she could be parsimonious with the truth as well. This pattern is reflected in three key incidents in her life: her first marriage, her voyage to Moscow in 1932, and her romantic encounter with an English poet, which events together suggest that her account of her dealings with Lillian Hellman may also be unreliable.

In her memoir, Gardiner completely overlooks what one would think would have been an important episode in her life  ̶  her first marriage. While in England, she had met, at the British Museum, an American, Harold Abramson, whom she had known from Ithaca, New York. A passionate affair led to an apparently reluctant marriage in London on November 25, 1925, and it was the failure of that marriage that led her to psychoanalysis. Abramson accompanied her to Vienna, where she failed to see Freud, but underwent analysis with one of his pupils, Dr. Mack. She then had a tempestuous affair with a Welsh artist named Richard Hughes during a trip to England, and divorced Abramson in the spring of 1929. By then she had met an English musician, Jonathan Gardiner, in Vienna, and married him on May 20, 1930. Gardiner glides over this period of her life, which must have been very painful. Yet in the Introduction to her memoir, she writes, while explaining her decision to write the autobiography in the first person: “I decided I would rather risk a lack of modesty than questionable honesty.” Admittedly, the lie was more one of omission than commission, but it was still an extraordinary failing by someone purportedly aiming to set the record straight.

The Gardiners had a child, Constance Mary, born on March 24, 1931, when Muriel was already falling out of love with her husband. And in the next few years, she embedded herself deeply in the leftist/communist movement in Vienna. She met the journalist G. E. R. Gedye, who put her in touch with people in the underground, and she became friendly with various English socialists there, such as Hugh Gaitskell and Frederick Elwyn Jones. Muriel even recalls meeting Kim Philby at this time, although she claims she didn’t realize it was Philby until much later, when she saw his photograph in a bookshop in Connecticut. Philby asked her to deliver a package to a comrade: she claims in her autobiography that she opened the package after he left, and was annoyed to find a large amount of money, and Communist literature. Surprisingly, Gardiner never mentions Philby’s wife, Litzi Friedmann, although there were few women active in the groups working to help the socialists and Jews. In The Third Man E. H. Cookridge says that Philby claimed that he himself had recruited Gardiner into the Revolutionary Socialists, but Cookridge says she was discovered by one Ilse Kulczar. As Isenberg tells the story: “Muriel’s first covert action was to establish her apartment (the one she would soon have to vacate) as a place to hide people. There she also held several meetings of Leopold and Ilse Kulczar’s Funke (Spark) group, named after Lenin’s underground newspaper, Iskra (The Spark). The Kulczars were intelligent and savvy left-wing socialists – a label that also identified her, Muriel now realized, bemused.”

Gardiner was in fact heavily involved in clandestine activities, with her several properties in Austria exploited for meetings and storage of illicit materials. The Communists were busy infiltrating the Socialist groups in Vienna, and managing their work from the comparative safety across the border, in Czechoslovakia. Philby’s British passport was a vital asset that allowed him easy transit between the two countries. As Cookridge (born Edward Spiro) relates of Gardiner, with convincing detail: “She had plenty of money, a villa in the Vienna Woods, a large apartment in the Rummelhardt-Gasse in one of the outer districts and a pied-à-terre in the Lammgasse near the university. She also had a four-year-old daughter, looked after by a nanny and a maidservant. . . . She made her flats available for illegal meetings; the garden sheds at her villa were soon filled with stacks of clandestine news-sheets and pamphlets.” Thus her claim that she was not aware that Philby was asking her to pass on money and Communist literature (how was such distinguishable from revolutionary-socialist pamphlets approved by a Leninist cell, one might ask?) appears a little naïve. Cookridge says that he broke with Philby when he realised that the latter’s money was coming straight from Moscow, but Gardiner did not appear to initiate any similar rift.

Just after the storming of the Karl Marx Hof, Gardiner decided to take a holiday. According to her account, in late April 1934, she chose to go to Mlini, in Yugoslavia, with her daughter and the governess, Gerda. (‘Governess’ sounds a bit advanced for a three-year old, but then all good socialists have governesses for their children.) As she wrote: “I had selected this spot from various circulars because it was the only one that advertized a sandy beach. The proprietor, replying to my various inquiries, told me that two distinguished English journalists who had been staying at the inn for several weeks were enchanted with it.” After that, she planned to leave her daughter and attendant while she travelled down the coast to Greece. What she didn’t say was that she was accompanied by her current lover of the time, Furth Ullman. In Mlini, she discovered who the ‘two distinguished English journalists’ were. One of them was the poet Stephen Spender, and she was smitten. Spender was ‘strikingly handsome, very tall and well built, with a slight stoop, probably because of his height’. This reaction is echoed by Isenberg: ‘Muriel’s impression of the tall, boyishly handsome young writer was of a “graceful animal”’. Now, an argument could be made that Muriel did in fact ‘pop her cork’ for many men she saw, but this time she was truly entranced. And so was Spender, who found Muriel ‘irresistible’.

There was a slight problem, however. For a highly attractive and lusty young woman in the 1930s, Stephen Spender was perhaps not the best candidate for a long-term relationship. For Spender’s sexual adventures had been solely with men up till then: not only that, he was accompanied in Mlini by his current boyfriend, Tony Hyndman. Yet Muriel and Stephen exchanged confidences, and spoke intimately of their pasts, before Muriel moved on to Greece. Muriel claimed she had never heard of Spender, which was somewhat surprising, given that her post-graduate research in English Literature, and that by 1932 Spender was already a hero of the Oxford literary scene, alongside Auden and Isherwood. She writes that Spender was ‘eager to learn all he could about the events of February and the underground movement’, and adds: “We had both been at Oxford, although not at the same time, and we shared similar reservations about it”, but, oddly, she does not remark as to whether they had shared acquaintances there.  In any case, after two weeks with Ullman touring the Greek coastline, Muriel picked up Connie and Gerda, and returned to Vienna by early May. Later that month, Spender and Hyndman joined them there, as Hyndman needed treatment for an inflamed appendix, and Muriel was soon able to seduce Stephen. Yet Stephen could not choose between her and Tony, although he wrote lyrically to Christopher Isherwood about his affair. Gardiner soon started to become interested in another man, a Socialist colleague Joe Buttinger, whom she would marry, and remain with all her life.

Can we trust the accounts of this affair? To begin with, the dates of the encounter do not ring true. Gardiner said she picked Mlini after looking at several brochures, but also indicates that she had decided to go on holiday at the end of April, had then had an exchange of letters with the proprietor of the hotel, who promoted the hotel’s attractiveness by saying that two English gentleman had been there for several weeks. According to John Sutherland, in his biography of Spender (Stephen Spender, A Literary Life), Gardiner picked Mlini because of the sandy beach, and that she continued her journey to Greece ‘after a day or two’. As Gardiner recounts it, she left Connie and Gerda in Mlini, and took a leisurely trip down the coast, exploring each town at every port of call, and then spending ‘a few days in Athens’. She then returned to Dubrovnik, where she picked up Connie and Gerda, and they were all back in Vienna ‘in early May’. That is quite a speedy accomplishment, especially if Gardiner truly made her decision to leave for Mlini only ‘in late April’. Even with an efficient postal system, how could she have had such a productive exchange with the proprietor in such a short time? And was the line about the ‘sandy beach’ an inadvertent gaffe in trying to add verisimilitude? Sunderland observes laconically: ‘Stephen recalls it having a stony beach: brochures fib.’ Perhaps leftist subversives fib, too. (Current tourist material states: “But the main assets of Mlini are its beautiful, natural beaches with clear blue sea, surrounded by rich and fragrant Mediterranean vegetation. There is even [sic] one sandy beach and a beach for nudists reachable by boat”. So perhaps they are both right.) Sutherland also seems to get it wrong about the Englishmen. He says that the proprietor told her of them when she checked in: Gardiner gives the impression she had received the news in a letter.

Irrespective of how sabulous was the beachfront at Mlini, what was Spender’s version of the timetable? Spender and Hyndman had in fact left London by train in the first week of April with Isaiah Berlin, who split from them in Milan. They continued on in leisurely fashion via Venice and Trieste. But Sutherland reports that Spender and Hyndman arrived in Mlini only in the second week of April, which makes nonsense of the proprietor’s claim to Gardiner. And the choice of Mlini was somewhat problematical. Earlier, Stephen had indicated that he planned to go to Dubrovnik for the winter of 1933, but had been talked out of it by Gerald Heard. Then Geoffrey Grigson apparently recommended Mlini (which is about six miles down the coast from Dubrovnik), and the recommendation was taken up. (Grigson had founded Poetry Review, and in 1936 was the messenger who informed Isaiah Berlin that Spender had joined the Communist Party, a fact that Spender then awkwardly denied, calling Grigson ‘a donkey’.) Was Grigson complicit in the meeting, perhaps?

And what about the decision to meet in Vienna? Isenberg writes that ‘Muriel made plans to see Stephen in Vienna where he and Tony planned to seek medical help for Tony’s inflamed and possibly infected appendix.’ Sutherland indicates that the appendix flared up after Muriel had left: “In May, medical opinion hardened around the appendix diagnosis. The Dubrovnik doctors recommended an operation – in Vienna preferably.” (Doctors? How many? One might imagine that in 1934 experienced gastroenterologists were as sparse in Dubrovnik as Huntingdonshire Cabmen, although it is touching to visualise a group of them around Hyndman’s bed, stroking their beards, and discussing the optimum treatment, while milord Spender sits pensively in the background, composing an ode for the occasion.) Thus the medicos conveniently anticipated the plans that Stephen had already communicated to Muriel. So Stephen then wrote to Muriel, and she arranged for Tony to be accepted at a hospital. Thus a further conflicted story appears: moreover, appendicitis was not an ailment that could be addressed leisurely – especially in 1934, when it was frequently fatal. Yet Spender and Hyndman took their time, and did not arrive in Vienna until May 22.

Moreover, Spender later tried to mask the identity of his beloved. After his arrival in the Austrian capital, he wrote a very mediocre poem (‘Vienna’) that attempts to mingle his ambiguous sexual impulses with the stumblings of the revolution. He openly dedicated it to ‘Muriel’, as my Random House 1935 first edition informs me. Yet, by the time he published his autobiography, World Within World, in 1951, Spender disguised Muriel as ‘Elizabeth’, indicating also that she (with daughter and nurse, but no mention of the lover) all stayed for ‘a few days’. It was not until he was interviewed with Muriel by a TV station in Chicago in 1984 that he admitted to the presence of Ullmann  ̶  ‘a rather steely fawn-eyed young man who passed as her cousin (actually he was her lover)’. So why the deception: did he think no-one would pick up his poetic dedication?   He also wrote that he did not learn about Muriel’s two failed marriages until later, in Vienna: Isenberg, using Gardiner’s unpublished reminiscences, suggests he learned of them while in Mlini. Thus no clear lead on the chronology appears.

One spectacularly unusual item in Spender’s account from this time, which must cast doubt on his overall reliability, is a claim that he climbed one day up a path from Mlini beach to the coastal road, and saw a cavalcade of six-wheeled cars passing, in the first vehicle of which a man turned his head to Stephen and stared at him. It was Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag. But has anybody verified that Goering was in fact in Croatia at this time? (Leonard Mosley’s biography of Goering does not help here.) Was this event an elaborate hoax by Spender, or a dream, where the form of Goering haunted him? Stephen had recently completed a poem about Goering, who had indicted and humiliated the mentally-deficient Dutchman, van der Lubbe, for burning down the Reichstag. Van der Lubbe was then falsely convicted at the show trial, and beheaded in January 1934. The timing of this coincidence is extraordinary.

All in all, it sounds very much as if Gardiner and Spender arrived in Mlini at about the same time, in mid-April. The perspicacious reader (if he or she has lasted this far) may well have noticed the writer’s implicit suspicion that the encounter was perhaps not accidental. As a matter of social etiquette, it should surely have been very difficult for two strangers to develop so quickly such an intimate relationship (especially given Spender’s inexperience with women), when they were each accompanied by their sexual partners. What did Ullmann and Hyndman do while Muriel and Stephen were getting to know each other? Yet, despite the disconcerting details about the sandy beach, the time the two Englishmen had been there, the by no mean galloping appendicitis and its aftermath, and how Muriel’s itinerary worked, the evidence that the surprise encounter was bogus is admittedly still flimsy. Except for one very significant last point.

In 1932, Muriel had made a visit to the Soviet Union. She is very lapidary about this expedition in her autobiography, just indicating that she spent a few weeks in Moscow, and ‘became familiar with the views of a large number of foreign students in Moscow’, but she says nothing about her companions on the trip, or how it was organised. Later, however, describing her time in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss (March 1938), Muriel provides a hint, mentioning that she found someone called Shiela Grant Duff in her apartment. “Shiela, a young English friend whom I had first met in Vienna and who had been with me in Russia in 1932, was now a reporter in Prague. She had come to Vienna to witness the Anschluss first hand.” So how well did she know Grant Duff, and what happened concerning Moscow?

Grant Duff was one of the many female leftist/communist acolytes of Isaiah Berlin. What is more, she had been the girl-friend (but almost certainly not the lover) of Berlin’s friend, and sometime Soviet agent, Goronwy Rees.  (I have written about the 1933 exploits of her, Rees and Berlin in Central Europe before: see Homage to Ruthenia.) In 1982, Grant Duff published a memoir, A Parting of the Ways, subtitled A Personal Account of the Thirties, which is a useful description of the rise of Fascism in that decade, and the reactions of committed socialists like herself. In the summer of 1932, she was in Germany with Rees, and they witnessed the Nazi brutality against Jews and socialists, followed by the vigorous acceptance of Hitler at the polls at the end of July. They decided to leave Germany for Vienna, since ‘many Oxford friends were in Vienna’. Her words describing her time there are worthy quoting in full.

“The smiling, familiar faces of our Oxford friends and acquaintances were infinitely reassuring. William Hayter was there at the Embassy and Duff Dunbar. Martin Cooper was studying music there. Stephen Spender was around and had made a wonderful American friend, Muriel Gardiner, who befriended us all. She was studying psychoanalysis under Freud and living with her little daughter in a flat near the Opera.” Grant Duff goes on: “One night  . . . I fell asleep, only to awake to a most startling proposition – that Neill [her brother], Goronwy and I accompany Muriel on a visit to the Soviet Union, entirely at her expense.” After Muriel returned to London ‘on urgent business’ they reunited in Warsaw, and made their voyage to Moscow. Just like that. Wasn’t it in practice much more difficult to get visas for the Soviet Union?

If Grant Duff’s account is true, it is an astonishing revelation. (Isenberg cites Grant Duff’s memoir, but does not appear to have noticed the early reference to Spender.). Is it possible that she had got the dates wrong? That she had erroneously imagined Spender was there in Vienna in 1932, even though she clearly associates the encounter with the Gardiner-Spender friendship? But it hardly seems likely that she would have made a mistake of that magnitude, just before making a trip to Moscow funded by Gardiner herself. Moreover, she does recall the daughter, and the location of Muriel’s flat. As for Spender, according to Sutherland, his movements that year were as follows: he was in Berlin on July 12, and five days later, travelled to Salzburg, where he remained until the middle of August, reportedly in the company of Isaiah Berlin. Before returning to England on August 18, he spent a few more days in Berlin. Isaiah’s only two published letters from Salzburg that August are to Goronwy Rees and John Hilton: in the letter to Rees, he mentions (vaguely) Spender’s name, but says nothing about his presence there. [Since this original posting, I have discovered, on the Isaiah Berlin website maintained by Henry Hardy, a newly  published letter from  Berlin to Julia Pakenham, dated August 1934, which gratuitously introduces the fact that a Mr. Coughlan had met Berlin with Stephen Spender in Salzburg in 1932.] He writes to Grant Duff on October 13, so she is clearly back in the United Kingdom by then (she had to be back for the beginning of the Oxford term), though nothing is said of the visit to Moscow. Is that not strange? Was it deliberately avoided?

Michael Ignatieff, Berlin’s biographer, offers no details on the summer of 1932: Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, states in his notes to the Letters of that time that Berlin was in Salzburg with Frank Hardie in July, with no mention of Spender. Did Spender thus use Salzburg and Berlin as an alibi for a visit to Vienna to see Muriel? It is entirely possible. Spender’s son, Matthew, has told me that he believes Stephen was in Vienna twice ‘before he met Muriel’: he is seemingly unimpressed by the Grant Duff anecdote. And, even if the presence of Spender in Vienna was an illusion, surely, if Gardiner had accompanied Grant Duff, her brother, and Rees to Moscow, they would have discussed possible acquaintances at Oxford? And, if Muriel and Stephen had met before, what was the purpose of Mlini? Was Spender acting as some kind of courier?

At first glance, that notion does not make sense. After all, Spender’s and Hyndman’s next port of call would be Vienna – though admittedly an unscheduled one, if one believes what Spender said. So why would Gardiner travel to Croatia to deliver a message to Spender? No clearcut reason – unless Philby had perhaps been involved. Again, Gardiner is misleading about the chronology. She suggests that her meeting with Philby took place after she had met Spender in Mlini, and Isenberg echoes this theme, stating that ‘Philby had arrived in Vienna that spring of 1934’, and adding that it was ’his mission to work with leftists, such as Stephen and Muriel, in the Socialist struggle’. But Philby actually left Vienna in April 1934 (i.e. just before Gardiner decided to get away), having married Litzi Friedman in a hurry. Cookridge says that he had to leave quickly, warned by his Comintern friends that he had been compromised. Philby had arrived the previous autumn, and some historians, such as David Clay Large, make the reasonable assertion that Philby was recruited by the Comintern while in Vienna, not when he returned to London, as Philby claimed in his own memoir, and in conversations with various journalists. And, if Philby’s mission had been to work with leftists like Muriel and Stephen, it would imply that Stephen had associated with Muriel well before the Mlini encounter. Isenberg does not explain this anomaly. Perhaps Philby needed to pass a message about his recruitment, hasty marriage, imminent exposure, and escape to London to his cohort, Spender, and encourage his friend to take over some role in Vienna. Indeed, Spender did act as a courier helping Muriel, and the two of them went to Brno in January 1935, taking messages from the Kulczars. Hence the story about the appendicitis. If so, this would be a link between Spender and the ‘Cambridge Spies’ that has not been explored hitherto.

In his recent memoir A House in St. John’s Wood, Matthew Spender recounts the circumstances in which, after Guy Burgess absconded with Donald Maclean in 1951, his father was questioned by MI5, in the person of William Skardon, the interrogator of Klaus Fuchs, as to whether he knew his friend Burgess was a Communist agent. Spender immediately responded that Burgess continually told people he was exactly that, every time that he got drunk, which was ‘almost every night’. Skardon immediately dropped the subject and slunk away: Burgess socialised regularly with Dick White and Guy Liddell of MI5.  That was not news that the government would want revealed. But Philby was a different matter: he had boldly denied his possible role as the ‘third man’. Hugh Gaitskell had ignored Philby’s dubious activities in Vienna when he (Gaitskell) helped recruit him to the Special Operations Executive in the summer of 1940. Maybe Spender was another who knew Philby’s true colours? And one might conclude that Gardiner’s story about not knowing who Philby was at the time was all a pretence.

What is absolutely clear to me is that you can’t really trust the record of any of these people. It looks as if Gardiner and Spender had met some time earlier, and went to some lengths to conceal their association, agreeing to meet in Mlini, but both bringing cover in the form of their respective lovers to divert distraction. Maybe it isn’t so, but it doesn’t smell right, as the published facts stand.

After his break-up with Muriel, Spender had his own adventures. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and in January 1937, was summoned by its secretary, Harry Pollitt, and charged with going on a secret mission to Spain on behalf of the Comintern to discover what had happened to the crew of the Soviet ship, the Komsomol, which had been sunk by Franco’s Nationalist navy. (“It will be a difficult task, comrade. But Moscow Centre has decided that only you can carry it off.”) Yet a less likely intelligence agent than Spender is hard to imagine (with the possible exception of Jane Fonda and her elegant hatbox). MI5 looked on in amazement as the man whom Cyril Connolly called ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic’ started making his inquiries, and, after getting sent back by Franco’s immigration officers at the Cádiz checkpoint, eventually engaged Lord Marley to investigate on his behalf, via the Italian consulate in Cádiz, what had happened to the missing crew. That was not how Comintern agents did things.

Spender’s failure to be entirely honest about the duration of his love-affair with the Communist Party would lead him into difficulties later, every time he wanted to enter the United States. In 1947, by which time his Communism had been watered down to a wishy-washy United Nations liberalism (The God That Failed came out in 1949), he was offered a visiting professorship for a year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville – not part of the Bronx, it should be made clear  ̶  in New York State. Travelling alone, and in first class (his wife Natasha and son Matthew were to join him in the autumn), Spender left on the Queen Mary on August 20, and found congenial company. As Sutherland tells us, ‘on the boat were Lillian Hellman and John dos Passos’. History does not relate whether the man-eating Stalinist popped her cork at the gangly English man of letters, but the two comrades became friends, and Spender later invited Hellman to join him and a faculty colleague, the aforementioned Mary McCarthy, at an end-of-term party for his class. It was a disaster: McCarthy and Hellman were already sworn enemies, and Hellman for ever afterwards thought she had been set up to be ‘red-baited’.

But is it possible that Spender and Hellman could not have discussed their mutual friend, Muriel Gardiner, now Buttinger, during their shipboard encounter? Hellman would surely have been interested in Spender’s experiences near the barricades in Vienna, and, even if he was discreet about his affair with Muriel, Spender would probably have explained to Hellman that his family was looking forward to spending time with the Buttingers in New Jersey, whom Hellman had heard of via the Schwabachers. Sutherland writes that the three Spenders spent many weekends with the Buttingers in Pennington: Stephen’s son Matthew has indicated to me, interestingly, that it was Ethel Schwabacher, not Wolf, from whom Hellman learned Muriel’s history. And he was there (though very young). Isenberg indicates that Hellman, Wolf’s client, had been hearing tales ‘of the glamorous former member of the Austrian resistance’ for ten years already in 1950, when Muriel and Ethel had a falling-out.

Yet the relationship between Hellman and Gardiner is a puzzlement. As I have shown, Gardiner was a very reluctant inquisitor of the woman who had exploited her identity, and she displayed an uncharacteristic loyalty to the mendacious Stalinist. And, despite apparently serious attempts to meet, and an awkward telephone call shortly before their deaths, they reportedly never actually came face to face to discuss what had happened. Is it possible that they had agreed to some deal, whereby Hellman would use Gardiner’s story for propaganda purposes? Why would the Schwabachers not have suggested, from any time after 1940: “You two should meet! I have told both of you so much about each other, and, as sympathizers with Communists, you must have so much in common!” Why would Gardiner, of all people, on reading Pentimento, not have spotted the mangled chronology, realised where Hellman had picked up the story, and pointed out the glaring anomalies, instead of beating about the bush with Hellman, and then doggedly trying to establish whether there was an alternative ‘Julia’? Why did she almost encourage Hellman not to respond to her letter? Why is the chronology of the letter mangled? Is the letter perhaps part of a false trail? Why the business with Dr. Steiner – and what would he have said about the erroneous dates? Why would Hellman believe she could have got away with so blatant a lie, unless she had some form of approval from Gardiner? Should we really trust Muriel’s account of her meeting with the ‘stranger’, Philby? (And why did Gardiner write her memoir under the long-lapsed ‘Gardiner’ name, as opposed to the legal surname of ‘Buttinger’?) Gardiner’s story is just a bit too pat, too deliberate, and too innocent – yet psychologically unsound – and is thus hardly credible.

I believe this extended anecdote confirms several lessons that I have gained during my doctoral research: 1) memoirs are frequently unreliable accounts designed to enhance the legacy of the writer; 2) the creation of a precise chronology is essential for scholarly analysis; 3) biographers face the challenge of being too close to their subjects: if they want personal information, they need to be trusted, but if they press too hard on challenging accounts, they will get rebuffed: 4) tough questions should be asked of all these witnesses to vital matters of security and intelligence while they are alive; 5) fabulists who try to make a dubious story more convincing often introduce details that turn out to undermine the whole fabric of their deception; 6) these unverified stories, especially when they issue from the pens of the Great and the Good, all too easily fall into the realm of quasi-official historical lore, and get repeated and echoed. (For example, Jenny Rees, Goronwy’s daughter, reproduces Grant Duff’s version of the encounter without question in Looking for Mr Nobody, while the Spender-Gardiner version is accepted everywhere else. Martin Gilbert reproduces Spender’s encounter with Goering as fact in his esteemed History of the Twentieth-Century.)

The thirties were indeed a ‘low dishonest decade’, as Auden said, but the intellectuals of the time were often as dishonest as the politicians. An alternative screenplay of the whole Gardiner-Spender-Hellman melodrama probably exists, one in which Muriel and Stephen did meet before Mlini, in which Philby was involved, and in which Gardiner had an uneasy collusion with Hellman over her experiences. It is perhaps waiting for the evidence to leak out from obscure memoirs, letters and reminiscences. And as for you, Big Spender, what were you thinking? Why didn’t you tell us the truth about Muriel, and what on earth possessed you to imagine that you could be a successful agent for the Comintern? What secrets you took with you to the grave!

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.                     (March 31, 2016)

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On Privacy and Publicity

While reading Robert Tombs’ superlative The English and Their History, I came across the following sentence, describing Samuel Johnson’s and Richard Addison’s London: “The mix of commerce and culture produced what has been termed ‘the public sphere’ – places and institutions for exchanging information and forming opinion, which lay between the purely private world and the official realm”. What could be more representative of that sphere in twenty-first century Britain than the pages of Prospect magazine, ‘the leading magazine of ideas’, as it promotes itself?

The February issue of Prospect included an article that outlined what has to be done with technology – primarily that concerning the use of social networking – to keep the citizens of the UK safe while protecting their liberties. The following earnest and superficially innocuous paragraph caught my eye: “The big technology companies have a crucial role – and unique responsibility – in building the security that keeps us free and safe. We trust them in part because they are private. Co-operation is much preferable to legislation. The next step is for all parties to collaborate on a way forward to benefit from new technologies while doing what we can to stop those who would do us harm. This kind of co-operation between public and private sectors is needs in free societies where security underpins our privacy, private enterprise and liberal democracy.”

But this simply will not do. To begin with, this contrast of ‘the public sector’ and ‘the private sector’ is hopelessly naïve. Whereas a government (or its civil servants) may be said to represent the populace, there is no such entity as ‘the private sector’ that may be negotiated with. A free market consists of a number of competing entities trying to differentiate themselves. Politicians frequently display a very wooden understanding of how markets work: I recall David Cameron’s meetings with ‘industry leaders’ to discover what it is they need from government. But what today’s leading businesses want will be protection in some way from any upstarts who threaten their turf. The needs of the market are not the same as the needs of current market-leaders. (Think of Norwegian Airlines threatening the established transatlantic carriers.) The FBI made the same mistake in thinking it could negotiate with ‘Silicon Valley leaders’ as a method of resolving this problem of encrypted information on PDAs and cellphones. This echoed the policy of President Obama, who in 2015 made a point of trying to ‘cooperate’ personally with Silicon Valley on these issues. Just this week, Obama officials again met representatives from technology and entertainment companies (but not chief executives) to discuss ways of combating extremists on-line. They still do not get it. This is a matter of law – to be addressed either by an interpretation of existing laws, or by new legislation. Parliament, not parleys.

For example, had a similar advance been suggested to computer technology leaders twenty-five years ago, the list of vendors would have probably included IBM, ICL, Data General, DEC, Wang, Honeywell, Siemens-Nixdorf  . . .  Apart from IBM, where are they now? Apple is presumably the IBM of today, but there is no guarantee that the ‘big technology companies of today’  (e.g. Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Twitter and Buzzfeed? – my computer industry advisory panel supplied me with these names) will dominate in ten years’ time. How long ago were Nokia and Blackberry the leaders in personal networking, for example? So how can such a suggested initiative encompass the coming vendors of tomorrow? Schumpeterian creative destruction is always at work.

What’s more, it would be illegal. Since most of the companies affected are American, any move by such to meet to discuss shared endeavours would have to be considered under anti-trust legislation (something that should probably have taken affect with Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act, by the way.) For such companies to ‘collaborate’ with government to define pseudo-voluntary technology ‘standards’ (that would then be implemented at the whim of each company’s R & D design and implementation schedule) would be called for exactly what it is – conspiracy. And this aspect does not even touch the issue of whether such measures would be effective – which I shall not get into. This issue has been gaining intense attention in the past month, when Apple’s Tim Cook has again been assailed by the US Department of Justice. Cook has spoken out vigorously with the opinion that any back-door capabilities into a supplier’s encryption system would be abused by the bad guys. At the same time, Apple is planning for greater encryption of customers’ data in its ‘cloud’, which will make things even more difficult for law enforcement. (‘Ou sont les nuages d’antan?’) Yet in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on February 23, William J. Bratton and John J. Miller gave as their concluding argument for demanding that Apple should unlock its iPhone that Google and Apple ‘handle more than 90 percent of mobile communications worldwide’, and thus should be accountable for more than just sales. If such a rule does apply, it should apply to everyone.

So who is the supposed expert making this fanciful suggestion of bonhomous co-operation? Step forward, Sir John Sawers, ex-head of MI6, who indeed wrote the article. Not only that, Sawers advertises himself as having been ‘Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) between 2009 and 2014’, and his second paragraph reminds us immediately of his credentials: “As MI6 Chief, my top priority was identifying terror attacks against Britain planned from abroad.” Sawers is then described as being the Chairman of Macro Advisory Partners.

What in heaven’s name is the ex-head of MI6 doing exploiting his past career while claiming to be an independent consultant? And how can he suggest that his role therefore gives him some credibility in representing the requirements and desires of the ‘public’ sector? There cannot be a more private organisation than MI6, whose very existence was withheld from the British public until 1994, of which no archival material has been released after 1949 (the year where the authorised history stops), and whence any retiring head a decade or two ago would have quietly folded his tent, picked up his ‘K’ (although Sawers had that already), and shimmied off to Torquay to tend his geraniums and take up square-dancing. Now such persons write their memoirs – surely in contravention of the Official Secrets Act  ̶  and pontificate with the chattering classes in the press.

This dual role of subtly promoting MI6 connections and policy, and claiming to be an independent advisor, does not sit well with me. Can MI5 and MI6 not speak openly themselves about such policy? What do they think of this grandstanding and self-promotion, I wonder? Or has Sawers undergone some shift in position now that he has left his official intelligence hutch behind? If so, shouldn’t he describe what that is?

It gets worse, in a way. A quick search on the Web for Macro Advisory Partners shows that the firm has a Global Advisory Board of seven (see ), of whom the prominent names are Kofi Annan (seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations), David Milliband (of Labour Party renown, and now President and CEO, International Rescue Committee), and William J. Burns (President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an institute which regrettably sounds like one of those Soviet fronts of the late 1940s: indeed, the Soviet spy Alger Hiss was its President between 1946 and 1949.) I didn’t see Cherie Blair’s name there yet, but she is no doubt a very busy woman. Sawers was Britain’s permanent representative to the United Nations between 2007 and 2009, so he no doubt developed some good contacts then. But is he running the show, or he taking his advice from this group of Kumbaya do-gooders? How will his undoubted steeltrap mind have been affected by such company? No wonder his recommendation for solving the technology problem is to get everyone around a table in peace talks.

I believe this is all highly irregular. Sawers surely has a pension that he can live off comfortably: he does not need this jump into the ‘private’ sector, where, ironically he can be much more expansive about his ideas than he was when working for the government. The undoubted impression that casual readers will gain from this promotional journalism is that there is some consistency in MI6 policy from the Sawers regime to the current set-up. That must make it very difficult for the present leaders of MI6 – and MI5, of course – to develop policy and work it through the normal processes, dealing with this distracting noise in the media. If they agree with what Sawers says, are they admitting that they are likewise influenced by pollyannaish internationalist wishful thinkers, instead of by steely pragmatism? And if they disagree with him, what does that say about continuity of purpose and perspective within MI6? It is all very messy, and, in the jargon of today ‘unhelpful’. Sawers should not have been allowed to exploit his past experience for monetary gain, and should have been prevented from entering the public sphere in this way: his employers should have insisted on a more stringent termination agreement.

Lastly, all this reinforces the unhealthiness of the transfer of careers between government and industry, and also demonstrates how absurd the UK Honours System is. ‘Captains of industry’, managing directors of private companies publically traded, should be looking after the interests of their shareholders. They do not provide ‘services to the industry’, for which gongs are awarded.  In addition, they have their own generous rewards, being almost without exception overcompensated by crony boards of directors, and remunerated handsomely even if they fail. Public ‘servants’ (who all too often act as if they were our masters) should be expected to perform their jobs well: if they do not, they should be fired. And when they retire from highly-important positions, they should do exactly that – retire.

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Readers who followed my representation to the New York Times in my December blog may be interested to know of the follow-up. Having gained no satisfaction from the Public Editor (Margaret Sullivan), I wrote an email to the Executive Editor, and then one to the CEO, Mark Thompson. These attempts having resulted in not even an acknowledgment, I then sent a letter to Mr. Thompson, with a copy to the publisher, Mr. Sulzberger. Again, I have failed to extract even an acknowledgment from either gentleman. Did Mr. Thompson learn such manners at Merton College, I wonder?

I have since challenged the Public Editor on the Times’s somewhat irregular decision to give Madeleine Albright the opportunity to explain away her Clinton election campaign gaffe (about women supporting other women lest they go to hell) in an Op-Ed column. Again, no reply. And then, Ms. Sullivan announced earlier this week that she was leaving the position early to join the Washington Post. Am I entitled to imagine that perhaps she became frustrated in dealing with the bizarre journalistic principles at the Times, and that the paper’s failure to act on my complaint pushed her over the edge? (‘Dream on, buster.’ Ed.) As for Mr. Thompson, he left a mess behind at the BBC, and I expect further messes at the Times. This week, the paper ran a story about the post-mortem at the BBC over the matter of protected ‘stars’ like Jimmy Savile, who were allowed to get away with sexual malpractices in a corporate culture of fear at a time when Mr. Thompson was Director-General of the BBC (2004 to 2012). Mr. Thompson’s responsibility for that culture – or even the fact that he led the organisation –  was omitted from the article.

In conclusion, I highlight an item from this month’s Commonplace entries, taken from Hugh Trevor-Roper’s waspish Wartime Journals: “The Christ Church manner, that assumption of effortless superiority, is said to be galling to those who weren’t at Christ Church. But we can’t expect the world to be run for the benefit of those who weren’t at Christ Church.” Indeed.  Stop looking shifty, Thompson.                                            (February 29, 2016)

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The Myth of Buying Market Share

A few years after I became an analyst/consultant at the Gartner Group, I was introduced by one of the DBMS vendors to the thoughts of Geoffrey Moore, who had some original ideas about the challenges of high-tech companies in introducing their disruptive products to mainstream buyers. His book, ‘Crossing the Chasm’ (1991) quickly became a classic in technology circles (see, and I adopted his ideas in evaluating and guiding the strategies of companies in my bailiwick. Some CEOs claimed to be familiar with the theories, and even to putting them into practice, but since the distinct message in the early years of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle was ‘focus’, they understandably struggled to keep their companies in line. ‘Chasm’ thinking requires a proper marketing perspective, but independent VPs of Marketing in technological start-ups are a bit of a luxury, and VPs of Sales always think of Marketing as something that supports their Sales Plan, rather than of their Sales Plan as something which realizes the Marketing Plan. Trying to close a deal to unqualified and unsuitable prospects is frequently an exciting challenge for such types.

As my career at Gartner wound down, and I considered retirement, I chose to move to a small software company in Connecticut. I was quickly brought down to earth: as a Gartner consultant, I had earlier been engaged by the company for a day’s work, at quite high fees, during which the managers attending dutifully wrote down all I said, and nodded appreciatively. When I became an employee, however, and started suggesting (as VP of Strategic Planning) to the CEO how she might want to change some of the processes (such as not having the R & D plan changed each month after the latest visit by a customer or prospect to the development facility in Florida), I was swiftly told: ‘You don’t understand how we do things around here, Tony’. That was not a good sign. So I picked up my thinking about Chasm Crossing, tried to talk my CEO out of an acquisition strategy (devised to show muscle to the Wall Street analysts, but in fact disastrous), and reflected on how financial analysts misled investors about markets. I had learned a lot from the first software CEO I worked for, back in the early 1980s, but he was another who didn’t understand the growth challenge. ‘Entrepreneurial Critical Mass’ was the term he had used to persuade his owners to invest in an acquisition strategy that was equally misguided: I had had to pick up the pieces and try to make it work.  (This gentleman was also responsible for bringing to the world the expression ‘active and passive integrity in and of itself’ to describe the first release of a new feature, which presumably meant that it worked perfectly so long as you didn’t try to use it.)   My renewed deliberations now resulted in an article, titled ‘The Myth of Buying Market Share’, which explained how completely bogus estimates of ‘market size’ misled CEOs and investors into thinking that all they had to do to be successful was to pick up a portion of a fast-growing ‘market’. I believe it was published somewhere, but I cannot recall where.

I reproduce the article here. I have not changed a word: it could benefit from some tightening up in a few places, and some fresher examples, but otherwise I would not change a thing, even though it is now sixteen years old. At the time I wrote it, I contacted Geoffrey Moore, and sent him the piece. We spoke on the phone: he was very complimentary about my ideas, and we arranged to meet for dinner in San Francisco, where I was shortly to be attending a conference. I vaguely thought that I might spend my last few years actually putting into practice some of the notions that had been most useful to me in my analyst role, and wanted to ask Moore about opportunities at the Chasm Group. So, after the day’s sessions were over, I approached him, introduced myself, and said how much I was looking forward to dinner. He was brusque – dinner was off. Obviously something better, somebody more useful, had come along. I was for a few minutes crestfallen, but then realized that I would never want to work for someone who behaved that rudely. I resigned from the software company a month later and began my retirement a bit earlier than planned. Since then I have never touched the industry again, apart from one day’s work for another small software company in New Jersey that desperately needed help, and wanted to hire me as VP of Marketing after I did a day’s consulting for them. North Carolina beckoned, and I have never regretted getting out when I did.

After receiving a fascinating observation from a reader (via Nigel Rees), I have posted an update to my piece on ‘The Enchantment’. The normal set of Commonplace items can be found here.                                                                                                                   (January 31, 2016)

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Refugees and Liberators

In the summer of 1967, at the age of twenty, I spent a few weeks with a German family in Hesse. They were very hospitable to their young English guest, although I believe the parents may have taken advantage of his naivety. The father of the household had survived the Russian Front, which was no mean achievement, and he was understandably rather dour and uncommunicative about the whole experience. His wife, however, tried to propagandise me, claiming that they (i.e. German citizens in general) knew nothing about the concentration camps, and that they believed that they were some kind of ‘holiday camp’ where the Jews were being sent. (I cannot recall her exact words in German, but that was the distinct impression she left with me.) She also made some cryptic remarks about ‘Mittel-Deutschland’ and ‘Ost-Deutschland’, which I vaguely thought at the time must refer respectively to what was then the German Democratic Republic, and the land within the 1937 borders of the German Reich that had been given to Poland after the Potsdam Conference. I was too shy (or too polite) to challenge her on what appeared to be a nostalgic wish that the old boundaries might be restored at some stage. (The Federal Republic of Germany had not at that time even recognized the German Democratic Republic.)

I thought of this Frau when I read a recent New York Times piece titled The Displaced, in its Magazine of November 8, by one Jake Silverstein, which was designed to highlight the fact that nearly 60 million people had been displaced since World War II, and that half of them were children. It was supposed to be an innovative article, using some kind of 3-D technology, an app, and some cardboard Google glasses (none of which I experimented with), but the introductory comments caught my eye. The article reproduced a famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, visible at , but several aspects of the way this photograph was introduced seemed questionable to me. Silverstein describes the picture as follows:  “ . . . a girl of about ten  . .  is standing behind an enormous pile of belongings, which have been rightly packed for a long journey. . . . Both [the girl and her younger brother] look directly at the photographer, who took this picture at Dessau, as scores of Germans displaced during World War II began returning home.” Under the photograph runs the description: “A camp in Dessau, Germany, in April 1945, for displaced people liberated by Soviet troops”.

What is going on here? These phrases provoked so many questions in my mind that I hardly knew where to begin. A camp set up in April, 1945, when the war was not over until May 8? Germans displaced in World War II – by whom, I wonder? Did Germans not cause massive displacements themselves? Returning home? From where? What was their ‘home’, and why were they not ‘at home’ beforehand? And those Soviet troops ‘liberating’ German territories? If they were true ‘liberators’, were the Soviets really encouraging ‘displaced’ people to return to their natural habitat? So perhaps these people weren’t German, after all, as the caption suggested? And might they in fact have been running away in fear from the Soviets, whose reputation for murder, rape and pillage made them, for some, an even more obnoxious threat than the Nazis? For these were, indeed very confused – and confusing – times.

I posed such questions to the Public Editor at the New York Times, as it seemed to me that the paper’s editors must have considered these questions. If they had not, this was surely an example of careless journalism – laziness and superficiality. And I thought the matter important as the episode was being used as a banner for a brand new publishing exercise. Yet, after one perfunctory acknowledgment, the Times has gone silent, and ignored my messages. It presumably either thinks its statements are defensible, or that the whole issue is completely unimportant. I thus decided to document it all myself. I thought the best way of approaching the topic was to attempt to answer those journalistic standbys: What? When? Where? Why? How? Who?


That the photograph shows refugees of some sort, there is little doubt. Yet they do not possess any air of desperation: they look healthy and calm, and do not appear to have been abused.  They are surely not Prisoners of War, or slave laborers. Members of the group in the middle distance are smiling, and the size and volume of the possessions strewn on the street suggests that they have made their way to the camp with some form of transport, perhaps a horse-driven cart, or a man-pulled barrow. They have surely not travelled far, but how can Silverstein know that they are preparing for a ‘long journey’? Is the location really a camp? It is difficult to say. The atmosphere is very different from that of most of the other photographs in this group that refer to the Dessau camp, but the texts of the latter appear very unreliable, indicating, for example, families of healthy-looking Soviet ‘refugees’ who are about to return to their homeland. How Soviet families, for example, were allowed to find refuge from the Soviet Union in the German Reich, and yet apparently flourish, is a question that is deeply inexplicable, one which Magnum superficially brushes aside. And clearly, not all images in the set are taken inside the camp, even though they are captioned as such.

That the Central European problem of Displaced Persons (DPs) was massive is unquestioned. The historian Michael Jones has reported that the number of DPs that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had to deal with increased from 350,000 at the end of March 1945 to over 2 million by early May.


The date of April 1945 must be wrong. It appears that Silverstein just plucked it from the website where the photograph appears, without thinking. The caption for it supplied by Magnum runs as follows: ‘Dessau. A transit camp was located between the American and Soviet zones organized for refugees, POWs, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern Front of Germany that had been liberated by the Soviet Army.’ Since the surrender document created for the Germans was not signed until May 8, it would have been very unlikely for refugee camps to have been set up in April so close to the combat zone, what with fierce fighting still continuing in the neighborhood. Dessau is about fifty miles downstream from Torgau, also on the Elbe, renowned for the certainly staged encounter between US and Soviet troops on the Elbe, which did not take place until April 25. It occurred after a US officer had met a Soviet counterpart on the west side of the Elbe, at Leckwitz, which is about halfway between Torgau and Dresden. Hitler committed suicide on April 29, but the fighting was still intense: between April 16 and May 8, Soviet casualties were over 350,000, of which 100,000 were killed. At that time, there were about 250,000 German soldiers in the zone between the approaching GB-US and Soviet lines. A desperate attempt by German troops and civilians, fleeing from the Soviet forces, to cross the Elbe at Tangermünde, about sixty miles north of Dessau, started on May 6, thus showing that the area was in turmoil right up until the surrender was signed (in Rheims on May 7, and ratified in Berlin the following day).

In fact, an explanation below another photograph expands the time-period: it says that ‘Cartier-Bresson . .  took the photo between 21 April and 2 July 1945, between the American occupation of the city and the arrival of their Russian replacements’. This latter date is certainly a more reliable, yet still dubious, pointer to the time: the US forces vacated Dessau some time in July. Magnum does the cause of scholarly research no favors, however, by assigning the same erroneous caption to all forty-one photographs it displays in this album.


Whereas the boundaries of the occupied zones (Soviet, US, GB, and France) had been set at the Yalta Conference in February, both British and US forces actually advanced up to 200 miles (to the ‘Line of Contact’) inside what was legally the Soviet zone, and did not withdraw until early July 1945. Thus Dessau, which is situated just south of the River Elbe, and west of the River Mulde, was well inside the Soviet Zone of Occupation.  Yet the Magnum captions again distort the facts:  by stating that the transit camp ‘was located between the American and Soviet zones’, they suggest that Dessau was the permanent boundary, and misrepresent the coordinates of the American zone. Moreover, Magnum encourages this view by captioning photographs of refugees crossing the Elbe as follows: ‘The river deviding [sic] the Soviet and American sectors. Refugees making way to refugee camps’, and ‘A pontoon bridge between the border zone crossing of refugees. The river was the line dividing Soviet and American sectors’. Unfortunately, this was the impression many refugees had at the time – that by crossing the Elbe they would reach the safety of the American zone, when in fact Dessau was just about to be ceded to the Soviets.

That there was a camp at Dessau is plausibly confirmed by other sources: it may have been set up on the grounds of an existing Nazi concentration camp. ‘Working for the Enemy’ claims that ‘The Dessau camp is listed by the Red Cross International Tracing Service as having existed from November 1944 until 11 April 1945, with an inmate population of about 340’, suggesting it was dismantled just before the Americans arrived. It cites witnesses who state that a ‘death march’ out of Dessau started around April 11, as Allied troops approached it from all sides. The SS wanted to deliver the inmates to the International Red Cross in Prague. No doubt the same camp facilities were eventually used by the Americans – and then the Soviets.


The emphasis in the New York Times article is on ‘displacement’, more specifically on ‘scores [sic!] of Germans displaced during World War II’ who ‘began returning home’, with the suggestion that such people had been ‘liberated by Soviet troops’. This vague assertion is not helped by the Magnum rubric, which describes the refugees as ‘political prisoners, POW’s, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern front of Germany’. Since the photographs include images of ‘Soviet and Ukrainian refugees awaiting repatriation to their homeland’, one might well ask why such persons had ‘returned’ from the Eastern Front. It is palpable nonsense. Yet, examining the single photograph used by Silverstein, one might pose other penetrating questions. If the refugees are indeed German, why had they been displaced, and by whom? Hitler’s policy of Germanization of the lands bordering the Reich involved resettlement of German citizens from the homeland into vanquished territories, but also involved the recall of remote German communities (such as in the Ukraine and the Baltic States). At the same time, Hitler imported thousands of foreign captives to work as slave laborers within the Reich: they had certainly been ‘displaced’ and wanted to return home, whether it was to France, Poland, Ukraine or even the Soviet Union. It was a very messy time. As Christopher Snyder has written in Bloodlands: “German men went abroad and killed millions of ‘subhumans’, only to import millions of other ‘subhumans’ to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves – had they not been abroad killing ‘subhumans’.”

But to speak of the Germans in terms suggesting that they were the primary victims of displacement is an insult to all the other groups of non-Germans who suffered far greater privations, not least, of course, the six million Jews who lost their lives, and thus had no chance of returning ‘home’, wherever that was. Certainly, many Germans suffered when the terms of the Yalta agreements were executed, with Soviet and Polish troops taking their revenge on Nazi massacres and destruction by murdering and abusing Germans in such areas as Silesia or Pomerania, which needed to be cleaned out to make room for Poles whose eastern boundaries had been ceded to the Soviet Union. After Hitler’s death, however, his successor, Admiral Dönitz, used radio broadcasts to warn the German nation that the primary menace was the Bolsheviks, with the result that Nazi armies in the East continued hopelessly to fight the Soviet forces, in an effort to give an opportunity for thousands of civilians (and soldiers) to flee towards the West.

Dönitz specifically intended to drive a wedge between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union, believing that the democracies would come to the realization that Bolshevism was the enduring foe that they would sooner or later need to turn against. At the same time he encouraged a massive exodus of German citizens from their homes in the east, whether their domiciles had been destroyed or not. In fact, the Germans recognizably stalled for time over the process of signing the surrender document, in the hope of allowing more refugees and troops to escape the Russians. Thus to talk of such as ‘displaced persons’ (DPs) returning ‘home’ would be a gross distortion.

A few weeks later, when the Potsdam conference was over in August 1945, the Oder-Neisse line that delineated the new western border of Poland was solidified. The Soviet troops prepared for these new boundaries as they advanced. As Antony Beevor writes, in The Second World War: “As Stalin had intended, ethnic cleansing was pursued with a vengeance. Troops from the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies forced Germans from their houses to push them across the Oder. The first to go were those on pre-1944 Polish territory. Some had lived there for generations, others were the Volksdeutsch beneficiaries of the Nazis’ own ethnic cleansing in 1940. Packed into cattle wagons, they were taken westwards and robbed of their few belongings on the way. A similar fate awaited those who had stayed behind or returned to Pomerania and Silesia, which now fell within the new Polish borders. In East Prussia, only 193,000 Germans were left out of a population of 2.2 million.” It is thus very difficult to judge why and how any group of such German refugees could be said to have been ‘displaced’ in the sense of casualties of war. And it would not appear that the refugees in Silverstein’s photograph had undergone such stern privations.


Were such people indeed being ‘liberated’, as the captions claim? The term ‘Liberators’ originated in the Yalta agreement, where Declaration II stated that the leaders of the Allies ‘jointly declare their mutual agreement to concert during the temporary period of instability in liberated Europe the policies of their three Governments in assisting the peoples liberated from the domination of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems.’ For reasons of political unity, it was incumbent to consider all victorious powers as ‘Liberators’, rather than ‘Occupiers’, but two major problems ensued. First, it suggested that Germans themselves needed ‘liberating’ from Nazi oppression (rather than being complicit agents in the brutality), and second, it assumed that Communist totalitarianism was indeed a force for freedom. As the Oxford Companion to World War II states: “The German advance into the Baltic States in 1941 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous occupation of the previous year. Yet it brought terrible impositions and murderous policies of its own. Similarly, the western advance of the Soviet armies in 1944-5 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous German occupation of the previous years; yet it brought reprisals and totalitarian policies that were no less vicious than those it removed. Liberations that did not liberate are not worthy of the name.”

Juozas Lukša, a CIA-trained Lithuanian resistance fighter, makes a similar point from the benefit of direct experience, cited by Edward Lucas in his book Deception: “In 1940, the Russians had come marching into our land to ‘liberate’ us from ‘capitalist and Fascist exploiters.’ In 1941, the Germans had marched in after them and thereby ‘liberated’ us from ‘Bolshevik bondage’. And now, the Russians were back again – this time to ‘liberate’ us from ‘the tyranny of Nazi hangmen’. But since we still recalled how they had gone about ‘liberating’ us the last time, we didn’t think we had any cause to rejoice.”

What is unarguable is that millions of ethnic Germans outside the new borders were persecuted, with as many as 100,000 killed arbitrarily, and with thousands committing suicide rather than falling prey to the vengeful and pillaging Soviets. Germans living in the Czech Sudetenland (which had been appropriated by Germany in October 1938, as part of the Munich agreement) before the war) were given only a few minutes to pack and flee. Hundreds died en route from Poland and Czechoslovakia. And many more who found themselves in the Soviet zone tried desperately to reach the zones of the Western democracies – which is probably what the Magnum photographs show.


So can the group illustrated by the New York Times be identified with any confidence? Interestingly, the Magnum Archive includes another photograph of the threesome, presumably taken very soon after the first, visible at Here the railway is in view, and one can also detect that a third child is lying on the bundle of possessions. While the young girl strikes a defiant posture, the expressions on the faces of the background group (is one of them wearing an army uniform?) suggest that they are in good spirits, and are expecting a train to take them away soon, probably westwards. Given the pictures of returning Ukrainians and Russians, however, one cannot be absolutely sure that they are not going eastwards. Again, their condition, and the size of their bundle of possessions, indicate they have not suffered much, and have probably not travelled far, and were not expelled in haste, to reach Dessau. But many of the other Magnum photographs are enigmatic. The image at claims to show Belgian and French forced labourers, who, again, look remarkably fit. Moreover, they are carrying a poster of Stalin. Another image, at, purportedly shows ‘a Soviet child, who was deported with his parents, returning to his homeland’. The child incongruously is carrying an umbrella. What in fact happened was that all Soviet citizens returning from captivity in Germany were either murdered, sent to the GULAG, or ostracized. An umbrella would not have helped them. Cartier-Bresson was a Communist sympathizer, and many of the photographs have a propaganda feel.

One inescapable conclusion from the photographs and the historical accounts of the time (including the horrifying escapes at Tangermünde, which can be seen at ) is that most of the ‘displaced’ persons who thought that they would reach a safe haven after reaching the western side of the Elbe were probably unaware of the boundaries agreed at Yalta, and were soon to be horribly disillusioned, as the Western powers had to cede the territory to the Soviets. How many of them, as native Germans, succeeded in escaping from the Soviets to the real American, British or French zones 100 miles away or more would be a story well worth investigating.


Apart from the obvious fact that one should be very careful in reproducing, or citing, information on the Internet, the publication of this piece by the New York Times indicates to me that its journalism can occasionally be amateurish, and its editorial supervision inadequate. The paper claims that ‘we observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing.’ So what happened here, with the casual reliance on a third-party source, and no apparent fact-checking? Moreover, the reaction of the office of the Public Editor has, frankly, been deplorable. It should either acknowledge there was a problem, and admit it publically, or inform me that it thinks the information was correct, and that my complaint is thus rejected. Certainly, if a message that children are always innocent victims in times of hardship and privation was intended to be communicated, the piece transmitted it. But I doubt whether that proposition would ever be contested by anybody.

For an established newspaper reporter, however, lazily to select a photograph which he thought might dramatise his case, and unthinkingly use the descriptive text provided by a website that has clearly been influenced by propaganda, without performing any of the slightest checks of fact verification, or investigating the political and military environment in which the photograph was taken, is simply unacceptable. The issue of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, and the righteousness of their respective causes, and what they are escaping from, and how they might be liberated, is obviously very topical. (The week that this item was posted, the New York Times reported that the city of Ramadi had been ‘liberated’ by Iraqi government troops, but suggested at the same time that some citizens might prefer life under Daesh.) If the newspaper wanted to make a pertinent case about the plight of such displaced persons, however, a far more careful exploration of the context was necessary to give guidance on reasons, identities, victims, oppressors, homelands, statuses, etc., instead of making a shallow and factitious emotional appeal to its readership. The irony of ‘Refugees’ trying to escape from their ‘Liberators’ has been lost on the New York Times. Yet the newspaper seems to think nothing is awry.

⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰            ⃰

(Since I wrote this piece, I have learned that Jake Silverstein is in fact the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Magazine. The current issue of the Magazine indicates he has at least twenty persons with the word ‘editor’ in their job title. But who edits the editor-in-chief?)


Working for the Enemy edited by Billstein, Fings, Kugler and Levis

The Oxford Companion to World War II

The Times Atlas of the Second World War

Bloodlands by Christopher Snyder

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

The End by Ian Kershaw

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

Armageddon by Max Hastings

The Second World War by Martin Gilbert

After Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe, by Michael Jones

Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today by Edward Lucas

(December 31, 2015)


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