Taking The Cake

With Alyssa, Alexis & Ashley: October 2016

If I had wanted to bake the cake for my seventieth birthday party myself, I would not have been allowed to do so. For reasons of liability insurance, a catered event at Troon properties does not allow privately created confections, the risk of food poisoning (and consequent lawsuits) being presumably too great. That was fine with me, and the manager and I agreed that ‘Baked With Love’ (who had provided the cake for my sixtieth birthday party) would be an excellent choice as authorized purveyor of dessert comestibles to the St. James gentry. I thus made my way into Southport that same afternoon, cheerily greeted the owner, and presented my request.

But I was to be rejected. She did not recall the order of 2006, and dourly told me that she could not meet my request, as she now only baked for ‘regular customers’. My first flippant thought (apart from the Pythonesque ‘this is a cake shop, isn’t it?’) was that you can’t get much more regular than every ten years, but as I made my way through the door (having been recommended by her to try a couple of alternatives), another thought occurred to me. Would she have been entitled to reject my request if I had said that I was planning a gay wedding? Or the annual solstitial celebrations of the Southport Atheists’ Society? Don’t small business proprietors like her have to be very careful these days?

Now my first instinct is that a family-owned small business – or even a larger one – should be free to develop and market its products as it thinks fit, with as little government intervention as possible. As an example, Neuwirth Motors, the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/RAM dealership in Wilmington, North Carolina, advertises its business every night on the local TV news programme with the relentless slogan: ‘Where God, Family and You come first!’  Apart from the fact that I am uncertain how one can have this unusual trinity all in first place, and I do not understand what role the Almighty has in the selling of motor vehicles, this does not worry me unduly. (I do not take the micro-aggression too personally.) All it means is that I am permanently discouraged from even considering Neuwirth as the supplier of my next means of private transport, as I would feel very uncomfortable walking into a dealership where I might get quizzed on my understanding of the Thirty-Nine Articles before I was let in to the showroom. But that is fine. There are many other reputable car dealers in Wilmington (although, sadly none for Lexus yet, which could be the subject of another whole blog), and I occasionally wonder how many prospective customers the dealership loses rather than gains through its evangelism, and whether the top honchos at Chrysler approve of  ̶  or even encourage  ̶  this marketing technique.

Yet that is surely not enough. I am too reminiscent of the landladies’ signs of ‘No Irish. No Blacks’ in the streets of London when I was growing up, and am sharply aware of the prejudices that have been exerted against minorities in this country – especially in the South, where I now live. It is clearly unacceptable for someone to be turned away from a business because of who he or she is (or appears to be), and I strongly deprecate such practices. But should a proprietor be forced to participate in a cultural undertaking to which he (or she) is strongly unsympathetic? If I am employed as a registrar of marriages, and gay unions are legal in the state where I work, my beliefs indisputably should not be allowed to interfere with my civic responsibility, and entitle me to refuse to administer such an event. But as a private entrepreneur, may I decline to ice a cake that celebrates such an occasion? Alternatively, irrespective of whether I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, should I be able to decline the order of a cake from a well-known Ku Klux Klan member? Or only when that person requests an objectionable but legal slogan on the cake itself? Or never?

Even the U.S. Supreme Court struggles over these matters, and how far the push for free speech can be extended into a legal resolution. It is perhaps regrettable that these disputes find themselves in legislative territory, as they could in many cases be avoided by good manners. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that racist speech can be hygienically cloaked in etiquette, but that sensible persons do not go out of their way to upset other people. I would not try to prove a point by wanting an irreligious message iced on a cake, and going round the bakers of Southport trying to find a willing purveyor. (I doubt whether I would find one.) And I know that if I paraded heathen bumper-stickers on my car around Brunswick County, I would be bound to get key-scratches on it before you could say ‘Billy Graham’. I was brought up more on a philosophy of ‘Live and let live’ (homespun proverbial), ‘It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it’ (the Reverend W. Awdry), and ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’ (from my Wearside grandmother). (I should add to that the acquired and very un-English technique of confronting anti-social behavior the first time it occurs: this sometimes causes immediate friction, but offers the best chance of changing such behavior. I seriously regret the occasions when I have not done that, but have had no second thoughts about the situations when I have followed the principle.) But so much of today’s discourse is about rights and entitlements and grievances and identity and micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation and oppression and victimisation that contrary values are bound to provoke some stepping on other people’s toes.

A pluralistic society (not a ‘multi-cultural’ one) is supposed to be able to deal with such conflicts, recognizing that private beliefs may not be reconcilable but should be allowed to exist so long as they do not break the law (no polygamy, for example). As Isaiah Berlin wrote: “That is why pluralism is not relativism – the multiple values are objective, part of the essence of humanity rather than arbitrary creations of man’s subjective fancies.” But when private values invade the public space too boldly, tensions arise. And we see a lot of that these days. From the traditional right, for example, come jingoistic flag-waving, ‘right to life’ protests, demands for freedom to carry guns, pressures for prayer in schools, and calls for ‘creationism’ to appear in science text-books. And from the left, claims for broader abortion rights, demands for hunting bans, and appeals for strident minority entitlements, including special legal accommodations for all manner of tribes and ‘communities’, including unauthorised immigrants. All these complemented recently, of course, by the question of whether religious attire should be allowed to conceal one’s features in public spaces.

Some believe that these twin pressures can lead to authoritarianism. Isaiah Berlin again:   “ . . . some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled — liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity. So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. . . .  One cannot have everything one wants — not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion.”  That the pressures inevitably express a dawnist yearning may be an exaggeration, but they certainly make that space in the middle more precarious. In a pluralist society, one should be able to engage in discourse with strangers without knowing their ‘identity’, or their ethnic origin, or their religious beliefs, or their political persuasions – or even their sexual personae and preferences, namely all the attributes that belong in the private sphere, and which should better be uncovered gradually as two persons begin to explore each other’s territory, without stereotypes or prejudice. But the gently regal ‘Have you come far?’ has more often been replaced by the brusquely interrogative ‘Where are you from?’ As I like to respond: ‘We are all out of Africa’.

(Note the following item from the New York Times of December 25: “Before 2003, believe me, my neighbor didn’t know what I was. No one could ask, are you Sunni? Or Shia? Or Muslim? Or Christian?” [Mosul Christian Haseeb Salaam])

The outcome was that I ordered my cake elsewhere, at the Side Street Bakery in downtown Southport. See http://www.downtownsouthport.org/side-street-bakery/.  And very good it was. I had my gâteau and ate it, too (well, not all of it). The party went off very well, I believe, and everybody seemed to have a good time. My playlist of ‘The 100 Best Soft Rock Songs, 1960-2000’, relayed by the magic of Bluetooth from my iPad to the sound system, was soon drowned out by the chatter of the guests. About fifty friends attended, but sadly none from the UK. My brother and his wife were regrettably not able to make it, but Sylvia, Julia and I were delighted that our son, James, travelled from California with his eldest daughter, Ashley, for the event. (His wife, Lien, had to stay home with the twins.) Here are Ashley at the Beach Club, she and James, and she and I at the party location, the Founder’s Club at St James.

I also set up, on the back of the menu, a topical quiz, which turned out to be far too hard. (If you are interested, see here.)

All in all, apart from certain political developments, a satisfactory year. I completed my doctoral thesis, and successfully defended it. I signed my book contract, and supplied the publisher with the typescript at the end of this month, so that the item should be available in time for the centenary of the Russian Revolution. I also learned – though not yet officially  ̶  that I had been elected a Vice-President of the Whitgiftian Association, the administrative body of my alma mater. Not an earth-shattering achievement, but one that gives me pleasure, as it reflects some measure of how I must have contributed to the success and reputation of the school. Unless, of course, it was all a hoax. This was, after all, the year of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and the appointment of Wonderwoman to be the ambassador for women’s empowerment to the United Nations. That prompts me to recall a classic Private Eye cover, from April 1980, just before we emigrated to the United States. It can be seen here: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-479. Doesn’t that take the cake? On that note I wish all my readers a very happy 2017.

P.S. For all the thousands of eager readers around the world who are pleading for the next installment of Sonia’s Radio  – be patient! I know the suspense is almost unbearable. As one reader wrote to me: ‘Sonia’s Radio makes The Old Curiosity Shop seem like press releases from the Department of Work and Pensions’. Quite so. The saga will be resumed next month.

As is customary, the Commonplace entries for the month appear here.

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Sonia’s Radio – Part IV

This instalment steps back to investigate a puzzling story about decryption of Soviet radio transmissions – the claim that Churchill put a stop to such activities immediately Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Attention to Soviet wireless transmissions was routine in the first period of WWII. The use of one-time-pads, which the Soviets had adopted for diplomatic and intelligence traffic after Prime Minister Baldwin’s ill-conceived disclosures in the House of Commons in 1927, continued to make nearly all messages undecipherable. Nevertheless, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) continued to perform interception of Soviet traffic.  In his history of the establishment, GCHQ, Richard Aldrich reports that, in October 1939, extra facilities were requested by the naval officer, Clive Loehnis, in order to handle increased volumes, and that operators with signals intelligence skills were even sent out to Sweden, where reception of Soviet signals was better. Aldrich adds that the influx of cryptographers from Europe meant that some French expertise was added to Bletchley Park after the fall of France, and that a section staffed primarily by Poles was set up in Stanmore, in North London.

The official history is very lapidary: there is no entry for ‘Russia’ or ‘Soviet Union’ in the Index of Volume 1 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, and Professor Hinsley could record only that, before the war, work on Russia’s service codes and ciphers had been confined to two groups, one in India, and one in Sarafand, in Palestine. He suggested that, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, some modest progress was made: “Since then GC and CS had broken the Russian meteorological cipher, read a considerable number of naval signals and decoded about  a quarter of some 4,000 army and police messages, but  . . . it [this ‘local traffic’]  yielded nothing of strategic importance.” This observation does reflect an increasing interest, but also indicates that, unsurprisingly, no breakthroughs had been achieved over one-time-pads. As the September 2016 instalment of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ hinted, individual memoirs refer vaguely to attempts by GC&CS to decrypt more strategic Soviet traffic, but a reliable account of exactly what happened is very elusive.

In 1979, however, a startling and controversial statement appeared. In the above-mentioned history by Hinsley, hidden in a footnote on page 199, can be found the following: “All work on Russian codes and ciphers was stopped from 22 June 1941, the day on which Germany attacked Russia, except that, to meet the need for daily appreciations of the weather on the eastern front, the Russian meteorological cipher was read again for a period beginning in October 1942.” This astonishing assertion is a mixture of the precise and the vague – an exact date of a decision, but no indication of who made it. Moreover, it seems that the statement had been clumsily inserted at a late stage of publication, since the text is not properly aligned, as if something had been removed. Moreover, if the messages encoded with one-time-pads had been shown to be stubbornly intractable for fourteen years, what was the point of declaring that ‘work on Russian codes and ciphers was stopped’? Yet Hinsley’s enigmatic statement has pervaded historical consciousness to a large degree. What was the true story behind this claim?

The statement certainly merits some close parsing and analysis. If, indeed, the work was stopped on the same day that Hitler’s troops invaded the Soviet Union, how and why was such a decision, amidst all the tumult that must have been going on, made so swiftly? And how was it communicated so promptly to Bletchley Park, so that plans could be changed immediately? And was the implicit instruction that transmissions themselves would no longer intercepted, or did the restriction apply solely to decryption? And when were the restrictions removed, if ever? And for whose benefit was the decision made? Was it intended for Stalin to hear about, so that his trust in Britain’s support would be magnified? Or was it made from a fear arising from the belief that, if he ever discovered that efforts were being made to understand his diplomatic or other messages, he might . . . what? Have a huff? But was it not all a bit premature to assume that, before Stalin’s reactions to Barbarossa were even known, calling a halt to work on the coded messages of a country that had been Britain’s main subversive threat for over twenty years was a wise strategy? One can safely surmise that Stalin would have been astonished if Britain had indeed stopped trying to decode his traffic: it was not as if he would have withdrawn his army of spies as a reciprocal gesture of good will. Perhaps the decision was a bluff – an outward show of comradeship and trust, to be surreptitiously leaked to Generalissimo Stalin, while the secret programme was actually ordered to continue?

The essence of this momentous decision has been accepted by many historians and journalists, but not rigorously inspected by many. The first apparently to refer to it was the American historian Bradley F. Smith, who briefly expressed scepticism about the supposed decision in his 1983 volume The Shadow Warriors.  He wrote that it was difficult to take seriously the claim of a government that developed ULTRA that it had stopped work on all Soviet codes for the duration of the war. This was followed by Chapman Pincher, in his 1984 book Too Secret Too Long, where he pointed out that such a policy, made perhaps out of a naive belief that the Soviets would reciprocate such trust, may have enabled Stalin’s spies to perform their work undetected during the remainder of the war. Pincher, relying on information he received from Professor Hinsley, believed such a decision had indeed been taken, and that the Y Board devised the ruling after Churchill had made it clear that the Soviets should be treated as allies. Pincher even gained a confirmation from Dick White that that is what happened, although, since White was only Assistant-Director of MI5, in charge of B1 at the time, it is not clear how he was informed of the decision if no one else appears to have been aware of how it was made. In addition, it would have been highly unlikely that the Y Board, after receiving the directive from Churchill, would have met to discuss the issue the very same day that Barbarossa occurred.

Furthermore, Pincher echoed the essence of the edict as Hinsley presented it   ̶   that Soviet messages would no longer be decrypted, without any indication of whether transmissions would still be monitored, whether illicit or not.  Clearly a process of detecting and recording encoded transmissions had to be in place before any attempts were made to try to identify their source from call-signs and location-finding techniques, let alone trying to decrypt them. At this stage of the war, valuable information was being gained from the emerging technique of ‘traffic analysis’, which did not require decrypting of message texts. Moreover, since GC&CS realised that Soviet traffic was nigh undecipherable, with no breakthroughs in sight, an order to cease decryption efforts would have been a meaningless gesture, while traffic analysis, not proscribed by the edict, would still have been a valuable project. And messages were transcribed and stored for potential later analysis. Thus the emphasis on forbidding decryption seems something of a red herring.

Pincher also cast some doubt on Churchill’s intentions, by suggesting that he may have been alarmed by the decision (given his distrust of the Kremlin), again annotating that Professor Hinsley told him that ‘the MI6 chief or one of the Service Chiefs may have mentioned it to him verbally’ [sic: he presumably meant ‘orally’]. This is quite bizarre: the Prime Minister is described as making a clear policy statement, but then is surprised when he later learns it has been cast into practice. Pincher offers no explanation, and then goes off the rails even more, as his mission is clearly to implicate Roger Hollis in the concealment of Sonia’s radio traffic, attributing to him all manner of responsibilities that he did not have, such as decoding the messages himself.  He also seems to think that the Cambridge Spies would somehow have suddenly changed their attitude because of the ruling (when they had no control as to how their secrets were passed on), but he does not tell us how they learned of it. That is pure speculation.

One extraordinary segment in the story is the contribution by Anthony Cave-Brown in his 1987 biography of Stewart Menzies, ‘C’, more by what he doesn’t say as from what he does. (Menzies was the head of SIS, responsible for GCC&S, who took the ULTRA messages to Churchill personally.) There is no mention of Churchill’s edict in his story, no reference to Hinsley, and, though Cave-Brown is familiar with Read’s and Fisher’s biography of Dansey (Colonel Z), no statement on the possible leakage of ULTRA via Dansey’s Swiss network. Yet Cave-Brown does make the remarkable claim that, soon after Barbarossa, ‘’C’ had been able to read the Communist International’s secret wireless traffic with its supporters in Britain and elsewhere’, i.e. almost three years before the ISCOT project delivered any goods. Furthermore, he cites a diary entry by Churchill’s secretary, John Colville, dated September 9, 1941, that refers to information received from Desmond Morton (Churchill’s personal assistant for intelligence) concerning such information about Comintern orders from ‘secret sources’. Maybe Cave-Brown was under the impression that the intercepted traffic known as ‘MASK’ had continued beyond January 1937: as late as October 1942, Liddell was still referring to Comintern instructions coming ‘via courier or via the Embassy’. Or perhaps he was under the same misunderstanding as Michael Smith (see later) concerning overheard conversations at Communist Party HQ. This claim does not appear to be echoed anywhere else.

The next historian keen to delve into the story appears to be Anthony Glees. While researching his Secrets of the Service (also published in 1987), and aware of Pincher’s narrative, Glees also had the benefit of being able to contact Professor Hinsley, asking him who had given the order. Hinsley replied to Glees by saying that he ‘had no evidence as to who made the decision. Presumably it was taken by the Y Board.’ The plot now thickens. Is this not an extraordinary statement for an official historian to make? With no archival evidence, and no record of such a decision, to rely on hearsay would appear as an abdication of the historian’s responsibility. (I shall return to this issue when I investigate Hinsley’s assertions about ULTRA distribution in the next instalment of Sonia’s Radio.) Glees did actually gain confirmation from an (anonymous) SIS officer that the decision had been taken, and he thus investigated further. He also had the advantage of being able to interview Sir Patrick Reilly, who had been the personal assistant to Stewart Menzies from April 1942 until October 1943. Reilly’s line appeared to be, however, that, even if Soviet traffic had been monitored with any thoroughness, its impenetrability would have hindered any breakthroughs, and thus nothing about Soviet aims was lost to intelligence. In side-stepping the question, he thus shed no real light on the enigma, except for reinforcing the notion that the edict was practically of no consequence.

Conscious of how vital such a decision may have been in Britain’s failure to unmask Soviet spies, Glees returned to the key question of authority. He managed to induce Reilly and Lord Sherfield (who, while a future Ambassador to the United States, as Roger Makins would not appear to have been close to the action at the time, as Glees confirms) to agree that such a decision would have had to have come from Churchill himself ‘with the approval of either the Cabinet or the Joint Intelligence Committee and after consultation with ‘C’ [Menzies].’ With this judgment, however, Reilly and Sherfield completely contradict what Hinsley had told Pincher, namely that the Y Committee had made the ruling, and that Churchill learned of it later. Thus the issue of the edict’s being issued on June 22 has to be finessed: the storyline is dismally vague, and infected with speculation. Maybe Churchill communicated the decision privately to Bletchley Park via Menzies, and informed his cabinet later. Maybe there was no decision at all.

Glees skilfully analyses the question of why Churchill might have made the decision, and the implication that such considerations might have on his awareness that his intelligence agencies might have been infected by spies, concluding, along with Sherfield, that, since ‘you do not spy on your friends’, Churchill’s policy was eminently sensible. Glees also makes the very shrewd observation that, had the British policy-makers been allowed to read Soviet wireless traffic, they ‘might have picked up intelligence about the role of the Red Army in post-Nazi Europe’. One might wonder how seriously the Soviets were considering the shape of post-war Europe at a time when their own survival was at stake: not until the Battle of Kursk was won, in August 1943, might Stalin and his crew have had enough confidence in the outcome to believe that it might be able to define how it would bring the eastern states under Communist authority once the war was won. Thus Glees’s projections, working from a supposed edict from 1941, were quite imaginative, yet appear not to have been picked up by other historians.

Richard Deacon (the pseudonym of Donald McCormick), however, picked up Glees’s first point about not spying on allies, suggesting in The Greatest Treason (1989) that Churchill issued ‘a personal order that MI6 should cease to decode Soviet wireless traffic since it would be wrong to spy on friends’. Deacon than says that Roger Hollis (who was primarily responsible for monitoring communist subversion, and about to move into the new F Division set up by David Petrie) interpreted the decision as a political move on Churchill’s part to win friends on the left, implying, perhaps, that Churchill expected cryptanalysis to continue more discreetly. There was no doubt about growing sympathy for the Soviets at this time, but the idea of Churchill, for political reasons, making a public statement about a highly secret operation, simply does not make sense.

Yet what Glees grasped at is in fact exactly what happened. We know now that information about Soviet plans in eastern Europe was precisely what the British were able to gather – from decrypted Soviet transmissions, when the U.S.S.R. was an ally. We now know that this occurred in the West End of London, where an offshoot of Bletchley Park was set up in February 1942.  Commander Alistair Denniston (portrayed by Charles Dance in The Imitation Game) was effectively demoted from his leadership of GC&CS to establish the new operation, and to work on diplomatic and commercial ciphers instead. Nominally, Berkeley Street was used for analyzing diplomatic traffic, and nearby Aldford House for commercial messages, but Nigel West and others state that ISCOT operated from Alford House. ISCOT, named after the cryptanalyst who led it, Bernard Scott (who was later Professor Mathematics at Sussex University), ran from April 1943 until after the end of the war, and successfully intercepted and decoded Comintern messages to Soviet agents working behind Nazi lines.

Moreover, the records tell us that some monitoring activity antedated this programme. The Government Code and Cypher School admitted to its partners in Canada and the United States that it had indeed been intercepting and analyzing traffic from enemies, allies and neutrals alike.  John Bryden (in Best-Kept Secret) shows us a letter written on June 3, 1942 by Commander Denniston (then at the office in Berkeley Street)  that confirms that his group was spying on the messages of not only the enemy (Germany and Japan), but allies and neutrals as well, including Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Spain, Switzerland, and Russia. In his 2010 history, Richard Aldrich (who incidentally does not mention the rumoured edict at all) asserts that Britain was deciphering USA diplomatic traffic named ‘Grey’ throughout 1941, for Churchill’s particular appreciation. In fact, British and American cryptanalysts had been working on each others’ ciphers since they were Allies in the First World War. The claim about ‘not spying on friends’ as an important aspect of diplomatic policy is thus shown to be completely spurious. The USA was always more of a ‘friend’ than the USSR.

Very little has been written about the ISCOT project itself, although a voluminous set of transcripts of the traffic can now be inspected at the National Archives (HW 17/53-67). What is extraordinary is that, when the MI5 & SIS officer John Curry wrote his private history of MI5 in 1946 (not published at the time), he gave a comprehensive account of the whole programme (without revealing the codename ISCOT or the locations), even admitting that ‘early in 1944 G.C. & C. S. officers succeeding in reading some of the material’. He described the complete organisation of the ‘post-Comintern’ set-up, and the substance of the messages – something that appears to have been almost completely ignored by historians  ̶  and in fact Curry referred to a rich report he himself wrote about the project before he left SIS’s Section IX in November 1944. (It was thus probably Curry, not Archer, who wrote the report referred to by Curry’s successor, Kim Philby – see below.) The text of Curry’s history was not published until 1999, and was released to the National Archives the same year, but it had presumably been available for intelligence insiders in the intervening decades. Coincidentally (or was it not so?), the source texts of the decrypted transmissions were released at the same time. Not until 2011, when Ralph Erskine and Michael Smith published The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, did an account appear (Chapter 2) of the pre-war and wartime activity on Soviet codes, with credit given to Curry. This piece concentrates, however,  more on Curry’s disclosures on the 1930s MASK traffic, with only a few final terse sentences on the experiences at Berkeley Street, and no mention of the term ISCOT itself.

In the ISCOT files can be found a fascinating series of messages, dating from July 1943 onwards – and decrypted on some occasions as little as a few days afterwards  ̶  that show that, even though the Comintern had been officially dissolved in May 1943, it vigorously lived on, concealed as ‘Scientific Institute 205’, with Dimitrov still in charge. Stalin prepared his agents behind enemy lines in Europe to take power in their respective countries after the war, for example issuing orders that provisional governments must be initially set up as ‘democratic’ and not ‘communist’. It is clear that the highly-secure medium of one-time-pads was simply not applicable in these situations, because of the geographically spread and dynamic organisation that simply would not have been able to follow such disciplines. (Indeed, one of the messages with great alarm draws attention to loose encryption techniques, and how they must be repaired.) The radio operators used a hand-cipher based on grids and extracts from Shakespeare: one-time-pads were not introduced until the end of the war. Thus the challenge to the cryptographers at Aldford House were not so great as those they faced when analyzing official Soviet diplomatic traffic.

Some of the background to the whole exercise has been revealed in a series of articles that have appeared in specialist intelligence magazines, namely the Journal of Intelligence History, and Intelligence and National Security, between 1995 and 2013. The project became controversial later, and a dispute still exists as to whether or why the British Government did not incorporate the obvious messages from the ISCOT decrypts into their plans and negotiations concerning post-war Eastern Europe (the point that Glees latched onto without being aware of the project back in 1983). John Croft and Herbert Romerstein (two authors of the articles mentioned) themselves take opposing stances on the amount of damage done. But the fact that the existence and substance of the ISCOT transcripts seem to have been completely overlooked in all histories of the Second World War (even after 1999) would suggest that their content has been a subject of some embarrassment to the Foreign Office and to SIS. In his 2002 memoir, Know Your Enemy, Percy Cradock, who was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1985 to 1992, echoes the story that ‘work on Russian ciphers had been given up as early as June 1941’, admits the lapse revealed by the VENONA project, but shows no awareness of the ISCOT transcripts, and concludes that ‘only low-grade information came via Sigint’. How could he possibly not have known about the programme?

Ironically, it was apparently the spy Kim Philby who first broke the news, in 1968, although in a veiled way. (Alistair Denniston’s son, Robin, drew attention to Philby’s shocking breakthrough, which was the first indication to the public that a body like GC&CS even existed.) Without using the term ISCOT (or even Bletchley Park!) Philby declared in his memoir, My Silent War, that Section IX of SIS had access to the transcripts, and that he instructed Jane Archer to compile a detailed analysis of the traffic, to keep her busy, presumably believing that the exercise could do no harm to him and his colleagues in espionage. He provided firm evidence that he was familiar with the texts, commenting that ‘despite the efforts of OSS and SOE to buy political support in the Balkans by the delivery of arms, money, and material, the National Liberation movements refused to compromise’. (It should be noted that the Chronology attached to Philby’s memoir misleadingly states that Section IX was set up in 1945, and that Philby headed it then. Chapter 7 rightly hints that it was set up in 1943, under ‘Currie’ [actually ‘Curry’], and that Philby took over in November 1944.) Moreover, Philby had a good relationship with Denniston in the latter’s new job: the reason he made contact was that, when investigating some Nazi reports that had been given to Allen Dulles’s OSS office in Berne, Switzerland, Philby decided to pass them by Denniston to verify their authenticity. Denniston was able to match the texts with recently decrypted messages, and thus increase the success of his department. Sadly, despite his anti-communistic instincts, Denniston would come to trust Philby: the Dulles exercise must have contributed. And ironically, it was his son who helped to get Philby’s memoir published in England. Cave-Brown suggests it was done partly to spite Menzies for how his father had been treated.

While Archer’s (or Curry’s) report has not come to light, the episode indicates at least three things. One, that its revelations might well have proved embarrassing to intelligence officers after the war, especially if the Comintern exchanges had not been shown to the Joint Intelligence Committee. Two, that the ISCOT exercise would quickly have come to the ears of Philby’s masters in Moscow, who presumably then did not consider the exposure dangerous enough to need to change their ciphers. It might have pointed to a leak if they had done so. In addition, the Soviets perhaps believed that they had Roosevelt and Churchill on the run, and that their current Allies against the Nazis, even if they did divine the Soviets’ true intentions, would have neither the guts nor the resources to challenge the Communist expansion at the end of the war. Only in 1945 did Soviet Intelligence switch to one-time-pads for ‘Comintern’ traffic, and thus make the transmissions unreadable again. The third conclusion one could make is that the Soviets would have definitely been alerted to the fact that British cryptographers were probably working on more Soviet traffic than that of the Comintern, despite any claims to the contrary that may have been leaked to them, including the now questionable edict emanating from Churchill or the Y Committee. And that might have affected their approach to security, and their use of radio elsewhere.

The move of Denniston to London has always been problematical, as if he had been rather brusquely sidelined. But another fact hints at more disciplinary action: while he was the longest-serving head of GC&CS (or GCHQ, the name granted to the establishment after the reorganisation), he is the only leader not to have been knighted, which is a quite extraordinary insult to someone who had delivered extremely well for most of his long career. Even if it is true that new management was required with the growth at Bletchley Park, and Denniston was not only uncomfortable with the task, but also suffering from severe illness, there was no reason for him to be treated so shabbily, with a demotion and reduction in pay. His replacement by Edward Travis in 1942 has been interpreted by most historians as a necessary move for greater efficiency. The insult is inexplicable: Travis was made director of GC&CS in March 1944, and knighted three months later. Denniston had led GC&CS for twenty years. Was there something else going on?

The more serious histories are unfortunately not very informative over the reasons for the reorganisation, and what caused Denniston’s demise. His new set-up, known as the Government Communications Bureau, rapidly grew in size. Seventy persons were rapidly installed, growing soon to two hundred, but Denniston’s son, Robin, reports that, by the summer of 1942, this had swelled to five hundred (admittedly on his father’s evidence) – certainly no humble backwater for a disgraced bureaucrat. Other sources contribute to the lack of clarity.  Ronald Lewin, in Ultra Goes to War (1978), understated the whole conflict, merely noting that ‘illness caused Denniston  . . . to be moved to quieter fields’. P. W. Filby wrote (in Intelligence and National Security): “Both [de Grey & Travis] felt that the organisation had become too much for Denniston, and finally it was decided to make Travis director at Bletchley (military) and Denniston head of the Diplomatic sections, with a small [sic] staff to be housed in Berkeley Street, London. . . . He was released from Bletchley and went to Berkeley Street without any ceremony. Our section, headed by Patricia Bartley, followed him in February 1942 and found rather a bitter man . . .”  Hinsley’s entry for Denniston in the Dictionary of National Biography surely does not perform justice to the whole episode, or Denniston’s subsequent achievement, stating merely that ‘from all accounts, Denniston is judged to have done a fine job at Berkeley Street.’  The newer entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, updated by Ralph Erskine, is more laudatory: ‘. . . he brought unusual distinction and expertise, as well as devotion, to his work’, but it sheds no light on the fact of Denniston’s being rebuked so sharply.

So what caused Menzies’s disciplinary action? Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography indicates that Menzies was far more annoyed with Welchman, Turing, Milner-Barry and Alexander for bypassing the management chain (when they sent a memorandum about resources directly to Churchill) than he was with Denniston for not addressing with more determination the cliquey set-up at Bletchley Park. Moreover, Travis had been as responsible for the dysfunction as Denniston was. Yet Menzies made Denniston the scapegoat, despite their long friendship, in a move that Cave-Brown characterises as ‘one of ‘C’’s unhappier decisions’.  Sebag-Montefiore suggests that it was Denniston’s clumsy efforts to discipline Dilly Knox, and control the analysis and distribution of Knox’s decrypts, that pushed Menzies to demote him. It is all very murky, but the conclusion must be that Hinsley had obviously been told to say nothing about ISCOT, Denniston’s most successful project, even though the neutral reader might conclude that the whole programme was an achievement worth celebrating. The lesson is that we should not necessarily trust ‘official historians’.

Evidence appears of a continuing dispute over the relationship with the Soviets. In his memoir about his father’s career, Thirty Secret Years, Robin Denniston suggests that a long-running feud existed between Menzies and Denniston (thus undermining the strength of their long friendship), and that the head of SIS was clearly the person keen to demote and humiliate the head of GC&CS. Denniston had apparently been very critical of government officials who had given away the secrets of their cryptography to the Soviets – referring, no doubt, to the contemporaneous venture to Moscow to exchange information that was undertaken by Edward Crankshaw, as well as, possibly, the controlled leakage of ULTRA via agents in Switzerland that has been publicised in several accounts (but denied by Hinsley). Denniston, it should be remembered, had been in charge of GC&CS in 1927, when the ARCOS raid occurred, after which Stanley Baldwin disastrously explained in the House of Commons that Soviet codes had been broken. Ever since then, Soviet messages had confounded the cryptanalysts, and Denniston, infuriated by the senseless boast, had maintained his mistrust of politicians. It might thus suggest that the feud at Bletchley Park extended beyond mere responsibilities and local rivalries. There would be a camp that believed utter co-operation with the Soviets was necessary in the campaign to beat the Nazis, while another faction would have pointed out that the Soviet Union was only a temporary ally, and still a permanent adversary. The former group would have been expanded and energised by the influx of so many Oxbridge intellectuals at the beginning of the war.

Did Menzies and Denniston perhaps disagree about the possible exposure of ENIGMA by sharing secrets with the Soviets? By some accounts, Menzies also strongly advised against such co-operation, yet he was not a very forceful personality, and would not have stood up to Churchill. On the other hand, Denniston, who had his allies, too, was presumably encouraged to continue the efforts into attacking Soviet transmissions at Berkeley Street. (Travis also quickly recognised the Soviet threat.) Did Denniston perhaps speak out of turn about Menzies’s relationship with Dansey, and the exploit in Switzerland, and incur Churchill’s displeasure?  Or was the reprimand over Denniston’s perhaps too hasty rejection of Turing’s computational approach to decryption? Or was the dispute perhaps over sharing information with the Americans? Denniston had realised, even before the USA entered the war, that Great Britain and the United States would have to share the cryptographic load, and he had undertaken a visit to the US early in 1941 to discuss achievements and approaches for work allocation. Perhaps Menzies objected to this initiative, and Denniston disobeyed orders?

Denniston’s DNB entry describes the ‘reluctance’ from others concerning this overture, which ironically was soon justified, since the USA entered the war at the same time that he fell to the sword.  It is true that Philby wrote that Menzies added a final clause to the charter for Section IX of SIS, namely that he ‘was on no account to have any dealings with any of the United States services. The war was not yet over, and the Soviet Union was our ally’, but Philby’s testimony must not be treated as unequivocally reliable: the statement should probably be interpreted as deception imposed by Philby’s masters. In any case, the communist sympathisers took over in Section IX. The anti-communist Curry was out, and Robert Carew-Hunt (whom, along with Oliver Strachey, Donald Maclean had approached at Bletchley Park as possible recruits to Moscow Centre, which, even if the approaches had been rejected, must cast immediate doubt on the degree of their loyalty) joined Philby’s team. But no explanation does justice to the issue. And if some subtle subterfuge had been embarked upon, it surely would not have debarred Denniston’s knighthood. One has to conclude that Churchill was somehow involved with the decision.

So what else has been written about Churchill’s supposed edict? Michael Smith, in New Cloak, Old Dagger (1996), wrote that ‘a long drawn-out debate’ ensued over whether Soviet traffic should continue to be monitored, one that lasted until early 1942, which suggests that Churchill was not involved at all, the discussion occurring at a lower level. Smith indicates that the Poles at Stanmore were delegated the task of intercepting [sic] and attempting to decipher Soviet military transmissions, thus perhaps finessing the edict from on high that the British should cease such activities. Yet Smith goes a little over the top, next asserting that ‘within weeks, the Metropolitan Police intercept site at Denmark Hill and the Radio Security Service had begun to pick up messages between Moscow and its agents in Britain’. This claim (which would be quite extraordinary, if true, and very germane to the case of Sonia’s Radio) appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of a boast overheard at Communist Party HQ by the spy Oliver Green, who later admitted he had invented the whole story. There is no evidence that any illegal wartime transmissions between Soviet couriers and Moscow (as opposed to communications via the Soviet Embassy) were detected or decrypted – outside the mysterious case of Sonia.

More recently, Smith has refined his message. In the 2011 book that he co-edited with Ralph Erskine, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, he claims that, despite Churchill’s order, coverage of Soviet traffic initially increased. (Somewhat surprisingly, he does not suggest that the edict was never issued, but that it was ignored.) A lengthy debate then ensued that lasted for months: the Russian section was not closed down until December 1941. (But maybe it was simply moved, and in fact active prior to the official date of April 1943.) He again grants the Poles the task of intercepting traffic and trying to break it, and indicates that the British kept two groups monitoring known Russian frequencies at Scarborough and Cheadle. He then introduces the history behind ISCOT in more detail (again without identifying it), and now clarifies his previous statement, saying, at some time in 1943, the Metropolitan Police intercept site at Denmark Hill and the Radio Security Service had begun to pick up messages between Moscow and its agents in Europe (subtly annulling his 1996 message about spies in Britain). This was ‘the Russian group business’ that Curry referred to. Yet Liddell discussed the topic in his diary as early as December 1942, using the exact same terminology, and expressing concern that RSS may have talked out of turn about it, which tantalisingly suggests that the programme had started earlier. Nevertheless, apart from affirming that British code-breakers ‘were again reading Soviet traffic’ by the summer of 1943, Smith draws back from any deeper analysis. His chapter stops there.

Is that the whole story? The disputations at Bletchley Park must be placed in a broader context of tensions. Disappointment in collaboration with the Soviets soon set in. After Barbarossa, attempts were made by both SOE and SIS/Bletchley Park to build relationships and exchange information with the NKVD. It took several months before it became clear that the Soviets did not want to share much information. By the second half of 1943, military planners were starting to consider the post-war threat that the Soviet Union might constitute. The growing dissatisfaction and feuding at Bletchley Park was not exclusively related to overload of the organisation: major fears about cipher security, and the possibility of leakage of Enigma secrets through the Soviets to the Germans, were a real concern, and the premature gestures made to the USA indeed did upset some. MI5 and SIS were frequently at loggerheads. MI5 was still very insistent on tracking illicit radio transmissions that may have had communist origins, while RSS was almost exclusively focussed on Nazi signals, something about which Guy Liddell constantly expressed concern. Liddell was also worried that new burst-mode wireless techniques used by Communist agents might overstretch RSS, and SIS’s tight control of ULTRA decrypts caused major rifts between the two organisations.  Lastly, the entry of the USA in December 1941 into the war changed the game. It made new awareness of the opportunities: the first Allied wireless conference was held (but without the Soviets) in Washington in April 1942, and GC&CS learned that summer that the Americans were intercepting all Soviet traffic, and that they were very anxious to crack the codes. The two countries set up parallel teams to share analytical work in this area in February 1943. In addition, the USA was very critical of co-operation between Britain and the Soviet Union, such as the scientific treaty of June 1942, and made its opinions felt. If Churchill knew what was going on, he did not complain, or shut the activity down.

So what was Hinsley thinking? He was in fact at the hub of all the controversy in December 1941. Nigel West tells us that, while Menzies was waiting for his special inquiry, undertaken by Major-General Martin, to be completed, Hinsley took over as ‘intelligence supremo’, the same month that the Russian section was closed down. (Hinsley was only twenty-two at the time – a little young for a ‘supremo’, one might think.) How could he have written what he did about the edict with a straight face, and later tried to defend it? Maybe he had a pang of conscience because he had backed the wrong horse, and wanted to conceal his position. Or maybe he was simply told by his political masters that this was the official story to tell, in the belief that the true facts about Berkeley Street and ISCOT and ULTRA distribution and US-UK collaboration and Sonia’s Radio would never see the light of day. For, on all grounds – historical evidence, motivations, outcomes, politics, pragmatics, security – the story of the edict simply does not make sense. As with the other cover-ups over Fuchs and communist spies, maybe there was a greater reputation to be protected, and a pretence required that claimed that ignoring domestic transmissions from Soviet spies was the order of the day. Fortunately, some officers saw fit to release some relevant archival material, and thereby, alongside the memories of so many wartime Bletchley Park servants who had been hushed for so long, but had then been encouraged to talk, a more accurate picture of the decisions of 1941 is gradually being revealed.

New Sources:

Journal of Intelligence History

Intelligence and National Security

Kahn on Codes, by David Kahn

Fighting to Lose, by John Bryden

Best-Kept Secret, by John Bryden

Enigma: The Battle for the Codes, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Burn After Reading, by Ladislas Farago

The Deadly Embrace, by Anthony Read & David Fisher

Shadow Warriors, by Bradley F. Smith

Colonel Z, by Anthony Read & David Fisher

The Secrets of the Service, by Anthony Glees

My Secret War, by Kim Philby

Too Secret Too Long, by Chapman Pincher

Treachery, by Chapman Pincher

Know Your Enemy, by Percy Cradock

The Greatest Treason, by Richard Deacon

 ‘C’, by Anthony Cave-Brown

MASK, by Nigel West

P.S. Last month, I listed three items that merited further attention, and here provide an update:

1) A reader sent me some very provocative and potentially useful statements concerning Sonia, apparently sourced from Soviet intelligence archives. This reader (who prefers to remain anonymous) has peered deeply into Sonia’s case, and has given me many useful pointers. He provided extracts from the archives of Soviet military intelligence (that he translated himself), with precise references, which on the surface look very convincing. Yet I am not persuaded of the authenticity of the entries: some of the dates do not make sense, and the relationship between the GRU and Sonia sounds phony. It is possible, I suppose, that the entries are a combination of proper notes to file, and spravki that were added later, for reasons of disinformation. I have not succeeded in learning how this reader acquired the documents, or how he addresses the apparent contradictions. I shall pick this item up again in 2017.

2) A 2014 book I read about WWII counter-espionage prompted some fresh reflections on Trevor-Roper and the Double-Cross System. This book was John Bryden’s Fighting to Lose, which claimed to show that the Abwehr (the German Intelligence Service) was deliberately aiding the British effort to win the war, and that the Double-Cross System had been seen through by the Germans, and was in fact a failure. Part of the Abwehr’s deception exercise (according to Bryden) was to feed messages that used antiquated codes, one outcome being that GC&CS dismissed Trevor-Roper’s and Gill’s ‘breakthrough’ because they recognised that such codes had been decrypted in WWI. This assertion is made with utter confidence, but is at variance with all other accounts of the clash between RSS and GC&CS that I have read. I again defer closer inspection of this highly controversial item, which may shed fresh light on causes for feuding between Denniston and Menzies, until next year.

3) My attention had been drawn to an archive freshly published (by the NSA) on German wartime intelligence. For those readers who may not be aware of it, it can be found at http://www.ticomarchive.com. I have dipped into what is a remarkable trove, but not made any organised study of it yet. Another task for 2017.                    © Antony Percy, 2016

The customary set of new Commonplace entries can be found here.


Filed under Uncategorized

Economists’ Follies


At Ashley’s school in San Jose, CA. October 2016

(James, Alyssa, Ashley, Coldspur, Julia, Alexis & Sylvia)

In my Commonplace Book of 2008, I recorded the following nugget: “There is no greater nonsense than that uttered by a Nobel prize-winning economist in a mood of moral indignation”, attributing the apothegm to ‘Anon.’. But that was pure invention: I had actually come up with the saying myself, and indulged in a bit of subterfuge to give it a bit more authority. If the World watched, however, it said nothing.

I can’t recall what particular speech or article had prompted my expostulation, but the trend goes back a long way, with Karl Marx the obvious prototype, even though not all economists’ absurdities are expressed in a mood of moral indignation. John Maynard Keynes died before the Nobel Prize for Economics was instituted, but his contribution: “In the long run, we are all dead” is a good place to start. It was either an unimaginative truism, or else a colossal lie, in that, while he and all his Bloomsburyites would indeed be dead within a decade or two, the heritage that he and his acolytes would leave behind would dog future generations, and there is nothing easier for politicians to do than leave a legacy of debt to posterity. One notorious example who did catch my attention was the 1992 Nobelist, Gary Becker. He once wrote a piece for Business Week (I have it somewhere in my clippings files), which recommended that housewives  ̶  he may have called them ‘homemakers’  ̶  should be paid for the work they did. It must have been utterances like this that caused the New York Times to dub Becker ‘the most important social scientist of the past fifty years’, as it reflects a tragic confusion in the economist’s brain between Effort and Value. Moreover, who would check whether the housework was done properly? If the government were to pay housewives for their contributions, it would need a Bureau of Domestic Affairs to be set up, with supervisory rights, inspection capabilities, a system of fines, as well as all the trappings of equal opportunity hiring, overtime pay, health care benefits, proper vacations and pensions for all its employees. Who would be paying for all this? One might as well suggest that I should be paid to do the gardening or the yardwork.

And then there’s Paul Krugman, whose ‘progressive’ rants (yes, that’s how he classifies himself, as if everyone who disagrees with him is some regressive Neanderthal – not that I have any bias against the Neanderthal community, I hasten to add, as most of them were upstanding characters, with reliable opinions on such matters as free childcare and climate change, and actually passed on some of their genes to me), appear regularly in the New York Times. Krugman  ̶  the 2008 laureate  ̶  once famously said that the US National Debt (now standing at about $19 trillion), is not a major problem, ‘as we owe it to ourselves’. In which case, one might suggest: ‘why don’t we just write it off’? I am sure we wouldn’t mind. Krugman lives in a Keynesian haze of 1930, and is continually arguing against austerity, and recommending that now is the time to increase the debt even further by ‘investing’ (note the leftist economist’s language: government spending is always ‘investing’, not ‘spending’) in infrastructure and education in the belief that this will get the economy ‘moving’ again, and foster wealth-creation, not just consumption. Keynes in fact recommended increasing government spending during times of recession, and putting it away when times were good, when the rules of national and global economics were very different from what they are today. The policy of today’s leftist economists seems to be to encourage governments to spend a lot when times are good, and even more when times are bad, criticizing any restraints on spending as ‘the deficit fetish’ (see Labour MP Chris Mullin in the Spectator this month).

So next comes along Joseph E. Stiglitz, the 2001 Prize recipient.  Earlier this year he published “The Euro: How A Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe”, which I think is an absolutely muddle-headed and irresponsible project. Not that he doesn’t bring an honest concern to bear on the perils of the euro, but a) sensible persons (including me) have been pointing out for ages that financial integration is impossible without political integration, so the overall message is nothing new; and b) it is not clear whether he is talking about the future of the European Union or Europe itself, or why the health of ‘Europe’ is tied to a shared currency. Worry not: the flyleaf informs us that the guru ‘dismantles the prevailing consensus around what ails Europe, demolishing the champions of austerity while offering a series of plans that can rescue the continent – and the world – from further devastation.’ Apart from the fact that, if there is a ‘consensus’ about what ails Europe, his would be a lone voice in the wilderness, one can only marvel at his hubris.

Stiglitz shows he does not understand what he calls ‘neoliberalism’, the belief in the efficacy of free markets, at all. He characterizes neoliberalism as ‘ideas about the efficiency and stability of free and unfettered markets’, and wants to bring the power of the regulator – him who knows best – to address the instability of markets. ‘With advances in economic science [sic], aren’t we supposed to understand better how to manage the economy?’, he inquires in his Preface, without specifying what he regards as ‘the economy’ – the total output of all the countries of Europe?   ̶  or why he claims economics is a ‘science’. And, if he is a Nobelist, shouldn’t he be answering such questions, not posing them rhetorically?  (This month, Janet Yellen, the chairwoman of the US Federal Reserve, expressed the following alarming concern: “The events of the past few years have revealed limits in economists’ understanding of the economy and suggest several important questions I hope the profession will try to answer.” From his recent see-sawing, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, appears to be similarly bewildered. Over to you, Joseph.)  But markets are inherently unstable: that is why they are markets. Joseph Schumpeter was the economist who introduced the notion of ‘creative destruction’ to explain how previously dominant players can be swept away by innovation and organizational sclerosis. Such ideas disturb econometric regulators like Stiglitz: they would prefer to have a clearly defined number of players in a market, allow them to make enough profit to keep their investors happy, but ensure that there should be enough competition for each to keep on its toes, but not so much that any individual company should actually fail. Yet such a set-up quickly drifts into crony capitalism, like the US health insurance ‘market’, where supporters of President Obama’s disastrous Affordable Care Act admit that the role of the regulators is to keep insurance companies solvent. Or politicians meet with ‘business leaders’ in the belief that they are discovering what ‘business’ wants; today’s ‘business leaders’ know very well that they do not represent the interests of a competitive market, but gladly go along with the pretence, and look for favours to protect them from the upstarts. Be very wary when journalists (or politicians) start talking about ‘the business community’: it proves they don’t get it.

What is more, Stiglitz demonises his intellectual foes. Even though their ideas have been ‘discredited’, ‘they are held with such conviction and power, immune to new contrary evidence, that these beliefs are rightly described as an ideology’. (p 10) Unlike his own ideas, of course, which are naturally ‘scientific’. “Modern scientific [sic!] economics has refuted the Hooverite economics I discussed in the last chapter.” (p 54)  “Doctrines and policies that were fashionable a quarter century ago are ill suited for the 21st century”, he continues (p 269), but he quickly adopts the Keynesian doctrines of eighty-five years ago, without distinguishing what is fashion and what is durable. (Keynes made some notoriously wrong predictions, especially about automation and leisure.) People who disagree with Stiglitz are madmen: “Today, except among a lunatic fringe, the question is not whether there should be government intervention but how and where the government should act, taking account of market imperfections.” (p 86: his italics) Yet it is clear that, while he denigrates the designers of the Euro for applying free-market economics to the reconstruction of Europe’s economies, categorising them as ‘market fundamentalists’ is utterly wrong. Those architects may have believed, as Stiglitz claims, that ‘if only the government would ensure that inflation was low and stable, markets would ensure growth and prosperity for all’, but such an opinion merely expresses a different variation on the corporatist notion that governments can actually control what entrepreneurialism occurs within its own borders. After all, as Stiglitz admits, the chief architect of the European Union and the euro was Jacques Delors, a French socialist.

The paradoxes and contradictions in Stiglitz’s account are many: I group the dominant examples as follows:

1) Globalisation: For someone who wrote “Globalization and its Discontents”, Stiglitz is remarkably coy about the phenomenon in this book. The topic merits only three entries in the index, much of which is dedicated to some waffle about ‘the global community’. For, if globalization is an unstoppable trend, it must require, in Stiglitz’s eyes, political integration to make it work, on the basis of the advice he gives to the European Union. “The experiences of the eurozone have one further important lesson for the rest of the world: be careful not to let economic integration outpace political integration.” (p 322) Are you listening, ‘the rest of the world’, whoever you are? Yet the idea of ‘World Government’ is as absurd as it was when H. G. Wells suggested it a century ago. By the same token, however, if Europe believes it can seclude itself from globalization effects by building a tight Customs Union, it must be whistling in the dark. Stiglitz never addresses this paradox. Nor does he recommend the alternative – a return to aurtarkic economies, which would be an unpalatable solution for someone who has to admit the benefits of trade. No: he resorts, as in his proffered ‘solution’ for the Euro crisis, to tinkering and regulation.

2) Austerity: On the other hand, Stiglitz has much to say about ‘austerity’. Unsurprisingly, he is against it, defined as ‘cutbacks in expenditure designed to lower the deficit.’ But he then goes on to make some astounding claims about it: “Austerity has always and everywhere had the contractionary effects observed in Europe: the greater the austerity, the greater the economic contraction.”  (p 18) “Almost as surprising as the Troika’s not learning from history – that such private and public austerity virtually always brings recession and depression – is that Europe’s leaders have not even learned from the experiences within Europe.” (p 312)  No evidence is brought forward to support such assertions. Is he not familiar with the austerity of the Labour Chancellor Stafford Cripps between 1947-1950, which was necessary in order to foster an export effort, and was seen as successful? Or Reynaud’s austerity policies in France in the 1930s, which led to economic recovery? Unfortunately, ‘austerity’ has come to imply meanness of politicians unwilling to hand out entitlements with funds they don’t have (the belief of those who concur with that definition being  that such spending will inexorably lead to wealth creation), rather than signifying a well-designed good-housekeeping move to protect the currency. Yes, austerity will not work as a policy for Greece: debts will have to be forgiven in some measure, since (as Keynes told us in The Economic Consequences of the Peace), people reduced to slavery will never create enough wealth to hand a portion over to others. But a large part of the problem there was government overspending and poor tax collection – a lack of ‘austerity’.

3: Confidence: Stiglitz is dismissive of any softer aspects of economic decision-making that may get in the way of his ‘scientific’ thinking. ‘Confidence theory’ is another of his bugbears. “The confidence theory dates back to Herbert Hoover and his secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and it has become a staple among financiers. How this happens has never been explained. Out in the real world, the confidence theory has been repeatedly tested and failed. Paul Krugman has coined the term confidence fairy in response.” (p 95) Stiglitz never explains how anybody was able to conduct ‘scientific’ experiments on something as vague as ‘confidence’ in the real world. Moreover, Paul Krugman is a good mate of Stiglitz, and they clearly belong to a Mutual Admiration Society. “Joseph Stiglitz is an insanely great economist”, puffs Klugman on the back-cover. But then, there must be different types of confidence, since Stiglitz later states: “Indeed, Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank since 2011, may have saved the eurozone, with his famous speech that the ECB would do whatever it takes to preserve the euro – and in saying that, restoring confidence in the bonds of the countries under attack.”  (p 145) But ‘confidence theory’ never works! Shome mishtake shurely? Absent-mindeness? Or sophistry?

4: Productivity: Stiglitz seems as muddled by productivity as do most economic journalists. He appears to share the popular opinion that increased productivity is important, as it leads to greater prosperity. That was one of the goals of the Eurozone, after all, with its free flow of labour and capital. (p 70) But common-sense tells us normal people that productivity can be applied only to a certain task. If it takes fewer employees, and less capital, to make 1000 widgets, than it did before, the benefits will accrue to the owners of capital (and in turn the pension funds) rather than to the general working populace (as Piketty has pointed out). Only if the displaced employees can find alternative similarly well-paid employment will overall prosperity increase. Stiglitz, somewhat reluctantly, seems to accept this viewpoint, but gets there in a devious way: “In the eurozone, across-the-board average hours worked per worker have declined – implying an even worse performance.” (Would fewer hours worked not suggest better productivity? Britain is reported to have lower productivity – and lower wages – than most European rivals, but less unemployment. Is that good or bad?) And then: “But most of the advanced countries will have to restructure themselves away from manufacturing towards new sectors, like the more dynamic [= ‘unstable’?] service sectors.” (p 224) But what is required to make this happen? Yes, government intervention. The market does not perform this task very well, so what is needed is ‘concerted government effort’. By individual nations? By the EU? Stiglitz is not sure, as he knows such policies are largely precluded within the eurozone. And it is not clear whether everyone will fall over themselves trying to provide services to a declining manufacturing sector – especially when those services are moving overseas as well. What is to be done? What will people do to earn a decent living? That is the perennial problem.

5: Markets: Stiglitz does not understand how markets work. In reality, they are not ‘designed’, as he claims. They do not pretend to lend themselves to stability. Their members compete, and sometimes fail. Yet he severely criticises those who he claims do not understand his view of them, for example as in the following observation about distortions: “But, of course, in the ideology of market fundamentalism, markets do not create bubbles.” (p 25) What market fundamentalists would say is that markets will make corrections to bubbles in due course, so that overpriced (or underpriced) assets will return to their ‘correct’ value once information is made available, or emotions are constrained. Moreover, failure is an inevitable outcome of the dynamism of markets, and, in order to keep trust in those entities who behave properly, mismanagement and misdemeanours of those who break such trust must be seen to fail. (An enormous slush of capital – primarily Oriental – is currently looking for safe havens in Western countries, and is almost certain to create another bubble.) In addition, there is no ‘banking system’: banks are no different from any other corporation. A loose and dynamic range of institutions provides various financial services: they will lend as they see fit, and, if they miss an opportunity, a competitor should pick it up. The answer to the recent errors of Wells Fargo on the US, for instance, is not more regulation, but a massive exodus of its customers to other banks, and visible punishment for the executives who let it happen. Bailouts lead to moral hazard: investment is always a risk. Yet the Stiglitzes of this world close their eyes to reality, seeing a business environment where established companies should be entitled to survive, making enough profit to satisfy the pension funds and their investors, but not so much that they would appear greedy and exploitative, and should try to maintain ‘stability’ to contribute to ‘full employment’. ‘Stability’ is the watchword of Stiglitz and his kind (like the Chinese government trying to maintain the ‘stability’ of the stock-market), but it is impossible to achieve.

Enough already. There are some other oddball things, such as his dabbling with referenda when the going gets tough: “There could be a requirement, too, that, except when the economy is in recession, any increase in debt over a certain level be subject to a referendum within the country.” (p 243) Surely not! And I don’t claim to understand his remedy for fixing the euro without dismantling the eurozone itself, something that apparently involves carving it up into different sectors. But Stiglitz has really written a political pamphlet: the eurozone is for some reason important to him, as it is to those who think that only political integration will prevent a reoccurrence of the dreadful world wars that originated there. “A common currency is threatening the future of Europe. Muddling through will not work. And the European project is too important to be sacrificed on the cross of the euro. Europe – the world – deserves better.” (p 326) That belief in ‘the European project’, and the disdain for those who would question it, is what divided Britain in its recent referendum.

Yet I can’t help concluding that Stiglitz and his colleagues are much closer to the architects of the euro, and thus part of the problem, than he would ever admit. The belief that expert economists, with their mathematical models and their Nobel prizes, can somehow understand how an ‘economy’ works, and possess the expertise to fine-tune it for the benefit of everybody, and somehow regulate out of the way all the unpredictable missteps that will happen, is one of the famous modern illusions. When separate decisions are made by millions of individuals, and companies and firms devise any number of strategies for new technologies, new markets, some whimsical, some wise, to suppose that all such activity can be modeled and projected, in order to supply enough taxable revenue to fund any number of favourite programmes, is simply nonsense. It is as if such experts had never worked in the real world, managed a start-up, struggled to make a payroll, had to lay off good people, dealt with a sudden competitive threat, faced an embarrassing product recall or an employee rebellion, or wrestled to bring a new product successfully to market. Yes, of course, capitalism is flawed, some executives are absurdly overpaid, compensation committees are largely a joke, and corporate boards are frequently useless, risktakers should not be generously rewarded for playing recklessly with other peoples’ money (and being rewarded for failure as well as success), and the notion that ‘aligning executive goals with those of shareholders’ does not magically solve anything if the former get away like bandits just once because of cheap stock options, while the latter who wanted to be there for the long haul simply watch from afar . . .  When all is said and done, common prosperity still relies on private enterprise and profit.

Those who believe in expert management of ‘the economy’ simply have it all wrong. Except under war conditions, governments of liberal democracies cannot control the wealth-creation processes of their populace. They can spend money cautiously, knowing how unpredictable private wealth-creation is, and simply try to foster the conditions that encourage entrepreneurialism. Alternatively, they can put the currency at risk by running massive deficits, and they can plunge the place into the depths through socialism (see Venezuela), or abet a death spiral like that of Greece or Puerto Rico. But the one thing they should not do is carelessly engage Nobel Prize-winning economists to give them advice. As a postscript to the self-indulgent advice from Keynes that I quoted earlier, two prominent economists, Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Peter G. Peterson, former secretary of commerce, jointly offered the following observation concerning the National Debt in the New York Times this month: “Take some advice from two observers who have been around for a while: The long term gets here before you know it.”  But neither of them has won the Nobel Prize.

P.S. A few hours after I completed this piece, I read a feature encompassing an interview with Stiglitz by the editor of Prospect, Tom Clark, in the October issue of the magazine. The article quoted Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky, as saying: ‘the likes of Stiglitz and Krugman have got their Nobel prizes, then given up developing the economic ideas, and drifted into radical political commentary instead.’ Too true. If Stiglitz is not a charlatan, he is hopelessly confused. I would not change a word of what I wrote.

P.P.S. After the publication of last month’s installment of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, three items have come to light. A reader sent me some provocative statements concerning Sonia from Soviet archives, a 2014 book I read about WWII counter-espionage has inspired some fresh observations about Trevor-Roper and the Double-Cross System, and my attention has been drawn to an archive freshly published (by the NSA) on German wartime intelligence. I shall report more, and make some textual amendments, next month – probably in the omnibus version only, to keep the integrity of the monthly posts whole.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.


With Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley

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Sonia’s Radio – Part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bodleian Library, Special Collections

Breach of Security, edited by David Irving

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

A Man Called Lucy, by Pierre Accoce and Pierre Quet

The Hut Six Story, by Gordon Welchman

The Red Orchestra, by V. E. Tarrant

Bletchley Park’s Secret Room, by Joss Pearson

Operation Lucy, by Anthony Read & David Fisher

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

The Spying Game, by Michael Smith

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

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

Codename Dora, by Sándor Radó

The Wartime Journals, by Hugh Trevor-Roper

Ultra Goes to War, by Ronald Lewin

With My Little Eye, by Richard Deacon

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

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

The Ultra Secret, F. W. Winterbotham

How War Came, by Donald Cameron Watt

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


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Doctor in the House

The London Eye

The London Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chiswick House

Chiswick House

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

Michael & Susanna

Michael & Susanna

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

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

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

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

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

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

Lady Young

Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

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

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

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



Brian Wizard

Brian Wizard

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

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

From Snowshill Manor

From Snowshill Manor

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

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

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

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

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

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

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

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

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


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My Experience With Opioids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Croydon, September 24, 1976

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

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Sonia’s Radio – Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principal Sources:

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

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

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

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

MI5 by Nigel West

GCHQ by Nigel West

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

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

GCHQ by Richard J. Aldrich

The Secret World by Hugh-Trevor-Roper

The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay

The Secret War by Max Hastings

Sonjas Rapport by Ruth Werner

Handbook for Spies by Alexander Foote

The National Archives

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

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


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Revisiting Smiley & Co.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the brave defectors from the Soviet Union realised this self-delusion better than their emancipated cousins resident in the West. One of these, Ismail Akhmedov, in his memoir In and Out of Stalin’s GRU wrote, of Philby: ‘To completely close the circle he will pass into oblivion, into an empty abyss during one of his drunken hours, as did Burgess, and join the company of butchers, henchmen, headhunters – call them what you will – the despised enemies of the unfortunate Soviet people still yearning for their freedom.’  Philby’s hypocrisy was revealed in a video recording discovered and broadcast a few weeks ago. He was recorded giving a lecture on spycraft to some STASI (East German secret police) officers in 1981 (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bs2y2TEHBWg . His final lesson for them? ‘Never admit to anything if you are caught.’ But Philby never had to undergo torture, or threats to his family of he did not admit his guilt, or the prospect of a shot in the back of the head without trial. If MI5 and Special Branch had found convincing proof of his guilt, he probably would not have been prosecuted successfully without a confession and an embarrassing trial, and would likely have been told instead (as was Anthony Blunt, in effect): ‘Why don’t you quietly retire, old boy, as we don’t want any nasty mess and bad publicity for the service, do we?’.

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

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

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


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Sonia’s Radio – Part I


The Book Cover       


Sonia’s  Inscription

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

What is going on here? Is this a hoax? Why would the inscription be dated ‘April 1977’ when the book was printed the following year? A Google search for the sentence is partially rewarding but also frustrating: it seems that this was something that Werner had declared when the book was first published. An occasion to celebrate her 75th birthday (in 1982) reproduces the sentence. See: https://books.google.com/books?id=O3omAAAAMAAJ&q=jeder+autor+hat+beim+Aufschreiben&dq=jeder+autor+hat+beim+Aufschreiben&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFhoy5653MAhVCdD4KHQujCXEQ6AEIODAE   So, Werner presumably thought it appropriate to annotate the volume with her pronouncement, but indicate the date she first said it, at the time of the book’s launch, I imagine. The statement is, however, both anodyne and perplexing. Of course, every memoirist faces difficulties – but was telling the truth one of these challenges? And why introduce her ‘conscience’ unless she had something she was feeling guilty about?

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

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

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

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

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

I do know that possessing unregistered wireless sets was illegal, as was using registered sets for transmission. I have learned that, in the first years of the war, the responsibilities for tracking, recording and decoding illicit radio transmissions (as well as messages originating from overseas) were calamitously split between such groups as the BBC, Military Intelligence (in a section called MI8), Section W in MI5, the Radio Intelligence Service and its offshoots (which was a reincarnation of the group within MI8 called MI8(c), and moved to SIS in 1941), and the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS), whose name was changed to Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in 1943. I know that MI8(c) and RSS very much focused their efforts on Nazi wavebands (‘the enemy’), even when the Soviet Union was still an ally of Germany, that is up to June 1941. (Older readers of this blog may be familiar with the BBC 1979 television programme ‘The Secret Listeners’, which described the corps of amateur wireless enthusiasts who aided the effort. It is viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwbzV2Jx5Qo).   I recall that MI5 rapidly claimed, in its promotion of the Double-Cross System, that no unidentified Nazi spies remained at large in the UK, sending radio messages back to Germany, despite the administrative mess.  I know that Malcolm Frost, who joined MI5 from the BBC to run Section W, was a very arrogant and ambitious character, and that Guy Liddell (head of B Division, responsible for Counter-Espionage) felt threatened by him.  I know that the head of MI8(c) protested the move of RSS to SIS, and that his boss, the Director of Military Intelligence, tried to talk the head of the Security Executive (Swinton) out of it, but that Petrie of MI5 and Swinton forced the transfer through in May 1941.  I also know that, once MI5 had declined the offer to take over RSS itself in early 1941, Liddell started being very critical of RSS’s direction-finding techniques and discipline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hey Big Spender!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hellman accordingly took advantage of the invitation, and did not answer the letter, yet continued to lie about the person of Julia. Anyone interested in more details on this part of the saga can read Sheila Isenberg’s biography of Gardiner (Muriel’s War), or William Wright’s biography of Hellman (Lillian Hellman), or such articles as the New York Times review of Code Name ‘Mary’, at http://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/29/books/publishing-new-memoir-stirs-julia-controversy.html. What is certain is that Hellman was not only a Stalinist, but an inveterate liar, and was called out as such. She died before her famous lawsuit against Mary McCarthy came to court. McCarthy had famously said of Hellman on the Dick Cavett Show on October 18, 1979 that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’ Hellman’s mendacity is made perfectly clear in a volume of conversations she had with the media between 1974 and 1979 (i.e. before and after the movie was made), published as Conversations with Hellman (1986), where she confidently begins by boasting of her memory, and swears to the truth of her story, and the strength of her friendship with Julia, but by the end is resorting to awkward equivocations as some of the inconsistencies come to light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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