Supply, North Carolina, August 2017
Sonia had always had the dream that, when her spying days were over, she would open a little cafe in coastal Carolina.
Here ex-agents of Soviet Intelligence meet, over cabbage soup and grits, to discuss the old times.
“Shchi da kasha – pishcha nasha!”
(The story so far: Sonia, who has trained Alexander Foote, the secret SIS employee, in wireless transmission techniques, has made an ingenious escape from Switzerland to England, and installed herself and her two children in Oxfordshire. There they wait to be joined by her husband, Len Beurton (from a marriage gained by dubious methods), who has not been able to gain an exit visa from Switzerland because of his past as an International Brigader. The UK consul in Geneva helps him with false papers, however, and he arrives in the UK in the summer of 1942. He and Sonia are watched, and in January 1943 an illicit radio transmitter is discovered in their rented accommodation. For the full story so far, please see Sonia’sRadio.)
Sonia’s account of the installation of her radio is mostly very humdrum. Without explaining whether she and Len were assisted in their search for new premises after they were given notice to move out of their bungalow in Kidlington in the autumn of 1942, she wrote that they ‘looked for a detached house where I could transmit’. They found suitable accommodation in a coachman’s house at ‘Avenue Cottage’ in the Summertown district of Oxford, part of the property of Judge Neville Laski and his wife. Soon after they moved in, Sonia approached the chatelaine, as she ‘needed her permission to erect an aerial leading from our roof to one of the stables’. Mrs Laski agreed: the aerial looked rather like a normal one for any radio receiver, Sonia added. Len thus clambered up and installed it, and they secretly inserted their little transmitter behind a loose stone in a thick wall.
And then she made the astonishing observation that, while amateur radio transmissions were forbidden, she and Len ‘had to count on my transmitter being discovered at some point’. Moscow Centre thus wanted her to train a new operator, and they found Tom, a fitter at a car plant, who was eager to do the job instead. How Sonia imagined that, if her transmitter were discovered, she would simply be let off with a warning, to continue spying, but now handing her material to a substitute, is not explained. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Moscow would have lightly approved the casual recruitment of an apparent sympathiser to execute such an important security-sensitive assignment. Was this what she, and her bosses, sincerely believed at the time? Or was it simply a careless recollection in tranquillity, the absurdity of which was not recognised by her or her censors? Whatever the explanation, the statement appears to cast further doubt on the accuracy of her overall testimony.
And what was Mrs Laski thinking? It would appear that Sonia had been carefully installed at Avenue Cottage. While Neville Laski was reputedly a conservative and respectable non-Zionist, his wife, Seraphina (known as ‘Sissie’), was the daughter of Moses Gaster, the prominent Zionist academic. “Mrs Laski had a social conscience and worked for various welfare organizations”, wrote Sonia. Her brother was the notorious lawyer, Jack Gaster, who married Isaiah Berlin’s close communist friend, Maire Lynd, called for revolution in the same manner as did Neville’s brother, Harold, and remained a staunch communist until his death in 2007. Moreover, Chapman Pincher interviewed the Laskis’ second daughter, Pamela, shortly before she died in 2008, and claimed that she told him that Sonia ‘insinuated herself into the company of Sissie’. Moreover, ‘Pamela disliked Sonia and became suspicious when she strung up an aerial from the cottage to a shed in the Laskis’ garden.’ She was twenty-two years old at the time: did she articulate her suspicions to anyone? Pincher apparently did not ask her.
And is it not strange that Neville Laski would not ask any questions about the suspicious-looking aerial, especially if he knew the background of his lodgers? Is it possible that he was taken into the confidences of the authorities? In the 1930s, he was providing covert intelligence to the Colonial Office on Zionist activity, so he may have had contacts in government. Certainly Harold Laski would have been well acquainted with the Kuczynski clan, but Neville’s political position was reportedly less sympathetic to their extremist views. According to the biographers of Harold Laski, Neville, in considering the arrival of émigrés from Nazi Germany, was too concerned about communist contamination of the Jewish Agency. Yet the National Archives (KV 6/41) show that Neville and Sissie were living next to the Kuczynskis in London by August, 1943, perhaps an unusual relocation given Neville’s opinions. Maybe there was some closer affinity between the two families. Whether it anteceded the arrival of the Beurtons is not clear. Perhaps Neville was acting deceptively; possibly he simply changed his opinions.
Yet one more intriguing fact comes to light: Alexander Foote’s files at Kew (KV2-1611-3) inform us that the Laskis’ son, Philip, was in Lausanne, Switzerland in April 1941, staying with the Countess de Chelmisnka, and had at that time sent a letter to his mother, at 302 Woodstock Road, Oxford, that was intercepted by the authorities. The file states: “Disjointed letter, written by apparently very unbalanced young man after the finish of an ecstatic love affair with someone of higher social standing he does not wish to mention. . . . He refers to his not being able to come to England.” Perhaps it was in code. Laski also referred to the fact that a Polish diplomatic courier would be bringing a letter by hand for his father. Chapman Pincher tells us that Sonia’s son Michael Hamburger ‘recalled playing with the young Laski boys, Philip, who was about the same age, and John . . .’, but this clearly cannot be right. Anthony Blond writes (in Jew Made in England) that Philip, a homosexual, married a Bourbon princess in Barcelona during the war. Michael Hamburger was born in 1931, Philip Laski in 1918. What games was Hamburger playing? And why did the authorities believe that this report had a place in Foote’s file? As I show later, Lausanne was where Beurton was living in 1941: the fact seems too coincidental to be ignored.
In any case, if Sonia was concerned about the attentions of the much feared organs of MI5 and Special Branch, she did not have to wait long. Hugh Shillito had been an officer in B Division (B 10.e) when Sonia established herself in Oxford in early 1941, and had in March wisely recorded the conventional opinion that ‘an eye should be kept on her’. After the new Director-General, David Petrie, reorganized MI5 in the summer of 1941, Shillito was moved to the new F Division, and, as F2.b, was responsible for covering possible espionage carried out by the Comintern (F2b) and communist refugees (F2c). As will be shown later, in 1942 he was massively consumed with tracking another communist ring, but was reawakened to the possible threat from Sonia when her husband Len arrived in the country on July 29. Noting the discrepancies in Beurton’s account after his disembarkation, on September 15 Shillito initiated an interception of all correspondence, effective September 19, since the Beurtons had apparently by then moved to Avenue Cottage. A report dated October 10 shows that the Laskis were included in this sweep. Beurton was interviewed by Vesey (B4a) on September 18, where Beurton apparently made ‘a good impression’. Vesey had previously pointed out the discrepancies in Beurton’s account, and questioned the issuance of his passport, but had been fobbed off by a feeble excuse by the Passport Office in Geneva.
But then matters take an interesting twist. On November 30, Shillito made a request to the GPO about a possible telephone check at 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington, stating that Beurton had gone to live there, also asked for interception of post and telegrams, and provided as his justification that ‘this man has recently returned from Switzerland where he is thought to have been in touch with agents of a foreign power’. On December 19, he contacted Major Ryde, of Special Branch in Reading (with whom he had communicated about Sonia back in March of 1941), asking for the Police to make discreet inquiries about Beurton ‘as he may have been engaged in espionage on behalf of the U.S.S.R. against Germany from Switzerland’, his membership of the International Brigades adding credence to this hypothesis. Yet, if, as Sonia reported, ‘the owners of our bungalow gave us notice as they required it for their own use’, why and how would Len return to Kidlington for the winter?
This request might be unexceptional if its purpose had been solely to capture mail from abroad from correspondents who might not have been informed of the Beurtons’ movements. But the memo on file is very explicit: it states that Beurton has gone to live in Kidlington. Moreover, there are other memoranda, as late as August 1943, that refer to Len’s other place of residency. Shillito wrote to Mr Denniston in E5 (Aliens Control) of MI5 on August 16, asking whether he knew anything about the Kuczynskis, who then lived next door to the Neville Laskis in London, stating that Beurton currently lived at 134, Oxford Road, Kidlington. A further request from Shillito, to update the GPO on the status of the Home Office Warrant, informed Colonel Allen that Beurton moved that month from Kidlington to Avenue Cottage. Was this simply a case of marital discord, after the stress of being separated? Apparently not, as their son Peter was born on September 8, 1943. Maybe it was an attempt to make them look estranged, and to confuse their watchers, or perhaps the feint was required because the relationship between Sonia and Len had to be concealed from the Laskis. It is another anomaly in Sonia’s highly unreliable chronicle.
Yet, after Beurton had joined the RAF Station in Cardington on November 18, another HOW request by Shillito, dated December 13, 1943, cancelled the current operation for Avenue Cottage, and required the reimplementation of the warrant for Oxford Road, Kidlington, since ‘it is desired to cover both his home and service address’. This cannot simply be an administrative error. One possible explanation is that Sonia’s residencies were all arranged by the authorities, and that Beurton was ‘encouraged’ to stay in Kidlington after his arrival in order to keep the attention off Sonia. But whom were they trying to mislead? And why would Beurton need to maintain two addresses, and move between them? Sonia carefully reminded her readers that she was still living at Avenue Road in 1943, but curiously stated that in May 1945 the owner [sic] ‘wanted her home back’. (She reported that Mrs Laski organised the street party to celebrate peace ̶ and even included a photograph [see below]. But is this another deception? It is problematic, given the evidence that the Laskis were by then living in London. ) Moreover, the Beurtons were renting the coach-house, not occupying the main premises. And why did she refer to ‘the owner’ rather than to ‘Mrs Laski’, or even ‘the Laskis’? Perhaps it was a simply a mistake in translation: the German reads: “Im Mai 1945 wollte die Besitzerin nach ‘Avenue Cottage’ zurückkehren”, which would appear better as “In May 1945 the occupant wanted to return to ‘Avenue Cottage’.” Was Sonia providing an alibi for Mrs Laski? It is all very strange.
Neville, Sissie & Marghanita Laski in 1916
Who can spot Mrs Laski? She is presumably at the centre of things. Or Sonia – with her three children?
Sonia and her children in 1945
The conundrum does return the spotlight to Chapman Pincher’s allegations. In Treachery, he suggested that the claim that the owners of the Kidlington bungalow wished to return there was ‘another part of her legend’, as Sonia needed to reside closer to Oxford railway station in order for her to meet Klaus Fuchs and deliver his documents to London. According to Pincher, living in Oxford allowed her to service both Fuchs and Roger Hollis, Pincher’s bête noire. But Pincher (like Sonia herself) never mentions that Beurton maintained the place in Kidlington, or at whose expense. Was Kidlington an area for secret meetings, and was Beurton acting as a courier for an unidentified third party, perhaps? Or perhaps he operated a radio there, and the device at Summertown was a ruse to distract the authorities? Professor Glees (in a private message) has supported the notion that this could have been the masterstroke of Sonia’s practice of deception – to display her wireless equipment openly, and then not exploit it, so that it would completely disarm any agency that was surveilling her, all the while the genuine transmissions taking place at the second residence. But why does Shillito make no observation on this rather bizarre living arrangement? It is the lack of commentary that is as intriguing as the dual residency itself.
Though perhaps one should not abandon the notion of administrative confusion too quickly. As late as April 1946, J. H. Marriott, now F2.c, wrote to Kim Philby in SIS, asking whether he knew of the whereabouts of Sonia’s first husband, Rudolf Hamburger, giving an address in Lausanne, and commenting somewhat enigmatically that Sonia (in February 1941) ‘stated that to the best of her knowledge Leon Beurton was still residing there’. On May 1, a letter under Philby’s name responded that SIS’s agent in Switzerland was making enquiries in order ‘to find out whether Leon Charles Beurton is still living at No 129’. Marriott then called Philby on the telephone to let him know that ‘the man is no longer in Switzerland, and when last heard of in November of last year was . . . in the Coldstream Guards’. Did Shillito not pass on intelligence to his successors? Were MI5 and SIS really that disorganised? It is difficult to pin down Shillito’s career at this point: he was F2b/c in December 1943, and appeared to be following Green and his associates through 1944. We owe it to West’s and Tsarev’s Crown Jewels (thanks to a leak from Anthony Blunt) to gain the information that Shillito left MI5 in October 1945, and was replaced by an officer named Spencer. In December 1944, Liddell reported that Hollis considered Shillito ‘lazy’, but that unworthy description does not match the officer’s dedication and energy as shown in the events of 1942. It is much more probable that he simply became demoralised, left in disgust, and may not have executed a smooth handover. After all, he might have asked himself, why had he been recruited to hunt down communist spies if the sister intelligence service was importing them behind his back? In any case, Spencer did not appear to last long.
Prompted by Shillito’s recommendations to Major Ryde back in 1942, however, the Oxford City Police Department moved into action. A report written by Detective-Inspector Rolfe to the Chief Constable, Charles R. Fox, was forwarded by Fox to Major Phipps in Reading on January 21, 1943. It referred to a letter received from Major Phipps a month beforehand, and described a visit made to the Beurtons’ residence. Rolfe did not actually meet the Beurtons, it appears, but he did speak to Mrs Laski, who claimed not to know much about the couple, although she was able to impart some details about Mrs Beurton’s relatives. It seems that Mrs Laski told Rolfe about the wireless set, since the report reflects some descriptive aspects that Rolfe could not have ascertained otherwise: ‘They have rather a [large? – that corner of the page has been torn off] wireless set and recently had a special pole erected for use for the aerial’. This would imply that Mrs Laski was either unaware of the law, believed that the set was used only for reception, or thought that the Beurtons’ operations had been approved. Yet if she knew it was ‘large’, she must have seen it. And why was the Detective-Inspector’s interest not piqued enough to demand an inspection of it, given the suspicions that Shillito had voiced?
Major Phipps’s letter to Shillito of January 24 confirmed the epithet ‘large’ for posterity, and he specifically drew attention to its existence, something ‘you may think . . . is worthy of further inquiry’. Yet nothing happened. Or if it did, there is no record of it. The next communication from Shillito is dated April 21, when he followed up with Phipps on the paragraph in Rolfe’s report that described Beurton’s imminent call-up for the R.A.F. On July 5, he wrote to John Curry in SIS, in response to the latter’s letters concerning Sonia’s first husband, Rudolph [sic] Hamburger, and made an astonishing statement that served to diminish suspicions about the Beurtons. “Since their return to this country the BEURTONS have been living together at Oxford in a house for which they have been paying 3 ½ guineas per week. It has not been possible to find out very much about their activities since they live very quietly, but what information there is does not arouse suspicion.” So what about the two residences? And the large wireless set? Moreover, by now Sonia had been meeting Fuchs regularly. Was she not being watched? Shillito’s conclusion represents an astonishing lack of imagination and resolve: it is almost as if he had been ordered to stop his investigations.
A highly plausible conclusion would be that Sonia expected her wireless set to be discovered; she was not concerned about it; she even welcomed it. For it was a distraction, a decoy. She knew that she would be watched, and the best way of diverting attention was to display the bogus equipment in plain view, while the real transmitter still lay in the premises in Kidlington, where Len could operate it. # Her comment about expecting to be discovered can now be interpreted as an accurate observation, with the dubious story about the eager fitter at the car plant an alibi for her alternative residence. As for the authorities, if SIS really had been planning to eavesdrop on her transmissions, the discovery of a wireless set would have been the last thing they wanted, for the law would have required Sonia to be fined and forced to desist, with the equipment confiscated. Better, no doubt, to pretend they never heard about it. But if Sonia did use the set in Summertown, she would no doubt merely have sent anodyne unencrypted messages about the great British proletariat cheering on their gallant Soviet allies, and calling for the opening of the second front. The RSS and GC&CS would have learned nothing at all.
# Note: Nigel West has written to me the following: “I have two explanations for SONIA’s traffic. Firstly, it was probably very low power, and was only intended to communicate with the embassy in London, and not Russia. Secondly, the Abwehr taught GARBO how to emulate authentic British Army radio traffic. These signals were ignored by RSS. It may be that the GRU adopted the same tactics.”
Hugh Shillito’s inaction must be interpreted in the context of another project that had absorbed him in 1942, the case of Oliver Green. Oliver Green, like Beurton and Foote, had been a member of the International Brigades in Spain, and MI5 had been tracking him since 1937. Much of the information about Green’s career comes from Shillito’s report, written in July 1942, when he was making a case for Green’s prosecution [see TNA: KV 2/2203(2)]. Maxwell Knight’s M/9 team reported that Green had been recruited by the Comintern while in Spain. He returned to Britain in May 1938, but not much is recorded after that until a conversation at the bugged CPHQ in King Street was captured in January 1940. An exercise by the CPGB of recruiting CP members in the services, and collecting information from them, came to light. Green came to MI5’s attention because R. W. Robson, who was on the Control Commission of the Communist Party, had been heard to ask a Bert Williams whether he knew of Oliver Green’s whereabouts. Williams responded in the negative, but Robson, implying a high degree of secrecy, then asked Williams to try to ascertain where Green was living.
For some reason, the trail went dark after this. Green did not appear again until he was arrested in May 1942 for possessing forged petrol coupons, and a Special Branch search discovered incriminating materials (including War Office Weekly Intelligence Summaries) at his house. He was imprisoned for fifteen months, and when Shillito was informed of the find by Special Branch, he took an interest in the case, and in July was expressing to his colleagues around MI5 that Green should be prosecuted for espionage. Shillito sought advice from the legal department of MI5. Yet he received some objections, some hinting at deeper investigations underway at the time. The solicitor Hale of SL(A)2 suggested on July 7 (incidentally the day before the Swiss consulate issued Len Beurton with his false passport) that such a move might disrupt Shillito’s work. “His prosecution would on the other hand inevitably disturb the ground on which your present enquiries, designed to round up all these miscreants, are proceeding and this I would take to be the decisive consideration.” One can sense an implicit fear that the British public might be confused if it should turn out that the communists in the UK were not wholly supportive of the British war effort. “The foregoing opinion is of course based on the assumption that H.M.G. have not at the present time any sufficient reason for wanting to bring home to the public mind the fact that our alliance with the U.S.S.R. has not made the C.P.G.B. a strictly loyal and correct British political party,” added Hale. Certainly the stresses of dealing with the Soviet Union, as a difficult ally, were intensely felt at that time. In September, 1942, the controversial Anglo-Russian agreement on the exchange of scientific information was signed, and pressure was exerted by Moscow on the opening up the second front. There were certainly voices in government (such as that of Gladwyn Jebb, at that time promoting post-war cooperation with the Soviets) who did not want to rock the boat.
A further hint from Roger Fulford (standing in for Roger Hollis, away on sick leave) two days later identified a group that could be the ‘miscreants’ referred to by Hale: “As the Green case stands there is no evidence to link him with the C.P.G.B. or the Robson organisation.” This is a provocative note, as the ‘Robson organisation’ has never been identified, either in the archives, or any publication. As West and Tsarev wrote in 1998 in The Crown Jewels, listing documents leaked by Anthony Blunt of MI5 to his Soviet masters in April 1943: “ . . . MI5 reports on CPGB members and a survey conducted by Millicent Bagot of F2 (b) about the cultivation of the members of a GRU ring known as the Robson-Gibbons group (about which nothing has ever been published); and an investigation of another low-level GRU case, that of a man named Green, conducted by Hugh Shillito which revealed MI5’s methodology, including the use of bugging equipment that had exposed six of Green’s fellow conspirators.” Petrie agreed with Fulford a few days later: he did not want to disturb ‘the much more serious matter of the Robson inquiry’, an opinion with which the Home Office’s Sir Alexander Maxwell (whose secretary was the spy Jenifer Hart) agreed.
So where did Gibbons come from? Boris Volodarsky added a little more detail in 2015, in his Stalin’s Agent. Gibbons was Danny Gibbons, also an officer of the British Battalion of the International Brigades. Volodarsky simply states that ‘MI5 later tried to cultivate members of the “Robson-Gibbons” GRU spy ring’. Yet, if that were so, it might suggest that MI5 were trying to use the same tactics with communist agents that they had successfully deployed with Nazi spies – turn them, and play them back with disinformation. (Volodarsky appears to be the only historian making this claim.) That would, however, have been a questionable strategy at a time when SIS and GC&CS were surreptitiously trying to provide the Soviets with accurate intelligence derived from the Enigma decrypts. Moreover, Fulford was wrong in assessing that there was no evidence to link Green with Robson and the CPGB. The bugs exploited in 1940 were proof enough – although such evidence could never be presented in a court of law.
Meanwhile, Shillito persevered. He succeeded in arranging an interview with Green in prison, which took place early in August. (The published version of Liddell’s Diaries provides a good summary, in his entry dated August 11, 1942.) The outcome was that Shillito was able to extract a confession from Green, who admitted that he had been recruited in Spain, and had built up a team of agents. He said he had forged the coupons (he was a printer by trade) so that he would have enough petrol to visit the members of his cell. One of the important facts he impressed upon Shillito was that the Communist party itself did not engage in espionage work: he, Green, had been told to break with the Party on his return from Spain (an instruction he carelessly ignored). He also told Shillito that half-a-dozen other members of the British Battalion had been recruited by the Russians at the same time. Perhaps the most dramatic part of Green’s revelations – as far as they would have relevance to the future incident of Sonia’s radio ̶ was the information he offered about the radio communications of his cell of spies (see below), and the fact that he knew that the Soviets had an agent in MI5.
During August and September, Shillito dug around some more. He contacted Petrie directly, as Fulford was away. At some stage, the FBI was informed, and asked for more information. Shillito contacted Kimball of SIS about Soviet Intelligence’s recruitment techniques for members of the International Brigades. He reviewed the Krivitsky files. He sent messages to the Regional Security Liaison Officers (RSLOs), asking for information on the identified suspects in Green’s organisation. The record then goes quiet for a while, the next major entry indicating that Shillito has started to have doubts: perhaps Green was being boastful about his network? On November 11, however, he sprang back, asking Anthony Blunt (B1B) to have Green followed. But then he became more excited about the radio communications. On November 21, he sent another letter to the RSLOs, citing the fact that Green had revealed that one of his agents had admitted to a stranger in a bar that he had been doing work for the USSR, and was using a wireless transmitter to get information out of the country. Shillito stressed the urgency of being able to identify the place and time this remark was made, and by whom. He also made the following very telling observation: “The facts are that I have been engaged for some months in investigating a proved case of Soviet espionage involving a number of people, some in high positions. I need hardly say that the matter is one of the utmost delicacy, particularly as some of the persons implicated are in Government employment and still unidentified.”
It appears that Geoffrey Wethered, a lawyer who was an MI5 officer, and at that time the Birmingham RSLO, helped Shillito formulate his inquiry. It was his opinion that the police did not need to know the full facts, and that the other RSLOs should therefore make very discrete inquiries of their local police forces. Wethered had apparently also been closely involved with the interrogation of Green, as he provided original notes that indicate that there were two or three transmitters involved. In addition, he recommended that Shillito contact the Radio Security Service (RSS) to trace any transmissions that may have occurred. Yet there is no evidence that Shillito followed up with the RSS. The next reported items are Shillito’s noting (on November 28) that Green is about to be discharged from Brixton prison, and the very next day voicing, for the first time, his suspicions about Sonia to Hollis and Liddell. He asked the police to make discrete inquiries about Len Beurton, and stated that he thought the Kuczynskis were spies. On December 2, he delivered a comprehensive report on Green, one endorsed by Petrie a couple of days later: Petrie even wanted to discuss the report with Hollis (who had returned from sick leave and replaced Curry as head of F Division on October 7) and with its author. In the first half of January 1943, we can read further evidence that Shillito’s inquiries into Green were advancing. On January 23, the Oxford police report the discovery of the Beurtons’ wireless-set. And the record then goes silent.
Several aspects of the events of 1942 are very provocative. The first is the almost incontrovertible proof that Blunt would have known about the details of the Green investigation, and would thus have forwarded them to his masters, with the inevitable outcome that agents’ behavior would have been adjusted. Sonia, in particular, would have executed a diversionary plan. The second is the reference to Shillito’s investigation into people ‘in high positions’. It is very unlikely – despite references by Petrie and others – that such a group would have been part of a cell managed by an officer of the CPGB (the ‘Robson Group’), and these suspects thus remain a mystery. The third aspect is the similarity in the occurrences of clandestine radio operations within the Green cell and the sudden discovery of the Beurton equipment, and the lack of any appropriate action taken to follow up. The fourth is the fact that the only mention of radio-detection finding comes from Green himself, apart from Wethered’s recommendation about RSS. Extraordinarily, Shillito either ignores, or is unaware of, the function: his bosses appear to share such ignorance. The fifth is the timing: that, as soon as the Green case reaches a peak, with Petrie’s interest rising, the discovery of the Beurton radio surprisingly appears to cause a complete shutdown of investigatory work against suspected communist spies.
From Liddell’s diaries, one can conclude that Petrie was seriously concerned about the Communist threat, but his enthusiasm for heading MI5 starts to dissipate at this time. Liddell would, as early as summer 1943, report that Duff Cooper, who was chairman of the RSS Committee (and also Chairman of the Security Executive, which oversaw all the intelligence services), doubted whether Petrie would ‘last the course’, as if something about intelligence operations had severely shocked the Director-General. It is true that he was caught in a squeeze at this time, with pressures from SIS to absorb his counter-espionage functions, and also from the Cabinet Secretary (Edmund Bridges) and the Metropolitan Police, who were urging that the Police should reassume responsibilities for counter-subversion. But perhaps he was also asking himself the question: if a domestic intelligence organisation was inhibited in prosecuting dangerous communist spies, why did it exist? (In fact Petrie retired in 1946: the authorised history of MI5 is bland and uninformative about the last years of his incumbency.) And, of course, all this synchronicity does not come to light until Shillito’s involvement with the two cases is overlaid in a single chronology. It was his recognition of the shared membership of the International Brigades on the part of Green and Beurton that excited his interest. And, though he was not aware of it at the time, there was an important pattern of similar telegraphic activity between the Beurtons and the Green network.
The interrogation of Green in August 1942 revealed a host of fascinating information about wireless transmissions. The National Archives file at KV 2/2204 (2) provides all the details.
Green managed several wireless operators. One constructed his set himself: this was in fact not a tough challenge, as all the materials were available on the Black Market in Fetter Lane in London. Batteries were preferably used, so that RDF [radio detection-finding] could not detect a set’s location when the mains were turned off. (It appears that the operators suspected that the now well-publicised techniques that the Gestapo used against the Red Orchestra were being employed by the British authorities.) “Transmissions were made about once a fortnight late at night or early in the morning when very few wireless owners would be listening in.” Green disclosed that the set was located close to an airfield, so that the transmissions might be taken for official military communications.
Green referred to one of his agents as ‘the nervous operator’, whose set possessed dimensions of 12” by 6” by 4”. It was kept in a garden, concealed in a hollowed-out post. High speed morse was used – recorded on a slip of paper rather on the lines of a pianola roll, then sent out automatically at high speed. The operator, who lived in Northwood, Middlesex (surely not accidentally, near Northolt Airport), was aware of RDF vans, which suggests that the GPO was attempting to perform the task allotted to it, or at least making its presence felt. The extra apparatus necessary for high-speed morse was likewise purchased in London after the outbreak of the war. An Appendix in this file (see below) indicates that the device used to store messages was probably a ‘punch perforator’, which had become obsolete ten years before the war. Not all transmissions were made at high-speed, as one operator could detect the real-time uncertainty of his Russian counterpart in dealing with English letters.
More insights were recorded. Green gave hints about an infrastructure of support that helped operators in need. Thus the ‘nervous’ operator was equipped with a co-resident ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ to conceal the fact that he would not have been able to afford the semi-detached house from which he transmitted. Even more astonishing is the fact that, when he became alarmed after hearing a conversation in a public bar, where someone admitted to ‘working for the U.S.S.R’, he requested a change of residence, and ‘a new detached house in a cul-de-sac was found for him’. Who these resources were, or how they operated, is never explained. Either MI5 was distinctly incurious, or it simply failed to register its follow-up in the archives. Yet the hints of such an organisation, and its apparent pervasiveness, are quite shocking for our understanding of Soviet subversion.
Green’s radio operators appear to have all been International Brigaders, some of whom had been trained in Moscow. They were probably instructed by William Morrison, who between May 1935 and October 1937 had operated the illicit radio in Wimbledon that maintained almost daily contact with the Comintern in Moscow (the MASK project). Morrison’s file at the National Archives (KV/2-606) tells that he had been in Moscow for almost two and a half years before that: when interrogated by MI5 in 1939, some time after he deserted from the International Brigades, he offered the names of some of the operators he had trained, such as Sydney Fink and George Ives. He may have held back on the identities of those he knew to be in Green’s network. Indeed some of Green’s agents were also ex-fighters in Spain, such as Lon Elliott and Joe Garber. In January 1943, Shillito was on the heels of the operator who lived in Northwood, ‘a clever radio technician with a Canadian passport’ who constructed his own set. He was the one who had been afraid of the RDF vans, the approach of which turned out to be false. Green’s own radio operator was Stanley Rayner, who died in February 1947. A note indicates his file was destroyed. All this came out in 1952, when a re-investigation of the Green case was launched after the prosecution of Fuchs and the escape of Sonia.
The relevance of Green’s testimony to the Beurtons’ case is crisp. The availability of technology for amateur building of wireless-sets matches what Sonia describes: the method of concealing the set is also identical to Sonia’s. The pattern of using stored capabilities for burst-mode transmission is also consistent with Sonia’s story. Two facts stand out, however. One is the availability of the support network. If an underground system of providing ‘safe houses’ was in place, it was probably used by Moscow Centre to provide accommodation for the Beurtons – including the bungalow in Kidlington and the coach-house belonging to the Laskis. Perhaps Arthur Salter, MP, the owner of Sonia’s later residence ‘The Firs’, was a member of the same network. And the fact that Green mentioned the advantages of operating a transmitter close to an airfield explains why the Kidlington address – so near to Oxford Airport – was maintained despite Sonia’s assertions to the contrary. Shillito’s hunches were correct.
One of several Appendices to Shillito’s report likewise discloses more than appears on the surface. Several excerpts from an untitled and unsigned Appendix B, compiled by an ‘expert’ invited to comment, are worth citing verbatim:
- “The punched slip would almost certainly be prepared by means of a punch perforator of which there must be thousands in junk stores all over the country. It is an instrument which became obsolete at least ten years before the war, being replaced by instruments like typewriters, mostly made by the firm of Creeds, which punched up the slip (a long paper tape) as the operator typed the message.”
- “The radio transmitter described seems rather small and under powered for use with high speed transmission, but it would not be wise to attach too much weight to this comment, as it really depends on the valves employed. The use of batteries instead of power from the mains for the transmitter is quite sound as the method of detection by cutting off power street by street had been used in many countries and has been suggested, but not I think actually used, in this country. It seems curious to me that the radio transmitter itself should be carefully hidden in a hollow post in the garden if the perforator and automatic sending gear are left in the house – perhaps his garden was unusually well equipped with hollow posts.”
- “There would be no method of identifying the operator’s touch when automatic transmission was being employed, but it is almost certain that contact would first be established by an exchange of signals sent by hand and there would be many occasions when an exchange of operating instructions would have to be made by hand. Equally I should have expected the incoming traffic to be sent by hand, and read by ear as to avoid having to equip the agent here with recording apparatus. All the same quite small and simple recording apparatus would be suitable.
- “I am inclined to think that when he says that he placed his transmitter near an air force wireless station, he is referring to the frequency rather than the locality. Working close to the frequency of a regular short wave transmitter would tend to baffle interception, but it would also make the task of the station intended to receive the message more difficult.”
- “I think it possible that his description of the transmitting station is really a composite picture of several; and for instance that the nervous operator with the small transmitter was not in fact using the automatic sender.”
- “The fact that the cypher messages from Moscow contained English letters not occurring in the Russian alphabet suggests, though it does not prove, that the messages were not in a code but in a cypher; i.e. that the original text in English was encyphered by some mathematical rearrangement of the letters and not by selecting code groups corresponding to the English words from a prearranged codebook. In any case the cypher is almost always used by agents because they are unwilling to have incriminating code books in their possession.”
- “The method of using hollow trees, etc., as post boxes for the passing of information from one agent to another without making contact is well known, and the B.3.c files have information on the marking of posters.”
The overwhelming conclusions from evidence such as this is that a) the ‘expert’ was perhaps not quite as authoritative and knowledgeable as he should have been; b) that MI5’s interest in, and familiarity with, such matters were surely lamentable, and c) that the Soviet agents were well-prepared to avoid radio-detection mechanisms. Why was the expert not educated on the practices of radio-detection finding, and the processes by which the authorities located illicit transmissions? (One might also wonder why the Abwehr, or indeed the Soviet Union’s Red Orchestra, did not use proven store-and-forward capabilities, but that is a topic for another discussion.) And why did this expert misread and dismiss so quickly the strategy of placing transmitters close to airports? If, as he suggested, it was a matter of baffling interception, he might have been implying that British RDF was so precise that it did not require selective power cut-off, but by indicating that the receiving station’s ability to pick up the messages correctly might be impaired by the use of proximal wavelengths, he greatly undermined his argument. Yet the implications for MI5 are even more alarming. Why had the Security Service not been aware of a technology that had been obsolete for a decade, and why had it not pressed for a more innovative approach to countering such techniques? Indeed, MI5 was taken by surprise.
After reading Shillito’s report, Guy Liddell, the head of counter-espionage in MI5 (B Division) – no longer directly responsible for handling Communist subversion, but well experienced with it, and conscious that the threat would return – made some disturbing comments, recorded in the Green file, on December 8, 1942. “I presume that in connection with this case a study has been made of the enquiries that were made some years ago into the illicit wireless activities of the C.P.G.B. It would be interesting to know exactly when illicit wireless activities recommenced. We have certainly had one case of a Russian station in this country which was coming up fairly regularly on a call-sign. The matter was taken up by A.D.B.3. [presumably Assistant-Director, B3, Dick White] The Russians were I think approached but denied all knowledge. This new development of high speed morse may raise serious problems for R.S.S. If it is possible to pin down time and dates when transmissions have taken place and to get details about frequencies it would be of the greatest value but A.D.B.3 would be better able to say exactly what was required.” What ‘Russian station’ was he referring to? And why had the authorities not been able to detect Green’s operators? The history behind Liddell’s assertion, and its implications, are covered in the next sections.
Ever since wireless technology had been introduced in the beginning of the twentieth century, it had been regarded by governments as both an opportunity and a threat. The conventional means of transmitting diplomatic traffic, the cable, was predictable, tangible, and constrained. Security was addressed by encryption techniques: traffic was routinely copied and inspected by the authorities, as the incidents of the Zimmermann Telegram (in 1917, when the Germans issued a cable encouraging Mexico to take up arms against the USA), and the Arcos Affair (in 1927, when the British government disclosed that it had decoded cables transmitted by the Soviet Union’s commercial front in London) proved. The Official Secrets Act of 1920 empowered the Secretary of State, in peacetime, to issue a warrant to cable companies requiring them to hand over all cable messages: foreign-owned cable lines were routinely tapped. Ironically, it was Great Britain’s severance of vital German cables in WWI that prompted the German government to invest more in radio techniques.
The new technology, on the other hand, was intangible, mobile, and unstructured, with signals being broadcast for anyone to receive, unlike the point-to-point topologies of cable. Thus pressure quickly arose to regulate such activity, partly because of the chaos that would ensue if the problem of interference on assigned wavelengths were not addressed, but also from a security standpoint, with possibly hostile elements transmitting unregulated subversive material within national boundaries. Moreover, while most of the cable operators were nationalised industries, radio technology was introduced and controlled by independent commercial businesses, which made government supervision more difficult. As for the increased concerns for security during wartime, ever since the St. Petersburg Conference of 1875, it had been acknowledged that governments should have the right to restrict the transmission of telegrams that appeared to put the security of the state in peril. Yet that covenant was oddly phrased to refer to private, as opposed to diplomatic, transmissions. Furthermore, how could any authority detect whether a transmission was a threat unless it were able to decipher the underlying message?
Radio imposed new strains, because, instead of a government or security service routinely inspecting cables routed through one or two agencies, transmissions could come from anywhere, and would require a hefty investment in interception capabilities to be captured. While the major international concern was still the allocation of wavelengths, and the prevention of interference, the problem of sensitive information being concealed in non-transparent codes and ciphers (or a mixture of the two) carried over from cable to radiotelegraphy. Lengthy discussions over the new challenges proceeded in the 1920s, but were complicated by the fact that the USA had not been party to the agreements. Not until the Madrid Conference of 1932 was an attempt to unify the cable and radiotelegraphy codes, and to address the outstanding problems, made. The International Telecommunications Union was then formed.
The language of the regulations that arose from Madrid was precise in some areas, but loose or non-existent in others. Agreements on political matters were elusive: the Soviet Union was now a stumbling-block, refusing to have radiotelegraphic arrangements included in the general treaty. Such matters were complicated by the fact that the USA, which still allowed transmission of cables via independent companies, had not yet recognised the Soviet Union. Madrid’s emphasis on security was still very much on the avoidance of interference, although the agreement did include a clause that required all transmitting stations to be licensed by their national states. As Francis Lyall writes in his history of international communications: “In particular radio broadcasting within Europe remained insoluble. Accordingly provision was made for these problems to be dealt with by agreement within Europe provided that services authorised by other administrations elsewhere were not caused by interference.” No workable enforcement mechanisms on frequencies was defined. The ball was simply kicked in to the long grass.
The danger of unauthorised use of radio transmissions (and the implied threat voiced by the Soviets in 1932) was soon perceived by the British government in the mid-1930s, in the celebrated (but little-known) case of the Comintern’s radio interactions with agents in Britain, which were detected by the authorities. This project, known as MASK, has been thoroughly covered by Nigel West. It is worth quoting some significant extracts from his book:
“GC&CS’s monitoring station at Grove Park, Camberwell, headed by Commander Kenworthy, first began intercepting Wheeton’s signals in February 1934.”
“Through the use of direction-finding equipment located at the army intercept station at Fort Bridgewoods, outside Chatham, at the Air Ministry W/T Section at Waddington, headed by Wing-Commander Lywood, and the Royal Navy’s receiver at Flowerdown, near Winchester, GC&CS’s technicians were able to show that Moscow was also communicating with a Comintern station in Vienna using the call-sign 3PD, and others in Shanghai, Paris, Athens, 3OS and 9RP in Prague, Spain, Basle, Zurich, Copenhagen and the United States.”
“Once the address from which the illicit transmitter had been operating, 401 Durnsford Road, had been ascertained, the sole occupier was watched, and his identity established as Stephen Wheeton.”
These passages, and the fact that the messages were able to be decrypted with the help of one of the agents, show several relevant facts. One, that the Soviet Union was busily occupied in using radio technology to subvert its enemies. Two, that conventional detection-finding technology had powerful worldwide scope. Three, that a concerted effort by all three of His Majesty’s Armed Forces was required to reveal the extent of the Soviet Union’s activity, and to localise the offending transmitting station to a suburb in London. Four, that (in all probability) a radio-detection van was deployed to complete the exercise by homing in on a single house in Wimbledon. (In fact, one of the most significant MASK messages, that of May 20, 1936, alerted Moscow that it was necessary ‘to close down the station owing to Post Office enquiries in neighbourhood regarding interference’, which offers irrefutable proof that local residents were calling in the GPO when their own radio reception was being distorted.) Certainly, the nature of this operation should have alerted MI5 to the techniques that the Soviet Union would continue to adopt. The comprehensive messages, which were exchanged between 1934 and 1937, moreover identify a host of persons with communist sympathies who would have come under MI5’s surveillance. It was, indeed, the evidence of William Morrison (see above, who took over from Wheeton when the latter fell ill) who helped the authorities identify some of the persons whose names appeared in the MASK traffic.
The use of radio communications by governments is more enigmatic. Some provisions were made in the covenants of the 1932 Agreements, but they barely touched on the complexities. For instance, Article 39 (‘Installations for National Defence’) stated: “The Contracting Governments reserve their entire liberty with regard to radioelectric installations not covered by Article 9, and especially with regard to military stations of the land, sea or air forces”, but the main provision thereafter was to ensure that full attention was paid to distress calls, and that the latter would not be interfered with by military traffic. The main focus of the convention was still on radio frequencies. It appears that rules for diplomatic traffic were set by unofficial agreements, and local edict. Thus it is a little surprising to read the following judgment of the historian Phillip Davies, in his MI6 and the Machinery of Spying: “The transfer of the Radio Section to the Foreign Office [in 1945] had also, in part, been made possible by a shift in diplomatic convention concerning the use of independent radio communications by embassies, previously banned by the Madrid Convention.”
No mention of any such ban appears in the agreements from the Madrid Convention (see http://www.itu.int/en/history/Pages/PlenipotentiaryConferences.aspx?conf=4.5) . Indeed, proof of contrary practice before the war appears in Keith Jeffrey’s history of SIS (MI6) where he asserts that SIS stations abroad were quite capable of employing wireless equipment, so long as they received the permission of the local British minister, and that, furthermore, radio was the only effective means of communication during (for example) the Czech crisis. (One might question what ‘effective’ means in this context. German records show that telephone conversations between Prague and London were routinely tapped, not just those between Masaryk and Beneś, but also those between London and the envoy, Lord Runciman, thus aiding Hitler’s negotiations at Bad Godesberg.) Yet Davies uses the existence of such a ban to criticise Richard Gambier-Parry, the head of Section VII, the Communications Section of SIS, who, in 1947, defended the legality of the Diplomatic Wireless Service (DWS) at the Telecommunications Conference in Atlantic City. The DWS had been set up during the war as a secure radio mechanism, and had evolved from the Special Communications Units that were used for sending, among other items, the Ultra messages to British posts abroad, including embassies. Gambier-Parry claimed that diplomatic wireless ‘was a matter of diplomatic privilege and was not covered by the Madrid Convention which the conference had been convened to revise’. He recognised the sensitivity of the issue, but was merely observing that diplomatic wireless had been used ‘by a number of governments’ for some years now, and had never been challenged by any international authority.
The reason this is critical, and relevant, is the curious way that radio operations by foreign governments were allowed and managed in wartime Britain, the role the Soviet Embassy played in transmitting Sonia’s secret messages, and the method by which Britain’s interception services tried to monitor what was going on. Wartime imposed tougher restraints. Jeffrey again, writing on the SIS station in Geneva after war broke out: “There was a SIS wireless set at Geneva, but it could be used only for receiving messages as the Swiss authorities did not permit foreign missions in the country to send enciphered messages except through the Post Office.” No complete ban, but a restriction on sending out intelligence, no doubt in order to assist the country’s perceived neutrality. (It is very provocative and significant that Jeffery remarks that ‘SIS’s secure radio communications’ were being used in Europe as early as March 1941.) Thus, in principle, governments were apparently able to set their own rules for how the representatives of foreign legations could operate radio equipment, if at all. For example, the American military attaché in Cairo, Colonel Fellers, in 1942 had to send his encrypted reports on British troop movements to Washington via the Egyptian Telegraph Company. The signals were still picked up and quickly decrypted by the German interception station at Lauf, near Nuremberg, until the Americans changed the codes that autumn. Just before D-Day, the British government stipulated that all cables issued by foreign governments had to be sent en clair. Yet it could not – or would not attempt to ̶ control wireless, and the Germans picked up communications from the Polish government-in-exile, as well as messages from Abwehr agents inserted into Britain.
The United Kingdom faced a unique challenge, as it was host to so many governments-in-exile. In fact it had approved the use of radio facilities for the Polish and Czech governments: the Czechs were generously provided with a dedicated communications facility in Woldingham, Surrey. This turned out to be two-edged sword, for, while the transmitter was used to contact loyalists in Czechoslovakia, eventually leading to the assassination of Heydrich, it was also used to communicate with the Soviet Union. Beneš and others on the Czech government-in-exile were strong allies of the communist regime, and passed on information that certainly harmed Britain’s ability to negotiate with its often dubious partner. Yet, as Bradley Smith reports, the Czechoslovak government at the same time provided Whitehall with details of Soviet operations and intentions, again showing how delicate it was trying to satisfy the varied military and security interests at the time.
Thus Britain’s preparedness to deal with illicit and dangerous radio domestic transmissions could be summed up as follows. At the outbreak of war, it had recent experiences of intensive exchanges from the combined Soviet/native communist threat, but probably too quickly and ingenuously transferred that menace to the direct Nazi enemy and its supposed agents in Britain. It knew that a hefty investment in detection capabilities, provided by the military, and complemented by GPO vans, was necessary to locate private transmitting wireless sets – the use of which was incidentally illegal. The MASK intercept shows that an educated public knew what to do when radio interference occurred, and that the illicit operators were well aware of the threat from radio-detection vans – certainly in built-up areas of London. The authorities would have concluded that the technological capabilities of Britain’s enemies were at least as advanced as its own – and in the case of the Germans, probably superior, given its lead in exploiting radiotelegraphy. It knew that a very strong decryption capability would be required to make sense of the overwhelming majority of messages intercepted. (The true art and value of ‘traffic analysis’, whereby important conclusions were derived on the basis of traffic patterns, volumes, call-signs, locations etc., other than message content, had not yet been recognised.) And it accepted that an over-aggressive approach to policing radio usage by foreign embassies in London might lead to reciprocal moves that would harm its intelligence efforts overseas.
Wartime Radio Detection
I have not yet been able to inspect the full records of the Radio Security Service at the National Archives (and nor can I find any work of history that has performed probable justice to them). My judgments on how the Radio Security Service operated in the first years of the war are thus necessarily tentative. I refer readers to my analysis at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-ii/ for a refresher on the conclusion that no Nazi spies were operating on UK soil, and that the switch of focus to European broadcasts resulted in the transfer of responsibilities from MI8 to SIS. The impression gained from the histories is one in which very little monitoring of domestic wireless transmissions then occurred, and, with the entry of the Soviet Union on the side of the Allies in June 1941, a complete embargo on interception of Soviet messages was supposed to have taken place. As I showed earlier, that was not true, especially with the project initiated by Denniston (ISCOT) in 1943 that again investigated Soviet diplomatic traffic, but the archives do hint at more serious efforts to deal with broadcasts from foreign missions that were made without the necessary approval of the British government.
The archive describing GC&CS’s tasking of the RSS [series HW 34] is spasmodic and sketchy. It does tell us that mobile detection units were operating out of Barnet, Bristol and Gateshead – in other words not limited to the Metropolitan Area, and that these units (known as ‘snifters and ferrets’) responded primarily to instructions issued by the Discrimination Group, which was the Section within RSS that ‘used its elaborate records to distinguish between suspicious and innocent intercepts’ (Hinsley & Simkins). A listing of the principal groups identified is given, for example Group 20 (Jugoslav diplomatic links), Group 21 (French diplomats and agents types), and Group 12 (Russian transmissions). Thus it must be that certain broadcasts were identified as ‘Russian’, either by their call signs, or by the language used in handshaking before encryption took over. The archive laconically reports that, in 1942, RSS started monitoring of Foreign Governments from the UK, ‘mainly Polish, Czech, Yugoslav, French, Russian’. These were all, of course, allies.
The archive elsewhere classifies the Group 12 as ‘Russian Clandestine’ (‘many odd circuits were tracked’), which would point unerringly to the fact that the authorities knew that Soviet agents were communicating with their masters. In other words, this was not solely unauthorised embassy traffic, which would have been categorised as ‘Soviet Diplomatic’. HW 34/23 discusses Russian transmitters in the country, going back to December 1940, but more specifically between October 1941 and December 1943. Messages’ call signs were recorded in March and April 1942. In September 1943, Russian transmissions were detected coming from Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire, and SOE was instructed to inform the Russians not to transmit from that address without permission. Brickendonbury Hall was the SOE Training Centre (originally set up by Kim Philby and Guy Burgess), and, during the short-lived period when British and Soviet Intelligence were attempting to cooperate, Soviet NKVD officers must have attended Brickendonbury and, like ET, attempted to call home.
Transmissions from the Soviet Embassy were another problem. In a way, the problem was easier for the interceptors. They knew where the embassies were located, all in the general area of the West End of London, and it would have been very easy for a detector van to roam around searching for illicit communications (as opposed to touring the countryside looking for agents). Yet even that exercise was fraught with confusion. One comment, which does incidentally cast some doubt on the accuracy of location-finding, states that a transmission believed to be emanating from Wimbledon turned out to be coming from the Soviet Embassy. The volatile Maurice Frost, who had originally joined MI5 from the GPO as an expert in these matters, wrote to Ted Maltby, who headed RSS at Hanslope Park, and reported to Gambier-Parry, on March 16, 1942, that ‘the investigation into the Rosary Gardens and Kensington affairs paid a very handsome dividend even if they have failed to result in laying a spy by the heels’. Perhaps echoing this investigation, a memorandum written in May 1943 recorded that RSS ‘found and watched’ transmissions between the Soviet Embassy and Moscow during March and April 1942, and that the indications were that they were not ‘diplomatic traffic’, with the implication that they had been decrypted.
And one side of government did not always know what the other was doing. The Air Ministry apparently had given the Russians permission to transmit, from their Embassy premises, on a circuit that had been constrained by the Foreign Office to purely diplomatic traffic. Another note indicates that Commander Denniston (recently demoted from leadership of GC&CS, and now working on the ISCOT project) was detecting illicit traffic from the Soviet Embassy on June 3, 1943 – illicit because it had not been ‘declared’. Richard Aldrich writes, while reporting the meeting then held between Maltby, Denniston, and Curry and Hollis of MI5, that ‘these messages had attracted interest because they had nothing in common with the old Comintern style of transmissions, and it was noted that they might be KGB traffic as they showed “great technical skill”. Collecting this material stretched Britain’s interceptor resources, since the traffic had lasted for eight hours in every twenty-four hour period.’
To what degree these arrangements were performed by treaty as opposed to informal agreements is not clear. During their fitful efforts to cooperate on intelligence matters, the British and Soviet governments apparently agreed to expanded radio-communications between their countries. Susan Butler writes that, some time before the Tehran Conference in late 1943, “Britain had already set up reciprocal radio stations with the U.S.S.R. in their respective capitals”. And such an assertion is dramatically underlined by Bradley Smith, who tells us that as early as June 1941, SIS established a direct wireless link with Moscow, using a highly secure one-time pad, in order to transmit, among other things, a massaged version of the latest Ultra decrypts. Even without an official approval that early in the relationship between the two allies, the Soviets would have learned what was going on, and it would have been difficult for MI5, as the domestic security agency, to override the Foreign Office’s tacit approval of such a reciprocal Soviet arrangement between London and Moscow.
Yet Britain’s policy towards its allies, in respect of the security of radio usage, appears disorganised. As Gambier-Parry started to extend his secure network for SIS, he grew increasingly more concerned about the uncontrolled propagation of radio sets than about the need to monitor the content of illicit transmissions. He wrote to Claude Dansey, on August 26, 1943 (incidentally proving that Dansey was intimately involved with the issue), about ‘the problem of clandestine wireless sets, which will seriously hamper the activities of RSS, and may result in our own agent communications being interfered with, or even compromised.’ Yet only a few months earlier, the Y Board (the joint services/intelligence committee responsible for interception policy) had approved the visit of a Soviet Navy delegation to study British radio intercept procedures, while in November 1943 a Major Till was trying to persuade Maltby of the danger of the Polish General Staff having ‘even a smell of a suggestion that we have ever thought of monitoring their traffic’. Thus a lack of strategic coherence and resolve is apparent: timidity in the face of the curiosities of an acknowledged bully, timidity in not being prepared to handle objections from an ally with little bargaining power.
One can imagine the complexities facing RSS as the volume of wireless traffic increased during the war. A primary concern must still have been the possibility of unidentified German agents broadcasting from the mainland. This was complicated by the knowledge that an unknown number of communist agents were probably transmitting as well, occasionally complemented by rogue operators like the NKVD visitors. Then there were the Poles and the Czechs, legally transmitting, alongside other allied legations and governments-in-exile exploiting confusion in the government ranks to establish their own links. There were many unauthorised sets floating around, as Gambier-Parry reported. At the same time, MI5 was controlling a number of turned Nazi agents in the XX System, who were transmitting frequently to their apparently credulous controllers overseas, and SIS was establishing secret radio links abroad in order to distribute sensitive Enigma information, as well as providing facilities for SOE to communicate with its agents in Europe. Did the known presence of the Beurtons with their own transmitter complicate matters further? It must have been extremely difficult to decide who should know what under what circumstances, and how much guidance should be given to the ‘Y’ organisation of ‘listeners’ as they tuned in to suspect frequencies amongst all this radio noise.
One significant paradox that the RSS committees must have had to face was the fact that, while RDF capabilities successfully located some illicit communist transmissions, the agents of the Double-Cross (XX) System (or the operators who stood in for them, sometimes on the air for two hours at a time) miraculously managed to evade the attentions of the vans. Agent GARBO (Juan Pujol) started broadcasting to Madrid in August 1942, as many as twenty messages a day. Stephan Talty writes that ‘monitoring stations as far away as Gibraltar picked up the suspicious traffic and reported it to the authorities’, which indicates it must have been detected by ‘listeners’ in Britain. Someone must have pointed out this loophole in the whole deception exercise at some stage: if the news leaked out that Britain had an efficient, but highly selective, location-finding service, the Nazis would have smelled a rat, the credibility of its agents in Britain would have been blown, and that aspect of the D-Day deception strategy made useless. (Is it possible that the Soviets, during the period of the Pact, shared their pre-war experiences in London with their Nazi allies?) Perhaps the RSS decided to soft-pedal the whole exercise precisely for that reason. And that explains the paucity of information about location-finding in the official histories.
The tension between the native concerns of MI5 over RSS and the more complicated agendas of SIS and the Foreign Office are never more clear than in what Liddell writes in his Diaries. As the leading MI5 officer overall responsible for the XX system, Liddell had every right to be concerned about the policies of RSS’s detection function, and to be eager to be properly informed. When Gambier-Parry is appointed to head RSS, he voices initial enthusiasm (March 5, 1941), and appears to trust the sifting of ‘suspicious traffic’ that RSS will undertake (March 16). Yet doubts set in when he reads of RSS’s documented mission (April 10), as he fears it will concentrate too much on what he calls ‘Group’ (presumably the original Group, generic German) traffic and will thus ‘neglect the possibility of illicit transmissions in this country’. Gambier-Parry attempts to diminish his concerns (May 10), and a meeting on May 20 produces a lukewarm recognition of the problem. An abortive search in June shows up Poles trying to communicate with Warsaw, and by the end of the year (December 31), Liddell expresses his frustration that the discriminators inspecting all traffic seem to be interested only in various Enigma (ISOS) transmissions. (This maybe echoes the somewhat arcane methodologies at which Hinsley and Simpkins hinted in their history.) He clearly believes that some important transmissions from communist agents are being withheld from MI5 by Gambier-Parry – perhaps on the instructions of Claude Dansey, though Liddell does not mention his name. On January 17, 1942, Liddell records that a transmitter located in the Kensington Palace Road was actually operating from the Soviet consulate, but had been found by accident. To him, RSS is failing in its mission.
The jeremiad continues in 1942. This was the year, of course, in which Oliver Green was arrested: Liddell acknowledges that Green’s spies have been working since 1939 (August 13), and complains about lack of new technology to assist in detection (September 29). He notes on December 7, when Shillito’s investigation is in full swing, that Green ‘states that certain of his subordinates have been communicating with Moscow in high-speed Morse. He has refused to give their names or the location of their stations.’ This is important, as it is clear that Liddell now has reasonably solid proof, from the evidence that has arisen from Shillito’s interviews with Green, that a number of Soviet agents have been operating illegal wireless-sets, and he might well wonder why RSS had not been able to detect them. Remarkably, at this time Valentine Vivian, deputy director-general of SIS, who had incidentally undergone a nervous breakdown that summer, states that he wants the RSS committee (which discussed intercepts) to go into liquidation, and Liddell expostulates strongly in his diary that it might be because the committee (or presumably the members of it from MI5) had ‘in the Russian business talked out of turn’, hinting at undisclosed controversies over Soviet counter-espionage.
Yet by 1943, the matter appears to go off the boil ̶ or else Liddell is worn down. In March, the RSS Committee is split into the Radio Security Committee and the Radio Security Intelligence Committee. Hinsley and Simkins recorded the latter’s mission as ‘[settling] interception priorities and discuss any question relating to the production and use of the ISOS material’. Despite the fact that Dick White will chair the RSIC, Liddell, a member of the higher-level RSC, is unimpressed with the new set-up: ‘should be ineffective and uninteresting’, he murmurs, on March 11, 1943. The RSS Committee consisted of Menzies, Petrie, Gambier-Parry, Vivian, and Liddell: maybe Liddell thought it was weighted too much by SIS personnel, and focused too much on Nazi espionage. It certainly did not have any Section F (’communist subversion’) representation. And January 1943 had been the month in which Sonia’s wireless was found, so the threat of communist subversion should have been fresh in the committee’s mind.
Thus Liddell’s comments for December 8, 1942, that appeared only in the Green file (see above), are much more informative than anything he is prepared to disclose in his Diaries. He clearly is referring to the Comintern MASK operation. He knows about the Green network, and describes one station whose call-sign was coming up regularly. Therefore, he must have been told that there were Russian signals that had been traced, but presumably was not given any information about any location-searching, or was perhaps told, on the other hand, that the problem was a low-priority, and not worth pursuing. He talks explicitly about high-speed morse as a potential challenge for RSS, even though the report from the ‘expert’ would have taught him that this technology was ten years old. And then there is the outstanding paradox that shows his limited imagination: he seriously wants access to the information, in order that the miscreants may be hunted down, but also presents the truly shocking revelation that ‘the Russians were approached’, but denied all knowledge of the illicit traffic. (Was it truly Dick White who approached them?) What did MI5 expect them to say, given their experience with MASK? That, now as allies against the Nazis, they would own up and close the network down? And if Liddell vehemently disapproved of the decision to engage the Soviet Embassy, why did he not express his outrage?
It is hard to make sense of Liddell’s behavior. It appears he did not merely suspect there might be agents transmitting illicitly. He knew there were, and ranted at RSS for nor having the wherewithal to hunt them down. Of course, his concern would also have been that, if RSS was not detecting Soviet spies, it might well be overlooking hitherto unidentified Nazi radio operators as well. Nigel West’s observations about emulating British Army radio traffic should not be forgotten. But, then again, at some point Liddell must have been brought into the programme that demanded that these agents not be hunted down, but be watched and allowed to operate, and he began to dissemble in his journal entries. The interval (when apparently nothing happened at all) between Green’s meeting at CP HQ in January 1940 and his arrest in March 1942 – not because he had been detected transmitting messages, but because he had been discovered with forged petrol coupons in his possession ̶ is simply too outrageous to be interpreted as due to a lack of interest. Was the arrest of Green perhaps an unfortunate unexpected consequence that complicated the task of surveillance? MI5 had known about Green in 1940, and about Morrison in 1939. They had always wondered why the MASK operation had been closed down in 1937, and in what form it would be resuscitated. They knew about Beurton (and presumably about his partner, Foote), and about all the International Brigades links. Yet, in spite of all Liddell’s remonstrations about RSS’s inefficiencies, when the Beurtons’ wireless transmitter was discovered in January 1943, MI5 turned off the heat.
While documentary evidence may never surface to confirm the hypothesis, the most likely explanation for what happened runs as follows.
Dansey’s Z Organisation successfully planted an agent (Foote) into the Soviet spy network in Switzerland, and then helped to engineer Sonia’s transfer to the UK, where SIS could extend its infiltration in, and surveillance of, communist espionage rings. Foote’s knowledge of codes gave them a leg up on decryption efforts. The Beurtons and Oliver Green and his team were all seen as part of the ex-International Brigades network, and thus treated the same. Senior Officers of MI5 had to be brought into the loop, since Sonia was operating on UK territory, and they were thus informed of the plan to let Sonia – and by implication, Green’s network – to carry on broadcasting, so long as the spies did not reveal any secrets that might have been perilous to the war effort if they reached German eyes. Keeping an eye on medium-sized fish in the hope of catching bigger creatures became the modus operandi, an excuse for not acting with resolve. All the time, of course, Anthony Blunt (who joined MI5 in the summer of 1940), was telling his bosses everything.
All such plans were disrupted when Oliver Green was suddenly discovered with the illicit petrol coupons and the stolen documents in his house. Now, dedicated lower-level officers in MI5 such as Vesey and Shillito could not be prevented from performing the task they had been chartered to do – catching communist spies, and then prosecuting them. Excuses were made as to why prosecution could not proceed with Green. When Sonia’s radio was discovered, however, the subterfuge could not be concealed any longer from officers carrying out investigations, and Shillito (in particular) was ordered to hold back. It is possible that even Petrie himself was not aware of the project, given his interest in prosecuting Green late in 1942, followed by rapid disillusionment. Shillito’s comments in the summer of 1943 on the Beurtons’ apparently placid and uncontroversial life may now be interpreted as a note to the files (a Soviet-style spravka) that would carefully conceal what was really happening. But one can understand why he (and his colleagues) might have become demoralized. He was recruited to hunt down communist spies; he successfully did so, but then was told to hold off.
MI5 was caught wrong-footed. It had failed to act firmly after the MASK experience. By 1940, its overall alertness to the Soviet threat had by then also waned, and it had been infiltrated itself by communist spies. It had reorganised in 1941, and the task of communist counter-espionage was given to a tenderfoot group. It had not developed a strong understanding of radio detection-finding techniques, and was out of date in its competence. The Soviets knew more about burst-mode operation, radio-detection vans, interference with private wireless reception, and the value of shelter by airports than MI5 did. The critical RSS unit was in 1941 moved even further from its influence. MI5 lacked political clout when competing with the needs of SIS and the Foreign Office. It ended up floundering, hoping against hope that no menacing activity was taking place on its watch, and being unprepared when it did. And its mission was severely complicated by the radio transmissions of the Nazi double-agents it was running.
The first half of 1943 was a period of high tension in Anglo-Soviet relations, with the doves (such as Eden and Jebb) pressing for greater cooperation with the Soviets, while the harder military men were starting to see through Russian duplicity. The Anglo-Russian agreement on scientific interchange was not revealed to the Americans at first: there was backlash after Roosevelt discovered it in December 1942. The JIC was becoming fed up with Soviet obstructionism (February 2), but the War Cabinet was nervous about public opinion: it decided not to publicise the links between the CPGB and Moscow. Both British and US inspection of Soviet diplomatic traffic started, in February and June 1943 respectively, when stories of the Soviet Union’s plans for post-war eastern Europe started to be picked up. In April 1943 the Germans announced the discovery of the graves at Katyn: despite Stalin’s protestations, Churchill believed that the Soviets were responsible. But Stalin had been misled over the timing of the Second Front, and the war still had to be won. A policy of keeping the dictator’s favour overrode more hawkish attitudes. In May 1943, Stalin made the symbolic (and empty) gesture of ‘abolishing the Comintern’, giving encouragement to those who saw Stalin as a ‘freedom-loving’ partner. He manipulated the Allies well.
Sonia – with the help of Blunt’s revelations, and her bosses’ guidance ̶ had exploited this confusion, and hoodwinked both intelligence services. Her radio was found, and, in the belief of the security services that, with the help of RSS and the GPO, they had identified the sole danger, they no doubt eavesdropped on her transmissions. What little she probably communicated was listened to, and found to be harmless. That fact would be confirmed when Sonia was a few years later visited by MI5 at her home in Rollright, when officers Serpell and Skardon made a feeble attempt to interrogate her, telling her that they were sure she had not engaged in espionage on British soil. By then, she had successfully worked with Fuchs, transmitted from Kidlington, and routed his critical documents to the Soviet Embassy, which was then suitably equipped with its own radio transmission equipment. The damage had been done. In her memoir, she poked fun at the British authorities with subtle hints that superficially appeared as untruths, but which in fact pointed at a reality that has hitherto remained a secret. The Fuchs scandal almost destroyed MI5: had the public known that the intelligence services had arranged Sonia’s installation in England, and been duped by her ruses, several careers would have been prematurely terminated.
Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership by Susan Butler
Unlikely Warriors by Richard Baxell
International Communications by Francis Lyall
Battle of Wits by Stephen Budiansky
Harold Laski: A Life on the Left by Isaac Kramnick & Barry Sheerman
Stalin’s Agent by Boris Volodarsky
The Clandestine Radio Operators by Jean-Louis Perquin
Hitler’s Spies by David Kahn
Agent Garbo by Stephan Talty
New Commonplace entries can be found here.