Isaiah in Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(© Antony Percy 2012)

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Krivitsky, Churchill and the Cold War

An Unpublished Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cold War

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

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

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

Security and Cooperation

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

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

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

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

Asymmetrical Relations

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

1) Moral Equivalency:

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

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

2) Pluralism vs. Totalitarianism:

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

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

3)  Espionage:

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

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

4) Culture:

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

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

5) Warfare:

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

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

Churchill & Strategy

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

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

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

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

Allied Co-operation

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative History?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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Misdefending The Realm

 

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

‘Misdefending the Realm’ was published by the University of Buckingham Press on October 26, and is available in the UK, as they say, ‘at all good booksellers’. But in case there are no booksellers at all left in your area, you can see it listed at amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=misdefending+the+realm ). It will be published in the USA next spring.  I have prepared a page dedicated to coverage of the book at  ‘Misdefending the Realm’  .

Here follows the blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lancaster wrote some entertaining memoirs as well (All Done From Memory and With an Eye to the Future), which are liberally sprinkled with his drawings. For those readers unfamiliar with him, you can also read about him in his Wikipedia entry at (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osbert_Lancaster). One fact I recently learned is that his second wife, Anne Scott-James (with whom he collaborated on the equally delightful Pleasure Garden), was the mother of the historian Max Hastings, whose books on WWII I have especially enjoyed. (I have read The Secret War, Retribution, and Armageddon this year. Hastings sadly did not have a good relationship with his mother, who died aged 96 only a few years ago.) As for Osbert, to gain a sense of the man, readers may want to listen to his second Desert Island Discs interview, by Roy Plomley (see https://player.fm/series/desert-island-discs-archive-1976-1980-44534/sir-osbert-lancaster). The subject’s understated but very patrician demeanour, and his aristocratic pronunciation of such words as ‘Alas’, suggest that the whole performance could have been a parody executed by Peter Sellers or Peter Cook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Pocket Cartoons (1940)

New Pocket Cartoons (1941)

Further Pocket Cartoons (1942)

More Pocket Cartoons (1943)

Assorted Sizes (1944)

More and More Productions (1948)

A Pocketful of Cartoons (1949)

Lady Littlehampton and Friends (1952)

Studies from the Life (1954)

Tableaux Vivants (1955)

Private Views (1956)

The Year of the Comet (1957)

Etudes (1958)

Mixed Notices (1963)

Graffiti (1964)

A Few Quick Tricks (1965)

Fasten Your Safety Belts (1966)

Temporary Diversions (1968)

Recorded Live (1970)

Meaningful Confrontation (1971)

Theatre in the Flat (1972)

Liquid Assets (1975)

The Social Contract (1977)

Ominous Cracks (1979)

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

The regular set of new Commonplace entries appears here.

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Sonia’s Radio – Envoi

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Lack of Academic Curiosity:

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

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

2) Modest Public Response:

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

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

3) The Untrustworthiness of Sources:

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

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

4. Exploiting the National Archives: ‘Traffic Analysis’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudolf Roessler (Agent LUCY)

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

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

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

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Web Woes (an update):

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

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

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

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

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

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

This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.

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Sonia’s Radio – Part IX

Supply, North Carolina, August 2017

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

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

“Shchi da kasha – pishcha nasha!”

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

Oxford Movements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neville Laski

Neville, Sissie & Marghanita Laski in 1916

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

Sonia and her children in 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shillito’s Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green’s Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wireless Conventions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No mention of any such ban appears in the agreements from the Madrid Convention (see http://www.itu.int/en/history/Pages/PlenipotentiaryConferences.aspx?conf=4.5) .  Indeed, proof of contrary practice before the war appears in Keith Jeffrey’s history of SIS (MI6) where he asserts that SIS stations abroad were quite capable of employing wireless equipment, so long as they received the permission of the local British minister, and that, furthermore, radio was the only effective means of communication during (for example) the Czech crisis. (One might question what ‘effective’ means in this context. German records show that telephone conversations between Prague and London were routinely tapped, not just those between Masaryk and Beneś, but also those between London and the envoy, Lord Runciman, thus aiding Hitler’s negotiations at Bad Godesberg.) Yet Davies uses the existence of such a ban to criticise Richard Gambier-Parry, the head of Section VII, the Communications Section of SIS, who, in 1947, defended the legality of the Diplomatic Wireless Service (DWS) at the Telecommunications Conference in Atlantic City. The DWS had been set up during the war as a secure radio mechanism, and had evolved from the Special Communications Units that were used for sending, among other items, the Ultra messages to British posts abroad, including embassies. Gambier-Parry claimed that diplomatic wireless ‘was a matter of diplomatic privilege and was not covered by the Madrid Convention which the conference had been convened to revise’. He recognised the sensitivity of the issue, but was merely observing that diplomatic wireless had been used ‘by a number of governments’ for some years now, and had never been challenged by any international authority.

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

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

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

Wartime Radio Detection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Sources:

Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler

Unlikely Warriors by Richard Baxell

International Communications by Francis Lyall

Battle of Wits by Stephen Budiansky

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

Stalin’s Agent by Boris Volodarsky

The Clandestine Radio Operators by Jean-Louis Perquin

Hitler’s Spies by David Kahn

Agent Garbo by Stephan Talty

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

 

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Web Woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*                   *                  *                      *                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

*                            *                      *                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

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

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Sonia’s Radio – Part VIII

Soviet Radio Operator – Dickson Island, 1937

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

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

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

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

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

The Passport Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Departure Problems

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

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

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

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

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

Intelligence Strategies

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

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

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

Interlude in Lisbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrival in the UK

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

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

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

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

Work as a Spy

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

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

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

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

Sonia as Broadcaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparring Techniques

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Fuchs, and Beurton’s Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Sources:

The Lisbon Route, by Ronald Weber

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

Sonya’s Report, by ‘Ruth Werner’

Letters 1928-1946, by Isaiah Berlin

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

Mortal Crimes, by Nigel West

The Truth About Hollis, by W. J. West

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

The Spy Who Changed the World, by Mike Rossiter

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Officially Unreliable

During my research into intelligence matters, I have noticed a disturbing phenomenon. Very often, writings by authors of dubious credentials, as well as informal interviews with eminent persons, are cited by professional historians in an indiscriminate and unqualified way. Whole volumes may be recommended, statements may be paraphrased or quoted, and items will appear in bibliographies, without the historian’s advising the reader on what terms the sources and publications should be treated. The now more authoritative assertions take on a new life of their own, and are referred to afresh in further works, thus consolidating what may have been utterly false in the first place. When this process occurs with official or authorised histories, the problem is particularly egregious, as the latter publications maintain an awe about them that may in fact be completely unmerited. By this process of implicit approval, more serious histories can apply a certificate of merit to works and conclusions that would have been otherwise justifiably questioned.

For example, the same day on which I started writing this piece, I came across the following passage, in Tyler Anbinder’s fascinating City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York: “Nearly every history of Civil War New York, for example, repeats the story that in June of 1863, ‘some 3,000 striking longshoremen, most of whom were Irish, were forced to watch as black men, under police protection, took their jobs on the docks.’ But this tale is apocryphal, repeated over and over since the first historian mistakenly published it in 1910. White soldiers, not African Americans, temporarily replaced the strikers in question.” (p 236)

I do not know what to call this phenomenon. It is a kind of Gresham’s Law of historiography, whereby the assembly of dubious assertions crowds out the results of more disciplined fact-finding methodologies. But that does not tell the whole story, and is not a reliable enough guide to what happens. After all, in the world of intelligence, archival sources may be no more dependable than those of private memoir, and distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ facts can be a considerable challenge. Indeed, the reverse sometimes occurs: theories and claims of apparent substance are sometimes ignored completely in favour of a highly dubious but protective political line, a default position that is provocative in itself. The phenomenon is more a kind of halo effect, whereby the seal of approval of the Official History gives a gloss to sometimes unmeritorious anecdotes, and a taint to reports that might otherwise have been considered creditworthy. It seems to be an inevitable side-effect of the practice of history-writing as public relations.

Official histories, it is true, recognize the role that personal memoir and witness statements play in complementing the archival record. The problem is that such sources frequently contain a mixture of well-documented research and practical experience, alongside the swallowing of dubious second-hand reports and even the fabrication of untruths – often out of a desire to enhance the subject’s reputation. What is needed is a rigid testing and verification of such accounts, and an explanation, when such narratives or assertions are re-presented, of the forensic case for accepting or doubting the quality of the secondary material. What is also essential is a selective reference to such material, rather than the blanket bibliography that appears to treat each listed work as having equal quality, and possessing a consistent internal integrity that it may well lack.

I plan to show examples by analysing four official or authorised histories in my sphere of research. The first is Margaret Gowing’s Britain and Atomic Energy, published in two parts in 1964 and 1974. The second is the  five-volume British Intelligence in the Second World War by F. H. Hinsley and others (encompassing a foot of shelf-space in my library), which appeared between 1979 and 1990. The third is Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (titled, for some strange reason as Defend the Realm in the USA), published in 2009. The last is Keith Jeffery’s MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949 (again re-titled for US consumption, rather deceptively, as The Secret History of MI6, 1909-1949), which came out in 2010. As I study these volumes, I shall also explore the different constraints under which they were produced, and the apparent methodology applied to their creation.

(I am barely going to touch, in this piece, the highly controversial and important topic of concealment or destruction of massive arrays of government files, primarily by the Foreign Office, and the secret warehouses such as that held at Hanslope Park. I refer the interested reader to Ian Cobain’s generally excellent 2016 work The History Thieves. I also regret that I have not yet been able to inspect Herbert Butterfield’s no doubt indispensable essay Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria from his 1951 publication History and Human Relations.)

Margaret Gowing was historian and archivist of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell when she was commissioned to write the official history. In her Preface, she defended the need for ‘official’ history because of the embargo on declassifying documents until 50 years after they had been created, saying that ‘the official historian’s official standing, his [sic] ties with a Government organisation, his signature of a declaration under the Official Secrets Act, make it possible for Government servants to speak freely to him and give him access to their papers”. She described her experience as altogether positive, with no obstacles put in her way, and access given to her to all government documents, with a small academic advisory committee set up to ensure proper standards of integrity were being applied, and the nation’s interests were being protected. In a ‘Note on Documentation’, she added: “In accordance with the practice of the official war histories, references to official papers that are not yet publicly available have been omitted: footnotes are confined to published material.” Her work is quite certainly an ‘official’ history.

Possibly anticipating objections, the author also asked: “What is the justification for official history at all?”, responding that ‘it lies primarily in the need for histories of recent events based on the documentary evidence, supplemented where possible from the oral evidence of people who lived through these events.’ She also said that ‘the historian and his employer bear a heavy responsibility for ensuring that an official history is written according to the strict criteria of the historical profession’. Yet the historian needs to be wary of oral evidence: on the one hand, memory may be at fault, but in sensitive areas (of which research into nuclear energy is undoubtedly one), the recollections of those involved may be subject to some censorship or distortion. Nowhere was this more clear than in the matter of espionage and the stealing of nuclear secrets, and here Ms. Gowing showed herself to be far too trusting of third-party sources (i.e. not relying exclusively either on her interviews with officials involved or on the written archive).

While Ms. Gowing overall provided a painstaking and very thorough of account of a highly technical subject, in one area she allowed herself to be manipulated. She appeared to rely almost exclusively on Alan Moorehead’s book The Traitors for her coverage of the Klaus Fuchs case, Fuchs having been convicted early in 1950 of stealing atomic secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union. She lists it as her primary source, even though the work was facilitated by MI5 as a public relations exercise. Moorehead was guided in his research while being shown select secret papers, and his conclusions completely misrepresented the chronology of Fuchs’s recruitment by both Soviet Intelligence and by the Tube Alloys Project (which was the codename for the undertaking when it was first set up). Gowing declares that Moorehead was granted more extensive access to official information than she was, a decidedly regrettable state of affairs: occasionally she gives hints of knowledge that Moorehead does not provide (such as the FBI interview with Fuchs in prison), but her sources are not provided. She thus echoes Moorhead’s public relations exercise, defending MI5’s weaknesses in not countering communist influences more aggressively, and reinforcing the notion that Fuchs’s communist beliefs were well-concealed. In summary, she thus let down the standards that she had claimed to espouse by relying on the conclusions of a journalist, failing to demand access (at least) to the same sources that Moorehead had been allowed to inspect.

My second example, the multi-volume history of British Intelligence in WWII, is tersely introduced as one of the set of ‘official histories’. “The authors of this, as of other official histories of the Second World War, have been given free access to official documents. They alone are responsible for the statements made and the views expressed”, we are told on the page facing the title-page. The Preface, however, explains a rather more complex set of compromises. A written parliamentary reply of January 12, 1978, had reminded former intelligence officers (and current historians) of the demands of the Official Secrets Act, and had attempted to make a distinction between ‘records of the Service Intelligence directorates, which will be placed with other departmental archives in the Pubic Record Office’, and other information which could not be disclosed. Yet, while this statement did not explain how such distinctions would made, or how or when the future decisions about declassification would be reached, the authors felt confident in stating that the guidelines issues have ‘not prevented us from incorporating in the published History the result of our work on records which are not to be opened’. The outcome was that the history includes a large number of assertions and conclusions that cannot be verified, since no specific source could be provided.

Furthermore, the authors rather disingenuously conclude their prefatory remarks with the following less-than-comforting statement: ‘That room remains for further research is something that goes without saying. [‘Obviously not!’] Even on issues and episodes for which we have set out to supply the fullest possible accounts, the public records will yield interpretations that differ form those we have offered.” Well, maybe so, Sir Humphrey. But if other historians are not allowed to inspect all the records that the official historians have investigated, they will be severely hamstrung. What the Government is effectively saying is that it trusts only its insiders (for Professor Hinsley was indeed one), and such confidants will clearly toe the line if they want to gain that well-earned knighthood. And the official history can thus not really be challenged, and instead monopolises the academic space, as any pretenders will not have had access to the real but very sensitive records that contributed to the account.

Notwithstanding the multiple merits of this work, which for the most part represents a solid integration of military and intelligence history, reflecting a painstaking and very thorough processing of much complex material, one has to regret the hypersensitivity of Hinsley’s political masters. Followers of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ will immediately recognise how unsatisfactory the methodology is. I have (in Chapters 4 and 5) provided two cases where the ‘interpretation’ of events by Hinsley and his team is highly dubious, and where no written record to support the assertions appears to exist. One was the endorsement of an event that probably did not take place (the claim that all work on Russian ciphers and codes stopped, on Churchill’s order, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, without any explanation as to how that decision was issued and acted upon), and the other the desperate attempt to prove a negative (that, contrary to rumours, the British authorities did not use the Lucy Ring to forward Ultra intelligence to Moscow). These two statements are not the stuff of serious historiography: they are political statements emanating from a defensive sense of security, from a belief that the authorities know best, and that the reading public should unquestioningly accept such dogma.

In reference to the main point of this piece (the unqualified use of third-party memoir), Hinsley and his co-authors are for the most part judicious, occasionally even – sensibly – challenging Churchill’s account of events. Yet the guard does drop. Hinsley has been broadly criticised for skating over technical issues concerning the interpretation and decryption of Enigma traffic.  Gordon Welchman (the main architect and creative mind behind the Ultra project, and author of The Hut Six Story) pointed out the flaws in Hinsley’s understanding, writing, in a letter from 1984: “Hinsley’s account of Bletchley Park activities during the first year of the war is wrong in almost every detail, and I do not know why.”  The challenge with methodology and technical coverage continued. Volume 5 of the History (Strategic Deception) was written by Michael Howard, who had the integrity to admit, in his Preface, that a situation where the text ‘must therefore be accepted as the only evidence of the contents of these files that can be made publicly available’, is one ‘with which no professional historian can be entirely happy’. Again, however, the historian concluded with the less than sincere comment that ‘although this is an “official” publication, it should not be regarded as the last word on the subject: nor should its judgements (for which the author bears sole responsibility) be necessarily regarded as definitive’. Howard indicated that he had the availability of foreign archives in mind when he wrote that, but the same objection arises: why should other professional historians not have the same access to confidential files as Howard did? The inevitable occurred: ‘Arise, Sir Michael’.

Where Howard lapsed was in his coverage of the Double-Cross System, whereby German agents were ‘turned’ to provide a mixture of false and harmlessly true information to their handlers. Howard passed the ball. “The technical problem of running double agents . . . . has been so well described by Sir John Masterman in his book The Double Cross System (1972) that little more need be added here”, wrote Howard. It is as if the controversy over the publication of his book, which Masterman had had to issue in the United States, since the British Government had refused permission, and threatened to sue Masterman, had been forgotten. The authorities wanted dozens of passages removed, but Masterman’s publisher agreed to only a few, and the government had to acquiesce. Dick White, who had supervised the whole MI5 Double Cross operation, was (according to his biographer, Tom Bower) infuriated by the vanity of Masterman, who had ironically been White’s former tutor, and whom White had brought into MI5. In fact, Bower claims that White only approved the project for Hinsley’s History as a method of bringing Masterman down to size. “Masterman’s self-glorification would be neutralised if the whole truth were told” , wrote Bower, paraphrasing White’s opinions.

Thus Howard’s sanitising of the whole controversy comes over as a little too fastidious, and some of the more technical aspects of the Double Cross system remained unanswered.  For example, why did the Germans not appear to question how Britain’s location-finding apparatus had not been good enough to detect the sizable and numerous transmissions sent to them by their supposed agents in the months before D-Day? (Howard reports that five hundred transmissions were made by agent GARBO alone between January and June 1944. The Gestapo would quickly have tracked down such an illegal activity. Why was Britain’s RSS group not able to do so?) Masterman, in his book, allocates only one sentence, with a footnote, on the purely technical aspects of managing double agents, and Howard sidesteps the issue by cross-referring to one of Hinsley’s Appendices, provided by an ex-MI5 officer, on the challenges of radio communications. This flabby appendix, which is somewhat embarrassing in its naivety, is also presented without commentary or explanation. True, Howard offered a much more comprehensive account of the XX project (no doubt to White’s satisfaction), and was able to introduce the previously secret dimension of Enigma decrypts to his story, but a more selective analysis and parsing of Masterman’s contribution would have been acutely appropriate. Incidentally, Howard also completely ignored the role that Soviet spies in Britain’s intelligence might have played in strategic deception, and in particular how their leaks may have affected the negotiation of joint ventures with the Russians.

Now the overall very competent Hinsley-Howard compendium has come to be recognised as a valuable authority. Yet it does not tell the whole story, it is inaccurate on much technical detail, much of its conclusions are unverifiable, and it is not discriminating enough in its selection of third-party sources. Moreover, any historian wanting to provide a review of the subject (perhaps based on those foreign sources that Howard could not consider) will be unable to inspect many of the primary materials that Howard was privileged to see, and will also not be able to interview the ‘experts’ who contributed to the official history.

Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5 is presented as being not ‘official’ but ‘authorised’, although the distinction is hardly crisp. Indeed, in his Preface, Andrew describes his response to MI5’s advertisement for a ‘part-time official [sic] historian’. The head of MI5 in the year of publication, Jonathan Evans, wrote in his Foreword that ‘striking the balance in the text between openness and the protection of national security has been a complex and demanding exercise requiring many hours of detailed discussion between Professor Andrew and members of the service, and an extensive clearance process involving other departments and services’. Evans went on to say that the History contained some embarrassing and uncomfortable information, but implied that Andrew had been given the independence to reach his own conclusions. Evans then made the extraordinary and illogical point that ‘it should not . . . be assumed that his conclusions are based solely on material in our records which is unavailable to the public’, as if a comprehensive, 850-page History could be crafted exclusively from unclassified documents. Perhaps this message of discomfiture was intended to communicate to the reading public that there could not possibly be yet more distressing secrets that could be revealed – unless, of course, questions of national security were at stake. (Evans provided a url which he claimed would explain the principles that governed MI5’s approach to the text: www.mi5.gov.uk/output/centenary-history-policy-on-disclosure.html. Regrettably that page is no longer available.)

Andrew records his occasional frustration at the constraints under which he had to work.  He confides in his readers that he felt it was important to read highly-sensitive files ‘in order to try to ensure that conclusions in The Defence of the Realm based on documents which can be quoted are not contradicted by files whose contents remain classified’. Yet that process lays an enormous onus on Andrew’s skill as an interpreter, for presumably no one else will be allowed to inspect such files that may be permanently classified. And we still do no know which documents fall into which category. For one of the most frustrating aspect of Andrew’s work is the unscholarly methodology for sources. Literally hundreds of citations state merely ‘Security Service Archives’, or ‘Home Office Archives’, and there is no indication given as to whether such documents are permanently embargoed, or which will be released after a certain time-limit.  There could be value in such a tabulation only if an internal document identified each individual source, on the basis that, if and when the archives in question were declassified and made available to the general public, an accurate cross-reference could be supplied to expand Andrew’s Notes (even as they stand, an impressive 123 pages), and allow future historians to develop more informative studies.

Moreover, Andrew certainly tilled other fields. His bibliography contains about 500 titles, quite an exhausting assignment of reading for a part-time historian: again, it is not clear whether every title was deserving of equal respect as far as authenticity and reliability were concerned. Peter Wright’s occasionally dubious Spycatcher appears in the bibliography, but Andrew admittedly qualifies his endorsement by discussing Wright’s collaboration with Chapman Pincher in the text. On the other hand, what is one to make of the fact that Andrew Boyle’s journalistic and controversial Climate of Treason appears in the bibliography, but not in the Index? Or the fact that the highly deceptive Sonya’s Report, by Ruth Werner, is also quoted as a source? At least Andrew does not list Alan Moorehead’s public relations exercise on behalf of MI5, The Traitors, but the outcome was that he completely ignored the internal crisis over the Fuchs case, where Sillitoe was required to lie to Prime Minster Attlee in order to maintain MI5’s survival after the Fuchs fiasco. But it is not clear that the bibliography offered represents ‘works in which I found useful nuggets’, ‘items for suggested further reading’, or something else altogether. It is certainly unscholarly.

Yet the apparent neglect (or ignorance) of such works poses its own set of unique puzzles. Should the fact that Andrew does not even mention, let alone analyse, Moorehead’s work, which the official historian of Atomic Energy had treated with such respect, be noteworthy? And why was Alexander Foote’s Handbook for Spies not consulted, given that it was largely ghosted by an MI5 officer, yet Peter Ustinov’s Dear Me is deemed worthy of mention? Why did Foote not even appear in the Index, given that he underwent intensive interrogation by MI5 in 1947? And why did Fred Copeman not appear in the History, given that he was a leader in the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931 (which is covered), and later, after his conversion from Communism to Catholicism and Moral Re-Armament and his award of the OBE, acted as a consultant to MI5 during the Foote investigation, and wrote a fascinating (but maybe deceptive) memoir titled  Reason in Revolt? Etc., etc.  Should we make conclusions about books and topics that were not considered suitable for inclusion in the bibliography?

Andrew’s production is in many ways an impressive achievement. It is a fascinating account of an institution that has for too long been unnecessarily secret. Moreover, most of the history is probably accurate. But we cannot know. Andrew necessarily had to compromise his professional integrity by submitting to bureaucratic demands and possibly spurious claims about risks to national security. Many of his sources cannot be checked, and his indiscriminate reference to works of dubious merit begs the questions: if what these authors say is sometimes untruthful and unverifiable, why do you trust what they write on other matters? How do you select what you consider to be accurate? Where is the methodology that distinguishes useful and reliable facts and experiences from the self-deception of memoir, the faulty memory, the desire for self-aggrandisement, the concealment of unpalatable actions, and the shakily passed-on rumour?

Jeffery’s history of SIS, presumably no longer ‘secret’, suffers from similar identity problems. The flyleaf (of my American edition) introduces it as an ‘authorized’ history. John Sawers, the then head of SIS, states in his Foreword that his predecessor decided to commission an ‘independent and authoritative’ volume. In the Preface, Jeffery writes that, in his practice of not including source references for documents not in the public domain, he follows ‘the precedent set by past British official histories’. The work is obviously supposed to be the ‘definitive’ history, a term that Jeffery uses, for example, to characterise Gill Morton’s study of Desmond Morton, Churchill’s Man of Mystery. Yet it also is confused about its scope. The flyleaf promotes SIS in glittering terms: “The Service pioneered cryptography on an industrial scale at Bletchley Park”, but Jeffery admits that GC&CS (later GCHQ) was really only a reluctant stepchild of SIS, under Menzies’s overall supervision. Jeffery’s coverage of GC&CS is superficial (there has yet to be written an official or authorised history of that institution), and sensibly concentrates on such matters as the controversy over Section V’s distribution of the so-called ‘ISOS’ (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material coming from Bletchley Park. This spin on SIS’s responsibilities – something echoed by Sawers in his Foreword  ̶  may have been a useful way of promoting the book, but it was highly misleading.

This historian does show some concern for his professional role. He recognises the extraordinary decision that allowed him the opportunity, given the traditional secrecy that surrounded SIS (the existence of the service was not admitted until 1993), to perform his task. He appreciates the fact that he was given ‘unrestricted access’ to the Service archives. He regrets the fact that he cannot name names that have not already appeared in print. Yet he does not allow much room for alternative interpretations, or express the hope that other historians might be allowed to see what he was able to inspect.  Moreover, he is perhaps over-confident in the trustworthiness of the files he studied.  “The history, written as it were from headquarters, reflects the surviving SIS documentation upon which it is primarily based.” That means he has been more guarded in using accounts by ex-officers of SIS. “I have in general used memoir material very sparingly. Although often revealing on the personal side, the recollection of events and emotions, sometimes many years after, presents critical problems of interpretation and assessment for the historian, particularly in the matter of espionage and other covert activities, which are not infrequently cloaked about with a melodramatic air of secrecy, conspiracy, conjecture and invention.” Indeed – but what is the methodology that distinguishes such from fact? It is not clear.

On Notes and Sources, Jeffery is a bit more informative than Andrew, although his explanations are a little ambiguous. John Sawers explains a policy distinguishing ‘information drawn from the archive’ from ‘non-release of records’ that has in practice allowed the ‘occasional official release of some Service material’ in order to facilitate the writing of biographies of ‘important intelligence figures’ – hardly a water-tight or objective guideline, one might say. He also confirms the constraints of national security, the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy of government, as well as that elusive and controversial principle, the lack of damage to the ‘public interest’, the definition of which should probably not be left to those authorities whose business is secrets. Jeffery then writes: “As will be apparent from the reference notes, I have also had privileged access to relevant but closed documents held by other British government departments.” Yet it is not always clear from the Notes themselves what the status of the records is: at times, Jeffery provides a serial number, and indicates that the files are retained (which fact a brief inspection of the National Archives Catalogue confirms. The institution tantalising describes many files that have not been released). At others, he refers to minutes and memoranda that have no discrete identifier, but are listed less specifically as (for example) ‘PUSD papers, FCO’. (PUSD is not listed in his abbreviations, but is presumably Permanent Under-Secretary for Defence.) It is a big step forward from the anonymity provided by Andrew, but still very unsatisfactory. There is a lesson to be learned here.

As for non-archival sources, such as memoirs and biographies, Jeffery is a little more discriminating, although that in itself raises questions. Andrew was happy including Nigel West’s highly unofficial history of MI5 in his sources, but Jeffery does not list West’s book on SIS, nor Stephen Dorrill’s, nor even Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography of the wartime head of SIS, Stewart Menzies. What are we to make of that? That they were valueless? Why no mention of Isaiah Berlin’s revealing Letters? Was Berlin’s D Section mission to Moscow with Guy Burgess considered to be a fabrication? On the other hand, he does include in his bibliography the highly contentious biography of Claude Dansey by Anthony Read and David Fisher, Colonel Z, although in one of his notes he writes ‘for Dansey’s early life, see Read and Fisher’, as if the book should not be trusted for the bulk of Dansey’s career. Yet he never explains why. In Sonia’s Radio, I have pointed out that Jeffery was extremely cavalier in so blandly recommending Bradley Smith’s Sharing Secrets with Stalin (‘this book is excellent for Anglo-Soviet intelligence relations generally’) as it completely overlooks the influence that access to strategic information provided by Stalin’s spies must have exerted on negotiations. The less than completely honest statement concerning the traitors within British intelligence services remains one of the major flaws. Jeffery restricts his coverage of Philby primarily to reactions to the Gouzenko defection in 1945: Volkov (the would-be defector whom Philby betrayed the same year) does not even appear in the Index.

Thus Jeffery’s book turns out to be a rather indigestible confection, with too many loose ends, too many stories not pursued, too many unresolved questions, and too many controversies avoided. It may have been politic to avoid some topics, such as the mission to Moscow, the possible recruitment of Alexander Foote, the distribution of Ultra information to the Soviets, the entanglement with Soviet spy rings in Switzerland, all explained away in the implication that the evidence in the archive was too slim or non-existent for the episodes to be taken seriously. But we simply do not know that for a fact. And there exist far too many reports in memoirs by reputable persons of a countercultural series of activities to justify such inertia and complacency. Jeffery’s work is hardly the ‘rigorous’ treatment that Sawers advertised, and there appears to be no suitable forum for the unresolved issues to be thrashed out in a methodological and disciplined manner. Jeffery died of cancer in 2016, at the comparatively young age of 64, very surprisingly without having received any government award or honour.

What does all this mean?

First, that ‘official’ and ‘authorised’ histories should be approached with a great deal of suspicion. They may have honest and sometimes deserved pretensions as works of serious history, but should always be considered as items of propaganda. They cannot be reviewed properly in the open forums of academia and journalism, as their sources cannot be verified.

Second, that any historian who discovers facts in unpublished archives, but then has to negotiate with those who authorise his work over publicity of the same, and concede to their demands, is professionally compromised. If he or she is prohibited from expressing judgments and opinions about those events in future undertakings and teaching, effectively suppressing the truth, that person’s academic integrity is tainted, and scholarship is tarnished.

Third, while government institutions might be said to have a right to judge what is an issue of ‘national security’, they surely should not be allowed to have the last word on what is ‘in the public interest’, and hence censor what the public has a right to know. Certainly the reason given of ‘avoiding embarrassment’ that appears to dominate policies on withholding files should be excluded from any consideration. We should also always be suspicious of any person or body that assumes the omniscience to understand what constitutes ‘the public interest’. A parliamentary committee should be set up to adjudicate, or, better still, the Freedom of Information Act, which automatically calls for the release of files after a defined period, should be enforced in a consistent and disciplined manner.

Fourth, that greater discipline should be exercised over archival sources. All sources should have an identifier, even if it is not yet made public. We need three categories of registration: classified (retained) and unpublicised; 2) classified and publicised (as in many unreleased files described at the National Archives); and 3) declassified. A confidential registry of sources should be maintained when any authorised history is written, so that the sources may be revealed at that future time when the files are declassified (if indeed that happens).

Fifth, that it must be remembered that archival sources in the world of intelligence matters are especially suspect, since they may have been doctored, weeded, or redacted. While the accuracy of published material can be debated in public forums, an extra layer of scepticism must be applied when dealing with one person’s individual interpretation of secret archives, in the face also of justifiable doubt about the completeness of the sources.

Sixth, that all interviews undertaken by historians with individuals temporarily unshackled from the Official Secrets Act (or other confidentiality agreements) should be recorded and transcribed. They should then be made available at the same time that relevant files are released. That would help ensure that deceptive self-promotion and concealment were reduced in quantity, and government officials would be held accountable for their contributions.

Seventh, that all such historians should provide a methodology for how they approach memoir, biography and other historical works not based on the archival record. They should explain why an item appears in any bibliography, and discuss any individual work in that context in their History. Robert Conquest once said: “Just because a source may be erroneous or unreliable on certain points does not invalidate all its evidence.” The corollary would be that, just because a source can be shown in some places to be true, it does not mean that all its evidence is reliable. Historians should also be prepared to explain why they reject well-founded and broadly-supported published theories, and not simply make ex cathedra denials of them.

Can an objective history be written? Herbert Asquith said he did not believe there had ever been an historian who had not exhibited some amount of partisanship: “It is a common infirmity of the tribe.”  And I recorded the following in my April 2017 Commonplace entries: “Indeed, those who don’t like his [Eamon Duffy’s] work say he is a Roman Catholic first and a historian second. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. All of us bring our whole selves to scholarship, including our faith.” (Giles Fraser, in Prospect review of Duffy’s Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England, May 2017) Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. When does a point of view become a prejudice? A principle become a dogma? No doubt every historian brings some unique perspective to his or her process of interpretation, and selection itself reflects some intellectual preference, but if any allows a particular credo to dominate, the result will be an inferior product. While Evelyn Waugh was a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Graham Greene was undeniably a Catholic novelist, and I believe his oeuvre suffered because of that. (“Get a grip, Greene! You weren’t born with it. Make a choice, man!”)

So it is with history. Just as there can be no ‘Marxist’ or ‘feminist’ history, there can be no ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ history – or even ‘definitive’ history. Just history, written by qualified academics, with sources available to all, competing for credibility and reputation in an open market, and subject to refinement and re-interpretation in the light of new evidence. As Basil Liddell Hart was reputed to have said about an ‘official’ history of WWI: ‘official – but not history’.

P.S. As I was preparing this piece, I discovered the existence of an essay titled Intelligence and ‘Official History’, by Christopher Baxter and Keith Jeffery (the same), published in the 2013 compilation Intelligence Studies in Britain and the US: Historiography since 1945, edited by Christopher R. Moran and Christopher J. Murphy. I ordered it, and it arrived after I had completed my text. The authors focus more on the lack of intelligence analysis in official military histories, but include many of the same points that I make about the propagandisation of officialdom, the ambiguity of sources, freedom of access, and the dubiousness of memoir. In that vein they cite my supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, who in 2003 said: “I don’t think governments should write their own history”, and “academics should not become ambassadors or politicians, or work for the secret service.” In the treatment of non-official sources, the authors provide a telling example with Brook Richards’ official history of clandestine sea operations during World War II, where the author stated that he was responsible ‘for the accuracy of any information not obtained from official British documents’, an assertion that would have been welcome in the histories that I have analysed. The authors also make the following conclusion: “Acknowledging and handling this kind of material (whether in the form of memoir or careful scholarship, as well as more popular works) can pose a problem for the official historian, who, in many cases, cannot simply ignore its existence, but whose use of it may be taken in some way to authenticate it.” Exactly: I could not have put it better myself.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here. And I have added a few more examples of Hyperbolic Contrast here.

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Sonia’s Radio – Part VII

Two readers have separately informed me that they found my last blog too exhausting. I have thus decided to offer health warnings in future. So, if you are not already utterly absorbed by the untold stories of the Ultra secret, and the saga of Sonia’s Radio, I alert you now that this month’s episode may send you to sleep. Please do not read it while operating agricultural machinery!

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(In this installment, I analyse the backgrounds and possible motivations of the contributors to the ‘revisionist’ theory of Ultra dissemination, namely that it was fed to Soviet intelligence in Switzerland by SIS – probably via Alexander Foote. All these claims were then magisterially denied by the official historian. For the full story so far, please see Sonia’sRadio.)

The leading German cryptologist from WWII, Wilhelm Flicke, who in the late 1950s committed suicide in mysterious circumstances, wrote that ‘the Rote Drei’s source of information remains the most fateful secret of World War 2’. Echoing this opinion, Nigel West has told me that he has for a long time held the view that ‘the precise source of Lucy’s material is the last great secret of the war’. West’s crisp assessment of the conundrum can be read in his 1985 work Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of World War II (published in the USA as A Thread of Deceit). He has also recently suggested to me that ‘nothing much has changed since then’. Yet a flurry of material was declassified in the first decade of this century that must surely be taken into consideration when re-inspecting the mystery of the Lucy ring. Furthermore, many writers have coolly suggested, despite Professor’s Hinsley’s curt denial in the official history of British Intelligence, that there is no longer any mystery behind the distribution of Ultra material to Stalin via the Communist network in Switzerland. It continues to happen. For example, as I pointed out in last month’s blog, in 2013 Peter Matthews wrote, in his SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-1945, that Alexander Foote was working for SIS in Switzerland, and passing on to the Soviets the valuable Ultra information. Yet no controversy seems to exist: an astounding lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of professional historians is evident, with no protestations, no debates, no critical reviews. This chapter of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ tracks the progress of the revisionist theory over the past fifty years, and inspects the credentials and possible motivations of its proponents.

Muggeridge’s Revelations

Malcolm Muggeridge was the first to make an open statement about Alexander Foote’s possible role as an emissary, in the January 8, 1967, issue of the Observer. In this piece, presented as a review of Accoce and Quet’s The Lucy Ring, Muggeridge claimed to have first met Foote when the latter was installed, in some kind of sinecure, at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in the early 1950s. Without explaining how the facts of Foote’s position within an ostensibly Comintern-controlled network had come to the attention of the British authorities, Muggeridge indicated that the ‘Intelligence Department concerned with code-breaking’ faced the challenge of imparting information gained by breaking German codes. (Muggeridge did not use the term ‘Ultra’, nor did he identify Bletchley Park by name, at this time.) “A ready and convenient solution would have been to feed the information to the Russians through one of their own clandestine intelligence set-ups”, he wrote, implying that the Lucy ring was in fact largely a creature of British Intelligence. The availability of radio communications and diplomatic bag, according to Muggeridge, complemented by the country’s neutrality, made Switzerland, and Roessler, an obvious choice for the dissemination of Ultra secrets. In passing, Muggeridge trashed Accoce’s and Quet’s book for its ‘unresisting imbecility’.

Muggeridge was careful not to implicate Foote in this admission  ̶  somewhat oddly, as Foote had reportedly been dead for more than ten years. (It should be remembered, however, that the ex-SOE and SIS officer Ronald Seth in 1965 claimed that Foote was still alive.) “I put the suggestion to Foote, who looked faintly startled and then abruptly changed the subject,” wrote Muggeridge. The broadcaster and journalist known as ‘St. Mugg’ was either being very disingenuous, or he knew more than he admitted. While it might not have been obvious from this article, Muggeridge had in fact worked for SIS during the war. (More than that, apparently. In a blurb on the cover of Read’s and Fisher’s Operation Lucy [q.v.], he boasted that he was involved ‘in wartime clandestine Intelligence duties and in handling Ultra material.’) In an earlier Sunday Telegraph essay, The Case of Kim Philby, (1963) he had, in his customarily waspish way, explained that he had worked for Philby when on assignment in Mozambique. He found Philby congenial company, but considered him too ‘unstable and farouche’ to advance to the top of his career. Nevertheless, expressing some surprise at Philby’s advancement in SIS, he declared: “My own impression at the time was that the foolish and the phonies, not to mention the occasional rogues, were almost invariably preferred to the more honest, straightforward and perceptive.” It is clear that Muggeridge’s experiences with SIS soured him: in an even earlier Spectator article (1961), Public Thoughts on a Secret Service, he had scoffed at the pretensions of the British Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence services, concluding that the contradictions between security and freedom in a liberal democracy made their efforts largely pointless, offering along the way the sardonic observation that ‘Intelligence services are unfortunate in that the more suitable a person is for recruitment to them, the more disastrous he is likely to prove.’

How close was Muggeridge to the action, though? It is quite possible that he had taken advantage of access to information from Ultra insiders, for example his friend Edward Crankshaw, covered later in this piece. Nevertheless, it was Muggeridge, the irresolute counter-spy (he had considered suicide while on duty on the beaches of Mozambique) who broke fresh ground by hinting directly at a) a successful program of intercepting and deciphering vital German traffic, and b) the existence of a country-house where the project had been executed. He had probably offended the Official Secrets Act in such revelations, but no ‘D’ notice had been sent to his newspaper editors, and the response to his article was largely unremarkable. The week following his piece, the Observer published three letters.  The author Len Deighton, ignorant of Ultra, seriously missed the point, and stressed that the war in the Soviet Union was won by Russian blood and sacrifice rather than boffins in an English country house. A second correspondent, Alfred Fields, pointed out that Arthur Koestler (in The Invisible Writing) had recorded that Roessler had been one of the main wartime contacts of Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr. This letter hinted vaguely at a whole new dimension of intelligence co-operation: whether Canaris had in fact been working throughout his war with British interests in mind, a fascinating question that is beyond the scope of this investigation

The third letter is the most engrossing. One Charlotte Haldane, writing as a friend of Foote, explained how the confidences that Foote had shared with her indicated that he did not know where Lucy had gained his information, but at the same time she suggested that Foote’s experiences in being interrogated by both Soviet and British Intelligence would have deterred him from admitting anything. Haldane rather over-egged the pudding, however, by claiming that Foote ‘repeatedly [sic] told her that he had no idea, either at the time or later, where or how “Lucy” obtained his information, except that it came straight from the inner councils of the OKW’, as if she hadn’t wanted to accept his simple denial the first time. But why was she so interested in this matter, and why would she not accept Foote’s initial answer, but instead pester him so with her continual questioning? Haldane added that Foote was so puzzled about the origin of the intelligence that ‘he intended to revisit Switzerland to seek further information’. “The Swiss authorities, however, refused him entry owing to his former conviction and imprisonment”, she noted. Was this woman simply a very enterprising reporter?

Ms. Haldane’s role and interests were not revealed at the time. She had in fact been a member of the Communist Party well into the 1940s, and between 1926 and 1945 had been married to Professor J. B. S. Haldane, who was a Communist spy bearing the cryptonym INTELLIGENTSIA, as the VENONA transcripts show. She and her husband had been very active in helping the International Brigades reach Spain, so she had probably met Foote at that time. Indeed Foote recalled seeing her husband on the front line, waving a pistol at the advancing Franco troops: “Luckily for science, we managed to repel the Rebel attack and the professor was spared for his further contributions to world knowledge”, he wrote. Charlotte Haldane was also a close friend of the communist Hans Kahle, a co-conspirator with Jürgen Kuczynski, Sonia’s brother: Kahle became part of Sonia’s network. Shortly after the time of Foote’s interrogation by MI5, Charlotte claimed in a memoir (Truth Will Out) to have cut her ties to the Communist Party some years before, after which she had worked at the Talks Department of the BBC, replacing George Orwell. Her disenchantment was evidently more with Stalinism than with Communism, and she may well have maintained her contacts in the CPGB. She might have been given the mission by Moscow to ascertain the truth of Foote’s involvement with SIS: she never mentioned in her letter her past enthusiasms, or their shared involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Her credentials to comment objectively on the matter were thus somewhat dubious. Foote, knowing her history and allegiances, would have been very guarded in dealing with her.

The statement about his imprisonment needs clarifying, as well. Foote had indeed been imprisoned  ̶  but in no great discomfort  ̶   in Switzerland between November 1943 and September 1944, primarily as a gesture to assuage the Gestapo’s spy-hunters, but also to cover up possible misdeeds by Swiss intelligence. He had sensibly declined to return for a possibly more serious trial in October 1947, and was in absentia sentenced to thirty months in prison, a fine of 8000 francs, and fifteen years’ expulsion. The likelihood of his wanting to journey there on an idealistic mission to investigate Lucy’s sources, when leaving the UK would have exposed him to Soviet assassins, or, preferably but still unpleasantly, a probable spell in a Swiss prison, was extremely thin. It can safely be concluded that he was thus acting out his charade with Haldane. Foote’s file at the National Archives indicates that he hoped to show the manuscript of his Handbook for Spies to Charlotte before publication, in February 1949, as she wanted to use it for a BBC talk. A certain Copeman apparently talked him out of it, warning him of Haldane’s unreliability, but Foote was still in touch with Haldane in February 1952, considering a sequel. As is frequently the case with double-agents, the behavior is ambiguous: Foote might have been showing his true colours, but it is much more likely that he had been engaging in subterfuge to maintain his legend.  He clearly impressed Ms. Haldane, who trusted his story, and declared him ‘one of the bravest men I have known’. She doubtless held a romantic notion that Foote was an idealistic communist who had served the cause, and then seen the light, as had she. That is the outcome she wanted to occur, and Foote projected it for her.

The appearance of the gentleman named Copeman sheds a startling new light on the intrigue. For the individual was almost certainly Frederick Copeman, an ex-Communist of some repute who had been a prominent member of the Invergordon Mutiny. In his memoir, Foote indicated that Copeman, as ‘an old ‘friend’, had in 1938 recruited him for the dangerous assignment abroad. Copeman was a leading CPGB member who had headed the British Battalion of the International Brigades in Spain: that other communist apostate, Charlotte Haldane, attested to his courage and leadership, attributes that the archive now shows to be under question. Moreover, records recently released to the National Archives indicate that Copeman had abandoned his Communist allegiance in 1941, and was even awarded the MBE in that year for fire-fighting services. MI5 appeared to be aware of his recantation – and no doubt, too, was Moscow Centre. Copeman’s being introduced as some kind of external consultant to MI5 on dealing with the CPGB suggests that,  around the time of Barbarossa, he probably informed the Security Service of Foote’s recruitment. And Moscow Centre would also have learned then that one of their prime agents had defected, perhaps without massive concern now that Britain was an ally of the Soviet Union. But the relationships between Foote, Copeman and Haldane demand further investigation.

A comparison of Copeman’s 1948 memoir, Reason in Revolt (1948), with Foote’s Handbook for Spies (1949) sheds some important light on their respective political situations. The staging posts of Copeman’s initial mission to Spain closely match those of Foote. Foote left Dover on December 23, 1936, while Copeman sailed on January 1, 1937. They both assembled in Albacete, and were then drafted into the British battalion at Madriguerras (Madriguerus, according to Copeman), which they both stated was led by William Macartney, with Douglas Springhall as political commissar. Yet, while Foote asserted that almost half of the thousand or so British who served with the International Brigade were killed in Spain, and later characterised Copeman as ‘an old friend’ who was acting on behalf of Springhall in recruiting him for the Comintern, Copeman never mentioned Foote in his narrative. Foote felt free to write: “Later, of course, Copeman split with the Party and joined the Oxford Group [of moral rearmers, not spies, it should be added]”, but Copeman clearly wanted to conceal his role in recruiting Foote, and was sensitive to the latter’s precarious position in 1948. In fact, Copeman was somewhat of a surprising choice to help in Foote’s recruitment, as he was at that time already under a cloud with the CPGB because of his criticism of Communist brutality in the British battalion in Spain. If Moscow Centre had indeed learned of Copeman’s role in the hiring of Foote, it might have been doubly concerned about leakages to British intelligence over Foote’s mission in Switzerland. While all of this information was public at the time, none of these considerations appear to have been picked up after Charlotte Haldane’s contribution in the Observer.

Two weeks after Muggeridge’s article appeared, Accoce and Quet were given their chance to respond to his critique. They went on the offensive with some ill-focused bluster, but were on weak ground. Indeed, they admitted later that they had invented part of their story, which cast doubts on anything they wrote, despite their claims to extensive interviewing. (Witnesses do not always tell the truth.) Thus Muggeridge (on January 29) was able to demolish their riposte quite easily, though he did concede that his theory was ‘only a suggestion’. (Did someone have a quiet word with him in the interim?)  Moreover, he made the rather strange observation (given that in his original piece he had described Foote’s Handbook for Spies as ‘excellent’, and had noted its 1964 republication without identifying the obvious anomalies) that ‘though Messrs Accoce and Quet make a slighting reference to Alexander Foote, they seem to me to have drawn heavily on his Handbook for Spies in compiling their own, in my opinion, far flimsier and more credulous account of the Lucy set-up.’ Thus, despite his equivocal judgment on the merits of Foote’s book,  for a while Muggeridge had the last word  ̶  maybe a protest against a cover-up that he deemed pointless, and one that had condemned his friend Foote to a miserable and lonely life. A few years later, however, Muggeridge did go two steps further: hiding behind the protection of an American magazine, Esquire, in the September 1968 issue he went so far as to name ‘Bletchley’ as the location where the cryptographic work was done, and then asserted, more confidently, that ‘the Russians did get all relevant Bletchley material, routed to them via the ‘Lucy’ setup in Switzerland, whence it was transmitted to Moscow as having come from dissident German staff officers’. The seed had been cast, but appeared not to have landed on fertile ground.

Yet a few more years later, perhaps emboldened by other accounts starting to leak out, Muggeridge even identified the source of his information as Foote himself. In Volume 2 of his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, titled The Infernal Grove (published in 1973), Muggeridge repeated many ideas and phrases he had used in his Observer piece, but now explicitly quoted Foote as his source for the intelligence that Stalin was receiving ‘the requisite Bletchley material’ via the Lucy Ring in Switzerland. No one appeared to challenge this assertion, maybe not wishing to draw attention to the troublesome matter. Why Muggeridge, having admittedly protected Foote from any breach of secrets in 1967, would now claim that the Comintern radio-operator had revealed the whole story to him, has, however, not been addressed. Was it a harmless oversight? Or had he out of necessity been over-careful about Foote’s situation in 1967? It seems that no one pointed out this inconsistency to him.

Alarms and Diversions

Between the publication of Muggeridge’s Observer piece, and that of his autobiography, however, some significant events had occurred. It should be pointed out that all employees at Bletchley Park had signed the Official Secrets Act, and had thus promised to remain silent about their work, and even the existence of Bletchley Park itself. As Christopher Andrew wrote: “At the end of the Second World War, most of those who had been ‘indoctrinated’ into Ultra believed that it would never be revealed.”  Thus it was no doubt insulting to all of them that Muggeridge, as a former officer of SIS, would be allowed to refer to a centre dedicated to decryption, and even to name it, without any sanctions. However, when the work of a proven spy was published the same year (1968), identifying the Government Code and Cypher School, and describing the process of intercepting foreign traffic, the shock in many quarters must have been intense. For that is what Kim Philby revealed in his My Silent War, as Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio explained.

Philby’s escape to Moscow in 1963 had been a great embarrassment to the head of wartime SIS, Stewart Menzies, who, as Trevor-Roper reported, when challenged tried to downplay the significance of Philby’s role in SIS. But too many people knew the extent of Philby’s influence. Menzies had retired in 1952, but now had to endure the scandal of the fact that he had been responsible for recruiting, nurturing, protecting and promoting perhaps the most dedicated of the ‘Cambridge Spies’. Jeffery’s history of SIS contains the facsimile of a letter written by Menzies to the Foreign Office explaining how such an ‘able man’ as Philby could not possibly be released from working for SIS. Moreover, Menzies was not universally admired. Cavendish-Bentinck (the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee during the war) famously described him as ‘neither strong nor intelligent’, and opined that had he not had the fortune to be in charge of GC&CS after the death of his predecessor, Admiral Sinclair, in 1939, he would not have survived as head of SIS. Menzies died before Philby’s book was published, but, as his biographer Anthony Cave-Brown informed us, he had before his death been able to examine the proofs, with notable dismay.

Thus it is reasonable to assume that, once the cat was out of the bag, many officers who had been close to the cryptological events of World War II might have believed that a broader exposure was desirable: to set the record straight, to correct the unbalanced reputation of Menzies (and enhance their own for posterity, no doubt), by not just helping the veil to be lifted from the activities at Bletchley Park, but even to allude to the special project that, so they might have believed, helped win the war – the sharing of Ultra secrets with the Russians. But one thing at a time. The world did not yet know about Ultra, the secret of which was not declassified until the mid-1970s. That process, however, was no doubt facilitated by the gradual leaks of information that emanated from those who believed that their efforts demanded greater public credit, and thought to even the balance of bad publicity that had accrued to SIS and GCHQ from Philby’s acts and revelations. Other scholars put out tempting hints about collusion: the renowned chronicler of German intelligence, Ladislas Farago, in his 1971 book The Game of the Foxes, issued only one sentence on the Lucy Ring, but it hinted at sharing of agents: “It was there [Berne], too, that the British and Soviet secret services gained access to the operations plans [sic] and tactical dispositions of the Wehrmacht, through Alexander Foote and Rudolf Roessler,  . . .”. Even though Farago finessed the issue of the source, Foote was in this way explicitly identified as an agent of the British.

This story was soon amplified. Richard Deacon (the author of A History of the British Secret Service, published in 1969) was not a scholarly historian. His real name was Donald McCormick, he had worked for naval intelligence during World War II, and he had many contacts in the intelligence world, including Ian Fleming, from whom he gleaned his stories. His motivations appear to have been more for the journalistic main chance when he made his revelations. He openly claimed that Russian agents had been forewarned by spies within British institutions of Krivitsky’s disclosures, thus hastening the defector’s death, and he also trashed the theories of Accoce and Quet about the communications of multiple traitors within the German military machine: moreover, the information (so he pointed out) had arrived too regularly to have come from spies in Germany. The facts were quite clear, in his account. British Intelligence had cracked German military codes at Bletchley Park, with the aid of cipher machines captured from German submarines; neutral Switzerland was the ideal place for disseminating material to the Soviets; the Lucy Ring was an instrument of the British Secret Service; Roessler was known by the Czechs through the shadowy figure of van Narvig, and had spied for them; and Alexander Foote had for a long time been an agent of SIS and thus performed a patriotic service for his country.

In retrospect, if the accounts also leaked to Read and Fisher are to be believed, Deacon was right on the mark. And his book must have caused a few feathers to be ruffled in Whitehall. As British mandarins discussed the thorny problem of how to reveal the Bletchley Park story to the world at large, further accounts seeped out. Barton Whaley was an American academic who focused on deception and counter-deception – not just in military fields. His 1973 work, Codeword Barbarossa, inevitably concentrated on Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, but his insights are provocative, since, based on his research and interviews, he concluded that Foote and Roessler had indeed been active in 1941, warning Stalin through the Lucy Ring about Hitler’s intentions, a theory that goes much against the conventional grain that Lucy himself was not introduced until 1942.  Whaley was also a champion of Muggeridge, and made the following telling observation: “Muggeridge’s hypotheses drew immediate favorable attention in Germany, where any allegation of treason in the OKW [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht] is still excitedly rationalized away in many circles. More recently, Muggeridge has raised his original tentative speculation [i.e. in the Observer in 1963] to outright assertion [i.e. in Esquire in 1968], although he gives no evidence for this change in status.” (Maybe because Foote was really dead by then?) Yet, even though Whaley directly pointed out the links between the Swiss and British Intelligence (his contact, Puenter, known as PAKBO, the main source of information on German plans, was said to be working with SIS’s John Salter), he was not confident enough to go the whole way, and thus describe the Lucy Ring as an agency of British Intelligence, and he still gave credit to the assumption that several Nazi informers were providing the material.

The Ultra Secret Is Revealed

Explanations for the eventual decision to allow the Ultra secret to be exposed tend to overlook the pressure applied by Muggeridge and Philby, and frequently cite works published in other languages, such as Gustave Bertrand’s Enigma, which appeared in 1973.  The story of Bletchley Park and Enigma decryption was officially released in 1974, when F. W. Winterbotham’s The Ultra Secret was published, albeit with some reluctant approval. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor claimed in his Introduction to the book that he had been trying for twenty years to get the ban lifted, and admitted how the prohibition had inhibited any comprehensive writing of military history. Winterbotham’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography betrays the reluctance of the government: ‘. . . he had had the text of his book vetted by the authorities, who finally allowed him to publish it, although they did not endorse it.’ In his autobiography, The Ultra Spy, published in 1989, Winterbotham revealed that, in 1972, he had approached Admiral Denning at the Ministry of Defence after an unidentified journalist had come to pick his brains about Ultra. He eventually managed to convince Denning that a ‘proper account of the Ultra secret should be published as soon as possible’. As is characteristic of such accounts, the claims of Winterbotham and Slessor do not gel neatly, and Winterbotham starts to display a pattern of self-promotion. Richard Aldrich, in his history of GCHQ, attributes the decision to desires by the government to balance the negative publicity arising from Philby’s absconding with positive PR: moreover, it could not control the stories about code-breaking coming out in the United States. On the other hand, Cave-Brown identifies Alistair Denniston’s son, Robin, as the agent who pushed through the publication of The Ultra Secret, as well as that of Philby’s memoir, as acts of retribution for the slight on his father.

Winterbotham was a respectable choice as chronicler, since he had set up the first Scientific Intelligence Unit in SIS in 1939, and had been a vital part of the project at Bletchley.  He had worked directly for Menzies, establishing Hut 3, which took control of the interpretation and packaging of raw decrypts with the help of intelligence officers recruited from the services, setting up the shadow OKW, and arranging for the secure distribution of Ultra material to allied commanders and intelligence officers who ‘needed to know’. But his book contained many errors, primarily because of the author’s lack of understanding of cryptology (which was an aspect of the whole Enigma story that Denning demanded should not be covered): the authorities allowed them to stand. Moreover, covering the project of releasing the material to the Soviets was not part of Winterbotham’s charter. He also received much criticism, primarily from those who had taken their vow of silence very seriously, for spearheading the disclosure of the Ultra secret, but also for some self-aggrandisement. In the 1993 publication Codebreakers: the Inside Story of Bletchley Park, Edward Thomas (who had worked in Hut 3) set out to clear up one of the ‘many mis-statements’ that Winterbotham made about Bletchley, namely that he had established it and staffed it with German-speaking officers. Thomas claimed that none of such a group had been recruited, implying thereby that Winterbotham had in his account attracted renown to himself instead of a Captain Saunders.

Winterbotham made one important statement, however, that demands close analysis, and represents some evidence for his later surreptitious disclosures. On page 92, he wrote:  “I was never told by Menzies the real reason for the takeover, but gradually pieced together the facts that the Foreign Office and the directors of Intelligence of the armed services became alarmed at the power that Ultra had placed in Menzies’ hands, so that the Foreign Office decided to place control of this vital source of information in the hands of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was given a Foreign Office chairman (Cavendish-Bentinck). It had been considered advisable to put all the departments at Bletchley under one director, Commander Travis, who was put in to replace Commander Denniston, the real founder of Ultra, now posted back to London on other cryptographic duties.”

The ‘takeover’ that Winterbotham referred to was the handing over (in July 1942) of Winterbotham’s ‘shadow OKW’ to the General Administration at Bletchley, a transfer over which Winterbotham declared some veiled resentment. Yet this is at first glance a somewhat puzzling observation, since the new leader Travis still reported to Menzies, and the loss of one responsibility undergone by Winterbotham was compensated by his increased activities managing the Special Liaison Units that managed the secure distribution of Ultra to the field, adding now responsibilities to the US command. By all accounts, he executed this task with flair and skill, which makes his 1943 award of a mere CBE somewhat surprising. In this role, moreover, he would have been intimately familiar with the communication facilities being set up by Gambier-Parry of SIS’s Section VIII between Britain and offices abroad, including Switzerland, yet he obviously judged this change of assignment as something of a demotion. In his autobiography, he claimed that Menzies was too weak to resist the encroachment of the naval Commander in charge of cypher-breaking at Bletchley, who had decided ‘he wanted my Hut 3’. But was this the whole story?

Perhaps one can read a different message between the lines. Winterbotham’s respect for Denniston (‘the real founder of Ultra’) is clear, and maybe Denniston, who was very concerned about the security of Ultra, had complained about Menzies’s proprietary approach to the traffic, and his personal delivery of the messages to Churchill’s office, when it needed to be owned and assessed by the official Joint Intelligence Committee. It could have been that such insubordination had put Denniston in bad odour, resulting in his demotion. Maybe Denniston, Winterbotham, and Cavendish-Bentinck had all conspired to wrest control of Ultra away from Menzies, whom none of them respected very much, and this was Winterbotham’s coded method of explaining how they had attempted to undermine Menzies’s authority. In the mid-nineteen-seventies, however, they needed help in getting their message out.

It is not easy now to discern the factions involved in the disputes over control of Ultra in 1941 and 1942. Jeffery explicitly states that Menzies twice had to fight off attempts by the directors of intelligence in the three armed services to wrest control away from him. These three were authorised recipients of Ultra, and thus intimately familiar with it, but Goodman informs us that Cavendish-Bentinck, the very effective chairman of the JIC (but a civilian among military men) was incredibly not permitted to see the transcripts until well after the war started. Yet Cavendish-Bentinck had a good sense for security, and for trust in information sharing. He did not consider that Churchill should have access to information that had not been properly assessed by the JIC. Churchill was wont to trust raw Ultra data too credulously: sometimes he held it close to his chest away from his own officers, but at other times, as Peter Calvocoressi observed in Top Secret Ultra, he had to be restrained from telling too much. There were clearly tensions between the suppliers and the customers of intelligence – a not unprecedented phenomenon. But there was also strong rivalry between the Navy and the RAF’s Coastal Command in the battle against submarines, and the Navy, with its traditional leading role in intelligence, won out. Winterbotham blamed Ian Fleming, who, it should be emphasised, was also a source of ‘information’ to some of the 1970s chroniclers. Winterbotham and Cavendish-Bentinck were natural allies.

Then again, Nigel West implies that Denniston, while struggling with the pressures of growth at Bletchley Park, possibly received too much blame for the administrative problems, and, indeed, disputes over Denniston’s merits and failings carried on in correspondence into the 1980s. At the outset of the war, the Government Code and Cypher School was in fact managed by a Joint Committee of Control that included members of Bletchley Park (Travis and Tiltman) as well as officers from SIS (Winterbotham and Gambier-Parry) under the leadership of Menzies’s personal representative, Captain Hastings. Yet Denniston clearly had problems with relationships. Welchman’s biographer, Joel Greenberg, reports that Travis and Denniston could not stand each other, and that Travis had threatened that he would leave if Denniston were not dismissed. Denniston was also a sworn enemy of Richard Gambier-Parry of the Radio Security Service. This was clearly a personnel and bureaucratic mess. In addition, much of the tension arose because of the insertion of armed service experts into the centre, who had ideas about interpretation that went against the grain of the civilian staff who had developed good objective practices for assessing the traffic that came in to their hands. Thus it is probable that Winterbotham got himself embroiled in the controversy, struggling with dual allegiances.  Menzies (because of his reputation, and also due to his personality) was not strong enough to set down any firm policy, and thus resorted to the tactic of a temporising ‘inquiry’. When Hastings completed his report in the spring of 1942, Travis and the Directors of Intelligence came out of the episode rosily, while Winterbotham and Denniston suffered. Denniston was a natural third aggrieved party.

Rivalries and Resentments

I return to the literary chronology. In the year following Winterbotham’s revelations, in 1975, a new twist to the Ultra story appeared in a work by Charles Whiting. Whiting, a Briton, was a prolific author of thrillers who, although born in 1926, managed a varied experience with the Army in Europe at the end World War II. He developed an academic career, gaining his degree at Leeds University, as well as studying in several European universities. In his book Spymasters (as explained in Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio) Whiting openly acknowledged several high-powered names who had helped him in his researches, including R. V. Jones, Kenneth Strong, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alexander Denniston, as well as Winterbotham himself. While it was not always clear which luminary had provided assistance in what areas (and thus no one could claim that Whiting’s thesis was unanimously approved by all those he acknowledged), in certain places he was very explicit. He emphasized the fact that Winterbotham had reportedly pressed upon Menzies that security over Enigma should be tightened, and thus the concept of the shadow OKW had come into being – initially for the purposes of keeping Allied personnel (not the Soviets) in the general dark as to sources. Yet Whiting echoed the bold breakthrough assertion that SIS was feeding this information to Foote in Lausanne: Menzies and Winterbotham ‘cooked up’ a plan to get the messages to Stalin when the official channel via Moscow (and Kuibyshev) was not working. Whiting also claimed that Dansey had boasted to Philby about the security of his carefully-built Lucy spy-ring, while adding that he did not believe that Philby understood the totality of the deception, even though the spy was aware of the interception process at the time.

Whiting’s confidants were clearly hard on the heels of the authorities in wanting the full story told. It was Whiting who first hinted at some of the stresses and rivalries at the time, which may have encouraged some officers harmed by Menzies to try to gain retribution for their mistreatment – even though Menzies was no longer alive. Whiting declared that Menzies ‘settled scores’ for past slights. He suggested that it was Denniston’s success at Bletchley Park that had gained him powerful enemies, ‘in particular Menzies’. Admitting that Denniston was sometimes his own worst enemy, ‘impatient, secretive, and quarrelsome’, Whiting stated that he fell out not only with Whitehall but also many of his colleagues. Menzies cruelly demoted Denniston, denied him the knighthood he deserved, and, after the war, unable to live on a pension of £591 a year, Denniston had to take up teaching again.

As for Winterbotham, he was reportedly left completely pensionless, and, after some time spent at BOAC, was, according to Whiting, left penniless. Yet this can hardly be true: Winterbotham was able to leave BOAC in 1952, and with his third wife, Petrea, left Effingham in Surrey to buy an eighty-acre farm in Devon. His distresses were probably less to do with money than with lack of recognition. It is revealing to note that Slessor observed in his Introduction to Winterbotham’s work that ‘it is a curious reflection on our system of Honours and Awards that he should have finished up after the war as a retired Group Captain with a CBE on a quiet farm in Devon’, hinting, perhaps, at unpublishable slights. Winterbotham himself contributed a fresh insight in his autobiography: one incident that pushed him over the edge and leave SIS, he wrote, was his re-assignment, at the end of the war, as a low-grade permanent civil servant by the Air Ministry, who claimed not to know what Winterbotham had been doing during the war, a snub that must certainly have soured him. Again, one suspects that this improbable incident is not the whole story. Maybe the authorities disapproved of his romantic life: as his autobiography discloses, he was a ladies’ man of some repute, and had been divorced twice by 1946. (He deftly ignores his second marriage in his autobiography.) Might some of these dalliances have made him a security risk? And, as has been shown, Winterbotham may have misrepresented his whole contribution.

Yet it must also be pointed out that Winterbotham’s professional exploits before the war, when on behalf of SIS he had negotiated with German Air Intelligence behind the back of the Foreign Office, did not endear him to its mandarins, and, indeed, Winterbotham’s account, in his Nazi Connection (1978), of what occurred at that time may not be wholly reliable. Some have claimed that Winterbotham had nurtured sympathies for the fascists in the mid-1930s, provoked by a profound hatred of communism, but that resentment may have been engendered by some of his bogus reports, part of a subterfuge to mislead his German contacts, that were misinterpreted by the Foreign Office. In any case, it appears he developed enemies. The hypocrisies and jealousies of the British diplomatic and intelligence establishment will be explored later, when the tribulations of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck are examined, but for the moment, I merely observe that those with an axe to grind over Stewart Menzies, or how pettily they had been treated after the war, believed they could regain some integrity by telling the truth: they did not need to spread any untruths.

One can see echoes of such frustrations elsewhere. The desire for greater openness about intelligence matters was apparently broad in the 1970s. For example, the writer of espionage thrillers and ex-SIS officer, John Le Carré, has recently written that Philby’s confidant, the officer who interrogated Philby in Beirut just before he absconded, Nicholas Elliot, explained to him how he was at that time obstructed from going public with his experiences. (Elliott, incidentally, took over Dansey’s agent-ring in Switzerland after the war.) “He was frustrated by our former Service’s refusal to let him reveal secrets that in his opinion had long ago passed their keep-by date. He believed he had a right, indeed a duty to give his story to posterity.” (The Pigeon Tunnel, p 177) Thus it is safe to conclude that the continued secrecy was resented by many who believed that the public had a right to know more about what had been, to them, honourable and successful operations. Le Carré omits, however, to mention Elliott’s highly entertaining 1993 ‘memoir’ With My Little Eye: unfortunately, Elliott did not disclose there much that was secret and pertinent to this story, limiting his formal disclosures to fresh observations on the disappearance of Commander Crabb, the diver who in 1956 died in Portsmouth Harbour while investigating a Soviet vessel, the Ordzhonikidzhe.

But it is not always easy to distinguish disclosures from disinformation. One curious contribution to the genre (which I have encountered only since I wrote Chapter 5) is that by a certain R. A. Haldane, whose 1978 book, The Hidden War, gave voice to Muggeridge’s claims, and highlighted the role of Lucy. Haldane nevertheless argued that ‘the theory that we fed the information via Lucy – who would thus have been no more than a cut-out – does not wash. What we fed to the Russians was fed direct’. To support this hypothesis, Haldane shrewdly pointed out the very vital fact (as I explained in Chapter 4) that the detailed requests that the Soviets made would have required an analytical capability stronger than information provided passively by intercepted messages. Without clarifying which particular agency, in what location, via which medium effected this transaction, Haldane’s elliptical comments do suggest that the message-passing occurred in Switzerland. It is obvious that passing Soviet requests for enhanced analysis via Roessler (who could not even operate a wireless set) would have been logistically pointless, and frustratingly slow. But the British believed that maintaining the façade of Lucy and his links was essential to keeping the trust of the Soviets.

The outcome was that Haldane discounted the role of subterfuge that Lucy gave to the whole operation, and which turned suspicion towards leaks in the German High Command. Thus, despite his analysis about the probability of a direct link between the Soviets and British intelligence, his conclusion surprisingly backed off from any tentative hypothesis, and treated the whole matter as a mystery. Moreover, he treated Foote’s memoir with a respect (‘it is entirely genuine’) that was unmerited when coming from an insider in MI5 who should have known the sordid history behind its creation. (He claimed that Foote purposely misidentified Roessler because the latter was still alive, but failed to record that Foote used the name of another real person, Sedlacek, rather than picking a pseudonym, as was used for other characters.) And why was Haldane not more demanding of the evidence behind the claims of Muggeridge and Calvocoressi, instead of pretending that there was probably no one still alive who knew the answer (p 116)? His argument is simply illogical.

Indeed, one has to wonder what the precise experience and qualifications of Haldane, who otherwise wrote a very competent and insightful book, really were. The flyleaf of the volume says that he was ‘a former intelligence officer and son of the Assistant Director of the M.I.5’. [From one hint in his book, and some elementary searches on Google, I have established that R. A.’s father was one Lt.-Col. M.M. Haldane, one of the first officers appointed to the future MI5 in 1914. R.A. was in fact a third cousin of the spy J.B.S.: R. A. was probably unaware of the irony of this relationship. The renowned Viscount Haldane was a cousin of M.M.] In his ‘Author’s Note’, Haldane said that, after cipher work, he moved to Home Security War Room, and in late 1941 was appointed Personal Intelligence Staff Officer to Brigadier-General C. C. Lucas, Director of Intelligence, Home Security, and a member of the Home Defence Committee. A gentleman of that name and rank did indeed exist, but a Google search elicits little, apart from the fact that Lucas was an aide to General French in WWI, and that he wrote a foreword to a book on how to ride side-saddle in 1938 – hardly the calibre of a man entrusted with Ultra secrets. Moreover, no such entity as the Home Defence Committee appears to have existed at that time; the Home Defence Executive, which was set up on May 10, 1940 ‘to coordinate the anti-invasion preparations of all the Service and civilian departments’ (Hinsley), was chaired by Findlater Stewart.

As for Haldane’s career, the author apparently wrote other books, on encipherment and business fraud, and was active after the war with the Nature Conservancy, but has otherwise sunk without trace. I have not come across The Hidden War in any bibliography. The book does indicate some expertise, and an experience in intelligence close to the major deception projects undertaken, but the purpose of its coverage of Enigma and Ultra is questionable. Four major aspects of his narrative, namely i) his use of an apparent cover organisation to conceal his role; ii) his disingenuousness over Foote’s memoir, iii) his highly ambiguous argument about Britain’s role in releasing Ultra to the Soviets, and iv) his failure to follow up research with Muggeridge and Calvocoressi (at least), suggest that his publication might have been part of a public relations exercise on behalf of MI5 and SIS.

Operation Lucy

The next major event in the saga (the publications of Radó, the CIA and Moravec having been covered in Chapter 5) was arguably the arrival of Operation Lucy, by the journalists Anthony Read and David Fisher, in 1980. It is difficult to review critically this volume, as it lacks any references apart from the confidences that are attributed to some of its advisers during the course of the text. It has a superficially impressive list of Acknowledgments, including such obvious heroes as the now familiar cast of Peter Calvocoressi, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Ronald Lewin, and F. W. Winterbotham. Yet some scoundrels also appear here: Jürgen Kucynski, the famous subversive and active Communist, brother of the spy Ursula, aka Sonia; Sándor Radó, now graced with the title ‘Professor’, as if that gave him more credibility, as well as a host of not immediately familiar characters whose authority and counsel are uncertain. Did the authors implicitly trust everything these people said to them, without questioning their motives? It is not clear. Whatever the methodology (if it can be called that), the message arriving from the Read/Fisher book is unfailingly clear. The Lucy Ring was a creature of Colonel Dansey and his Z Organisation; Foote had been recruited by Dansey back in 1936; the use of wireless links between London and Foote was a perfect mechanism for passing Ultra information to the Soviets; Sedlacek was in parallel receiving such information from his Czech bosses via the Woldingham transmitter; the information was presented as if it had been leaked from the German OKW to Roessler; and the Soviets began to rely exclusively on Lucy for their knowledge of the Nazi order of battle at Kursk and elsewhere.

At key points, Read and Fisher invoke their informants by name. For example, Cavendish-Bentinck: “When we talked to Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, wartime head of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, the overseer and co-ordinator of all Intelligence activity, he indicated Foote as one point of access and control. Foote was the obvious way in for Ultra material, particularly as he had his own transmitter/receiver – which could be used to contact Britain just as easily as Moscow – and his own personal cipher, which was unknown to Radó. There was no way that Radó or anyone else in the network could have checked what Foote was sending to Centre. In any case, Foote also had his own sources of intelligence in Germany and Switzerland, and so could be expected to send additional material to Moscow. He always remained semi-autonomous in the network.” And Winterbotham: “However, it would have been very rash for the British to have relied solely on Foote. The very fact that he was an obvious choice for use by London made it dangerous both to the security of Ultra and to Foote’s own cover as a genuine Soviet agent. In any case, such simplicity and directness were not Dansey’s way of doing things. He always favoured complexity, choosing twisting back alleyways in preference to the broad highway. The author of the first book on Ultra, Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham – who also confirmed that Britain controlled the Swiss network throughout the war – told us that this was typical of the way Dansey operated, and that he revelled in the pleasure of being able to ‘get one up’ on his rivals in the SIS.” (both on p 99) (Winterbotham divulged to his journalist friends far more than he ever committed to paper himself.)

Perhaps it is wiser to introduce here a contemporaneous critique of the book, by Edward Crankshaw, in the Observer of October 12, 1980. Crankshaw had good credentials: in 1940 he had joined SIS from the Army, where he had been a Signals Intelligence officer, and was sent to Moscow in 1941 to represent that function, to communicate the fruits of Ultra to his Soviet peers, and to try to gain captured documents from the Russian in exchange. As Calvocoressi wrote: “Attached to the British military mission in Moscow was a single officer – Major Crankshaw, already mentioned – who represented BP, Broadway, Military Intelligence and also the Admiralty. He was a complex node of intelligence in his own person and he reported to the ambassador who in turn passed on personally whatever secret intelligence London decided to vouchsafe.” (Crankshaw was educated at Bishop’s Stortford, the same school that produced Dick White and the Spycatcher officer, Peter Wright.) So he was undoubtedly an authority on the Ultra distribution program, and witnessed at first hand the breakdown of co-operation between the British and the Soviets in his time in Russia. The switch to using the Lucy network occurred before Crankshaw was re-assigned, in 1943, to Bletchley Park as liaison officer on matters Soviet.

Crankshaw’s Observer piece was titled ‘Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all’ (playing off the fact that the mysterious Sedlacek, also known as Selzinger, and owning a British passport in the name of Simpson, provided by SIS, was known by all as ‘Uncle Tom’), and Crankshaw crisply endorsed the main planks of Read’s and Fisher’s case, which he described as ‘a hilarious read’, while conceding that the authors may not have realised just how comical their concoction was. “So Lucy in Switzerland was built up into a legendary secret agent with sources in the German High Command and used as the main channel for telling the Russians what Hitler was going to do next and when and how”, he explained, adding: “The authors get into their stride and tell this absurd, enthralling, sometimes moving and formidably complicated tale so admirably that one forgets the huge unanswered questions”.  While Crankshaw identified several inaccuracies in the story, he credited the authors with having attained as close and correct an account of the liaison (‘if that is the word’) between British and Soviet Intelligence as was humanly possible. So why would Crankshaw deceive about such a serious matter as this? His experience and evidence speak for themselves.

In fact Crankshaw may have been Muggeridge’s informer. In the Introduction to his 1940 work, The Thirties, Muggeridge explained that he had completed his manuscript in December 1939 ‘in a barrack hut at Ash Vale, near Aldershot’, when he was a member of the embryonic Intelligence Corps. On one occasion (probably early in 1940), he had been instructed to meet an officer from the War Office at the local railway station. After the customary salute, he accompanied the officer in the staff car, with Muggeridge sitting next to the driver, and the officer viewable in the driving-mirror, at which point the two recognized each other. The officer was Edward Crankshaw. “To the consternation of our driver, we began to fall about in the car in a condition of hopeless mirth at the unconscious deception we had practiced on one another. I believe I never took the war, certainly not the army, quite seriously again,” he wrote. Either Muggeridge and Crankshaw engaged in a conspiracy over the distribution of Ultra, or they shared a less than utterly respectful regard for the solemn self-delusions that accompany the exercise of intelligence and counter-intelligence. The latter explanation is the more likely.

Scandal and Controversy

Meanwhile, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck provided more solid testimony. Cavendish-Bentinck (later Lord Portland) has been generally regarded as a highly competent Director of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a post he held throughout the Second World War. Michael S. Goodman is expansive with praise for him in his official history of the JIC. Major-General Kenneth Strong wrote, in his Men of Intelligence, that ‘when Bill Cavendish-Bentinck came upon the scene in October 1939 the British Intelligence community was confused and seeking leadership,’ and that he turned out to be ‘an excellent chairman, tactful, relaxed, and good-tempered’. Cavendish-Bentinck was a shrewd judge of political and military opportunities and risks: he quickly pointed out the hazards associated with the launch of SOE, he was one of the few who took seriously Hitler’s threats to invade the Soviet Union, and he was one of the first to recognize that the Soviet Union might be a post-war threat (as Percy Craddock records), before that was an acceptable opinion in the Foreign Office.

As has been explained, in the reorganization tribulations of GC&CS in early 1942 overall responsibility had been placed under the custodianship of the Joint Intelligence Committee, giving Cavendish-Bentinck an intimate role in guiding the use of Ultra. This was clearly a point of contention between Menzies and Cavendish-Bentinck. It was also something that irked Winterbotham, who could not hide his sense of disappointment with Menzies in both his books. Lastly, there is confirmation of the leads which Cavendish-Bentinck apparently fed to Read and Fisher, in the 1986 biography of him written by Patrick Howarth, Intelligence Chief Extraordinary. On page 164, Howarth casually recorded what Cavendish-Bentinck had obviously told him: “In practice one of the methods adopted for conveying information of strategic importance to the Soviet Union was to leak it through SIS to known Soviet agents in neutral countries, particularly Switzerland. This served incidentally to enhance the credibility, and also the post-war reputations, of the Soviet agents involved.”

Did Cavendish-Bentinck harbour a grudge, as well? He was well exposed to the foibles of Menzies. He was involved in two committees that analysed SIS’s role and organisation. The first was initiated by the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under-Secretary Alexander Cadogan in 1943, when Cavendish-Bentinck served under Nevile Bland. The second was set up in June 1945, with Cavendish-Bentinck himself as chairman, to consider the post-war shape of SIS, which had generally been regarded as an organisational disaster throughout the war, as Philip Davies has vigorously asserted in his MI6 and the Machinery of Spying. Menzies admittedly had inherited a broken structure in 1939, after Sinclair’s death. Sinclair had even merged Dansey’s Z Organisation, which had been established as a back-up command in the event that SIS outstations were destroyed – as happened when Hitler swiftly invaded most of Europe   ̶   with SIS, which defeated the purpose of the set-up. Yet Menzies, as critics like Jeffery and Davies have pointed out, failed lamentably to create an efficient structure throughout the war, appointing effectively two vice-directors in Vivian and Dansey, who could not stand each other, and sustaining a much too flat management hierarchy, with lack of any proper delegation. For similar incompetence, Menzies had demoted and humiliated Denniston, but, instead of undergoing the same treatment himself, he exploited his knowledge of how Whitehall worked, and his individual relationship with Churchill, to protect his throne. Jeffery has categorised Menzies‘s treatment of Denniston (and others) as ‘unsentimental’, but a better epithet might be ‘unfair’ or ‘vindictive’: Menzies’s treatment by his employers was certainly more generous.

Moreover, Cavendish-Bentinck was considered as a leading candidate to replace Menzies as head of SIS in 1949, after he had been recalled from his position as Ambassador to Poland in less than honourable circumstances, with pressure coming from Communist sympathizers in the Labour government. Yet this consideration was plagued with controversy. Jeffery relates how William Hayter (head of the Services Liaison Department in the Foreign Office), and Howard Caccia (Cavendish-Bentinck’s short-termed successor on the JIC) both considered him an excellent choice to succeed Menzies, despite the fact that Cavendish-Bentinck had been denied the Ambassadorship to Brazil in 1947 on policy grounds. External circumstances hurt Cavendish-Bentinck. Shortly beforehand, details of his marital problems had appeared in the newspapers: his wife had refused him a divorce, and he had made several admissions of extra-marital affairs in his testimony, and had had to resign from the Diplomatic Service. Thinking perhaps that such rules did not apply to the still Secret Service (the existence of which was not even admitted publically), Hayter and Caccia pressed their case, but were overruled by the veto of the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin.

Goodman’s Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee (2014) makes no mention of the SIS appointment, but does add some colourful detail. In a scenario eerily reminiscent of how the wife of MI5’s leader of counter-espionage Guy Liddell, a lady named Calypso (née Baring), had left her husband for the United States when war broke out, Cavendish-Bentinck’s wife, an American heiress called Clothilde Quigley, had also departed across the Atlantic with their children at the start of the war. Wishing to re-marry, Cavendish-Bentinck had started divorce proceedings at the time he moved to Warsaw. Yet, as Goodman reminds us, ‘under F. O. rules of the time,  no one in the  diplomatic service was permitted to re-marry without the permission of the Secretary of State’, that individual no doubt being an impeccable judge of public probity and private morals.  The outcome was that Cavendish-Bentinck’s political career came to an end, and his pension rights were terminated.

The same rules did not apply to heads of intelligence services so strictly. Menzies himself had gained a divorce in 1931, after his wife of thirteen years, Lady Avice Sackville (who became the model for George Smiley’s wife, Lady Anne, in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) left him for another man. Yet such was the scandal of divorce that Menzies had had to resign from his regiment, and exert special influences to keep his job. And, as Goodman adds, there had been a precedent in the Foreign Office: Cavendish-Bentinck’s predecessor, Ralph Skrine Stephenson, had been allowed to re-marry. Cavendish-Bentinck’s error had been allowing the messy details of his private life to enter the columns of the press. Moreover, one of his most vigorous champions was Lord Beaverbrook, whom Bevin could not stand. With a classic touch of restrained sardonicism, Cavendish-Bentinck wrote to Bevin’s secretary: “The one matter on which I have strong feelings is that I should receive my pension, as I do not consider that an unfortunate divorce suit should be placed in a lower category than idleness or incompetence, and I understand that those who have to resign for these reasons are granted pensions.” But his fate was sealed.

The ‘revisionists’ can be said to fall into two camps. Muggeridge and Crankshaw were temporary intelligence officers, a touch cynical about the vanity and self-delusion that accompanied intelligence work, who believed that the façade needed to be undermined. Muggeridge was also obviously affected by the plight of his friend Foote, abandoned and abused, a traditional pawn in an unwritten novel by John Le Carré. Denniston, Winterbotham and Cavendish-Bentinck, on the other hand, were professionals who all harboured a strong belief in the importance of proper security for Ultra, whether it was to ensure that the right persons received it after proper assessment, or whether it was driven by the conviction that it should be kept from the eyes of those who might abuse it. It is not clear that they wanted the true story to come out because they were proud of the way that the information had been massaged and sent to Stalin, or because they were disgusted at the risks that the breach of security might have entailed. Yet it must have been particularly irksome for the three of them that, having instituted extremely tight procedures for distributing Ultra information to military commanders, they learned that GCHQ, SIS and MI5 all turned out to be leakier than the proverbial sieve. It seems inarguable that they agreed that Menzies’s reputation had been allowed to be swelled disproportionately, and that the revelation of the truth would no longer harm any national security interests.

Cavendish-Bentinck’s biography appeared in the mid 1980s, as a late sally in the war of words. By then, of course, Hinsley had issued his famous denial (“There is no truth in the much-publicised claim that the British authorities made use of the ‘Lucy’ ring”), effectively declaring that all of what I have listed above was merely tittle-tattle.  But why was there no protest? No inquiry? No interview? Why were Hinsley and Winterbotham not brought together in a studio? Why did BBC Panorama’s Ludovic Kennedy (who had survived the Arctic convoys, and whose sister was married to Peter Calvocoressi’s cousin) not take up the challenge? Why did Bruce Page and the Sunday Times’s renowned Insight team not delve into the murky controversy? Perhaps they were warned off. After all, in 1979 both Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross had been unmasked, two more spies (to add to Philby) who had been on the authorised list of Ultra recipients.

It clearly would not have helped the reputation of the British authorities if the world learned that the exercise to put Ultra into Stalin’s hands had been a complete waste of time because the corridors of power were riddled with his spies who were handing the stuff over in such quantities that they taxed the cipher clerks and radio operators in the Soviet Embassy. And the story of Leo Long in MI14 was yet to be revealed. It would not be surprising if British media leaders were advised that any further promotion of the alternative version of history would be harmful to the nation’s security interests, and were required to drop their attentions from the matter. Cavendish-Bentinck’s insertion is a rare example of plain speaking in the 1980s, and Winterbotham’s otherwise highly engaging autobiography – published a year before he died  ̶  was reticent and respectful in the extreme. Either what Winterbotham had divulged earlier was untrue, or he had been muzzled.

Alexander Foote

Lastly, what of Alexander Foote? Not much was added about his career in these works. Nigel West is of the opinion that Foote did not fit the mould of those that Dansey regularly hired for his Z Organisation, and cites Dansey’s deputy, Kenneth Cohen, as stating that he was ‘adamant that Foote had never been an MI6 agent’. Yet Cohen, by his own admission, did not join the group until 1937, while Foote had been recruited in 1936. In their biography of Dansey, Colonel Z, Read and Fisher assert that Dansey kept his groups well compartmentalised, so Cohen might well not have known about Foote. Moreover, Cohen was in charge of French operations during the war, and never responsible for Switzerland. Read and Fisher also assert that Foote was not alone: Dansey had selected other deep agents ‘with suitable qualifications to infiltrate communist spy rings’, although no others have apparently come to light. Maybe they did not survive the Spanish Civil War, or could not build a convincing enough cover to be accepted by Moscow.

Yet it must be stated that, overall, hard evidence for Foote’s recruitment is thin, and tantalisingly provocative. The authors of Colonel Z claim Kenneth Cohen, Malcolm Muggeridge, Cavendish-Bentinck (a great admirer of Dansey), Frederick Winterbotham and Nigel West among the experts who provided them information for their story. Did they all see the final text, on which they could not possibly have agreed? Or was Cohen perhaps not telling the truth? That is one of the problems of books with an impressive list of sources and advisors, but where the claims made in the text are not directly linked to each individual contributor. Yet it would be unpractical to think that illuminating new sources will become available, unless an unexpected trove of SIS files is found and declassified.

In summary, the totality of the statements from the various revisionist officers still comprises a weighty message. So many distinguished men, who performed honourably for their country,  were prepared to promulgate statements that together made coherent sense, and helped resolve a longtime puzzle, while Professor Hinsley was allowed – or forced – to deny them in a shabby dismissal. The extraordinary outcome is that the contrarian view has entered the mainstream of public consciousness, but the claims of the authorised historian have remained unchallenged and unamended. Is it not time for an arbiter, wise and unbiased, to make a judgment on this timeworn debate?

New Sources:

SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence, 1914-45 by Peter Matthews

The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Volume 1 by Michael S. Goodman

The Ultra Secret by F. W. Winterbotham

Men of Intelligence by Kenneth Strong

Intelligence at the Top by Kenneth Strong

The Hidden War by R. A. Haldane

The Hidden World by R. A. Haldane

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carré

The Game of the Foxes by Ladislas Farago

The Thirties by Malcolm Muggeridge

The Nazi Connection by F. W. Winterbotham

The Ultra Spy, by F. W. Winterbotham

Unmasked! The Story of Soviet Espionage by Ronald Seth

VENONA: the Greatest Secret of the Cold War by Nigel West

The Philby Affair by Hugh Trevor-Roper

The Illegals by Nigel West

Truth Will Out, by Charlotte Haldane

With My Little Eye, by Nicholas Elliott

Gordon Welchman: Bletchley Park’s Architect of Ultra Intelligence by Joel Greenberg

Reason in Revolt, by Fred Copeman

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

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

This posting was updated on May 12 to correct a fact about Charlotte Haldane, to add an explanatory paragraph about Frederick Copeman, and to expand a statement about Alastair Denniston after I read Greenberg’s biography of Gordon Welchman. After reading Copeman’s autobiography, I added a further paragraph on Copeman and Foote  on May 30. Coldspur

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POLARBEAR Has Landed

The main purpose of my visit to the U.K. this month was to attend the degree ceremony at the University of Buckingham and to receive formally my doctoral award. As many readers will recall (wake up at the back, there!), my thesis covered the subversion of MI5 by communist agents and influences at the beginning of WW II. A symptom of this institutional failure was the later indulgence shown to the Soviet spy Leo Long after he was caught red-handed passing military secrets from MI14 in 1943, my claim being that this ‘Sixth Man’ may have been even more dangerous than the pentad of Cambridge graduates that has gained practically all the publicity. (The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, the alumni magazine of my Oxford college, contains an article about my research, titled ‘The Moscow Plot’, and it can be viewed here.) Followers of my subsequent research on ‘Sonia’s Radio’ may also have noticed that I have hinted at the remote possibility that the 1956 death of Alexander Foote may have been faked by MI5 (with the connivance of SIS) to prevent his assassination by Soviet military intelligence. The relevance of these two items will become clear by the end of this blog entry.

On the first evening of my trip, after I had arrived early in the morning at the Battersea residence of my brother, Michael, and his wife, Susanna (who has courageously and gratifyingly recovered from her cancer treatment), Michael and I went to the Instituto Cervantes  near the Strand to attend an interview with Professor Sebastian Balfour, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics. Professor Balfour and Michael had become friends when they were both in hospital, and the Professor had very kindly ensured that Michael received special attention when he was in dire straits. I had met the Professor and his wife, Grainne, at Michael’s house on my previous visit, and was eager to learn what the Professor had to say about Spanish matters in the last century, and later even, right up to the secession attempts now being made by Catalonia. What with Philby’s association with Franco, Spender’s mission on behalf of the Comintern, Foote’s action with the International Brigades, as well as the whole sorry story of the Soviet-directed elimination of the anarchists, and the orchestration of the stealing of Spain’s gold by Orlov on Stalin’s behalf, the events of the Spanish Civil War were very relevant to my research area.

Professor Balfour offered us some excellent insights, skillfully weaving the experiences of Spain in the twentieth century into the fabric of today’s cultural and ideological dynamics. Moreover, at the party after the event, I was pleased to meet Mark Ezra and his wife, who were neighbours of the Professor. Mark turned out to be a film-producer, and I was happy to take his address as a possible contact for arranging a deal for the script (based on the central event of my thesis) that my friend and colleague Grant Eustace has been trying to place. Moreover, in one of those strange coincidences that tend to aggregate as one gets older, I discovered later that Mr Ezra had attended Ampleforth College, and had been educated both by Susanna’s father (Haughton) as well as by her first (deceased) husband (Dammann).

After the Spanish event, Michael and I took a taxi to Chelsea, where Susanna was winding down a dinner with four long-standing friends, all outstandingly bright professional women, and wonderful company.

Nicola, Nemeen, Mo, Janie & Susanna

The conversation was lively, and one of the friends (Mo, who is a psychotherapist) decided to issue nicknames to us all. I was given the cryptonym POLARBEAR, (surely in ignorance of my austere reputation as COLDSPUR), which prompted me to respond that my times must be numbered, as the beast ran the risk of soon becoming extinct. This was a highly enjoyable and lively end to the day, which had started by seeing me deplane at Heathrow at what was in fact 3 am in Southport, North Carolina (already on summer time), and which closed by my collapsing into bed at midnight local time.

I had arranged to meet Grant Eustace for lunch in Victoria the following day (Friday 10th), and was able to pass him the lead. Grant and I exchanged sympathies over the struggles with making headway in the worlds of publishing and the media, but maybe something will become of this opportunity. In any case, Grant is always working on some stimulating project, and I enjoy learning about his new ventures. On Saturday morning, I had to catch a train to Newcastle, in the North of England, since I was attending, as my more impulsive alter ego of HOTSPUR, the annual Listener Crossword Setters’ Dinner in Gateshead. I had not attended this event for ten years, but the opportunity was too great to pass up, even though I was a bit embarrassed by the mistake in my centennial Alan Turing puzzle of five years ago. I need not have worried: I was not booed on arrival. It was an excellent occasion, where I re-encountered some old friends, and established new ones. The pseudonyms of the setters often resemble the cryptonyms of agents working for Soviet Intelligence: thus my friend Ian Simpson (who was one of my testers) bears the same sobriquet (HOMER) as the Cambridge Spy Donald Maclean. The photo below shows Ian sitting next to Richard Heald, a renowned solver. THIRD MAN (Richard England, not Kim Philby), who holds the current record of most consecutive Listener puzzles correctly solved (103, I believe, and still active), was supposed to be in the photo, but he, who remembered me as a fellow London Society Rugby Football referee, somehow was recorded only in a short video-clip. (‘Third men’ customarily prefer being airbrushed out of history.) I was honoured to be sitting next to SHACKLETON (John Guiver), who won the prize for the best puzzle of 2016. This event is a very British affair, and a great institution, populated by smart, inventive and congenial people, who love words, and crosswords, and all the cultural trappings that accompany the Listener puzzle. But 2017 will probably be my last dinner.

Ian Simpson & Richard Heald

The Elusive Third Man (Richard England) (video not yet displayable)

Hotspur & John Guiver

I took the return train to London the following morning, arriving back in Battersea in mid-afternoon. That evening I was fortunate enough to meet the philosopher John Hyman, Professor in Aesthetics at the University of Oxford, who is also a friend of Michael’s and Susanna’s, and had been invited to dinner. John had expressed interest in my thesis since he knew Isaiah Berlin (indeed he had once been on a bus with him, and thus considered Isaiah and himself ‘fellow-travellers’) and asked me several penetrating questions. I was happy to discuss the implications of Berlin’s friendship with such as Guy Burgess, Lord Rothschild, and, most of all, Jenifer and Herbert Hart, since Jenifer had been Berlin’s lover, and Herbert had been a most important influence on jurisprudential philosophy, being acknowledged several times in Hyman’s recent Action, Knowledge and Will, a volume I might perhaps not have picked up otherwise. I prepared for the occasion by reading the most relevant chapters on the train from Gateshead, but (perhaps fortunately) we ran out of time before I could be questioned on the arguments. (I regret I am a bit slow on these matters: I am still trying to come to grips with ‘Freddie’ Ayer’s 1936 Language, Truth and Logic.) But again, a most enjoyable evening.

Monday saw me meeting my old friend David Earl, who picked me up at East Croydon Station, whence we repaired to a pub for lunch and caught up with each other’s news. David has always shown a solicitous interest in my research, and asked me again whether I had been ‘tapped on the shoulder’ over my subversive line of inquiry. I suggested to him that it might be a bit late for that, and that any such warnings would now only aid publicity for my forthcoming book. Later that afternoon, I went to Whitgift School, where I was able to see two long-standing friends, Tia Afghan, the Head Librarian, and Bill Wood, the Archivist, before preparing to attend the AGM and Annual Dinner of the Old Whitgiftian Golf Society, a group I had joined on a previous visit to the U.K.  Some of the gentlemen attending I had never met before, a few I had played golf with, but I was delighted to see again some old colleagues from the rugby and cricket fields, such as Mike Wilkinson, Paul Champness, Alan Cowing, Howard Morton, and Jeremy Stanyard. It was another highly enjoyable evening: golf is thriving at the School, and while the Headmaster chose the occasion to give a rather supererogatory motivational speech, it did not detract from the sense of fellowship. Howard Morton kindly drove me home to Battersea.

Messrs. Stanyard, Wilkinson & Champness (centre)

Peter Abel (left) et alii

Work followed on Tuesday. I went to the National Archives at Kew, where I had to wait to get my Reader’s ticket renewed, and then hung around while my requested files were retrieved. My goal that day was to dig around in the records of the Radio Security Service to discover what attempts had been made to intercept unfamiliar and unauthorised radio traffic either being received or transmitted within the UK’s shores in the 1940s. I also managed to inspect the missing volume of the files on the Rote Kapelle: for some reason, the third volume of biographical information on RK members and affiliates had not been digitised, and thus I had been unable to download it from my home in Southport. When I brought this oversight to the attention of the Kew authorities a few weeks ago, they could not explain it, and committed to rectify the problem, but were in no rush to do so, especially as I was about to visit the Archives. I discovered several nuggets, some that addressed enigmas, some that provoked new ones.

The next day saw Michael, Susannna and me driving to Oxford, where we were scheduled to be shown round the exhibition on Volcanoes at the new Weston Library of the Bodleian by its lead curator, David Pyle, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University. This visit had been arranged by another coincidence: I have been a Friend of the Bodleian for some years, and when I met Jessica Brown of the Development Office last summer, I had happened to mention that my wife Sylvia had been born in St. Vincent. A few weeks later, astutely recalling the connection, Jessica contacted me about the Volcanoes plans, saying that the eruptions of La Soufrière on the island constituted an important part of the coming exhibition, and would I be interested in it? I was able to inform her that Sylvia and I had trekked up to the top of the mountain in the autumn of 1978, whereupon our guide – who had never seen smoke emanating from the base  ̶  wanted immediately to dash back down the mountain for fear it were about to erupt again. Moreover, I was able to extract from my files a report on the adventure that I had written back in May 1979, after the major eruption that occurred on Easter Friday. (See here.) The long and short of it was that I agreed to help fund a video and audio display about the Caribbean volcanoes in the transept space at the exhibition, and the personal attention of the kind and expert volcanologist, Professor Pyle, was our reward. The exhibition contained a remarkable set of accounts, illustrations, and maps from the Bodleian Libraries, as well some items borrowed from outside. I heartily recommend a tour: the exhibition closes on May 21.

La Soufrière at the Bodleian

Michael, Susanna & I on the roof of the Weston Library

We then moved on to Christ Church, my alma mater, where I had arranged a visit to the Library. Dr Cristina Neagu, who is keeper of the Special Collections, was able to show us a rich and assorted set of documents, from commentaries by Maimonides to recently discovered notebooks and publications by Lewis Carroll, as well as the remarkable Graz camera that is contributing to an exciting digitisation project at the Bodleian. The wealth of the Special Collections is extraordinary, and is being made more broadly available through the interpretation of scholars, and the efforts of Cristina and her team, supported by innovative digitisation techniques. This was another very fascinating experience, and we returned to our hotel at Peartree Road well stimulated, ready for some excellent refreshment and dinner at the Trout at Godstow.

No relaxation! The next day (Thursday), Susanna was seeing a friend in Oxford, so Michael drove us to Bletchley to spend a day at Bletchley Park, the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School (renamed Government Communications Headquarters at some stage during the war). While I knew a fair amount about GC&CS from my reading (especially about the analysis of ENIGMA traffic), I had never visited the place itself. For me, much of the inspection of the various huts was less than overwhelming, but the experience was enhanced by a brief tour of Bletchley Park House itself (in which the office of its chief, Alastair Denniston, stood), and capped by a remarkable exhibition in Block B, where a moving account of Alan Turing’s life and tragic end was given, as well as a crisp and articulate demonstration of a reconstructed ‘Bombe’ at work. An ENIGMA message was decrypted with the help of a ‘crib’ that relied on the fact that no letter could ever be encoded as itself, the multiple wheels rotating until a trial set of complete matches was made. The (volunteer) demonstrators performed a superlative job: one of them told us that her father had worked at Bletchley Park during the war, and then, after learning Russian, had moved on to manage English Accessions at the Bodleian. But the exhibition was also a little coy about the controversies that still surround wartime security and management. For example, in the Visitor Centre, three plaques show Stewart Menzies (head of SIS, to whom GC&CS reported), Alastair Denniston (who led GC&CS from 1921 to 1942), and Edward Travis (director from 1942 to 1952). Menzies is graced with his ‘Sir’, but with no dates. Denniston and Travis are both given their years of birth and death, but no titles, although Travis was given his knighthood a few months after his appointment, while Denniston was shamefully never given one. Maybe embarrassment over this snub still lingers.

Susanna took the bus from Oxford to Buckingham to join us on Thursday evening, where we were staying in preparation for the degree ceremony on Friday. Friday turned out to be the coldest day of my stay: I had to pick up my cap and gown in good time before setting off for a meeting with Christopher Woodhead, the editor at Buckingham University Press. We had not met in person, so it was good to discuss across the table plans for the book based on my thesis  ̶  indexing, illustrations, cover, launch. We appear to be on target for a September publication. And then   ̶  off to the Church of St Peter and St Paul for the secular Convocation for the Conferment of Degrees. This was a very well planned and executed ceremony, one of five held over two days, so that each graduand could receive a personal introduction. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University (and also my internal examiner) gave a bravura performance in orchestrating the ceremony, which was enhanced by a wise and amusing speech by Lord (Mervyn) King, former Governor of the Bank of England, and honorary graduand for the School of Humanities. It was followed by an excellent buffet, where we were pleased to be joined by my supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, and Sir Anthony Seldon, as well as by the MP for Buckingham (and Speaker of the House) John Bercow. The whole event was a grand example of British pluralism: persons of many countries, creeds, colours and cultures (and ages) coming together (in a Protestant church) to celebrate academic achievement and to be individually recognised, before dispersing to their different groups and associations. Pluralism, not multi-culturalism, in the spirit of the endorsements in my thesis. A very satisfactory day, and I am proud to be associated with the sole independent university in Britain with its motto  ̶  Alis Volans Propriis (‘Flying On Our Own Wings’). I was sorry that Sylvia and Julia could not be there to witness it, but the support of Michael and Susanna meant a lot.

Sir Anthony Seldon & Michael

Susanna & John Bercow

So then back to London, and champagne. The next day I had a reunion of the 1965 School Prefects at Whitgift, held at a pub near Hyde Park Corner. On my way there, I saw Howard Morton, who lives in Chelsea, and I was introduced to his charming Rwandan-born wife, Yvonne, and son, James. Twelve prefects attended the lunch: three of them I had not seen in over fifty years. Of course we each had perfect memories of what happened all that time ago, even if they did not all coincide, but Peter Kelly had brought along a few artifacts to provide documentary evidence, and to provoke lively discussion. We all fondly remembered our former leader and Head Prefect, John Knightly, who had sadly succumbed to cancer a couple of years before. I was sorry that not all could make the event, but Peter kindly arranged it at fairly short notice, and it was good to see so many old friends again. One remarkable fact that arose from the occasion was that Andrew Jukes (one of those whom I had not seen for fifty years) told me that he was in Washington (where his father worked in the Embassy) at the time that Burgess and Maclean absconded in 1951  . . .

Percy, Earl, Flood, Stewart, Hislop & New

Kelly, Rawlings. McCombie, Jukes, Kirk & Singleton

Sunday was a day off. I needed a rest, and to catch up. On Monday morning, I took the train to Minster  ̶  between Canterbury and Ramsgate  ̶  to have lunch with Nigel West (Rupert Allason), the doyen of writers on intelligence and espionage matters. I have read (and own) several of his books, but I keep encountering vital titles that I have overlooked and need to read. Nigel had attended the seminar I held at Buckingham a few years ago, so I was able to update him on the progress of my research and conclusions. We covered a lot of ground, including ELLI’s identity, Sedlacek and Roessler, Alexander Foote and Claude Dansey, the mistreatment of Denniston, the ISCOT program, and Sonia’s broadcasts. (Nigel once interviewed Sonia.) Nigel is not surprised by Denniston’s lack of a knighthood, pointing out that neither R. V. Jones nor Commander Godfrey was thus honored, but I continue to maintain that there is a deeper, murkier story behind the insult. Nigel also explained to me the reason why one’s effects are checked before entering the Archives at Kew: an academic had been detected inserting falsified documents into files, and then claiming breakthrough ‘findings’ some time later. (Not in my field, I hope.) That story can be inspected in West’s latest book, Cold War Counterfeit Spies. I was also very happy to meet Nigel’s charming wife, Nicola, a professional violinist, and the time went all too quickly before I had to catch the train back to London.

I needed one more day at Kew, so on Tuesday I caught the train from Clapham Junction to Richmond, switching to the ‘Underground’ to Kew Gardens, with an easy walk to the National Archives. I had a few files I needed to re-inspect, namely Dick White’s apologia to the Cabinet Office, the records of Leo Long, as well as the Kuczynski files that are not available on-line, in order to catch any details I had overlooked beforehand. I also discovered another intriguing RSS file, which included a highly provocative 1943 letter from Richard Gambier-Parry (head of Section VIII in SIS) to Claude Dansey, requesting his support in an attempt to tighten up radio security in the light of unauthorized foreign traffic from England. This was interesting, since Guy Liddell of MI5 Counter-Espionage frequently complains about Gambier-Parry’s lack of concern for such matters, while Dansey has never been known as showing much interest in wireless technology. Gambier-Parry also wrote, alongside SOE, about a unit named ‘P5’, which I had not encountered before. (The structure of wartime SIS is a highly confusing topic: the authorised historian of SIS Colin Jeffery suggests that P5 was a group liaising with Vichy France, while Phillip Davies indicates it dealt with the Polish government-in-exile and the Free French, which is a much more likely scenario.)

Before I left Kew, I bought a copy of West’s Cold War Counterfeit Spies, as well as Peter Matthews’ SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-1945, which appears to fill an important gap in the literature by concentrating on German interception and decryption techniques.  From a quick scan, I noticed that Matthews makes the confident assertion (on p 196, though curiously without providing a reference or source, or even listing Foote in the index) that Alexander Foote was working for SIS in Switzerland, and passing on to the Soviets the valuable ULTRA information. (This is a hypothesis I am attempting to prove in ‘Sonia’s Radio’.) Thus casually do narratives get confirmed in the historical record, so I was naturally intrigued in the evidence after which he came to this conclusion, which directly contradicts what Professor Hinsley, the authorised historian of British Intelligence in WWII, has written about the release of ULTRA information to the Soviets. I look forward to reading the work from cover to cover, but have already succeeded in making contact with Mr. Matthews, and he has just informed me that he was actually with the Army in Berlin when Foote defected there in 1947! (He also carried out at that time several interviews with German radio intelligence officers.) He has promised to inspect his files to find out what sources confirm the impression he had at the time. But I certainly agree with him in one respect: Foote’s life story ‘could fill another book’.

Time to come home. I left Battersea for Heathrow at 5:30 on Wednesday in order to catch my 8:50 plane to Charlotte. It left at 9:30, and arrived half an hour early, which can be explained only by extraordinary tailwinds, or a padded schedule that leads to improved on-time arrival records. So I had plenty of time for my connection to Wilmington – too much, in fact. The plane coming in from Columbia, SC, was delayed because of maintenance problems, so that, instead of leaving at 4:10, it taxied off to the runway at about 7:00. As we were about to take off, the pilot announced that we would have to return to the gate since one of the flight attendants would otherwise exceed her working time for the day. This was doubly ridiculous: American Airlines should have known what was happening and made a decision beforehand, and the policy that a flight attendant would be dangerously overworked, having spent three hours in Columbia presumably doing nothing, and when the 30-minute flight to Wilmington does not even allow for serving drinks in cabin class, is an example of regulation at its most absurd. Furthermore, we then waited another half an hour until the replacement crew member arrived, while American Airlines told us nothing. What about regulations helping passengers? By the time I arrived home, I had been travelling for twenty and a half hours – something my doctor has advised me not to do. Of course, I do not seek expensive regulations to support frustrated passengers. I want choice of airlines, and less government interference when safety is not an issue. But the options are currently few without even longer flights and journey segments.

Lastly, a strange coincidence. On the train to Newcastle on March 11, I had started reading Charles Cummings’s The Trinity Six, an intelligence thriller about an academic, Sam Gaddis, who chases down a story about a notorious ‘Sixth Man’, and even encounters, at the National Archives, a beautiful SIS officer disguised as a helpful employee. The death of the Sixth Man turns out to have been faked by MI5/SIS, so that his existence can be concealed from the Soviets, who have even more interest than SIS in shielding the public and press from the real story behind his betrayal. I recommend the book wholeheartedly. What is noteworthy, however, is that Chapter 26 begins with the following sentence: “Forty minutes earlier, Tanya Acocella had been passed a note informing her that Dr. Sam Gaddis – now known by the cryptonym POLARBEAR because, as Brennan had observed, ‘he’ll soon be extinct’ – had visited an Internet café on the Uxbridge Road and purchased an easyJet flight to Berlin.” Is this art imitating life, or vice versa, or simply a normal occurrence in the world of spooks? I had never met Susanna’s friend Mo before, she knew nothing about me, and I had not opened a page of Cummings’ book at that time. Gaddis does not fall victim to the multiple murders being carried out by the Russians, which is a good sign, I suppose: on the other hand, no sultry temptresses welcomed me at Kew.  Yet I suspect that it will be MI5 who may not be very happy with me when my revisionist history of that institution comes out this autumn. Is POLARBEAR a marked man? My friend David may think so. I arrived in Britain, however, on my UK passport, and left on my American one. This highly sophisticated ruse   ̶  one learned from my handlers  ̶  may have thrown them off the scent. POLARBEAR landed, but never took off again.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.

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