The Hoax of the Blunt Confession (Part 2)

Anthony Blunt after his exposure

This month, I conclude my analysis of the accounts of Anthony Blunt’s Confession, and describe what I think really happened, and what the lessons are.

Primary Sources:

1          Defend the Realm [The Defence of the Realm in the UK] by Christopher Andrew (2009)

2          The Prime Minister’s Statement to the House of Commons: November 21, 1979 (extract)

3          The Fourth Man by Douglas Sutherland (1980)

4          Their Trade is Treachery by Chapman Pincher (1981: paperback version 1982)

5          MI5: British Security Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West (1981)

6          MI5: 1945-72, A Matter of Trust by Nigel West (1982)

7          After Long Silence by Michael Straight (1983)

8          Too Secret Too Long by Chapman Pincher (1983)

9          Conspiracy of Silence by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman (1986)

10        Molehunt: Searching for Soviet Spies in MI5 by Nigel West (1987)

11        Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer by Peter Wright (1987)

12        Mask of Treachery by John Costello (1988)

13        Seven Spies Who Changed the World by Nigel West (1991)

14        My 5 Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin (1994)

15        The Perfect English Spy by Tom Bower (1995)

16        The Enigma Spy by John Cairncross (1995)

17        Anthony Blunt: his lives by Miranda Carter (2001)

18        Open Secret by Stella Rimington (2001)

19        Last of the Cold War Spies by Roland Perry (2005)

20        Triplex by Nigel West (2009)

21        CIA files on Straight (released March 2007)

22        The FBI Vault: Michael Straight

23        Treachery by Chapman Pincher (2012)

24        The Shadow Man by Geoff Andrews (2015)

25        FCO 158/129 – ‘Foreign and Colonial Office file on John Cairncross, 1953-1982’ (released 23 October, 2015)

26        Spymaster by Martin Pearce (2016)

27        CAB 301/270 – ‘John Cairncross, former member of the Foreign Office: confession to spying’ (released July 20, 2017)

28        Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines (2018)

29        The Last Cambridge Spy by Chris Smith (2019)

30        Agent Moliere by Geoff Andrews (2020)

Secondary Sources:

The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks (1969)

With My Little Eye by Richard Deacon (1982)

The Secrets of the Service by Anthony Glees (1987)

The Haunted Wood by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (1999)

The Art of Betrayal by Gordon Corera (2012)

The Secret World by Hugh Trevor-Roper (2014)

Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence by Nigel West (2014)

The Black Door by Richard J. Aldrich & Rory Cormac (2016)

A Question of Retribution? edited by David Cannadine (2020)

How Spies Think by David Omand (2020)

MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney and Andrew Moretta (2020)

I see four major topics encapsulating the study of the Hoax of the Blunt Confession: the circumstances of the encounter itself at the Courtauld Institute; the contribution made by Michael Straight; the details of Cairncross’s confession in Ohio; and the role and character of Arthur Martin. All these issues are coloured by the actions and objectives of Roger Hollis and Dick White.

The Courtauld Institute (in Portman Square)

The Events at the Courtauld Institute:

It must be borne in mind that all reports of the circumstances of Anthony Blunt’s confession derive from one source – Arthur Martin, who apparently carried out the project singlehandedly. The unnumbered and unidentifiable archival record that Christopher Andrew claimed to have seen must have been written by him. Martin was the source for the accounts adumbrated by Chapman Pincher, Nigel West, and Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman, even though some of them they may have been channelled through Martin’s fellow officer, Peter Wright. All subsequent narratives rely on one or more of these five authors. Thus the analyst has to deal with the disquieting fact that Martin disseminated conflicting accounts of what happened, and I shall inspect later to what degree I think this aberration was due to artifice or to indiscipline.

To begin with, the encounter’s externalities clash. In the official record, Martin called on Blunt on the evening of April 23, as if on an unscheduled visit, in the hope of finding his quarry at home (1). Alternatively, it occurred in the mid-morning of April 22 (10), or perhaps in the morning of the following day (12). By all accounts, Martin carried out the interview alone (a fact which American intelligence officers found astounding (12)), although a report in the Washington Post of November 22, 1979 quoted Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General, as informing the House of Commons that ‘When officials [sic] went to Blunt’s Home in April 1964 to question him for the 12th time  . . .they revealed new information implicating him’. The report in Hansard simply states that Blunt was interviewed ‘by the Security Service’.

Thereafter, the accounts diverge further. The authorised version runs as follows (1): Martin asked Blunt about Michael Straight, at which Blunt started to twitch. He disagreed over Martin’s account of Straight’s recruitment, at which point Martin offered the assurance of immunity should Blunt confess. A minute of silence followed, before Martin informed Blunt that he had recently put John Cairncross through such an exercise, and gained a confession. Blunt declared that he needed ‘five minutes to wrestle with his conscience’. He then left the room for five minutes, returning to pour himself a drink. He stood at a tall window for several minutes. Martin appealed to him again, whereupon Blunt came back to his chair and confessed.

Several aspects of this account are highly unlikely – or pure melodrama. The fact that Blunt apparently expressed no shock or surprise on learning of Cairncoss’s confession, and asked no questions about it, suggests that the claim was a later insertion to the archival record (as I have earlier suggested), or that Blunt already knew about the events in Cleveland, but fluffed his lines. Instead, he is reported to have made the ludicrous remark about his ‘conscience’ – an item in the screenplay that Alan Bennett would not have considered including even on an off day. To give the game away about having a guilty conscience before making the confession would have been an astonishing mis-step by someone who had successfully weathered almost a dozen interrogations beforehand. And what was the evidence from Straight that incriminated Blunt? That Blunt had tried to recruit him in Cambridge twenty-seven years ago, maybe acting on behalf of Guy Burgess? After all, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had said in 1979 that Blunt had come under suspicion ‘as a result of information to the effect that Burgess had been heard in 1937 to say that he was working for a secret branch of the Comintern and that Blunt was one of his sources’. The whole scenario seems like a bad comic opera.

One might also question the wisdom of a single junior officer’s being charged with such an assignment, especially since Blunt was allowed to leave the room for several minutes. Would he come back? Might he have done a runner, or even topped himself? Was a posse of Special Branch constables waiting outside to apprehend him should Plan B have been required, in the event that a saloon from the Soviet Embassy rolled up to steal him away? One cannot imagine the KGB goons indulging Oleg Penkovsky or Oleg Gordievsky with permission to leave the room for a few minutes while either gathered his thoughts. (‘Certainly, comrade. But don’t be too long, mind.’) Pincher very early on thought the whole performance was bogus (8), that Blunt had been pre-warned, and no plans had been made for the eventuality where he did not confess. Martin echoed this opinion to Costello (12): he may have thought that he was breaking fresh ground in having been granted the peachy assignment, and executing it so successfully, but the way that it developed make him think otherwise, and no doubt contributed to his frustrations.

Yet the evidence that Martin provided to other journalists added further wrinkles. In his first testimony to Pincher (4), Martin offered differing evidence (without mentioning Cairncross), describing a scenario where Blunt never left the room. According to Nigel West (6), Blunt took only a few seconds to confess. In Pincher’s next offering (8), he also echoed the point that Blunt capitulated too soon, and that Martin never articulated the conditions of the immunity deal. Moreover, Pincher introduced the fact of the tape-recorder as a substitute for any written record. One might think that Blunt would have reacted to such an obvious device with some alarm or mis-giving, but nothing appeared to faze him. He agreed to the recording, knowing that it would have no legal status. Penrose and Freeman (9) even state that Blunt ‘nodded in assent’ when the tape-recorder was presented.

The evidence of these latter two authors was dependent upon letters that Martin had conveniently supplied to them in 1985. In this deposition, Martin said he had ‘unequivocal evidence that Blunt had been a Soviet agent during the war’: the authors state that Blunt denied this, ‘as the assertion simply wasn’t true’. It is not clear whether they are expressing their own opinion, or Martin’s, but the fact is that the assertion was true (the business with Leo Long in MI14), but had been conveniently been buried. If Martin truly did have access to this information at the time, it could have appeared to him as more damning evidence than the stories Straight old, but White and Hollis had known about it, and tried to minimise its significance. No conceivable new source of this allegation is given, but perhaps Martin had been given this ammunition just beforehand. Since that gambit provoked no response, Martin next turned to his interviews with Straight, but Blunt was ‘expressionless’ (no ‘twitching’ then), walked to the window, poured himself a large drink (without leaving the room), and immediately admitted to Martin that it was all true. In this version, Martin played back the recording, so that Blunt could agree that it was an accurate record of the conversation. (How could it have been otherwise?) The meeting was over after twenty-five minutes.

According to West (10) and Wright (11), the events were collapsed to a shorter time-frame, with Wright indicating that Blunt admitted his espionage ‘almost immediately’. While gin has been shown to be the preferred tipple up till now (4), Miranda Carter suggests that Blunt ‘poured himself a large Scotch’ (17). In his last work on the subject (23), Chapman Pincher picked up from Penrose and Freeman the thread of Blunt’s wartime complicity and detection, but did not investigate the source of this new intelligence. He echoed the story that Martin had told Costello that Roger Hollis had warned Blunt about the coming confrontation.

The whole charade is a mess. Amid all these conflicting stories, however, one thread appears prominent: that Michael Straight had provided breakthrough evidence of Blunt’s guilt. And it was that external evidence, rather than MI5’s mismanagement of its suspicions, that had given the senior officers of the Security Service an alibi, and had provoked Blunt’s confession.

Michael Straight

Michael Straight & Anthony Blunt:

Michael Straight was a somewhat sad actor in this whole pantomime. His life and career were characterized by irresolution, privilege and lack of purpose. He was pliable and weak. Critics of his memoir have challenged him as to why he did not confront his own missteps earlier, instead of conniving at the activities of his erstwhile Cambridge colleagues in espionage. He vacillated, admitting his failings, but was also deceptive and misleading in his explanations. A review by a CIA officer of his memoir concluded: “As to Michael Straight himself, no semantic contrivances can avoid the conclusion to which he guides us; as both man and agent he was too gullible, too idealistic, too self-serving, and too long silent.”

For example, when Straight made his long-winded confession to the FBI in June 1963, he emphasised his contacts and friendships in Cambridge, and admitted his recruitment by Blunt, but minimised the level of espionage he had undertaken, and understated Blunt’s close association with Moscow (see below). He claimed tentatively that, during his assignments with his contact Michael Green (Akhmerov) in Washington, ‘he may have furnished Green with memoranda which he prepared from public material and his personal knowledge’. When Pincher broke the story of the investigations into Hollis in Too Secret Too Long in 1983, and pointed indirectly to Straight, Straight claimed to David Binder of the New York Times that he had declined Blunt’s 1937 invitation to spy. (Pincher may well have alerted the journalist. The column about Straight’s denial appears on the same page of the March 26, 1981 issue as the news on Hollis.) In After Long Silence, Straight admitted that he had ‘failed to reject Anthony’s scheme out of hand’, but again claimed that he had passed on to Akhmerov only papers he had written himself, or publicly available material.

Yet, reluctant spy that he claimed to have been, Straight was indeed persuaded to hand over important classified material. In The Haunted Wood (1999), Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, the latter having inspected relevant KGB archives, record the usefulness of agent NIGEL (Straight’s cryptonym). They write, for example, “Nevertheless, in June [1938], he finally delivered his armaments report to Akhmerov, and, the following month, the Russian noted that Straight had passed on a report from the American consul in London about British war reserves of raw materials.” While Straight’s contributions waned after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact, his Moscow bosses still considered him an important ‘agent in place’, and obviously had a hold over him by then. The US authorities would surely have not have been as indulgent with Straight after his confession had they known the true extent of his treachery.

Commentators have asked: ‘What took him so long to confess?’ And ‘Why did he confess so much?’ After all, was it really necessary to introduce Blunt as his recruiter, given that all his espionage was carried out in the USA? Yet Straight was aware that his Communist affiliations in Cambridge were known by a few, and probably believed that, if he did not tell a comprehensive story, and then further unpalatable facts emerged, he would face fresh challenges. By 1963, however, the McCarthyite climate of the early nineteen-fifties had ameliorated, and previous communist sympathies would not have been so harshly treated. That does, however, provoke, a further question that I do not believe has been analysed: ‘Did Straight warn Blunt of his proposed confession?’ And if so, ‘how and when?’

Since there was a sort of childlike simplicity and decency in Straight, I believe that he would not have betrayed Blunt’s role without informing him of his intentions, and I thus suspect that the two of the must have prepared the ground before June 1963. They surely met some time after that as well, before the improbably late and apparently harmonious encounter in September 1964 that Straight describes in his memoir (7), on an occasion which is strongly referred to in the CIA and FBI records (21 & 22), and implied, with supporting evidence, by Perry (19). Moreover, we have the perplexing series of events described by Costello (12). Costello also believed that Blunt would have been given a warning, but presented messy evidence from various items of Courtauld correspondence. Lastly, we have Costello’s suggestion that Blunt made a late decision to travel to Pennsylvania for his summer lecture series (12), when published evidence confirms that the commitment with Blunt had been forged a year earlier.

The University of Pennsylvania

The timing of Straight’s confession, as articulated by the agent himself, is driven by his coming nomination to the Advisory Council on the Arts, and set in June 1963. But it is quite probable that he had considered such eventualities earlier than that. In his memoir, he tells how he had completed two novels in 1962, was looking for other ‘good causes’ to pursue, and that his mother-in-law had been trying to secure him a prominent position several times before he was approached about the position of Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission in May 1963. With his interests (he had been editor of the New Republic from 1948 to 1956, and on the board since), he would surely have heard about Blunt’s public invitation by the University of Pennsylvania, and Perry records his visit to the United Kingdom in April, where he stayed at Dartington Hall in Devon (‘his third trip inside a year’) and then spent time at 42 Upper Brook Street in London, ‘a short walk from Blunt’s flat in Portman Square’. Straight did not disclose this visit in his memoir: he conceded to Costello that he had been in the UK that April, but claimed that he had not visited the Courtauld.

If Straight was reconciled to making a (partial) confession at this time in the confidence that he would emerge without penalty, Blunt may also have felt emboldened. Philby had absconded to the Soviet Union from Beirut in January of that year, and Blunt had made a provocative and controversial visit to that city the month before. On November 18, 2013, the BBC posted a bulletin by George Carey (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-24803131), who pointed out that Blunt had gone to Beirut in December 1962, staying with his friend the British Ambassador (Sir Moore Crosthwaite), on a quest to find a frog orchid. But frog orchids apparently do not grow in the Lebanon, so Carey assumed that Blunt was lying. The conventional interpretation of this visit is that Blunt came to warn Philby about the imminent arrival of MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, sent to unmask him at last, and that Blunt had been sent by his Soviet controllers.

Blunt had previously visited Philby there, some time in 1961. In Their Trade Is Treachery (p 142), Chapman Pincher relates how Blunt later admitted to helping Philby escape, describing how he had visited Philby in his flat, in an event that is undated. His host had said: “I have been asked by our friends to make contact with you, Anthony, but I have told them that you are not in a position to do anything useful”, an opinion to which Blunt gave his immediate assent. Yet this encounter seems incongruous to me. If Blunt took advantage of his presence in Beirut to look up Philby, why would Philby show the initiative by saying that their ‘friends’ (Moscow) wanted to re-establish contact with Blunt? Would that not have been simpler for the KGB to do in London, without drawing attention to an unusual rendezvous in Beirut? And, if Blunt had not been in contact with his KGB masters for a long time, while Philby apparently still was, how come that Blunt had been sent by them to warn Philby, when they could have relayed a message to Philby through their own networks? Moreover, 1961 would have been very early for aiding Philby in his escape plan, unless Blunt was conflating two visits into one.

It is thus plausible that Dick White, continuing to use Blunt as a ‘consultant’, knowing him to be tainted, but believing him to be far less dangerous than Burgess, Maclean and Philby, sent Blunt out to alert Philby of Elliott’s impending arrival. White knew that the best place for Philby was Moscow, rather than being repatriated for an embarrassing trial. After all, how would Blunt have learned of this highly secret mission? That would explain how Philby was prepared for Elliott’s visit, as he explained when he told his former fellow-officer that he had been ‘expecting him’ (10).

Be that as it may, and given that the evidence, like all other material in this investigation, is largely circumstantial, Blunt did not appear unduly embarrassed by Straight’s actions if he knew of them in the summer of 1963. The garbled statements from Mrs Jefferies about Blunt’s chagrin that Straight was ‘going to shop them’ are impossible to analyse properly unless the original letters surface (12). For instance, why is the letter dated August 1962? Moreover, it seems highly unlikely, to me, that Straight would have been allowed to visit the UK so soon after his interrogation, in July 1963, before the FBI and MI5 had discussed the case properly. After all, Sullivan asked him only that month whether he would be prepared to repeat his story to British intelligence!  And it also seems very improbable that Blunt would be able to make a decision to fulfil his commitments for a summer school in the USA as late as that, and then depart for a six-weeks adventure. (Of course, if all these events at the Courtauld did occur in 1962, it would bring an entirely new perspective to the discussion.)

Lastly, some commentators have pointed to Blunt’s probable irritation at the continuing deceit and subterfuge, and his fear that Guy Burgess might return to the United Kingdom and unmask him. Andrew Boyle raised this question in The Climate of Treason, suggesting that Blunt wanted to get his story out first, and control the narrative. Yet Burgess died on August 19, while Blunt was in the USA. Yuri Modin suggested that he confessed as a reaction to Burgess’s death (14), a counter-intuitive idea if one accepts the previous premise. In his review of The Climate of Treason in the Spectator on November 17, 1979, Hugh Trevor-Roper echoed this notion, since Burgess in Moscow had threatened to expose him, which, in the historian’s words, ’would have been fatal for Blunt’. Trevor-Roper overlooked the fact, however, that, if Burgess had successfully negotiated a guarantee of immunity, it would have had to be applied to Blunt (and others) as well, in the fashion that Blunt’s eventual deal was extended. Trevor-Roper then made the rather illogical statement that Blunt’s confession ‘may have been unnecessary, since Burgess then died in Moscow, having revealed nothing.’. Either the writer was pointing to an earlier confession (something clearly not indicated by the rest of his text), or he was confused by the chronology. It is all very strange.

William Sullivan & Edgar J. Hoover

The FBI & MI5:

Thus it seems more fruitful to start by inspecting the intentions of the FBI to inform their colleagues in MI5 of what had transpired with Straight. The assertions of a delay until January 1964 are made by Nigel West (6 & 7), on the grounds that Hoover did not trust MI5 with the material. He again attributes the lack of action to ‘petty inter-agency rivalry’ (13), presumably suggesting competition between the FBI and the CIA, though why that should be, given the clear territorial responsibilities, is not clear. Admittedly, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s chief, never told the CIA anything. Carter (17) says that the FBI waited several months before telling Martin.  To select Martin as their target would have been highly irregular, as it would have bypassed the proper level of communication. Even if Hoover and Sullivan had trusted Martin more than they trusted Hollis, it would have been a crass political move.

Yet the FBI and MI5 appeared overall to enjoy a positive relationship. Roger Hollis went back with Hoover a long way. As the Liddell Diaries inform us, in the summer of 1945, Hoover had made repeated requests to MI5 Director-General Petrie for Hollis to visit the FBI to help them with plans for countering Soviet espionage. In 1950, during the Pontecorvo investigations, Hollis had felt impelled, when head of F Division, to tell George Strauss, the Ministry of Supply of the ‘special relationship’ between the two organisations. As Edward Perrin reported on November 9: “Roger Hollis of M.I.5 was present at the meeting with our Minister last Monday and he made it very clear that the utmost care should be taken to avoid release of this information [concerning BSC, RCMP, and US Embassy in London], particularly in view of a recent agreement reached between Sir Percy Sillitoe and Mr. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I. to the effect that neither organisation would say anything about the other’s actions without consultation and agreement.” (FO 371/8437) (In the light of the Fuchs and Pontecorvo fiascos, Hoover may have been assuaged by the fact that he had just been awarded an honorary KBE.) And Richard Deacon, in his 1982 memoir With My Little Eye, wrote (p 226) that Hollis ‘had been on exceptionally good terms with the allegedly anti-British J. Edgar Hoover to be given a signed photograph and a set of golf clubs.’ Strangely, Andrew offers no analysis of the relationship between the FBI and MI5 between 1950 and 1963. Liddell refers frequently to Hoover’s temper, but it seems that the FBI director was much more concerned about his personal reputation and status than he was about relations with MI5.

There appear to be no available archival records of any early communications on the Straight business from the FBI to MI5. Andrew states, however, that Hollis flew out to Washington at the end of September, having been encouraged to do so by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (1). Hollis had been barraged by a cabal of MI5 officers (Wright, Martin, Winterborn, and one other), who each threatened to resign unless MI5 were open with the FBI about the Mitchell investigation – a worrisome lack of group judgment, as it turned out. Wright claimed in Spycatcher that Hollis faced opposition from his officers when he was more cautious about revealing MI5’s embarrassing inquiries to the Americans (11): it is not clear whether Andrew extracted this fact from Wright’s book, or had access to an alternative source, so readers should be naturally cautious. In any case, Hollis had been unnerved enough to have to consult with White over the visit, and then gain the approval of the Prime Minister. Since Macmillan had been required to inform President Kennedy of the possible exposure caused by the suspicions over Mitchell, and had been ‘humiliated’ by the experience, he was anxious that no more secrets be withheld from the Americans, and gave the nod.

For some reason, Martin followed a day later, to go into the details of which American intelligence sources might have been compromised (1). Yet, if Hollis did glower across the table at Martin, and say he would brief the Americans himself, he might have decided to do so in order to request of his counterparts that the rewards from the Straight confession not be shared with Martin when he followed. As West claimed, Hoover’s deputy, Sullivan, had been ordered not to reveal Straight’s existence (20). And, if Martin did indeed fly over the following day, Hollis could hardly have succeeded in convincing his team that he perform the briefing exclusively himself, since he was not familiar enough with the details.

Another version of the story has Dick White playing a more active, almost interfering, role. In this scenario (15), White recommends that Hollis inform the FBI and the CIA about the state of the Mitchell inquiry, at which Hollis ‘reluctantly’ flew out. If this is true, it shows that Hollis was even more under the influence of White, taking instructions from him on how to handle the situation. Hollis certainly would have bridled at revealing what had occurred to the arch-molehunter James Angleton of the CIA, but, since the latter would otherwise have been informed by Maurice Oldfield, White’s man in Washington, it was something he had to swallow.

In any case, it would seem hard to imagine that the meetings in late September would not have presented the perfect opportunity for Hoover and Hollis to discuss the Straight confessions. And, when he returned to the UK, Hollis surely shared what he learned with White, but probably with none of his subordinates in MI5 – certainly not with Martin. That is what Pincher surmised (8). The intelligence from Straight provided Hollis and White with a perfect opportunity to inform their political masters that proof of Blunt’s guilt had come from an outside source, thus distracting attention from their own fumblings. The two of them may then have decided that a further session with Blunt was called for, and prepared to invite Straight to come over to confront him.

That would explain the suggestion that Straight was in London in the October-November period (19), and what Straight himself admitted to the CIA (21), where he actually stated that he had a private fifteen-minute meeting with Blunt before the MI5 officers entered the fray. This visit was confirmed by what Straight ‘later’ told the FBI about confronting Blunt in London, claiming that his challenges to Blunt ‘broke’ him and made him admit his espionage (22). Pincher refers to a letter concerning Straight sent to the US Embassy in November (8), but does not present the details. It may have referred to Straight’s coming visit. Of course, the ‘confrontation’ may have been a staged act by the pair of them, but the event surely occurred. Straight may have lied to the FBI about the nature and extent of his own espionage, but it is hard to imagine why he should have deceived them over the external circumstances of this encounter.

As for the secrecy within MI5, Pincher wrote that Martin ‘was not informed about Straight in the November time-frame’ (8), which represents a very strong indication that an important meeting did occur then, but that events were not explained to Martin until some time in 1964, when Martin’s career crisis occurred. (Pincher declares that, at the time, in January 1964, Martin believed that the Washington encounter was the first occasion where MI5 had heard about Straight and his information.) The source for this assertion is, tantalisingly ‘the Straight-Martin correspondence’. *  Obviously, if Martin had been told about the November agreement at the time, he would not have been interested in listening to Straight in Washington in January. Correspondingly, Straight must have been sworn to an oath of secrecy about his visit to London: otherwise, he would have briefed Martin about it in Washington. It seems highly likely that Martin and Straight exchanged letters after April 1964, and Martin thereby learned the whole story. Pincher also makes the strange claim that Straight ‘was ignored by MI5 during the November visit’ (8), but that can be interpreted as the fact that he was overlooked by the rank and file because they were not aware of his presence in London.

[* In Too Secret Too Long (p 360), Pincher refers to ‘Correspondence Between Straight and Martin in 1982’, but his note suggests that Straight corresponded with Pincher in 1982, referring to earlier letters exchanged with Martin. These letters have not been located, so far as I know.]

The conclusion must be that the immunity agreement with Blunt was made at the end of 1963. The primary source evidence is scarce, admittedly, but no scarcer than that supporting the April 1964 confrontation, and the secondary indications are stronger and more consistent. Blunt presumably successfully sought immunity as well for Leo Long and John Cairncross (at least), who were the leading lights that he identified to his interrogators. Hollis and White were surely the only intelligence officers who knew about it, and Hollis hoped to keep it that way. Whether Dick White had any ulterior motives must be an issue for debate. Yet the situation was thrown into rapid turmoil through the fortuitous but unfortunate entry of Cairncross himself into the drama.

John Cairncross

Cairncross and His Visa:

John Cairncross’s appearance in London, probably in December 1963, can only be an extraordinary coincidence. The existence of the Graham Greene-Cairncross correspondence proves that Cairncross had approached the author as early as August 4, 1963 for a reference for the position at the Western Reserve University (30), so it is impossible that MI5 could have lured him from Karachi to be interrogated in London as a result of Straight’s involvement. Thus Cairncross’s appearance there, before travelling to Rome to pick up his paperwork, must have caused much embarrassment. First of all, Blunt had very recently named him as a fellow-conspirator, a fact that MI5 would have to address. Secondly, Cairncross had applied to the USA authorities for a visa. If MI5 concealed from US Customs and Immigration (via the FBI) what they had learned from Blunt, it would no doubt turn out to be a frightful indictment when the FBI found out about it later. If MI5 informed the FBI, Cairncross’s visa would surely be denied, and the publicity risk of preventing an apparently harmless citizen from pursuing his career would have to be faced. In fact, even without the recent unveiling of Cairncross, if he had been honest in any interviews he had with the US immigration authorities, his previous political sympathies should have excluded him, as the Foreign Office files suggest (25).

All this leads to explain the extraordinary shenanigans that were displayed by Cabinet Secretary Burke Trend and his colleagues (27). MI5 wanted the job appointment to go ahead, and to pursue the serious interrogation of Cairncross on foreign soil, where any testimony would have less standing. Thus they had to ‘fix’ the FBI. If we are to believe Pincher (23), Martin flew out to Washington in early January, presumably to explain the dilemma, and to convince the FBI to go along – at least temporarily – with the plan to indulge Cairncross. The Foreign Office files prove that Cairncross had applied for the visa some time before February 7, 1964, albeit with a degree of urgency. Martin must have performed his task effectively, because a later memo confirms that his visa had been granted (25).

Thus the conflict over Martin’s presence in Washington appeared to be quickly resolved. It was not as a follow-up to the ‘Mitchell inquiries’, as Pincher was led to believe early in the cycle (8). The need to talk to the FBI about Mitchell had evaporated, and nothing of that nature would have required such an extended stay. (Pincher’s claim that Hollis deputed the task of interviewing Straight to Martin, and then recalled him before the interview (8) is patently absurd.) It did not arise as a result of Martin’s accepting a long-standing invitation by Sullivan to talk to Straight (7). West asserts that Sullivan had been ordered by Hoover to be very discreet about Straight, and not reveal what had occurred (20). It is impossible to imagine that Martin would have been given permission by Hollis to visit Washington on such a pretext, and again, such a project would not have taken weeks. Martin had been sent to handhold the FBI through the Cairncross project.

Martin was in ignorance about the recent Blunt confession. As laid out above, Martin told Pincher that he did not know about the ‘November confession’ (8). He was assuredly also not told about the Cairncross interview that must have occurred, where Cairncross was instructed in the role he had to play. And then, when he arrived in Washington, Martin was told by Sullivan that he needed to meet an important person. This is the encounter that Straight describes in his memoir, expressing surprise that he had not been called ‘before January 1964’ (7). Where they met is a matter of dispute, though probably immaterial. Straight’s Daily Telegraph obituary says Martin ‘attended a lunch given by the FBI’s Bill Sullivan, where he met Straight, who volunteered to confront Blunt’. Nigel West has told me that Penrose and Freeman were wrong in indicating that the meeting took place at the Mayflower Hotel, and that the lunch was held at Straight’s club in Washington.

What is more important is why the encounter was arranged. One can believe that the molehunters in the CIA – enthusiastically led by Angleton – would by now have become extremely frustrated by the lack of follow-up on MI5’s part after Straight’s unmasking of Blunt. The meeting was surely set up without Hoover’s knowledge, and I have pointed out that Sullivan had been forbidden to mention his name to any MI5 officer. That, in itself, must have bred resentment. Martin had been working closely with Angleton ever since the arrival of the defector Golitsyn, and Martin disclosed that he had had to be discreet about Straight because Sullivan had been ordered not to reveal his existence (20). What is potentially ominous, however, is the possible involvement of Maurice Oldfield. In the memoir of his uncle, Martin Pearce makes the claim that Sullivan liaised with his ‘MI6 associate’, Oldfield, and that Oldfield ‘arranged for Arthur Martin to fly out to interview Straight’. This is a provocative statement, as the official lines of communication were MI6-CIA and MI5-FBI, and the FBI and the CIA were jealous enemies. Yet Martin had gained the confidence of Angleton, showing that the contacts were by now more flexible. I have not been able to gain a confirmation of this item from Pearce, but, for the multiple reasons given above, it sounds totally implausible that Dick White, notwithstanding his influence over Hollis, would have been able to arrange for Martin to fly out on such a mission.

Martin was no doubt astonished and energised about Straight’s revelations, thinking he had fallen on a scoop. Yet he did not immediately return home in excitement, contrary to what Penrose & Freeman, Bower and Perry all asserted (9, 15 & 19). Nor did he meet Straight after his interrogations of Cairncross, as West claims in his books on MI5 and in Molehunt (5, 6 & 10). Pincher distorts the events utterly (8 & 23). Whether Martin subdued his excitement until he returned home, or whether he sent a cable to alert his bosses, cannot be determined. If Sullivan warned him appropriately, he probably kept it to himself until his return. For Martin was to stay out in the United States for several weeks, as the Cabinet papers prove (27).

Finally, an analysis of Straight’s evidence is in order. Martin was impressed enough by what Straight told him to believe that it was the information that MI5 needed to nail Blunt. He was ‘elated’ (7). But what did Straight tell him? If he repeated to Martin what he had told the FBI, as he claimed, his account did not point to espionage on Blunt’s part, but to his role as a messenger. It referred to ‘anti-fascism’, ‘the Third International’, to an opinion that Straight was required to gather economic data in New York, that Straight’s ‘protests had been rejected’, and that Blunt was a ‘mild communist’, and was acting on behalf of Burgess (22). Yet in his memoir, Straight clearly indicates whence Blunt was getting his instructions, as the latter refers to the fact that Straight’s reluctance had been discussed in ’the highest circles of the Kremlin’.

Reliable information indicates that MI5 already knew that Blunt was not just an ‘intellectual communist’, and had direct links to Moscow. Professor Glees wrote an article for the Journal of Intelligence and National Security in 1992 (Volume 7, Number 3), titled War Crimes: The Security and Intelligence Dimension, resulting from an assignment with the British Government. In this piece, Glees wrote that, in 1952 (the Sillitoe era), MI5 had discovered from an Eastern European ex-Soviet intelligence officer that an ‘art adviser of HM the King worked for Soviet intelligence’. This is, to me, an astonishing revelation, indicating a far more serious indictment of Blunt than a casual supplier of military secrets to a wartime ally, which is how White and Hollis probably viewed him at that time. Even if, again, the evidence would not stand up in court, the direct identification would surely have been something that Blunt would have struggled to deny. Glees stated that this item would have been presented ‘to the very highest level in the Security Service’. *  Assuredly so, and Martin, and the other officers who repeatedly interrogated Blunt, were not made aware of it.

[ * The information did not apparently reach Guy Liddell, deputy Director-General in 1952. His Diaries show that he continued to seek Blunt’s advice over problematic communists in the summer of 1952, and even came to the spy’s defence when he was warned – probably by Goronwy Rees – about Blunt’s shady past. Did Sillitoe pass on the information to White on the latter’s accession in 1953? I imagine so.]

(Case) Western Reserve University

The Cairncross Confession:

The confession all happened very quickly. Andrews suggests that Cairncross had been ‘pleasantly surprised’ that MI5 had done nothing to stop his visa application, and confidently travelled to London to perform research at the British Museum and see his estranged wife, Gabi (30). Yet it was a while before the application was approved. In a rather breathless minute, Street in the Foreign Office reported, on February 18, that not only had Cairncross’s application been approved at last, but the subject had also already confessed! Cairncross had flown to New York on February 11, and had been notified by a Customs official that he would be needed for further questioning when he reached his destination. Martin had visited him at his hotel in Cleveland on Sunday, February 16, and apparently gained a confession immediately. The haste and efficiency of the whole operation were almost unseemly, and certainly suspicious.

Why had Cairncross confessed so rapidly? The explanations are hardly convincing. Cairncross’s own story is unreliable, primarily because he sets the event as occurring in April (16), presumably to grant the timing rather more credulity. In his version, an FBI officer arrives first, informing him that Arthur Martin will be calling shortly. When the MI5 officer declares that he believes that Cairncross has not told the whole story, Cairncross folds, out of a desire to ‘make an end to this cat and mouse game once and for all’. He guesses that someone has informed on him, and concludes that it must have been Blunt, a notion espoused by Costello (12), thereby giving ammunition to the theory that Blunt confessed first, as Andrews boldly indicates (24). West has a slightly different representation: the meeting was ’by appointment’, and Cairncross ‘attended’ because he was fearful about his job (20). That goes against the grain of Smith’s account, which states that Cairncross was ‘doorstepped’ (29), suggesting an element of surprise.

But what would one expect the normal reaction of a person in Cairncross’s position to be, as an innocent academic who has just been cleared for employment in the United States? He is warned at US Customs, but seems to express no alarm. When Martin and the FBI turn up, he does not reflect: why on earth did these people allow me to come all this way, and then immediately harass me about these long-ago events? When Martin approaches him with the soft-ball challenge that he may not have told him all before, why does he not send him away with a flea in his ear, and tell him he has nothing more to say? It must have been because he was primed for the whole episode before he left London, and it was explained to him that Blunt had confessed, and that he likewise would be given immunity from prosecution if he admitted everything on foreign soil.

So all the references to ‘a second bite of the cherry’ –  after twelve years (10), ‘D Branch retracing its steps’ (7), and Cairncross’s being ’thrown to the wolves’ by Blunt (29), must be discarded. So must any assertion that Cairncross received no immunity, and thus risked returning to London at his peril (30), although.in his book on Klugmann (24), Andrews singularly does state that Martin offered Cairncross an immunity deal. Claiming that Klugmann had been his recruiter, and thus distancing himself from Blunt, was part of that agreement. Now Hollis and Trend have to go through the machinations from the Cabinet Office (27), trying to establish what the FBI and the US Immigration Authorities will do, hoping to avoid publicity, and attempting to ensure that Cairncross finds a safe haven in a foreign country (Italy) where he will not be able to cause any trouble. And the FBI duly expels him in June – not to Cairncross’s obvious surprise, it seems.

As I have shown, Martin did not rush back after this interview. He had to stay while the panjandrums discussed what had happened, and decided what to do next (27). On February 19, Trend informed the Prime Minister of the confession. Douglas-Home convened a meeting, at which it was determined that gaining a statement under caution should be attempted. On March 2, Martin was thus instructed to return to Cleveland, and the news quickly came back (on March 4) that Cairncross had declined the invitation. So, probably in mid-March, Martin was able to return to London, and brief Hollis and White on the Straight breakthrough. According to Bower, White, in true Captain Louis Renault style, was ‘shaken’ by the news (15).

Hollis must have been furious, however. First of all, how and why could Sullivan of the FBI break the commitment that Hoover had given him about keeping the Straight business confidential? And why had Martin been snooping around in Washington, communicating with CIA people without instructions to do so, when he had been sent specifically to liaise with the FBI on Cairncross? Moreover, on his return Martin must have pressed for interrogation of Blunt, and prosecution. He was probably told that the evidence that Straight provided would not stand up in court, and that Blunt would continue to deny everything. Fresh from his triumph in Cleveland, however, Martin probably believed he was on firm ground. Even though Hollis was infuriated by Martin, he was probably encouraged by White to appease him, and that is where the rumour started that it was Martin’s idea that Blunt should be offered immunity (despite Martin’s lack of sympathy for the idea), and that Martin would be chosen to interview Blunt in his flat (4). And that is what led to the pantomime of late April, where the key players (except for Martin) repeated their roles from the previous November.

The Role of Arthur Martin:

Arthur Martin remains an enigmatic figure. Why was such an ordinary but volatile officer selected for such an important task? How much did he know? Why had he become such an enthusiastic acolyte of James Angleton? Why did Dick White recruit him after Hollis had suspended him? And, most intriguing of all, why did he spread such conflicting stories about the Blunt confession?

(A profile of him can be found at https://spartacus-educational.com/SSmartin.htm, but it contains several egregious errors, primarily on chronology.)

Martin had his champions. Michael Straight found him ‘sophisticated and urbane’, in contrast to FBI agents (7), and told the CIA that he was ‘the original for George Smiley’ (21)  – an unconvincing comparison.  According to William Tyrer (who accessed the Cram archive), Cleveland Cram, CIA officer and historian of the agency, may have been echoing what Straight told him when he observed that Martin was ‘generally agreed to have been the counterintelligence genius of the British services’, surely an over-the-top assessment. Penrose and Freeman, while characterising him as ‘unprepossessing, self-made, and down-to-earth’ (does the suggestion of plain speaking jibe with ‘sophistication and urbanity’?), went on similarly to portray him as ‘a creation of John le Carré; a brooding spycatcher’ (9). Furthermore, they wrote: “His mind was a constant blur of bluffs and double-bluffs and, although he never claimed to be an intellectual, he was quick-witted and open-minded.” (Martin may have helped promote that image himself.)

In his Guardian obituary, Richard Norton-Taylor referred to Martin’s ‘sharp, analytical mind’ (but that could surely be said of most intelligence officers worth their salt), and in his BBC piece, described him as ‘a hardened interrogator’. Cairncrosss described him as ‘one of the most effective intelligence officers I have ever met’ (16), yet, since Cairncross probably met few such animals, and doubtless wanted to provide a solid explanation as to why he had quickly confessed, he probably over-egged the pudding. And Nigel West offered Martin praise for his performance at the Courtauld, writing of ‘the carrot dangled skilfully’, which appears a bit of a travesty when the record is inspected carefully. Peter Wright claimed that Martin proved himself ‘a brilliant and intuitive case officer’ (11).

Yet Martin had his critics and detractors, too. His close associate, Peter Wright, was also one of the most outspoken, writing that he was ‘temperamental and obsessive’, and ‘never understood the extent to which he had made enemies over the years.’ Bower expressed some surprise at White’s ‘tolerance’ for Martin (15). White was told that Martin ‘had a chip on his shoulder’, a judgment echoed by Gordon Corera, but then White was overall too trusting of people until it was too late. Christopher Andrew depicted Martin as follows: ‘a skilful and persistent counter-espionage investigator . . . , but he lacked the capacity for balanced judgement and  a grasp of the broader context.’ (1) Andrew also considered him and Wright  ‘the most damaging conspiracy theorists’, one of the most damning dispensations the historian can deliver (see https://www.mi5.gov.uk/mi5-in-world-war-ii ), and this characterisation was echoed by John Marriott of MI5, who wrote in an earlier memorandum: “In spite of his undeniable critical and analytical gifts and powers of lucid expression on paper, I must confess that I am not convinced that he is not a rather small minded man, and I doubt he will much increase in stature as he grows older.” (1; 28)

Martin had worked for the Radio Security Service (RSS) in World War II, and then moved to GCHQ, where he was liaison officer to MI5. Andrew informs us that it was Kim Philby who recommended him to MI5 in 1946, having met him in his RSS days. (Martin was apparently disappointed to have been replaced by Elliott for the mission to Beirut to interrogate Philby, though why an MI5 officer would have been considered for the job is not clear. Gordon Corera claims that White believed that Philby would be more likely to confess to an old friend.) Martin’s Guardian obituary stated that he was the first to learn – from the CIA – that Klaus Fuchs was a Soviet agent. Yet this would appear to contain some grandstanding. Serial 260/9 in KV 6/134 shows that Maurice Oldfield communicated the breakthrough news to Martin on August 17, 1949, and that it resulted from the efforts of Dwyer and Paterson (the MI6 and MI5 representatives in Washington), working on research performed by Philp Howse of GCHQ. Thus the first symptoms of Martin’s vainglory appear. In his Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, Nigel West reinforces Martin’s contributions, but it is hard to identify any specific counterespionage feat he accomplished, apart from those placed in his hands by such as VENONA and the disclosures of defectors.

It was Martin’s encounter with the defector Golitsyn that set him on the trail of believing that the British intelligence services were infested with moles, and I turn the reader to Chapter 10 in Section D of Andrew’s Defend the Realm to learn more about his dogged efforts, and the obstacles and objections he faced in his pursuit of traitors (although the details of some events, such as the transfer of Cumming, and the reorganisation of D Division, are wrong). In the episodes when first Graham Mitchell, and then Roger Hollis, were suspected of being Soviet agents, Martin gained an inappropriately sympathetic ear from Dick White, who had been his mentor when Martin acted as White’s emissary in 1951. Then Martin had helped to plant hints on the CIA that Philby was the primary candidate for abetting the escape of Burgess and Maclean (see DickWhite’sDevilishPlot.) White, of course, had been a senior officer in MI5 at the time, and shifting the blame to MI6 helped him protect his position and career. In 1963 and 1964, from his vantagepoint as chief of MI6, White was now quite happy to suggest that MI5 was the leaky vessel, in order to achieve a similar goal.

Thus Martin was an unlikely choice to carry out a careful interrogation of Blunt. It was not that he had similar successes under his belt, unlike the experienced (but overrated) Jim Skardon, for instance. His noted successes with the Portland Spy Ring and Vassall cases were prompted by information from defectors rather than superlative sleuthing. Gordon Corera credits him with his persistence in trying to pin down Philby’s guilt, and convincing Dick White of the fact, but White himself had understood that back in 1951. The exercise was probably set up as a sop to his vanity: having believed that he was going to impress Hollis and White with his news from Straight, he was rebuffed by their lack of enthusiasm. Hollis and White had their hands forced, but would later be able to represent the faux confession as something imposed on to them by Straight’s revelations, when in fact they knew about the facts all along. They needed to try to keep Martin loyal. Martin had not been told of the November-December 1963 negotiations with Blunt (as his comments to Pincher indicate (8)), or the details of the Cairncross interviews in London, but he must have been informed of the requirements of the Cairncross case, as he was sent on a delicate mission to strategise with the FBI some weeks before Cairncross’s arrival in the United States.

And then he got into trouble with Hollis, becoming such a disruptive influence, frustrated that Blunt was continuing unpunished, demoralised that Cumming was moved into the D Division as his boss, and next having key personnel removed, that he had be suspended, and then dismissed. Corera writes: “Even his friends acknowledged that he lacked tact, but he became increasingly reckless, even self-destructive, in his single-minded pursuit.” (The Art of Betrayal, p 204) Yet for White to then hire him, in November 1964, was very controversial. As Aldrich and Cormac write in The Black Door (p 241): “Remarkably, Dick White, who had been director-general of MI5 and was now chief of MI6, was inclined to agree with Martin, and felt that suspicions lingered around his former colleagues Hollis and his deputy, Graham Mitchell.” The whole episode is redolent of what happened to Jane Sissmore, when Guy Liddell had to fire her in 1940 under dubious pretexts, whereupon she was picked up by MI6. White’s action was a monstrous insult to his protégé Hollis.

Lastly, what could Martin’s motivations have been, in adopting such a scattershot approach to leaking information to journalists and writers? Was he undertaking an official disinformation exercise? And, if so, was he simply chaotic and disorganised, with a faulty memory? I think not. In his 2020 poorly titled but overall engrossing study of how intelligence analysts should approach their tasks, How Spies Think, David Osman, former head of GCHQ, explains what is essential to detect a successful disinformation project. “The corollary is that to detect deception as many different channels should be examined as possible. It requires great skill to make the messages consistent on each channel and avoid errors. One inconsistency may be enough to reveal the deception.” (p 267) Thus, if an agency is going to peddle a Big Lie on any target audience, it has to have a watertight, well-conceived story – such as the legends developed by the Double Cross team in World War II.

Yet Martin’s (and Wright’s) stories are all over the place, riddled with inconsistences, conflicting chronologies and details, and unconvincing psychological portraits. I have come to the conclusion that Martin probably did this deliberately – to draw attention to the fact that a gross injustice had been performed, and a cover-up perpetrated, and to provide solid hints for the more intrepid and inquisitive of those who chronicled the events that the story was not as it seemed. Andrew Boyle got a portion of the way there, but the baton was scandalously dropped by every analyst afterwards. And one of his stories even reached the authorised history, thus receiving officially blessing.

Guy Liddell (with secretary Joan (?), Arthur Martin’s second wife)

Martin retired from MI5 in 1969, and took on a job as a clerk at the House of Commons. In 1984, he collaborated with Philip de Mowbray in writing an Editor’s Foreword for their ghosting of Golitsyn’s New Lies for Old. He died in 1996, after expressing public doubts that Hollis had been a spy. As Anthony Glees records in the Secrets of the Service (p 316), Martin had written in the Times, on July 19, 1984, that only new evidence could shed light on an inconclusive case. His second marriage was to Guy Liddell’s secretary, Joan. According to West, both he and his wife ‘abhorred’ the notoriety that his doggedness over KGB penetration had brought him.

Summary:

Here follows my version of events.

Sometime in 1963, probably in April, Michael Straight and Anthony Blunt agreed to try to regularise relations with their respective intelligence authorities. In June, Straight confessed to the FBI, and the news was passed on to Roger Hollis, who kept it to himself and Dick White. In September, Hollis in person impressed upon Hoover the need for secrecy. Straight was invited over to the UK in October, where he briefed Hollis and White, and a highly confidential immunity agreement for Blunt was made with the help of Cabinet Secretary Trend, Home Secretary Brooke, and Attorney General Hobson. Blunt revealed the involvement in espionage of (at least) Cairncross and Long, and pointed the finger at several other dubious characters. Cairncross unexpectedly sprang on the scene in December, when he arrived in London in the process of trying to gain a USA visa to work in Ohio. MI5 convened a hurried session with Cairncross, where they explained to him the situation, promised him immunity if he would talk, and explained that they would prefer to interrogate him formally in Cleveland. MI5 started negotiations with the FBI for the approval of Cairncross’s visa.

Martin was sent on to Washington in advance, to finalise the visa arrangements, prepare the ground for Cairncross’s interrogation, and to alert the FBI of the sensitivity of the situation. With Oldfield’s assistance, Martin was immediately introduced to Straight, as Angleton and the CIA had grown impatient with the lack of evident action on the interrogation of Blunt. Cairncross arrived in the USA in February, and swiftly confessed, but Martin had to stay on to try to gain a statement from him under caution, which Cairncross not surprisingly declined. Martin returned to London, armed with the new evidence and expecting a hero’s welcome, but was chagrined at the lack of enthusiasm for interrogating Blunt. Hollis and White then decided to re-stage the confession, with Blunt’s obvious compliance. But Blunt remained not only unprosecuted but unscathed. Martin quickly realised that he had been hoodwinked, and started to make boisterous objections, which eventually cost him his job. He landed on his feet under Dick White in MI6, but the resentment lingered, and White became an enthusiastic supporter of his theories about a mole in MI5.

Conclusions:

I present five main areas of conclusion, on the essence of the hoax, on the policy of offering immunity, on Hollis’s lack of leadership, on White’s duplicity, and on the failures of authorised history.

The Hoax:

Some might argue that this was no hoax, since no obvious victim was deceived. Perhaps the events were just part and parcel of the cloak-and-dagger activities that are intrinsic to the business of the ‘Secret World’. Yet a large deception was undertaken. And why did MI5 plant a bogus document in the archives, unless they intended seriously to mislead someone? The authorized historian was deceived, swallowed the whole story, and everyone who followed him trusted what appeared in Defend the Realm.

In a partial sense, Blunt’s confession was a hoax. He committed to give a full confession, but prevaricated and dissembled, so that his interrogators never gained the full story. But the major hoax was that perpetrated by Hollis and White, in the deceptions they played against various agencies. They claimed to the Home Secretary and the Attorney General that that it was Straight’s testimony that proved Blunt’s guilt, when they already had powerful evidence of his traitorous activities that they had kept to themselves. They concealed from their own officers in MI5 the fact that a very private deal with Blunt had been concluded in December 1963. They prepared documentation for posterity that indicated that an authentic confession had been elicited from Blunt in April 1964, when the whole episode had been choreographed. In addition, in a supplementary plot where they tripped over themselves in the chronology, they suggested to the Foreign Office that Cairncross had confessed for the first time, in Cleveland, in February 1964, when they had in fact followed up Blunt’s revelations the previous December and interrogated Cairncross in London.

In The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks (1969), Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff made an important distinction between the genuine and the authentic. They wrote: “The two adjectives may seem synonymous but they are not: that is genuine which is not forged; and that is authentic which truthfully reports on its ostensible subject.”. In this scheme, the Hitler Diaries would be ungenuine and inauthentic, a counterfeit copy of a book would be ungenuine but authentic, and Arthur Martin’s description of the Blunt Confession would be genuine but inauthentic. It is that document – if it exists – that is the kernel of the hoax.

The Failure of Immunity:

Offering immunity from prosecution in exchange for full cooperation is not a strategy.

This policy might be called the Macmillan Doctrine, since the Prime Minister, when admonishing Roger Hollis for proudly informing him that MI5 had caught the spy John Vassall, declared: “When my gamekeeper shoots a fox, he doesn’t go and hang it up outside the Master of Foxhounds’ drawing room; he buries it out of sight”. Yet Macmillan overlooked the fact that, while dead foxes may tell no tales, pardoned spies usually have witnesses, who will frequently seek that fairness and equity be observed. As Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta remind us in their recent book on MI5, MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law, in 1961 Macmillan pressed for immunity to be granted to George Blake, in exchange for his full co-operation, but Dick White insisted that the business go to trial. Blake was sentenced to forty-two years, and the later comparison of the fate of Blake (a Dutchman with a Jewish father) with that of the aristocratic Blunt helped fan the flames of the protestors’ cause.

The problem is that the authorities will never know how much co-operation they are getting from their suspect. In his August 7, 2020 Times Literary Supplement review of A Question of Attribution (the British Academy and the Matter of Anthony Blunt), edited by David Cannadine, Richard Davenport-Hines wrote: “The compact between the Security Service and Blunt was broken by a novice prime minister fifteen years later.” Yet that is a perversely one-sided interpretation of what happened: the news had escaped through no fault of Margaret Thatcher, but Blunt remained unprosecuted. Blunt did not fulfil his side of the bargain, as his wishy-washy written ‘confession’ shows. Moreover, one condition of Blunt’s immunity deal, insisted upon by the Attorney General, John Hobson, was that he admit that he had not spied after 1945, as Miranda Carter reported (17). So what did Blunt do? He made that assertion to Martin, one which turned out to be untrue.

That does not necessarily mean that Blunt should have been prosecuted. A public trial – or even one held in camera – would have been very embarrassing, and even the Arthur Martins and Peter Wrights of this world would have recognized that. But, apart from the fact that he should never have been recruited by MI5, Blunt should never have been treated so leniently when he was found assisting Leo Long in espionage in 1944, should never have been trusted during the Burgess-Maclean fiasco, should never have been used as a ‘consultant’ in the Philby business, or by Liddell in further investigations of dangerous communists, and certainly should never have been sent to Beirut to warn Philby of Elliott’s impending arrival (as the evidence strongly suggests). He should have been asked to resign his posts, have his perks and privileges taken away, and found his own new niche – perhaps even a minor chair at Liverpool University, which he might have regarded as only slightly more appealing than exile to Moscow. And this should have been effected with a promise that he would maintain his silence. The secret might still have leaked out eventually, but at least the objections to his tolerant treatment would not have been so strong. (Contrary to what Professor Sir Michael Howard claimed in a letter to the Times, Blunt was never used as channel of disinformation to the Soviets: see http://www.coldspur.com/double-crossing-the-soviets/ for a debunking of this absurd notion.)

Thus the policy as executed for Leo Long and John Cairncross  – and maybe others unknown – and planned for Kim Philby, was a misguided show of passivity and evasion.

The Weakness of Roger Hollis:

Roger Hollis must be held accountable for much of this failure, since most of it occurred on his watch (1956-65). One must recall that, during this eventful year of 1963 (so far as the actions surrounding Blunt, Straight and Cairncross were concerned), Hollis also had to deal with the Profumo case. This had problematic outcomes: Stephen Ward had committed suicide, while John Profumo had been let off extremely lightly, considering the misdeeds and lies he undertook. Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta (see above) make a strong case that, even though Hollis was cleared by Lord Denning in the latter’s inquiry, Hollis had in fact acted very indolently in not informing the Home Secretary of what MI5 knew about Profumo, Ward, Keeler and Ivanov, and that he had avoided the truth that it was an issue of ‘defending the realm’.

Hollis clearly had more important matters on his mind. But that is no excuse: as the saying goes, ‘it came with the territory’. Hollis was yet another senior MI5 officer who let himself be taken aback by events, and had not worked out what the agency should do if unpleasant surprises came along. Maybe that was an outcome of MI5’s exact statutory footing’s being indistinct, but that had been clarified to a certain extent by the Findlater Stewart report at the end of the war, and the following Attlee and Maxwell Fyfe Directives. Hollis had enough time to attempt to resolve such issues, but preferred to keep his head down, and try to maintain a quiet life. Moreover, Hollis was apparently far too much under the influence of Dick White, with MI6 officers also appearing to be meddling in MI5 affairs far more than was suitable.

Thus the strategy over Blunt and Cairncross, of trying to keep the secret to as small a number of persons as possible, was bound to fail in the long run. It was one thing to conceal important facts from the incoming and possibly naïve Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home (where Hollis was abetted by the Cabinet Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Attorney General), but the policy of deceiving junior officers, with their natural inquisitiveness and interest in internal gossiping, did not inspire trust as the story went around. Perhaps it is surprising that the secret remained in the private sphere so long as it did. Hollis died in 1973, and thus did not live to see his handiwork unveiled.

The Duplicity of Dick White:

Dick White’s contribution to the whole affair is controversial, even sinister. He had recommended Roger Hollis as the officer who should succeed him when he was appointed head MI6 in 1956. And maybe Hollis looked for guidance from his mentor when he took over the reins as director general. In any case, White appeared to maintain a very active involvement in MI5 affairs. No doubt he kept in close touch with Arthur Martin, who had been a loyal servant to him during the machinations of the Burgess-Maclean business. It is White who encourages Martin to pursue the Mitchell inquiries, and Hollis is regularly consulting with White, for example when the information from Straight arrives. It is White who encourages Hollis to fly out to Washington to explain the details of the Mitchell case to the FBI and the CIA.

Yet White apparently did not have a high opinion of Hollis’s capabilities. Chapman Pincher, in Treachery (p 428), cites a letter that White wrote to Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) in 1984: “Hollis was never interested in CE (counter-espionage) work, having one of those crabbed minds that prefer protective security measures to the fun of sniffing things out.” This was a highly unprofessional statement for White to make. Either he deliberately wanted MI5 to fail under the leader he had recommended, or MI5 had no other candidates who could have competed. But, if White had always had this opinion of Hollis (‘never interested’), it would have been incumbent upon him to recommend that someone be appointed from outside. (Cleveland Cram dubbed Hollis ‘the biggest dolt to come down the pike in years’.) After all, there had been two recent precedents for such a decision (Petrie and Sillitoe).

White had as much to lose in the Blunt business as anyone, having been the sole surviving officer in the agencies who had witnessed his recruitment in 1940, and he had been hoodwinked by him and his cronies ever since. White had believed that Philby was guilty back in 1950, or earlier, but had avoided MI5-M6 strife by channeling his accusations through the FBI. On taking over MI6, he had banished Philby, but the spy had managed to get back on the books as an unofficial contributor. Now Philby had disappeared, and it suited White to suggest that someone within MI5 (where the main molehunt was occurring) had been responsible for leaking the news of the impending visit by Nicholas Elliott. Gordon Corera writes (p 194) that ’it was Martin’s theory that his old foe had been tipped off that most intrigued the MI6 chef’, but, in light of Blunt’s visit to Beirut, it is safe to assume that White played along with Martin, and saw a great opportunity for camouflage.

So was White a serious believer in the presence of an ELLI in MI5, whether Mitchell, Hollis, or anyone else? I doubt it. Yet he very quickly turned against Hollis. When Hollis fired his troublemaker, Martin, White quickly recruited him. Shortly afterwards, Hollis’s deputy, Furnival Jones, after discussing the problem with Dick White, agreed that an inter-agency investigative committee needed to be set up, and White convinced a reluctant Roger Hollis that it was a good idea Thus the FLUENCY sub-committee, under Peter Wright’s chairmanship, was established, and it soon had to consider whether Hollis himself was a spy. The outcome was inevitably destructive, and may have contributed to Hollis’s early death in 1973.

White retired from MI6 in 1968, somewhat detached from the fray that he had set in motion. In 1974, however, after the less eventful tenure of John Rennie, a fresh anti-MI5 thrust emerged from MI6. As Professor Glees described in The Secrets of the Service, Philip de Mowbray of MI6 (a member of the FLUENCY team) ‘broke his cover’ to write an article in Encounter magazine that revivified all the theories of Soviet subversion within MI5, and the probable guilt of Roger Hollis. The new head of MI6 was Maurice Oldfield, White’s molehunt facilitator from Washington.

Authorised History:

My final observations concern the phenomenon of authorised history – and specifically Christopher Andrew’s work. Readers who are swayed by my theories about the confessions will agree that the exposition in Defend the Realm is, in the coverage of Blunt and Cairncross, erroneous. It contains misrepresentations and oversights. Yet Andrew’s book is generally regarded as biblical in its authority, even to the extent that historians and biographers will ignore evidence before their own eyes that suggests an alternative story in favour of Andrew’s account. In May 2017, in my piece ‘Officially Unreliable’(http://www.coldspur.com/officially-unreliable/), I laid out my objections to authorised histories in general, with Defend the Realm as one of my examples, and I withdraw nothing I wrote at that time. In fact my message is reinforced by the Blunt case.

In many respects Defend the Realm is an impressive work, with a masterful synthesis of complex issues. Yet it is deeply flawed, primarily in its indiscriminate use of dubious sources, and in its vast number of citations of anonymous archival records that cannot be verified independently. The passage describing Blunt’s confession is the latest notorious example. I see no reason why the document that is claimed to play such a major role in Andrew’s narrative, and those related to it, should not be released by MI5, so that independent historians could make their own assessment of their authenticity, and how they shed light on the events of 1963 and 1964. Moreover, I suspect that Andrew, and those who assisted him, may not have maintained a scrupulous cross-reference of documents and citations so that a full concordance could be constructed if and when the authorities see fit to make the archival material accessible. (It is not as if relevant Freedom of Information requests can easily be made, as there are no identifiers to refer to.) I made this point in my original script, and I know at least one distinguished historian who maintained such a system in his researches and writing.

The scope of Defend the Realm is surely too ambitious. So much released material exists that a new History could probably be divided up into volumes covering the stewardship of each Director-General. That would have to be complemented by a judicious and methodological treatment of other literature (memoir, biography, other government sources, etc.). I happen to believe that my own contributions in this area, covering such as Fuchs and Peierls, Agent Sonya, Dick White and the Burgess-Maclean affair, Liverpool University, the RSS and the Double-Cross System, the LENA spies, VENONA and HASP, the Portland Ring – and now Blunt and Cairncross – constitute a valuable corpus of material that should be used in any fresh enterprise.

Yet it is difficult to see how such a programme would evolve. For example, despite the best efforts of Professor Glees and me, it has been a struggle to gain serious attention over the hubbub of publicity given recently to Agent Sonya, and correct Ben Macintyre’s story. Serious historians do not seem to want to challenge the establishment history of MI5. A few years ago, the FBI gave serious airtime to the debate about ELLI and Roger Hollis (see https://fbistudies.com/2015/04/27/was-roger-hollis-a-british-patriot-or-soviet-spy/ ), but it fizzled out. I do not see any mechanism in the UK for performing a similar exercise on MI5 molehunts, but, if anyone decides that it should be pursued, I am very willing to contribute.

Late-Breaking News!

I have not yet received my copy of the February 26 Times Literary Supplement in the mail, but my on-line colleague Michael Holzman has just informed me that the following item appears on the back page:

‘Antony Percy writes from Southport, NC, to point out a near-enough coincidence: as we were quoting John le Carré (January 22) wondering if the future might bring about a “fairer, less greedy world” than the present (with its “jingoistic” England – “an England I don’t want to know”), Hunter Davies was recalling in The Times (January 21) how le Carré, fifty-odd years ago, “handed over £2.6 million to a tax avoidance schemer in the West Indies – and lost it all”. The top rate of tax at the time, Mr Percy omits to mention, was 95 per cent.’

What the columnist fails to consider is that, if John le Carré had been serious in wanting to contribute to a ‘fairer, less greedy world’, he would presumably (unlike me) have supported the government’s ‘progressive’ tax policies, as it obviously would have been far wiser in spending (ahem, ‘redistributing’) his hard-earned income than he himself was.

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The Hoax of the Blunt Confession (Part 1)

Anthony Blunt
Anthony Blunt

Dramatis Personae 1963-1964

UK Government:

Alec Douglas-Home (Prime Minister since October 1963)

Rab Butler (Foreign Secretary)

Henry Brooke (Home Secretary)

John Hobson (Attorney-General)

Bernard Burrows (Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee)

Howard Caccia (Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office)

Burke Trend (Secretary to the Cabinet)

MI5:

Roger Hollis (Director-General)

Graham Mitchell (deputy to Hollis, retired in September 1963)

Martin Furnival-Jones (head of D Division, transferred to deputy to Hollis in September 1963)

Malcolm Cumming (head of D Division, replacing Furnival-Jones)

Arthur Martin (head of D1, ‘Investigations’, former henchman of Dick White)

Peter Wright (joined D1 in January 1964)

Ronnie Symonds (working for Martin, compiler of report on Mitchell)

MI6 (SIS):

Dick White (Chief since 1956; former head of MI5)

Maurice Oldfield (White’s representative in Washington)

The Spies:

Guy Burgess (absconded to the Soviet Union in 1951)

Donald Maclean (absconded to the Soviet Union in 1951)

Kim Philby (absconded to the Soviet Union in January 1963)

Anthony Blunt (strongly suspected of being Soviet spy)

John Cairncross (forced to leave the Treasury in 1952)

Leo Long (detected spying in 1944, but not prosecuted)

James Klugmann (open CP member, and ex-SOE officer)

Michael Straight (American recruited by Blunt in 1937)

In the USA:

Edgar Hoover (Chief of FBI)

William Sullivan (Hoover’s deputy)

James Angleton (Head of CIA Counter-Intelligence)

Anatoli Golitysn (KGB defector)

Contents

Introduction

The Official Account

Had Blunt confessed before?

The Sources: Wave 1 – Conflicting Rumours

The Sources: Wave 2 – Digging Deeper

The Sources: Wave 3 – The Era of Biography

The Sources: Wave 4 The Archives Come Into Play

Introduction

When I set out on this project, I did not know whether it was important, or why it might be so. I did not even seriously believe that there could be significant doubts about the facts of Anthony Blunt’s confession. Yet I had a nagging suspicion that all was not right, and my impressions were that the official account was at loggerheads with other descriptions I had read. Thus, as my investigation continued, and I became more convinced that the official accounts were false, I asked myself: If the event had indeed been bogus (as Chapman Pincher suspected), why would Hollis and White go to such elaborate lengths to construct such a flimsy story, and why did they execute the misinformation exercise with such appalling clumsiness? The irony remains, however, that, despite the project’s ham-handedness, every historian, journalist and commentator has been taken in by what appears to be an absurdly clumsy attempt by Dick White, former head of MI5, and chief of MI6, to divert attention from his profound culpability over Anthony Blunt. This report lays out the historical evidence. Next month I shall interpret it all.

[Note: In my text, as a general rule, standard parentheses enclose natural asides. Square parentheses indicate editorial comment.]

The Official Account

Christopher Andrew

The anchor for the analysis of the confessions of Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross in early 1964 should probably be the account of the events by the authorised historian, Christopher Andrew, delivered in 2009. We should recall that MI5 had set out on its celebrated ‘Molehunt’ two years before the Blunt confrontation. In April 1962 the Soviet defector Anatoli Golitsyn had defected to the USA. On James Angleton’s invitation, Arthur Martin of MI5 had interviewed him, and Golitsyn later declared the existence of a ‘Ring of Five’ Cambridge spies. Burgess and Maclean were the obvious first two. Philby was not named, but was indirectly identified. The names of the last two were unknown. Philby, perhaps with MI6’s connivance, escaped from Beirut in January 1963. Cairncross and Blunt had apparently been interviewed by MI5 several times since the abscondence of Burgess and Maclean in 1951. Cairncross had been required to leave the Treasury in April 1952 when evidence of his espionage came to light.

The famous and much quoted passage in Defend the Realm runs as follows (pp 436-437):

“The decisive breakthrough in the Service’s investigation of Anthony Blunt came when the American Michael Straight admitted that Blunt had recruited him while he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Arthur Martin called on Blunt at the Courtauld Institute on the evening of 23 April 1964 and asked him to recall all he knew about Michael Straight. Martin ‘noticed that by this time Blunt’s right cheek was twitching a good deal’ and ‘allowed a long pause before saying that Michael Straight’s account was rather different from his’. He then offered Blunt ‘an absolute assurance that no action would be taken against him if he now told the truth’:

He sat and looked at me for fully a minute without speaking. I said that his silence had already told me what I wanted to know. Would he now get the whole thing off his chest? I added that only a week or two ago I had been through a similar scene with John Cairncross who had finally confessed and afterwards thanked me for making him do so. Blunt’s answer was: ‘give me five minutes while I wrestle with my conscience.’ He went out of the room, got himself a drink, came back and stood at the tall window looking out on Portman Square. I gave him several minute of silence and then appealed him to get it off his chest. He came back to his chair and [confessed].

Andrew sources this passage as ‘Security Services Archives’.

Now, I do not doubt that Professor Andrew did find a document containing this information, but it is bewildering that it has not been released by MI5 to the National Archives for perusal by objective historians. It is not unknown for inauthentic documents to be inserted into an archive in order to indicate that things were other than they actually were. For the melodramatic event poses all sorts of pertinent questions. Andrew’s vagueness about dates (including in a predecessor passage where he describes Cairncross’s confession to Martin in Cleveland, Ohio) provokes some major challenges: the circumstances of Martin’s approaches to Blunt raise a few more. For example:

Straight confessed to the FBI in June 1963. Why did it take so long to confront Blunt?

Why was Cairncross interrogated in Ohio, when he had recently passed through London?

What was Martin’s real business in the USA in January 1964?

What made Cairncross confess, just when he had taken up a new academic post in Ohio?

Why did Martin visit Blunt alone? This was not normal investigative practice.

Why did Martin state that Blunt’s account ‘was rather different from’ Straight’s, when Blunt had apparently not said anything at that time?

Why did Martin’s claim that Cairncross had confessed not have any discernible effect on Blunt?

Why were Blunt’s revelations about Cairncross such a big issue if Cairncross had already confessed?

Why did Martin say that Cairncross’s confession had occurred ‘only a week or two ago’, when it had happened over two months beforehand?

How did Martin and MI5 expect to be able to establish whether Blunt told them ‘the truth’ or not?

I shall attempt to answer those questions by peeling away the various records and interpretations of the event in books and archival material published since Andrew Boyle’s unveiling of ‘Maurice’ in 1979, and Margaret Thatcher’s subsequent admission in the House of Commons that Anthony Blunt had been given immunity. The story displays a kind of ‘Rashomon Effect’, although the testimony of the scribes is rarely that of eye-witnesses, and those closest to the action appear to have the most at stake in distorting the facts of what actually happened. Perhaps it should be seen as more of a detective-story, where a Hercule Poirot-like figure interviews all the participants in order to establish the truth.

But first, the claims about an earlier Blunt confession.

Had Blunt confessed before?

Andrew Boyle

In one provocative paragraph in Climate of Treason, Andrew Boyle suggested that Blunt (‘Maurice’) had voluntarily approached MI5 to admit his connections with Burgess and Maclean. “Yet less than two years after the reappearance of Burgess and Maclean in Moscow [February 1956]”, he wrote, “‘Maurice’, the Fourth Man, belatedly called on the security authorities to confess all he knew about the past links between himself and his fellow conspirators.” Boyle went on to describe how Blunt gained the equivalent of a ‘Royal Pardon’ for disclosing what Blunt claimed was ‘a secondary role’ in the ‘nefarious exploits of Burgess, Maclean and, to a lesser degree, of Philby’.

Boyle offers no source for these assertions. And it is easy to grant this event (if it occurred) more substance than it merits. After all, Blunt apparently did not admit to grand espionage on his own account, but merely to abetting the real traitors. Moreover, such revelations would not have come as much of a surprise to Dick White and Roger Hollis (who had succeeded White as head of MI5 on the former’s transfer to MI6 chief in 1956), since Blunt’s behaviour at the time of the abscondence of Burgess and Maclean had been well-noted, and Blunt’s collaboration with Leo Long at MI14 in 1944 was still fresh in their minds. 1958 seems rather early in the cycle, yet, if Blunt was anxious to get his account out before Burgess spoke up and distorted the story (in Boyle’s thinking), one might have assumed that Blunt would have spoken up even earlier.

Other writers, however, have brought up stories in a similar vein. In her 2001 biography of Blunt, Anthony Blunt: his lives, Miranda Carter reports a claim made by Michael Taylor, an undergraduate at the Courtauld in the early sixties (pp 438-439). In a letter to Carter of February 8, 1996, Taylor had written:

I knew MI5 had offered him immunity if he would confess, that he had got up, walked over and poured himself a drink and gone over and gazed out of the window for a while before turning around and admitting he was a spy. I knew he had been questioned a number of times over the years and had proved too clever to be trapped. And I knew that the car of the last of the three had been finally located in the carpark of the Courtauld Institute galleries  . . . To me this was common knowledge and it was told to me by a fellow undergraduate in 1961 (or perhaps 1962).

This anecdote may betray a confusion of memories: how would Taylor have known of the drink-pouring incident? He may have recollected it from another account, as I shall show later. Carter goes on to claim that Blunt’s guilt was ‘canteen gossip at MI5’ in the early 1960s. She shows that there were frequent declarations made among the denizens of the art world that their resident expert on Poussin had been a Soviet spy. Yet all these denunciations could be indicative only that senior officers at MI5 believed that Blunt was a spy, and were happy to have their suspicions broadcast. They do not necessarily point to the fact that Blunt had made a confession, and agreed to some form of an immunity deal.

Carter also identifies the story in Private Eye, in the issue of 28 September 1979 (i.e. before Blunt was officially unmasked) that named Blunt as the interested party, after a leak from the practices of Blunt’s lawyer, Michael Rubinstein. One of the statements that the magazine made was that Blunt ‘had confessed in 1957’.

‘Open Secret’

Other indications of an earlier confession have surfaced. In his 2019 biography of John Cairncross, The Last Cambridge Spy, Chris Smith informs us (p 154) that Dame Stella Rimington (Director-General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996), when a junior officer, had interviewed Cairncross in 1973, and noted that he had claimed that Blunt was MI5’s source on Cairncross’s guilt. Was she perhaps just parroting what Cairncross said? Indeed, in Cairncross’s memoir The Enigma Spy (p 141) the author declared, in describing Martin’s arrival in Cleveland, Ohio, and the subsequent interview, that ‘his informant was again Anthony Blunt, the man who had organized my recruitment without appearing on the scene himself.’ Moreover, in Open Secret, her 2001 memoir, Dame Stella appears to make a far more authoritative declaration (p 119): “He [Cairncross] had been exposed as a spy for the KGB by Anthony Blunt, and had been interviewed by, amongst others, Peter Wright, to whom he had made some limited admissions.” In other words, Blunt confessed before Cairncross.

It must be daunting for any biographer new to this sphere to sort out such conflicts. Thus, instead of analyzing this valuable item of evidence from a highly authoritative source, and considering its implications, Smith has to resort to trusting ‘the archival evidence’ (which of course he has not seen, as it has not been shown to any writer except Christopher Andrew). “Yet, the archival evidence conclusively shows that Martin had interviewed Cairncross by 18 February 1964. They cannot have been interested in Cairncross because Blunt tipped them off”, Smith writes. The evidence is, however, not conclusive at all. So what does a researcher do: accept the judgment of the authorised historian that an authentic and reliable document exists, or trust the word of a director-general of MI5, who was there at a critical interview? Of course, you must do neither. You have to accept that there is a conflict, and dig more deeply yourself.

My method here is thus to study in depth the publications that cover the Cairncross-Blunt confessions, to determine what source material they relied upon, and thus to attempt to establish how some of the mythology took hold. Next month I shall propose what a more likely explanation of events might be. This study may be very laborious for some: for true aficionados I hope (and believe) that it will be as compelling to read as it has been for me to compile it. I know no other way of dismantling the scaffolding of untruths that has concealed the structure behind it.

The Sources: Wave 1 – Conflicting Rumours

Margaret Thatcher

The Prime Minister’s Statement to the House of Commons: November 21, 1979 (extract)

“The defection of Burgess and Maclean led to intense and prolonged investigations of the extent to which the security and other public services had been infiltrated by Russian intelligence.

At an early stage in these investigations Professor Blunt came under inquiry. This was as a result of information to the effect that Burgess had been heard in 1937 to say that he was working for a secret branch of the Comintern and that Blunt was one of his sources. Blunt denied this. Nevertheless, he remained under suspicion, and became the subject of intensive investigation. He was interviewed on 11 occasions over the following eight years. He persisted in his denial, and no evidence against him was obtained. Of course, until his confession, the authorities did not know the extent of his involvement with the Russians or the period over which it lasted.

It was early in 1964 that new information was received relating to an earlier period which directly implicated Blunt. I cannot disclose the nature of that information but it was not usable as evidence on which to base a prosecution. In this situation, the security authorities were faced with a difficult choice. They could have decided to wait in the hope that further information which could be used as a basis for prosecuting Blunt would, in due course, be discovered. But the security authorities had already pursued their inquiries for nearly 13 years without obtaining firm evidence against Blunt.

There was no reason to expect or hope that a further wait would be likely to yield evidence of a kind which had eluded them so far. Alternatively, they could have confronted Professor Blunt with the new information to see if it would break his denial. But Blunt had persisted in his denial at 11 interviews; the security authorities had no reason to suppose that he would do otherwise at a twelfth. If the security authorities had confronted him with the new information, and he still persisted in his denial, their investigation of him would have been no further forward and they might have prejudiced their own position by alerting him to information which he could then use to warn others.

They therefore decided to ask the Attorney-General, through the acting Director of Public Prosecutions, to authorise them to offer Blunt immunity from prosecution, if he both confessed and agreed to co-operate in their further investigations.”

‘The Fourth Man’

The Fourth Man by Douglas Sutherland (1980)

Quick off the press after Boyle was Douglas Sutherland, who had written a book with Anthony Purdy titled Burgess and Maclean in 1963, and now felt encouraged to make more explicit what he had hinted at earlier. The Fourth Man is a paradoxical work, since it starts out by criticizing MI5 and other government agencies for being in their employment practices too tolerant of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt, but concludes that it did not really matter, since they all achieved very little in the line of espionage, and that Cairncross was an unfortunate victim of spy fever. Of course, these latter assumptions were all made in ignorance of the secrets later revealed in the Moscow archives.

His coverage is relevant for this discussion of the challenge he threw down to Blunt in 1962. He writes (p 18): “In 1963, when Anthony Purdy and I published our book Burgess and Maclean, we had known with complete certainty that the shadowy figure now known in the popular numbers game as ‘The Fourth Man’ was Sir Anthony Blunt.” Sutherland thus invited Blunt to a meeting at the Travellers’ Club, and confronted him, listing the reasons he thought he was implicated. Blunt was visibly shocked, but Sutherland spoiled his opportunity by making a weak claim that allowed Blunt to wriggle free. “Unfortunately I did not realize at the time just how the last minute tipoff to Maclean had been contrived and wrongly accused Blunt of using his MI5 contacts to tell Maclean on Friday that he was to be interrogated on the Monday after his flight. This, it now emerges, was not the case. My inadvertent disclosure that my information was not entirely accurate seemed to rally Blunt. He stopped shaking and mumbling, told me in a comparatively firm voice that I would hear from his solicitors immediately if his name appeared anywhere in connection with the case, and beat a hasty retreat.”

Sutherland used this experience, however, to suggest that Blunt, over the eleven interrogations that the Prime Minister stated had occurred, could well have been broken, and he also expressed his belief that MI5 might have brought Blunt in from the cold and asked for his cooperation. Thus Sutherland is another who doubted the solemn implications of a stagey April 1964 melodrama, and, in his own style, he anticipated the Stella Rimington story. Yet he showed his own inconsistencies. On page 162, he claimed that Blunt held back on what he admitted because of the demands of the Official Secrets Act, and on the next, indicated that Blunt made a ‘full confession’ in 1964. He overlooked the obvious irony.

‘Their Trade is Treachery’

Their Trade is Treachery by Chapman Pincher (1981: paperback version 1982)

When Pincher issued the first edition of Their Trade is Treachery, he was prevented, on legal advice, from naming some of the figures in the drama, such as Michael Straight, Leo Long, and Jack Jones, and instead had to deploy vague coded language. Straight, for instance, was described as ’a middle-aged American belonging to a rich and famous family’. But by the time the paperback version was published the following year, Straight had been flushed out by an enterprising journalist (Pincher), and admitted his role. In this revised edition, Pincher described how he had been able to interview Straight: he and Straight became close friends, and met several times before the paperback version was published. Pincher was free to name names.

Peter Wright was the source for the story. He had been introduced to Pincher by Victor Rothschild, and was seeking monetary reward to compensate for the fact of his pitiful £2000-a-year pension. Pincher had travelled to Australia to see Wright, and had made detailed notes from his conversations with him in Tasmania and from his inspection of the chapters that Wright had written. (Wright would not hand over his manuscript.) In his 2014 autobiography, Dangerous To Know, Pincher said he wrote the book in four months on his return to England. And sometimes it shows.

Pincher’s account runs as follows: Straight was asked by President Kennedy, late in 1963, shortly before he was assassinated, to be chairman of the National Council for the Arts. Concerned about what a security check might bring up, Straight met with the FBI, and admitted that he had been recruited in Cambridge by Blunt,’ whom he knew to have been a Soviet agent’, and was willing to give evidence against Blunt, if necessary. The FBI gave the news to MI5, and senior MI5 officers ‘discussed the situation for several weeks before taking any action’. Pincher continued by making a rather brazen observation: “It was agreed inside MI5 that the main purpose of confronting Blunt with the evidence was to induce him to talk in the hope that he would give a lead to the still unknown Fifth Man, to others he and his friends might have recruited, and to the identities and methods of the Soviet intelligence officers who had been involved.”

It was (according to Pincher) Arthur Martin who came up with the idea of offering Blunt immunity, and the Attorney-General approved the idea. After an intense discussion in April, Martin was chosen to interview Blunt in his flat. When the testimony from Straight was described to him, Blunt denied it, but, after Martin, in a huge bluff, indicated there was further evidence, and then made the offer of immunity, Blunt poured himself a stiff gin, and confessed that he had been a long-serving KGB agent. No written confession was made. Hollis suspended Martin almost immediately after the confession, an indication, in Pincher’s mind, that Hollis was himself a Soviet agent.

I see several problems with this account. The first is the date given for Kennedy’s offer of a job to Straight. Working backwards, Pincher must have assumed that it occurred just before Kennedy was killed, as the news would surely have been passed quickly to MI5. Moreover, Pincher claimed to have interviewed Straight. As Straight’s testimony, and the FBI files show [to be analyzed in this piece later], the events happened in June 1963. Why did Straight not make this clear? Thus the ‘several weeks’ for which MI5 sat on the information are highly problematical. And the fact that MI5 decided to interrogate Blunt in order to determine who the ‘Fifth Man’ was fairly comprehensively suggests that the Security Service had already concluded that Blunt was the ‘Fourth Man’. Had this realization happened before the Straight incident? Moreover, the description of the interrogation departs from the version appearing in the Authorised History. There is no mention of the recent interrogation of Cairncross, or of the way that the latter’s confession was used as an opening to encourage Blunt to do the same. And it is highly unlikely that Martin, an avid molehunter, would have been the person who came up with the idea of offering Blunt immunity. Martin was head of D1 at the time, a relatively low-level officer in the hierarchy.

It is difficult to pin down why this account was so sloppy – especially as Straight had been interviewed. Did Straight dissemble? Did the interview even take place? Was Wright simply confused, as he had not been close enough to the action? Or had Pincher made a number of transcription errors during his time in Tasmania? Some of these issues would get reconstructed in the coming years.

‘MI5’

MI5: British Security Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West (1981)

The first instalment of Nigel West’s history of MI5 presents some historiographical problems. The project fell into West’s lap because of Dick White’s annoyance that Prime Minister Thatcher had cancelled the publication of Volume 4 of the British Intelligence in the Second World War series. Drawing on a conversation he had with Sir Michael Howard, White’s biographer, Tom Bower, described White as being ‘furious’ about her veto, and went on to write: “  . . .White encouraged a new writer, Rupert Allason, alias Nigel West, to write the history of MI5  up to 1945. With his assistance, West would be introduced to Tar Robertson and the MI5 officers who had rune the double-cross operation.” White was also upset that John Masterman (of Double-Cross fame) had been gaining all the glory.

West rather disingenuously recorded White’s contribution in his Introduction to MI5, where he wrote: “When I began my research I was told by a former Director-General of the Security Service that the task was virtually impossible, especially for an outsider.” Since three of the four previous DGs with deep knowledge of the period in question were deceased (Petrie, 1961; Sillitoe, 1962; and Hollis, 1973), the finger was pointed fairly squarely at Dick White. And West became an insider.

MI5 was first published in 1981, hard on the heels of Their Trade Is Treachery, and its ambit is clearly up to the end of World War II. Yet, at some stage, West added a Postscript that refers to Pincher’s book, and searches on West’s text suggests that the Postscript was added as early as 1982. It shows enough knowledge to indicate the role of Michael Straight, but is vague enough on the details to indicate that his precise testimony had not been examined. In his Postscript, West refers to Chapman Pincher’s Their Trade is Treachery, stating that it ‘caused such a furore early in 1981’, a choice of phrase that suggests it was a recent year, and not the same year in which MI5 originally appeared.

The story West tells is rather odd. Unfortunately, he displays a haphazard and imprecise approach to chronology. Cairncross is introduced into the story before the Straight incident. Without providing any context or timing, or explanation of what made Cairncross suddenly change his tune, West blandly declares: “Cairncross underwent a further interview in the United States, where he was lecturing, and made a full statement on his role as a Soviet agent. Although he was able to fill in a number of gaps about Burgess, he was unaware of Blunt’s talent-spotting and thus failed to name Blunt as a suspect. Cairncross wisely decided not to return to England and went to live in Rome when the American Department of Immigration declined to renew his visa.” But was this interview further to one he had submitted to recently, or further to his confession of 1952?

The temporal flow of West’s account suggests that the Cairncross confession occurred before Straight’s admissions to the FBI. West offers no date apart from ‘1963’ for the episodes involving Straight, and the passing on of Straight’s information to Hollis. Likewise, the sequence of events concerning the formal immunity from prosecution, and Blunt’s agreement to co-operate, is undated. West was probably uncomfortable with Pincher’s description of events, but was fed another leaky story by White and his cohorts, and was not ready to try and synthesize from all these half-baked stories exactly what happened, when.

‘A Matter of Trust’

MI5: 1945-72, A Matter of Trust by Nigel West (1982)

Soon after the publication of MI5 came Nigel West’s second instalment, not without controversy. On October 12, 1982, Her Majesty’s Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, QC, MP, successfully applied to Mr Justice Russell for an injunction against publication, as West’s work contained much secret information, including names of MI5 officers. After some negotiation, and the removal of some fairly innocuous names in organisation charts, the Court Order was discharged, and the book was published in November of that year.

MI5:1945-72 went through several impressions in the 1980s (my paperback copy is from the sixth impression in 1987), so it is not easy to determine whether subtle changes were made in the text concerning Cairncross and Blunt. In his Introduction, West volunteered the information that the Stephen Ward case had caused some major revisions, while making the claim that ‘this final version of A Matter of Trust is the most detailed account of MI5’s work ever published, or ever likely to be.’ Well, West could probably not imagine an authorised history coming out in 2009: his work held the stage for over twenty-five years.

In any case, it does not appear that A Matter of Trust took advantage of other works published during the mid-1980s. In fact, West’s account is singularly obtuse over the 1963-64 events. He identifies the trigger for the interrogation of Cairncross, after Blunt had repeatedly declined to co-operate, with D Branch’s decision to ‘retrace their steps’ and arrange an interview with Cairncross, ‘who was then lecturing at the University of the North-West in Cleveland, Ohio.’

Accordingly, Martin flew to Cleveland late in March 1964 ‘to talk over the situation with Cairncross’. [We know now that those dates are false.] For some reason, ‘the years abroad had mellowed him and he appeared ready to admit his espionage for the Russians.’ [The mellowing had presumably taken place in Pakistan or Italy, not the USA, as Cairncross had only just arrived in his post there.] West does not attempt to analyze why Cairncross would suddenly jeopardise his new career by owning up to something for which there was no fresh evidence.

West’s informer was no doubt Arthur Martin: no written record of Cairncross’s ‘confession’ has come to light. Cairncross was apparently able to reveal how he had been recruited by Guy Burgess in 1935, and he confirmed the awkward situation in 1951, when MI5 had tried to set him up with a rendezvous with his handler, Yuri Modin, during which only the Soviet officer’s quick-wittedness prevented a compromising meeting. Satisfied with his meeting with Cairncross, Martin prepared to return to London, travelling through Washington, where he was surprised to find that his opposite number in the FBI, William C. Sullivan, had some news for him. (Sullivan was assuredly not Martin’s ‘opposite number’.)  He was told that Sullivan’s boss, Edgar Hoover (whom Sullivan loathed) ‘knew all about the communist cells at Cambridge because the FBI had its own special source on the subject’. That source was, of course, Michael Straight, and Martin had a meeting with him the following day. The story again came out: Hoover, apparently, had not trusted MI5 with the information. The given interval, however, between the end of March, for Straight’s revelations, and the date of Blunt’s confession [as we now know, dated on April 22] seriously belies Pincher’s assertion that MI5 officers ‘discussed the situation for several weeks before taking any action’.

Martin reportedly flew promptly back to London [an event we now know not to be true], and informed his boss, the head of D Division, Martin Furnival-Jones. West collapses the events concerning the agreement, and Martin’s interview with Blunt, into a few short sentences. Blunt took only a few seconds to consider the promise of immunity from prosecution, and then admitted that he had been recruited in 1936. Later, he admitted talent-spotting for Burgess, and recruiting Cairncross, which went rather against the grain of Cairncross’s claim that he had been recruited in 1935, as well as West’s assertion in MI5 that Cairncross was not aware of Blunt’s activities as a talent-spotter, and denial that he had been effectively recruited by him. The overall conclusion from this account, however, is that Arthur Martin was a professional liar who could not even construct a solid legend about his activities.

West does add some commentary on Martin’s subsequent suspension by Hollis, although his description of the conflict is undermined by his listing of Malcolm Cumming as Martin’s boss of D Division, since the organization charts provided by West show that Furnival Jones held that position until Hollis’s retirement in 1965. If indeed Cumming had been appointed head of D Division, Martin might well have resented it. [I shall cover this later.] In explaining Martin’s suspension, however, West strongly counters Pincher’s assertion that Hollis was the prime mover behind the act. He states that the decision was made by the Security Service Directorate (i.e. the six Directors alongside the DG and the Deputy DG). Lastly, West adds the laconic but portentous sidenote: “In his [Martin’s] absence, Peter W. took over Blunt’s debriefing.”

‘After Long Silence’
Michael Straight

After Long Silence by Michael Straight (1983)

The last book from this exploratory period is Michael Straight’s own confessional work, which laid out for the public to read the whole saga of his recruitment as a Comintern spy in Cambridge. He describes how Blunt, about two weeks after the news of the death of Straight’s hero and friend, John Cornford, in Spain had reached the colleges of Cambridge (mid-January 1937), explained that ‘their friends’ had plans for him. By exploiting Cornford’s sacrifice, Blunt persuaded Straight that he could not turn down his assignment to move back to the USA and work on Wall Street, providing economic appraisals ‘of Wall Street’s plans to dominate the world economy’. Straight’s obvious distress at Cornford’s death would form a first-class cover for his breaking away from Cambridge.

Straight then covers his not very subversive career in espionage until June 1963, when he was invited to the White House to see Arthur Schlesinger, who showed him J. F. Kennedy’s plans for creating an Advisory Council on the Arts. Straight’s membership of that body would not have been problematic, but when he was recommended as chairman of the administrative arm of the new agency, the National Endowment of the Arts, he had to reconsider. Prior to his appointment, Straight would have to undergo an F.B.I. check.  He decided he could not risk it. He told Schlesinger the whole story, and was set up with an interview with William Sullivan, the deputy director of the F.B.I. He told his whole story again.

In July, Sullivan asked Straight if he would repeat his story to the British intelligence authorities, and he willingly agreed to do so. For some reason, however, he was not called again until January 1964. Straight attributed this lack of exchange of information to the distrust and suspicion that lingered with the F.B.I after the Burgess/Maclean fiasco of 1951. Nevertheless, Sullivan called Straight in January 1964, saying that a friend of his was flying in from London. It was, of course, Arthur Martin, and he had a long discussion with the MI5 officer. He told Martin that he believed that Burgess had been behind the plot to send him back to America. He said he thought Leo Long had been brought into the network as well. Martin was elated at the breakthrough, and asked Straight if he would be prepared to confront Blunt if the latter declined to confess. Straight said he would, and the two parted.

Straight does not describe any other events of 1964 until he flew to London in September to be with his mother. Martin debriefed him, explaining that Blunt had confessed (though why Straight could not have been informed of this before is not analysed). “He had, in the course of many interrogations, named his Russian and his British colleagues; he had described the material that he had turned over to the Soviet government; he had provided the intelligence services with a great deal of information.” Yet Straight appears incurious about Blunt’s fate. He has a long chat with Blunt, who appeared to bear no grudges. Straight forgot most of what they discussed, but added that ‘the question of immunity from prosecution was never mentioned”. One might imagine that a person in Straight’s position would have shown greater interest in why a confessed spy was apparently being allowed to survive unscathed and unprosecuted.

This memoir adds some valuable facts that are probably reliable: the confession in June, the role of Sullivan, the meeting with Martin in January 1964 [which will be confirmed later in the course of historiography]. But it thus sheds a lot of doubt on the testimony of Martin himself, when telling West that he did not meet Straight until the end of March, on his way back from Cleveland, and it raises some thorny questions about the six-month hiatus when the FBI and MI5 apparently never discussed Straight’s extraordinary testimony.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Thus the first wave concludes with some conflicts in dates, as well as in evidence. How much of this was due to misunderstanding or mistranscription, and how much to forgetfulness or even active disinformation?

The Sources: Wave 2 – Digging Deeper

‘Too Secret Too Long’

Too Secret Too Long by Chapman Pincher (1983)

Chapman Pincher was first to return to the fray, with a weightier volume, Too Secret Too Long, published in 1983. The publication of Their Trade Is Treachery had resulted in a groundswell of communications to the author from around the world, and Pincher exploited his many contacts in government and the civil service to flesh out his story. He contacted Michael Straight, and befriended him, and Straight in turn showed him his communications with Arthur Martin. Pincher harvested many useful items from Parliamentary proceedings, published in Hansard. Some of his information sources, however, had to be masked as ‘Confidential’, indicating that certain civil servants knew they were betraying secret information. He was able to access F.B.I. papers on the Straight confessions. And he started to construct a more rigorous chronology of events, while neglecting to follow it up in a truly disciplined manner.

The first major breakthrough that Pincher brought to the table was an illumination of the movements of the key players in 1963. He shows how Blunt was himself in the USA, at Pennsylvania University [sic], while Straight’s debriefing was being completed in August of that year. He points out that Roger Hollis had been in Washington in September, in an attempt to explain to Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I. the rationale behind the inquiry into Hollis’s deputy, Graham Mitchell, and that Arthur Martin followed close behind. He states that John Minnick, the legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London (and also the resident F.B.I. officer) delivered a letter from Hoover carrying the Straight-Blunt information – but only in November 1963. Pincher correctly draws attention to this astonishing delay, and surmises that Hollis did perhaps get briefed by Hoover in September, but decided to keep the information to himself.

Yet Pincher then breaks down in his own details. He goes on to write: “Whatever the extent and reasons for the long-time gap, Hollis decide to introduce a further delay. He allotted the case to Arthur Martin who was already in Washington pursuing the Mitchell inquiries and could easily have seen the F.B.I. about Blunt. Hollis, however, told Martin nothing, insisting that he must first return to London for discussions before either the F.B.I. or Straight could be approached.” This analysis is illogical, and in contradiction of Pincher’s own facts. If Hollis had truly been trying to keep things quiet, the last thing he would want to do would be to let loose an officer with a reputation for skulduggery in Washington, digging up secrets. There were no ‘Mitchell inquiries’ to be pursued in Washington. Moreover, this sequence of events flies completely in the face of what Straight had published in After Long Silence, where Martin in early 1964 was flown out to the U.S.A. on a mission (to interrogate Cairncross, as other accounts would soon confirm), and had a surprise encounter with Straight engineered by Hoover’s deputy, Sullivan.

But then Pincher corrects himself. He uses the Straight-Martin correspondence to show that Martin was not permitted to see Straight until early January, 1964, and cites Martin (who ‘recalled the situation to an informant recently’) as confirming that he had not been told about Blunt in the November time-frame, and that it was Sullivan who approached him about it when he was in Washington ‘for another purpose’. Pincher writes; ‘He seems to believe that the information he then received from Straight, in January 1964, was the first that MI5 had ever heard about it, implying that the F.B.I. had delayed for almost eight months before sharing its knowledge. This does not accord with my information from other MI5 sources.” Pincher then posits an arrangement between Hoover and Hollis (who apparently got on well) to set up the Straight-Martin meeting, so that Martin could return in triumph, and cover Hollis’s clandestine knowledge since November. But what would Hollis have hoped to gain through that intrigue?

The main thrust of Pincher’s case is, however, that Blunt’s confession was essentially bogus. [Chapter 37 of his book should be re-inspected by those readers who need to see his full analysis.]  Pincher considers that Blunt must have been pre-warned about the proposed immunity offer: there was no planning for the eventuality that Blunt would not confess; the meeting did not take long; Blunt capitulated too soon; Martin never outlined to Blunt the conditions agreed on for the deal itself; there was no written record of the event; Martin tape-recorded it, and asked Blunt to agree to the proceedings, but Blunt knew that it could have no status in law. Moreover, Pincher now states (in contradiction of what he claimed in Their Trade Is Treachery) that Martin made no attempt to bluff Blunt. “The circumstances of Blunt’s confrontation by Martin would be rejected by an author of spy fiction as too wildly improbable a scenario”, was how Pincher summed it up.

Pincher’s natural instinct is by now to blame Hollis for everything. In this assessment he completely ignores any role for Dick White, but I think that is a gross oversight. Hollis and White were surely in the plot together. White had ensured that Hollis succeeded him as D-G of MI5, and White had far much more to lose than Hollis did, given White’s leading part in MI5 when Blunt had been recruited, his treachery later discovered and then condoned, and then his advice sought in the Philby affair. Martin had been White’s henchman in the 1950 business to mislead the F.B.I and the C.I.A. (see Dick White’s Devilish Plot), and it is possible that the strife immediately after the Blunt engagement of April 1964, whereafter Martin joined his former boss in MI6, was a ruse to isolate Hollis.

There are two further gems in Pincher’s account. He informs us that Straight visited London in September 1964 and with Hollis’s assent confronted Blunt, ‘having been ignored by MI5 during a visit in the previous November’ [my italics]. I believe this is sensational. Pincher cites ‘Letters from Michael Straight’ as his source. Yet Straight had carefully elided over any intermediate visits to Britain – and possibly to Blunt – in After Long Silence. Why? Was he now trying to provide a hint to Pincher? As will be shown later, Straight’s biographer added some flesh to this particular journey. Yet Pincher’s reinforcement of his hints from MI5 insiders that the FBI had contacted MI5 earlier in the cycle is important.

The last revelation is Pincher’s treatment of Cairncross, in Chapter 40. He goes over the now familiar story of Cairncross’s career and partial confession in 1952, and stresses that one of the first fellow-spies whom Blunt named was Cairncross, that he had talent-spotted him, and arranged for him to be recruited by James Klugmann. Next, however, as part of the prevailing doctrine that Cairncross’s confession followed that of Blunt, Pincher writes: “MI5 had no option but to take some action and in 1964 Martin travelled to Rome to interrogate Cairncross who could, of course, have simply refused to be interviewed.” Cairncross apparently made a full confession to Martin.

As we know now, this is hogwash. And Pincher should have realised that a massive disinformation campaign was under way, as Nigel West had written in 1982 about Martin’s interrogation of Cairncross in Cleveland earlier in the year, before the date of Blunt’s reported confession. Martin was feeding stories to West and Pincher, but tripping over himself by not getting a watertight story together first. Pincher then absolved him by stumbling over his own details, and focusing exclusively on Hollis. He spotted that the Blunt confession was a sham, but was not imaginative enough to propose an alternative scenario. Martin was turning out to be a liar, and not a very good one. Enough evidence was around in 1983 to explode the whole façade that Hollis and White had been constructing.

‘Conspiracy of Silence’

Conspiracy of Silence by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman (1986)

The hardback version of Conspiracy of Silence came out in 1986: energized by the Spycatcher Trial, an expanded paperback edition with a lengthy new postscript was issued in 1987 [the version I own]. Penrose and Freeman were journalists on the enterprising Sunday Times team, and they had been spurred into action by the death of Blunt in 1983. The subtitle of their work is The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt, yet it covers much more.

Penrose and Freeman had shown the skills of some old-fashioned sleuthing in flushing out Cairncross and Leo Long in the wake of Andrew Boyle’s book. In December 1979, following up on a clumsy hint from Sir John Colville, Winston Churchill’s sometime private secretary, Penrose had landed on Cairncross’s name and tracked him down to Rome, where they interviewed him, and it was Arthur Martin himself who told the reporters that Straight had informed him about Long. In this regard, the role of Martin in Penrose’s and Freeman’s story is quite remarkable. He is cited generously, having granted the authors off-the-record interviews in 1985, at a time when the Government was attempting to tighten up on unauthorized disclosures by retired intelligence officers (such as Peter Wright). These interviews provide the bulk of Penrose’s and Freeman’s account of Blunt’s confession. Was Martin being encouraged to string West, Pincher, Costello and others on with conflicting stories, just to sow confusion?

On pages 431 and 432, the authors offer as flattering a profile of Martin as you will find anywhere else: ‘unprepossessing, self-made, and down-to-earth’.  He had enjoyed an unconventional entry into MI5, and had headed D1, the service’s ‘elite section’ responsible for Soviet counter-espionage since 1960. Penrose and Freeman portray him as ‘a creation of John le Carré; a brooding spycatcher’. “His mind was a constant blur of bluffs and double-bluffs and, although he never claimed to be an intellectual, he was quick-witted and open-minded”, they go on to write. [This goes entirely against the grain of how his close colleague Peter Wright would describe him in Spycatcher.]

Yet Martin was not sharp enough to construct his own legend carefully, since, right off the bat, he records a series of events that counters what he has told before. Perhaps the ‘constant blur’ of his impostures had destabilised him. Martin relates how, when he arrived in Washington, on his way to interview Cairncross, he found a message from Sullivan to meet him at the Mayflower Hotel that afternoon. There he met Straight, who told him about his recruitment by Blunt, alongside Leo Long. He then claimed that he returned from the USA a few days after his meeting with Straight. The authors add that ‘the trip had gone better than Martin had dared hope. John Cairncross had, or so Martin believed, confessed to having passed information to the Soviets.” Yet Penrose and Freeman offer no explanation of the timeline of the Cairncross interview, and do not question Martin’s newest account, which directly contradicts what he told Pincher and West.

Thus the three of them dig a deeper hole. “There was a delay of several months between Martin’s return from the States and his crucial meeting with Blunt when he presented Straight’s evidence”, they write, and then have to fall into useless contortions trying to explain why there was such a delay. Thus they offer a long digression into the Profumo affair, before returning to the main plot. “Martin and Hollis spent weeks debating how to handle the Straight material”, even though Martin was a member of the anti-Hollis faction, the ‘Young Turks’, and Martin has to offer his interlocutors a crust that maybe the anti-Hollis group was wrong about him.

The emphasis that Penrose and Freeman make on Martin’s and Hollis’ intense collaboration on a strategy for Blunt rather goes against the grain of Hollis’s abrupt suspension of Martin a few weeks later. According to Martin, he and Hollis came to concur on the need to offer Blunt immunity from prosecution. The authors then go on to describe the negotiations with the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General, and the Queen’s private secretary, before describing the fateful meeting of April 23, 1964. And this is the story that has been picked up as the ‘official’ account by various writers since.

The key ‘facts’ are as follows. Martin asks Blunt if he would mind his using a tape-recorder. Blunt nods in assent. Martin says he has unequivocal evidence that Blunt had been a Soviet agent during the war, something that Blunt denies, as the assertion simply wasn’t true. Martin then introduces his meeting with Straight, and outlines the allegations Straight made. Blunt is expressionless, so Martin decides he has to use the immunity card. Blunt walks to the window, pours himself a large drink, and turns to Martin, saying ‘It is true’. Martin plays back the tape, so that Blunt can agree it was an accurate record of the conversation. Martin reminds Blunt that ‘total co-operation’ is the price of immunity. Blunt nods: the meeting, lasting twenty-five minutes, is over.

There is much bogus about this story. If readers recall the description by Andrew at the beginning of this bulletin, they might wonder why Martin made no mention of Cairncross in this account. Blunt ‘left the room’ in the authorised version: not so here. The business with the tape-recorder is absurd: first of all, the real meeting could have been only about ten minutes if the total length included the playback, and yet in the authorised version Blunt requests five minutes to ‘wrestle with his conscience’. (Did Martin turn the tape-recorder off during this time?) And how would Blunt have been able to challenge the accuracy of what had just been recorded? Martin’s quickness in switching to the offer of immunity is clumsy and unrealistic. Why did he not exploit the Cairncross episode more imaginatively?

One might conclude that the version supplied by Andrew was an attempt to ‘correct’ what was a transparently spurious record on file, since other evidence would show that Cairncross had provided a full ‘confession’ only weeks before Blunt was given the same treatment. Yet the argument is full of holes, and should have been picked apart at birth.

Conspiracy of Silence was recognized as having benefitted from the indiscreet, and surely unlawful, revelation of information from present and past intelligence officers. According to Hansard, on November 19, 1986, Mr. Campbell-Savours (Member of Parliament for Workington) asked the Attorney-General whether he would prosecute Russell Lee, Christopher Harmer, William Luke, T. A. R. Robertson, Lord Rothschild, Leo Long, Andrew King, William Skarden [sic], Stephen Demoubray [sic], Lord Dacre, George Carey-Foster, Nigel Burgess, Constance Burgess, John Cairncross, Malcolm Muggeridge, Sir Robert Mackenzie, Sir Ashton Roskill and Lord Clanmorris under the Official Secrets Act of 1911. Arthur Martin – whose name appears most prominently in the book – was not listed.

‘Molehunt’

Molehunt: Searching for Soviet Spies in MI5 by Nigel West (1987)

By 1987, Nigel West felt confident enough to claim, as he did in his Introduction to Molehunt, that “The molehunts have now ended, and are of only historical importance, so at last the full, bizarre story can be told.” I recommend readers return to West’s book, published as the Spycatcher trial was concluded, but before Wright’s book came out, to assess how comprehensively West’s judgements should be accepted, and to learn the fate of ELLI, and Graham Mitchell, West’s bête noire for the role of chief mole in MI5, before determining whether they agree with West’s opinions.

Where was West looking for his authority? His text is irritatingly imprecise, his chronology customarily haphazard, and his sources generally feeble. In his chapter 3, Operation Peters, which covers the events of interest to me here, the only sources he lists are Straight’s After Long Silence, Goronwy Rees’s A Chapter of Accidents, and a World in Action programme featuring Peter Wright. Yet the text is littered with evidence that could have come only from Arthur Martin. And, immediately, new variations on the significant visit to the USA in 1963 appear.

West introduces Martin’s activities in the context of the FLUENCY Committee, chaired by Peter Wright, that had been set up in late 1964 to take over the investigation into moles. Operation PETERS, which had looked into Graham Mitchell as a candidate, had been wound down. West salutes Martin’s success with Cairncross and Straight in the following terms: “ . . . Arthur Martin had scored an important success during his visit to America to explain the outcome of the Peters inquiry to the FBI.” West thus explains Martin’s visit to Cleveland as an incidental opportunity, a by-product of his briefing, rather than the main purpose of his assignment. Hereby Martin conflates two visits, or West has got his wires crossed over what he was told. “Since Martin was already in the United States, he decided to have a second bite at the cherry.” This is all nonsense, as we know that Cairncross was recently in London, and could have been interviewed there, and that Martin had expressly been sent out to interview Cairncross.

The next event is Martin’s return to Washington, where he apparently ‘briefed William Sullivan of the FBI on the latest development’, and then was introduced to Straight. West next travels over the now familiar Straight confession. “Armed with this valuable information, Martin returned to London and informed Hollis of this remarkable development.” Yet West is very terse about the build-up to the confrontation at the Courtauld, where ‘all that remained to be done was to obtain his [Blunt’s] co-operation.’ Then we receive a modified version of the engagement, given by West as April 22, not the 23rd, and described as taking place ‘in midmorning’, not in the evening, as Andrew claims. The Straight experience is related (but not the Cairncross meeting), and the offer of immunity given. “Blunt slowly got up from his desk, walked over to a tray of bottles and poured himself a stiff gin, apparently deep in thought. As he did so he turned and said, simply: “It’s true.”

What are we to make of this? That Martin would discuss with Sullivan the Cairncross confession before he had even spoken to his bosses at MI5 is simply absurd. That would have been extremely irresponsible – and highly unlikely, if the F.B.I. truly had withheld their information on Blunt for six months. Why does Martin now push back his meeting with Straight and Sullivan to the end of his visit(s) to Cleveland? And why are all those details about the Courtauld meeting such a mixture of the precise (‘he poured himself a stiff gin’), and the erratic (Blunt’s leaving the room in one account, and walking over to the window in another). The whole imbroglio is simply farcical.

West takes up the ‘bluff’ angle again, and is generous in his praise of Martin’s performance. “The trump card had been the offer of immunity from criminal prosecution.” But, if Martin thought he had sufficient information from Straight to prove Blunt’s guilt (which he did, although it would not stand up in court), it wasn’t a bluff at all. Just a ruse to get Blunt to talk without all the embarrassing business of a trial. West’s conclusion runs as follows: “If self-preservation was to be a factor in Blunt’s motivation, the carrot dangled so skilfully by Martin contained everything he might be seeking: no embarrassing police involvement; no public humiliation; no obvious betrayal of friends.” But what did MI5 and Martin gain from this? A ‘cooperation’ that allowed Blunt to be as secret and reclusive as he wished.

Molehunt is thus a rather sad and inadequate display of sleuthing. West allows Martin to get away with an alarming number of untruths, and it is merely further evidence that these chroniclers, as they obtained their ‘insider’ information, naively believed that they were the sole receivers of the actualités. And the simplest of facts are not cross-checked.

‘Spycatcher’

Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer by Peter Wright (1987)

Spycatcher is an unreliable memoir. I have drawn attention to some of its flabby arguments in HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp, and it is likewise a very shaky source for the events of 1963 and 1964. There are no footnotes, no sources or references quoted, and thus the reader frequently cannot discern how Wright knew about events at which he was not present, or on whom he relied for information. The approach to chronology is chaotic: one might alight on an interesting event, but then have to step back for several pages to determine which year the author is writing about, as he weaves around, skipping from topic to topic.

Yet there are diamonds in the rough. On more neutral topics, where it would appear that Wright has no reason to dissemble, some important facts emerge. He provides (undated) insights on Hollis’s decision to move Furnival Jones from his position as head of D branch to C Branch, in preparation for his appointment as Deputy-Director on Mitchell’s retirement. Furnival Jones was replaced by Malcolm Cumming, an old and not very imaginative hand, and Wright claims that Arthur Martin expected to get the job himself. Mitchell retired in September 1963, so West’s account of Martin’s return to inform Furnival Jones of the Straight interview is wrong. Further ammunition for Martin’s resentment, and Hollis’s distaste for Martin’s disruptive tendencies, is provided, yet, if Martin did work closely with Hollis on the Blunt plan, it would appear that Cumming had been considered superfluous by that time. What should also be noted is that Wright himself drew attention to Martin’s faults, dubbing him ‘temperamental and obsessive’, and noting that he ‘never understood the extent to which he had made enemies over the years.’

Wright also adds details on the activities of summer 1963, where Hollis, facing opposition from his officers on disclosing the fruits of the Mitchell inquiry to the Americans, ‘glowered at’ Martin across the table when he announced, that he would visit the USA himself, to keep the F.B.I. informed. Wright then states how Hollis left for the United States ‘almost immediately’, but, since the controversial meeting where Hollis’s voice had been outnumbered is undated, we cannot pin an exact time on his departure. ‘Shortly after’, Martin followed him. Thus there exists strong evidence that Hollis and Martin were in a position where they could have, and should have, been briefed about Straight. Yet Wright was almost certainly not at that meeting himself: he started working for Martin only in January 1964. He also provides details about the scientist/officer, Hal Doyne Ditmass, whom Hollis tried to remove from D3 in May 1964, at a critical time of negotiations with the Americans. That was another event – accompanying the failed promotion – that riled Martin.

The most astonishing revelation, however, is made when Wright introduces the Blunt case. “It brewed up in late 1963”, he writes, “when MI5 were informed by the FBI that an American citizen, Michael Whitney Straight, had told them that Blunt had recruited him for the Soviets while they were both at Cambridge in the 1930s.” This awareness of a much earlier disclosure forces Wright to re-draft the reason for Martin’s visit to Washington. “Arthur Martin flew over to interview Straight, who confirmed the story, and agreed to testify in a British court if necessary.” Thus, in one short sweep, Wright annuls all the previous leaks that the meeting with Straight was the first time that MI5 heard about the Straight-Blunt imbroglio, that it was a coincidental encounter, engineered by Sullivan, and that Martin’s chief purpose in visiting the States had been to interview Cairncross. Wright does not even mention Cairncross in this situation. It is an extraordinary proof that MI5 had lost control of the legend.

Wright is lapidary about the events leading up to the meeting at the Courtauld. His account runs as follows: “. . . Blunt was confronted by Arthur Martin and almost immediately admitted his role as Soviet talent spotter and spy.” Yet he has not finished yet. After a diversion about the impact of the Blunt confession on Victor and Tess Rothschild, he tells how Blunt swiftly named Leo Long and John Cairncross as fellow spies, and how they both then confessed. “Long, informed by Arthur that a prosecution was most unlikely provided he cooperated with MI5, swiftly confessed, as did Cairncross, who was seen by Arthur in Rome.” Wright was either completely uninformed about what really happened, or very stupidly tried to cast a web of deceit around events in the belief that he would not be smoked out. Cairncross had already confessed, according to the official line. Dick White, for one, must have been horrified when he read Spycatcher.

In summary, therefore, we have a rather ingenuous admission that MI5 did learn about Straight from the FBI in November 1963, which makes a lot of sense, and then a naïve attempt to explain the outcome in a way that belies nearly every account of the story. What Christopher Andrew made of all this is a mystery: he lists Spycatcher as one of his sources in his authorised history, but he does not investigate the claim about the November debriefing at all.

‘Mask of Treachery’

Mask of Treachery by John Costello (1988)

The final study in this section is John Costello’s Mask of Treachery, bearing the rather convoluted sub-title Spies, Lies, Buggery & Betrayal, The First Documented Dossier on Anthony Blunt’s Cambridge Spy Ring. It is an extraordinary work, reflecting the author’s dedicated search to discover all the facts about the treachery of Blunt and his cronies. He digs far and wide. Yet it is also a highly flawed creation, as if Costello imagined that, by assembling all the information in one place, a confident hypothesis about the moles inside MI5 would magically appear. His conclusion? Remarkably, that Guy Liddell was the obvious flake in MI5’s management ranks, a suggestion that distances himself from the dominant theories of West (Mitchell), and Pincher, Martin and Wright (Hollis).

The major problem with Costello’s record is that he drags in all manner of possibly relevant details, but omits to apply any rigorous methodology in his approach, not attempting to define the reliability of all evidence he cites, and leaving many matters of chronology unsettled. Very typical is his handling of the Straight business. He echoes the accepted fact that Straight went to the Justice Department, and then the F.B.I., on June 7, 1963, but then hypothesizes that ‘it would not be surprising if he had not considered himself under an obligation to give Blunt the same sort of warning in 1963 that he had given Burgess twelve years earlier.’ Costello then assembles the following weird paragraph:

“Straight had several weeks in which he could have alerted Blunt that an impending Presidential appointment would require FBI clearance and would raise the possibility that the Cambridge connection would be uncovered. According to Stella Jefferies, an administrative secretary at the Courtauld, Straight appeared unannounced at the institute one day that summer. She says Blunt ‘was not keen to see him’. Later, she heard Blunt telling someone ‘he –  meaning Straight – was going to shop them.’ Jeffries claims the incident stuck in her mind because it occurred shortly before the director himself went off to America – at short notice.” Blunt, rather suddenly, decided to spend six weeks in the United States.

But then Costello immediately adds: “Straight has admitted that he was in England that April, but he insists that he did not visit the Courtauld.” That is, however doubly irrelevant. Straight did not know about his appointment, and the need to confess, back in April, and thus not visiting the Courtauld at that time merely casts suspicion on his testimony. So when did the encounter occur? Costello adds a Footnote that claims that Mrs. Jeffries said it was in July 1963, but the letter from Blunt she presents is dated August 1962! Pincher claimed that Straight was still being debriefed by the F.B.I. in August. And if Blunt heard about Burgess’s death in Moscow on August 19 while he was at Pennsylvania, probably at the end of his six-week engagement, it leaves no time for Straight to have warned Blunt – unless he contacted him through other means, and arranged to talk to Blunt while he was at the university. The whole cavalcade is a mess, with much possibly irrelevant detail being introduced without analysis.

What makes this testimony even more dubious is that Blunt had been invited by Pennsylvania State University the previous year to lecture at the summer school in 1963 (as an announcement in the Art Journal in 1962 proves), and thus the idea that he made a sudden decision is patently false. And, since his invitation had been well publicized, Michael Straight would certainly have learned about it. Thus we have to face the possibility that Straight and Blunt did in fact meet in April 1963, despite Straight’s denial.

Lastly, Costello covers the Straight-Martin encounters. Yes, Sullivan did not approach Straight until January 1964, when he arranged for him to meet Martin at the Mayflower Hotel, where Straight told Martin all. “Straight did not know that Martin had just finished interviewing John Cairncross at Northwestern University”, he writes. He might just as well have written that Straight did not know that Martin was on his way to interview Cairncross. He then presents an uncontroversial account of the events leading up to the immunity deal, but then introduces an insightful observation: “Considering what was at stake in Blunt’s confession, it is astonishing that Arthur Martin was sent alone to confront Blunt on the morning of April 23, 1964. (American counter-intelligence officers have assured me that the standard practice calls for at least two officers to be present.) Martin still believes that Blunt had been forewarned and held out for the immunity deal.”

Thus we have a third timing of the event, the morning of the 23rd, as opposed to Andrew’s evening of that day, and West’s mid-morning of the 22nd. And Martin surely knew that he was involved in a staged set-up, in which he and Blunt were equal players. Costello continues by tersely stating that Blunt and Cairncross were unmasked by Blunt, and that they ‘confessed on the understanding that they would not be prosecuted either’. So what was going on between Martin and Cairncross in January, Mr. Costello? There is no answer.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

This wave of studies shows an extraordinary lack of discipline. The authors must surely have felt themselves in competition, yet one can detect a large amount of collaboration behind the scenes. None of them, however, applied any amount of rigour when evidence turned up that clearly contradicted other evidence they cited. And yet, until now, I do not believe they have properly been called to account.

The Sources: Wave 3 – The Era of Biography

A strange hiatus settled on the investigations between 1988 and 2005. For example, Christopher Andrew’s and Oleg Gordivesky’s KGB: The Inside Story (1990) has only a couple of sentences on the events of 1964. Matters picked up again with the release of a number of biographies and memoirs, the first of which was Tom Bower’s profile of Sir Dick White. But first, Nigel West’s gallery of spies.

‘Seven Spies Who Changed the World’

Seven Spies Who Changed the World by Nigel West (1991)

Nigel West selected Blunt as one his Seven Spies (the others being Popov, Schmidt, Buckley, Blake, Powers, and Wynne). Whether his title is meant to signify that these seven ‘changed the word’ (while others did not), or whether the author just happened to choose these seven for some special reason (since all spies change the world, just as all non-spies do, too), or whether the title is simply one foisted on West by his publisher, is not clear. In his Introduction, however, West does state: “All these men, to a greater or lesser degree, have made a remarkable contribution, either positive or negative, to the course of history, and most have been known to me personally.”

West’s caption for Blunt’s photograph is unfortunate. “Anthony Blunt, a long-term Soviet asset who penetrated MI5 and then switched sides in return for an immunity from prosecution. His confession ruined the careers of a dozen top civil servants, but MI5 eventually concluded that he had duped his interrogators and remained loyal to the KGB.” ‘Switching sides’, eh?  Receiving an immunity deal, not specified in writing, in return for promising to ‘co-operate’, is hardly descriptive of the process of realigning one’s skills to the cause of the erstwhile enemy – especially when he could not help whatsoever with espionage against the Soviets.

The story of Blunt is a fascinating one, but marred by West’s irritating practise of providing references for many well-thumbed and familiar incidents, while inserting highly provocative assertions that do not carry any supporting evidence whatsoever. [They are surely feeds from the highly unreliable Martin.] For example, he writes (without identifying Martin): “This [review] resulted in an inconclusive statement from Cairncross, then lecturing at Northwestern University, who reluctantly named James Klugmann as his recruiter at Cambridge.” No source; no date; no explanation of ‘inconclusive’; no indication of why Cairncross admitted something ‘reluctantly’, or why he admitted to anything at all. He then goes on to write, about Straight’s confessions, that ’Petty inter-agency rivalry, exercised by J. Edgar Hoover, had prevented the FBI from sharing this crucial information with MI5.’ Another bold and cryptic statement that does not disclose a source, nor provide strong evidence.

The description of Blunt’s confession is likewise weak. West discloses nothing about the intriguing that went on, and repeats his notion of Blunt’s ‘switching sides’, only a few lines later equating this act with ‘a decision to collaborate with MI5’. When he identified his fellow conspirators, ‘among the first were John Cairncross, who was already known to MI5, and Leo Long, who had never previously been a suspect.’ Well, of course Cairncross was known to MI5, not solely because of the confession that West had revealed on the previous page, but was that all that there was? Leo Long, moreover, had been known a suspect, having been caught in the act of espionage in MI14 in 1944. West appears as muddled as he was in MI5.

‘My Five Cambridge Friends’

My 5 Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin (1994)

Yuri Modin was the controller of the Cambridge Five at the end of WWII and into the 1950s. His memoir has some useful facts about his dealings with the spies (especially John Cairncross), but his access to reliable information is naturally flawed. He offers some problematic ideas about the confessions of Blunt and Cairncross that need to be recorded as they constitute part of the mythology.

On Cairncross, he writes that ‘some people say he was finally exposed by MI5 in 1964. I think he confessed, but well before that date, in 1951 or possibly 1952’. He goes on to state that he is convinced that ‘Cairncross told everything he knew in the early 1950s, in exchange for a promise of immunity.’ Of course, Cairncross did make a very constrained confession in 1952, but the evidence thereafter confirms that it was only after Blunt’s confession that he extended his story, but even that failed to do justice to his complete record of espionage, which was revealed in KGB archives.

As for Blunt, Modin tends to overstate Blunt’s attachment to Guy Burgess, and interprets Blunt’s desire to confess as a reaction to Burgess’s death in August 1963. He introduces yet a new date (early 1964, ‘soon after’ Blunt’s death) for the timing of Blunt’s confession, and describes it as follows: “All the same, he prepared and refined the actual content of his confession with the greatest care, and delivered it only when he had received the assurance of the Attorney-General that he would be immune to prosecution if he revealed the truth about his dealings with the Soviets.”

Where Modin gained this intelligence is not clear. There is no doubt a measure of truth about Blunt’s carefully honed confession, but to suggest that he was in control of the whole process does not bear close analysis.

‘The Perfect English Spy’

The Perfect English Spy by Tom Bower (1995)

Tom Bower took over from Andrew Boyle the project of writing Dick White’s biography, since Boyle had died in 1991. Boyle had gained White’s confidence for a while, but had also annoyed him by pressing too hard on some sensitive matters. Nevertheless, the very wary response Boyle received from White on the Blunt case proved to him that this was a sore subject with the only man to have been head of MI5 and MI6.

The Perfect English Spy is a bit of a muddle, written without a lot of precision, and relying too much on volumes like Spycatcher, and unattributable or undocumented conversations Bower had with various figures in intelligence. Yet it has enough substance to provide another dimension to the Molehunt – the fact that White, having held a prominent role in MI5’s counterespionage operations from the day Blunt joined in 1940 to the day White retired in 1956, had even more at stake in protecting his own reputation, and that of the Service, than did Hollis himself. White’s involvement in the action thus explains a lot of the successful cooperation between the CIA and British Intelligence, with Maurice Oldfield (White’s representative in Washington) and White himself acting as go-betweens to Arthur Martin and Hollis in MI5 (Martin having been White’s loyal sidekick in the Burgess/Maclean/Philby deception of 1951: see DickWhite’sDevilishPlot).

Thus Bower starts off by emphasizing Martin’s close relationship with White, and the reinforcing to him of Angleton’s persistent declarations about Soviet penetration. White shows a lot of trust in Martin, and encourages him, in early 1963, to approach Hollis on the need for a proper investigation, even following up by speaking to Hollis about the requirement for Graham Mitchell to be surveilled. At the same time, Angleton of the CIA is applying pressure on Oldfield on the Golitsyn testimony, and encourages Oldfield and Martin to invite the defector to Britain that summer, where he causes some havoc. Hollis acts unreasonably: White is clearly in charge of the investigation. The rather ineffective Martin Furnival Jones has been moved in a position within MI5 to head the investigation, and the even less impressive Cumming takes over as Martin’s boss in D Division.

It is here that Bower calls out White for being overimpressed by Martin, whom Bower categorises as ‘not a trained intelligence officer nor a skilled interrogator; hardworking but with no understanding of the history of espionage’. Readers should bear this in mind when they consider why Martin was selected as the officer most likely to obtain, working on his own, a confession from Blunt in April 1964.

When the Mitchell affair petered out, an important meeting was held in September 1963, at Hollis’s house (Bower does not record who else was there), where White strongly recommended that MI5 inform the CIA and the FBI about the state of the case, and their ongoing concerns. In Bower’s account, Hollis ‘reluctantly agreed ‘to fly to Washington to do just that. [This is in contrast to the description by Peter Wright (see above) of what was perhaps a meeting with his officers immediately afterwards, where Hollis grabbed the reins and told his subordinates that he was going to Washington.]  Hollis apparently received a derisory reception there, especially from Angleton and the CIA, although Hoover and Sullivan of the FBI were also fairly contemptuous. Bower then writes: “Martin heard about Hollis’s humiliation from Angleton. At the same time, Angleton invited Martin to consult with him in Washington.” No dates, or items of correspondence identified, and Bower does not specifically say that Martin had flown out in Hollis’s wake (a fact we have learned elsewhere). Yet, while Martin (of MI5) dealing with the CIA’s Angleton was highly irregular, it does provide a clue as to how the CIA, behind Hoover’s back, and surely with Oldfield’s assistance, was able to engineer the meeting between Straight and Martin in January 1964. And it adds another wrinkle to the question of Martin’s primary mission in visiting the Unites States at that time.

The narrative thins out after that. Straight repeats his story to Martin, who returns to Britain excited by the disclosure [patently untrue, and an echo of Martin’s dissemblance marked earlier]. He gives his report to Hollis, and they meet with White, who was apparently ‘shaken’ by the revelation. Accusations against Blunt had been common in Leconfield House, but White claimed to have been ignorant of the whole business. White thus had to face the dilemma of protecting the Queen and the Government from embarrassment, and pursuing the right cause, which would be prosecution. He consults Trend, who advises him of the political realities. White tells Hollis that sufficient evidence would never be found to prosecute any of the Cambridge Five, so the plan to trap/entice Blunt with a pardon goes ahead.

Apart from Hollis and White, Bower indicates that only Burke Trend, the Home Secretary (Brooke) and the Attorney-General (Hobson) were in on the deal.  Now Bower uses Penrose and Freeman as his source for the event of April 23, 1964. How much Martin knew, going in to the Courtauld that day, is not clear. In any case, he soon got incensed by the lack of aggression in going after Blunt, and Blunt’s less than comprehensive revelations., and incurred the wrath of Hollis and Cumming. He was thus suspended, and later transferred to MI6, to work under his old mentor, Dick White, As Bower shrewdly observes, at this time White appeared to express more sympathy for Martin and Wright than he did for Hollis.

‘The Enigma Spy’

The Enigma Spy by John Cairncross (1995)

Cairncross’s posthumously published memoir had a chequered history. The author Nigel West apparently had some agreement with Cairncross and his wife, Gayle, before John died in October 1995, and was the chosen ‘ghost-writer’ to compile an autobiography from various jottings, letters, etc. But Gayle Cairncross developed other ideas, tried to buy West out of his contract, and engaged Ronnie Challoner to take over as ghost-writer. The result was a highly-sanitised account of Cairncross’s espionage, which cast him in a much better light than he deserved.

Thus The Enigma Spy cannot be treated as a reliable source, since events are distorted or overlooked to minimise Cairncross’s culpability. Yet, as so often happens with such works, the larger issues are falsely represented, but minor observations (and omissions) betray much more about the author’s integrity and intentions. Cairncross’s account of the events of 1963 and 1964 starts with the job offer from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, enabled through Professor Raymond Picard. While he was working in Karachi at the time, his visa application had to go through the American Consulate in Rome, since that was where he had last resided. No problems arose, and, in Cairncross’s words: “On my return from Pakistan to London I therefore had to fly to Rome to make my visa application.” This is an important detail: Cairncross was in London while his visa request was being processed.

The academic’s first few months in Cleveland are described with enthusiasm by Cairncross, but he then implodes his whole story by describing a knock on the door of his room at the Hotel Commodore in mid-April. (Would he not have had to find lodgings by then?) It was a member of the FBI who informed him that Arthur Martin of MI5 ‘would be calling on me shortly’. Martin duly turned up, and, without giving any indication at first that he had fresh evidence, pressed Cairncross to tell him the full story. We know from other sources that the initial interview with Cairncross had been in February, and that Martin had gone back in March to determine whether Cairncross would be willing to return to the UK to give a confession under caution. Cairncross collapses the episode to one event, and gets the date woefully wrong.

Yet Cairncross was apparently clever enough to assess, solely from Martin’s claim that he had not told the whole story, that ‘the remark was enough to convey to me that someone had spoken.’ He adds in parentheses that ‘His informant was again Anthony Blunt, the man who had organized my recruitment without appearing on the scene himself.’ Why did Cairncross present this so cagily? Did he want to pretend that he discovered that Blunt had been an informer much later? Why did he not express any annoyance at this betrayal? And another extraordinary giveaway occurs: “The other point on which Martin questioned me was my connection with the four members of the Cambridge Group.” Not three – four. If reliable, Martin’s aside would undoubtedly point to the fact that Blunt had already been identified as the Fourth Man, which was directly antithetical to the way MI5 preferred to represent its conclusions at this time.

The spy then chooses to describe how he intended to ‘make an end to this cat and mouse game once and for all’. Yet there is no discussion of a pardon, or the risk of his being extradited and prosecuted. “Finally, however, I decided to take a strong whisky [Were large whisky – or even whiskey – bottles available in Cleveland hotel rooms in 1964? I doubt it.] and make a full confession of my association with the KGB.” He and Martin covered the usual ground – including the claim that James Klugmann recruited him – and Cairncross offered spontaneously to sign a statement at the end of the interrogation. “To my complete amazement, Martin said that a great many people had been mixed up in the affair, by which he clearly meant that no such gesture on my part was called for, and that it was planned to keep everything under wraps.” This exchange will have to be assessed carefully, given how vitriolic Martin was later reported to be when Blunt and Cairncross were allowed to go free.

The narrative trails off rather incoherently after this. The FBI apparently warned Cairncross that he would be arrested if he set foot in London again: Cairncross does not explain why this advice differed from Martin’s, or why even the FBI should be the source of such guidance. He adds, however, that he expected to be shipped back to England to face trial. He did have to make a statement to the FBI, which must have hastened the relinquishing of his professorship in Cleveland. At the end of the semester, he left for Paris, and then Rome, where Martin (and Peter Wright) again put him through an interrogation. The fact that he was invited to provide testimony against Klugmann in London implicitly confirmed that such cooperation carried immunity from prosecution with it. Otherwise, silence reigned for almost seven years.

‘Anthony Blunt: his lives’

Anthony Blunt: his lives by Miranda Carter (2001)

One might expect an elegantly-written, well-researched, prize-winning biography of the spy to produce some new insights on Anthony Blunt’s treachery and the immunity he was granted. Miranda Carter’s work fails to do so – not for want of trying, but because she lacks an insight into the multi-layered deceptions of the intelligence world. She conducted interviews with well over one hundred named sources in her research, with many more who wished to remain unidentified, but it would have been a miracle if a sustainable image of Blunt had arisen from such a multitude of voices.

Her broad research leads her to some highly original observations, but she lacks the inquisitiveness to drive more deeply. At the beginning of this piece, I listed her citations of evidence that Blunt may have confessed beforehand: she does not know to handle the contradictions, falling weakly on the statement ‘Blunt would not confess until 1964.’ Similarly, when introducing the Straight anecdote, and describing how he decided to ‘unburden himself’, Carter merely comments: “The FBI, for its own reasons, waited for several months before telling Arthur Martin . . .” Those reasons, and whether they were in fact genuine, beg for further examination, but it was a challenging topic that could have derailed Carter for years. There was little information to go by apart from all the doubtless conflicting testimonies of those chattering experts which became, as Carter put it ‘the marrow of this book’.

Thus Carter relies on those old mainstays, Penrose & Freeman, and Peter Wright, for most of her narrative of the events surrounding the April 1964 confrontation between Blunt and Martin. As for Cairncross, she defers to Wright in reporting how Leo Long and Cairncross were brought in for questioning, and ‘confident that they like Blunt, must be safe from prosecution, confessed their involvement’. The fact that she had earlier reported that the reason why Martin was in America was to interview John Cairncross is soon forgotten. Did she not ask any of her distinguished interlocutors whether they detected any contradiction in these events?

One last comment. Carter states that the divisions of opinion, within MI5, over communist infiltration, were heightened because of educational matters. “The divisions were all the more bitter because Martin and Wright were perceived, and perceived themselves, as outsiders in the public-school-dominated world of MI5.” Wright was educated at Bishop Stortford’s, the same school that Dick White attended, and he then went on to St. Peter’s, Oxford. There may be a highly insightful and educational lesson to be given here, but this is not it.

‘Last of the Cold War Spies’

Last of the Cold War Spies by Roland Perry (2005)

Roland Perry is an Australian investigative journalist who has produced works that display some dogged research, but lack a guiding methodology. I tried to contact him a few years ago, with questions about his rather sloppy biography of Victor Rothschild, The Fifth Man, which raised some challenging theories, but left whole parts of Rothschild’s life unexplored. I never received a reply. In his biography of Michael Straight, Last of the Cold War Spies, Perry shows some of the same traits: a willingness to drive down into some overlooked details, but also a naïve susceptibility in believing that members and ex-members of intelligence services are going to tell him the truth. As he writes in his Acknowledgments: “Other contemporary and retired employees of several spy agencies – notably the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the CIA, the U.S. National Security Agency, the KGB (RIS), French intelligence, MI6 and MI5 – were all essential sources in establishing solid information and facts, and certain theories.” The FBI must have been very miffed at being left out, and not being given the chance to spin its particular view through such a valuable outlet.

What Perry does bring to the table is a close analysis of Michael Straight’s movements. Thus he introduces 1963 by informing us that Straight visited Dartington in April (‘his third trip inside a year’), and while in London, stayed at 42 Upper Brook Street. ‘It was a short walk from Blunt’s flat in Portman Square.” Yet this leads to a combination of valid supposition and a stretched hypothesis.  “The odds are that these two now mature intriguers would have met, using their long-time skills at avoiding the watchers from MI5. The topic of Golitsyn, which was presently hot within British intelligence circle, would have been discussed. Perhaps this was the time when they decided – at the next propitious moment –  to make a deceptive confession.”

Or maybe it was not the time. Straight had not yet been offered the job by President Kennedy, he was certainly not practised at avoiding MI5 surveillance teams, and it is difficult to imagine Anthony Blunt dodging around London Underground Stations in order to meet Straight in some dingy suburban park or pub. The idea that Straight and Blunt might have felt the need to act first to pre-empt Golitsyn does have some merit, however, and Perry makes an astute observation about Golitsyn’s return to the US in August 1963, having had an opportunity to study British intelligence files. Straight could afford to relax a bit: he had handled his FBI interrogators well, and they seemed rather clueless about events in Britain.

In September, Straight had an important meeting with Richard Nixon, when they discussed Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. He then appeared in Britain again. Perry’s examination of Dartington Hall’s Visitors’ Book reveals that Straight and his wife stayed there from October 11-14, 1963, before flying on to Greece. If there were a more pivotal time to discuss matters with Blunt, this would have been it. Might Straight have contacted Blunt by letter, or even the telephone? Perry avoids the opportunity, however, and says nothing about the FBI’s apparent sluggishness in informing MI5 about Straight’s confession before describing Martin’s surprise encounter with Straight in Washington.

And then Perry falls into the role of gullible insider-led investigator. “ . . . Martin and MI5 were excited. They seemed to have concrete leads at last, Martin hurried back to England, thrilled by his ‘coup’”. The Conspiracy of Silence melodrama is next invoked, except this time we gain the fresh insight that Blunt poured himself a large Scotch. Martin then accepted Blunt’s claim (necessary for the immunity deal) that he had not spied after 1945. Once again, the author, having correctly described the reason for Martin’s mission to the USA in February 1964, records that Blunt divulged Cairncross’s name, and that Cairncross made similar admissions when Martin visited him in Rome. “Once more it was suggested he would not face prosecution if he confessed,” he writes.

‘Triplex’

Triplex by Nigel West (2009)

West’s compilation focuses on the reproduction of documents passed by some of the Cambridge Five (Blunt, Philby and Cairncross) to the NKVD, with translations back to English of the texts that had formerly been translated from the English to the Russian. It is remarkable in this context for a statement West makes in his Introduction: “Cairncross, implicated inadvertently by documents left behind by Burgess, resigned from his post in the Treasury in 1951 and finally confessed to a joint MI5-FBI interrogation team in the United States in 1963.”

What is going on here? Cairncross was never in the United States in 1963. He underwent serial, separate interrogations by Arthur Martin, and the FBI, from February 1964 onwards. If a joint ’team’ (which suggests more than one officer from MI5) was at work, it must have been in London, in December 1963, when Cairncross made his visa application, and travelled to Italy via London. Thus a vigorous hint towards FBI-MI5 collaboration over Cairncross has appeared, but it lacks any kind of verifiable source. I thus wrote to Nigel West, asking for details on his source, and how he now interpreted the data.

Mr. West responded promptly, and was generous with his time. He admitted that the year should have been 1964, but after that we spoke somewhat at cross-purposes. He did not address my question about a ‘joint MI5-FBI team’, saying only that the FBI witnessed Martin’s interrogation of Cairncross. He claimed that the idea of ‘a second bite at the cherry’ meant that the first bite had been back in 1952, an association I found not a little incongruous. He said that ‘Martin had to be discreet about his introduction to Straight as Bill Sullivan had been ordered not to reveal his existence’. West added: “Martin’s appointment with Cairncross in Cleveland was by appointment, and it was agreed that the FBI would observe, but not participate. Cairncross attended because he was anxious about his job and thought his visa would be cancelled if he failed to cooperate with MI5.” He didn’t think that Freeman and Penrose had ever met Martin.

Part of my response ran as follows: “It is difficult for me to see how an interview described as a ‘second bite at the cherry’ could refer to one given twelve years before hand as the assumed ‘first bite’. It was surely difficult for Martin to be ‘discreet’ after his introduction by Sullivan. After all, what did Sullivan expect would happen? That Martin would be able to carry out an investigation back in London without Hollis knowing? My suspicion is that Hoover had a secret deal with Hollis, whereby both agreed to bury Blunt and Straight, and then Angleton got involved, annoyed that was nothing was happening after the Straight confession. Oldfield, White’s man in Washington, had been grooming Angleton, and Martin was White’s old sidekick from the 1951 events. So Sullivan (who disliked Hoover considerably) was used to effect the introduction. Hollis was naturally annoyed when Martin came back with the news, but couldn’t do anything since he was in White’s pocket. He then suspended Martin, and Martin went over to MI6.’ I continued:

“Penrose and Freeman’s Chapter 18 is almost entirely dependent upon interviews they claimed they had with Martin in 1985, including the description of the Martin-Blunt encounter at the Courtauld, which has been used by multiple writers as a reliable source since. Of course, in 2009, Andrew revealed the real ‘document’. Isn’t it strange how the recent interview with Cairncross is suddenly added to Martin’s narrative, while Blunt appears to show no reaction whatsoever?”

Mr. West did not reply to this message.

The Sources – Wave 4: The Archives Come Into Play

CIA files on Straight (released March 2007) (https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP88-01070R000100570002-1.pdf)

This item is at least dated – a transcript of a conversation between Michael Straight and Fred Fiske on the WAMU station in Washington on January 26, 1983, following the publication of After Long Silence. The dialogue is overall unremarkable, but it does contain a few gems that contribute to the debate. It appears that Fiske and Straight must have had some preliminary discussions to lubricate the interchange. Very early on (p 2), Fiske throws Straight a leading question:

FISKE: You had a 15-minute private meeting with him [Blunt] before the British intelligence people came in, and he thanked you for it. He said he was expecting the other shoe to drop for a longtime and he was relieved.

            Now if he thanked you for it, who’s criticizing you?

Straight does not deny Fiske’s assertion, nor does he directly answer his interlocutor’s question. Yet the suggestion of a private meeting before Blunt’s confession is startling. It cannot be the well-publicized visit in August 1964 (described in After Long Silence), since Blunt had confessed four months beforehand. It cannot be the publicized date of the confession, in April, as there are no records of Straight’s being in England at that time. It could, however, have taken place in those days in the middle of October, 1963, when Straight was shown to have been in England. Yet the formality of it all is bewildering: that he should then be allowed some time with Blunt ’before the British Intelligence people came in’ indicated a high degree of collaboration, as well as pointing to a late 1963 confession by Blunt.

Straight gives away some other clues. On page 9, he is outspoken in saying that he recognized that Blunt was a member and spokesman of the Communist International, not just an anti-fascist group, as he had hinted at before. Without identifying Martin, on page 15, he characterises him as follows: ‘The British Intelligence officer who interrogated me at great length and who on the basis of this information that I gave him confronted Blount [sic] and forced Blount to confess was the original, I think, for George Smiley in this series we’ve all watched and admired.” [An advancement on Penrose’s and Freeman’s analogy, outlined above.] Apart from the dubious correlation of the deceitful and unpractised officer, Martin, with the subtle and principled Smiley, one has to marvel at Martin’s sudden achievement in forcing Blunt to confess. After all, the accounts we have read indicate that Martin’s contribution was amateurish and ham-fisted. Moreover, if Straight had spoken to Blunt, and convinced him to confess, before the MI5 contingent trooped in in, what was there left for Martin to do?

This is another significant item of evidence that has not been granted the attention it deserves.

Defending the Realm by Christopher Andrew (2009)

Christopher Andrew’s authorised history is the dominating influence in this section. I have covered it earlier, but remind readers now that Andrew’s rendering of the unidentifiable document from the Security Service’s Archive introduces the sentence: “I added that only a week or two ago I had been through a similar scene with John Cairncross who had finally confessed and afterwards thanked me for making him do so.” Why has the reference to Cairncross been omitted from all the accounts to date? Could it be that some shrewd censor at MI5, in reviewing Andrew’s copy, observed that it would be very odd if the transcription of the meeting failed to recognize the fact of Martin’s recent encounter with Cairncross? Perhaps that sentence was thus inserted – into the archive, and into the history. Yet no one stopped to think: if Martin had really informed Blunt of Cairncross’s confession, would Blunt not have displayed some reaction of note?

Another highly significant feature of Andrew’s account consists in his coverage of Martin. He indicates that Martin (now reporting to Malcolm Cumming) flew out to Washington a day later than did Hollis, at the end of September 1963. Cumming had immediately become suspicious of Martin when he discovered his ‘dirty tricks’ in feeding bogus ‘barium meal’ intelligence to Mitchell through himself, and judged Martin to have serious character defects. In the US, the CIA, the FBI and the RMCP were all very sceptical about the case against Mitchell. Yet Andrew goes on to write: “By the time Martin flew to Washington, the direction of the PETERS case (the investigation into Mitchell) had been taken out of his hands. The investigative part of his section, D1, was split off as D1/Inv, whose head became increasingly doubtful about the case against Mitchell, partly as a result of the scepticism of the CIA and FBI.” Andrew also records that the new head of D1/Inv complained to Hollis in the summer of 1964 that Martin was undermining his authority.

This passage throws up a few anomalies:

  1. How could the decision have already been made, based partly on the scepticism of the FBI and the CIA, if it occurred before the briefing that Hollis reluctantly agreed to perform?
  2. If Cumming had already decided that Martin needed to be discouraged, why did he not consult with Hollis, and even recommend that Martin not be sent as an emissary to support Hollis with the details of the investigation? Did Hollis know about his decision before he left?
  3. Why did Martin fly out the day after Hollis did? Would it not have been useful for them to confer on the flight? Did Hollis need to consult with Hoover privately before Martin’s arrival?
  4. If PETERS was no longer in Martin’s hands, and Martin was considered a liability, why was he entrusted with a further mission to the US in January 1964, ostensibly to interrogate Cairncross?
  5. Furthermore, why was Martin, with all the antagonism he had caused, and with no successful experience in interrogation, chosen to confront Blunt?

Some of these questions may have been addressed by Peter Wright. In Spycatcher, he indicates that the reorganization of D Branch was initiated by Hollis in October 1964, over a year later. Since Andrew, as is habitual, does not provide a specific identifiable source for his claim, we cannot inspect it. Moreover, Wright states that the head of D1, Ronnie Symonds (who had compiled the report on Mitchell), complained to Cumming and Hollis about Martin’s behaviour soon after the reorganization, which led to Martin’s dismissal in November. Malcolm Cumming was the officer who recruited Dick White to MI5, and Arthur Martin was White’s sidekick in the Burgess-Maclean affair. Cumming also recruited Peter Wright. Is it possible that White was still pulling the strings from his base in MI6?

The FBI Vault: Michael Straight (https://vault.fbi.gov/michael-straight)

The timing of the records released by the FBI is not given, but they were presumably made available to the public around this time. A comprehensive report on the interview that Straight had with FBI agents in June 1963 can be seen from page 134.

Yet pages 41 and 42 tell a more startling story. In June 1965, Straight was interviewed in depth about Americans who had attended Cambridge University at the time he was there. He was further interviewed on June 6, 1966. In a follow up letter to the Director of the FBI, dated June 14, which appears to have been written during an investigation into Philby, the anonymous author writes:

During interview STRAIGHT related about five years ago he had been interviewed by an officer of MI-5 who came over to this country for the interview and had furnished his recollections of Britons who were involved in communist activities during his days at Cambridge University.

            STRAIGHT mentioned later he had gone to England and confronted Professor ANTHONY BLUNT with his allegations concerning BLUNT with the result that BLUNT had broken and admitted his involvement in Soviet intelligence.

Apart from the shaky syntax of Straight’s statement (it appears that the MI5 officer had been doing the ‘furnishing’), what does this tell us? First, the timing. Straight said ‘about five years ago’, which would put the event in June 1961. It is difficult to imagine how vague Straight could have been in recollecting dates, but the actual distance of three years is presumably acceptable. But the astonishing item of information is the claim that he had gone to England, and confronted Blunt. This must have been in the latter months of 1963, and suggests that Blunt made a confession soon after in response to Straight’s approaches, and not to the clumsy negotiations of Arthur Martin. This is another extraordinary item of evidence that appears to have been completely overlooked.

After this, the account of Straight’s confession, dated June 25, 1963, appears rather bland. He described the Communist group (outside the Communist Party) at Cambridge, that was led by Cornford and Klugmann, and led from that in to the now famous meeting between him and Blunt, which resulted in his moving to Wall Street, as a sacrifice similar to that of Cornford’s, who had died in Spain. He suspected that Guy Burgess was behind Blunt’s approaches to him.

‘Treachery’

Treachery by Chapman Pincher (2012)

Treachery is something of an anomaly in this set. Pincher was not renowned for his scrupulous use of sources, but the recent publication of Andrew’s history propelled him – quite justifiably – to point out the neglect of so many verifiable incidents by the authorised historian. Yet Pincher misses an opportunity to ground in solid facts his argument that Hollis was the arch-fiend within MI5, and in fact his obsession with Hollis leads him into some embarrassingly conflicted analysis.

Pincher stumbles over the Straight incident, having apparently forgotten much of the reports that had been written since Too Secret Too Long. He refers to the ‘chance event’ in Washington in June 1963, but then, avoiding all the stories about FBI jealousies, and probable meetings between the FBI and MI5, simply goes on to write: “Straight was not interviewed by MI5 until January 1964 . . .”.  Martin presented the news to Hollis and White, who were both ‘dreadful[ly] embarrassed’. Pincher then describes a delay in questioning Blunt that was ‘imposed by Hollis’, but, since Martin had returned from the USA only at the end of March, this was hardly a delay of significant proportion. Pincher finesses the whole issue of why the FBI information did not get to Hollis earlier. He boasts of the fact that it was he who eventually exposed Straight publicly, and the conducted several interviews with him, but they were clearly a wasted opportunity.

Overall, Pincher greatly overstates the influence that Hollis had on the pact with Blunt. He hardly mentions White’s role in the affair, and completely ignores Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, who was intimately involved in the processes, even to the extent of agreeing not to inform the Prime Minister. He presents Hollis as a friend of Blunt, and suggests that Hollis may have secretly approached him before the deal, to discover the terms on which he was prepared to admit his guilt. White had been much closer to Blunt, and had felt personally betrayed, and to ignore his role shows a strong measure of obtuseness on Pincher’s part.

And then we have Pincher’s version of the 23rd April event. This differs from Andrew’s version. “Arthur Martin visited Blunt’s apartment and wasted no time in telling him that MI5 had acquired proof that he had been a Soviet spy during the war. He said that he had been authorised by the attorney general to offer him immunity from prosecution.” No mention of Straight. No mention of Cairncross. No attempt to get Blunt to confess before the immunity offer is drawn out of the bag. No source is given for Pincher’s informant. He then reports that Martin had informed Costello that he was convinced that Hollis had warned Blunt in advance that he had been blown by Straight.

Pincher is inherently sceptical about the legitimacy of the confession, and how it was staged, but cannot divert himself from the Hollis-campaign to consider how he may have been hoodwinked by his informants. “As both Hollis and White [with a rare deference to White’s involvement] desperately wanted Blunt to agree, it would be surprising if he had not been instructed in some detail how to behave when confronted”, he writes. Pincher gets very close to the truth, but cannot conceive that maybe Blunt had already confessed several months ago.

Martin’s goose was cooked. Pincher suggest that after consulting White [my italics], Hollis called a meeting of his directors, and ‘seized the opportunity to get rid of him’, his rebellious officer, Martin. Moreover, Martin was offered a transfer to MI6, ‘where White was keen to acquire him’. It is further evidence that White was in charge of the whole business: Martin had performed his job, and could move on to bolster the team investigating the Moles.

Lastly, Pincher displays a very haphazard knowledge of the Cairncross affair. He starts his description of Cairncross’s role with the absurd sentence: “For a short spell, Cairncross was in America, teaching at Cleveland University, where Arthur Martin warned him to get out, as he was about to be expelled from the US following action by the FBI.” This statement contains so many obvious and blatant errors or misinformation that I shall not bother to list them. Yet Pincher has a hunch that things are not quite right (has he forgotten the accounts of Cairncross’s confession?), as he goes on to write that, after he moved to Rome, ‘he was questioned by Martin and Wright, who secured a further [my italics] confession containing details of his recruitment’. Further to his unrecognized confession in Cleveland? Or further to his confession in 1952?

A summary of Cairncross’s Enigma Spy is then presented, but Pincher cannot even bring himself to mention Cairncross’s wildly erroneous date for his confession to Martin in Cleveland. The more one inspects Pincher’s prose, the more unreliable and fantastic his stories become. The coverage of Straight, Blunt and Cairncross is another stunning example.

‘The Shadow Man’

The Shadow Man by Geoff Andrews (2015)

Andrews’s biography of James Klugmann has much historical value: in respect of Cairncross, it carefully lays out how Klugmann, the open member of the Communist Party, was able to recruit Cairncross to the cause when Blunt and Burgess had failed.

Yet in his coverage of the affairs of Straight, Blunt and Cairncross, Andrews is lost at sea. First of all he fumbles over the date of the visit by Arthur Martin in Cleveland – ‘just two months after taking up his appointment’. He then goes on to make the following remarkable assertion: “On this visit, helped by information from Blunt – who had, by now, confessed, though this was not made public for another 12 years – and the ongoing investigations into Philby’s disappearance in 1963, succeeded in extracting a confession from Cairncross about his own espionage.”

Well, it was actually fifteen years before Blunt’s confession was made public, but no matter. The extraordinary dimension to this statement is that Andrews makes a confident claim that Blunt had already confessed, i.e. before Andrews’ implicit date of March 1964, and implicitly before the actual date of mid-January 1964. Andrews must surely have been conscious of the prevailing intelligence (he cites Defence of the Realm in his sources, and quotes a passage from it in this very chapter), but can quite blithely declare that Blunt’s information helped Martin in extracting the confession.

Yet Andrews is not finished in his caprices. He continues: “Cairncross was told that the matter was treated ‘very seriously’, had been discussed by the British cabinet, and he should be in no doubt that there would be big headlines if the news got out. It was made clear that as things stood he would be arrested if he returned to Britain, with the prospect of a long sentence, something that was confirmed to him by the FBI. However, Martin told him that his confession would not be made public on the understanding that he would not return to England permanently.” It is not clear where Andrews gained his information, which even includes a quotation, as if from some document. He provides no sources. The mixture of clumsy veiled threats by Martin to Cairncross, while all the time MI5 was desperately trying to keep the lid on things (whom did they think those headlines would embarrass most?), combined with threats about prosecution, and advice on staying out of Britain, is quite ridiculous.

Andrews completes his coverage of these events with the information that, after Cairncross was duly required to leave the USA ‘only a couple of months after arriving’ (not true), he received another visit from Martin in Rome, this time accompanied by Peter Wright. In his stumbling way, Andrews shines fresh light on the fact of the late 1963 confession by Blunt.

FCO 158/129 – ‘Foreign and Colonial Office file on John Cairncross, 1953-1982’ (released 23 October, 2015)

This file constitutes firm evidence that the Foreign Office was being hoodwinked by the cabal of Hollis and White, Burke Trend, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General. The items within it are very fragmented, often with only one side of a correspondence included, and it is therefore difficult to string together a coherent narrative. The dominant themes can be represented as follows:

The proceedings begin with a letter from ‘MRS’ of MI5, dated February 7, 1964 writing to Street in the Foreign Office. This announces that Cairncross has applied for a US Immigration Visa ‘and has been the subject of correspondence between us and the Americans under reference PF.72,493/c3D/2.’ This unreleased file strongly suggests that MI5 and the FBI have been in intense discussion about the visa application, and how to respond to it. Yet very quickly, the story gets tangled. Street writes to his superiors the very same day, including Sir Bernard Burrows, who appears to have been sharing the post of Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office with Howard Caccia, but was also Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1963 to 1966. It appears that Street has since talked to Cumming, the head of D Division, on the telephone. He tells them that Cairncross has applied ‘urgently’ for the visa.

Street then reveals the scheme that MI5 had been cooking up, and unwittingly betrays the lies that MI5 has started spinning. He writes: “The Security Service have felt for some time that they never got the full truth out of Cairncross and when they first heard of his visa application it occurred to them that in the United States, Cairncross might be prepared to talk more freely, where he would be outside the jurisdiction. It happens that Mr. Arthur Martin, the head of the Soviet Counter-Espionage Section, is in the United States and could talk to Cairncross if this were thought appropriate.” This is a very tantalising suggestion. Either Street received a true notice from MI5 – that Martin had indeed travelled to the USA on other business (perhaps to meet Straight?) – or MI5 was trying to make it appear a fortunate circumstance that Martin would be able to interrogate him.  Whatever the truth, MI5’s goal becomes immediately clear: they want to extract information from Cairncross, but they do not want to prosecute him.

The contortions that MI5 was now wrapping itself in are displayed. The FBI has told MI5 that they think the US Immigration Service should be given the full security facts on Cairncross. So far, all they appear to know is that he had been a Communist in the 1930s. But, if MI5 gives the full story, the visa application would probably be refused, and that would cause embarrassment, as the news would get out that a British citizen had been rejected, and the public would want to know why. MI5 might be justified in withholding information for a short visit, but for a long-term employment opportunity, it would be difficult to approve such a policy

Burrows thinks the type of visa is irrelevant. It is important (he writes) not to give a chance for any US authority to say the British have withheld information. It would cause great embarrassment if the visa request were withheld from a British citizen because of information given to the US authorities by Her Majesty’s Government. He recommends giving the CIA authority to inform the US Immigration Service, but adding the strong request that, if the visa were refused, it should not be attributed to information from the British government. Harrison, “C”, and Carrington all agree. The Foreign Office is now compliant in the plot.

By February 18, Street reports that the visa has been granted, and that Cairncross has already confessed to Martin! This news causes Burrows and Caccia alarm, as now Cairncross may be deported, and they wonder whether the ‘alert procedure’ should be brought into play. These two senior civil servants want Cairncross brought to justice. They now have an inkling of what is going on, but disapprove of the actions taken. Here Caccia makes his insightful statement about MI5’s manœuvrings: “At the same time I am bound to say I think MI5 are taking a lot on themselves in deciding without any reference not to pursue such cases at some time (in this instance in Rome, Bangkok, and U.K.) and then to go ahead at others (here in USA). The political implications of this decision do not appear to have been weighed: only those of the mystery of spy-catching. However effective this may now have been proved, it is apt to leave us with a number of difficult questions to answer.” He hit the nail on the head.

There follow a few ancillary comments and resolutions: Guidance for the Press, Trend’s weaselly accounts of the meetings at 10 Downing Street [which I shall cover later], in turn echoed by Hollis, some exploration of US deportation law, and how Cairncross might be affected by it, and the approaches to Cairncross to determine whether he would be prepared to make a statement under caution, even suggestions that Cairncross’s brother, Alex, a financial adviser to the Foreign Office, may have come under suspicion. There is a report by Hollis, which raises the possibility that Cairncross was a member of Golitsyn’s Ring of Five. And right at the end, is a humorous entry by Street, who records on August 12, 1964 that he had encountered Arthur Martin. “I asked Mr. A. S. Martin today whether anything of interest to the Foreign Office had emerged from his interrogation of John Cairncross. He said that Cairncross had admitted to having been recruited by the R.I.S. shortly after he entered the Foreign Office in 1936. Otherwise nothing of interest.” Very droll.

‘Spymaster’

Spymaster by Martin Pearce (2016)

One would not expect a biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield to carry much of relevance to the Straight episodes, but Martin Pearce (who is a nephew of the late Sir Maurice) in his 2016 work introduces a provocative incident. Richard Davenport-Hines was generous enough to offer a blurb: “An exemplary biography . . .I cannot think of a better biography of a spy chief”, a plaudit that may reflect the paucity of biographies of spy chiefs, a subtle disdain for Bower’s Perfect English Spy and Cave- Brown’s “C”, the regrettable fact of Davenport-Hines’s fading memory, or possibly a combination of all three explanations. It cannot be because of the book’s Sources, since these are sketchy at best.

Pearce sets up a plausible set of circumstances for Oldfield’s involvement – in the wake of the Philby disaster he had been sent over by White to ‘ingratiate him with the CIA, and with James Angleton in particular’, a job he did very well – and, according to Pearce, Martin flew to Washington to join Oldfield and James Angleton to discuss Golitsyn’s theories. So there was a history of collaboration between Martin and Oldfield. The key passage appears when Pearce describes Straight’s approach to the FBI, when the case is passed to Bill Sullivan.

“Sullivan liaised with his MI6 associate Maurice Oldfield, and Oldfield arranged for Arthur Martin of MI5 to fly out to interview Straight.” Where did this anecdote come from?

Pearce’s sources for the chapter (‘Mesmerised by Moles’) are the predictable list of ‘Molehunt’ books, as well as ‘National Archive material’, but he does not identify any direct source for this statement, or for any other. Now this series of connections is in some sense quite plausible, reflecting the reputation that Oldfield had won in Washington, the regard in which Dick White held him, and White’s and Oldfield’s closeness to Arthur Martin, but it leaves a lot unexplained. Sullivan’s association with British intelligence was through MI5, not MI6, Oldfield could not have ‘arranged’ for Martin to be sent out without Hollis’s authority, and the absence of any dating of these events leaves them in a highly speculative state.

I thus wrote to Pearce just before Christmas 2020, via his press agent, of course, asking about the authority for these remarks, and was informed that no emails would be processed until the New Year. I have not yet received a reply.

CAB 301/270 – ‘John Cairncross, former member of the Foreign Office: confession to spying’ (released July 20, 2017)

For those cold-blooded individuals who are apt to classify all ‘conspiracy theorists’ as undisciplined fantasists, CAB 301/270 should provide a dramatic wakening-up call. This collection of Cabinet papers, containing communications over Arthur Martin’s visit to Cleveland to interrogate John Cairncross, is vivid proof that Burke Trend, the Secretary to the Cabinet, was orchestrating a careful plot to deceive the Prime Minister, the Foreign Office and the public – through manipulation of the Press.

We should remember that Sir Alec Douglas-Home had been appointed Prime Minister only a few months before, in October 1963, and was no doubt overwhelmed with what was going on with his intelligence services. And on February 19, 1964, Trend has to break the news to him that Cairncross has confessed, under interrogation of a representative from MI5, in Cleveland. Anticipating the Prime Minister’s querying why Cairncross could not have been interrogated on British soil (since he had passed through the UK on his way to the United States), Trend observes, in the typically passive voice that indicates no single person shall be held responsible for dubious decisions, that ‘it was thought that an interrogation in the United States might secure better results.’ He happily adds that a full report is awaited, and that the FBI are pleased, and co-operating.

Trend warns the PM that there could be embarrassment, over the failure to interrogate Cairncross in the UK, and the knowledge of his links beforehand. “Was the link between him and Maclean (if this is disclosed?) followed up with sufficient vigour?” He then, rather cryptically, offers two options. Number One is ‘Should Cairncross be discreetly encouraged to leave the US and settle elsewhere (but not UK)?’: Number Two is ‘Should we ask and if necessary put pressure on US authorities to deport him for further interrogation to the UK?’. Trend presumably expected Douglas-Home (who did not have the wary instincts of his predecessor, Harold Macmillan) not to see through the illogicalities of these arguments. Why would MI5 not wish to bring Cairncross back and prosecute him? Why would they want him to settle elsewhere? Why, having assisted the FBI and the Department of Immigration in gaining Cairncross a visa, would the Home Office suddenly want to put pressure on them to deport him? Why would the FBI be pleased that, having just been encouraged to grant a dubious alien a visa, it turns out that the subject has confessed to spying for the Soviet Union for fifteen years?

A busy exchange of memoranda follows. The attitude of the US Immigration authorities cannot be foreseen: ‘we cannot connive at his evading UK conviction, or appear reluctant to have him back in the UK’. (The charade is admitted.) The confession in the US had been volunteered in return for certain inducements; therefore Cairncross’s evidence is inadmissible. Thus a suggestion is made to send a police officer to Cleveland, to see whether Cairncross will repeat his confession ‘under caution’. ‘The best solution would be for Cairncross to decide to leave for a third country’, implying that the government offices will not have to deal with this mess any more. Minuting a meeting held at Number 10 on February 20, Trend makes the absurd statement that they were justified in deciding not to interrogate Cairncross in the UK as ‘we had known virtually no more about him than we had known before’.

The cabal are now in a bind with the FBI, since they do not want it seen that they are applying pressure on the FBI not to return Cairncross, or that they are reluctant to prosecute him, and they certainly do not want it to come out that the British government was applying pressure by suggesting that Cairncross was an undesirable. The Cabinet and Foreign Office make furtive attempts to discern what US deportation policy is. On March 6, they learn that Cairncross has rejected the offer to make a statement under caution (surprise! surprise!). They do not want to refer the whole business to the Security Commission, which would mean bad publicity, and there is a precedent (Philby) for not taking such a move, as opposed to the cases of the Portland Spy Ring, George Blake, and John Vassall. On March 9, Douglas-Home decides that no further action should be taken. The matter is in the hands of the FBI and the US Immigration Service. Maybe it will all blow over.

There is no mention of the Martin-Straight interview in these records.

‘Enemies Within’

Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines (2018)

Richard Davenport-Hines, perhaps the self-appointed authority on the impact of the Cambridge Spies (his book is subtitled ‘Communists, the Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain’) arrived with an ambitious agenda, a broad knowledge, a breath of fresh air, and some dubious theories. He is overall very critical of the Molehunters (Wright and Martin), and explains how their pursuits eroded the confidence of MI5 for decades. Yet his conclusions rely less on any fresh sources than on his wide knowledge of British society and literary history, and he claims to have discovered underlying trends in educational opportunities, in recruitment into the civil service and Intelligence that have’ transformed the social and political temper of modern Britain’.

That may be, but Davenport-Hines does not dig deeply into the Blunt-Cairncross confessions. He trusts what the conventional authors (Andrew, Wright, Deacon, Costello) tell him. He reminds us that the Straight evidence was concealed from Sir Alec Douglas-Home, but chooses to demean Arthur Martin’s molehunts, seeing him as ‘ominously under the sway of Golitysn’. He cites an internal assessment of Martin, given by John Marriott, who had noted thar despite ‘his undeniable critical and analytical gifts and powers of lucid explanation on paper’, Martin was ‘a rather small-minded man, and I doubt he will much increase in stature as he grows older’. Far from the wily Smiley character portrayed by others.

Thus Davenport-Hines fails to spot the anomalies in Cairncross’s confession occurring before Blunt’s, or the circumstances of their pardons. He specifically did not exploit the relevant archives recently released at Kew.

‘The Last Cambridge Spy’

The Last Cambridge Spy by Chris Smith (2019)

The first biographer of John Cairncross is a devotee of the archives. In his Introduction, Chris Smith lists the only four files on Cairncross that have been released for public inspection, yet he includes in this inventory a Home Office file, heavily redacted, which he obtained via a freedom of information request. In his Notes, he indicates that the latter is titled HO 532/4, although he fails to include CAB 301/270 here, while nevertheless registering it in a very comprehensive and useful Bibliography section.

HO 532/4 is listed in the National Archives catalogue as ‘Espionage activities by individuals: John Cairncross’, where it is described as being ‘retained by a Government department’. It covers Cairncross’s activities up to his death in 1995, but Smith appears to exploit it only once, when he describes the anxiety that beset the Foreign Office whenever Cairncross showed intentions of returning to the United Kingdom, as a known Soviet spy, but one who was not going to be prosecuted. The file therefore probably contains some further embarrassing incidents the importance of which Smith was not able to discern. [I have recently been able to communicate with Dr. Smith, and he has generously shown me the file. It does not contain anything startling.]

Smith takes his guidance on the interrogation of Cairncross mostly from the probably less reliable FCO 158/129, thereby relegating the more central CAB 301/270 to second fiddle. He echoes the ’second bite at the cherry’ idea (without crediting West), and reinforces the controversial claim that Martin ‘just so happened to be in the United States at that time and could simply drop by’. (Cleveland is about 400 miles from Washington, roughly the same distance as Edinburgh from London.) Smith notes that interrogating Cairncross ‘outside the jurisdiction’ had its advantages, and shrewdly questions why the USA was so different, when MI5 had had opportunities in Italy, for example. Yet he does not follow up: “The answer to this question remains unclear.”

The plot, however, is unfortunately lost when Smith, after describing Martin in glowing terms, informs us that ‘in April he [Cairncross] was doorstepped by an FBI agent who had called to let him now that Martin would be dropping in to talk to him.” Smith seems to have been inveigled by Cairncross’s declaration of the timing, since by April Martin was back in the UK preparing to interrogate Blunt. [Dr. Smith has expressed to me his regret over his overlooking of the plain evidence in CAB 301/270 about the timing of Cairncross’s interrogation.] ‘Doorstep’ is an unusual term, since it suggests a journalist pestering one’s home, but it would tend to counter the various writers who have claimed that Cairncross was interrogated in his hotel in Cleveland.

Smith then picks up the Chapman Pincher claim that Cairncross was ‘thrown to the wolves’ by Anthony Blunt, and dismisses it because Cairncross had already been interrogated (now in February, in contrast to his earlier assertion). As I have explained above, Smith rejects any claim that Blunt could have led MI5 to Cairncross because of the ‘archival evidence’ that Blunt did not confess until April 1964. He thus argues that Cairncross could thus not have known about the tipping-off. He sums up as follows: “He was convinced that it was Blunt who had given him up and this was only confirmed by the likes of Wright and Pincher. Blunt became for Cairncross a convenient scapegoat character, one upon whom he could pour a lifetime’s worth of anger and blame. Cairncross was wrong.”

In the matter of believing that he had been shopped by Blunt Cairncross was surely not wrong, despite all the other misrepresentations he made. But I believe that Smith is in error in attributing all this bile to his subject. Cairncross was no doubt told by his interrogators that he would be offered a deal similar to Blunt’s. Smith’s understandable confusion over the precise chronology, complemented perhaps by a flawed assessment of the possible deviousness of the intelligence services, may have caused him to underestimate the questionable character of Cairncross’s ‘confession’.

‘Agent Moliere’

Agent Moliere by Geoff Andrews (2020)

Last year, Geoff Andrews switched his attention from James Klugmann to John Cairncross. Among the new source material for his study he introduced Cairncross’s personal papers and correspondence maintained in the Special Collections section of Cambridge University Library. One startling reference is to an FBI file on Cairncross, presumably derived from its questioning of Cairncross in Cleveland. Andrews annotates this file, in Box 11 of the CULMC papers, as follows (Note 24, Chapter 13): “FBI file 65-68525. The FI file was released after request made by Richard Norton-Taylor.”  [I am attempting to gain a photocopy of the relevant documents. I have also been in touch with Andrews, but his description of the contents of the relevant file was very sketchy.]

Andrews also exploits the considerable correspondence between Cairncross and Graham Greene. Thus we can easily date the time when Cairncross approached Greene for a reference for the post at the Western Reserve University (August 4, 1963) which safely places Cairncross’s desire to move to the USA outside the Straight-Blunt discussions. Andrews writes: “He worried initially that the US authorities would be aware of his previous difficulties with MI5 and block his visa application. However he was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case and had sufficient confidence in the prospect of a new career that after returning from Karachi he made a brief stop in London to do some research at the British Museum before heading back to the American Consulate in Rome to finalize the paperwork.”  While this claim is unsourced, and no dates of Cairncross’s movements, such as his visa application, his arrival in London, his time spent at the British Museum, and seeing his estranged wife, or his return to Rome to pick up his visa, appear in Andrews’s narrative, it does appear to confirm the fact that Cairncross spent some time in London on his way from Karachi to Cleveland via Rome, and thus could have been interviewed by MI5. [I have asked Andrews for any dates he can supply to fix these events, but he has not replied.]

Cairncross arrived in Cleveland in February 1964, and Andrews describes a couple of happy months during which Cairncross enjoyed his stimulating new life. After a discursion on mole-hunting and Philby, Andrews returns to the moment when Cairncross’s ‘past caught up with him’. We are given an exact date and flight-number for Cairncross’s arrival (PAA103 on February 11). Andrews does not give a source for this detail, but it is a very significant event. For, if Cairncross flew out only on February 11, and Martin travelled to the USA expressly to interrogate Cairncross, some time in January (as most of the histories suggest), and was surprised by the introduction to Straight, what was Martin doing in all those weeks in Washington? Even if the encounter had been set up remotely, Martin surely did not need all that time. And we should recall that Chapman Pincher stated that Martin had arrived in early January, and was in Washington ‘on the Mitchell business’. (Martin had simply told him ‘other business’.) How could he possibly have spent so many weeks discussing a closed case? Wright, it will be recalled, said that Martin had flown out, on Sullivan’s invitation, for the purpose of interviewing Straight. That sounds equally unlikely, given how long the process would have taken. It seems much more probable that Martin was carrying out some careful discussions with the FBI as preparation for the Cairncross interrogations.

Thereafter Andrews portrays a fairly conventional story. He recognises that Cairncross lied about the interrogation date in his memoir. He refers to the collaboration between the FBI and MI5. He reports that Cairncross suddenly decided to ‘get it off his chest and confess to Martin’ without any analysis of what motivated him to do so. Despite his acceptance that Cairncross was a liar, he accepts the explanation that the spy gave in his memoir. Strangely, Andrews then jumps to the Blunt confession of April 1964 (when ‘Cairncross was fielding questions from the FBI in Room 309 at the Commodore Hotel in Cleveland’) before returning to the Prime Minister’s meeting on February 20, and what Cairncross was up to with the FBI in Cleveland. He then echoes the possibly misleading evidence provided in FCO 158/129, but fails to make any breakthrough observations about what was going on, or why such obviously hypocritical statements about the wish to prosecute Cairncross were being made.

Things were not going well for Cairncross with the FBI, apparently. In another passage that presumably relies on the Cambridge archive, Andrews writes: “The FBI told him that he must leave the United States by 29 June and so, two days before the deadline, he took a flight from Cleveland to New York, where the FBI escorted him on an Air France flight to Paris that had been chartered for the use of French assistants and teachers.” Amazingly, the British Press did not hear about it. “Suspected British Red Diplomat in Secret Deportation Drama” did not hit the headlines of the Daily Mail.

Yet, MI5 was ready for him. Cairncross underwent another ‘debriefing’ (just to make sure he had the story straight?) by Martin and Wright in Paris. He was now doing his best to co-operate, and apparently there followed several further sessions in Rome. There were a combination of threats and enticements: Cairncross was allowed to return to the UK, unthreatened, for further interviews, and for an unsuccessful attempt to gain a confession from James Klugmann.  Andrews’s final judgment is that ‘unlike Anthony Blunt, Cairncross was never given confirmation of immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation’. That is, however, highly unlikely. Blunt would have been sure to gain such a promise for his conspirator before shopping him.

*                *                      *                      *                      *

That is the analysis. Readers can probably predict what my conclusions will be. If any of you can recommend sources I have overlooked, or have comments on the evidence, please contact me. I shall deliver my theory for what really happened next month.

Lastly, this is not the launching of a ‘conspiracy theory’. We know there was a real conspiracy to conceal the immunity deals negotiated with Blunt (and Cairncross) because Margaret Thatcher admitted them in 1979. But the even darker aspect of the conspiracy was to divert focus on the cause of the agreements away from internal mismanagement to an unavoidable outside agency.  It occurred when the CIA’s Angleton poked his nose in, extending the knowledge of the plot to a broader audience, and leading Hollis and White to distort the facts of the confessions.

This month’s new Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Management/Leadership, Politics

Special Bulletin: Denis Lenihan – In Memoriam

I recently heard the sad news that Denis Lenihan had died of Covid-19 on December 29 in London.

I never met Denis: we started corresponding in September 2019, after I tracked him down from an article of his that I had read. Yet we soon realised that, in our interest in intelligence matters, we had a common enthusiasm for treating ‘official’ history with a quizzical eye, for patiently inspecting archival records, for reading broadly and deeply, and for recording what we found as honestly and plainly as we could. Denis became an eager supporter of coldspur, contributed a few pieces, and always very calmly challenged my conclusions when he judged they were not watertight.

We enjoyed a very fruitful email correspondence over fifteen months. He was still doggedly going through the Petrov archives when he was taken ill, and, in his last message to me before Christmas, when he was about to be admitted to hospital, he told me how much he was looking forward to picking up the Molehunt research in the New Year.

I shall miss him greatly, and offer my sincerest condolences to his family. If I learn more about Denis’s career and life, I shall post them here. I hope all coldspur readers stay healthy in these dark times.

Update on January 20

I heard more from Denis’s daughter, Siobhan, who provided me with a bio of Denis, and details of his funeral service.

He was born in Invercargill, New Zealand, in 1937, and moved to London, the residence of his second wife, Bridget, in 2009. I cite two paragraphs verbatim:

“Except for a little while at the start and at the end of his career, Denis was a Commonwealth public servant (that is, a person working for the Australian Government). He worked in education, with some of the earliest international university students; immigration, including a wonderful period as Counsellor (Migration), Scandinavia, when he and his family lived in Stockholm as diplomats (harder work than you might think, but rewarding and the experience of a lifetime); and on various royal commissions and other bodies investigating organised crime. He was the founding CEO of the National Crime Authority. Somewhere in here lies the seed of his consuming interest in espionage and its practitioners in Australia and New Zealand.

He was kind, funny, clever, gregarious, ethical, devout, generous and modest. He enjoyed people, books, newspapers, travelling, golf, rugby union, food, wine and cognac, cryptic crosswords and bridge. He read non-stop. (Both his wives marvelled at how he could spend ‘all day’ reading the newspaper.) Faith, vocation, family and accident combined gave him NZ, Australian and Irish loyalties, strongly reflected in his interests and reading. He took to the internet as a duck to water, relishing the communication and information it afforded and keeping in contact with a wide international circle of family and friends. He became a researcher later in life, exercising his interest in solving puzzles in a different way and making a new group of friends and contacts. He loved his family and we loved him and will miss him for ever.”

While I cannot match Denis in moral qualities, the list of his interests mirrors mine almost exactly. We discussed golf and rugby, but for some reason never touched bridge or cryptic crosswords. What a distinguished life he led, and I am sorry I never had the pleasure of meeting him.

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Year-End Wrap-up – 2020

At the end of this dreadful year, I use this bulletin to provide an update on some of the projects that have occupied my time since my last Round-Up. I shall make no other reference to Covid-19, but I was astounded by a report in the Science Section of the New York Times of December 29, which described how some victims of the virus had experienced psychotic symptoms of alarming ferocity. Is there a case for investigating whether traditional paranoiacs may have been affected by similar viral attacks, harmed by neurotoxins which formed as reactions to immune activation, and crossed the blood-brain barrier?

The Contents of this bulletin are as follows:

  1. ‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
  2. The John le Carré I Never Knew
  3. The Dead Ends of HASP
  4. Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
  5. Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
  6. Bandwidth versus Frequency
  7. ‘History Today’ and Eric Hobsbawm
  8. Puzzles at Kew
  9. Trouble at RAE Farnborough
  10. End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes

‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out

Kati Marton

Ben Macintyre’s biography of Sonia/Sonya received an overall very favourable response in the press, and it predictably irked me that it was reviewed by persons who were clearly unfamiliar with the subject and background. I posted one or two comments on-line, but grew weary of hammering away unproductively. Then Kati Marton, a respectable journalist who has written a book about one of Stalin’s spies, offered a laudatory review in the New York Times (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/books/review/agent-sonya-ben-macintyre.html?searchResultPosition=1)  I accordingly wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Book Review:

Re: ‘The Housewife Who Was A Spy’

Even before Ben Macintyre’s book appears, enough is known about Agent Sonya to rebuff many of the claims that Kati Marton echoes from it.

Sonya was neither a spy, nor a spymaster (or spymistress): she was a courier. She did not blow up any railways in England: the most daring thing she did was probably to cycle home from Banbury to Oxford with documents from Klaus Fuchs in her basket.

A ‘woman just like the rest of us’? Well, she had three children with three different men. Her second marriage, in Switzerland, was bigamous, abetted by MI6, whose agent, Alexander Foote, provided perjurious evidence about her husband’s adultery. As a dedicated communist, she went in for nannies, and boarding-schools for her kids (not with her own money, of course). Just like the rest of us.

She eluded British secret services? Hardly. MI5 and MI6 officers arranged her passport and visa, then aided her installation in Britain, knowing that she came from a dangerous communist family, and even suspected that she might be a ‘spy’. The rat was smelled: they just failed to tail it.

Her husband in the dark? Not at all. He had performed work for MI6 in Switzerland, was trained as a wireless operator by Sonya, and as a Soviet agent carried out transmissions on her behalf from a bungalow in Kidlington, while her decoy apparatus was checked out by the cops in Oxford.

Living in a placid Cotswold hamlet? Not during the war, where her wireless was installed on the premises of Neville Laski, a prominent lawyer, in Summertown, Oxford. Useful to have a landlord with influence and prestige.

A real-life heroine? Not one’s normal image of a heroine. A Stalinist to the death, she ignored the horror of the Soviet Union’s prison-camp and praised its installation in East Germany after the war. Here Ms. Marton gets it right.

It appears that Mr. Macintyre has relied too closely on Sonya’s mendacious memoir, Sonjas Rapport, published in East Germany at the height of the Cold War, in 1977, under her nom de plume Ruth Werner. And he has done a poor job of inspecting the British National Archives.

(For verification of the true story about Sonya, see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html and http://www.coldspur.com/sonia-mi6s-hidden-hand/ )

My letter was not published.

As I declared in my Special Bulletin of December 8, I was, however, able to make my point. Professor Glees had introduced me to the Journal of Intelligence and National Security, recommending me as a reviewer of Macintyre’s book. Agent Sonya arrived (courtesy of the author) on October 8. By October 16, I had read the book and supplied a 6,000-word review for the attention of the Journal’s books editor in Canada. He accepted my text enthusiastically, and passed it on to his team in the UK. Apart from some minor editorial changes, and the addition of several new references, it constituted the review as it was published on-line almost two months later. It will appear in the next print edition of the Journal.

The team at the Journal were all a pleasure to work with, and they added some considerable value in preparing the article for publication, and providing some useful references that I had thought might be extraneous. But the process took a long time! Meanwhile, Claire Mulley had written an enthusiastic review of the book in the Spectator, and picked it as one of her ‘Books of the Year’. Similarly, the Sunday Times rewarded Macintyre by picking the production of one of their in-house journalists as one of the Books of the Year. I have to complement Macintyre on his ability to tell a rattling good yarn, but I wish that the literary world were not quite so cozy, and that, if books on complicated intelligence matters are going to be sent out to review, they could be sent to qualified persons who knew enough about the subject to be able to give them a serious critique.

Finally, I have to report on two book acquisitions from afar. It took four months for my copy of Superfrau iz GRU to arrive from Moscow, but in time for me to inspect the relevant chapters, and prepare my review of Agent Sonya. The other item that caught my eye was Macintyre’s information about the details of Rudolf Hamburger’s departure from Marseilles in the spring of 1939. I imagined this must have come from the latter’s Zehn Jahre Lager, Hamburger’s memoir of his ten years in the Gulag, after his arrest by the British in Tehran, and his being handed over to the Soviets. This was apparently not published until 2013. I thus ordered a copy from Germany, and it arrived in late November. Yet Hamburger’s story does not start until 1943: he has nothing to say about his time in Switzerland.

His son Maik edited the book, and provided a revealing profile of his father. Of his parents’ time in China, when Sonia started her conspiratorial work with Richard Sorge, he wrote: “Als sie nicht umhinkann, ihn einzuweihen, ist er ausser sich. Nicht nur, dass er sich hintergangen fühlt – sie hat die Familie aufs Spiel gesetzt.“ (“Since she could not prevent herself from entangling him, he is beside himself. Not just that he feels deceived – she has put the whole family at stake.”) When Sonia decided to return to Moscow for training, the marriage was over. And when she published her memoir in 1977 Maik noted: “Hamburger ist über diese Publikation und die Darstellung seiner Person darin hochgradig verärgert.“ (“Hamburger is considerably annoyed by this publication, and the representation of his character in it.”) Indeed, Maik. Your father suffered much on her account.

The John le Carré I Never Knew

John Le Carre

I noted with great sadness the death of John le Carré this month. I imagine I was one of many who, during their university years, read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and was blown over by this very unromantic view of the world of espionage. Perhaps it was that experience that led me into a lifelong fascination with that realm. He was a brilliant writer, especially in the sphere of vocal registers. I wrote an extensive assessment of him back in 2016 (see Revisiting Smiley & Co.), and do not believe I have much to add – apart from the inevitable factor of Sonia.

In our article in the Mail on Sunday (see: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html , Professor Glees and I had characterized Sonia’s story as real-life confirmation of le Carré’s verdict that ‘betrayal is always the handmaiden of espionage’ , and I concluded my detailed explanation of the saga (see: http://www.coldspur.com/sonia-mi6s-hidden-hand/ ) with the following words: “What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.”

I had rather whimsically hoped that Mr. le Carré would have found these articles, and perhaps reached out to comment somewhere. But my hopes were dashed when I read Ben Macintyre’s tribute in the Times (see: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/john-le-carre-the-spy-who-was-my-friend-svr8tgv82 ). This is a typical item of Macintyrean self-promotion, as he encourages the glamour of le Carré to flow over him (‘Oh what prize boozers we were! How we joked and joshed each other!’), while the journalist attempts to put himself in a more serious class than his famous friend: “We shared a fascination with the murky, complex world of espionage: he from the vantage point of fiction and lived experience, whereas I stuck to historical fact and research.” Pass the sick-bag, Alice.

And then there was that coy plug for his book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends. “On another long ramble, between books and stuck for a new subject, I asked him what he thought was the best untold spy story of the Cold War. ‘That is easy,’ he said. ‘It is the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott,’ the MI6 officer who worked alongside the KGB spy for two decades and was comprehensively betrayed by him.’ That led to another book, ostensibly about the greatest spy scandal of the century, but also an exploration of male friendship, the bonds of education, class and secrecy, and the most intimate duplicity. Le Carré wrote the afterword, refusing payment.” Did ELLI not even touch the Great Man’s consciousness? What a load of boloney.

Thus, if le Carré really believed that the Philby-Elliott relationship was the best untold story of the Cold War, I knew we were on shaky ground. And, sure enough, a discussion on Sonya followed. “We met for the last time in October, on one of those medical toots, in the Hampstead house. A single table lamp dimly illuminated the old sitting room, unchanged over the years. Having read my latest book [‘Agent Sonya,’ for those of you who haven’t been paying attention], he had sent an enthusiastic note and a suggestion we meet: “You made us over time love and admire Sonya herself, and pity her final disillusionment, which in some ways mirrors our own. What guts, and what nerve. And the men wimps or misfits beside her.”

Hallo!! What were you thinking, old boy? Macintyre had hoodwinked the Old Master himself, who had been taken in by Macintyre’s picaresque ramblings, and even spouted the tired old nonsense that Sonya’s disillusionment ‘in some ways mirrors our own’. Who are you speaking for, chum, and what gives you the right to assume you know how the rest of us feel? What business have you projecting your own anxieties and disappointments on the rest of us? ‘Loving and admiring’ that destructive and woefully misguided creature? What came over you?

It must be the permanent challenge of every novelist as to how far he or she can go in projecting his or her own emotional turmoils into the world of outside, and claiming they are universal. As le Carré aged, I think he dealt with this aspect of his experiences less and less convincingly. And there have been some very portentous statements made about his contribution to understanding human affairs. Thus, Phillipe Sands, in the New York Times: “David [not King Edward VIII, by the way, but oh, what a giveaway!] was uniquely able to draw the connections between the human and historical, the personal and the political, pulling on the seamless thread that is the human condition.” (Outside Hampstead intellectuals, people don’t really talk like that still, do they?) With le Carré, one was never sure if he believed that the intelligence services, with their duplicities, deceits, and betrayals, caused their operatives to adopt the same traits, or whether those services naturally attracted persons whose character was already shaped by such erosive activities.

I believe the truth was far more prosaic. MI5, for example, was very similar to any other bureaucratic institution. In the war years, recruits were not subjected to any kind of personality or ideological test. They received no formal training, and picked up the job as they went along. Rivalries developed. Officers had affairs with their secretaries (or the secretaries of other officers), and sometimes they married them. Plots were hatched for personal advancement or survival. (White eased out Liddell in the same way that Philby outmanoeuvred Cowgill.) What was important was the survival of the institution, and warding off the enemy (MI6), and, if necessary, lying to their political masters. The fact is that, as soon as they let rogues like Blunt in, did nothing when they discovered him red-handed, and then tried to manipulate him to their advantage, White and Hollis were trapped, as trapped as Philby and his cronies were when they signed their own pact with the devil. Only in MI5’s case, these were essentially decent men who did not understand the nature of the conflict they had been drawn into.

On one aspect, however, Macintyre was absolutely right – the question of le Carré’s moral equivalence. With his large pile in Cornwall, and his opulent lunches, and royalties surging in, le Carré continued to rant about ‘capitalism’, as if all extravagant or immoral behaviour by enterprises, large or small, irrevocably damned the whole shooting-match. Would he have railed against ‘free enterprise’ or ‘pluralist democracy’? He reminded me of A. J. P. Taylor, fuming about capitalism during the day, and tracking his stock prices and dividends in the evenings. And le Carré’s political instincts took on a very hectoring and incongruous tone in his later years, with George Smiley brought out of retirement to champion the EU in A Legacy of Spies, and, a couple of years ago, Agent Running In The Field being used as a propaganda vehicle against the Brexiteers. (While my friend and ex-supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, thinks highly of this book, I thought it was weak, with unconvincing characters, unlikely backgrounds and encounters, and an implausible plot.)

I could imagine myself sitting down in the author’s Hampstead sitting-room, where we open a second bottle of Muscadet, and get down to serious talk. He tells me how he feels he has been betrayed by the shabby and corrupt British political establishment. It is time for me to speak up.

“What are you talking about, squire? Why do you think you’re that important? You win a few, you lose a few. Sure, democracy is a mess, but it’s better than the alternative! And look at that European Union you are so ga-ga about? Hardly a democratic institution, is it? Those Eurocrats continue to give the Brits a hard time, even though the two are ideological allies, and the UK at least exercised a popular vote to leave, while those rogue states, Hungary and Poland, blackmail the EU into a shady and slimy deal over sovereignty, and weasel some more euros out of Brussels! Talk about moral dilemmas and sleaziness! Why don’t you write about that instead?  Aren’t you more nostalgic, in your admiration for the ‘European Project’, than all those Brexiteers you believe to be Empire Loyalists?”

But I notice he is no longer listening. I catch him whispering to one of his minions: “Who is this nutter? Get him out of here!”

I slip a few uneaten quails’ eggs into my pocket, and leave.

(A product of coldspur Syndications Inc. Not to be reproduced without permission.)

The Dead Ends of HASP

Professor Wilhelm Agrell

I had been relying on two trails to help resolve the outstanding mysteries of the so-called HASP messages that GCHQ had acquired from Swedish intelligence, and which reputedly gave them breakthroughs on decrypting some elusive VENONA traffic. (see Hasp & Spycatcher). One was a Swedish academic to whom Denis Lenihan had introduced me, Professor Wilhelm Agrell, professor of intelligence analysis at the University of Lund in Sweden. Professor Agrell had delivered a speech on Swedish VENONA a decade ago, and had prepared a paper in English that outlined what he had published in a book in Swedish, unfortunately not (yet) translated into English. The other was the arrival of the authorised history of GCHQ by the Canadian academic, Professor John Ferris. It was perhaps reasonable to expect that the VENONA project would undergo a sustained analysis in this work, which was published in October of this year.

Professor Agrell’s work looked promising. His paper, titled ‘The Stockholm Venona – Cryptanalysis, intelligence liaison and the limits of counter-intelligence’, had been presented at the 2009 Cryptologic History Symposium, October 15 and 16, 2009, at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, MD. His annotations indicated that he had enjoyed extensive access to Swedish Security Police files, as well as some documents from the military intelligence and security services. Moreover, his analysis had benefitted from declassified American, German and British intelligence, along with some recently declassified Swedish files. His references included two useful-sounding books written in English, Swedish Signal Intelligence 1900-1945, byC.G. McKay and Bengt Beckman, and the same McKay’s From Information to Intrigue. Studies in Secret Service based on the Swedish Experience, 1939-1945. I acquired and read both volumes.

The experience was very disappointing. The two books were very poorly written, and danced around paradoxical issues. I prepared some questions for the Professor, to which he eventually gave me some brief answers, and I responded with some more detailed inquiries, to which he replied. He had never heard of HASP outside Wright’s book. He was unable to provide convincing responses over passages in his paper that I found puzzling. Towards the end of our exchange, I asked him about his assertion that ‘GCHQ has released agent-network VENONA traffic to the National Archives’, since I imagined that this might refer to some of the missing SONIA transmissions that Wright believed existed. His response was that he was referring to the ‘so called ISCOT material from 1944-45’. Well, I knew about that, and have written about it. It has nothing to do with VENONA, but contains communications between Moscow and guerilla armies in Eastern Europe, decrypted by Denniston’s group at Berkeley Street. At this stage I gave up.

In a future bulletin, I shall lay out the total Agrell-Percy correspondence, and annotate which parts of the exchange are, in my opinion, highly important, but I do not think we are going to learn much more from the Swedish end of things. The Swedes seem to be fairly tight-lipped about these matters.

I completed John Ferris’s Behind the Enigma on November 30, and put its 823 pages down with a heavy thud and a heavy sigh. This book must, in many ways, be an embarrassment to GCHQ. It is poorly written, repetitive, jargon-filled, and frequently circumlocutory. The author is poor at defining terms, and the work lacks a Glossary and Bibliography. Ferris has an annoying habit of describing historical events with modern-day terminology, and darts around from period to period in a bewilderingly undisciplined manner. He includes a lot of tedious sociological analysis of employment patterns at Bletchley Park and Cheltenham. One can find some very useful insights amongst all the dense analysis, but it is a hard slog tracking them down. And he is elliptical or superficial about the matters that interest me most, that is the interception and decipherment of Soviet wireless traffic.

One receives a dispiriting message straight away, on page 4. “This history could not discuss diplomatic Sigint after 1945, nor any technicalities of collection which remained current.” Yet this stipulation does not prevent Ferris from making multiple claims about GCHQ’s penetration of Soviet high-grade systems, and promoting the successes of other apparent diplomatic projects, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Cuba. For example, he refers to Dick White’s recommendation in 1968 that more Soviet tasks be handed over to the US’s NSA (p 311), but, not many pages later, he writes of the Americans’ desire not to fall behind British Sigint, and their need to maintain the benefit they received from GCHQ’s ‘power against Russia’ (p 340). On page 355 we learn that GCHQ ‘ravaged Soviet civil and machine traffic’. I do not know what all this means.

It seems that Ferris does not really understand VENONA. His coverage of MASK (the 1930s collection of Comintern traffic with agents in Britain) is trivial, he ignores ISCOT completely, and he characterizes VENONA in a similarly superficial fashion: “It [GCHQ] began an attack on Soviet systems. Between 1946 and 1948, it produced Britain’s best intelligence, which consumers rated equal to Ultra.” (p 279). He fails to explain how the project attacked traffic that had been stored from 1943 onwards, and does not explain the relationship between the USA efforts and the British (let alone the Swedes). His statement about the peak of UK/USA performance against Soviet traffic as occurring between 1945 and 1953 (p 503) is simply wrong. VENONA has just four entries in the Index, and the longest passage concerns itself with the leakage in Australia. He offers no explanation of how the problem of reused one-time-pads occurred, or how the British and American cryptologists made progress, how they approached the problem, and what was left unsolved. Of HASP, there is not a sign.

It is evident that GCHQ, for whatever reason, wants VENONA (and HASP) to remain not only secrets, but to be forgotten. All my appeals to its Press Office have gone unacknowledged, and the issue of Ferris’s History shows that it has no intention of unveiling anything more. Why these events of sixty years and more ago should be subject to such confidentiality restrictions, I have no idea. It is difficult to imagine how the techniques of one-time pads, and directories, and codebooks could form an exposure in cryptological defences of 2020, unless the process would reveal some other embarrassing situation. Yet I know how sensitive it is. A month or two back, I had the privilege of completing a short exchange with a gentleman who had worked for GCHQ for over thirty years, in the Russian division. He said he had never heard of HASP. Well, even if he had, that was what he had been instructed to say. But we know better: ‘HASP’ appears on that RSS record.

Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld

Anthony Blunt
Anthony Blunt

Every schoolboy knows who murdered Atahualpa, and how in April 1964 the MI5 officer Arthur Martin elicited a confession of Soviet espionage from Anthony Blunt. Yet I have been rapidly coming to the conclusion that the whole episode at Blunt’s apartment at the Courtauld Institute was a fiction, a sham event conceived by Roger Hollis and Dick White, in order to conceal Blunt’s earlier confession, and to divert responsibility for the disclosure on to an apparently recent meeting between MI5 officer Arthur Martin and the American Michael Straight, after the latter’s confession to the FBI in the summer of 1963. By building a careful chronology of all the historical sources, but especially those of British Cabinet archives, the FBI, and the CIA, a more accurate picture of the extraordinary exchanges MI5 had with Blunt, Straight and the fifth Cambridge spy, John Cairncross, can be constructed.

The dominant fact about the timing of Blunt’s confession is that all accounts (except one) use Penrose and Freeman’s Conspiracy of Silence as their source, which, in turn, refers to a correspondence between the authors and the MI5 officer Arthur Martin in 1985. Only Christopher Andrew claims that an archival report exists describing the events, but it is identified solely in Andrew’s customarily unacademic vernacular of ‘Security Service Archives’. The details are vaguely the same. On the other hand, several commentators and authors, from Andrew Boyle to Dame Stella Rimington, suggest that Blunt made his confession earlier, though biographers and historians struggle with the way that the ‘official’ account has pervaded the debate, and even use it as a reason to reject all the rumours that Blunt had made his compact some time beforehand.

This project has been several months in the making. I was provoked by Wright’s nonsense in Spycatcher to take a fresh look at the whole search for Soviet moles in MI5. I re-read Nigel West’s Molehunt, this time with a more critical eye. Denis Lenihan and I collaborated on a detailed chronology for the whole period. I reinspected the evidence that the defector Anatoli Golitsyn was supposed to have provided that helped nail Philby. The journalist James Hanning alerted me to some passages in Climate of Treason that I had not studied seriously. I was intrigued by David Cannadine’s rather lavish A Question of Retribution (published earlier this year), which examined the furore over Blunt’s ousting from the British Academy after his role as a spy had been revealed, and I pondered over Richard Davenport-Hines’s misleading review of Cannadine’s book in the Times Literary Supplement a few months ago. I went back to the source works by Boyle, Andrew, West, Costello, Pincher, Penrose and Freeman, Wright, Bower, Straight, Cairncross, Perry, Rimington, and Smith to unravel the incongruous and conflicting tales they spun, and acquired Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross. I inspected carefully two files at the National Archives, declassified in the past five years, that appeared to have been misunderstood by recent biographers.

The dominant narrative runs as follows: Golitsyn created interest in the notion of the ‘Cambridge 5’, and helped to identify Philby as the Third Man; Michael Straight confessed to the FBI that he had been recruited by Blunt at Cambridge; the FBI notified MI5; MI5 interviewed Straight; MI5 could not move against Blunt (the Fourth Man) simply because of Straight’s evidence; MI5 concocted a deal whereby Blunt would essentially receive a pardon if he provided information that led to the ‘Fifth Man’; Blunt revealed that he had recruited John Cairncross; at some stage, MI5 interrogated Cairncross who, on similar terms, confessed; Cairncross’s evasions deflected suspicions that he could have been the ‘Fifth Man’; other candidates were investigated. Blunt’s culpability, and the fact of a deal, remained a secret until, in 1979, Andrew Boyle revealed the role of ‘Maurice’ in Climate of Treason, Private Eye outed ‘Maurice’ as Blunt, and Margaret Thatcher admitted the unwritten compact that had been agreed with Blunt. Yet a muddle endured.

The archives show that this was not the actual sequence of events. The timing does not make sense. And it all revolves around Arthur Martin’s two interrogations of Cairncross in Cleveland, Ohio, in February and March 1964, i.e. before the date claimed for Blunt’s confession to Arthur Martin. Wright’s Spycatcher is perhaps the most egregious example of a work where the chronology is hopelessly distorted or misunderstood, and the author is shown to be carrying on a project of utter disinformation. All other accounts show some manner of delusion, or laziness in ignoring obvious anomalies. The fact is that Hollis, White, Trend & co. all hoodwinked the Foreign Office, and withheld information from the new Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home.  In my report at the end of January 2021 I shall reveal (almost) all. In the meantime, consider these priceless quotations (from a FO archive):

“It is desirable that we should be seen to be doing everything possible to bring him [Cairncross] to justice.’  (Sir Bernard Burrows, Chairman of the JIC, February 20, 1964)

“At the same time I am bound to say I think MI5 are taking a lot on themselves in deciding without any reference not to pursue such cases at some time (in this instance in Rome, Bangkok, and U.K.) and then to go ahead at others (here in USA). The political implication of this decision do not appear to have been weighed: only those of the mystery of spy-catching. However effective this may now have been proved, it is apt to leave us with a number of difficult questions to answer.” (Howard Caccia, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, February 20, 1964)

“It is essential that I should be able to convince the F.B.I. that we are not trying to find a way out of taking action but, on the contrary, that we are anxious to prosecute if this proves possible.” (Roger Hollis to Burke Trend, February 25, 1964)

“We must not appear reluctant to take any measures which might secure Cairncross’s return to the United Kingdom.” (Burke Trend to the Cabinet, February 28, 1964)

The tradition of Sir Humphrey Appleby was in full flow.

Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away

Trevor Barnes

Regular Coldspur readers will have spotted that I frequently attempt to get in touch with authors whose books I have read, sometimes to dispute facts, but normally to try to move the investigations forward. It is not an easy task: the more famous an author is, the more he or she tends to hide behind his or her publisher, or press agent. Some approaches have drawn a complete blank. I often end up writing emails to the publisher: in the case of Ben Macintyre, it got ‘lost’. When Ivan Vassiliev’s publisher invited me to contact him by sending a letter for him to their office, and promised to forward it to his secret address in the UK, I did so, but then heard nothing.

With a little digging, however, especially around university websites, one can often find email addresses for academics, and write in the belief that, if an address is displayed publicly, one’s messages will at least not fall into a spam folder. I am always very respectful, even subservient, on my first approach, and try to gain the author’s confidence that I am a voice worth listening to. And I have had some excellent dialogues with some prominent writers and historians – until they get tired of me, or when I begin to challenge some of their conclusions, or, perhaps, when they start to think that I am treading on ‘their’ turf. (Yes, historians can be very territorial.). For I have found that many writers – qualified professional historians, or competent amateurs – seem to prefer to draw a veil of silence over anything that might be interpreted as a threat to their reputation, or a challenge to what they have published beforehand, in a manner that makes clams all over the world drop their jaws at the speed of such tergiversation.

In this business, however, once you lose your inquisitiveness, I believe, you are lost. And if it means more to you to defend a position that you have previously taken, and on which you may have staked your reputation, than to accept that new facts may shake your previous hypotheses and conclusions, it is time to retire. If I put together a theory about some mysterious, previously unexplained event, and then learn that there is a massive hole in it, I want to abandon it, and start afresh. (But I need to hear solid arguments, not just ‘I don’t agree with you’, or ‘read what Chapman Pincher says’, which is what happens sometimes.)

Regrettably, Trevor Barnes has fallen into that form of stubborn denial. When I first contacted him over Dead Doubles, he was communicative, grateful, open-minded. He accepted that the paperback edition of his book would need to reflect some corrections, and agreed that the several points of controversy that I listed in my review were all substantive. But when I started to quiz him on the matter of the disgraced MI5 officer (see Dead Doubles review), he declined to respond to, or even acknowledge, my messages. (And maybe he found my review of his book on coldspur, since I did take the trouble to point it out to him.) The question in his case revolves around a rather clumsy Endnote in his book, which, instead of achieving the intended goal of burying the topic, merely serves to provoke additional interest.

Note 8, to Part One, on page 250, runs as follows:

“Private information. James Craggs is a pseudonym. The name of the case officer is redacted from the released MI5 files. The author discovered his real identity but was requested by MI5 sources not to name him to avoid potential distress to his family.”

The passage referred to is a brief one where Barnes describes how David Whyte (the head of D2 in MI5), swung into action against Houghton. I reproduce it here:

“He chose two officers to join him on the case. One was George Leggatt, half-Polish and a friend, with whom he had worked on Soviet counter-espionage cases in the 1950s. The case officer was James Craggs, a sociable bachelor in his late thirties.”

That’s it. But so many questions raised! ‘Private information’ that ‘Craggs’ was ‘a sociable bachelor’, which could well have been a substitute for ‘confirmed bachelor’ in those unenlightened days, perhaps? (But then he has a family.) What else could have been ‘private’ about this factoid? And why would a pseudonym have to be used? Did ‘Craggs’ perform something massively discreditable to warrant such wariness after sixty years? Barnes draws to our attention the fact that the officer’s name is redacted in the released file. But how many readers would have bothered to inspect the files if Barnes has simply used his real name, but not mentioned the attempts to conceal it, or the suggestion of high crimes and misdemeanours? By signalling his own powers as a sleuth, all Barnes has done is invite analysis of what ‘Craggs’ might have been up to, something that would have lain dormant if he had not highlighted it.

For ‘Craggs’’s real name is quite clear from KV 2/4380. Denis Lenihan pointed out to me that the name was apparent (without actually identifying it for me), and I confirmed it from my own inspection. The MI5 weeders performed a very poor job of censorship. Indeed, ‘Craggs’s’ name has been redacted in several places, in memoranda and letters that he wrote, and in items referring to him, but it is easy to determine what his real name was. On one report, dated May 25, 1960, Leggatt has headed his report: “Note on a Visit by Messrs. Snelling and Leggatt  . . .”. Moreover, on some of the reports written by Snelling himself, the initials of the author and his secretary/typist have been left intact in the bottom left-hand corner: JWES/LMM.

So, J. W. E. Snelling, who were you, and what were you up to? As I suggested in my review of Dead Doubles, the most obvious cause of his disgrace is his probable leaking to the Daily Mail journalist Artur Tietjen the details of Captain Austen’s testimony on Houghton’s behaviour in Warsaw. Yet it seems to me quite extraordinary that the institutional memory of his corruption could endure so sharply after sixty years. If there is no other record of what he did, the weeders would have done much better simply to leave his name in place. I can’t imagine that anyone would otherwise have started to raise questions.

Snelling is not a very common name, although, in an extraordinary coincidence, a ‘Freddie Snelling’ also appears in Dead Doubles. He was an antiquarian book-seller friend of the Krogers. From an inspection of genealogical records, however, it does not appear that the two could have been related. I performed some searches on ‘J. W. E. Snelling’, and came up with a couple of intriguing items. The name appears in the St. Edmund Hall Magazine of 1951-52 (see https://issuu.com/stedmundhall/docs/st_edmund_hall_magazine_1951) , and the Statesman’s Yearbook of 1966-67 shows that he was a First Secretary in the British Embassy to South Africa (see https://books.google.com/books?id=DdfMDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA1412&lpg=PA1412&dq=j+w+e+snelling&source=bl&ots=8Pd9Dd0J97&sig=ACfU3U3DEgUt_KnJ2KZn_gbi9MbtoEjL8Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjxjsmI06rtAhXFjVkKHf6pAmoQ6AEwCHoECAgQAg#v=onepage&q=j%20w%20e%20snelling&f=false).  I wrote to the Librarian at St. Edmund Hall, asking for further details on Snelling. She acknowledged my request, but after several weeks the Archivist has not been able to respond.

Can any reader help? Though perhaps it is over to Trevor Barnes, now that he has opened up this can of worms, to bring us up to date. Moreover, I do not understand why Barnes was working so closely with MI5 on this book. Was he not aware that he would be pointed in directions they wanted him to go, and steered away from sensitive areas? In this case, it rather backfired, which has a humorous angle, I must admit. Intelligence historians, however, should hide themselves away – probably in some remote spot like North Carolina – never interview anybody, and stay well clear of the spooks. Just download the archives that are available, arrange for others to be photographed, have all the relevant books at hand and put on your thinking-cap. I admit the remoteness of so many valuable libraries, such as the Bodleian and that of Churchill College, Cambridge, represents a massive inconvenience, but the show must go on.

Bandwidth versus Frequency

Dr. Brian Austin

My Chief Radiological Adviser, Dr. Brian Austin, has been of inestimable value in helping me get things straight in matters of the transmission, reception and interception of wireless signals. Sometime in early 2021 I shall be concluding my analysis of the claims made concerning SONIA’s extraordinary accomplishments with radio transmissions from the Cotswolds, guided by Dr. Austin’s expert insights. In the meantime, I want to give him space here to correct a miscomprehension I had of wireless terminology. A few weeks ago, he wrote to me as follows:

Reading your July 31st “Sonia and MI6’s Hidden Hand”, I came across this statement:


“Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach . . . ”

This requires some modification, as I’ll now explain.  The term bandwidth (for which the symbol B is often used) implies the width of a communications channel necessary to accommodate a particular type of transmitted signal. In essence, the more complicated the message (in terms of its mathematical structure not its philological content) the wider the bandwidth required. The simplest of all signals is on-off keying such as hand-sent Morse Code. The faster it is sent, the more bandwidth it requires. However, for all typical hand-sent Morse transmissions the bandwidth needed will always be less than 1000 Hz.   On the other hand, if one wishes to transmit speech, whether by radio or by telephone, then the bandwidth needed is typically 3000 Hz (or 3 kHz).  Thus, all standard landline telephones are designed to handle a 3 kHz bandwidth in order to faithfully reproduce the human voice which, generally speaking, involves frequencies from about 300 Hz to 3300 Hz meaning the bandwidth is B = 3300 – 300 = 3000 Hz or 3 kHz.

By contrast, TV signals, and especially colour TV signals, are far more complicated than speech since even the old B&W TV had to convey movement as well as black, white and grey tones. To do that required at least a MHz or so of bandwidth. These days, a whole spectrum of colours as well as extremely rapid movement has to be transmitted and so the typical colour TV bandwidth for good quality reproduction in our British Pal (Phase Alternating Line) system is several MHz wide.  As an aside, the North American system is called NTSC. When Pal and NTSC were competing with each other in the 1960s for world dominance, NTSC was known disparagingly by ourselves as meaning Never Twice the Same Colour!

So your use of the term band-width above is incorrect. What you mean is frequency.  It is related to wavelength simply as frequency = speed of light / wavelength.  And it is also more common, and more accurate, to specify a transmitter’s frequency rather than its wavelength. All quartz crystals are marked in units of frequency. The only occasion Macintyre took a leap into such complexities in “Agent Sonya” was on p.151 where he indicated that her transmitter operated on a frequency of 6.1182 MHz. That sounds entirely feasible and it would have been the frequency marked on the particular crystal issued to her (and not purchased in the nearby hardware shop as BM would have us believe).

You are quite correct in saying that to communicate with Moscow required a higher frequency than would have been needed for contact with Germany, say. But it would have been considerably higher than the 1000 kcs you mentioned. 1000 kcs (or kHz in today’s parlance) is just 1 Mcs (MHz) and actually lies within the Medium Wave broadcast band. Such low frequencies only propagate via the ground wave whereas to reach Moscow, and indeed anywhere in Europe from England, will have necessitated signals of some good few MHz.

In general the greater the distance the higher the frequency but that is rather simplistic because it all depends on the state of the ionosphere which varies diurnally, with the seasons and over the 11-year sunspot cycle. Choosing the best frequency for a particular communications link is a pretty complex task and would never be left to the wireless operator. His or her masters would have experts doing just that and then the agent would be supplied with the correct crystals depending on whether the skeds were to be during daylight hours or at night and, also, taking into account the distance between the transmitting station and the receiving station. In my reading about the WW2 spy networks I have not come across any agent being required to operate over a period of years which might require a frequency change to accommodate the change in sunspot cycle that will have taken place.

An example from the world of international broadcasting illustrates all this rather nicely.  The BBC World Service used to operate on two specific frequencies for its Africa service. Throughout the day it was 15.4 MHz (or 15 400 kHz) while at night they would switch to 6.915 MHz (or 6 915 kHz). The bandwidth they used was about 10 kHz because they transmitted music as well as speech and music being more structurally complicated than speech needs a greater bandwidth than 3 kHz.

Thank you for your patient explanation, Brian.

Puzzles at Kew

The National Archives at Kew

I have written much about the bizarre practices at the National Archives at Kew, and especially of the withdrawal of files that had previously been made available, and had been exploited by historians. The most famous case is the that of files on Fuchs and Peierls: in the past three years, Frank Close and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan have written biographies of Klaus Fuchs that freely used files that have since been withdrawn. Then, in my August 31 piece about Liverpool University, I noted that, over a period of a couple of days where I was inspecting the records of a few little-known scientists, the descriptions were being changed in real-time, and some of the records I had looked at suddenly moved into ‘Retained’ mode.

My first reaction to this event was that my usage of Kew records was perhaps being monitored on-line, and decisions were being made to stop the leakage before any more damage was done. I thus decided to contact one of my Kew ‘insider’ friends, and describe to him what happened. He admitted to similar perplexity, but, after making some discrete inquiries, learned that there was an ongoing project under way to review catalogue entries, and attempt to make them more accurate to aid better on-line searchability. Apparently, I had hit upon an obscure group of records that was undergoing such treatment at the time. It was simply coincidence. (Although I have to point out that this exercise did not appear to be undertaken with strict professional guidelines: several spelling errors had in the meantime been introduced.)

A short time ago, however, another irritating anomaly came to light. I had been re-reading parts of Chris Smith’s The Last Cambridge Spy, when I noticed that he had enjoyed access to some files on John Cairncross which showed up as being ‘Retained’, namely HO 532/4, ‘Espionage activities by individuals: John Cairncross’. This sounded like a very important resource, and I discovered from Smith’s Introduction that, among the few documents on Cairncross released to the National Archives was ‘a Home Office file, heavily redacted’, which he ‘obtained via a freedom of information request.’ I asked myself why, if a file has been declassified by such a request, it should not be made available to all. It was difficult to determine whether Smith had capably exploited his find, since I found his approach to intelligence matters very tentative and incurious. I have thus asked my London-based researcher to follow up with Kew, and have provided him with all the details.

Incidentally, Denis Lenihan has informed me that his freedom of information request for the files of Renate Stephenie SIMPSON nee KUCZYNSKI and Arthur Cecil SIMPSON (namely, one of Sonia’s sisters and her husband), KV 2/2889-2993 has been successful. The response to Denis a few weeks ago contained the following passage: “Further to my email of 14 October 2020 informing you of the decision taken that the above records can all be released, I am very pleased to report that, at long last, these records are now available to view, albeit with a few redactions made under Section 40(2) (personal information) of the FOI Act 2000. The delay since my last correspondence has been because digitised versions of the files needed to be created by our Documents Online team and due to The National Archives’ restricted service because of the Coronavirus pandemic, this has taken the team longer to complete than it normally would. However the work is now compete [sic].”

This is doubly interesting, since I had been one of the beneficiaries of a previous policy, and had acquired the digitised version of KV 2/2889 back in 2017. So why that item would have to be re-digitised is not clear. And yes, all the files are listed in the Kew Catalogue as being available – and, by mid-December, they were all digitised, and available for free download.

Lastly, some business with the Cambridge University Library. On reading Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross, Agent Moliere, I was taken with some passages where he made claims about the activities of the FBI over Cairncross’s interrogations in Cleveland in early 1964. I could not see any references in his Endnotes, and my search on ‘Cairncross’ in the FBI Vault had drawn a blank. By inspecting Andrews’s Notes more carefully, however, I was able to determine that the information about the FBI came from a box in the John Cairncross papers held at Cambridge University Manuscripts Collection (CULMC) under ref. Add.10042. I thus performed a search on those arguments at the CULMC website, but came up with nothing.

My next step was thus to send a simple email to the Librarian at Cambridge, asking for verification of the archival material’s existence, whether any index of the boxes was available, and what it might cost to have some of them photographed. I very quickly received an automated reply acknowledging my request, giving me a ticket number, and informing me that they would reply to my inquiry ‘as soon as they can’. A very pleasant gentleman contacted me after a few days, explaining that the Cairncross boxes had not been indexed, but that he would inspect them if I could give him a closer idea of what I was looking for. I responded on December 17. Since then, nothing.

Trouble at RAE Farnborough

RAE Farnborough

Readers will recall my recent description of the remarkable career of Boris Davison (see Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies), who managed to gain a position at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough, shortly after he arrived in the UK, in 1938. I wondered whether there was anything furtive about this appointment, and my interest was piqued by a passage I read in Simon Ball’s Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services (2020). As I have suggested before, this is a very strange and oddly-constructed book, but it does contain a few nuggets of insider information.

On page 199, Ball introduces a report on Russian (i.e. ‘Soviet’) intelligence written in 1955 by Cedric Cliffe, former assistant to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Its title was ‘Survey of Russian Espionage in Britain, 1935-1955’, and was filed as KV 3/417 at the National Archives. Ball explains how Britain suffered from penetration problems well before the Burgess and Maclean case, and writes: “The most notable UK-based agents of the ‘illegal’ [Henri Robinson] were two technicians employed at the time of their recruitment in 1935 at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Farnborough. They had been identified after the war on the basis of German evidence, but no action was taken because one was still working usefully on classified weapons and the other one was a Labour MP.”  But Ball does not identify the two employees, nor comment on the astonishing fact that a spy’s role as a Labour MP presumably protected him from prosecution. Who were these agents?

Then I remembered that I had KV 3/417 on my desktop. Only I had not recognized it as the ‘Cliffe Report’: the author’s name does not appear on it. (That is where Ball’s insider knowledge comes into play.) And in paragraph 96, on page 24, Cliffe has this to say:

‘Wilfred Foulston VERNON was also [alongside one William MEREDITH] an aircraft designer employed at Farnborough. He was active in C.P.G.B. activities from about 1934 onwards and visited Russia twice, in 1935 and 1936. From 1936 onwards he was, like MEREDITH, passing secret information through WEISS, first to HARRY II and later to Henri Robinson. He was probably present when MEREDITH was introduced to WEISS by HARRY II. In August 1937, a burglary at VERNON’s residence led to the discovery there of many secret documents. As a result, VERNON was suspended from the R.A.E., charged under the Official Secrets Acts, and fined £50 – for the improper possession of these documents, it should be noted, and not for espionage, which was not at this time suspected.’

Cliffe’s report goes on to state that, when Vernon’s espionage activities first became known, he was the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, which seat he won in 1945 and retained in 1950, losing it the following year. It was thought ‘impracticable to prosecute him’, though why this was so (parliamentary immunity? not wanting to upset the unions? opening the floodgates?) is not stated. Cliffe closes his account by saying that Vernon ‘admitted, under interrogation, that he had been recruited by Meredith and had committed espionage, but he told little else.’ An irritating paragraph has then been redacted before Cliffe turns to Vernon’s controller, Weiss.

This man was clearly Ball’s ‘Labour MP’. So what about his confession? MI5’s chunky set of files on Vernon can be inspected at KV 2/992-996, and they show that, once he lost his parliamentary seat in October 1951, MI5 was free to interrogate him, and he was somewhat ‘deflated’ by Skardon’s approach. After consulting with his sidekick, Meredith, he confessed to spying for the Soviets, and giving information to his controller. In 1948, Prime Minster Attlee had been ‘surprised and shocked’ to hear that MI5 had evidence against Vernon. Now that the Labour Party had lost the election, the case of Vernon & Meredith seemed to die a slow death. Vernon became a member of the London County Council. He died in 1975.

Little appears to have been written about the Weiss spy-ring. (Nigel West has noted them.) Andrew’s Defending the Realm has no reference to Cliffe, Weiss, Meredith, Vernon, or even the RAE. The Royal Aeronautical Establishment was obviously a security disaster, and a fuller tale about its subversion by Soviet agents, and the role of Boris Davison, remains to be told.

Eric Hobsbawm and ‘History Today’

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm

Over the past six months History Today has published some provocative items about the historian Eric Hobsbawm. It started in May, when Jesus Casquete, Professor of the History of Political Thought and the History of Social Movements at the University of the Basque Country, provided an illuminating article about Hobsbawm’s activities as a Communist in Berlin in 1933, but concluded, in opposition to a somewhat benevolent appraisal by Niall Ferguson quoted at the beginning of his piece, that ‘Hobsbawm ignored entirely the shades of grey between his personal choice of loyalty and became blind to genocide and invasion, and the other extreme.’

The following month, a letter from Professor Sir Roderick Floud headed the correspondence. “As Eric’s closest colleague for 13 years and a friend for much longer”, he wrote, “I can testify to the fact that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is a travesty.” Floud then went on to make the claim that Hobsbawm stayed in the Communist Party because of his belief in fighting fascism, and claimed that Hobsbawm ‘did not betray his youthful – and ever-lasting – ideals’. Yet the threat from fascism was defunct immediately World War II ended. What was he talking about?

I thought that this argument was hogwash, and recalled that Sir Roderick must be the son of the Soviet agent Bernard Floud, M.P., who committed suicide in October 1967. I sympathize with Sir Roderick in the light of his tragic experience, but it seemed that the son had rather enigmatically inherited some of the misjudgments of the father. And, indeed, I was so provoked by the space given to Sir Roderick’s views that I instantly wrote a letter to Paul Lay, the Editor. I was gratified to learn from his speedy acknowledgment that he was very sympathetic to my views, and would seriously consider publishing my letter.

And then further ‘arguments’ in Hobsbawm’s defence came to the fore. In the August issue, Lay dedicated the whole of his Letters page to rebuttals from his widow, Marlene, and from a Denis Fitzgerald, in Sydney, Australia. Marlene Hobsbawm considered it an ‘abuse’ to claim that her late husband was ‘an orthodox communist who adhered faithfully to Stalinist crimes’, and felt obligated to make a correction. He did not want to leave the Party as he did not want to harm it, she asserted. Fitzgerald raised the McCarthyite flag, and somehow believed that Hobsbawm’s remaining a member of the Communist Party was an essential feature of his being able to contribute to ‘progressive developments’. “He was not to be bullied or silenced by Cold Warriors” – unlike what happened to intellectuals in Soviet Russia, of course.

So what had happened to my letter? Why were the correspondence pages so one-side? Was I a lone voice in this debate? Then, next month, my letter appeared. My original text ran as follows:

“I was astonished that you dedicated so much space to the bizarre and ahistorical defence of Eric Hobsbawm by Professor Sir Roderick Floud.

Floud writes that Hobsbawm ‘stayed in the Communist Party’ after 1956 ‘because of his belief in fighting fascism and promoting the world revolution, by means of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front’. Yet fascism was no longer a threat in 1956; the Popular Front had been dissolved in 1938, to be followed soon by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which Hobsbawm and Floud conveniently overlook. Even though Stalin was dead by 1956, Khrushchev was still threatening ‘We shall bury you!’

Floud concludes his letter by referring to Hobsbawm’s ‘youthful – and ever-lasting ideals’, having earlier described the statement that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is ‘a travesty’. Some contradiction, surely.

Like his unfortunate father before him, who was unmasked as a recruiter of spies for the Soviet Union, and then committed suicide, Floud seems to forget that communist revolutions tend to be very messy affairs, involving the persecution and slaughter of thousands, sometimes millions. If Hobsbawm’s dreams had been fulfilled, he, as a devout Stalinist, might have survived, but certainly academics like Floud himself would have been among the first to be sent to the Gulag.”

Lay made some minor changes to my submission (removing references to the suicide of Floud’s father, for instance), but the message was essentially left intact. And there the correspondence appears to have closed. (I have not yet received the November issue.) I was thus heartened to read the following sentence in a review by Andrew Roberts of Laurence Rees’s Hitler and Stalin in the Times Literary Supplement of November 20: “That these two [Hitler and Stalin] should be seen as anything other than the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of totalitarianism might seem obvious to anyone beyond the late Eric Hobsbawm, but it does need to be restated occasionally, and Rees does so eloquently.”  Hobsbawm no doubt welcomed George Blake on the latter’s recent arrival at the Other Place, and they immediately started discussing the Communist utopia.

End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes

Tom Clark

Towards the end of November I received a Christmas Card signed by the editor of Prospect magazine, Tom Clark. The message ran as follows: “Thank you for your support of Prospect this year. Myself and the whole team here wish you a very happy Christmas.” I suppose it would be churlish to criticize such goodwill, but I was shocked. “Myself and the whole team  .  .” – what kind of English is that? What was wrong with “The whole team and I”? If the editor of a literary-political magazine does not even know when to use a reflexive pronoun, should we trust him with anything else?

I have just been reading Clive James’s Fire of Joy, subtitled Roughly Eight Poems to Get By Heart and Say Aloud. I was looking forward to seeing James’s choices, and his commentary. It has been a little disappointing, with several odd selections, and some often shallow appreciations by the Great Man. For instance, he reproduces a speech by Ferrara from My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, which contains the horrible couplet:

            But to myself they turned (since none puts by

            The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

This is not verse that should be learned by heart. To any lover of the language, the phrase ‘They turned to me’, not ‘to myself’, should come to mind, and, since ‘but’ is a preposition, it needs to be followed by the accusative or dative case, i.e. ‘but me’. How could James’s ear be so wooden? Yet syntax turs out to be his weakness: in a later commentary on Vita Sackville-West’s Craftsmen, he writes: ‘. . . it was a particular focal point of hatred for those younger than he who had been left out of the anthology.’. ‘Him’, not ‘he’, after ‘for those’, Clive.

Of course, another famous ugly line is often overlooked. T.S. Eliot started The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock with the following couplet:

                Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

It should be ‘Let us go then, you and me’, since the pair is in apposition to the ‘us’ of ‘Let us go’. Rhyme gets in the way, again. What a way to start a poem! What was going through TSE’s mind? So how about this instead?

Let us go then, you and me,

When the evening is spread out above the sea

But then that business about ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ doesn’t work so well, does it? Poetry is hard.

It’s ROMANES EUNT DOMUS all over again.

Returning to Clark and Prospect, however, what is this ‘support’ business? Does Clark think that his enterprise is some kind of charity for which his subscribers shell out their valuable shekels? I recall our very capable and inspiring CEO at the Gartner Group offering similar messages of gratitude to our customers, as if he were not really convinced that the product we offered was of justifiable value to them. I shall ‘support’ Prospect only so long as it provides insightful and innovative analysis, and shall drop it otherwise. Moreover, if Clark persists with such silly and pretentious features as ‘the world’s top 50 thinkers’ (Bong-Joon Ho? Igor Levit?, but mercifully no Greta Thunberg this year), it may happen sooner rather than later. I was pleased to see a letter published in the October issue, as a reaction to the dopey ’50 top thinkers’, where the author pointed out that there are billions of people on the planet whose thinking capabilities are probably unknown to the editors. The letter concluded as follows: “I know it’s a ‘bit of fun’, but it’s the province of the pseudo-intellectual pub bore to assert a right to tell us who the 50 greatest thinkers are.”

I wrote to Clark, thanking him, but also asked him how many people were involved in constructing his garbled syntax. I received no reply. Probably no Christmas card for me next year.

I wish a Happy New Year to all my readers, and thank you for your ‘support’.

December Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Special Bulletin: Review of ‘Agent Sonya’

On December 8, the Journal of Intelligence and National Security published on-line my review of Ben Macintyre’s ‘Agent Sonya’, and it may be seen at https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showAxaArticles?journalCode=fint20 . Those readers who have institutional access to the Journal may read the whole article there: for others, since the terms of the Agreement entitle me to re-publish the review on my personal website, I present it here.

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Camp 020R at Huntercombe

Lt.-Colonel Stephens Inspecting the Guard

One of the pleasures of running coldspur is the fact that so many interesting people stumble across it, and contact me. Apart from the dozens of professional and amateur enthusiasts of intelligence and espionage matters, a number of individuals with intriguing backgrounds have written to me: for example, a retired counter-intelligence officer overseas; a man who lodged with Agent SONIA in Great Rollright as a boy; a grand-daughter of the MI5 officer Michael Serpell; the son of the FBI’s representative in London during the Fuchs events; a son of the Communist spy Dave Springhall, who only recently learned who his father was; and, recently, the grandson of a soldier who guarded interned spies at a Home Office internment camp in World War 2.

It is the last whose story I want to highlight in this month’s feature. I believe that Pete Mackean owns a startling set of photographs from Camp 020 in its four incarnations, at Latchmere House, Huntercombe Park, Diest and Bad Nenndorf, some of them showing notable figures involved in the administration of the camps that have not been published before. They deserve a wider audience. When Pete shared them with me, I immediately suggested that coldspur might be a good place to showcase them, and he graciously agreed to let me use them.

Lieutenant Mackean of the Staffordshire Regiment

Yet I wanted to place them in a solid context. I was familiar with Latchmere House at Ham in Surrey, partly because I had played golf in the grounds next to it. I had also encountered the history of Camp 020 (as it became to be called) from the work issued in 2000 by the Public Record Office (as it then was), Camp 020: The Official History of MI5’s Wartime Interrogation Centre, compiled from the accounts of Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. G. Stephens and his assistants Lieutenant-Colonel G. Sampson and Major R. Short, and edited with an introduction by Oliver Hoare. Camp 020, otherwise known as Latchmere House, is a well-known landmark in counter-espionage literature. During World War II, it was used as a detention and interrogation centre for suspected German spies (most of whom, incidentally, were not German citizens), as well as, for a short time, a place to intern obvious domestic subversives, such as Oswald Mosley. It was led by the celebrated Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. G. Stephens, known as ‘Tin-Eye’ because of his monocle.

But Huntercombe, the alternative and back-up partner to Camp 020, which was dubbed Camp 020R, was much of a mystery to me, and I wanted to research its provenance and development in more detail. It was intended by Stephens and MI5 that there should not be any sharp distinctions made between the Camp 020 and Camp 020R. Yet a study of the files at the National Archives (specifically, KV 4/102 & /103) reveals that Huntercombe took on an identity and life of its own, and was not just an extension, or potential replacement, for Camp 020. (The ‘R’ stood for ‘Reserve’.) Its story has been largely overlooked.

Huntercombe merits only one paragraph (and a very occasional reference) in Stephens’s history: Christopher Andrew ignores it completely in his authorised history of MI5, Defence of the Realm, while John Curry briefly records, in his official history of MI5, that Camp 020 and 020R were in fact a ‘joint establishment’. Hinsley and Simkins, in Volume 4 of British Intelligence in the Second World War, merely cite, in an Appendix, when it was opened, as a reserve camp, in January 1943. In MI5, Nigel West suggests that ‘a long-term detention centre was hastily sited at a quiet spot on Lord Nuffield’s estate, Huntercombe Place, Nettlebed, near Henley’, an assessment that turns out to be incorrect on several counts. Guy Liddell, in his Diaries, makes one or two references to Huntercombe specifically, but his generic mentions of ‘Camp 020’ could be intended to designate either of the two.

As background reading, I heartily recommend A. W. Brian Simpson’s In The Highest Degree Odious (1992), a magisterial account of the slide into aggressive detention policy in the first years of the war. (Its major defect for me was an abundance of Footnotes, a tide that became highly distracting. Most of them should have been packaged as Endnotes. I also believe that Simpson is a little harsh on MI5, since his criticisms of it cover exactly the time that it was essentially leaderless, under Lord Swinton’s Security Executive, from May 1940 to March 1941.) Hinsley and Simkins give an overall solid account of the legislative muddles that accompanied the establishment of Camp 020, although they cover very superficially the implications of the Treachery Act. Helen Fry’s London Cage (2017) is a very useful guide to the string of prisons and detention centres where German prisoners-of-war were interrogated.

As a final observation on the slimness of official accounts, I have found no single place where all the Camps referred to in the literature (001- Dartmoor, 011- Bridgend, 020 – Ham, 020R – Huntercombe, 186 – Colchester, L – Isle of Man, WX – Stafford Prison, and then the Isle of Man, X – Canada, Z – Aldershot) are listed and described. A sentence on the Kew website runs as follows: “Those classified in Category A were interned in camps being set up across the UK, the largest settlement of which were on the Isle of Man though others were set up in and around Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Bury, Huyton, Sutton Coldfield, London, Kempton Park, Lingfield, Seaton and Paignton. Other documents indicate that there was not a direct correspondence between identified camps and named prisons: for example, Camp001 was the isolated hospital wing at Dartmoor.

The Background – Dealing with Hostile Elements:

Great Britain, primarily represented by the Home Office, struggled with the challenge of controlling and defanging undesirable elements in the first year of the war. The problem was multi-dimensional. In one category were British citizens who held unreliable opinions – the Fascist sympathisers, such as Oswald Mosley’s British Union, and The Link; communists driven into a hostile position by the demands of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, who might undermine the war effort; pacifists who, out of different convictions, might spread similar disaffection. In the second category were aliens, including German (and other) citizens who had fled from Nazi-controlled territories before the war, refugees escaping from territories that had succumbed to Nazi invasions in the first half of 1940, as well as unfortunate Germans and Austrians who had settled unobtrusively in the country during the last decade or two. The Home Office had no confident means of distinguishing between those fiercely opposed to Hitlerism, those who may have been infiltrated as spies or subversives, and those essentially apolitical beings who had switched their national loyalties. (This problem became more absurd when Italy entered the war in June 1940.) In the third category were true spies, who entered the country illegally or clandestinely (or, later in the war, were picked up on territories abroad), were not protected by any military uniform, and presented a unique challenge since no appropriate laws had been set up for their treatment, and, because of MI5’s peculiar interest in them, presented some problems for any open prosecutorial process.

The problem of handling subversive citizens had been addressed by some clumsy amendments to general Defence Regulations, most notoriously Amendment 39A, and a new paragraph 1a to 18B, which was introduced in May 1940. This allowed detention of any persons who were found to be furthering the objectives of the enemy, and resulted in many prominent citizens (such as Oswald Mosley) being detained in prison. As Simpson wrote, anyone to whom the Home Secretary took exception could be locked up for an indefinite period. Yet the policy took on a sharper focus in the summer of 1940. Mass internment of persons of German origin began after the Fifth Column scare of early June, 1940, and special camps, such as on the Isle of Man, were set up to hold such groups. Since the centuries-old Treason Act required special rules of evidence and procedure (and foreign spies, unlike those who has sought asylum, could hardly be accused of treasonable behaviour against a country to which they owned no allegiance), a Treachery Bill was quickly formulated, and passed on May 23. It likewise demanded the death penalty, but it could be commuted.

The outcome of this combination of respect for legal procedure, and somewhat panic-driven haste, was that a mixture of irritating but probably harmless ruffians, possible traitors sympathetic to Germany, suspicious but maybe innocent foreigners, and certifiably dangerous spies and saboteurs sometimes found internment in the same location. Ascot Racecourse was one internment camp, as were the Oratory Schools: Wandsworth and Holloway jails were also used. In January 1941, the Royal Victoria Patriotic Schools building in Wandsworth was set up as a general reception function (the London Reception Centre) for all manner of aliens, under the responsibility of the Home Office, but with MI5 conducting the interrogations, and the Army providing the guards and sentries. In mid-July, 1940, Latchmere House opened, and as Professor Hinsley wrote, ‘accepted its first batch of enemy aliens, British fascists, and suspects arriving from Dunkirk’. Yet the awareness of habeas corpus, and the inability of the government to hold suspects for more than twenty-eight days, led to vociferous complaints by the British citizenry among this group, declaring their entitlement to a fair trial, meant that a change of policy occurred. The crux of the matter was that internees could be interrogated, but those prosecuted could not.

As Hinsley went on to write (Volume 4, p 70): “Latchmere House had been opened as an interrogation centre for suspect Fifth Columnists in July, but in October MI5 decided that it should be used only for more serious cases among aliens, for example where espionage was suspected, and that British subjects should be taken there only in very exceptional circumstances. And from early in November the place was entirely reserved for captured agents, including some of the double-cross agents, arrangements being made by which MI5 reported to the Home Office every month the names of those detained, the reason for their detention, and the length of time they had been there.” Early the following year, as the double-cross operation gained momentum, the danger of leakage about the whole process impelled the authorities to decide that Latchmere House could not be used as a holding-place for short-term interrogation. It gained the nomenclature of ‘Camp 020’ in December 1941, and was by then assigned to the permanent detention of captured agents and dubious refugees, even though many were sent on to other secure areas, such as Dartmoor Prison (Camp 001), or Camp WX on the Isle of Man.

Since one of the primary functions of Camp 020 was to weed out dedicated Nazi agents, with the possibility of ‘turning’ suitable candidates to work for the British, it took on a highly secret nature, since, if an agent was detained, and then found not be suitable for turning, or betrayed that trust, MI5 could not risk any inkling of that attempt to leak out to the enemy. The initial policy for Camp 020 was to hold detainees incommunicado: that was one of the key differences between internment and imprisonment. (In September 1941, a potential disaster was averted after the failed double-agent JEFF had been sent to Camp WX, next to Camp L, on the Isle of Man, where Nazi German internees were held.) Moreover, complications were caused by the fact that, if any such victim were sent to trial, officers at Latchmere House would be called upon to give evidence. Proceedings and interrogations were documented in secrecy: if a formal statement were required, officers would have to send the subject to one of the prisons. Permanent detention was thus preferred to open prosecution. Permanent detainees could be housed in conventional prisons, but run-of-the-mill offenders could not be detained indefinitely in Camp 020.

The Regimental Sergeant-Major with Stephens and Sampson

Rumours about the prolonged interrogation and detention in 1943 would cause questions in high places to be posed about whether MI5 was under proper ministerial control. Indeed, up till then, Camp 020 had been running in an extra-legal fashion, much to the embarrassment of the Home Secretary, John Anderson. Nigel West points out that it was omitted from the list of camps submitted to the Red Cross, and thus was protected from inspection. MI5 survived that investigation, and several probable spies – though many who had been captured overseas could not be convicted of offenses against Great Britain, and had to wait until the end of the war to be repatriated – remained in detention for years. As Hinsley wrote: “Once a man’s case was completed, if he was not executed, released as innocent, or released to B1A to act as a double-agent. life in Camp 020 was far from intolerable.” (Hinsley overlooks the fact that some prisoners were despatched to other camps.) And that was the fate of the overwhelming majority of those sent to Camp 020.

From various comments in his Diaries, Guy Liddell betrays some of the tensions experienced in trying to keep the lid on the activities at Camp 020, away from the prying eyes of diplomats and bureaucrats. The main objective seemed to be to ensure that no whisper of information about the Double Cross initiatives – especially of those who had been initially considered, and exposed to the scheme, but then turned out to be unreliable – must be allowed to travel outside. Hence the emphasis on keeping prisoners incommunicado, and not releasing them for trial. Liddell makes references to more candidates who were offered the chance, but then failed the test. They had to be locked away. Moreover, MI5 took big risks with Agent ZIGZAG, Edward (Eddie) Chapman, who was brought back to Camp 020 for interrogations after undertaking missions abroad.

The Idea Behind Camp 020R:

The sense of awkwardness about Camp 020R may have been due to the fact that it had become an expensive white elephant. It was originally conceived as a back-up in the event that Latchmere House were bombed. A minor aeronautical raid in January 1941 had exposed the establishment, as if the Germans knew what was going on there. Stephens wrote as follows: “In consequence the Commandant was instructed to plan a duplicate camp at Nuffield. Thus Huntercombe, or Camp 020R, came into being. Primarily it was intended as a reserve camp. It was large enough to absorb Ham in time of crisis and to provide for the future commitments of a long-term war. It included a hostel at Wallingford where some 80 female staff could be accommodated. The decision was wise, but the cost, about £250,000, was high, and it is for consideration whether M.I.5. should not have a permanent lien on the place. In the event, Huntercombe was never put to full use as the Germans were good enough to leave Ham alone. The camp, however, did become the oubliette *; the place where enemy spies, no longer of interest, were allowed to vegetate until the end of the war.”

[* Oubliette: ‘a dungeon with no opening except in the roof’ (Chambers Dictionary, from the French ‘oublier’, to forget. Obviously a very un-English form of punishment)]

A study of KV 4/102 & 4/103 at the National Archives tells a rather more complicated story. Brigadier Harker had been discussing with Lord Swinton, the Chief of the Security Executive, as early as December 1940, the acquisition of ‘another complete establishment in the country’, concurrently with plans to construct new cells near the existing Latchmere House building. Early in 1941, waves of fresh German spies were expected. Army GHQ was concerned about the location and exposure of Ham, and the War Office began pressing Lord Swinton for an ‘alternative Latchmere’ in February. Swinton concurred: Latchmere had almost been hit again that month.

Thus negotiations began. The Home office and the Ministry of Works had to be involved. A March 10 memorandum to R. S. Wells at the Home office by D. Abbot states: “So far as the area of search [for premises] is concerned we must be guided by Home Forces. For our part we would like to be somewhere well outside London, and if possible in the general direction of Oxford. Or perhaps more broadly speaking within a sector bounded by lines drawn due West and N.N. West from London.” The search began. The Ministry of Works recommended a site, The Springs, North Stoke, in Oxfordshire, but it was deemed unsuitable.

The Selection of a Site:

By May 1, however, a more attractive site (for what was then called ‘Latchmere R’) had been found, and the Post Office was asked to be involved, as it would need setting up the same listening equipment that existed at Camp 020. Here we also find a mention of a ‘Home for Incurables’, suggesting that some diehard prisoners might be accommodated on the new premises, and require special handling in a facility some 200 or 300 yards from the main building. The site is not yet identified, but a report says that ‘the present owner, who is anxious to get rid of the place, has offered it for sale for £25,000, but the Ministry of Works  . . . would requisition it under their present powers probably at a rental of £200 or £300 per annum.’

The site is soon identified as Huntercombe Place, owned by Sir Francis Maclean. Maclean had been a WWI air ace, and was now Sheriff of Oxfordshire. He was famous for an aviation feat on August 10, 1912, when he flew his biplane through Tower Bridge, and under several other bridges on the Thames (see https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/10-august-1912/ ) Sir Francis wanted to stay in the Mansion House until the end of the year, but he was told that the outbuildings would need to be possessed immediately.

Initial Sketch for Camp 020R

Stephens visited the site in the middle of June, and was impressed with the location, the seclusion it offered, and the general amenities. But he was not so happy with the emerging plans for replicating Latchmere House, and the amount of personnel it would take to guard the place properly. On June 23, he wrote to Richard Butler (of the MI5 Secretariat) that his plans would turn out to be cheaper than those of the Ministry of Works: his suggestion can be seen alongside that of the Ministry. Lord Swinton chipped in at the end of the month, indicating that the back-up site was more urgent than the ‘Home for Incurables’, and stressing the need for speed.

Yet, despite all the apparent urgency, obstacles started to appear for what was now being called ‘Nuffield Camp’. The War Office was under the impression that the shadow camp would be occupied only if Ham were evacuated, and therefore no new guard personnel would be required. Stephens had to somehow finesse the problem that the separate oubliettes required by MI5 and SIS would come into operation immediately, while the shadow Prison block for Latchmere House would come into operation when Latchmere House was irretrievably ‘blown’, which went very much against Lord Swinton’s view of things. Moreover, the Ministry of Works was dragging its feet, and the optimum building season was, by July, passing by.

Stephens had a clash with the ‘pessimist’ Russell, of the Ministry of Works, who was slow visiting the site. They disagreed about the availability of labour, and Stephens was impelled to write a letter to Butler, complaining about the delays, saying that ‘the completion of Latchmere “R” ten months hence [i.e. May 1942] will be of little use to the Security Services’, when Swinton had hoped for completion by October 1941. Stephens was still referring to the need for the ‘reserve’ camp in terms of Latchmere House’s staff and prisoners moving ‘in the event of an invasion, or if it should again suffer from enemy action’. Yet he must have known by then, what with Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June, that both threats were drastically reduced.

Lord Swinton Intervenes:

And then a further blow occurred. There had obviously been rumblings about who should pay for the construction, and it was agreed in mid-September that it had to be out of MI5’s budget, on the secret vote, and not appear as a War Office expenditure. In that way, as a memorandum in November 1941, stated, ‘no inquisitive persons or committees will be able to investigate it’. Yet, as early as September 1941, a Ministry of Works letter to Abbot drew attention to the fact that the Prime Minister had asked the Production Executive to perform a drastic curtailment of any marginal projects. The official (a Mr. E. Batch) went on: “It is felt here . . . that it is doubtful whether we should proceed with Huntercombe Place”.

Relaxing at Huntercombe Place

Lord Swinton was able to intervene, however, and the work that had started in late September continued. Batch was summarily taken care of. Construction, and especially the electrical installations, required sentries to guard the property: Latchmere overall was taking on a new existence, and on December 1, David Petrie, the Director-General of MI5, had to rule that the establishment would be separated from B.1.E. on the grounds of its discrete characteristics of Policy, Intelligence, Administration and Army Administration. Furthermore, he declared that “in the interests of Security it is desired that in future Latchmere House, and the Country establishment at Nuffield, shall be referred to in all connections as Camp 020 and Camp 020, R. respectively.’

The Nuffield reference is a fascinating one, in its own right. Nigel West’s suggestion of a larger Nuffield estate, of which Huntercombe Place was a portion, cannot be true. Lord Nuffield (who as William Morris, founded Morris Motors) moved into his house, which was formerly known as Merrow Mount, only in 1933, when he renamed it. One map in the archive shows ‘Merrow Mount’ as a mansion on the right of the entrance road to Huntercombe Place and its much more expansive property. Furthermore, the name of ‘Nuffield’, apart from giving away the location of the new camp, was possibly of some embarrassment, for Lord Nuffield had been a prominent member of the pro-German society, The Link (and is actually listed as such on page 167 of West’s book).

Plan showing Merron Court (Lord Nuffield’s Residence)

The bills started coming in. An expenditure of £26,500 was marked for the period up to the end of February 1942. The archive is strangely silent for the summer of 1942, but, in August, Lt.-Col Stephens started raising new security concerns, primarily because of the proliferation and extension of USA air-bases in the area. He specifically wanted Huntercombe (and Latchmere) to be declared a ‘Prohibited Area’, where any aliens would be excluded, writing in stark tones: “The fact is that Camp 020 and the reserve establishment 020R are not only contre-espionage [sic] centres, but also prisons where spies who richly deserve the death penalty under the Treachery Act are kept alive for active Intelligence purposes.”

At this point, Stephens made a more exacting demand, suggesting that the camps be handed over to the War Office for administration: “  . . . to discard the appellation ‘Internment Camp’ in each case, and to invite the War Office, from an Army point of view, to administer Camp 020 and 020R definitely as War Office units rather than the responsibility of London District and South Midland Area, by which uninformed and uneven treatment is not unnaturally at times received. Precedents exist in support of this proposal. The first is ‘Camp Z’, which was kept off official lists altogether, and the second is the series of M.I. 19 Intelligence Camps Nos. 10, 20 and 30, which are not only kept off official lists, but are administered by the War Office direct rather than the Military Districts in which they are situated.” This language is rather puzzling – and provocative – as it seems to draw attention to the fact that the legality of Stephens’s establishments may have been questionable.

The irony was that even the MI5 Regional Control Officer, Major M. Ryde, did not know what was going on, and rumours were starting to fly around about the new ‘P.O.W. camp’. The police had taken an interest, but had been refused entry. Even though the place had been requisitioned from the Sheriff of Oxfordshire, the Chief Constable did not know why his officers had been refused admittance. In addition, Stephens had to write about the ‘vast extension’ of the aerodrome at Benson, three miles north, and the erection of a camp for 4,000 US servicemen at Nettlebed, one and a half miles south, which, he believed, would ‘render Intelligence work by special apparatus quite impossible’. Yet he still used the threat of further air bombardment at Ham, and the threat of invasion, as arguments for protecting the ‘reserve’ site.

In the short term, Stephens managed to win this particular battle, it seems, and was able to turn to the problem of staffing. In this he was beset by the problem of whether Camp 020R was going to be complementary to Camp 020, or whether it would still have to absorb all the latter in an emergency. He produced a paper that stressed how important it was to remove the more dangerous ‘old lags’ from Latchmere to Huntercombe. Camp 020 was operationally full in September 1942. Stephens looked forward to Camp 020R opening ‘in the near future’: “I would move there the old lags, split disturbing elements between 020 and 020R, and possibly accommodate some XX prisoners under better conditions.”  Who these reformed ‘XX prisoners’ were is rather mysterious, as it hints at several previously unknown spies who could neither be executed nor turned, and Stephens’s desire to house them in better conditions shows a rapid shift in humanitarian impulses from the commandant. In any case, in October, Stephens prepared for the influx. He arranged for Butler to appeal to the War Office that Huntercombe Farm, planned as a domicile for American troops, should be assigned to the Camp ‘for additional accommodation’. Brigadier Harker added his weight to the case in December. New maps of the protected territory were drawn. Another year had passed.

Diagram of Camp 020R (September 1942)

A Change of Mood:

While demands on rural space did not go away, Stephens’ tone continued to change. He softened his objections to low-flying aircraft from R.A.F. Benson. On January 26, 1943, he noted that ‘the threat of a comic Nazi invasion recedes’. Yet now a new bureaucratic challenge emerged – the Home Office, who may have been prodded into action by Stephen’s outburst from August. When MI5 started planning for the transfer of prisoners to Camp 020R in February 1943, it discovered that it had neglected to inform Sir Alexander Maxwell, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, even of the idea of the camp. Since Maxwell was very concerned about issues of welfare and fair treatment, Stephens had to prepare a grovelling report, submitted under Petrie’s signature, that stressed how superior the conditions were to those at Latchmere.

Stephens’ words ran as follows: “The conditions at Camp 020 R are more advantageous to the prisoners than at Camp 020 itself. More space is available out of doors, constant association is possible when desirable, while wireless, papers, games, cigarettes and other privileges are provided free of charge. Rations are somewhat better than received elsewhere as we are able to supplement the prescribed scale by produce form the ground.” This was far from the notions of ‘oubliettes’ and ‘prisoners being kept alive’: a concern now focussed on prisoners’ welfare. It sounded as if the ‘country establishment at Nuffield’ was taking on the characteristics of a country club, or health farm.

Moreover, the emphasis is no longer on ‘reserve’, even though the two camps are to be considered as one entity. Stephens told Maxwell that the camp was to be used ‘primarily as a place to which we can send prisoners whose intelligence investigations have been completed at Camp 020 and who, because of the espionage nature of their case, cannot, for security reasons, be transferred to any ordinary internment camp, or other place of detention.’ He was no doubt thinking of agents who had not been successfully turned, and thus knew too much about the Double-Cross System, such as SUMMER. Yet SUMMER had had to be re-confined well before Camp 020R was ready to accept prisoners.

The Home Office Wakes Up:

Standing orders were issued for the reception of internees on November 10, 1942, and prisoners started arriving in January 1943, it seems. (On the other hand, documents in KV 4/103, such as those referring to unauthorised lending of library-books between prisoners [!], indicate that detainees were already being held there.) Soon some ‘incident’ must have occurred, probably of maltreatment, since Harker had to intervene, but possibly an attempt at suicide by one of the detainees. The full documents have been removed, but the Register holds a memorandum from the Deputy Director-General, who had to seek a meeting with Maxwell to ‘explain what had happened’. “I further made it quite clear to Sir Alexander Maxwell that Mr. Milmo was in no way responsible for what had occurred, and I feel sure that his position will not be imperilled in any way by reason of any premature action”. But what had ‘Buster’ Milmo done? Liddell went on to write that Maxwell confirmed Milmo’s view that ‘the persons transferred to 020(R) are illegally detained’. A flurry of activity resulted in a report for Maxwell’s benefit.

The legal basis for the camps thus had to be investigated, and was eventually determined. In an instrument dated March 20, 1943, Camp 020 was ‘formally authorised as a place of detention for persons held under Articles 5A and 12(5A) of the Aliens’ Order’, and the Home Secretary then signed an equivalent order for Camp 020R (thus, incidentally, undermining the argument that the two camps should be seen as one unit.) But the Home Office also found a loophole: there was no formal authorisation for those detained under D.R.18B and 18BA, namely arrested spies, and the Home Secretary had to sign an order with retroactive effect, to cover this situation. Sampson informs us that Home Secretary John Anderson had given Swinton a ‘verbal’ [he should have written ‘oral’] approval during a telephone call in 1940, but had clearly not discussed the matter with his civil servants.

At Huntercombe Place

[Lt.-Col. Sampson second from left. Is that a senior RAF officer in the centre, maybe visiting from R.A.F. Benson? Looks a bit like the future Marshal of the R.A.F. Arthur Tedder, but then perhaps all Air-Marshals looked like Tedder.]

Apparently the transferred prisoners were not happy with their lot, as they started sending in petitions to the Home Secretary in the summer of 1943. Whether the more comfortable conditions at Camp 020, and the availability of books, had contributed to their sense of entitlement, or whether they had been put up to it by some champion for them, is not clear, and the record is sparse. But in August 1943, Milmo (B1B) had to respond to a complaint from the Home Office, which was obviously perturbed by the volume of petitions coming to it. “As has been pointed out”, he wrote, “the amenities at Camp 020R leave nothing to be desired, and are of an exceptionally high standard, being more reminiscent of a modern hotel than an internment camp.” He went on to explain the comforts, freedom of movement and association, no forced work, gardening optional, free tobacco, etc. etc. , and concluded: “We are quite satisfied that these manifestoes are the result of something in the nature of  a conspiracy, and this is borne out by the fact that there were no signs of unrest or disturbance of any kind at the camp.”

When Maxwell held a meeting, on July 29, to discuss the administration of Camp 020R, Petrie himself attended, confirmed the fact that both Dr. Dearden and a local practitioner were available for medical attention.  (Here also is the first indication that Camp 020R had its own commandant, a Major Gibbs.) The last item informs us that ‘such matters as attempts at, or actual, suicide would be so reported’, thus confirming the ‘incident’. Petrie followed up, somewhat sluggishly, on November 29, by inviting Maxwell to visit Camp 020R, so that he might investigate working conditions for himself. He reminded Maxwell that a ‘considerable number’ of ‘detainees’ had been transferred to Camp 020R, and that he expected several more in the coming months. Some jocularity was now called for: “I think you will also be interested in the ‘amenities’ which are provided at Stephens’ ‘country’ residence!”.

Petrie had visited the camp just before he sent this letter, and a memorandum from Butler to Stephens, dated December 1, reminds the latter that he and Petrie were both keen that ‘more books and games’ should be made available for the prisoners, and that money was on hand to address this need. The ensuing flurry of memoranda shows the earnestness with which this project was pursued, and also informs us that ’well over 100’ internees were now present there, of which half knew little English. Maxwell, meanwhile, was highly occupied, and replied on December 16 that he would not be able to accept the invitation until January.

So yet another year passed. Maxwell visited Camp 020R on January 5, and wrote promptly to Petrie the next day. In a somewhat starchy and headmasterly way, he requests Petrie to make sure that the Home Office receives a copy of any report made after a prisoner complaint. He is evidently concerned that he is ultimately responsible for the treatment of the prisoners, but has not been kept properly informed. Stephens’ instructions to Butler, a few days later, indicate that Milmo has been following the book over such cases, and the problem was probably due to civil servants in the Home Office suspecting that facts were being withheld. Stephens takes the time to remind Butler that Maxwell was otherwise very impressed.

The final note in the first file on Camp 020R shows that Maxwell has bought into the idea that Camp 020R was ’not an ordinary internment camp’. In a memorandum to Petrie, Butler reports on a meeting he had with Maxwell, where the latter ‘entirely agreed that it was extremely important that as few people as possible should know the details of the cases at Camp 020 and Camp 020R, or indeed of their existence. In the preparations for D-Day it was essential that no leakage of information about the so-called ‘double agents’ should occur.

Stephens’ assessment of Camp 020R was somewhat mournful: “There the prisoners learnt much about the British Constitution; they whiled away their time by writing petitions to the King, to the Home Secretrary and to the Judges. Sometimes they gave good advice to Mr Churchill and Mr Anthony Eden. Occasionally they tried to escape. In the end it became a soulless camp, and much sympathy is due to the officers and men who carried out their dreary task so conscientiously and well for so long a time.” Peter Mackean has pointed out to me how these obligations endured for several years after the war.

Camp 020R in Operation:

The second file, KV 4/103, covers Camp 020R after it opened for business at the beginning of 1943. It is not very revealing. It is replete with standing orders, such as the posting of sentries, fire precautions and orders, inspections, and instructions for distributing newspapers and cigarettes, bathing protocols, cell cleanliness, exercise, and the procedures for escorts and vehicle searches. The Home Office is clearly very interested in the welfare of the internees, who are now granted rights that one might deem over-indulgent for such a group of desperadoes. “Complaints, couched in respectful language, will be in writing and will be handed by prisoners to the Orderly Officer of the day at breakfast rounds only”, runs one edict.

Group Guard Portrait: Mackean at back left

By early 1944, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir Alexander Maxwell, has visited the camp, and is overall satisfied, but he is concerned about extra medical supplies, and wants the chief prison Medical Officer, Dr. Methven, and Sir John Moylan (who appears to be responsible for handling petitions) to visit the camp at Huntercombe. Stephens is concerned about security and disruption. Maxwell seeks extra milk for prisoners having medical problems, a concern that Stephens has to address himself, and informs Milmo back in Head Office. Petrie is involved in the question of extra nourishment that ‘may be required for medical grounds’. One wonders: did these gentlemen not know that there was a war on?

Despite all this attention to their wellbeing, prisoners still planned escapes from their Colditz-in- the-Cotswolds, as a letter of February 21, 1944 confirms. The detainees involved were Stephens, K. C. Hansen, Pelletier, Hans Hansen, Oien, Olsen, Robr, Ronning, Steiner [sic], and Lecube – not all of whom, somewhat mysteriously, appear in the list maintained, and later distributed, by the camp authorities. But Stephens was on top of it, and wrote to Richard Butler on February 23: “I am not in the least troubled by the situation at Camp 020R. the men involved are determined to escape and the authorities concerned are equally determined that they will not succeed.”

Another year passed, apparently peacefully, and at the end of May 1945, Stephens planned to liquidate both Camp 020 and Camp 020R at once. He was alert to the constitutional challenges, and firmly believed that, no matter how ill-prepared their native countries might be, the prisoners should be repatriated at once. He wants some detainees at 020R to be sent to Camp 020, and sets a target of June 15 for Camp 020R to be closed. All prisoners were in fact moved to Ham by July 3, and the property was handed over to the Ministry of Works later that month, and its closure formally declared on September 5. Those German prisoners captured towards the end of the war who had been brought initially to Ham (such as Karl Heinz Kraemer, who played a very significant role in Stockholm) were transferred to Diest in Belgium, and then Bad Nenndorf, camps which were managed by the Ministry of War, not MI5. Camp 020 was disbanded in December, although Petrie did report to Maxwell that ‘a small residue’ of detainees were still in Beltane Schools [sic: a school originally for German Kindertransport children, in Wimbledon], awaiting repatriation.

Diest Prison
Mackean at Bad Nenndorf

After the war, Camp 020R became a Borstal prison. In 1983, it became a cellular prison for young juveniles. It has since (according to Wikipedia) taken a role for holding foreign national offenders awaiting deportation – an echo of its wartime role. Huntercombe Hall, which was used for administration, and as a recreational and residential facility, is now Huntercombe Hall Care Home, owned by Oxfordshire County Council, which offers ‘residential, nursing, and dementia care for up to 42 elderly residents’.

Thus the installation has come full circle, and acts as a stark reminder of the legal and constitutional challenges facing a security service and police force that today have to protect the democracy from hostile elements planning mayhem, but who may have not committed any act that can confidently be prosecuted.

The Prisoners:

Stephens’s commentary in his history, and a Kew file (KV 2/2593), combine to give us a good description of those who were moved to Camp 020R. I list them here, with a brief thumbnail sketch of those for whom information exists.

Stoerd Pons                 Only member of his LENA spy squad to escape execution

Gosta Caroli                SUMMER: reneged, tried to escape by overpowering his guard

Kurt Goose                  Double-agent who tried to smuggle message to German Embassy

Albert Jaeger              

Otto Joost                    LENA spy who was spared

Gunnar Evardsen        LENA spy who was spared

Cornelius Evertsen      Dutch captain who tried to land agents in Fishguard

Arie Van Dam             Member of Belgian sea-mission in London; denounced

Theophil Jezequel       Cuban from Spain recruited by Abwehr; brought in by Evertsen

Juan Martinez                                                  ditto          

Silvio Robles                                                  ditto       

Pedro Hechevarria                                          ditto

Kurt Hansen

Gerard Libot

Wilhelm Heinrich

Hugo Jonasson            Swedish skipper recruited by Abwehr in Brest

Francis de Lee

Jan de Jonge                Dutchman arrested in Gibraltar making inquiries about convoys

Jose del Campo           Cuban arrested in British port, confessed

Karl Hansson

Johan Strandmoen      Norwegian arrested in Wick on ‘fishing’ expedition

Bjarne Hansen                                                ditto

Hans Hansen                                                   ditto

Henry Torgesen                                               ditto

Edward Ejsymont       Pole form Gdansk who made misleading statements

Helmik Knudsen

Edward Balsam           Polish Jew who shadowed Ejsymont; made false claims?

Abraham Sukiennik                                        ditto

Eigil Robr                   Norwegian traitor spirited into UK by military attaché in Stockholm

Leopold Hirsch           Crook who tried to bribe Germans captured in Trinidad

Oscar Gilinsky                                                ditto   

Gustav Ronning

Martin Olsen

Thorleif Solem            Norwegian in pay of Germans arrested in Shetland Islands

Sigurd Alsaeth                                                ditto

Cornelius Van der Woude

Florent Steiner            Belgian seaman denounced by Verlinden

Piet Schipper               Dutch seaman engaged by Abwehr

Jean Pelletier

Gottfried Koch

Erich Blau

Hans Sorensen

Carl Meewe

Hilaire Westerlinck     Belgian doctor denounced by Verlinden

Tadeus Szumlicz         Polish refugee recruited by Germans in Paris

Jens Palsson

Leon Jude                   Belgian airline pilot recruited by Germans    

Robert Petin                Frenchman in air force who retracted his confession

Alfred Lagall

Jose Manso Barras

Sandor Mocsan           Hungarian employed by German in Brazil: radio interception

Janos Salomon                                                ditto

Sobhy Hanna              Egyptian groomed by Abwehr, arrested in Dar-es-Salaam

Pieter Grootveld

Pierre Morel                Demobilised French pilot, employed by Germans: evasive story

Serrano Morales

Juan Lecube                Mulish Spaniard, arrested in Trinidad: radio interception

Jose Moreno-Ruiz

Vincente Fernandez-Pasos

Gabriel Pry                  Belgian mathematician: offered services to Abwehr, arrested in Lisbon

Ernesto Simoes           Portuguese spy in UK who contacted Germans by secret ink

Dos Santos Mesquita  Portuguese journalist captured in Lourenço Marques

De Ferraz Freitas        Portuguese radio operator on fishing-fleet: radio interception

Garcia Serrallach         Petty Argentinian crook captured in Trinidad

Andres Blay Pigrau                                         ditto

Homer Serafimides     Greek seaman, swindler: handed over to British in Durban

Torre de la Castro

Frank Stainer               Belgian crook Abwehr planned to infiltrate, captured in Lisbon

This is a mixed bag of scoundrels. Clearly some of them deserved the death penalty, but MI5 was reluctant to invoke the Treachery Act, as it would mean public trials, and secrets coming out that the service would prefer remain hidden, followed by an obligatory death sentence if the accused had been found guilty. There might be further information to be gained by interrogation, and, if too long a time passed, questions would be asked why there had been a delay. A few were failed ‘double-agents’ who knew too much. Some of the accused had been denounced, and motives might have been suspect; the identity of others had been gained by interception of Abwehr radio signals (ISOS), and clearly had to be kept quiet. Lastly, many of those detected had been arrested on foreign soil. The jurisdiction that the UK security service had over such probable criminals was uncertain, and many such persons had therefore to be detained until the end of the war, when they were repatriated to their home countries so that they could receive native justice. At least one (Stainer) was executed under such circumstances.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Now that the Presidential election is over and decided (pending last-minute judicial challenges), we have to look forward to the period of transition. We thus need to build a word-ladder from TRUMP to BIDEN.

A word-ladder is a set of words that incorporates a change of one letter at a time to transform the subject word into the object word, where no proper names are used. Thus MOAT can become HILL by a sequence such as MOAT-MOOT-HOOT-HOLT-HILT-HILL.

I have discovered a ladder of 14 steps to take TRUMP to BIDEN (i.e. thirteen intermediate ‘rungs’). And I have created another 14-step ladder to transform TRUMP to PENCE, as the Republican chief in waiting. However, if we want to project the transition to my favourite for the 2024 Republican presidential nominee, Nikki Haley, I have plotted another 14-step campaign for TRUMP-HALEY. On the other hand, sketching the 2024 handover from BIDEN to HALEY is a 6-step breeze. I am offering an extended free tour of my library to anyone who can offer a combined array shorter than these, a 48-step total. And I can promise that my library is far more interesting than the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library ever will be, as the latter will probably contain just bound volumes of Playboy, and signed copies of The Art of the Deal. Please send your answers to antonypercy@aol.com. (Travel and accommodation arrangements are the responsibility of the winners.)

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography, Management/Leadership, Politics

Five Books on Espionage & Intelligence

When Sonia Met Klaus at Snow Hill Station? (see below)

Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes (2020)

Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)

An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)

Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)

Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey (2019) [guest review by Denis Lenihan]

I return this month to reviewing some recently published books on espionage and intelligence, and thank Denis Lenihan, coldspur’s Commissioner for Antipodean Affairs, for making a lively and insightful contribution. Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya did not arrive in time to meet the Editor’s deadline, but, in any case, I have been engaged to write a review of it for an external publication, so I shall have to hold off for a while. (My review was submitted on October 19, has been accepted, and will be published soon.) I considered two other books that, from their titles, might have been considered worthy of consideration for a review, Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services, by Simon Ball (2020), and Radio War: The Secret Espionage War of the Radio Security Service 1938-1946 by David Abrutat (2019). Then, a few weeks ago, I came across the following comment from one of my least favourite economists, Joseph Stiglitz, in a book review in The New York Times: “As a matter of policy, I typically decline to review books that deserve to be panned. You only make enemies.”

On reflection, this seemed a tendentious and somewhat irresponsible line to take. Assuming that experts like Stiglitz are commissioned to write reviews of books, how will they know whether such volumes deserve to be panned or not until they have read them – unless they make a prejudgment based on their understanding of the author’s politics or opinions, and in ignorance of how well the book may have been written? It would be a bit late to accept the commission, read the book, decide it was dreadful, and back out of the contract. But maybe that is why book reviews are overall positive: the publisher of the review wants to encourage readers, not warn them off undeniable clunkers.

Well, I am not worried about making enemies. Heaven knows, I must have upset enough prominent historians and journalists through my writings on coldspur, and the ones who were too elevated to engage with me were never going to change anyway, so that is not a worry that concerns me. And, since I am not in this for the money, I can choose to review what I want. But the two books named above, which would seem, potentially, to play a valuable role in the history of intelligence activities were in their different ways so poor in my opinion that I decided not to waste any further time on them. Incidentally, as I revealed a few months ago, Abrutat has recently been confirmed as the new GCHQ departmental historian.

‘Dead Doubles’

Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes

The 1960-61 case of the Portland Spy Ring is, I assume, fairly well known by enthusiasts of espionage lore. A very public trial took place, and a government inquiry followed. Paul Tietjen, a Daily Mail reporter, wrote a very competent account, Soviet Spy Ring, in 1961, and a movie based on the case, Ring of Spies, appeared in 1964. References are sprinkled round various books, and the several million who read Peter Wright’s Spycatcher will have learned of some of the electronic wizardry that went on in preparation for the arrests. Late in 2019, the National Archives released a batch of files relating to the five subjects in the case, and Trevor Barnes has worked fast and diligently to produce a comprehensive account of what happened, in his recently released Dead Doubles. The title is a little unfortunate: it refers to the Soviet practice of stealing identities of children who died soon after birth, such as Konon Molody was permitted to do with Gordon Lonsdale. Yet it is not the essence of the story, and does not perform justice to the other actors in it.

In 1959, the CIA received a warning from a Polish intelligence officer who was close to defecting, Michael Goleniewski, that secrets were leaking from a top-secret naval research establishment in Portland, Dorset. When MI5 was informed, suspicion soon fell upon Harry Houghton, who maintained a relationship with Ethel Gee, an employee who had access to documents concerning development of underwater weapons technology. Houghton was trailed to London, where he had assignations with an enigmatic character called Gordon Lonsdale. By inspecting Lonsdale’s possessions, and eavesdropping on his apartment, MI5 and GCHQ were able to ascertain that Lonsdale listened to coded messages from Moscow on his wireless, and also owned one-time pads (OTPs) that were necessary for decryption – and probable encryption – of messages. He was in turn followed to a bungalow in Ruislip, where two ostensible New Zealanders, Peter and Helen Kroger, the latter a second-hand book-dealer, were living. As the KGB moved closer on Goleniewski, MI5 had to act quickly, and arrested all five miscreants, soon discovering a hidden wireless apparatus in the Ruislip basement. All five were jailed: Gordon Lonsdale turned out to be one Konon Molody, while the Krogers’ real identities were Morris and Lona Cohen, known to the FBI as dangerous Soviet agents, but lost track of. Molody and the Cohens were soon released in spy swaps.

Barnes’s story does not start well. He supplies a map –  an excellent device, since maps give substance to the dimension of space in the same way that a proper chronology provides a reliable framework for time. In his first sentence, however, he refers to ‘Fitzrovia’ in order to provide a location for ‘Great Portland Street’. But ‘Fitzrovia’ is a literary construct, not an administrative district, and his map betrays the confusion, as Fitzrovia is clumsily packed close to Marylebone, and, to make matters worse, mis-spelled as ‘FIZROVIA’. Moreover, on page 2, Barnes describes a journey from Great Portland Street to the ‘secret MI5 laboratory two miles to the west’. But this establishment does not appear on the map, and it was located two miles to the east, not to the west. Thereafter, some other important places do not appear on the map, such as the CIA’s London Office at 71 Grosvenor Street, referred to on page 15.

After this, Barnes quickly gets into his stride. He has performed all the necessary research to give the story the political and intelligence context it needs, exploiting American and Russian sources, the obvious archives at Kew, as well as the unpublished diaries of Charles Elwell, the MI5 officer on the case, and the papers of Morris Cohen at the Imperial War Museum. He understands the technological issues well, and re-presents them in a highly accessible and comprehensible way. He very rarely gives the impression of bluffing his way through a thorny controversy, although he may be a bit too trusting of that rogue, Peter Wright. (Barnes refers to Wright’s ‘Radio Operations Committee’, when the Spycatcher author wrote of a ‘Radiations Operations Committee’. I can find no trace of such an entity.) The story moves at a smooth pace, although the chronology darts around a little too much for this highly-serial reader, with the result that relevant details of some events are scattered around the text. An irritating structure of Parts and Chapters, a very sparsely populated Index, and – the bane of all inquisitive reference-followers – Endnotes that refer to Parts, but do not describe the relevant chapter or page ranges at the top of their own pages, made close analysis more difficult than it could have been. A master index of National Archives files used would have been useful, rather than having them scattered around the Endnotes. Overall, however, Dead Doubles is unmistakably an indispensable and highly valuable contribution to espionage literature.

And yet. (Coldspur regulars will know there is always an ‘and yet’.) While every aspect of the investigation, arrest and prosecution is fleshed out in gripping detail, I was looking for a deeper analysis of some of the more troubling dimensions of the case. For example, it does not help me to know that, a week before Houghton and Gee were trailed to London on the day of their arrest, the Beatles had given ‘a sensational performance in the ballroom of Litherland Hall’, or that The Avengers serial began on television the same day (January 7, 1961). What I would have liked to read, for example, was a more insightful analysis of why Houghton’s drunkenness and violent behaviour while working for the British Embassy in Warsaw resulted in his being sent home but then transferred to Portland’s Port Auxiliary Unit in 1951, rather than being fired.

It reminded me of the scandalous behaviour of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who benefitted from a series of indulgent job changes, instead of being despatched to earn their living elsewhere. What is it about the British Civil Service that causes it to think that a recruit has a job (and pension) for life? Barnes reveals some fresh information on the way that The Admiralty and MI5 had ignored a damaging report on Houghton provided in 1956 by his abused wife, which was buried, or diminished, and he concentrates on this new archival evidence, but at a cost of overlooking a more dramatic scoop.

For the charges went back farther than that. In his book, Tietjen had recorded, back in 1961, that the British Embassy in Warsaw had declared, when they sent Houghton home in October 1952, that he was ‘a security risk’. If that were true, the whole exposure could have been quashed at birth. (We must remember that Tietjen was not aware of the Goleniewski revelations, or Mrs Johnson’s testimony, when he wrote his book. Moreover, as is clear from his notations, his book was published before the Romer Report on security at Portland came out in June 1961.) It is not clear where Tietjen gained his information about the ‘security risk’ report, but it was obviously official, as Tietjen annotates his awareness of it with a Footnote: “Whether Houghton was ever reported to the Admiralty by Captain Austen as a ‘security risk’ is a matter still under investigation by a specially convened Government committee.”

Yet Barnes does not mention this report in his book: he records an interview (undated, but probably in late May 1960) that MI5 officer George Leggett and MI6’s Harold Shergold had with Captain Nigel Austen, for whom Houghton had worked in Poland, but Barnes does not cite Austen as referring to his own ‘security risk’ report on Houghton. On the contrary, Austen used the opportunity to minimise Houghton’s failings, and bolster his own image: Yes, Houghton had been drinking heavily, but Austen was quick to get rid of him; yes, Houghton did make money on the black market, but then no more than any other Embassy official; Houghton’s wife was as much to blame (‘a colourless, drab individual who disliked being in Warsaw and no doubt was partly responsible for Houghton’s conduct’) for her husband’s behaviour. And when Leggett asked Austen whether he thought Houghton was a spy, Austen suggested that Houghton’s actions never indicated any betrayal of secrets to the Poles. (p 19)

It appears as if Austen had been nobbled by this stage, and instructed that, if he wanted to keep his pension (he had retired in January 1960), he should downplay Houghton’s behaviour, and never mention the ‘security risk’ report. Yet the Admiralty had already started digging its hole. As Barnes writes: “The Admiralty had forwarded this report [UDE to Admiralty in 1956, concerning claims made by his ex-wife, now Mrs. Johnson] to MI5 with a covering note, which disclosed that Houghton had been sent home from Poland because he had become very drunk on one occasion, and ‘it was thought he might break out again and involve himself in trouble with the Poles.” (p 10)

‘On one occasion’? As Barnes adds: “According to Mrs Johnson, while in Warsaw Houghton was ‘frequently the worse for drink in public, and apt to talk loudly and indiscreetly about his work. On . . . occasions, at official parties at the embassy, Captain Austen was obliged to send Houghton home by car, he having become incapable of standing up.’” Moreover, when the MI5 officer James Craggs, ‘a sociable bachelor in his late thirties’, went into the Admiralty on May 5, 1960 to inspect the Houghton files, he apparently learned a lot. “A picture of Houghton’s life began to emerge. In December 1951 Austen had cautioned the navy clerk for heavy drinking, and the following May Austen wrote again to say that Houghton was still drinking excessively. Houghton was sent home later that year, and on his return to the UK he was posted to the UDE at Portland.” (p 12) The Admiralty was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of MI5. Certainly not just ‘one occasion’.

So where did Tietjen get his information? Did officer Craggs find out about the ‘security risk’ in his session at the Admiralty, and leak it to Tietjen? The claims that the Admiralty made were evidently untrue, according to Mrs Johnson’s testimony, but also from the Admiralty files that they must have forgotten to weed. But Craggs surely knew. And the whole problem of suitable behaviour at foreign embassies was brushed under the rug when Lord Carrington addressed the House of Commons on the Romer Report. On June 13 he spoke as follows, as Hansard reports: “1. No criticism can be made of Houghton’s appointment in 1951 as Clerk to the Naval Attaché in Warsaw. Nor can any criticism be made of want of action by the Naval Attaché or the Admiralty in the events leading up to his recall to London, before the expiration of his appointment, on account of his drinking habits. 2. Given the security criteria of the time no legitimate criticism can be made of Houghton’s subsequent appointment in 1952 to a post in the Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland which did not in itself involve access to secret material. It is regrettable however that the authorities at Portland were not informed about the reason for Houghton’s recall from Warsaw.”

So that’s all right, then. Getting continually sloshed is a hazard of working in dull Embassies behind the Iron Curtain. Black market dealings are not mentioned. Nothing is said about the lost ‘security risk’ report. Yet the Admiralty’s own evidence contradicts this smooth elision of what happened. Did Tietjen speak up after the Romer Report was issued, possibly incriminating Craggs, and was he then sworn to silence?  Moreover, a further disturbing complication has to be addressed. In an endnote, Barnes informs us that ‘Craggs’ was not the MI5 officer’s real name (it had been redacted in the archives), and Barnes, though he discovered the real name, had to conceal it, at the request of MI5, because of ‘potential distress to his family’. (Note 8, p 290) 

Apart from questioning why Barnes was negotiating with MI5 during this research, I have to ask:  what could Craggs possibly have done that would require his name to be concealed after sixty years have passed! This must be an epic scandal if today’s cadre of MI5 officers have to be warned about it. Was Craggs perhaps punished severely for leaking information from the Admiralty files to a Daily Mail journalist? Craggs’s inspection of Admiralty records, Tietjen’s knowledge of Austen’s report, Austen’s clumsy interview, the Admiralty’s claim that the report was lost, Cragg’s humiliation and excision from the record: they all point to a dishonourable leakage of information. I believe that Barnes could, and should, have paid more attention to this mystery. By highlighting the fact of his own diligent sleuthing, namely that he had discovered who the anonymous officer was, but then showing no interest in what the scandal was about, Barnes has simply drawn attention to the shenanigans. (I have communicated my thoughts to him, but he has not replied to my latest analysis.)

A related story worthy of deeper investigation is the lamentable security at the Underwater Defence Establishment (UDE) at Portland. On May 11, 1961, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan commissioned Lord Radcliffe to investigate security across all the public services, and the Romer Committee (which was inquiring into Houghton and Gee) delivered its own findings to the Cabinet Secretary on May 30. The Romer report described the lack of security-consciousness at UDE, and criticised the head of the establishment, Captain Pollock, but the outcome was feeble. As Barnes writes: “Although the Portland security officer was dismissed from his post, as a temporary civil servant his pension was not cut; and the head of UDE in 1956, Captain Pollock, who retired in 1958, submitted a robust defence. Almost a year after the Portland trial, the Admiralty decided there were simply no grounds for disciplinary action against him.” What incentive can there be for doing a job properly if the incumbent knows that the institution will always take care of its own? The analysis of the Radcliffe report warrants only two short sentences in Dead Doubles: no doubt Barnes felt it was outside his remit, but this is a subject crying out for greater analysis.

This account presents an absorbing case-study in historiography. Barnes has clearly benefitted from the support and encouragement of his mentor, Christopher Andrew (‘the godfather to this book’), and cites Andrew’s coverage of the case in his 2009 history of MI5, Defending the Realm (pp 484-488). Andrew had offered one line about the failure of MI5 to follow up on the clues provided by Houghton’s ex-wife. But Andrew was characteristically oblique in his sources, listing solely his traditional ‘Security Service Archives’, some conversations with MI5 officers, and some selective – and thus, highly questionable – references to Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. (which Andrew shamelessly lists in his Bibliography). The only specific source was an obscure article in Police Journal by Charles Elwell, one of Barnes’s key witnesses, written under the pseudonym ‘Elton’. See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0032258X7104400203 .  (I do not believe Barnes cites this, but it may have been inserted into the recently released files.)

Yet a useful file was available at the National Archives at that time. In his 2012 work, The Art of Betrayal, Gordon Corera also wrote about the Portland Spy Ring at length, and dedicated a paragraph (p 234) to the fact that Houghton’s ex-wife believed that he was in touch with Communist agents. Corera quotes the response from MI5 that her accusations were ‘nothing more than the outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife’, citing the file ADM 1/30088, which was the text of the Romer Inquiry. One can ascertain from the Kew Catalogue that this file is accompanied by ADM 116/6295-6297: they appear to have been stored for access in the 1960s, and updated with various items since. Yet these files (which Andrew could have named) are not referred to by Barnes. Instead, he uses the more comprehensive version of the Romer Inquiry issued in 2017, at CAB 301/248. I have not been able to compare the two, but it is important to recognize that the facts about MI5’s oversights in not checking out Houghton have been known for almost sixty years.

Furthermore, Chapman Pincher claimed, at the same time, that Macmillan ‘declined to publish Romer’s findings’, and that they were not published until 2007, when the Cabinet Office yielded to a Freedom of Information request from Dr Michael Goodman. That presumably relates, however, to Cabinet Office files, not Admiralty records. (Infuriatingly, the Catalogue entry for ADM 1/30088 does not give a release date.) Naturally, Pincher places all the blame on Roger Hollis, and that his ‘minimalist policy’ had allowed Houghton to continue his espionage untroubled. That was more an indictment of incompetence rather than of treachery. If Hollis had really wanted the Portland Spy Ring to remain a secret, he would surely have arranged things so that Lonsdale left town at the first available opportunity.

I believe Barnes might have plunged in more boldly on some other intelligence aspects of the case, and I highlight six here:

  1. Lonsdale’s One-Time Pads:  One of the key discoveries made when Lonsdale’s safe-deposit box was opened by MI5 was a set of three one-time pads (OTPs), vital for the decryption of incoming and outgoing messages. It seems that Helen Kroger keyed in all of Lonsdale’s messages, both the confidential ones (encyphered and typed on his typewriter), and the family ones (in manuscript) that were found in HK’s bag. One of the pads evidently referred to encyphered messages received on Lonsdale’s general-purpose wireless set, and MI5 & GCHQ were able to detect the frequency of personalized transmissions by inspecting the use of the pad. Thus the second of the three OTPs found in Lonsdale’s box must have been used for the encypherment of transmissions. Why did GCHQ/MI5 not notice or comment on how pages in this OTP had been used up, as they did with his receiver OTP? And what was the third OTP used for? Barnes does not comment.
  2. Lonsdale in Ruislip: The reason that the Krogers were able to be arrested was because Lonsdale had unwittingly led his surveillance officers to their bungalow. But why did Lonsdale have to visit them? It sounds to me like very dangerous tradecraft. He should surely have met Helen or Peter at a neutral location to pass over his documents. After all, when Lonsdale was extradited to Berlin in the swap with Greville Wynne, he told MI5 officers, as they went through Ruislip, that they had chosen that location because of the US air traffic that would mask their transmissions, so why would the three of them endangered that ruse by the possibility of Lonsdale’s leading surveillance officers to the secret place?
  3. Flash Mode: Barnes comments that the Krogers had been issued with a ‘novel’ wireless apparatus (the R-350-M) that operated in ‘flash’ mode, namely allowing keyed messages to be stored on tape, and then sent at ultra-high speeds to Moscow to avoid interception and direction-finding. If the Krogers had been using flash mode from the start, why would they have been concerned about direction-finding? The operation would have been over before GCHQ could even contact a van, if they had been able to pick up the signal (which Arthur Bonsall of GCHQ said was impossible, anyway.) Barnes refers to their previous equipment as the ‘Astra’ box, but does not describe it fully, or explain whether it was also capable of ’flash’ operation.  His reference to ‘novel’ suggests that the previous box did not have flash capabilities. This characteristic is important in the story of interception.
  4. Interception and Direction-Finding: Astonishingly, the status of GCHQ’s ability to intercept and locate illicit transmissions in 1960 appears to be markedly weaker than it was in World War II, as is shown by the testimony from Bonsall that Barnes cites. Coldspur readers will recall that Peter Wright claimed that GCHQ said that it would have been impossible for Agent Sonia to have operated undetected in the years 1941 to 1945. Yet by 1959 GCHQ admits defeat in its ability to pick up clandestine traffic targeted towards Moscow, and needs MI5 to tip it off about the places to watch! There is an untold story here about the reality and deterioration of the capabilities of the RSS (after the war The Diplomatic Wireless Service). (I have my own theories on this, which I shall explain in my culminating chapter on Sonia and Wireless Detection.)
  5. Soviet Stable of Spies: Barnes makes some highly provocative claims about the presence of unnamed Soviet spies and illegals, assertions that are dropped into the text – almost carelessly. He writes that, at the time of the arrests, GCHQ was aware of ‘radio signals transmitted by KGB illegals in the UK’. So how did they know of the existence of such? Elsewhere he refers to the ‘stable of spies’ which had issued burst signals similar to those transmitted by the Krogers? Who were these people? He also states that MI5 had no practical experience of KGB illegals. Apart from the fact that they were aware of Soviet illegals in the 1930s (Mally & co.), if GCHQ knew of them, MI5 must surely have known them, too. This is a puzzle that I do not understand, and I am anxious to know Barnes’s sources.
  6. Lonsdale’s Death: Lastly, the demise of Lonsdale. I have a particular interest in the dozens of cases of unexplained or early deaths of those who incurred the wrath of the KGB, and whom Sudoplatov’s ‘Special Tasks’ group may have pursued and annihilated. Barnes recounts Lonsdale’s death from a heart-attack in Moscow while mushroom-picking (a notoriously dangerous Russian pastime, by the way). Was this a straightforward medical incident? After all (as Barnes relates) he received death warnings, feared being shot on his return, was openly critical of Soviet society, and was given multiple injections shortly before he died. Is it not possible that his appalling tradecraft incurred the ire of KGB high-ups?

The good news is that I have presented this set of questions to Mr. Barnes himself, and he has accepted them as appropriate and thought-provoking. He has promised to inspect them more closely when he is not so busy. He must be much in demand with the attention over his book, as he well deserves to be. I look forward avidly to Barnes’s eventual response. His discomfort with Peter Wright comes through in his narrative, where he is sensibly cautious in accepting some of Wright’s claims about GCHQ’s interceptions of related messages. That is the perennial challenge for Barnes, and Andrew, and anyone else who chooses to cite Wright’s recollections from Spycatcher. Why do you accept some assertions, but discount others, and what does the inclusion of the book in your Bibliography mean?

I also wish Barnes had pushed his comprehensive reportage a bit further into analysis, and not withdrawn because of pressure from MI5, but I still encourage you to read Dead Doubles. And please send me your thoughts on the issues I have listed. In order to ensure the confidentiality of our correspondence, I do remind you all not to re-use your one-time pads (as some of you have been doing), and to ensure that your indicator groups appear in your message after my name, not before it. And, if you run out of one-time pads, we use Wisden’s Almanac, 2016 edition (not 2015!) as our reference book. Got that?  It shouldn’t be that difficult, should it?

‘Atomic Spy’

Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)

Does the world need another biography of Klaus Fuchs? I have on my shelf those by Norman Ross, Robert Chadwell Williams, and Eric Rossiter, as well as last year’s epic composition by Frank Close. Evidently, the publishers at Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, thought so, even though Close’s Trinity was published by Allen Lane, also an imprint of Penguin Random House. Presumably Ms. Greenspan knew about Frank Close’s concurrent work, and she indeed lists it in her biography. So one might expect a novel interpretation of the life of the atomic spy with divergent loyalties. The sub-title is ‘The Dark Lives of Klaus Fuchs’. Dark – as in ‘previously undisclosed’? Or as in ‘sinister’?

And what are Ms. Greenspan’s qualifications for writing about Fuchs, and what is her approach? It is not clear. She is recorded as having collaborated with her late husband, Stanley, on works of child psychiatry, and she published a book on the Life and Science of Max Born a decade ago, but I can find no record of her academic credentials. Moreover, she appeared to require large doses of help in compiling her work – not just the predictable interviews with a large range of offspring of friends and associates of Fuchs, but availing herself of an impressive list of persons who ‘agreed to interviews, tours, meetings, teas, and lunches and in every way were supportive’, from Charles and Nicola Perrin to the inevitable Nigel West and the elusive Alexander Vassiliev. How very unlike the solitary drudgery in which coldspur finds himself performing his researches! I should add, however, that while I shall probably not breakfast in Aberystwyth again, I did have a very pleasant lunch with Nigel West a few years ago, but am still awaiting Sir Christopher Andrew’s invitation to tea.

Ms. Greenspan lists a highly impressive set of international archival references, which point to a broad and deep study of the available material. Moreover, one noticeable feature of Greenspan’s detailed endnotes is the fact that she appears to have had access to some of the Fuchs files that have been withheld at Kew, such as the AB/1 series, which has been closed for access for most human beings. Her ability to inspect Rudolf Peierls’s correspondence, for instance, represents a highly controversial feather in her cap, which demands a more open explanation. Why would the relevant ministries allow an American writer to inspect such files, and why does she not explain her tactics in achieving such a coup? I was immediately intrigued to know whether her access to papers that the authorities have, in their wisdom, deemed too confidential to be exploited by the common historian, enabled her to construct some piercing breakthroughs in analysing Fuchs’s relationship with his political masters in the United Kingdom. When researching this matter with an on-line colleague, however, I was informed that she (and Frank Close) both probably benefitted from the availability of papers before the decision to withdraw them – primarily the AB 1/572-577 series of Rudolf Peierls’s correspondence. From a study of her endnotes, and those of Close (which are, incidentally, a treasure trove in their own right, which teaches more on each subsequent inspection), it would appear that Greenspan delved more widely in these particular arcana than did Close. What prompted the sudden secrecy by units of the British government over atomic research in the 1940s remains an enigma.

Greenspan’s methodical coverage of the sources is, however, not reflected in the originality of her text.  Atomic Spy is overall disappointing, and does not add much to our understanding of Fuchs’s motivations and behaviour. Nevertheless, in four aspects, I thought Greenspan provided some fresh value worth noting. She dedicates four excellent chapters on Fuchs’s experiences in Kiel and Berlin in 1932 and 1933 – a period compressed to just two pages in Close’s account – describing vividly the terrors that the Nazis imposed on opposition groups, but especially the German Communist Party. At the age of twenty-one, Klaus had taken over from his brother, Gerhard, the leadership of the Free Socialist Student Group (a cover name) in Kiel. Gerhard had escaped to Berlin, but Klaus was now a hunted man, under sentence of death. On February 28, 1933, Klaus himself escaped from Kiel, when he was number one on the list to be arrested, and moved to Berlin. Very recklessly, when Gerhard had had to go into hiding, Klaus continued to try to recruit students to the communist cause, when it was clearly a hopeless venture. The Nazis were leaving mangled bodies of communists on the streets. In mid-July, Klaus boarded a train for Aachen, Paris, and eventually Bristol.

Greenspan also sheds fresh light on the horrors of internment that Fuchs and others experienced on the S. S. Ettrick on the voyage to Canada in July 1940, the brutal way that the prisoners were treated by their guards, and the vile conditions that existed on the ship, with thirteen hundred refugees crowded into a hold with the portholes shut in conditions of unbelievable squalor. According to Fuchs, the communists did most of the work in cleaning up the vomit and excrement that swamped the place. While they were at sea, they heard that U-boats had torpedoed the sister ship, the Arandora Star. Dry land in Canada may have been a relief after ten days on the Atlantic Ocean, but conditions in the camp were also grim to start with, a freezing winter making life desperately uncomfortable. The prisoners successfully petitioned for improved conditions, and by December Fuchs was a member of one of the first lists of internees to be sent back to Britain. One can forgive him for harbouring a grudge against the treatment they received, and the frequent accusations and insults that they heard from guards and civilians that he and his fellow internees were ‘Nazis’ simply because they were Germans.

The third area where I believe that Greenspan is more perceptive than other biographers is her coverage of the conversations between Henry Arnold, the security officer at Harwell, and Klaus, in late 1949. A possible defence that Fuchs could have used at his trial was that he had been ‘induced’ by Arnold, and John Cockcroft, the director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, into confessing his espionage a spart of a deal. The concern that Fuchs’s confession might not have been truly voluntary brought MI5 to questioning whether the prosecution might fail on that account. Moreover, he had not been cautioned appropriately. Thus the written confession that he provided became extremely important.  MI5’s attorney, B. A. Hill, was comfortable, however, with the sequence of events, and moved to advise the prosecuting lawyer, Christmas Humphreys. Yet Fuchs’s decision to say nothing at his initial hearing (on February 10, 1950), and the reluctance of Derek Curtis-Bennett, who represented Fuchs at the trial that took place on March 1, to challenge the Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, on what Greenspan describes as ‘the now open secret of inducement’ is puzzling and disturbing. Curtis-Bennett, perhaps under instructions, made a very disjointed plea in Fuchs’s defence, but Fuchs had little to say when invited by Lord Goddard to speak.

Lastly, Greenspan adds some useful information about Fuchs from his time in East Germany, where he did not get the heroes’ welcome that he expected, maybe naively. The Soviets wanted no suggestion that they had acquired the atomic bomb other than from their own research and imagination. The author writes: “No celebrations and accolades welcomed him. The Russians wanted no reference to his passing them information. According to them, they had discovered the atomic secrets themselves. Russia’s denial of any connection to him made his past taboo. Even his nephew Klaus had felt the long arm of the KGB. When he applied for admission to Leipzig University in 1956, he included that his uncle had spied for Russia. University officials accused him of lying. Russia didn’t have spies. They forced him to delete the information.” But what is surprising is that Greenspan does not include the passage from the Vassilievsky Notebooks, where Sonia (Ursula Beurton, née Kuczynski) was quick to tell the authorities how ashamed she was of Fuchs’s conduct in confessing, and how, if she had been given the chance to give him a firm talking-to, the whole messy business of arrest and trial could have been avoided.

Yet the reader has to trudge through some familiar territory, well-ploughed by Close, to glean these insights. And Greenspan leaves behind a number of errors in her wake, mainly because she appears to have spent little time in the British Isles. She characterizes MI6 as ‘the military division of foreign intelligence’, represents the British intelligence establishment as ‘dominated by toffs’ from Eton or Harrow, which was certainly not the case, and introduces Edinburgh (where Fuchs returned to work under Max Born) in the following terms: “Januarys in Edinburgh are blustery and gray. The cold, raw air from the English Channel blankets the city of stone and seeps into the bones”, an observation bound to raise the hackles of even the most indulgent Caledonian. She hazards a guess that Sonia might have been in contact with Fuchs in 1949 because of ‘the proximity of Harwell to Great Rollright’, when Sonia had in fact lived closer to Harwell beforehand, and there is no evidence that she and Fuchs got together again in the UK after 1943. I would have thought that one of her many advisory readers would have shown a greater familiarity with British geography and institutions. Like many chroniclers, Greenspan is also a bit too trusting of ‘Sonya’s Report’.

The final judgments that emanate from all this teamwork are drearily mundane and misguided. She phrases her final verdict thus: “Fuchs’s actions left most people confused, but what they didn’t see was that his life, circumscribed from within, was consistent and constant to his unwavering set of ideals, he sought the betterment of mankind that transcended national boundaries. His goal became to balance world power and to prevent nuclear blackmail. As he saw it, science was his weapon in a war to protect humanity.” If this is what ‘Dark Lives’ consists of, it is very feeble, and represents the tired refrain that a traitor like Fuchs, who, like Sonia, took advantage of British citizenship, and then betrayed his adopted home, should somehow be forgiven because he was ‘sincere’. (Shortly before she died, Lorna Arnold, the official historian at AERE Harwell, gave Frank Close a similar testimony.) ‘An unwavering set of ideals’ – much the same could be said of Lenin, and Stalin, all the way to their grisly imitators such as Pol Pot, all laced with the vague narcissistic illusion that the hero of our tale had it in his hands the ability ‘to balance world power’. It is a shoddy ending to a weakly-conceived and ill-timed book.

Ms. Greenspan needed some help with her writing, as she acknowledges no less than sixteen persons who read ‘most or some of the manuscript’, a handful who helped her with German and Russian translations, another twelve who made suggestions or who provided introductions, and archivists from thirty or so libraries who pointed her in the right direction, as well as her team of agents, editors, project managers, an endnote compiler, and a copy editor. As an author who had to perform my own copy-editing with no benefit of outside readers, and was obliged to reconstruct my own text after an ‘experimental’ editor mangled my words and punctuation, who had to create all the footnotes and endnotes, create the Affinity Charts and Biographical Index, select and organize the illustrations, undertake the laborious task of constructing an index, recruit my own PR agency, and then, when a copy of Misdefending the Realm was requested for review purposes by the Times Literary Supplement, had to order a copy from amazon for the reviewer since my editor had taken off for India for a month without informing me, I was both overwhelmed and disenchanted. It is rather like comparing two expeditions to the Hindu Kush. The Zoological Society would take hampers of chutney, chocolate and champagne with them, and recruit a posse of porters and ponies to carry their provisions, while Eric Newby or Eric Shipton would go alone, with a rucksack on their backs. But it is the solo explorers who bring back the more intriguing stories.

‘An Impeccable Spy’

An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)

The only major feature wrong with this book is its title. If a spy were truly ‘impeccable’, he (or she) would be infiltrated silently into a target institution, would extract vital secrets and deliver them to his controllers without ever being detected, his achievements would never be lauded and publicized, and he would die in obscurity, his name and cryptonym forever a secret. No doubt there have been persons like that. But there would be no material to write biographies of them.

Richard Sorge (the subject of Owen Matthews’ book) was far from that model. He behaved ostentatiously, drawing attention to himself, he was caught by the Japanese, he confessed his crimes, and was eventually hanged. Up until the last day he believed that Stalin would rescue him in some exchange deal because of his dedication, and the value he had brought to his bosses. Yet that was not the way Stalin thought. Sorge was a failure because he had got himself caught. And maybe Sorge knew at heart that a return to Moscow might mean death at the hands of his employers. After all, in Stalin’s eyes, Sorge had lived too long abroad, would clearly have been subject to non-communist influences, and might disapprove of how Stalin had distorted the Bolshevik impulse. Moreover, he was half-German.  Let him swing.

Biographers of spies have to spice up their stories to attract attention, admittedly. ‘The Most Dangerous Spy in History’ (Fuchs, according to Frank Close); ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’ (Fuchs, according to Mike Rossiter); ‘Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy’ (Sonia, according to Ben Macintyre), ‘The Spy Who Changed History’ (Shumovsky, according to Lokhova), etc. etc. Matthews appears to have taken his inspiration from Kim Philby, perhaps a dubious authority in this métier. Philby is quoted on the dust-jacket as stating that Sorge’s ‘work was impeccable’, John le Carré, for good measure, classifies Sorge as ‘the best spy of all time’, and Ian Fleming is recorded on the cover as claiming that Sorge was ‘the most formidable spy in history’, all reflecting an enthusiasm for bohemianism and extravagance rather than patience and discretion.

Sorge’s life was a rambunctious and exhilarating one. He was born in 1895 in Baku, in the Russian Empire, of a German father and Russian mother. He served on the Western Front, where he became a communist. After the Russian revolution, he moved to Moscow, where he was recruited by the Comintern, and roamed around Europe on various missions, including a short stay in the United Kingdom in 1929. Shortly after that, he was instructed to join the Nazi party with cover as a journalist, and sent to Shanghai, China in 1930, to join a motley international group of ne’er-do-wells, conspirators, saboteurs, spies and activists, and among his sexual conquests were Agnes Smedley and Ursula Hamburger (Sonia). (In Agent Sonya, Ben Macintyre has written: “Exactly when Ursula Hamburger and Richard Sorge became lovers is still a matter of debate.” That may be so in London, but in the circles in which I move, the precise date of that tempestuous event has never been a topic of conversation.) On a return to Moscow in 1933, where Sorge got married, he received fresh instructions to go to Japan and organize an intelligence network, since Stalin was more concerned about the threat from the East than he was of the Nazi menace. He went there via Germany, where he was able to build links with the Nazi Party, and thereafter led a stressful double life of hobnobbing with Nazi officials while building contacts with the Japanese government, and recruiting Max Clausen to send his reports to Vladivostok by wireless. He provided much valuable information to Stalin – although some of it is overrated – but the Japanese penetrated his ring, and he was arrested on October 18, 1941, interrogated and tortured. He then confessed, and was hanged on November 7, 1944.

I was familiar with Owen Matthews from an earlier work of his, Stalin’s Children (2008), which was not literally about the Dictator’s own offspring, but consisted of an uneasy combination of private memoir and serious history. It was an affecting and occasionally moving composition, uncovering the stories of Matthews’ maternal Russian grandparents (his grandfather was killed in the purges of 1937, and his grandmother lost her mind in the Gulag), and the love-affair of his own parents. (The granting of his mother’s visa to leave for Britain was part of the deal to free the Krogers, noted above.) Yet I found it flawed, owing to some mystical nonsense about ‘blood memory’, a lot of speculation about his grandfather’s thoughts and intentions, the insertion of many now familiar stories of the Ukrainian famine and the Purges, too much shy-making information on the author’s own love-life, and an irritatingly but no doubt fashionably erratic approach to the chronology of his story. The book was 50% longer than it needed to be.

Matthews, who spoke Russian before he learned English, studied Modern History at my alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford, and then pursued a career as a journalist, working in Moscow from 1997. His account of Sorge’s life is methodical, and sensibly cautious about many of the rumours that surrounded Sorge’s career in the muddle of Shanghai and wartime Japan. (I must confess that I have not read any other of the Sorge biographies, so cannot compare.) He has had access to American, German, Russian and Japanese archival sources, with necessary assistance in translation, and professes a large and learned bibliography. There is little of the Pincherite speculation about assignments and recruitment (e.g. ‘Hollis’s position at BAT would have been of interest to the GRU’ and ‘Sorge could have encountered Hollis there [at the YMCA]’: Treachery, page 46).

Matthews does comment on the Hollis case, however, although mainly in an endnote (of which there are many rich examples). On pages 367 and 368 he spends perhaps too much space on a topic that is not germane to the Sorge story, echoing the line of the Pincherite-Wrightean clique of faux-historians. He states that ‘there is evidence that Luise Rimm [the wife of a GRU operator] had a love affair with Roger Hollis that lasted three years’, and he accuses Hollis of being deceptive about his movements in China and Moscow. He is firmly of the belief that Hollis alone was able to shield Sonia from investigation, concluding, rather lamely: “The record is clear that Hollis was that protective hand, for reasons that make no apparent sense unless he was the agent ‘Elli’ and was working, like Sonja, for the GRU”. It would have been better for Matthews to have stepped back from this particular controversy.

I found a few mistakes about personalities and organisation. Matthews introduces Peter Wright as ‘the Australian-born head of MI5 counter-intelligence’, which is wrong on two counts. And he gets a bit carried away about Shanghai in the 1920s. One sentence stands out, on pp 57-58: “In the 1920s Shanghai hosted many of the great Soviet illegals of the age – Arnold Deutsch (who went on to recruit Kim Philby), Theodore Maly (later controller of the Cambridge Five), Alexander Rado (one of the many agents who would later warn Stalin of Nazi plans to invade the Soviet Union), Otto Katz (one of the most effective recruiters of fellow-travellers to the Soviet cause from Paris to Hollywood), Leopold Trepper (founder of the Rote Kapelle spy ring inside Germany before the Second World War), as well as legendary Fourth Department illegals Ignace Poretsky and Walter Krivitsky, Ruth Werner [Sonia] and Wilhelm Pieck.” No matter that this was the decade before Sorge arrived, that not all of these characters were ’illegals’, and that none of them was mythical. Sonia did not arrive there until 1930, and Agnes Smedley would have been very upset to have been omitted from this list of desperadoes. How a lot of problems would have been forestalled if this crew had been mopped up at the time and locked away where they could do no damage!

The account of Sorge’s eventual entrapment and arrest is very dramatic, and Matthews tells it well. I was particularly interested, because of my research into Sonia’s activities, in the attempts to determine the location of Clausen’s transmitter, as one would think that the Japanese would have been ruthless and efficient in tracking down illicit transmissions. Matthews reports: “Thanks to their own radio monitoring, and after a tip-off from the military government in Korea, the Japanese authorities knew that a powerful illegal transmitter was regularly operating from various sites in the Tokyo area. An all-points bulletin was sent out to all municipal police stations, including Toriizaka, to try to spot the source of the signals. But the Japanese were never able to successfully triangulate Clausen’s radio. And happily for Sorge, the Russian military code he used proved unbreakable – though the messages were faithfully monitored and transcribed by the Japanese in an ever-thickening file of unintelligible strings of number groups.” It seems to me that because of the wavelengths that Clausen would have been using, and the peculiar shape of Japan, and its mountains, that detecting the exact location of Clausen’s transmissions (and he did sensibly move around) turned out to be impossible.

Matthews’s final judgment endorses the view that Sorge was impeccable because he was ‘brave, brilliant and relentless’, and he laments the Soviet Union’s overall indifference to him, and the fact that it engaged in ‘the ultimate betrayal of its greatest spy.’ “It was Sorge’s tragedy that his masters were venal cowards who placed their own careers before the vital interests of the country that he laid down his life to serve” is the last sentence in Mathews’ book. Well, that is one way of looking at it. But you could also say that he was just like every other Stalinist dupe: he was consumed by a dopey ideology, believed that he was one of the charmed saviours of humanity, and completely overlooked the evidence that pointed to the fact that Stalin was a monster who would show no compassion or mercy when his underlings were no longer of use to him. One of Matthews’ excellent commentaries contains the following chilling fact (p 179): Soviet military intelligence had six different heads between 1937 and 1939, five of whom would be executed. The Hall of Fame consists of the following:

            Jan Berzin, 1924-April 1935

            Semyon Uritsky, April 1935-July 1937

            Jan Berzin, July 1937-August 1937

            Alexander Nikonov, August 1937-August 1937

            Semyon Gendin, September 1937-October 1938

            Alexander Orlov, October 1938-April 1939

            Ivan Proskurov, April 1939-July 1940

            Filipp Golikov, July 1940-October 1941

Alexei Panfilov, October 1941-November 1942

Not a career to be undertaken lightly. One might wonder why Jan Berzin, the second time round, didn’t reflect on the opportunity, and select a quieter and less hazardous occupation, such as deep-sea diving. But you couldn’t do that with Stalin. Once you were in the maw, you had no control. And the same for Sorge. Despite its occasional missteps, I recommend this book highly.

‘Master of Deception’

Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)

‘Joyce Carey playing Myrtle Bagot’

Most readers will probably recall Peter Fleming as the elder brother of Ian Fleming, or the husband of Celia Johnson, whose controlled performance of thwarted passion made Brief Encounter such an iconic film. That story of how Sonia (Celia Johnson) met Klaus Fuchs (Trevor Howard) at Birmingham’s Snow Hill Station, and then how the couple had to subdue their romance for the cause of delivering atomic secrets safely to the Soviet Embassy [are you sure this is correct? Ed.], was a box-office hit in 1945, and notable for the cameo performance by Joyce Carey playing Myrtle Bagot [sic! Milicent’s sister?], an MI5 officer under cover as the restaurant owner.  Perhaps more authentically, I remember being introduced to Fleming in his travel-book, Brazilian Adventure (1933) about a poorly-organized search for Percy Fawcett, which entertained me because the author appeared to parody himself. I thus keenly consumed his One’s Company (1934) and News from Tartary (1936), in which his cover as a journalist allowed him to perform some intelligence-gathering on behalf of MI6. (There is no evidence that he had an affair with Sonia while he was in Manchukuo, and Sonia wisely decided to omit all references to any such liaison in her memoir.) His account of Hitler’s plans after the invasion of Britain, Invasion 1940, was of great historical interest to me. Finally, I enjoyed Duff Hart-Davis’s biography of Fleming, published in 1974.

Thus I jumped at the opportunity to learn more when Alan Ogden’s Master of Deception appeared last year, especially since it carried a warm endorsement from Professor Glees on the back cover. Alan Ogden was not a name I knew, but, since he has written several books about the Special Operations Executive, especially concerning activities in a region of the world that I find utterly absorbing – Transylvania, Romania, and parts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire – I thought that it was an omission that I should quickly remedy. Ogden has set himself the task of documenting Fleming’s war experiences in the Military Intelligence Directorate (MIR) and then in what Ogden calls the ‘mysterious’ D. Division, which was responsible for deception in the Far East.

Part of the problem of recording faithfully what went on in military intelligence circles is the tendency to be overwhelmed with acronyms, liaison officers, operational code-names, and a host of minor figures, the Biffies, Jumboes and Tigers who populated this realm. (Ogden recognises part of this challenge in his Preface, where he declares his aim to reduce the ‘alphabet soup’. Yet he provides no glossary of acronyms, and his Index is very weak.) Thus it requires a large amount of concentration and patience to keep up with the stream of codewords and rapidly changing military units that evolved as the war changed its shape. Another hurdle for the author to overcome, however, is more paradoxical, and more serious. Even though Fleming is characterised as the ‘Master of Deception’, his schemes and campaigns were essentially failures – not because of his lack of inventiveness, but because the enemy refused to bite, or because the battle was lost for external reasons. A campaign record of Norway, Greece, the Pacific and Burma is not the most illustrious showcase for how deception operations won the day.

I have recently studied the deception campaign supporting the Normandy landings (see http://www.coldspur.com/the-mystery-of-the-undetected-radios-part-8/ ), and it was informative to discover that much of the investment that the Allies put into the movements of dummy armies was wasted because the Germans did not have the capacity nor the imagination to interpret all the fake signals and equipment that were constructed to convince them of the existence of FUSAG. The Nazis were nowhere near to building a picture of the organisation and order of battle of the Allies to match what British and American intelligence had constructed concerning Nazi forces. Thus Germany came to be completely reliant on its crew of agents, who had either been ‘turned’ or had signed up for the Abwehr originally with the intention of working for the opposition. And British intelligence was able to manipulate the Abwehr and its successors simply because they wanted to be misled.

Whereas deception, under Lt.-Colonel Dudley Clarke’s ‘A’ Force, had been successful in Africa, it was a struggle in the war in Burma and the frontiers of Japanese-controlled territory. As Fleming himself wrote in a report: “There can be no question that the Japanese Intelligence was greatly inferior in all respects to the German and even the Italian Intelligence. The successful deception practiced on the Axis military machine in Europe was made possible by the fact that the enemy’s Intelligence staffs and services were, though gullible, well organized and reasonably influential.” As Ogden concludes, D. Division’s plans were too sophisticated: Philip Mason, head of the Conference Secretariat (SEAC), echoed Fleming’s judgment: “Deceiving the Germans had been very different; they wanted to know our plans and expected us to try and deceive them. That had been like playing chess with someone not quite as good as oneself.; with the Japanese, it was like setting up the chessboard against an adversary whose one idea was to punch you on the nose.”

Fleming was to explain failure in other ways, such as a lack of knowledge with the deception planners as to what military strategies actually were in a chaotic and dispersed region – very different from what existed in the European theatre. But a naivety about deception, and maybe an overestimation of achievement, and a lack of understanding of how controlling agents was supposed to work, were evident in other activities. Ogden reports how, in March 1943, our old coldspur friend John Marriott was sent to India to advise on how a new section should be formed to handle double-agents (a formulation that immediately highlights a problem, as you cannot be sure you have ‘double-agents’ until you have trained them, and brought them strictly under your control). Ogden reports: “Marriott’s credentials were impeccable save in one respect. He had never been to India, and knew next to nothing about its peculiarities, impediments and handicaps.” Marriott was very critical of the set-up in India, and Fleming appeared to have been rather disdainful of Marriott’s practical experience. For where were these double-agents going to come from? Who arrested them, interrogated them, and who was to ‘turn’ them, and ensure that they were loyal to you? Moreover, Fleming frequently upset the military brass with his unconventionality. One judgment recorded by Ogden is that of Colonel Bill Magan, one of the officers in the Delhi Intelligence Bureau. He found Fleming ‘an irresponsible, ambitious and irrational man who was always trying to persuade us to pass messages which we believed would “blow” the channel.’

Ogden has clearly done his homework, as is shown by the hundred or so files from the National Archives that he lists in his Sources, and whose contents are faithfully reflected in his text. But it becomes a bit of a trudge working through his story to find the nuggets. Too many multi-page reports are embedded, when they should preferably have been summarized, and the complete versions relegated to Appendices. Much detail about operations, which is surely of considerable value to the dedicated military historian, could have been left out in order to focus more tightly on the author’s main thrust, and Fleming sometimes gets lost in the caravanserai.

Yet nuggets there certainly are. I was delighted to add the following assessment to my dossier on Roger Hollis. In August 1939, Fleming was invited to submit his recommendations as to who, among associates he had known, might be useful to the war effort, and offered, among his testimonies, that Hollis ‘Did several years in China with BAT’, adding: “Though he has not been there recently, his judgement of Far Eastern affairs has always impressed me as unusually realistic. His cooperation, or even his comments, might be valuable at an early stage, particularly as he is available in London.” Nothing appeared to come from this, but the outwardly rather dim Hollis had impressed someone who knew what he was talking about, and gained a fan of note. (My dossier has also been enriched this month by one of the more memorable phrases in Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya: “He [Hollis] was a plodding, slightly droopy bureaucrat with the imaginative flair of an omelet.”)

Another gem consists of a paper that Fleming wrote in Chungking in 1942, titled ‘Total Intelligence’, which, by using the fictitious example of Ruritania in 1939, outlined how a diverse set of intelligence sources could be harnessed without consolidating the gatherers of intelligence into one massive organisation. The paper takes almost ten pages of text, and should thus likewise have been a candidate for appendicisation, but it deserves broader exposure, and is well worth reading.  I was a bit puzzled, however, by Ogden’s brief commentary on this report, where he indicates that, addressing Fleming’s criticism, SOE went out of his way to recruit business men and bankers to assist them in undermining the enemy. But SOE was a sabotage organisation, not an intelligence-gathering unit (although intelligence came its way by way of its destructive exploits), and I should have liked Ogden to explore this dilemma – one so keenly understood by MI6 – in a little more depth.

So what is the verdict on Fleming? Ogden’s assessment is a little surprising. He writes (p 274): “As the new world order unfurled, with his knowledge of and experience in dealing with Russia and China, he was eminently well qualified for a top post in either SIS or MI5.” That seems to me an errant call. Fleming had no insider reputation in the Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service, and his sudden appointment would surely have provoked resentment. Moreover, I believe he was temperamentally unsuited for roles that required tact, patience, and an ability to negotiate with Whitehall. He was an adventurer, a maverick, and would have bridled at all the protocols and formalities of communicating with career civil servants – something that Dick White was famously good at. It is not surprising that Fleming took early retirement as a gentleman farmer.

‘Master of Deception’ he may have been, but the targets of his deception frequently failed to act like English gentlemen, or perform as they were supposed to, not having installed the obvious British-like institutions. In one important passage, Fleming’s frustrations come through. As Ogden writes, of one multi-year operation that had minimal impact, the HICCOUGHS project, which planted a network of notional agents in Burma, and somehow caused them to send messages back to Delhi (p 228): “For two years, Fleming and the HICCOUGHS case attached little importance to this rather tiresome routine commitment since it was transparently flawed. ‘Why,’ asked Fleming, ‘if our agents could communicate with us by W/T, could we not communicate with them by the same means? Why, if we were forced to broadcast messages to them, did we continue to use a low-grade cipher? How was it that they were all (apparently) able to listen in twice daily at fixed times to receive a message when in most cases it affected only one of them? How was it that the Japanese Radio Security Service never obtained the slightest clue to the places and times at which they transmitted their lengthy and invaluable reports? Why, after all this talk about sabotage and subversion, did nothing ever happen?’”

This was perhaps an admission that ingenuity alone was not enough. It needed comprehensive understanding and support from the military organisation, and it required, even more, a proper assessment of the psychology of the enemy, insights into how its intelligence units thought, and a clear idea of what behavioural changes the operation was trying to achieve. Causing confusion was not enough.

‘Secret’

Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey (2019) [guest review by Denis Lenihan]

Even taking into account the generation gap, there are some remarkable similarities between Brian Toohey (born 1944) and Harry Chapman Pincher (1914-2014). Both began their journalistic careers in conventional fields, Toohey in finance, although the Australian Financial Review when he joined it in the 1970s had perhaps a somewhat broader range than now. Pincher’s field was initially defence and science on the Daily Express in the Beaverbrook days after the war. Both had the gift or the knack of attracting confidences, so that senior figures in government leaked material which they wished to see released, for varying reasons. The historian E P Thompson described Pincher as

“a kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials of MI5 and MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, Lord George-Brown, chiefs of the air staff, nuclear scientists, Lord Wigg and others, stand patiently leaking in the public interest. One can only admire their resolute attention to these distasteful duties.”

Pincher’s sources went beyond that group, taking in those who went fishing or pheasant or grouse shooting in season – cabinet ministers, industrialists, well-informed nobles – when some on Pincher’s account became much more willing to divulge secrets, or at least matters which were classified as secrets. It was not a difference that they or Pincher always recognised. Toohey’s only overseas posting was to Washington, and his social circle was more restricted; and if there were any grouse shooters among his sources, he has been careful to protect them.

While Pincher will be well-known to readers of coldspur.com some further information on Toohey might be helpful. He has written about national security policy since 1973 and is the author or co-author of four books, including Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (1989). After part of the manuscript came into the Australian (Labor) Government’s possession, it took court action which resulted in the book effectively being vetted by the Government. A sensible approach saw only one major deletion, the name of a public relations firm, an omission remedied soon after the book’s publication by another journalist who published not in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne).

Pincher became interested in spies in 1950 when he covered the trial of Klaus Fuchs, the atomic spy. Pincher informed his editor that a spy named Fuchs had been arrested, and the editor said ‘Marvellous! I’ve always wanted to get that word into a headline.’ As noted, Toohey has written about national security matters since 1973, while he was still at the AFR, perhaps more so later when he moved to the late-lamented National Times. Both believed in lunch as a setting where people talked; French was Pincher’s cuisine of choice, habitually at A L’Ecu de France in Jermyn St Piccadilly. His footnotes show that Toohey followed suit on at least one occasion, at La Bagatelle in Washington, but in New York he went to the Union Club (founded 1836), the cuisine in which was unlikely to have been French. No Canberra restaurant is mentioned. Perhaps Toohey was wise to move about. After A L’Ecu closed in the 1990s, Pincher was told by the senior director that MI5 had bugged the banquettes, including the one favoured by Pincher. A later development of the story had it that when MI5 went to remove the bugs, it found another set – put there by the KGB. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant: it’s a great story. Pincher evidently had a very good memory and drank little. After lunch he would return to his office and dictate the story without reference to documents. ‘…I have always had a golden rule’, he recorded in 2013,’ that I would never touch or look at any classified documents’. (Foreword to Christopher Moran: Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain (2013)). Toohey seems to have got documents frequently but after writing his story he would very sensibly destroy them, thus putting himself beyond the reach of his official pursuers who often took him to court.

Reading along and between the lines in Toohey’s book Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State (2019) suggests that most of his sources were public servants. As with Pincher, much public money was spent on attempting to find out who they were, evidently without success. Both lived or have lived long enough to be able to see from government files released to archives the attempts made to identify their sources. After Pincher had published in 1959 details of a cabinet decision two days after it had been made, Harold Macmillan was moved to exclaim: ‘Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher’. Pincher’s books contain the explanation for many of the characteristics of Australian government which Toohey rightly complains about: unwarranted secrecy and lies, particularly by security agencies. The UK system of government has for decades prized secrecy, very often in circumstances where it was later shown to be unnecessary and even harmful. In Treachery, Pincher is able to show that time and again MI5 in particular lied to ministers and even the Prime Minister, to the extent of being publicly reproved. In 1963 Harold Macmillan criticised Sir Roger Hollis, the Director General of MI5, in the House of Commons for keeping from him critical information during the Profumo affair.

As time goes by, more and more ludicrous examples emerge. In 1940 Neville Chamberlain while still Prime Minister commissioned Lord Hankey to investigate the efficiency of the intelligence services. His report has never been released in the United Kingdom, which had prompted much speculation about its contents. The spy John Cairncross had at the time slipped a copy to Moscow and in 2009, in its well-known role of assisting scholarship, the Soviet archives released it. Fallen upon by scholars eager to find its secrets, it turned out to be in the words of one reader ‘mostly pedestrian and superficial’.

That tradition of too much secrecy and too many lies was bequeathed to Australia and the other colonies and continues to bedevil them, as Toohey shows. He became the bete noire of Sir Arthur Tange, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, whose ‘demands to find the leakers chewed up the time of senior officials who had more important things to do than pursue often inept and always futile investigations’. Tange might usefully have followed the precedent of his UK counterpart, Sir Richard Powell, who advised his minister in 1958 with regard to Pincher that

“I believe that we must live with this man and make the best of it. We can console ourselves that his writings, although embarrassing at times to Whitehall, disclose nothing that Russian intelligence does not already know.”

Toohey’s jousts with the establishment make for enjoyable reading, and on most issues (nuclear bomb testing in Australia, ‘the depravity of nuclear war planning’ etc) he is on the side of the angels, even if sometimes he does not quote prominent supporters such as the Pope who give weight to his causes. Given that most of the Pope’s clergy and his flock do not at least in public echo his views on the bomb, Toohey’s omission is forgivable.

When he strays outside his area of expertise, however, as he does when arguing that out of the thirteen wars Australia has fought, only one (the Pacific theatre of World War II) was ‘a war of necessity for Australia’, Toohey stumbles. Some of the thirteen pre-dated the establishment of Australia in 1900, and while his argument might be true looking backwards, there was no prospect in say 1914 that Australia would not join in the defence of what was then called the mother country, especially when all her other white daughters enrolled. Toohey must also be one of the very few Australian commentators to have written about the Japanese and World War II and who have failed to mention the bombing of Darwin and the invasion of Sydney Harbour by midget submarines, both in 1942.

All this makes it very disappointing that Toohey should be so far off the mark in the very first chapter of his book (there are 60 chapters, some of them very short), which deals with ‘The Security Scandal that the US Hid from the Newborn ASIO’, as the chapter heading has it. The scandal concerned the Venona material, messages which passed between Moscow and its embassies in a number of countries, including Australia, in the 1940s, many of which were intercepted by the US or its allies (or by neutral countries such as Sweden) and some of which were able to be decoded or deciphered. On Toohey’s account, an NSA employee, William Weisband, was a KGB spy and told Moscow in 1948 about the interceptions and the encryption methods were then changed. Again on Toohey’s account, ASIO was never told about this betrayal. All these assertions are worth examining in some detail, together with Toohey’s account of what the Australian Venona material revealed.

Toohey begins by claiming that ‘the highly classified material handed over by the Australian spies was of no consequence’, in particular the two top-secret UK planning papers passed over in 1946 which showed ‘banal, often erroneous predictions’; further, the predictions were ‘fatuous’ while the other papers passed over were ‘trite’. That some of the predictions turned out to be wrong, and that some of the other material seemed to be unimportant, are hardly sufficient to dismiss them altogether. Given some indication by the Soviet Embassy in Canberra of the contents of the two top-secret reports, Moscow asked that they be sent immediately by telegram, which is a good indication of what it thought of them at the time. A more objective account of the Canberra Venona is to be found in Nigel West’s Venona (1999), where he describes one of these two documents as being ‘of immense significance’, and says that for it to have fallen into Soviet hands at that time was ‘devastating’.

In any event, Toohey fails to mention that in the estimation of the US National Security Agency which released the Venona material in the 1990s ‘More than 200 messages were decrypted and translated, these representing a fraction of the messages sent and received by the Canberra KGB residency.’ (NSA website). It is idle to suppose that those not intercepted contained no important classified material.

Toohey also misrepresents the messages sent by Moscow to the senior MI5 officer in Canberra, Semyon Makarov: ‘Moscow told Makarov not to let [Clayton, the Communist Party member who was the contact man for the spies in External Affairs] recruit new agents, not to send any document that was more than a year old, not to be overeager to achieve success and to stop obtaining information of little importance.’ What Moscow in fact said to Makarov was‘…if possible do not take any steps in the way of bringing in new agents without a decision from us’ (message of 6 October 1945); ‘you should not receive from [Clayton] and transmit by telegraph textual intelligence information that is a year old’ the implication being that it might be sent by bag (message of 17 October 1945); and that [Nosov, the TASS correspondent in Sydney] should be brought into the work ‘but do not be over-eager to achieve success to the detriment of security and maximum caution’ (message of 20 October 1945). This kind of close supervision by Moscow was not unusual, as West’s book shows.

Individual members of the External Affairs spy ring are declared to be innocent. Ric Throssell is described thus: ‘After interviewing him in 1953, ASIO concluded that he “is a loyal subject and is not a security risk in the department in which is employed” ‘. Quite true, but incomplete. After Petrov’s defection in 1954, ASIO formed the view that Throssell could not be given a security clearance for classified material, and he never was. Frances Garratt (nee Bernie) is described by Toohey as ‘working mainly on political party issues as a young secretary/typist in the Sydney office of the External Affairs minister, Bert Evatt..She insisted that she thought she was simply giving the local Communist Party some political information.’ Again, incomplete. As Robert Manne noted in The Petrov Affair (1987), the Royal Commission on Espionage found that

“While Frances Bernie had certainly broken the law – in passing official documents to Walter Clayton without authorisation – she had only admitted to doing so having been granted an immunity from prosecution.”

And according to the late Professor Des Ball, ‘In 2008, Bernie admitted that she had given Walter Seddon Clayton (code-named KLOD or CLAUDE), the organiser and co-ordinator of the KGB network, much more important information than she had previously confessed’. (‘The moles at the very heart of government’, The Australian, April 16, 2011)

The scandal referred to in the chapter heading is this. As noted, on Toohey’s account the Venona secret was betrayed to Moscow by William Weisband, a Soviet spy employed by the National Security Agency, and in 1948 the Soviet encryption systems were changed. Toohey takes up the story:

“I asked ASIO when the US informed it (or its predecessor) that Weisband had told the Soviets that Venona was able to read its messages; ASIO replied in an email on 30 June 2017: ‘The information you refer to is not drawn from ASIO records.’ ASIO also told the National Archives of Australia (NAA) that it does not hold any open period records (i.e.up to 1993) about the US notifying it that Weisband told the Soviets about Venona. The US should also have told the Defence Signals Directorate (now the Australian Signals Directorate, or ASD). When I asked ASD, via Defence, it declined to answer.”

It is worth noting here that entering ‘William Weisband’ and ‘National Security Agency’ into the Australian Archives website yields only references to public material about the Agency. Entering ‘William Weisband’ into the website of the UK National Archives yields no result; while the only two results for ‘National Security Agency’ are for files from the Prime Minister’s Office concerning the publication of material about the Agency. Toohey would presumably not argue on the basis of these results that the Agency did not tell the UK security authorities about Weisband. The strongest argument against Toohey’s claim is that entering Weisband’s name into the website of the US National Archives and Records Administration yields only scraps, and nothing connected directly to the NSA. Clearly NSA guards its records zealously, as one would expect. It was at one time so secret that its initials were said to mean ‘No Such Agency’.

In any event, ASIO did not come into existence until 1949, and on Horner’s account in Volume 1 of the history of ASIO – The Spycatchers – he and his research team ‘found files that ASIO did not even know they had.’ Relying on ASIO records, especially from the early days, is thus a chancy business.

So no scandal here – or not yet anyway.

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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 8)

A dummy tank used in Operation Bodyguard

“These got a further boost when, just after midnight on 9 June, CATO [the German codename for GARBO] spent two full hours on the air sending a long and detailed report to his spymaster, Kühlenthal. The risk of capture was enormous when an agent transmitted that long, for it gave the direction-finding vans plenty of time to locate him. But this very fact impressed the Germans with the importance of his signal.” (Hitler’s Spies, by David Kahn, p 515)

“If the receivers of this vast screed had paused to reflect, they might have registered how unlikely it was that a wireless would have been able to operate for more than two hours without detection. But they did not.” (Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre, p 324)

“Garbo still ranked high in the esteem of his controller, but if Kühlenthal had thought coolly and carefully enough, there was one aspect of that day’s exchange of signals that might have made him suspicious. Garbo had been on the air so long that he had given the British radiogoniometrical stations ample time on three occasions to obtain a fix on his position and arrest him. Why was he able to stay on the air so long? Did he have a charmed life? Or was he being allowed to transmit by the British for the purpose of deception? These were questions that Kühlenthal might well have asked himself. But instead of being suspicious, he sent a message to Berlin. In it he recommended Garbo for the Iron Cross.” (Anthony Cave-Brown, Bodyguard of Lies, pp 676-677)

“The Abwehr remained remarkably naïve in thinking that in a densely populated and spy-conscious country like England an agent would be able to set up a transmitter and antenna without attracting attention. Moreover, it seems not to have smelled a rat from the fact that some agents, notably GARBO, were able to remain on the air for very long periods without being disturbed. It did have the good sense to furnish agents sent to Britain with only low-power sets that would cause minimal interference to neighbors’ receivers and would be more difficult for the British to monitor – though they also afforded less reliable communication. Once again, GARBO was an exception. Telling the Germans that he had recruited a radio operator with a powerful transmitter, he sent his messages at 100 watts from a high-grade set. Even this did not raise the Abwehr’s suspicions.” (Thaddeus Holt, The Deceivers, pp 142-143)

“And so, with Eisenhower’s authorization, Pujol transmitted, in the words of Harris, ‘the most important report of his career’. Beginning just after midnight, the message took two hours and two minutes to transmit. This was a dangerously long time for any agent to remain on air.” (Operation Fortitude, by Joshua Levine, p 283)

“GARBO’s second transmission lasted a record 122 minutes, and hammered home his belief that the events of the past forty-eight hours represented a diversionary feint, citing his mistress ‘Dorothy Thompson’, an unconscious source in the Cabinet Office, who had mentioned a figure of seventy-five divisions in England.” (Nigel West, Codeword OVERLORD, p 274)

“The length of this message should have aroused suspicion in itself. How on earth a real secret agent could stay on the air transmitting for so long in wartime conditions was unbelievable. British SOE agents operating in Europe were told to keep transmissions to less than five minutes in order not to be detected. However, this was not questioned.” (Terry Crowdy, Deceiving Hitler, p 270)

“We are sure that we deceived the Germans and turned their weapon against themselves; can we be quite sure that they were not equally successful in turning our weapon against is? Now our double-cross agents were the straight agents of the Germans – their whole espionage system in the U.K. What did the Germans gain from this system? The answer cannot be doubtful. They gained no good from their agents, and they did take from them a very great deal of harm. It would be agreeable to be able to accept the simple explanation, to sit back in the armchair of complacency, to say that we were very clever and the Germans very stupid, and that consequently we gained both on the swings and the roundabouts as well. But that argument just won’t hold water at all.” (The Double-Cross System, by John Masterman, p 263)

“Masterman credited only his own ideas, fresh-minted like gold sovereigns entirely from his experiences on the XX Committee. The wonder of it is, with the exception of the sporadic pooh-poohing from the likes of maverick Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor and veteran counter-intelligence officer David Mure, The Double-Cross System came to be swallowed whole. Farago’s book was essentially forgotten; Masterman’s became celebrated.” (Fighting to Lose, by John Bryden, p 314)

“Yet, when all is said, one is left with a sense of astonishment that men in such responsible positions as were those who controlled the destinies of Germany during the late war, could have been so fatally misled on such slender evidence. One can only suppose that strategic deception derives its capacity for giving life to this fairy-tale world from the circumstance that it operates in a field into which the enemy can seldom effectively penetrate and where the opposing forces never meet in battle. Dangers which lurk in this terra incognita thus tend to be magnified, and such information as is gleaned to be accepted too readily at its face value. Fear of the unknown is at all times apt to breed strange fancies. Thus it is that strategic deception finds its opportunity of changing the fortunes of war.” (Fortitude, by Roger Hesketh, p 361)

“Abwehr officials, enjoying life in the oases of Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm or Istanbul, fiddling their expenses and running currency rackets on the side, felt that they were earning their keep so long as they provided some kind of information. This explains why for example Garbo was able to get away with his early fantasies, and Tricycle could run such outrageous risks.” (Michael Howard, British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, p 49)

“However, the claim that the Double Cross spies were ‘believed’ in ‘Berlin’ needs some amplification. Even if the information was swallowed by the Abwehr, that is not to say that it was believed at OKW or that it influenced overall German policy. Part of the problem is that the Abwehr was not a very efficient organisation. Nor was it involved in significant analysis of its intelligence product: on the contrary, the Ast and outstations tended to pounce on any snippet of potentially useful information and, rather than evaluate its intelligence value, pass it on to Berlin as evidence of their ‘busyness’ and as justification for their salaries and expense accounts.” (David Kenyon, Bletchley Park and D-Day, p 163)

“We have succeeded in sustaining them so well that we are receiving even at this stage . . . an average of thirty to forty reports each day from inside England, many of them radioed directly on the clandestine wireless sets we have operational in defiance of the most intricate and elaborate electronic countermeasures.” (Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, in February 1944, from Ladislas Farago’s Game of the Foxes, p 705)

“A fundamental assumption they [the Germans] made was logically simple: if they were reading parts or all of different British codes at different times, and no mention of any signal was ever found that referred to any material transmitted by the Germans in an Enigma-encoded message, then the system had to be secure.” (Christian Jennings, The Third Reich is Listening, p 261)

GARBO and D-DAY

The Story So Far

(Readers looking for a longer recap may want to inspect the concluding paragraphs of The Mystery of the Undetected Radios, Part VII)

By 1943, the Radio Security Service, adopted by SIS (MI6) in the summer of 1941, has evolved into an efficient mechanism for intercepting enemy, namely German, wireless signals from continental Europe, and passing them on to Bletchley Park for cryptanalysis. Given the absence of any transmissions indicating the presence of German spies using wireless telegraphy on British soil, the Service allows its domestic detection and location-finding capabilities to be relaxed somewhat, with the result that it operates rather sluggishly in tracking down radio usage appearing to be generated from locations in the UK, whether they are truly illicit, or simply misguided. RSS would later overstate the capabilities of its mobile location-finding units, in a fashion similar to that in which the German police units exaggerated the power and automation of its own interception and detection devices and procedures. RSS also has responsibilities for providing SIS agents, as well as the sabotage department SOE (Special Operations Executive), with equipment and communications instructions, for their excursions into mainland Europe. SOE has had a very patchy record in wireless security, but RSS’s less than prompt response to its needs provokes SOE, abetted by its collaborators, members of various governments in exile, to attempt to bypass RSS’s very protocol-oriented support. RSS has also not performed a stellar job in recommending and enforcing solid Signals Security procedures in British military units. Guy Liddell, suspicious of RSS’s effectiveness, knows that he needs wireless expertise in MI5, and is eager to replace the ambitious and manipulative Malcom Frost, who is eased out at the end of 1943. It thus takes Liddell’s initiative, working closely with the maverick RSS officer, Sclater, to draw the attention of the Wireless Board to the security oversights. Towards the end of 1943, the plans for OVERLORD, the project to ‘invade’ France on the way to ensuring Germany’s defeat, start to take shape, and policies for ensuring the secrecy of the operation’s details will affect all communications leaving the United Kingdom.

Contents:

NEPTUNE, OVERLORD, BODYGUARD & FORTITUDE

Determining Censorship Policy

The Dilemma of Wireless

Findlater Stewart, the Home Defence Security Executive, and the War Cabinet

Problems with the Poles

Guy Liddell and the RSS

‘Double’ or ‘Special’ Agents?

Special Agents at Work

The Aftermath

NEPTUNE, OVERLORD, BODYGUARD & FORTITUDE

Operation Bodyguard

My objective in this piece is to explore and analyse policy concerning wireless transmissions emanating from the British Isles during the build-up to the Normandy landings of June 1944. This aspect of the war had two sides: the initiation of signals to aid the deception campaign, and the protection of the deception campaign itself by prohibiting possibly dangerous disclosures to the enemy that would undermine the deceits of the first. It is thus beyond my scope to re-present the strategies of the campaign, and the organisations behind them, except as a general refreshment of the reader, in order to provide a solid framework, and to highlight dimensions that have been overlooked in the histories.

OVERLORD was originally the codeword given to the assault on Normandy, but in September 1943 it was repurposed and broadened to apply to the operation of the ‘primary United States British ground and air effort against the Axis in Europe’. (Note that, on Eisenhower’s urging, it was not considered an ‘invasion’, a term which would have suggested incursions into authentic enemy territory.)  NEPTUNE was the codeword used to describe the Normandy operation. BODYGUARD was the overall cover plan to deceive the enemy about the details of OVERLORD. BODYGUARD itself was broken down into FORTITUDE North and FORTITUDE South, the latter conceived as the project to suggest that the main assault would occur in the Pas de Calais as opposed to Normandy, and thus disguise NEPTUNE.

I refer the reader to six important books for greater detail on the BODYGUARD deception plan. Bodyguard of Lies, by Anthony Cave Brown (1975) is a massive, compendious volume, containing many relevant as well as irrelevant details, not all of them reliable, and the author can be annoyingly vague in his chronology. Sir Michael Howard’s British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5 (1990), part of the authorized history, contains a precise and urbane account of the deception campaign, although it is rather light on technical matters. Roger Hesketh, who was the main architect of FORTITUDE, wrote his account of the project, between 1945 and 1948, but it was not published until 2000, many years after his death in 1987, as Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign. (In his Preface to the text, Hesketh indicates that he was given permission to publish in 1976, but it did not happen.) Hesketh’s work must be regarded as the most authoritative of the books, and it includes a large number of invaluable, charts, documents and maps, but it reflects some of the secrecy provisions of its time. Joshua Levine’s Operation Fortitude (2001) is an excellent summary of the operation, lively and accurate, and contains a highly useful appendix on Acknowledgements and Sources. Nigel West delivered Codeword Overlord (2019), which sets out to cover the role and achievements of Axis espionage in preparing for the D-Day landings. Like many of West’s recent works, it is uneven, and embeds a large amount of source material in the text. Oddly, West, who provided an Introduction to Hesketh’s book, does not even mention it in his Bibliography. Finally, Thaddeus Holt’s Deceivers (2007) is perhaps the most comprehensive account of Allied military deception, an essential item in the library, very well written, and containing many facts and profiles not available elsewhere. It weighs in at a hefty 1000+ pages, but the details he provides, unlike Cave Brown’s, are all relevant.

Yet none of these volumes refers to the critical role of the Home Security Defence Executive (HSDE), chaired by Sir Findlater Stewart, in the security preparations. (Findlater Stewart receives one or two minor mentions in two of the Indexes, but on matters unrelated to the tasks of early 1944.) The HSDE was charged, however, with implementing a critical part of the censorship policy regarding BODYGUARD. The HSDE was just one of many intersecting and occasionally overlapping committees performing the planning. At the highest level, the Ops (B) section, concerned with deception under COSSAC (Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander), was absorbed into SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in January 1944, when General Eisenhower took over command, expanded, and split into two. Colonel Noel Wild headed Ops (B), with Jervis Read responsible for physical deception, while Roger Hesketh took on Special Means, whose role was to implement parts of the deception plan through controlled leakage.

In turn, Hesketh’s group itself was guided by the London Controlling Section (LCS), which was responsible for deciding the overall strategy of how misinformation should be conveyed to the enemy, and tracking its success. At this time LCS was led by Colonel John Bevan, who faced an extraordinary task of coordinating the activities of a large number of independent bodies, from GC&CS’s collection of ULTRA material to SOE’s sabotage of telephone networks in France, as well as the activities of the ‘double-agents’ within MI5. Thus at least three more bodies were involved: the W Board, which discussed high-level policy matters for the double-cross system under General Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence; the XX Committee, chaired by John Masterman, which implemented the cover-stories and activities of both real and notional agents, and created the messages that were fed to the Abwehr; and MI5’s B1A under ‘Tar’ Robertson, the group that actually managed the activities and transmissions of the agents. Lastly, the War Cabinet set up a special group, the OVERLORD Security Sub-Committee, to inspect the detailed ramifications of ensuring no unauthorised information about the landings escaped the British Isles, and this military-focussed body enjoyed a somewhat tentative liaison with the civilian-oriented HDSE through the energies of Sir Findlater Stewart.

When Bevan joined the W Board on September 23, 1943, the LCS formally took over the responsibility for general control of all deception, leaving the W Board to maintain supervision of the double-agents’ work solely. Also on the W Board was Findlater Stewart, acting generally on behalf of the Ministries, who had been invited in early 1941, and who directly represented his boss, Sir John Anderson, and the Prime Minister. The Board had met regularly for almost three years, but by September 1943, highly confident that it controlled all the German agents on UK soil, and with Bevan on board, held only one more meeting before the end of the war – on January 21, 1944. It then decided, in a general stocktaking before OVERLORD, that the XX Committee could smoothly continue to run things, but that American representation on the Committee was desirable. As for Findlater Stewart, he still had a lot of work to do.

Determining Censorship Policy

The move to tighten up security in advance of NEPTUNE took longer than might have seemed appropriate. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943 Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed on the approximate timing and location of the operation, but it needed the consent of Stalin at the Teheran Conference at the end of November, and the Soviet dictator’s commitment to mount a large scale Soviet offensive in May 1944 to divert German forces, for the details to be solidified. Thus Bevan’s preliminary thoughts on the deception plan for OVERLORD, sketched out in July, had to be continually revised. A draft version, named JAEL, was circulated, and approved, on October 23, but, after Teheran, Bevan had to work feverishly to prepare the initial version of the BODYGUARD plan which replaced JAEL, completing it on December 18. This received feedback from the Chiefs of Staff, and from Eisenhower, newly appointed Commander-in-Chief, and was presented to SHAEF in early January, and approved on January 19. Yet no sooner was this important step reached than Bevan, alongside his U.S. counterpart Bauer, was ordered to leave for Moscow to explain the plan, and convince the Soviets of its merits. Such was the suspicion of Soviet military and intelligence officers, and such was their inability to make any decision unless Stalin willed it, that approval did not arrive until March 5, when the delegates returned to London.

Yet Guy Liddell’s Diaries indicate that there had already been intense discussion about OVERLORD Security, the records of which do not seem to have made it into the HDSE files. Certainly, MI5 had been debating it back in December 1943, and Liddell refers to a Security Executive meeting held on January 26. At this stage, Findlater Stewart was trying to settle what travel bans should be put in place, and as early as February 8 Liddell was discussing with his officers Grogan and (Anthony) Blunt the implications of staggering diplomatic cables before OVERLORD. The next day, he met with Maxwell at the Home Office to discuss the prevention of the return of allied nationals to the country (because of the vetting for spies that would be required).

More surprisingly, on February 11, when reporting that the Chiefs of the General Staff had become involved, and had made representations to Churchill, Liddell refers to the formation of an OVERLORD Security Committee, and comments drily: “The committee is to consist of the Minister of Production, Minister of Aircraft Production, Home Secretary and Duncan Sandys, none of whom of course know anything about security.” This committee was in fact an offshoot of the War Cabinet, which had established a Committee on OVERLORD Preparations on February 9, part of the charter of which was ‘the detection of secret enemy wireless apparatus, and increased exertions against espionage’, perhaps suggesting that not all its members were completely au fait with the historical activities of RSS and the W Board. It quickly determined that it needed a further level of granularity to address these complex security matters. Thus the Sub-committee on OVERLORD Security was established, chaired by the Minister of Production, Oliver Lyttleton, and held its first meeting on February 18, when Liddell represented MI5. Oddly, no representative from MI6 attended. Liddell continues by describing the committee’s  charter as considering: 1) the possibility of withdrawing diplomatic communications privileges; 2) the prevention of export of newspapers; 3) more strengthened surveillance of ships and aircraft; 4) the detection of secret enemy wireless apparatus and increased precautions against espionage. Findlater Stewart is charged with collecting relevant material. In what seems to be an overload of committees, therefore, the HDSE and the War Cabinet carry on parallel discussions, with Findlater Stewart a key figure in both assemblies.

The primary outcome of this period is the resistance by the Foreign Office to any sort of ban, or even forced delay, in diplomatic cable traffic, which they believed would have harmful reciprocal consequences abroad, and hinder MI6’s ability to gather intelligence (especially from Sweden). This controversy rattled on for months [see below], with the Cabinet emerging as an ineffective mechanism for resolving the dilemma. Liddell believed that, if the Foreign Office and the Home Office (concerned about invasion of citizens’ rights) had not been so stubborn and prissy about the whole thing, the Security Executive could have resolved the issues quickly.

Thus the impression that Findlater Stewart had to wait for Bevan’s return for seeking guidance before chairing his committee to implement the appropriate security provisions is erroneous. Contrary to what the record indicates, the critical meeting on March 29 was not the first that the HDSE Committee held. Yet, when Bevan did return, he might have been surprised by the lack of progress. He quickly learned, on March 10, that the Cabinet had decided not to withdraw facilities for uncensored communications by diplomats, as it would set an uncomfortable precedent. That was at least a decision – but the wrong one. Bevan had a large amount of work to do shake people up: to make sure that the rules were articulated, that the Americans were in line, and that all agencies and organizations involved understood their roles. “Only under Bevan’s severe and cautious direction could they perform their parts in FORTITUDE with the necessary harmony”, wrote Cave Brown. Bevan clearly put some urgency into the proceedings: the pronouncements of LCS were passed on to Findlater Stewart shortly afterwards.

The history of LCS shows that security precautions were divided into eight categories, of which two, the censorship of civilian and service letters and telegrams, and the ban on privileged diplomatic mail and cipher telegrams, were those that concentrated on possible unauthorised disclosure of secrets by means other than direct personal travel. The historical account by LCS (at CAB 154/101, p 238) explains how the ban on cable traffic was imposed, but says nothing about wireless: “The eighth category, the ban on diplomatic mail and cipher telegrams was an unprecedented and extraordinary measure. As General EISENHOWER says, even the most friendly diplomats might unintentionally disclose vital information which would ultimately come to the ears of the enemy.”

What is significant is that there is no further mention of wireless traffic in the HDSE meetings. Whether this omission was due to sheer oversight, or was simply too awkward a topic to be described openly, or was simply passed on to the War Cabinet meetings, one can only surmise. When the next critical HDSE meeting took place on April 15, headlined as ‘Withdrawal of Diplomatic Privileges’, it echoed the LCS verbiage, but also, incidentally, highlighted the fact that Findlater Stewart saw that the main threat to security came from the embassies and legations of foreign governments, whether allies or not. Well educated by the W Board meeting, he did not envisage any exposure from unknown German agents working clandestinely from British soil.

The Dilemma of Wireless

It is worthwhile stepping back at this juncture to examine the dilemma that the British intelligence authorities faced. Since the primary security concern was that no confidential information about the details of the actual assault, or suggestions that the notional attack was based on the strength and movement of illusionary forces, should be allowed to leave the country, a very tight approach to personnel movement, such as a ban on leave, and on the holidays of foreign diplomats, was required, and easily implemented. Letters and cables had to be very closely censored. But what do to about the use of wireless? Officially, outside military and approved civil use (railway administration, police) the only licit radio transmissions were being made by Allied governments, namely the Americans and the Soviets, and by select governments-in-exile, the French, the Poles and the Czechs (with the latter two having their own sophisticated installations rather than just apparatus within an embassy). It was quite possible that other countries had introduced transmission equipment, although RSS would have denied that its use would have remained undetected.

Certainly all diplomatic transmissions would have been encyphered, but the extent to which the German interception authorities (primarily OKW Chi) would have been able to decrypt such messages was unknown. And, even if the loyalty and judgment of these missions could be relied upon, and the unbreakability of their cyphers trusted, there was no way of guaranteeing that a careless reference would not escape, and that a disloyal employee at the other end of the line might get his or her hands on an indiscreet message. (Eisenhower had to demote and send home one of his officers who spoke carelessly.) Thus total radio silence must have been given at least brief consideration. It was certainly enforced just before D-Day, but that concerned military silence, not a diplomatic shutdown.

Yet the whole FORTITUDE deception plan depended on wireless. The more ambitious aspect focused on the creation of dummy military signals to suggest a vast army (the notional FUSAG) being imported into Britain and moved steadily across the country to assemble in the eastern portion, indicating a northern assault on mainland Europe. Such wireless messages would have appeared as genuine to the Germans – if they had had the resources and skills to intercept and analyse them all. Thus the pretence had to be meticulously maintained right up until D-Day itself. In August 1943, the Inter-Services Security Board (ISSB) had recommended that United Kingdom communications with the outside world should be cut off completely, and Bevan had had to resist such pressure. As Howard points out, most involved in the discussion did not know about the Double-Cross System.

As it turned out, both German aerial reconnaissance and interception of dummy signals were so weak that the Allies relied more and more on the second leg of their wireless strategy – the transmissions of its special agents. Thus it would have been self-defeating for the War Cabinet to prohibit non-military traffic entirely, since the appearance of isolated, illicit signals in the ether, originating from British soil, and remaining undetected and unprosecuted, would have caused the Nazi receivers to smell an enormous rat. (One might add that it strains credibility in any case to think that the Abwehr never stopped to consider how ineffectual Britain’s radio interception service must be, compared with Germany’s own mechanisms, if it failed completely ever to interdict any of its own agents in such a relatively small and densely populated territory. And note Admiral Canaris’s comments above.) Of course, the RSS might have wanted to promote the notion that its interception and location-finding techniques were third-rate, just for that purpose. One might even surmise that Sonia’s transmissions were allowed to continue as a ruse to convince the Germans of the RSS’s frailties, in the belief that they might be picking up her messages as well as those of their own agents, and thus forming useful judgments about the deficiencies of British location-finding.

We should also recall that the adoption of wireless communications by the special agents was pursued much more aggressively by the XX Committee and B1A than it was by the Abwehr, who seemed quite content to have messages concealed in invisible ink on letters spirited out of England by convenient couriers, such as ‘friendly’ BOAC crewmen. Thus TREASURE, GARBO and BRUTUS all had to be found more powerful wireless apparatus, whether mysteriously acquired in London, from American sources, or whether smuggled in from Lisbon. The XX Committee must have anticipated the time when censorship rules would have tightened up on the use of the mails for personal correspondence, even to neutral countries in Europe, and thus make wireless connectivity a necessity.

In conclusion, therefore, no restrictions on diplomatic wireless communication could allow prohibition completely, as that would leave the special agents dangerously exposed. And that policy led to some messy compromises.

Findlater Stewart, the Home Defence Security Executive, and the War Cabinet

Sir Findlater Stewart

It appears that the War Cabinet fairly quickly accepted Findlater Stewart’s assurances about the efficacy of RSS. A minute from February 28 runs: “We have considered the possibility that illicit wireless stations might be worked in this country. The combined evidence of the Radio Security Service secret intelligence sources and the police leads to the firm conclusion that there is no illicit wireless station operating regularly in the British Isles at present. The danger remains that transmitting apparatus may be being held in readiness for the critical period immediately before the date of OVERLORD – or may be brought into the country by enemy agents. We cannot suggest any further measures to reduce this risk and reliance must therefore be placed on the ability of the Radio Security Service to detect the operation of illicit transmitters and of the Security Service to track down agents.” Thus the debate moved on to the control of licit wireless transmissions, where the HDSE and the War Cabinet had to overcome objections from the Foreign Office.

The critical meeting on ‘OVERLORD Security’ – ‘Withdrawal of Diplomatic Privileges’ was held on the morning of April 15, under Findlater Stewart’s chairmanship. This was in fact the continuation of a meeting held on March 29, which had left several items of business unfinished. That meeting, which was also led by Findlater Stewart, and attended by only a small and unauthoritative group (Herbert and Locke from Censorship, Crowe from the Foreign Office, and Liddell, Butler and Young from MI5) had considered diplomatic communications generally, and resolved to request delays in the transmission of diplomatic telegrams. After the Cabinet decision not to interfere with diplomatic cable traffic, Petrie of MI5 had written to Findlater Stewart to suggest that delays be built in to the process. A strangely worded minute (one can hardly call it a ‘resolution’) ran as follows: “THE MEETING . . . invited Mr. Crowe to take up the suggestion that diplomatic telegrams should be so delayed as to allow time for the Government Code and Cypher School to make arrangements with Postal and Telegraph Censorship for particularly dangerous telegrams to be delayed or lost; and to arrange for the Foreign Office, if they agreed, to instruct the School to work out the necessary scheme with Postal and Telegraph Censorship.”

It would be difficult to draft a less gutsy and urgent decision than this. ‘Invited’, ‘suggestion’, ‘to make arrangements’, ‘if they agreed’, ‘to instruct’, and finally, ‘particularly dangerous telegrams’! Would ‘moderately dangerous telegrams’ have been allowed through? And did GC&CS have command of all the cyphers used by foreign diplomacies? Evidently not, as the following discussion shows. It is quite extraordinary that such a wishy-washy decision should have been allowed in the minutes. One can only assume that this was some sort of gesture, and that Findlater Stewart was working behind the scenes. In any case, as the record from the LCS history concerning Eisenhower, which I reproduced above, shows, the cypher problem for cable traffic was resolved.

When the forum regathered on April 15, it contained a much expanded list of attendees. Apart from the familiar group of second-tier delegates from key ministries, with the War Office and  the Ministry of Information now complementing Censorship, the Home Office, and the Foreign Office, Vivian represented MI6, while MI5 was honoured with the presence of no less than seven officers, namely Messrs. Butler, Robertson, Sporborg, Robb, Young, Barry – and Anthony Blunt, who no doubt made careful mental notes to pass on to his ideological masters. [According to Guy Liddell, from his ‘Diaries’, Sporborg worked for SOE, not MI5.] But no Petrie, Menzies, Liddell, White, Masterman, or Bevan. And the band of second-tier officers from MI5 sat opposite a group of men from the ministries who knew nothing of Ultra or the Double-Cross System: a very large onus lay on the shoulders of Findlater Stewart.

The meeting had first to debate the recent Cabinet decision to prohibit the receipt of uncensored communications by Diplomatic Missions, while not preventing the arrival of incoming travellers. Thus a quick motion was agreed, over the objections of the Foreign Office, that ‘the free movement of foreign diplomatic representatives to this country was inconsistent with the Cabinet decision to prohibit the receipt of uncensored communications by Foreign Missions in this country’. After a brief discussion on the movement of French and other military personnel, the Committee moved to Item IX on the agenda: ‘Use of Wireless Transmitters by Poles, Czechs and the French,’ the item that LCS had, either cannily or carelessly, omitted from its list.

Sporborg of MI5/SOE stated that, “as regards the Poles and the Czechs, it has been decided after discussion with the Foreign Office –

  • that for operational reasons the transmitters operated by the Czechs and the Poles could not be closed down:
  • that shortage of operators with suitable qualifications precluded the operation of those sets by us;
  • that accordingly the Poles should be pressed to deposit their cyphers with us and to give us copies of plain language texts of all messages before transmission. The Czechs had already given us their cyphers, and like the Poles would be asked to provide plain language copies of their messages.”

Sporborg also noted that both forces would be asked not to use their transmitters for diplomatic business. Colonel Vivian added that “apart from the French Deuxième Bureau traffic which was sent by M.I.6, all French diplomatic and other civil communications were transmitted by cable. There were left only the French Service transmitters and in discussion it was suggested that the I.S.S.B. might be asked to investigate the question of controlling these.”

Again, it is difficult to make sense of this exchange. What ‘operational reasons’ (as opposed to political ones) could preclude the closing down of Czech and Polish circuits? It would surely just entail an announcement to targeted receivers, and then turning the apparatus off. And, since the alternative appeared to be having the transmitters operated by the British – entrusted with knowledge of cypher techniques, presumably – a distinct possibility of ‘closing down’ the sets must have been considered. As for Vivian’s opaque statement, the Deuxième Bureau was officially dissolved in 1940. (Yet it appears in many documents, such as Liddell’s Diaries, after that time.) It is not clear what he meant by ‘French Service transmitters’. If these were owned by the RF Section of SOE, there must surely have been an exposure, and another wishy-washy suggestion was allowed to supply the official record.

The historical account by LCS says nothing about wireless. And the authorized history does not perform justice to the serious implications of these meetings. All that Michael Howard writes about this event (while providing a very stirring account of the deception campaign itself) is the following: “ . . . and the following month not only was all travel to and from the United Kingdom banned, but the mail of all diplomatic missions was declared subject to censorship and the use of cyphers forbidden”, (p 124, using the CAB 154/101 source given above); and “All [the imaginary double agents] notionally conveyed their information to GARBO in invisible ink, to be transmitted direct to the Abwehr over his clandestine radio – the only channel open after security restrictions on outgoing mail had been imposed.” (p 121) The irony is that Howard draws attention to the inconvenience that the withdrawal of mail privileges caused LCS and B1A, but does not inspect the implications of trying to suppress potentially dangerous wireless traffic, and how they might have affected the deception project’s success.

Problems with the Poles

The Polish Government-in-Exile

Immediately after the critical April 15 meeting, the War Office began to toughen up, as the file KV 4/74 shows. The policy matter of the curtailment of diplomatic privileges was at last resolved. Findlater Stewart gave a deadline to the Cabinet on April 16, and it resolved to stop all diplomatic cables, couriers and bags, for all foreign governments except the Americans and the Russians. The ban started almost immediately, and was extended until June 20, even though the Foreign Office continued to fight it. Yet it required some delicate explaining to the second-tier allies. Moreover, the Foreign Office continued to resist it, or at least, abbreviate it. They even wanted to restore privileges on D-Day itself: as Liddell pointed out, that would have been stupid, as it would immediately have informed the enemy that the Normandy assault was the sole one, and not a feint before a more northerly attack at the Pas de Calais.

Brigadier Allen, the Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, who had been charged with following up with the ISSB on whether the British were controlling French service traffic to North Africa, drew the attention of the ISSB’s secretary to the importance of the proposed ban. The record is sketchy, but it appears the Chiefs of Staff met on April 19, at which a realisation that control over all diplomatic and military channels needed to be intensified. The Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee was instructed to ensure that this happened, and a meeting was quickly arranged between representatives of the ISSB, MI6, SOE, the Cypher Policy Board and the Inter-Service W/T Security Committee, a much more expert and muscular group than had attended Findlater Stewart’s conference.

While the exposure by French traffic was quickly dismissed, Sir Charles Portal and Sir Andrew Cunningham, the RAF and Royal Navy chiefs, urged central control by the Service Departments rather than having it divided between SHAEF and Allied Forces Headquarters, and invited the JISC committee “to frame regulations designed to prevent Allied Governments evading the restrictions imposed by the War Cabinet on diplomatic communications, by the use of service or S.O.E. ‘underground’ W/T channels for the passage of uncensored diplomatic or service messages.” This was significant for several reasons: it recognized that foreign governments might attempt to evade the restrictions, probably by trying to use service signals for diplomatic traffic; it recommended new legislation to give the prohibitions greater force; and it brought into the picture the notion of various ‘underground’ (not perhaps the best metaphor for wireless traffic), and thus semi-clandestine communications, the essence of which was barely known. This minute appeared also to reflect the input of Sir Alan Brooke, the Army Chief, but his name does not appear on the document – probably because the record shows that he was advocating for the shared SHAEF/AFHQ responsibility, and thus disagreed with his peers.

The outcome was that a letter had to be drafted for the Czechoslovak, Norwegian and Polish Commanders-in-Chief, the Belgian and Netherlands Ministers of Defence, and General Koenig, the Commander of the French Forces in the United Kingdom, outlining the new restrictions on ‘communications by diplomatic bag and cipher telegrams’ (implicitly cable and wireless). It declared that ‘you will issue instructions that no communication by wireless is to be carried out with wireless stations overseas except under the following conditions’, going on to list that cyphers would have to be deposited with the War Office, plain language copies of all telegrams to be submitted for approval first, with the possibility that some messages would be encyphered and transmitted through British signal channels. A further amendment included a ban on incoming messages, as well.

Were these ‘regulations’, or simply earnest requests? The constitutional issue was not clear, but the fact that the restrictions would be of short duration probably pushed them into the latter category. In any case, as a memorandum of April 28 makes clear, Findlater Stewart formally handed over responsibility for the control of wireless communications to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), reserving for himself the handling of ‘mail and telegrams’ (he meant ‘mail and cables’, of course). By then, the letter had been distributed, on April 19, with some special annexes for the different audiences, but the main text was essentially as the draft had been originally worded.

The Poles were the quickest to grumble, and Stanisław Mikołajczyc, the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile, wrote a long response on April 23, describing the decision as ‘a dangerous legal and political precedent’, making a special case out of Poland’s predicament, and its underground fight against the Germans. He promised to obey the rules over all, but pleaded that the Poles be allowed to maintain the secrecy of their cyphers in order to preserve the safety and security of Polish soldiers and civilians on Polish soil fighting the German. “The fact that Polish-Soviet relations remain for the time being unsatisfactory still further complicates the situation,” he added.

It is easy to have an enormous amount of sympathy for the Poles, but at the same time point out that their aspirations at this time for taking their country back were very unrealistic. After all, Great Britain had declared war on Germany because of the invasion of Poland, and the Poles had contributed significantly in the Battle of Britain and the Italian campaign, especially. The discovery by the Germans, in April 1943, of the graves of victims of the Katyn massacre had constituted a ghastly indication that the Soviets had been responsible. Yet Stalin denied responsibility, and broke off relations with the London Poles when they persisted in calling for an independent Red Cross examination. Moreover, Churchill had ignored the facts, and weaselly tried to placate both Stalin and the Poles by asking Mikołajczyc to hold his tongue. In late January, Churchill had chidden the Poles for being ‘foolish’ in magnifying the importance of the crime when the British needed Stalin’s complete cooperation to conclude the war successfully.

Yet the Poles still harboured dreams that they would be able to take back their country before the Russians got there – or even regain it with the support of the Russians, aspirations that were in April 1944 utterly unrealistic. The file at HW 34/8 contains a long series of 1942-1943 exchanges between Colonel Cepa, the Chief Signals Officer of the Polish General Staff, and RSS officers, such as Maltby and Till, over unrealistic and unauthorized demands for equipment and frequencies so that the Polish government might communicate with all its clandestine stations in Poland, and its multiple (and questionable) contacts around the world. Their tentacles spread widely, as if they were an established government: on December 9, 1943, Joe Robertson told Guy Liddell that ‘Polish W/T transmitters are as plentiful as tabby cats in the Middle East and are causing great anxiety’. They maintained underground forces in France, which required wireless contact: this was an item of great concern to Liddell. Thus the Poles ended up largely trying to bypass RSS and working behind the scenes with SOE to help attain their goals. The two groups clearly irritated each other severely: the Poles thinking RSS too protocol-oriented and unresponsive to their needs, RSS considering the Poles selfish and too ambitious, with no respect for the correct procedures in a time of many competing demands.

The outcome was that Churchill had a meeting with Mikołajczyc on April 23, and tried to heal some wounds. The memorandum of the meeting was initialled by Churchill himself, and the critical passage runs as follows: “Mr. Churchill told Mr. Mikołajczyc that he was ready to waive the demand that the Polish ciphers used for communication with the Underground Movement should be deposited with us on condition first, that the number of messages sent in these ciphers was kept down to an absolute minimum; secondly, that the en clair text of each message sent in these ciphers should be communicated to us; thirdly, that Mr. Mikołajczyc gave Mr. Churchill his personal word of honour that no messages were sent in the secret ciphers except those of which the actual text had been deposited with us, and fourthly, that the existence of this understanding between Mr. Mikołajczyc and Mr. Churchill should be kept absolutely confidential; otherwise H.M.G would be exposed to representations and reproaches from other foreign Governments in a less favourable position.”

Thus it would appear that the other governments acceded, that the Poles won an important concession, but that the British were able to censor the texts of all transmissions that emanated from British soil during the D-Day campaign. And Churchill was very concerned about the news of the Poles’ preferential treatment getting out. Yet the JIC (under its very astute Chairman, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck) thought otherwise – that the news was bound to leak out, and, citing the support of Liddell, Menzies, Cadogan at the Foreign Office and Newsam at the Home Office, it requested, on May 1, that the Prime Minister ‘should consider the withdrawal’ of his concession, and that, if impracticable, he should at least clarify to Mikołajczyc that it ‘related to messages sent to the underground movement in Poland and not to communications with other occupied or neutral countries’.

Moreover, problems were in fact nor restricted to the Poles. De Gaulle, quite predictably, made a fuss, and ‘threatened’ as late as May 29 not to leave Algiers to return to the UK unless he was allowed to use his own cyphers. The Chiefs of Staff were left to handle this possible non-problem. Churchill, equally predictably, interfered unnecessarily, and even promised both Roosevelt and de Gaulle (as Liddell recorded on May 24) that communications would open up immediately after D-Day. Churchill had already, very naively, agreed to Eisenhower’s desire to disclose the target and date of NEPTUNE to France’s General Koenig. The Prime Minister could be very inspiring and insightful, but also very infuriating, as people like Attlee and Brooke observed.

And there it stood. Britain controlled the process of wireless communication (apart from the Soviet and US Embassies) entirely during the course of the D-Day landings, with a minor exposure in Polish messages to its colleagues in Poland. The restrictions were lifted on June 20. And B1A’s special agents continued to chatter throughout this period.

Guy Liddell and the RSS

Guy Liddell

Guy Liddell, deputy director-general of MI5, had been energized by his relationship with Sclater of the RSS, and, with Malcolm Frost’s departure from MI5 in December 1943, he looked forward to an easier path in helping to clean up Barnet, the headquarters of the Radio Security Service. In the months before D-Day, Liddell was focused on two major issues concerning RSS: 1) The effectiveness of the unit’s support for MI5’s project to extend the Double-Cross System to include ‘stay-behind’ agents in France after the Normandy landings succeeded; and 2) his confidence in the ability of RSS to locate any German spies with transmitters who might have pervaded the systems designed to intercept them at the nation’s borders, and who would thus be working outside the XX System.

Overall, the first matter does not concern me here, although part of Liddell’s mission, working alongside ‘Tar’ Robertson, was to discover how RSS control of equipment, and its primary allegiance to MI6, might interfere with MI5’s management of the XX program overseas. Liddell had to deal with Richard Gambier-Parry’s technical ignorance and general disdain for MI5, on the one hand, and Felix Cowgill’s territoriality on the other (since a Double-Cross system on foreign soil would technically have fallen under MI6), but the challenges would have to have been faced after D-Day, and are thus beyond my scope of reference. In any case, the concern turned out to be a non-problem. The second matter, however, was very serious, and Liddell’s Diaries from early 1944 are bestrewn with alarming anecdotes about the frailties of RSS’s detection systems. The problems ranged from the ineffectiveness of Elms’s mobile units to the accuracy of RSS’s broader location-finding techniques.

I shall illustrate Liddell’s findings by a generous sample of extracts from his Diaries, as I do not believe they have appeared in print before. Thus, from January 26:

Sclater gave an account of the work by the vans on an American station which had been d.f.d by R.S.S. The station was at first thought to be a British military or Air Force one as it was apparently using their procedure. The vans went out to the Horsham area where they got a very strong signal which did not operate the needle. Another bearing caused them to put the Bristol van out, which luckily found its target pretty quickly. The point of this story is that it is almost impossible to say more than that a wireless transmitter is in the north or south of England. Unless you can get into the ground-wave your vans don’t operate. To get into the ground-wave you may need to be very close to their target. There is still no inter-com between the vans and they cannot operate for more than 8 hours without having to drive several hundred miles in order to recharge their batteries. Not a very good show. Sclater is going to find out who is responsible for American Army signal security.

While this may not have been a perennial problem for units that were repeatedly broadcasting from one place, it clearly would have posed a serious exposure with a highly mobile transmitting agent. Moreover, at a meeting on February 17, MI6/SIS (in the person of Valentine Vivian, it appears) had, according to Liddell, admitted some of its deficiencies, stating, in a response to a question as to how its General Search capability worked: “S.I.S. did not think that an illicit station was operating in this country but it was pointed out that their observation was subject to certain restrictions. They were looking for Abwehr procedure, whereas an agent might use British official procedure, which would be a matter for detection by Army Signals, who were ill-equipped to meet the task.” Did Vivian not know what he was talking about, or was this true? Could an agent using ‘British official procedure’ truly evade the RSS detectors, while the Army would not bother to investigate? I recall that Sonia herself was instructed to use such techniques, and such a disclosure has alarming implications.

The minutes of the War Cabinet Sub-committee on February 17 confirm, however, that what Vivian reported was accepted, as an accompanying report by Findlater Stewart displays how the vision for wireless interception embraced by Colonel Simpson in 1939 had been allowed to dissolve. (In fact, as Liddell’s Diaries show, a small working-party had met on the morning of the inaugural meeting to prepare for the discussion.) In a report attached to the minutes, Stewart wrote the following (which I believe is worth citing in full):

“As a result of their experience extending over some four years the Radio Security Service are of opinion there is no illicit wireless station being worked in this country at present. Nevertheless it must be borne in mind that by itself the watch kept by the Radio Security Service is subject to some limitations. For example, the general search is mainly directed to German Secret Service communications and if an agent were to use official British signal procedures (there has already been some attempt at this), it is not likely to be picked up by the Service, and no guarantee that such stations would be detected should be given unless the whole volume of British wireless traffic, including the immense amount of service signal traffic, were monitored. This ‘general search’, however, is not the only safeguard. The danger to security arises from the newly arrived German Agent (on the assumption that there are no free agents at present operating here), but the art of tracking aircraft has been brought to such a point that the Security Service feel that in conjunction with the watch kept by the Radio Security Service even a determined effort by the enemy to introduce agents could not succeed for more than a few days. Admittedly if the agent were lucky enough to be dropped in the right area and obtain his information almost at once serious leakage could occur. But there is no remedy for this.”

I find this very shocking. While the RSS was justifiably confident that no unidentified spies were operating as its interceptors were monitoring Abwehr communications closely, it had abandoned the mission of populating the homeland with enough detective personnel to cover all possible groundwaves. Apparently, the sense of helplessness expressed in Stewart’s final sentence triggered no dismay from those who read it, but I believe this negligence heralded the start of an alarming trend. And the substance of the message must have confirmed Liddell’s worst fears.

Liddell and Sclater intensified their attention to RSS’s activities. Sclater also referred, later in February, to the fact that RSS had picked up Polish military signals in Scotland, but the Poles had not been very helpful, the signals were very corrupt, as picked up, and it was not even certain ‘that the messages were being sent from Gt. Britain’. Liddell also discovered that RSS had been picking up messages relating to Soviet espionage in Sweden, and blew a fuse over the fact that the facts about the whole exercise had been withheld from MI5 and the Radio Security Intelligence Committee, which Dick White of MI5 chaired. Thus, when he returned from two weeks’ leave at the end of March, his chagrin was fortunately abated slightly, as the entry for April 16 records:

During my absence there have been various wireless tests. GARBO, on instructions from the Germans, has been communicating in British Army procedure. He was picked up after a certain time and after a hint had been given to Radio Security Service. He was, however, also picked up in Gibraltar, who notified the RSS about certain peculiarities in the signals. This is on the whole fairly satisfactory. TREASURE is going to start communicating blind and we shall see whether they are equally successful in her case. Tests have also been taking place to see whether spies can move freely within the fifteen-mile belt. One has been caught, but another, whose documents were by no means good, has succeeded in getting through seven or eight controls and has so far not been spotted.

This was not super-efficient, however: ‘hints’, and ‘after a certain time’. At least the British Army procedure was recognised by the RSS. (Herbert Hart later told Liddell that ‘notional’ spies dressed in American military uniforms were the only ones not to get caught.) But the feeling of calm did not last long. Two weeks later, on April 29, Liddell recorded:

The Radio Security Service has carried out an extensive test to discover the GARBO transmitter. The report on this exercise is very distressing. The GARBO camouflage plan commenced on 13 March but the Mobile Units were not told to commence their investigations till 14 April. From 13 March to 14 April GARBO’s transmitter was on the air (and the operator was listening) for a total of twenty-nine hours, and average of one hour a day. On 14 April the Mobile Units were brought into action and they reported that the GARBO transmitter operated for four hours between 14 and 19 April inclusive. In fact, it operated for over six and a half hours, and it would seem that the second frequency of the transmitter was not recorded at all. On 15 April, GARBO transmitted for two whole hours. This incident shakes my confidence completely in the power of RSS of detecting illicit wireless either in this country or anywhere else. It is disturbing since the impression was given to Findlater Stewart’s Committee and subsequently to the Cabinet that no illicit transmissions were likely to be undetected for long. Clearly, this is not the case.

The irony is, of course, that, if the Abwehr had learned about RSS’s woes, they might have understood how their agents were able to transmit undetected. Yet this was a problem MI5 had to fix, and the reputation of the XX System, and of the claim that MI5 had complete control of all possible German agents in the country, was at stake. Liddell followed up with another entry, on May 6:

I had a long talk with Sclater about the RSS exercise. Apparently the first report of Garbo’s transmitter came from Gib. This was subsequently integrated with a V.I. report. The R.S.S. fixed stations in N. Ireland and the north of Scotland took a bearing which was well wide of the mark, and although the original report came in on March 13th it was not until April 14th that sufficiently accurate bearings were obtained to warrant putting into action of the M.U.s. They were started off on an entirely inaccurate location of the target somewhere in the Guildford area. Other bearings led to greater confusion. Had it not been for the fact that the groundwave of the transmitter was then ranged with the Barnet station it is doubtful whether the transmitter would ever have been located. The final round-up was not done according to the book, i.e. by the 3 M.U.s taking bearings and gradually closing in. One M.U. got a particularly strong signal and followed it home.

By now, however, Liddell probably felt a little more confident that homeland security was tight enough. No problematic messages had been picked up by interception, and thus there were probably no clandestine agents at large, a conclusion that was reinforced by the fact that the ULTRA sources (i.e. picking up Abwehr communications about agents in the United Kingdom) still betrayed no unknown operators. Nevertheless, Liddell still harboured, as late as May 12, strong reservations about the efficacy of RSS’s operations overseas, which he shared with the philosopher Gilbert Ryle at his club. At this time, MI5 was concerned about a source named JOSEFINE, sending messages that reached the Abwehr via Stockholm. (JOSEFINE turned out to be the Swedish naval attaché in London, and his associates or successors.) But then, Liddell expressed further deep concerns, on May 27, i.e. a mere ten days before D-Day:

I had a long discussion with TAR and Victor [Rothschild] about RSS. It seemed to me that the position was eminently unsatisfactory. I could see that the picking up of an agent here was a difficult matter. If he were transmitting on ordinary H.F. at fairly frequent intervals to a fixed station on the continent in Abwehr procedure we should probably get his signals. If he were transmitting in our military procedure it was problematic whether we should get his signals. If he were transmitting in VHF it was almost certain that we should not get him. I entirely accept this as being the position but my complaint is that the problem of detecting illicit wireless from this country has never been submitted to a real body of experts, and that possibly had it been given careful study by such a body at least the present dangers might have been to some extent mitigated. Victor agreed that it might be possible to work on some automatic ether scanner which would increase the chances of picking up an agent. There might also be other possibilities, if the ground were thoroughly explored. So much for picking up the call. The next stage is to D.F. the position of the illicit transmitter. Recent experiments had shown both in the case of GARBO and in the case of an imaginery [sic] agent who was located at Whaddon, that the bearings from the fixed stations were 50-60 miles out. This being so, the margin for error on the continent would be considerably increased. We have always been given to understand that fixed stations could give a fairly accurate bearing. The effect is that unless your vans get into the ground-wave they stand very little chance of picking up the agent. The D.G. is rather anxious to take this matter up; both TAR and I are opposed to any such course. I pointed out to the D.G. that the Radio Security Committee consisted of a Chairman who knew nothing about wireless, and that he and I had no knowledge of the subject, and therefore we would all be at the mercy of Gambier-Parry who could cover us all with megacycles. The discussion would get us no where and only create bad blood. He seemed to think however that we ought to get some statement of the position particularly since I pointed out to him that if an agent were dropped we should probably pick him up in a reasonable time. The fact is that unless the aircraft tracks pin-pointed him and the police and the Home Guard did their job, we should be extremely unlikely to get our man. Technical means would give us little if any assistance. By the time a man had been located the harm would have been done.”

Some of this plaint was misguided (VHF would not have been an effective communication wavelength for a remote spy), but it shows that, despite all the self-satisfied histories that were written afterwards, RSS was in something of a shambles. Fortunately there were no ‘men’ to be got: the Abwehr had been incorporated into the SS in the spring of 1944. Canaris was dismissed, and no further wireless agents were infiltrated on to the British mainland. Liddell was probably confident, despite RSS’s complacent approach, that no unknown wireless agents were at large because intercepted ISOS messages gave no indication of such. He made one more relevant entry before D-Day, on June 3:

TAR tells me that since 12 May RSS have been picking up the signals of an agent communicating in Group 2 cypher. They have at last succeeded in getting a bearing which places the agents somewhere in Ayrshire. The vans are moving up to the Newcastle area. Two hours later, TAR told me that further bearing indicated that the agent was in Austria. So much for RSS’s powers of D.F.ing. My mind goes back to a meeting held 18 months ago when G.P. [Gambier-Parry] had the effrontery that he could D.F. a set in France down to an area of 5 sq. miles.

Did someone mishear a Scottish voice saying ‘Ayrshire’, interpreting it as ‘Austria’? We shall never know. In any case, if Liddell ever stopped to think “If we go to the utmost to ensure there are no clandestine agents reporting on the real state of things here, wouldn’t German Intelligence imagine we were doing just that?”, he never recorded such a gut-wrenching question in his Diaries.

‘Double’ or ‘Special’ Agents?

Before Bevan left London for Moscow, he attended – alongside Findlater Stewart – that last meeting of the W Board before D-Day. They heard a presentation by ‘Tar’ Robertson, who described the status of all the double agents, confirmed that he was confident that ‘the Germans believed in TRICYCE and GARBO, especially, and probably in the others’.  Robertson added that ‘the agents were ready to take their part in OVERLORD’, and offered a confidence factor of 98% that the Germans trusted the majority of agents. The concluding minute of the meeting was a recommendation by Bevan that the term ‘double agents’ be avoided in any documentation, and that they be referred to as ‘special agents’, the term that appears in the title of the KV 4/70 file.  A week later, Bevan was on his way to Moscow.

The reason that Bevan wanted them described as ‘special agents’ was presumably the fact that, if the term ‘double agent’ ever escaped, the nature of the double-cross deception would be immediately obvious. Yet ‘special agents’ was not going to become a durable term: all agents are special in some way, and the phrase did not accurately describe how they differed. Liddell continued to refer to ‘DAs’ in his Diaries, John Masterman promulgated the term ‘double agents’ in his influential Double Cross System (1972), and Michael Howard entrenched it in his authorised history of British Intelligence in the Second World War – Volume 5 (1990).

Shortly after Masterman’s book came out, Miles Copland, an ex-CIA officer, wrote The Real Spy World, a pragmatic guide to the world of espionage and counter-espionage. He debunked the notion of ‘double agents’, stating: “But even before the end of World War II the term ‘double agent’ was discontinued in favor of ‘controlled enemy agent’ in speaking of an agent who was entirely under our own control, capable of reporting to his original masters only as we allowed, so that he was entirely ‘single’ in his performance, and by no means ‘double’.” The point is a valid one: if an agent is described as a ‘double’, he or she could presumably be trying to work for both sides at once, even perhaps evolving into the status of a ‘triple agent’ (like ZIGZAG), which applies enormous psychological pressure on the subject, who will certainly lose any affiliation to either party, and end up simply trying to survive.

Yet ‘controlled enemy agent’ is, to me, also unsatisfactory. It implies that the agent’s primary allegiance is to the enemy, but that he or she has been ‘turned’ in some way. That might be descriptive of some SOE agents, who were captured, and tortured into handing over their cyphers and maybe forced to transmit under the surveillance of the Gestapo, but who never lost their commitment to the Allied cause (and may have eventually been shot, anyway). Nearly all the agents used in the Double Cross System had applied to the Abwehr under false pretences. They (e.g. BRUTUS, TREASURE, GARBO, TRICYCLE) intended to betray the Germans, and work for the Allied cause immediately they were installed. Of those who survived as recruits of B1A, only TATE had arrived as a dedicated Nazi. He was threatened (but not tortured) into coming to the conclusion that his survival relied on his operating under British control, and he soon, after living in the UK for a while, understood that the democratic cause was superior to the Nazi creed. SUMMER, on the other hand, to whom the same techniques were applied, refused to co-operate, and had to be incarcerated for the duration of the war.

Thus the closest analogy to the strategy of the special agents is what Kim Philby set out to do: infiltrate an ideological foe under subterfuge. But the analogy must not be pushed too far. Philby volunteered to work for an intelligence service of his democratic native country, with the goal of facilitating the attempts of a hostile, totalitarian system to overthrow the whole structure. The special agents were trying to subvert a different totalitarian organisation that had invaded their country (or constituted a threat, in the case of GARBO) in order that liberal democracy should prevail. There is a functional equivalence, but not a moral one, between the two examples. Philby was a spy and a traitor: he was definitely not a ‘double agent’, even though he has frequently been called that.

I leave the definitional matter unresolved for now. It will take a more authoritative writer to tidy up the debate. I note that the highly regarded Thaddeus Holt considers the debate ‘pedantic’, and he decided to fall back upon ‘double agent’ in his book, despite its misleading connotations.

Special Agents at Work

The events that led up to the controversial two-hour message transmitted by GARBO on June 9, highlighted in the several quotations that I presented at the beginning of this script, have been well described in several books, so I simply summarise here the aspects concerning wireless usage. For those readers who want to learn the details, Appendix XIII of Roger Hesketh’s Fortitude lists most of the contributions of British ‘controlled agents’ on the Fortitude South Order of Battle, and how they were reflected in German Intelligence Reports. Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross gives a lively account of the activities of the agents who communicated via wireless – via their B1A operators, in the main.

TATE (Wulf Schmidt) was the longest-serving of the special agents, but the requirement to develop a convincing ‘legend’ about him, in order to explain to the Abwehr how he had managed to survive for so long on alien territory, took him out of the mainstream. In October 1943, Robertson had expressed doubts as to how seriously the Germans were taking TATE, as they had sent him only fourteen messages over the past six months, and in December, the XX Committee even considered the possibility that he had been blown. Their ability to verify how TATE’s reports were being handled arose mainly because communications were passed to Berlin from Hamburg by a secure land-line, not by wireless (and thus not subject to RSS/GC&CS interception.) Indeed, Berlin believed that the whole ‘Lena Six’ (from the 1940-41 parachutist project, and whose activity as spies was planned to last only a few weeks before the impending German invasion!) were under control of the British, but the Abwehr, in a continuing pattern, were reluctant to give up on one of their own. The post-war interrogation of Major Boeckel, who trained the LENA agents in Hamburg, available at KV 2/1333, indicates that Berlin had doubts about TATE’s reliability, but that Boeckel ‘maintained contact despite warnings’. TATE provided one or two vital tidbits (such as Eisenhower’s arrival in January 1944), and by April, the XX Committee judged him safe again. In May, he was nominally ‘moved’ to Kent, ostensibly to help his employer’s farming friend, and messages were directed there from London, in case of precise location-finding. But TATE’s information about FUSAG ‘operations’ did not appear to have received much attention: TATE’s contribution would pick up again after D-Day.

The career of TREASURE (Lily Sergeyev, or Sergueiev) was more problematical. In September 1943 she had had to remind her handler, Kliemann, that she was trained in radio operation, and that she needed to advance from writing letters in secret ink. Kliemann then improbably ordered her to acquire an American-made Halicrafter apparatus in London, and then promised to supply her one passed to her. He let her down when she visited Madrid in November, so the XX Committee had to start applying pressure. They engineered a March 1944 visit by TREASURE to Lisbon, where she was provided with a wireless apparatus, and instructed on when and how to transmit, with an emphasis that the messages should be as short as possible. She returned to the UK; her transmitter was set up in Hampstead, and her first message sent on April 13. There was a burst of useful, activity for about a month or so, but, by May 17, a decision was made that TREASURE had to be dropped. She confessed to concealing from her B1A controllers the security check in her transmissions that she could have used to alert the Germans to the fact that she was operating under control: she was in a fit of pique over the death of her dog. Robertson fired her just after D-Day.

TRICYCLE (Dusko Popov) had formulated a role that allowed him to travel easily to Lisbon, but the Committee concluded that he need to communicate by wireless as well. Popov had engineered the escape to London of a fellow Yugoslav, the Marquis de Bona, in December 1943, who would become his authorized wireless operator, and Popov himself brought back to the UK the apparatus that de Bona (given the cryptonym FREAK) started using successfully in February. Useful information on dummy FUSAG movements was passed on for a while, but a cloud hung over the whole operation, as the XX Committee feared, quite justifiably, that TRICYCLE might have been blown because Popov’s contact within the Abwehr, Johnny Jebsen (ARTIST) knew enough about the project to betray the whole deception game. When Jebsen was arrested at the end of April, TRICYCLE and his network were closed down, with FREAK’s last transmission going out on May 16. TRICYCLE explained the termination in a letter written in secret ink on May 20, ascribing it to suspicions that had arisen over FREAK’s loyalties. Astonishingly, FREAK sent a final message by wireless on June 30, and the Germans’ petulant response indicated that they still trusted TRICYCLE. After the war, MI5 learned that Jebsen had been drugged and transported to Berlin, tortured and then killed, but said nothing.

The career of BRUTUS (Roman Czerniawski) was also dogged by controversy, as he had brought trouble on himself with the Polish government-in-exile, and the Poles had access to his cyphers. Again, fevered debate over his trustworthiness, and deliberation over what the Germans (and Russians) knew about him continued throughout 1943. His wireless traffic (which had been interrupted) restarted on August 25, but his handler in Paris, Colonel Reile, suspected that he might have been ‘turned’. Indeed, his transmitter was operated by a notional friend called CHOPIN, working from Richmond. By December 1943, confidence in the security of BRUTUS, and his acceptance by the Abwehr, had been restored: the Germans even succeeded in delivering him a new wireless set. Thereafter, BRUTUS grew to become the second most valuable member of the team of special agents. A regular stream of messages was sent, beginning in from February 1, culminating in an intense flow between June 5 and June 7, providing (primarily) important disinformation about troop movements in East Anglia.

Lastly, the performance of GARBO was the most significant – and the most controversial. According to Guy Liddell, GARBO had made his first contact with the Abwehr in Madrid in March 1943. GARBO had also claimed to have found a ‘friend’ who would operate the wireless for him. The Abwehr was so pleased that it immediately sent him new cyphers (invaluable to GC&CS), and, a month later, advised him how to simulate British Army callsigns, so as to avoid detection. A domestic crisis then occurred, which caused Harmer in MI5 to recommend BRUTUS as a more reliable vehicle than GARBO, but it passed, and, by the beginning of 1944 GARBO was using his transmitter to send more urgent – as well as more copious – messages. GARBO benefitted from a large network of fictional agents who supplied him with news from around the country, and his role in FORTITUDE culminated in the epic message of June 9 with which I introduced this piece.

The Aftermath

BODYGUARD was successful. The German High Command viewed the Normandy landings as a feint to distract attention from the major assault they saw coming in the Pas de Calais. They relied almost exclusively on the reports coming in from the special agents. They did not have the infrastructure, the attention span, or the expertise to interpret the deluge of phony signals that were generated as part of FORTITUDE NORTH, and they could not undertake proper reconnaissance flights across the English Channel to inspect any preparations for the assault that they knew was coming. Interrogations of German officers after the war confirmed that the ‘intelligence’ transmitted by the five agents listed above was passed on and accepted at the very highest levels. This phenomenon has to be analysed in two dimensions: the political and the technical.

The fact that the Abwehr (and its successor, the SS) were hoodwinked so easily by the substance of the messages was not perhaps surprising. To begin with, the Abwehr was a notoriously anti-Nazi organisation, and the role of its leader, Admiral Canaris, was highly ambiguous in his encouraging doubts about the loyalty of his agents to be squashed. He told his officer Jebsen (ARTIST) that ‘he didn’t care if every German agent in Britain was under control, so long as he could tell German High Command that he had agents in Britain reporting regularly.’ Every intelligence officer has an inclination to trust his recruits: if he tells his superiors that they are unreliable, he is effectively casting maledictions on his own abilities. Those who spoke up about their doubts, and pursued them, were moved out to the Russian front. The Double Cross System was addressing a serious need.

When the ineffectiveness and unreliability of the Abwehr itself was called into question, and the organisation was subsumed into the SS, the special agents came under the control of disciplinarians and military officers who did not really understand intelligence, were under enormous pressures, and thus had neither the time nor the expertise to attempt to assess properly the information that was being passed to them. They had experienced no personal involvement with the agents supposedly infiltrated into Britain. What intelligence they received sounded plausible, and appeared to form a pattern, so it was accepted and passed on.

Yet the technical aspects are more problematic. Given what the German agencies (the Sipo, Gestapo, and Abwehr) had invested in static and mobile radio-detection and location finding techniques (even though they overstated their capabilities), they should surely have asked themselves whether Great Britain would not have explored and refined similar technology. And they should have asked themselves why the British would not have exercised such capabilities to the utmost in order to conceal the order of battle, and assault plans, for the inevitable ‘invasion’ of continental Europe. Moreover, Britain was a densely populated island, homogeneous and certainly almost completely opposed to the Nazi regime, and infiltrated foreign agents must have had to experience a far more hostile and obstructive environment than, say, SOE agents of French nationality who were parachuted into a homeland that contained a large infrastructure of Allied sympathisers. Traces of such a debate in German intelligence are difficult to find. Canaris defended his network of Vertrauensmänner, and referred to ‘most intricate and elaborate electronic countermeasures’ in February 1944, but his motivations were suspect, and he was ousted immediately afterwards. Why was GARBO (especially) not picked up? How indeed could anyone transmit for so long, when such practices went against all good policies of clandestine wireless usage?

Even more astonishing is the apparent lack of recognition of the problem from the voluminous British archives. Admittedly, the challenge may have been of such magnitude that it was never actually mentioned, but one might expect at some stage the question to be raised: “How can we optimise wireless transmission practices so that it would be reasonable to assume that RSS would not be able to pick them up?” That would normally require making the messages as brief as possible, switching wavelengths, and changing locations – all in order to elude the resolute mobile location-finding units. That was clearly a concern in the early days of the war, with agent SNOW, when B1A even asked SNOW to inquire of his handler, Dr. Rantzau (Ritter) whether it was safe for SNOW always to transmit from the same place. Rantzau replied in the affirmative, reflecting the state-of-the-art in 1940. But progress had been made by the Germans, especially in light of the arrival of SOE wireless agents, and the XX Committee must have known this.

Yet, four years later, all that the XX Committee and B1a appeared to do was allow GARBO to emulate British military traffic. And they showed a completely cavalier attitude to the problem of time on the air by allowing GARBO to compose his ridiculously windy messages. After all, if they were sharp enough to ensure that signals emanated from a location roughly where the agent was supposed to be, in case German direction-finders were on the prowl, why would they not imagine that the Germans were contemplating the reciprocal function of RSS?  It was even more comprehensively dumb than the Abwehr’s credulous distancing from the problem.

Did MI5 try to communicate to the Abwehr the notion that RSS was useless? Guy Liddell confided his doubts about the apparently feeble tracking of GARBO only to his diary, so, unless the Abwehr had a spy in the bowels of RSS, and a method of getting information back to Germany, that would have been an impossible task. Perhaps some messages from the special agents indicating that they were close to being hunted down, but always managed to escape, would have given a measure of verisimilitude, indicating the existence of a force, but a very ineffective one. The behaviour of B1A, however, in reusing transmission sites, while paying lip-service to the location-finding capabilities of the foe, but allowing absurdly long transmissions to take place, simply denies belief. The utterly unnecessary but studied non-observance of basic protocols was highly unprofessional, and should have caused the whole scaffolding of deceit to collapse. It is extraordinary that so many historians and analysts have hinted at this debacle, but never analyzed it in detail.

In conclusion, the mystery of the Undetected Radios was not a puzzle of how they remained undetected, but of why both the Abwehr and MI5 both considered it reasonable that they could flourish unnoticed for so long, and behave so irresponsibly. Findlater Stewart’s 1946 history of RSS – which helped set the agenda for the unit during the Cold War – proves that he did not really understand the technology or the issues. What all this implies for the Communist agent Sonia’s transmissions (around which this whole investigation started) will be addressed in a final report that will constitute the concluding chapter of Sonia’s Radio and The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies?

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I recall, back in the early 1960s, seeing advertisements in the Daily Telegraph for a charity identifying itself as the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. They showed an elderly couple, a rather tweedy gentleman of military bearing, and his elegant wife, who probably had worn pearls at some stage, but could no longer afford them. (The image I show above is a similar exhibit.) These were presumably persons of good ‘breeding’ who had fallen on undeserved hard times. The organization asked the readership to contribute to the maintenance and well-being of such persons.

I found these appeals rather quaint, even then, and asked myself why ‘gentlefolk’ should have been singled out as especially worthy of any handouts. After all, such terminology had a vaguely mid-Victorian ring: I must have been thinking of Turgenev’s ‘Nest of Gentry’, which I had recently read. Moreover, were there not more meritorious examples of the struggling poor? Perhaps I had Ralph MacTell’s ‘Streets of London’ ringing in my head [No. It was not released until 1969. Ed.], although I was never able to work out why, if the bag-lady celebrated by this noted troubadour (who, like me, grew up in Croydon in the 1950s) was lonely, ‘she’s no time for talking, she just keeps right on walking’. Was she perhaps fed up with being accosted in the street by long-haired minstrels wielding guitars?

But I digress. It was more probable that I had been influenced by the lunch monitor at my school dining-table, the much-loved and now much-missed John Knightly, who would later become Captain of the School. I recall how he, with Crusader badge pinned smartly on his lapel, would admonish those of us who struggled to complete our rather gristly stew by reminding us of ‘the starving millions in China’. I felt like telling him that he could take the remnants of the lunch of one particular Distressed Fourth-Former and send them off to Chairman Mao, but somehow the moment passed without my recommendation being made.

Astonishingly, I have discovered that the DGAA endured under that name until 1989, when it was renamed as Elizabeth Finn Care, after its founder. A fascinating article about it, before the name change, appeared in the New York Times that year: https://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/02/world/london-journal-lifting-a-pinkie-for-the-upper-crust.html?smid=em-share

I thought about that institution as I was preparing this piece. I have warned readers of coldspur that I would eventually be offering an analysis of the phenomenon of Liverpool University as the Home for Distressed Spies, and here it is. It analyses the predicament that MI5 and the civil authorities found themselves in when they had clear evidence that Soviet spies were in their midst, but, because of the nature of the evidence, believed that they could not prosecute without a confession.

The accounts of the interviews, interrogations and suspicions surrounding some of the atom scientists (Pontecorvo, Peierls, Fuchs, Skinner, Skyrme, Davison) in Britain after the war display a puzzled approach to policy by the officers at the AERE (Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell) and at MI5. If such suspects were believed to have pro-Soviet sympathies, they could not be encouraged, on account of the knowledge they possessed about atomic power and weaponry, to consider escaping to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, it would have been difficult to prosecute those whose guilt was hardly in doubt (i.e. Fuchs and Pontecorvo), as it would require gaining a confession from them, and, on the other, the sensitivity of the sources (the VENONA decrypts, and a lost item of intelligence, respectively) would prohibit such evidence being used in a trial. In Fuchs’s case, some senior figures in MI5 (Percy Sillitoe, the Director-General, and Dick White, head of counter-espionage) were keen on trying to gain a confession, and prosecuting. Liddell of MI5 (Sillitoe’s deputy), in conjunction with Harwell’s chief, John Cockcroft, and Henry Arnold, the security officer, wanted to shift Fuchs and Pontecorvo quietly off to a regional university. Liverpool University loomed largest in this scenario.

I have decided to work backwards generally in this account, before advancing to the connection between the controversial role of Herbert Skinner, and how he eventually exerted an influence on the removal of the mysterious Boris Davison. I believe it will be more revealing to display gradually the undeclared knowledge that affected the decisions, misleading briefings and reports that emanated from Guy Liddell and his brother-officers at MI5, and from other civil servants at Harwell, and at the Ministry of Supply, to which AERE reported.

The Dramatis Personae (primarily in 1950, when most of the action occurs):

At the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell:

Cockcroft                    Director

Arnold                         Security officer

Skinner                        Assistant director; Head of Theoretical Physics division

Fuchs                           Scientist

Pontecorvo                  Scientist

Davison                       Scientist

Buneman                     Scientist

Flowers                       Scientist

The Men from the Ministries:

Attlee                          Prime Minister

Portal                           Controller of Production, Atomic Energy, at the Ministry of Supply

Perrin                           Deputy to Portal

Appleton                     Permanent Secretary, Department for Scientific and Industrial Research

Makins                        Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office

Bridges                        Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, and Head of Civil Service

Rowlands                    Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Supply

Cherwell                      Paymaster-General (1953)

At MI5:

Sillitoe                         Director

Liddell                        Assistant Director

White                          Head of B Division (counter-espionage)       

Hollis                           B1

Mitchell                       B1E (Hollis’s deputy)

Robertson J. C.           Head of B2

Robertson, T. A. R.     B3 (retired in 1948)   

Marriott                       B3

Serpell                         PA to Sillitoe

Skardon                       B2A

Reed                            B2A

Archer                         B2A

Collard                         C2A

Morton                        C2A

Hill                              Solicitor

Bligh                           Solicitor

At the Universities:

Mountford                  Vice-Chancellor, Liverpool University

Chadwick                    Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Oliphant                      Professor at Birmingham University

Peierls                          Professor at Birmingham University

Massey                        Professor at University College, London

Rotblat                        Professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London

Fröhlich                       Professor at Liverpool University

Frisch                          Professor at Trinity College, Cambridge

Flowers                       Researcher at Birmingham University

Pryce                           Professor at Clarendon Laboratories

The Journalists:

Pincher                        Daily Express

Stubbs-Walker            Daily Mail

Moorehead                  Daily Express

Rodin                          Sunday Express

Maule                          Empire News

West                            New York Times

De Courcy                   Intelligence Digest

Various wives, mistresses, girl-friends and spear-carriers

Contents:

  1. Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
  2. Machinations at Liverpool
  3. Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
  4. Fuchs’s Interrogations
  5. Herbert Skinner at Harwell
  6. Skinner’s Removal?
  7. Skinner’s Ventures into Journalism
  8. Boris Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
  9. Boris Davison – after Attlee
  10. Conclusions
  1. Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
Bruno Pontecorvo

Bruno Pontecorvo’s journey to Harwell was an unusual one. An Italian who worked with Joliot-Curie in Paris, he had escaped from France with his Swedish wife and their son in July 1940, in the nick of time before the Nazis overran the country. After some strenuous efforts visiting consulates and embassies to gain the necessary papers, he and his family gained a sea passage to the USA on the strength of a job offer from his Italian colleague Emilio Segrè in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In the autumn of 1942, Pontecorvo was invited by Hans Halban to interview for a position with the British nuclear physics team working in Montreal. He was approved in December 1942, and was inducted into Tube Alloys, the British atomic weapons project, in New York, the following month. He was a success in Canada, and, after Halban’s demotion and subsequent return to Europe, worked closely with Nunn May on the Zero Energy Experimental Pile (ZEEP) project. Yet, as the war came to a close, Pontecorvo began to feel the anti-communist climate in Canada and the United States oppressive to him. In late 1945, with Igor Gouzenko and Elizabeth Bentley revealing the breadth and depth of the Soviet espionage network, he was happy to receive an informal job offer from John Cockcroft, who had been appointed head of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, which was to open on January 1, 1946. Chadwick, who had led the British mission to the Manhattan Project from Washington, had imposed travel restrictions on Pontecorvo, but the Italian was able to negotiate a satisfactory deal by the end of January 1946. Despite competitive offers from several prestigious US companies, he made his decision to join Harwell.

Yet, very strangely, Pontecorvo did not start work for three more years, continuing to operate in Montreal, and even travelling to Europe in the interim. In February 1948, he became a British citizen, to assuage government concerns about aliens working on sensitive projects. On January 24, 1949, he left Chalk River in Ontario for the last time, and officially started work at Harwell on February 1. An entry in his file at The National Archives, however, indicates that he was, rather late in the day, ‘nominated for a position at Harwell’, on July 7 of that year. Astonishingly, the record indicates that Pontecorvo was ‘confirmed in his appointment as S.P.S.O. [Senior Principal Scientific Officer] and established’ only on January 2, 1950! (KV 2/1888-2, s.n. 97c.)

It was not until October 1950, when Pontecorvo disappeared with his family during a holiday on the Continent, that Liddell made his first diary entry – at least, of those that have survived redactions – concerning Pontecorvo. As the record for October 21 states: “On information that had been received xxxxxxxxx in March of this year, intimating that PONTECORVO and his wife were avowed Communists, a decision was reached, after an interrogation of PONTECORVO by Henry Arnold, when the former admitted to having Communist relations – to get rid of him and find some employment for him at Liverpool University.” Yet Liddell thus implies that he (or MI5) learned of Pontecorvo’s unreliability only in March 1950, and his memorandum reinforces the notion that it was primarily the security officer Arnold’s idea to accommodate Pontecorvo at Liverpool University, even though the news had apparently come as a surprise to Arnold back in March.

Liddell was being deliberately deceptive. As early as December 15, 1949, (see KV 2/1288, s.n. 97A, as Frank Close reports in Half-Life, his biography of Pontecorvo), the FBI sent a report to MI5, dated December 15, that identified Pontecorvo’s links to Communism. As Close writes: ‘MI5 took note. Someone highlighted the above paragraph in Pontecorvo’s file’, but Close then asserts that MI5 did nothing, as they were consumed with the Fuchs case at the time.  On February 10, 1950, however, another clearer warning arrived, when Robert Thornton of the US Atomic Energy Commission, on a visit to a Harwell conference, informed John Cockcroft that Pontecorvo and his family were Communists, repeating specifically the formal report from December. A vital conclusion must be that, if this visitor from the USA had not been invited to the conference, Cockcroft might never have learned about the project already in place to remove Pontecorvo. 

Pontecorvo had in fact left behind him a trail of hints concerning his political allegiances. He had joined the French Communist Party on August 23, 1939, the day the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed. In July 1940, MI5 knew enough about him to judge him as ‘mildly unsuitable’ for acceptance as an escapee to Britain. In September, 1942, FBI agents had inspected his house in Tulsa (while Pontecorvo was away), and discovered communist literature there. After Pontecorvo’s application to join Tube Alloys, the FBI had exchanged correspondence with British Security Control (which represented MI5 and MI6 in the United States), concerning Pontecorvo’s loyalties. The FBI was able to confirm, after Pontecorvo’s flight, that it had sent letters to BSC on March 2, 16, and 19 but, inexplicably, BSC had issued him a security clearance on March 3, and had failed to follow up.

Alarmed by Thornton’s warning (having been kept in the dark by his own security officer and MI5), Cockcroft instructed Arnold to look into the matter. Arnold accordingly spoke to Pontecorvo, elicited information from him, and was able to inform MI5, by telephone call on March 1, that Pontecorvo was ‘an active communist’. (On the same day, Collard of C2A reported that Arnold’s conversation with Pontecorvo was ‘recent’: KV 2/1887, s.n. 20A.) Yet Arnold added more. He told MI5 that Pontecorvo had recently before been offered a job at the University of Liverpool, and that Pontecorvo’s acceptance of that offer would rid Harwell of a security risk. Again, this news goes unrecorded in Liddell’s diaries at the time.

But is this not extraordinary? What does ‘recently’ mean? If Arnold learned of the Liverpool job offer from Pontecorvo himself, when had it been arranged? And was this not extremely early for Pontecorvo to be seeking employment elsewhere? Given the long gestation period preceding the confirmation of Pontecorvo’s post at Harwell, would this not have provoked some high-level discussion? After all, Pontecorvo had been ‘established’ a couple of weeks after the original warning from the FBI. And who would have made the offer? Liverpool University is associated in the archives most closely with Herbert Skinner, but, as will be shown, Skinner was not yet established in a position of authority and influence at Liverpool. He had been formally appointed, but was not yet working full-time, as he was still executing his job as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell. Some senior academic figures should surely have been involved in the decision, especially the Vice-Chancellor, Sir James Mountford.

This aspect of the case has been strangely overlooked by Pontecorvo’s biographers, Frank Close, and Simone Turchetti. Both mention the fact that Pontecorvo had first indicated the fact of the Liverpool offer to Arnold on March 1, but do not follow up why it would have been made so early in the cycle, or investigate the earlier sequence of events, or even ask why Pontecorvo was informing Arnold of the fact. Had someone revealed to Pontecorvo that incriminating stories were floating around about his political beliefs, and had officers at Liverpool University come to some sort of unofficial agreement with the authorities at the Ministry of Supply and MI5 – but not Arnold or Cockcroft – since December? It is difficult to imagine an alternative scenario. Thus it is much more likely that MI5 did act in December, when they first received the report, but made no record of the fact.

Turchetti does in fact report that, in January 1950, i.e. well before the Arnold-Cockcroft exchanges, Herbert Skinner ‘asked Pontecorvo to join him at Liverpool, believing that he was the ideal candidate to lead experimental activities’, as if this would be a normal and smooth career progression. (I shall explore Skinner’s split role between Harwell and Liverpool later.)  Turchetti does not, however, follow up on the implications of these early negotiations. For, as I suggested earlier, this would have been a very sudden transfer, given Pontecorvo’s official confirmation on the Harwell post earlier that month. Moreover, this item does not appear in the files at the National Archives. It comes from a statement made by the Vice-Chancellor at Liverpool, Sir James Mountford, which seriously undermines MI5’s claim that it was not aware of the seriousness of the exposure until February 1950.   Pontecorvo, incidentally, also had the chutzpah around this time to request a promotion at Harwell, which was promptly rejected.

  • Machinations at Liverpool
Sir James Mountford

I acquired a copy of Mountford’s statement from Liverpool University. [By courtesy of the Liverpool University Library:  255/6/5/5/6 – Notes on Bruno Pontecorvo by James Mountford.]

It was sent by the Vice-Chancellor to Professor Tilley, in September 1978. Mountford explains that, after Sir James Chadwick in the spring of 1948 vacated the physics chair to accept the Mastership of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, the university was faced with the problem of finding a suitable candidate to replace him, with the added sensitivity that, if the right person were not selected, the nuclear project might be transferred to Glasgow. The challenge required some diligent networking by the experts in this field.

The first choice for Chadwick’s replacement was Sir Harrie Massey, the Australian Professor of Applied Mathematics at University College, London, who had had a distinguished war record, working lastly on isotope separation for the Manhattan Project at the University of California.  (Mountford indicated that Massey was Professor of Physics, but he was in fact not appointed Quain Professor of Physics until 1950.) Massey ‘reluctantly’ declined the offer, so the team from Liverpool had a meeting on January 26, 1949, with Professor Oliphant of Birmingham (to whom Massey had reported at Berkeley), Chadwick, and Sir Edward Appleton, the Secretary of the Department for Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). They decided upon W. H. B. Skinner of Harwell. Herbert Skinner headed the physics section there: he also had experience on the Manhattan Project, as he had worked with Massey on isotope separation at Berkeley.

There is, oddly, no discussion by the team of Skinner’s merits, nor even the suggestion of a process for interviewing Skinner, or asking him about his plans and objectives, or whether he even wanted the job. Cockcroft does not seem to have been consulted on his willingness to release his second-in-command so soon after the latter’s appointment. This must be considered as highly provocative and controversial, given Skinner’s role as Cockcroft’s deputy, and what Mountford wrote about the importance of the position, and I shall explore the rationale in detail later in this article. The note merely states: “He accepted and took up duties formally in Oct. 1949.”  Moreover, Andrew Brown, in his biography of Joseph Rotblat, states that Rotblat had been appointed joint acting head of the physics department at Liverpool in October 1948, before resigning in March 1949. That happened to be just after the speedy decision in favour of Skinner, but Skinner does not even merit a mention in Brown’s book. * Did Rotblat perhaps think that his close friend Chadwick should have championed his cause instead of Skinner’s? Maybe he simply regarded the prospect of working under Skinner intolerable. Or perhaps he was asked to move aside to make room for a Harwell transferee?

[* Rotblat obtained a Ph.D., his second, from Liverpool in 1950. It seems that the Ph.D. was awarded after he moved to London.]

According to what Mountford claimed, Rotblat moved to St. Bartholomew’s Medical School not out of pique at Skinner’s appointment, but because of his dislike of military applications of nuclear science. Again, Mountford’s judgment (or memory) should be challenged. Rotblat had voiced his objections to the military uses of the science back in 1944, when it became apparent that the Germans would not be successful in building such a bomb. He had moved to Liverpool, which was constructing a cyclotron to aid applications for energy, was appointed Director of Research for Nuclear Physics at the university, and was Chairman of the Cyclotron Panel of the UK Nuclear Physics Committee from 1946 to 1950. He had thus had several years to have considered any objections to working there.

Irrespective of the exact circumstances concerning Rotblat’s departure, and whether he felt rebuffed, Skinner, on taking up his duties, raised the question of replacing Rotblat, and ‘the idea emerged’ of a second chair in Experimental Physics. Turchetti indicates, more boldly, that Skinner ‘dictated’ that the Faculty of Sciences agree to establish a professorship, as this would be the status that Pontecorvo demanded. Yet it is not clear where Turchetti gathered this insight, and it is not precisely dated. Mountford gives October 1949 as the time Skinner assumed his duties. Even if one considers it unlikely that a recruit not yet established would be able to make demands of that nature, if Skinner did indeed identify and recommend Pontecorvo that early, two months before the disclosures ofDecember 1949, it would have very serious implications, suggesting that MI5 and the Ministry already had reservations about the naturalised Italian. And, even in December 1949-January 1950, Skinner’s approaching Pontecorvo without informing his boss, Cockcroft, would have been highly irregular. Mountford may have been putting a positive gloss on the affair, but it now sounds as if undisclosed pressure was being applied from other quarters.

In any case (again, according to Mountford) the Faculty responded by agreeing, in principle, to approve the chair ‘if a satisfactory person were available’. The outcome was that Mountford lunched with Skinner and Pontecorvo on January 18, 1950, i.e. a month before the fateful visit of the American Thornton. Pontecorvo, according to Turchetti, was, however, not very impressed with Liverpool. (And his highly strung Swedish wife, Marianne, would have been very uncomfortable there: the wife of one of my on-line colleagues, a woman who hails from Sheffield, asserts that there was not much to choose between Moscow and Liverpool at that time.) Alan Moorehead wrote that Mrs. Pontecorvo visited the city, but was ‘worried about the cold in the north’ – so unlike her native Stockholm, one imagines. The Chairs Committee then spent three months or so collecting information about the candidate. Mountford had meanwhile spoken to Chadwick, who had doubts whether Pontecorvo could stand up to Skinner’s ‘forceful personality’. A formal interview with Pontecorvo eventually took place, but not until June 6, 1950. He did not overall impress, however, partly because of his poor English. Yet the committee overcame its reservations, and Pontecorvo would later accept the position, with January 1951 set as the date on which he would assume duties.

Mountford’s description of events as a smooth series is a travesty of what was really going on. Given what happened between January and June, Pontecorvo’s apparent freedom to accept or reject the offer in June was an unlikely outcome. First of all, in March, Pontecorvo had given Arnold the impression he had already received a firm offer, a claim belied by Mountford’s account. At this stage, Pontecorvo apparently did not respond to it, however vague and undocumented. Later that month, however, further damaging evidence against him came from Sweden via MI6 (a communication that was surely not passed on to Mountford). A letter from MI6 to the famous Sonia-watcher J.H. Marriott, in B2, dated March 2, 1950, describes Pontecorvo and his wife as ‘avowed Communists’. This revelation applied more pressure on MI5 and the Ministry of Supply to remove Pontecorvo from Harwell. The outcome was that, on April 6 (KV/2 -1887, s.n. 26) Arnold was again recommending that ‘it would be a good thing if he were able to obtain a post at one of the British universities’, even boosting the suggestion that ‘we might continue to avail ourselves of his undoubted ability as consultant in limited fields.’ The naivety displayed is amazing: Klaus Fuchs had just been sentenced to fourteen years for espionage activities.

Furthermore, Arnold added that Pontecorvo, after denying that he was a Communist, but admitting that he was assuredly a man of the Left, ‘has already toyed with the idea of an appointment in Rome University, and is at present turning over in his mind an offer which has come to him from America.’ The latter must have been an enormous bluff: given the FBI report, the United States would have been the last place to admit him for employment. This truth of his allegiance was soon confirmed, with matters became more embarrassing in July. Geoffrey Patterson in Washington then wrote to Sillitoe informing him that the FBI had learned of Pontecorvo’s working at Harwell, and had indicated that they had sent messages to Washington (and maybe London) on three occasions in 1943 describing Pontecorvo’s communist affiliations. The messages may have been destroyed, among the files of British Security Co-ordination, after the war. In Washington, as MI6’s representative, Kim Philby (of all people) could not trace them – or so he said. MI5 apparently had no record of them.

If the dons at Liverpool had been briefed on all that had happened, they presumably would have been even more reluctant to take Pontecorvo on. Yet, the more dangerous Pontecorvo seemed to be, the more MI5 wanted to plant him at Liverpool. Using FO 371/84837 and correspondence held in the Liverpool University Library, as well as the Pontecorvo papers at Churchill College, (none of which I have personally inspected), Turchetti writes: “From the spring of 1950, Skinner used his recent security investigations to put pressure on his colleague to accept the new position. He also convinced the university’s administrators of Pontecorvo’s suitability without making them aware of the ongoing inquiry.” In addition, with ammunition from Roger Makins from the Ministry of Supply, Skinner had to wear down objections from university administrators that Pontecorvo was improperly qualified to teach. Skinner was clearly receiving instructions from his political masters.

Chadwick and Cockcroft acted as referees for Pontecorvo, but they could hardly be assessed as objective, given their involvement in the plot. Chadwick pondered over whether he should confide in Mountford with the awful facts, and wrote to him that he would discuss the university’s concerns with Cockcroft, but he did not follow up. And then, when the final offer was reluctantly made on June 6, Pontecorvo vacillated, requesting another month to consider. On July 24, the day before he left on holiday, never to return, he wrote to Mountford, accepting the offer, and stating that he expected to start work after Christmas, when he would leave Harwell.

On October 23, 1950, Liddell had an interview with Prime Minister Attlee. He glossed over the FBI/BSC issue without giving it a date, and referred solely to the Swedish source of March 2 as evidence of Pontecorvo’s communism, conveniently overlooking both the events of December 1949 and February 1950. All this is confirmed by his memorandum of the meeting on file (KV 2/1887, s.n. 63A). MI5 had been attempting a reconstruction of Pontecorvo’s activities (KV 2/1288, s.n. 87C), which presumably fed Liddell’s intelligence. This account (undated, but probably in July or August 1950) omits both the warning from the FBI in December 1949 (which is confirmed elsewhere in the file), as well as the information given to Cockcroft at the beginning of March 1950. It does concentrate, however, on the information from Sweden, reporting on the discussions that occurred in the following terms: “D. At. En. [Perrin, at Department of Atomic Energy] decided not to grant PONTECORVO’s request for promotion and to encourage him to take up the post offered him at Liverpool by Professor Skinner. This was arranged only after considerable discussion.” Pontecorvo was thus allowed to leave on vacation in July without submitting his resignation or formally being taken off Harwell’s books. And he never returned.

Yet his whole saga eerily echoes what had happened in a collapsed time-frame with Klaus Fuchs.

  • Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
Klaus Fuchs

Fuchs’s path to Harwell was slightly less erratic, but also controversial. He had been recruited to Tube Alloys, the British codename for atomic weapons research, in 1941, and had moved to the USA at the end of 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project. In June 1946 he was summoned from Los Alamos to head the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell, working under Herbert Skinner. Skinner had been the first divisional head appointed at Harwell.  Fuchs was appointed chairman of the Power Steering Committee at Harwell, and Pontecorvo joined the committee later.

What is extraordinary about Fuchs’s return to the UK is that the first that MI5 learned about it was when Arnold, the security officer, wrote to MI5, in October 1946, about his suspicions that Fuchs might be a communist. He might well have gained his intelligence from Skinner himself, who had known Fuchs from the time they both worked at Bristol University in the 1930s. The political climate by this stage meant that embryonic ‘purge’ procedures (which were solidified in May 1947) would have to be applied to such figures working in sensitive posts. Frank Close, in Trinity, covers very thoroughly these remarkable few months at the end of 1946, when MI5 officers openly voiced their concerns that Fuchs might be a spy. Michael Serpell and Joe Archer (Jane Archer’s husband) were most energetic in advising that Fuchs should be kept away from any work on atomic energy or weapons research. Rudolf Peierls came under suspicion, too, but Roger Hollis countered with a strong statement that it was highly unlikely that the two were engaged in espionage, and gained support in his judgment from Dick White and Graham Mitchell.

The next three years were thus a very nervous time for MI5 and Arnold, as they kept a watch on Fuchs’s movements and associations. Yet Fuchs was placed on ‘permanent establishment’ in August 1948, and Arnold was later to claim, deceitfully, that Fuchs came under suspicion only in that year, when he was observed speaking intently to a known communist at a conference. The matter came to a head, however, in 1949, when the decipherment of VENONA transcripts led the Washington analysts to narrow down the identity of the spy CHARLES to either Fuchs or Peierls. Guy Liddell indicates that fact as early as August 9: at the end of August, the FBI formally told MI5 of its belief that the leak pointed to Fuchs (because of the visit to his sister in Boston).

MI5 immediately started making connections. It alerted MI6 to the Fuchs case, and to his Communist brother, Gerhard. (Maurice Oldfield had told Kim Philby of the discovery before the latter left London for Washington in September 1949.) MI5 identified the close relationship between the Skinners and Fuchs. A report by J. C. Robertson (B2A) of September 9 (after a meeting between Arnold, Collard, Skardon and Robertson) runs as follows: “Although FUCHS’ address has until recently been Lacies Court, Abingdon, he has in fact rarely lived there, but has chosen to sleep more often than not with his close friends the SKINNERS at Harwell. He is on more than usually intimate terms with Mrs. SKINNER. The SKINNERS will be leaving in about six months for Liverpool, where SKINNER himself is to take up the chair about to be vacated [sic!] by Sir James Chadwick. At present, SKINNER devotes his time about half and half to Liverpool and Harwell.” 

Robertson went on to write that Professor Peierls was also a regular visitor at the Skinners, and that Fuchs was in addition very friendly with Otto Frisch of Cambridge University. (Frisch, the co-author, with Rudolf Peierls, of the famous memorandum that showed the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon, had moved to Liverpool from Birmingham, where Peierls worked, and had been responsible for the development of the cyclotron developed there. Yet, after the war, he had taken up work at Harwell as head of the Nuclear Physics Division, before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1947.) At Harwell, Arnold alone was in on the investigation: Cockcroft was not to be told yet of what was going on.

This is an intriguing document, by virtue of what it hints at, and what it gets wrong. The suggestion that Fuchs is having an affair with Erna Skinner is very strong, and the mention of Herbert’s long absences in Liverpool indicates the opportunities for Fuchs and Erna to carry on their liaison. Yet the transition of the Liverpool chair remains confusing: Chadwick had moved to Cambridge in 1948; Mountford noted that Skinner had taken up his duties in October 1949, but also referred (well in retrospect) that there had been an interregnum in the Physics position for a year, from March 1948 to March 1949. Robertson indicates that the Skinners will not be moving until about March 1950. Skinner’s own file at the National Archives informs us that he did not resign from Harwell until April 14, 1950, which was a very late decision, suggesting perhaps that his preferences had lain with staying at Harwell as long as possible, and that he might even have had aspirations of restoring his career there. The files suggest that his duties at Harwell remained substantial well into 1950. A report by J. C. Robertson of B2A, dated March 9, 1950, describes Skinner as follows: ’. . . deputy to Sir John Cockcroft and who has temporarily taken over Fuchs’ post as head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell’. Skinner then continued to work in a consultative capacity at Harwell: he wrote to the incarcerated Fuchs as late as December 20, 1950 that ‘we are definitely at Liverpool but go on visits to Harwell quite often.’ How could Skinner perform that job if he was spending so much his time in Liverpool? In any case, it was an exceedingly long and drawn-out period of dual responsibilities for Skinner.

  • Fuchs’s Interrogations
Jim Skardon

Armed with their confidential VENONA intelligence, MI5 prepared for the interrogation of Fuchs, but were not initially hopeful of gaining a successful confession. Thus the thorny question of what they could collectively do to ‘eliminate’ him (in their clumsy expression) quickly arose. Fuchs might decide to flee the country, which would be disastrous, as his Moscow bosses would be able to pick his brains without any restrictions. Liddell continued the theme, showing his enthusiasm for a softer approach against his boss’s more prosecutorial instincts. Liddell doubted that interrogations would be successful in eliciting a confession from Fuchs, and, as early as October 31, 1949, he was suggesting ‘alternative employment’, though being overruled by Sillitoe. At this stage, Peierls and Fuchs were both under investigation, but Liddell was gaining confidence that Fuchs was ‘their man’. (Peierls had come under suspicion in August since he also had a sister in the United States, but he was soon eliminated from the inquiry.)

On November 28, Liddell noted that he was still thinking in terms of finding another job for Fuchs, and on December 5, he tried to convince Perrin that the chances of a conviction were remote, saying that ‘efforts should be made to explore the ground for alternative work’. At a meeting to discuss Fuchs on December 15, 1949 (see Close, p 255), Perrin ‘commented that Herbert Skinner was about to move to Liverpool University, and that a transfer of Fuchs to Liverpool might be arranged through Skinner, who would probably welcome Fuchs’ presence there.’ (Perrin was presumably unaware then of the Erna Skinner-Klaus Fuchs liaison.) It seems that the notion of parking Fuchs specifically at Liverpool University was first aired at this time.  (Note that this is exactly the same date when MI5 learned about Pontecorvo from the FBI.) When Jim Skardon managed to get Fuchs to make a partial confession on December 21, Liddell was still considering finding him ‘some job at some University compatible with his qualifications’.

After another interrogation of Fuchs, on December 30, Liddell met the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, on January 2, 1950, and informed him of MI5’s resolve to complete the interrogations. Even Lord Portal (head of Atomic Energy at the Ministry of Supply) was in general harmony, although reportedly bearing the more cautious opinion that ‘the security risk of maintaining FUCHS at Harwell could not be accepted, and that some post should be found for him at one of the Universities’. Attlee seemed ready to accept Portal’s recommendation. Yet two important players had yet to be brough into the plot: Cockcroft and Skinner.

When Cockcroft became involved, matters took an alarmingly different turn. Cockcroft asked Skinner, on January 4, whether he could find a place for Fuchs at Liverpool. This would suggest that, unless a deep feint was being played, Skinner was not aware of the clandestine efforts to dispose of Fuchs, as his depositions to Liverpool had hitherto been made with Pontecorvo in mind. Skinner must surely have been bemused, and must have asked why such a step was being considered. Cockcroft probably said more than he should have. (Cockcroft had the irritating habit of concealing his opinions in meetings with his subordinates, and then showing disappointment when his intentions were not read, but then talking too much in one-on-one conversations.) On January 10, Cockcroft met with Fuchs and Skinner, separately. Cockcroft told Fuchs ‘that he would help him find a university post and suggested that Professor Skinner might be able to take Fuchs on at Liverpool’. It also reinforces the fact that Cockcroft had not been brought into the Pontecorvo affair. Astonishingly, all the time up until March 1, Skinner was negotiating with Pontecorvo and Mountford behind Cockcroft’s back, while Cockcroft was pressing Skinner (up until Fuchs’s confession on January 24) to place Fuchs at Liverpool without bringing Skinner into the full picture.

Whether Skinner learned about Cockcroft’s offer to Fuchs from Cockcroft or Erna is not clear, but MI5 reported that Skinner learned ‘considerably more about the Fuchs affair than he is authorized to know’, and (as Close writes), ‘in consequence decided to take steps to ensure that Fuchs stayed at Harwell’. Given the circumstances, this was not surprising. Skinner already had been promoting Pontecorvo’s case, and because of Erna, would surely have preferred that Fuchs stayed at Harwell. So much for Skinner as the enabler of graceful retirement, but he had been placed in an impossible position. He had been thrust into the middle of these negotiations, perhaps reluctantly. In the course of one month (January 1950), Cockcroft applied pressure on him to accept Fuchs at Liverpool, Skinner next privately tried to talk Fuchs out of the move, and then, even before Fuchs made his confession, Skinner met with Mountford and Pontecorvo to consider a position for Pontecorvo at the University. It did not appear that his bosses at Harwell and the Ministry of Supply were behaving very sensitively to his own needs. At the same time, they were very anxious to make sure that Skinner kept to himself anything he may have learned about the predicament that Fuchs – and the authorities – were in.

Here also occurred the highly questionable incident of ‘inducement’, highlighted by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan in her recent biography of Fuchs, whereby Cockcroft essentially offered Fuchs a free pass if he co-operated, stressing that the recent appointment of Fuchs’s father to a position in East Germany made Klaus’s employment at Harwell untenable. Cockcroft also famously suggested that Adelaide University might be an alternative home, a suggestion which left Dick White and Percy Sillitoe aghast. Adelaide University happened to be the alma mater of Mark Oliphant, who had been a colleague of Peierls at Birmingham, and had also worked on isotope separation at Berkeley. (These connections go deep.) Oliphant’s biographical record suggests that he returned to Australia after the war, yet he is recorded by Mountford as attending the fateful meeting in January 1949 to decide on Skinner as Chadwick’s successor. No ground appeared to have been prepared for this idea, and the incident, while suggesting Cockcroft’s political naivety, also hints that Oliphant had been brought into the discussions some time before. MI5 struggled with the challenge of trying to coordinate the roles of Arnold, Skinner and Cockcroft, all with different needs, perspectives, and all being granted only a partial side of the story.

On January 11, Liverpool University decided to recommend the establishment of a second chair in Physics: perhaps Mountford was not yet aware that he was about to face two candidates for one position. On January 18, Skinner brought Pontecorvo up for a meeting with Mountford. Then some of the pressure was relieved. On January 24, Fuchs made a full confession to Jim Skardon, in the fourth interrogation. He was arrested on February 2, sent to trial, and sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment on March 1. For a while, Liverpool University was saved the embarrassment of being forced to accept one dangerous communist spy in its faculty. What Adelaide University thought about all this (if they were indeed consulted) is probably unrecorded.

  • Herbert Skinner at Harwell
Herbert Skinner

I wrote about Skinner’s enigmatic career in the second installment of The Mysterious Affair at Peierls. He had enjoyed a distinguished war record, both in Britain in the USA, and merited his appointment as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell, where he was apparently a very hard and productive worker. Yet he had some facets to his character and lifestyle that raised security questions – not least the fact that he had married Erna, an Austrian born in Czernowitz, who socialized with openly communist friends. (The unconventional lives and habits of the Skinners assuredly deserve some special study of their own.) Despite their background, it appears (unless some files have been withheld) that MI5 began keeping record on the pair only towards the end of 1949, even though Erna had for a while maintained frequent social contact with her Red friends, including Tatiana Malleson. The statements that Skinner made, when later questioned by MI5, that protested innocence, could be interpreted as the honest claims of a loyal civil servant, or the obvious cover of a collaborator in subversion. (That is the Moura Budberg ploy with H. G. Wells, who, when asked by ‘Aitchgee’ whether she was a spy, told him that, whether she were a spy or not, she would have to answer ‘No.’)

Moreover, Erna was carrying on an affair with Fuchs, taking advantage of Herbert’s frequent absences when he was splitting his time between Liverpool and Harwell, but also acting brazenly when her husband was around.  In the last months of 1949, the Erna-Klaus relationship was allowed to thrive. As Close writes (Trinity, p 244): “Because Erna’s husband, Herbert, was in the process of transferring from Harwell to take up a professorship at the University of Liverpool, he was frequently away from the laboratory, so there were many empty hours for Erna, which she would pass with Fuchs.” If they were not aware of it before, MI5 could not avoid the evidence when they started applying phone-taps to Fuchs’s and the Skinners’ telephones. Skinner was thus a security risk himself.

Skinner, who had known Fuchs since their Bristol days, also made some bizarre and contradictory statements about Fuchs’s allegiances, at one time, in 1952, admitting that he had known that Fuchs was an ardent communist when at Bristol, but did not think it significant ‘when he found Fuchs at Harwell’, having earlier criticised MI5 for allowing Fuchs to be recruited at the Department of Atomic Energy. On June 28, 1950, when Skardon interviewed Skinner about Fuchs, the ex-Special Branch officer reported his response as following: “Dr. Skinner was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946. Of course I asked Skinner whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this rebuff.”

Yes, that response was perhaps a bit too pat, rather like Philby’s memoranda to London from Washington, where he brought attention to Burgess’s spying paraphernalia, and later to Maclean’s possible identity as the Foreign Office spy, as a ploy to distract attention from himself. Fuchs ‘clearly a Communist’ –  that should perhaps have provoked a stronger reaction, especially with Skinner’s assumed patriotism. But his claim was certainly fallacious: Skinner’s Royal Society biography makes it clear that he was busy supervising construction at Harwell in the first half of 1946, substituting for Cockcroft, who did not arrive until June. Fuchs did not arrive until August, and Skinner must have known about his coming arrival, and even facilitated it.

In addition, early in 1951, after Skinner had moved full-time to Liverpool, Director-General Sillitoe wrote to the Chief Constable of Liverpool, asking him to keep an eye on the Skinners. A Liverpool Police Report was sent to MI5 on May 10, indicating that the Skinners had been active members of the local Communist Party ‘since they arrived in Liverpool from Harwell almost two years ago’. (The timing is awry.) Faulty record-keeping? The wrong targets? A mean-spirited slur by a rival who resented Skinner’s appointment? A reliable report on some foolish behaviour by the new Professor? Another mystery, but a pattern of duplicity and subterfuge on his part.

Skinner’s actions are frequently hard to explain. In my recent bulletin on Peierls, I reported at length on the mysterious meetings that Skinner held with Fuchs in New York in 1947, when they were attending the Disarmament Conference. This episode was described at length by the FBI, but appears to have been overlooked (if available) by all five of Fuchs’s biographers: Moss (1987), Williams (1987), Rossiter (2014), Close (2019), and Greenspan (2020). More mysteriously, Skinner’s conversations with Fuchs suggested that he had a confidential contact at MI6. Was Skinner perhaps working under cover, gathering information on Communists’ activities?

Thus it is not surprising that Skinner might not have embraced the prospect of Fuchs’s joining him (and Erna) at Liverpool once his assignments at Harwell had been cleared up. Could he not get that ‘young pup’ out of his life and his marriage? The record clearly shows that, after Skinner had been instructed by Cockcroft to show no curiosity in what was going on with the Fuchs investigation, Fuchs admitted his espionage to Erna on January 17, after which she told her husband. By January 27, Robertson is pointing out that Skinner has been told too much by Cockcroft (who was not good at handling conflict), and that Skinner has been trying to persuade Fuchs to stay at Harwell. This particular crisis was held off by the fact that Fuchs had, shortly beforehand, made his full confession to Skardon, and the strategy favoured by White and Sillitoe of proceeding to trial began to take firm shape.

The files on the Skinners at the National Archives (KV 2/2080, 2081 & 2082) reveal yet more twists, however, indicating that there were questions about Skinner much earlier, and also showing a remarkable exchange a couple of years after the Pontecorvo and Fuchs incidents, when Skinner naively exposed, to an American publication, the hollowness of the government’s policy.

  • Skinner’s Removal?
Sir James Chadwick

We have to face the possibility that Skinner’s move away from Harwell had been planned a long time before. One remarkable minute from J. C. Robertson (B2A), dated July 20, 1950, is written in response to concerns expressed from various quarters about the Skinners’ Communist friends, and includes the following statement: “We agreed that since the SKINNER’s [sic], on their own admission, have Communist friends, they may share these friends [sic] views, and that Professor SKINNER’s removal from Harwell to Liverpool University should not therefore be a ground for the Security Service ceasing to pay them attention.” ‘Removal’ is a highly pejorative term for the process of Skinner’s being appointed to replace the highly-regarded Chadwick. Was this a misunderstanding on Robertson’s part as to why Skinner was leaving? Was it simply a careless choice of words? Or did it truly reflect that the authorities had decided that Skinner was a liability two years before?

The suggestion that Skinner was ‘removed’ might cause us to reflect on the possibility that Chadwick was encouraged to take up the appointment at Cambridge in order to make room for Skinner. What is the evidence? Chadwick was assuredly an honourable and effective leader of the Tube Alloys contingent in the USA and Canada. He forged an effective partnership with the formidable General Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, but who was very wary of foreign participation in the exercise. Yet Chadwick became stressed with his role, conscience-strung by the enormity of what was being created, and not always being tough enough with potential traitors.

Chadwick had made some political slip-ups on the way. He had been criticised by Mark Oliphant for not being energetic enough in the USA,  he had provided a reference for Alan Nunn May for  a position at King’s College London just before Nunn May was arrested, and, in a statement that perturbed many, he would later openly express his approval of Nunn May’s motives, while saying he did not support what his friend did. He had also given support to the questionable Rotblat when the latter announced his bizarre plan to parachute into Poland. He had appointed another scientist with a questionable background, Herbert Fröhlich, just before his departure from Liverpool. Moreover, while he had openly supported Cockcroft’s appointment, he was not overall happy with the separation of R & D from production of nuclear energy. He and Cockcroft were both building cyclotrons, and thus rivals, but Cockcroft was gaining more funding. Rotblat told Chadwick that Harwell was offering larger salaries. The feud over budgets simmered in the two short years (1946-1948) while Chadwick was at Liverpool.

He was reluctant to leave Liverpool, Mountford reported, even though he was admittedly an exhausted figure by then. His staff did not want him to leave, either, and he maintained excellent relations with Mountford himself. By 1948, Perrin – who reported to the strict and disciplined Lord Portal at the Ministry of Supply – and MI5 were following through Prime Minster Attlee’s instructions to tighten up on communist infiltration, as the Soviet Union’s intentions in Eastern Europe became more threatening. Thus installing Cockcroft’s number two at Liverpool would have allowed the removal of a competent leader who had made an embarrassing choice of wife, place an ally of Cockcroft’s at the rival institution, and set up a function that could assimilate unwanted leftists from Harwell. Overall, Cockcroft trusted Skinner, who had worked for him very effectively on radar testing in the Orkneys at the beginning of the war, but he had to be made to understand that Skinner’s wife’s friends were a problem.

Thus, if Chadwick was pushed out to make room for Skinner, what finally prompted the authorities to eject him? It looks as if Liddell, White and Perrin were pulling the strings, not Cockcroft. Arnold, the security officer, stated in October 1951 that Fuchs’s close relationship with Erna Skinner had started at the end of 1947. November 1947 was the month that the three of them were in New York. The injurious FBI report may have been sent to MI5, but subsequently buried. Thus MI5 officers, already concerned about Fuchs’s reliability, might in early 1948 have seen Skinner as a liability as well, arranged the deal with Perrin and Oliphant, convinced Chadwick (who had, of course, moved on by then) of Skinner’s superior claim over Rotblat and Fröhlich, and set the slow train in motion. It was probably never explained to Cockcroft what exactly what was going on.

It is possible that MI5 had seen the problem of disposing of possible Soviet agents coming some time before. Chapman Pincher had announced, in the Daily Express in March 1948, that the British counter-espionage service had been investigating three communist scientists at Harwell. This triad did not include Fuchs or Pontecorvo, however, since two months later Pincher reported that all three had been fired. In a memo written in August 1953, when Skinner was in some trouble over a magazine article [see next section], R. H. Morton of C2A in MI5, having sought advice from one of MI5’s solicitors, ‘S.L.B.’ (actually B. A. Hill of Lincoln’s Inn), stated that ‘The Ministry of Supply should be asked whether Skinner was ever in a position to know during the Fuchs investigation that although we knew Fuchs was a spy, he was allowed to continue at Harwell for a time’.

This is an irritatingly vague declaration, since ‘for a time’ could mean ‘for a few weeks’ or ‘for a few years’, or anything in between.  Yet it specifically states ‘was a spy’, not ‘was under suspicion because he was a communist’. According to the released archives, that recognition did not occur until September 1949. If the solicitor and the officer were aware of the rules of the game, and the impossibility of immediate removal or prosecution, they might have been carelessly hinting at earlier undisclosed events, and that the Ministry of Supply had initiated stables-cleaning moves that took an inordinate amount of time to complete.

  • Skinner’s Ventures into Journalism
Herbert Skinner in ‘The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’

Herbert Skinner later drew a lot of unwelcome attention to himself in two articles that he wrote for publication. In August 1952, John Cockcroft invited him to review Alan Moorehead’s book, The Traitors (a volume issued as a public relations exercise by MI5) for a periodical identified as Atomic Scientists’ News (in fact, more probably the American Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). And in June 1953, Skinner published an article in the same Bulletin, titled ‘Atomic Energy in Post-War Britain’. In both pieces he betrayed knowledge that was embarrassing to MI5.

He was sagacious enough to send a draft of his book review to Henry Arnold on September 18, 1952, in particular seeking confirmation of the fact that Fuchs’s confession to Skardon occurred in two stages, and to verify his impression that the information that came from Sweden in March of 1950 applied only to Mrs. Pontecorvo. He wrote: “But I know K confessed to Erna about the Diff. Plant a day or two prior to Jan. 19th (the date when he was considered for the Royal Society. This is confidential but did you know it?)” Skinner felt that Moorehead’s account had been telescoped, and wanted to correct it. As for the communication from Sweden, Skinner based his recollection on what Cockcroft had told him, expressing the opinion that, since Pontecorvo had spent so little time in Stockholm, it was unlikely that data had been gathered about him.

The initial response from MI5 was remarkably light. Skardon (B2A) cast doubt on the earlier January 17 confession, and suggested that the claim should be followed up with Mrs. Skinner. His boss, J. C. Robertson, was however a bit more demanding, requesting, in a reply to Arnold dated September 24, that an entire paragraph, about Fuchs’s confessions, and the pointers to a leakage arriving from the USA, be removed. [The complete text of the draft review is available in KV 2/2080.] He added: “I understand that you will yourself be pointing out to SKINNER the undesirability of making any reference to the report from Stockholm which he quotes at the bottom of Page 9 of his manuscript.”

This latter observation was a bit rich and ingenuous. All that Skinner did was attempt to clarify a statement made by Moorehead about the Swedish report, and Moorehead had obviously been fed that information by MI5. Moorehead’s text (pp 184-185) runs as follows: “Indeed Pontecorvo was not persona grata any longer, for early in March a report upon him had arrived from Sweden and this report made it clear that not only Pontecorvo but Marianne as well was a Communist.” Moorehead went on to write that ‘there was nothing to support this in England or Canada [or the USA?], but it was evident that he would have to be closely watched’. Here was an implicit admission that MI5 had blown its cover by allowing Moorehead to see this information. MI5 wanted to bury all the intelligence about Pontecorvo that had come in from the USA, and Robertson clearly wanted to distract attention away from Sweden, too. The Ministry of Supply also issued a sharp admonition that the item about Sweden in Moorehead’s book should never have passed censorship. One wonders what Clement Attlee thought about this anomaly.

The outcome was that Skinner had to make a weird admission of error. First of all, he agreed that he found Moorehead’s mentioning of the Swedish reference ‘unfortunate’, but insisted that he was not in error over Erna’s distress call to him on the 17th, after Fuchs had confessed to her. This prompted Arnold to raise his game, and try to talk Skinner out of submitting the review entirely, as he was using personal information from his role at Harwell, and it would raise ‘a hornet’s nest’ of publicity. He even suggested to Skinner, after lunching with him and Erna, that his memory of dates must be at fault. Even though no statement to that effect is on file, Robertson noted on October 30 that Skinner ‘has now admitted that he may have been mistaken’. (But recall Robertson’s statement of January 27, described above, which indicated that Skinner had already tried to convince Fuchs to stay at Harwell.) Robertson added that ‘we have never been very happy about Mrs. SKINNER, who was of course FUCHS’ mistress’, but announced that MI5 no longer need to interview her about the matter. Robertson alluded to the fact that MI5’s own records pointed to the absence of any evidence of any ‘confession’ by Fuchs to Mrs. Skinner, but how such an event would even have been known about, let alone recorded, was not explained.

It appears that, after this kerfuffle, the review was not in fact published, but Cockcroft and Skinner did not learn any lessons from the exercise. In the June 1953 issue of the Bulletin appeared a piece titled ‘Atomic Energy in Postwar Britain’. The article started, rather dangerously, with the words: “I think that I, who was a Deputy Director at Harwell from 1946 to 1950, am by now sufficiently detached to write my own ideas without these being confused with the British official point of view.” Skinner went on to lament the decline in cooperation between the USA and Great Britain, although he openly attributed part of the blame to the Nunn May and Fuchs cases. But he then made an extraordinarily ingenuous and provocative statement: “It is true that we have had on our hands more than our fair share of dangerous agents who have been caught (or who are known).”

What could he have been thinking? Sure enough, the Daily Mail Science Correspondent J. Stubbs Walker picked up Skinner’s sentence in a short piece describing how Britain was attempting to convince Washington that its security measures were at least as good as America’s. Equally predictably, the MI5 solicitor B. A. Hill was rapidly introduced to the case, and, naturally, drew the conclusion that Skinner’s words implied that there were other agents known, but not yet prosecuted, at Harwell. He thus asked Arnold, in a meeting with Squadron Leader Morton (C2A), whether Skinner had read Kenneth de Courcy’s Intelligence Digest, since de Courcy (a notorious rabble-rouser who was a constant thorn in MI5’s flesh) had made a similar statement in the Digest of the preceding March that ‘there were still two professors employed at Harwell who were sending Top Secret information to the Soviet Union’.

Fortunately for his cause, Skinner had written to the Daily Mail to explain what he wrote, and how it should have been interpreted. (He assumed that Stubbs Walker must have picked up his statement from the UK publication, the Atomic Scientists’ News, which published the same text in July, but, while the archive contains all the pages of the issue of the American periodical, it does not otherwise refer to the UK publication.) “The parenthesis was simply put in to cover the case of Pontecorvo,” he wrote, “and I would like to make it clear that I have no knowledge whatever of any other agents not convicted.” It was a clumsy attempt at exculpation: the syntax of the phase ‘who are known’ clearly indicates a plurality.

Yet what was more extraordinary is that, again, Skinner had written the article at the request of the hapless Cockcroft, ‘who read the article before it was despatched’. Moreover, a copy also was sent to Lord Cherwell’s office, and an acknowledgment indicated that ‘Lord Cherwell had read the majority of the article’. Perhaps Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s wartime scientific adviser, and in 1953 Paymaster-General, now responsible for atomic matters, should have read the article from beginning to end. Perhaps he read all he was given, because Skinner was able to produce a letter from Cherwell at the end of August, indicating that he had no comments. Yet what was sent to Cherwell was a ‘draft of the first half of the paper’. The offending phrase did indeed appear near the beginning of the article: Skinner was given a slap on the wrists, and sent away. Whether Cockcroft was rebuked is unknown. A revealing note in Skinner’s file, dated June 12, 1953, reports that Cockcroft would probably be leaving Harwell soon, to replace Sir Lawrence Bragg as head of the Clarendon Laboratory.  Morton notes: “Rumours indicate Skinner in the running to replace him. Arnold considers this most undesirable ‘for obvious reasons’.” But it is an indication that Skinner still regarded his sojourn at Liverpool as temporary, and wanted to return to replace Cockcroft.

The MI5 solicitor made an unusual error of judgment himself, however. In that initial memorandum of August 12, when he had evidently discussed the matter with some MI5 officers, he included the following: “On the other hand it was not generally thought [note the bureaucratic passive voice] that when he wrote the article he was in fact quoting DE COURCY, but rather that he had in mind cases such as Boris DAVIDSON, and what he really meant to say was that there were persons at Harwell who were suspected of being enemy agents but had not yet been prosecuted, though they were suspected of acting as enemy agents.” That was an unlawyerly and clumsy construction – and it should have been DAVISON, not DAVIDSON – but the implication is undeniable. ‘Cases such as Boris DAVIDSON’ clearly indicates a nest of infiltrators. And I shall complete this analysis with a study of the Davison case.

  • Boris Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
Boris Davison in ‘Empire News’

The files on Boris Davison at the National Archives comprise nine chunky folders (KV 2/2579-1, -2 and -3, and KV 2/2580 to KV 2/2585), stretching from 1943 to 1954. They constitute an extraordinary untapped historical asset, and merit an article on their own. (Equally astonishing is that Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 has only a short paragraph – but no Index entry – on Davison, and nothing about him appears in Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, when Pincher himself was responsible, at the time, for revealing uncomfortable information on Davison’s removal in the Daily Express.) I shall therefore just sum up the story here, concentrating on the aspects of his case that relate to espionage and British universities, and how his convoluted story relates to the problems of dealing with questionable employees in confidential government work.

Davison’s pilgrimage to Harwell is even more picaresque than that of Fuchs or Pontecorvo. Boris’s great-grandfather, who was English, had gone to Russia, accompanied by his Scottish wife, in Czarist times to work as a train-driver in Leningrad. They returned to Rugby for the birth of Boris’s grandfather, James (the birth certificate alarmingly states that he was born ‘at Rugby Station’), who was taken back to Russia at the age of two months, in 1851. James married a Russian, and their child Boris was born in Gorki as a British subject, in 1885. The older Boris married a Russian, and the younger Boris was born in 1908. He studied Mathematics at Leningrad University, and graduated in 1930 with an equivalent B.SC. degree.

Davison thereupon worked for the State Hydrological Institute, but, in trying to renew his British passport, he was threatened by the NKVD. Unwilling to give up his nationality, he applied to leave for the United Kingdom in 1938, and was granted a visa. He made his journey to the UK, and succeeded, through his acquaintance with Rear-Admiral Claxton (whom he had met in the Crimea), to gain employment in 1939 at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, working on wind-tunnel calculations. A spell of tuberculosis in 1941 forced his departure from RAE, but, after a year or so in a sanatorium, Rudolf Peierls adopted him for his Tube Alloys project at Birmingham, working for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. (Avid conspiracy theorists, a group of which I am certainly not a member, might point out that Roger Hollis was also in a sanatorium during the summer of 1942, being treated for tuberculosis.) Davison joined Plazcek at Chalk River in Canada, alongside Nunn May and Pontecorvo early in 1945, and, on his return to Britain in September 1947, worked under Fuchs at Harwell, as Senior Principal Scientific Officer.

The suspicions of, and subsequent inquiries into, Fuchs and Pontecorvo provoked similar questions about Davison’s loyalties, and he was placed under intense scrutiny in 1951, after Pontecorvo’s defection. In a letter to A. H. Wilson of Birmingham University, written from an unidentifiable location (probably the British mission in New York) on May 3, 1944, Rudolf Peierls had written that Davison’s ‘best place would be at Y [almost certainly Los Alamos] provided he would be acceptable there, of which I am not yet sure.’ Davison’s records at Kew state that he was sent to Los Alamos for a short while at the beginning of 1945, but indicate that the New Mexico air had not been suitable for Davison’s tubercular condition, and he had to return to Montreal. It is more probable that Davison’s origins and career would have been regarded negatively by the Americans. (Mountain air was at that time considered beneficial for consumptives.) In his memoir, Peierls also claimed that ‘Placzek wanted Boris to accompany him to Los Alamos, but the doctors doubted whether Boris’s health would stand the altitude. He went there on a trial basis, but after a few weeks had to return to Montreal.’

In any case, Davison was considered a very valuable asset, especially by Cockcroft, who declared that Davison ‘knew more about the mathematical theory behind the Atomic Bomb than any other scientist outside America.’ Nevertheless, or possibly because of that fact, MI5’s senior officers recommended in the winter of 1950-1951 that he should be transferred ‘to a university’. They were overruled, however, by Prime Minster Clement Attlee, who decreed that he should be allow to stay in place. MI5 continued to watch Davison carefully, but when a Conservative administration returned to power in October 1951, questions were asked more vigorously, and Davison was eventually forced to leave Harwell, after some very embarrassing leaks to the Press, and some unwelcome questions from the US Embassy. Hearing about the investigations, they would no doubt have been alarmed that Davison was another who had slipped through security procedures: the Los Alamos visit becomes more relevant. Davison joined Birmingham University in September 1953, and a year later found a position in Canada, whither his wife, Olga (whom he had met and married in Canada), wanted to return. He died in 1961.

This barebones outline (derived from various records in the Davison archive) conceals a number of twists, and raises some searching questions. I have been poring over the reports, letters and memoranda in the archive, and discovered some surprising anomalies and missteps. My conclusion is that MI5’s approach to Davison was highly flawed, and I break it down as follows:

  1. Lack of rigour in tracking Davison’s establishment in the UK: MI5 never investigated how he passed through immigration, how he provided for himself in the months after he arrived in 1938, how he was able to apply successfully for a sensitive position with the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, how he was allowed to join Peierls’s project supporting Tube Alloys at Birmingham without any vetting, or how he was allowed to join the Manhattan Project in America.  He was teased at the RAE because of his poor English, and nicknamed ‘Russki’. An occasional question was posed about these unresolved questions, but it appears that the mere holding of a British passport was an adequate qualification for the authorities.
  2. Failure to join the dots: When Peierls was viewed as a possible suspect alongside Fuchs in the autumn of 1949, MI5 might have pursued the Peierls-Davison connection. Peierls claimed in his autobiography Bird of Passage that Davison’s name had been sent to him from ‘the central register’ after Davison completed his spell in a sanatorium, although the event is undated. Peierls then recruited Davison. I can find no record of any such communication. There is no evidence that Peierls was ever interviewed over Davison’s entry to the Tube Alloys project, or that MI5 explored potential commonalities in the experiences of Genia Peierls and Davison in dealing with the Soviet authorities. In Bird of Passage, Peierls completely misrepresented the authorities’ inquiry into Davison’s reliability, suggesting that it did not get under way until 1953.
  3. Ignorance of Stalin’s Methods: MI5 displayed a shocking naivety about the methods of the NKVD. Davison was a distinguished scientist, as the authorised historian of atomic energy, Margaret Gowing, and John Cockcroft both declared. Rather than allow such a person on specious ‘nationalist’ grounds to leave the country to abet the ideological enemy, Stalin would have probably confiscated his UK passport, and forced him to work for the Communist cause. MI5 had failed to listen to Krivitsky, or gather information on the experiences of other scientists ‘expelled’ from the Soviet Union. Instead they trusted Davison’s account of his ‘refusal’ to take Soviet citizenship, even though he gave conflicting accounts of what happened.
  4. Naivety over NKVD Aggression: One of the experiences related by Davison to MI5 was that, when his passport problem came up, he was asked by his NKVD interrogators to spy on his colleagues at Leningrad University. He declined on the grounds that he was too clumsy to conceal such behaviour, a response that provoked the wrath of his interrogator. Such disobedience would normally have resulted in execution or, at least, exile to Siberia. Yet Davison was ‘rewarded’ by such non-compliance by being allowed to emigrate to his grandfather’s native land, and spread the news. That sequence should have aroused MI5’s suspicions.
  5. Delayed recognition of the threats of ‘blackmail’: A refrain in the archived proceedings is that Moscow would have been alerted to Davison’s presence at Harwell by Pontecorvo’s defection in the autumn of 1950, and that only then would Davison have been possibly subject to threats. For that reason, his correspondence with his parents in the Crimea (itself a noteworthy phenomenon from the censorship angle) was studiously inspected for coded messages and secret writing. MI5 failed to recognize that the threats to his family would probably have been initiated before Davison was sent on his mission, in the manner that the Peierlses were threatened. (That is an enduring technique: it is reported as being used today by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.) Since MI5 and the Harwell management realised that Communists had been installed at Harwell for a while, it was probable that the fact of Davison’s recruitment would have reached Soviet ears already. They ignored the fact that his working closely with Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Nunn May meant he would not have needed a separate courier, but they expressed little curiosity in how he would have communicated with Moscow after Fuchs’s imprisonment.
  6. Unawareness of the role of subterfuge: MI5 spent an enormous amount of time and effort exploring Davison’s contacts and political leanings, looking for a trace of sympathy for communism that might point to his being a security risk. They even, rather improbably, cited the testimony of Klaus Fuchs from gaol, Fuchs vouching for Davison’s reliability, and quoted this item of evidence to the Americans! Yet, if Davison had been a communist, he would probably have preferred to stay in the Soviet Union, helping its cause, rather than taking on a role in provoking the revolution overseas, something for which his temperament was highly unsuited. Even if the lives of his parents had not been threatened, his most effective disguise would have been to steer clear of any communist groups or associations.
  7. Clumsy handling of their target: MI5 and Harwell – and, especially, John Cockcroft  – showed a dismal lack of imagination and tact in dealing with Davison. Cockcroft was weak, wanted to hang on to Davison because of his skills, and avoided awkward confrontational situations. They failed to develop an effective strategy in guiding Davison’s behaviour, and Cockcroft, when trying to encourage Davison to leave Harwell, even suggested that he was entitled to have a government job back after his one-year ‘sabbatical’, because of his civil servant status. Between them, Harwell and MI5 deluded themselves as to how the account of a Russian-born scientist expelled from Harwell would manage not to be re-ignited, through idle gossip, or careless bravado (as turned out to be the case).
  8. Simplistic views of loyalty: MI5’s perennial problem was that it did not trust ‘foreigners’, and had no mechanism for separating the loyal and dedicated alien from the possibly dangerous subversive, or taking seriously the possible disloyalty of a well-bred native Briton. Davison fitted in to no established category, and thus puzzled them. In his letter to Prime Minster Attlee of January 12, 1951, as Attlee was just about to make his decision as to whether Davison should remain in place, or be banished to a university, Percy Sillitoe wrote that ‘an alien or a person of alien origin has not necessarily enjoyed the upbringing which, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, normally ensures the loyalty of a British subject’, a sentiment that Attlee echoed a week later. Four months later, Burgess and Maclean defected.

MI5 were not happy with Attlee’s decision, wanting Davison safely transferred to academia. They were worried stiff that, if any action were taken, Davison ‘might do a Pontecorvo on us’, and that in that case closer cooperation with the Americans – an objective keenly sought at the time – would be killed by the Congressional committee. They thus hoped that matters would quieten down, and that Davison would behave himself. Yet a meeting held in February 1951 with the Prime Minister provoked the following minute: “Rowlands, Sillitoe and Bridges agreed there should be discussion on the proposition that Davison should be asked what his reactions would be if the Russians brought pressure on him through his parents. If approach were made, Davison would mark it as a mark of confidence in his own reliability.” What the outcome of this strange decision was is not recorded, but the threat to MI5’s peace of mind would turn out to come from friendlier quarters.

  • Boris Davison – after Attlee
Sir John Cockcroft

Attlee made his decision on February 20, 1951. Sillitoe requested a watch be kept on the Skinners in Liverpool. Meanwhile, MI5 officers had a short time to reflect on Davison’s background. Dick White wondered who the other ‘Britishers’ who were deported at the same time as Davison were, and what had happened to them. (Whether this important lead was followed up is not known: the results might have been so uncomfortable that the outcome was buried.) Yet Reed was later imaginative enough to wonder how Davison ‘was able to survive the purges and outbreaks of xenophobia’, suggesting perhaps that further lessons had been learned. “What services were rendered in exchange for immunity?”, he asked, but there the inquiry ended, for 1951 turned out to be an annus horribilis for the Security Service, as the uncovering of the Burgess & Maclean scandal showed the authorities that espionage and treachery were not simply a virus introduced by foreigners. For a while it distracted attention from the quandary of suspicions persons in place at Harwell.

By that time, however, a series of events began that showed the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. In February, Chapman Pincher had written a provocative article about Pontecorvo in the Daily Express, and on March 4 Rebecca West had published an article about Fuchs, critical of Attlee, in the New York Times. Perrin and Sillitoe agreed that a counterthrust in public relations was required, and conceived the idea of engaging the journalist Alan Moorehead to write a book that would reflect better on MI5’s performance. After some stumbles in negotiation, Moorehead was authorized to inspect some confidential information on September 24, and started work.

The year 1952 progressed relatively quietly. John Cockcroft had revealed to Skinner in early 1951 that he was considering recommending the South African Basil Schonland as his successor, and was perhaps surprised to be told by Skinner that Schonland was not up to the job. This was surely another indication that Skinner felt himself the better candidate, and wanted to return to Harwell now that Fuchs and Pontecorvo were disposed of. A possible opening for Cockcroft appeared in March 1952 at St. John’s College, Oxford, but nothing came of it. On July 29, Sillitoe announced he would retire at the end of the year. In August, Davison indicated for the first time that he wanted to leave Harwell. And in September, as I described earlier, Skinner’s controversial review of Moorehead’s finished work The Traitors came to the attention of Arnold and MI5.

While the Moorehead incident was smoothed over relatively safely, Skinner’s energies as a literary critic had more serious after-effects in 1953. First of all, Nunn May had been released in January, an event that brough fresh attention to the phenomenon of ‘atom spies’. As Guy Liddell reported on January 13, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden wanted Nunn May settled into useful employment, but the scientist was blacklisted by the universities. (After working for a scientific instruments company for a few years, Nunn May moved to the University of Ghana in 1961.) Skinner’s observation about other spies being left in place, unpunished, was a far more serious blow to MI5’s reputation, and his weak explanation that he was referring solely to Pontecorvo was not convincing. Privately, he admitted that he had indeed been referring to Davison.

What was not revealed at the time was the fact that other such agents had been named in internal documents. One of the Boris Davison files at the National Archives (KV 2/2579-1, s.n.184A) shows us that Dick White, as early as January 25, 1951, wrote that there were eighteen known employees at Harwell ‘who have some sort of a Communist suspicion attaching to them’.  Of these, five were serious. He continued: “Two of the five, SHULMAN and RIGG are being transferred from Harwell on our recommendation. In the case of a third, DARLINGTON, we may recommend transfer and so this will almost certainly be agreed. The remaining two, PAIGE and CHARLESBY, are under active investigation and if additional information tends to confirm that they have Communist sympathies we may have to recommend their transfer likewise.”

This is an extraordinary admission. I have not discovered anything elsewhere on these characters, although I notice that the first three are cited in the Kew Index as working at Harwell, as authors or co-authors of papers, in AB 15/73, AB 15/2383, AB 15/566, AB 15/586, AB 15/1661 and AB 15/1386 (N. Shulman), AB 15/1254 (M. Rigg), AB 15/5531 (M. E. Darlington). Astonishingly, all three papers are currently closed, pending review. [Moreover, during the few days in which I investigated these items, they were being maintained and their descriptions changed. The author of AB 15/24, original given as ‘Rigg’, is now given as ‘Oscar Bunnemann’ [sic], which, in the light of revelations below, poses a whole new set of questions. Can any reader shed any light on these men?] Yet it proves that Skinner was correct, and knew too much. And one another link has come to light. As early as July 12, 1948 T. A. R. Robertson had discovered that Davison and one Eltenton were in Leningrad at the same time, noting that Eltenton was already up for an ‘interview’. (The word ‘interrogated’ has been replaced with a handwritten ‘interviewed’ in the memorandum.) The story of George Eltenton, who brought some bad publicity to MI5 through his involvement in the Robert Oppenheimer case in the USA, will have to wait for another day.

The denouement was swift. Skinner was let off with a warning, but his goose was essentially cooked. On August 8, 1952, he thanked Arnold for his support, adding casually that Chapman Pincher had invited him to lunch. A few weeks later, on August 26, Pincher published his article on Davison in the Daily Express, and two days later Henry Maule’s piece in the Empire News reported how ‘poor old Boris’ had been banished to the backwaters of Birmingham University, implicitly indicating that Davison was rejoining his prior mentor and supporter Rudolf Peierls.

Yet MI5’s embarrassments were not over. On December 14, 1952, a brief column by Sidney Rodin in the Sunday Express claimed that Churchill had intervened in the decision to replace Fuchs at Harwell, and explained that Davison had been rejected because of his background, and that six others had been passed over because they were foreign-born. In place (the piece continued), the 28-year-old Brian Flowers had been appointed, and ‘for months his background was checked.’ This announcement was doubly ironic, since it turned out that the leaker to Rodin was Professor Maurice Pryce of the Clarendon Laboratories, Acting Head of the Theoretical Division at Harwell alongside Rudolf Peierls. He had admitted planting the story as a way of ’distracting attention away from the “undesirable background of the Buneman case”’. Indeed. For Flowers had for a while been having an affair with Mary, the wife of Oscar Buneman, who had been working under Fuchs at Harwell. The future Baron Flowers, who also held a post at Birmingham University, had married his paramour in 1951, and was now presumably respectable. Like Fuchs, Buneman had been imprisoned by the Gestapo, escaped to Britain, and been interned in Canada. Maybe MI5 and Arnold overlooked this rather seedy side to Flowers’ background: the episode showed at best a discreditable muddle and at worst appalling hypocrisy at work.

It was thus Birmingham, not Liverpool, that became the home of a distressed scientist, one who may never have acquired the status of an official spy, but who was perhaps a communicator of secret information under duress. A cabal of Liddell, White and Perrin had plotted, and made moves, without consulting Cockcroft or Arnold. Skinner never quite realised what was going on, failing to consider that his wife’s liaisons were a liability, and harboured unfulfillable designs about returning to Harwell to replace Cockcroft. Skinner would remain at Liverpool, unwanted by Harwell, and remaining under suspicion. The loose cannon Cockcroft did not understand why Skinner had been banished, but considered him a useful ally at Liverpool, and naively encouraged him in his literary exploits.  Fuchs was in gaol: Pontecorvo in Moscow. By the time Davison had transferred to Birmingham, in September 1953, Liddell had resigned from MI5, bitterly disappointed at being outmanoeuvred by his protégé, Dick White, for the director-generalship, and had taken up a new post – as director of security at AERE Harwell. MI5 still considered Davison on a temporary transfer ‘outhoused’ to Birmingham, but did their best to ease his relocation to Canada, perhaps masking his medical problems. Davison died in Toronto in 1961, at the young age of 52, the year after Skinner’s death. I do not know whether foul play was ever suspected.

In conclusion, it should be noted that Peierls had his vitally significant correspondence with Lord Portal in April 1951, where he responded to accusations about him, and revealed the links with the Soviet Security organs that he had kept concealed for so long. (See The Mysterious Affair at Peierls, Part 1). Had Peierls perhaps discussed the shared matter of NKVD threats to family with his protégé, and ventured to inform MI5 and the Ministry of the predicament that Davison been in? Or, more probably, had Davison confessed to MI5 about how he himself had been threatened, and, as a possible source of ‘the accusations’, drawn Peierls in? Readers should recall that the decision to interview Davison, to ask him about possible threats to his parents, in the belief that such a dialogue might increase Davison’s confidence in them, was projected to have taken place just before then. The timing is perfect: Davison might well have told his interviewers the full story, and brought Peierls into his narrative.

So many loose ends in the story are left because of the selective process of compiling the archive. In 1954, Reed of MI5 referred darkly to a confidential source who was keeping them informed of Davison’s negotiations with Canada: likewise, it could well have been Peierls. We shall probably never know exactly what happened in that 1951 spring, but Portal, previously Air Chief Marshal, was no doubt shocked by the whole business. He resigned his position at the Ministry of Supply soon afterwards: Perrin left at the same time. And if Moscow had discovered that their threats had been unmasked, or that any of their assets had behaved disloyally, Sudoplatov’s Special Tasks squad would have been ready to move.

  1. Conclusions
Dick White

What should a liberal democracy do when it discovers spies, or potential spies, working within scientific institutions carrying out highly sensitive work? Is the process of removing them quietly to an academic institution a sensible attempt at resolving an apparently intractable problem, given that trials, however open or closed, are a necessary part of the judicial procedure? Torture or oppressive measures cannot be applied to the targets, backed up by other cruel or mortal threats, as was the feature of Stalin’s Show Trials. Perhaps moving awkward employees to a quiet backwater was the most sensible practice to protect the realm without causing undue publicity?

Attlee’s unfortunately named Purge Procedure was provoked by the Nunn May conviction, and a Cabinet Committee on Subversive Activities was set up in May 1947. The topic of the Procedure, which was established in March 1948, and how it was applied, has been covered by Christopher Andrew, in Defend the Realm, pp 382-393. Yet I find this exposition starkly inadequate: it concentrates on the discovery of communists within the Civil Service, but barely touches the highly sensitive issue of possibly disloyal scientists working at a secret institution like AERE Harwell. For reasons of space and time, a proper analysis will have to be deferred until another report, and I only skim the issue here.

Professor Glees has informed me that, during an interview that Dick White gave him in the 1980s (White died in 1993), the ex-chief of MI5 and MI6 impressed upon him ‘the importance of  keeping people away from where they could do harm’, and that the execution of such a policy was a key MI5 tool. As a counterbalance, the journalist Richard Deacon informed us that, in the early 1950s, ‘gone to Ag and Fish’ (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) meant that an intelligence operative had ‘gone to ground’. That ministry was the destination for the MI6 agent Alexander Foote after he had been interrogated. Perhaps he worked alongside civil servants with communist leanings who had also been parked there.

I find that statement of policy a little disingenuous on White’s part. For it is one thing to take a discovered Communist off the fast track in some other Ministry and transfer him out to grass sorting out cod quotas with Iceland before he does any damage. And it is quite another to take a known or highly suspected spy from a secret institution like AERE Harwell, remove him completely from sensitive work, and transfer him to a university a hundred and fifty miles away. Multiple issues come into play: the processes of university councils, the creation of posts, preferential treatment over other candidates, funding, the candidates’ suitability for teaching, language problems, relocation concerns, even a wife’s preferences – and the inevitable chatter that accompanies such a disruption.

So what should the authorities have done in such cases? Civil servants were entitled to a certain measure of employment protection, and could not be fired without due cause. Being a communist was not one of those causes, and Attlee was nervous about left-wing backlash. The primary challenge to taking drastic action in the case of spies (who were frequently not open communists) thus consisted in the suitability of the evidence of guilt, however conclusive. Unless the suspect had been caught red-handed (as was Dave Springhall, although he was not an academic), or he or she could quickly be convinced to confess (as was Nunn May), the prosecution probably relied on confidential sources. In the case of Fuchs, the source was VENONA transcripts: the project was considered far too sensitive to bring up in court, and its validity as hard evidence might have been sorely tested. Even with a confession, there were risks associated. A defendant might bring up uncomfortable truths. With little imagination required, Fuchs could surely have brought up the matter of his inducement by Skardon/Cockcroft, and he could have honestly described how he had been encouraged to spy on the Americans while furthering British objectives.

Moreover, public trials would draw attention to a security service’s defects: counter-intelligence units are not praised when they haul in spies, but severely criticised for allowing them to operate in the first place. And if the suspects were British citizens, and were threatened to the extent that they felt uncomfortable, or could not maintain a living, they could not be prevented from fleeing abroad at any time (‘doing a Pontecorvo’), and had therefore to be encouraged to feel safe in the country. Thus sending such candidates to a functional Siberia, in the hope that they would become stale and valueless, yet behave properly, came to represent a popular option with the mandarins in MI5 and the Ministries. (On Khrushchev’s accession to power, Molotov was sent to be Ambassador in Mongolia, while Malenkov was despatched to run a power station in Kazakhstan. I have not been able to verify the claim that the Russians have a phrase for this – ‘being sent to Liverpool’.)

Yet it was an essentially dishonourable and shoddy business. First of all, unless the authorities were simply scared about what might happen, it rewarded criminal behaviour. It discriminated unjustly between those who did not confess and those who did (Springhall, Nunn May, Fuchs, Blake): we recall that Nunn May was blacklisted by British universities after his release, while Fuchs, with a little more resolve, might have spent a few calm years considering where he might be more content, continuing his liaison with Erna Skinner in Liverpool, or renewing his acquaintance with Grete Keilson in East Germany. The Purge Procedure allowed suspected civil servants to leave with some measure of dignity, but the method of transferring suspects to important positions at universities represented a deceitful, and possibly illegal, exploitation of academic institutions, and consisted in a disservice to undergraduates potentially taught by these characters. Moreover, there was no guarantee that such a move would have put the lid on the betrayal of secrets. The Soviets might try to extradite a suspect (Moscow thought Liverpool was useless as a home for Pontecorvo), which, if successful, would have raised even more questions.

Overall, the policy was conceived in the belief that the suspect would behave like a proper English gentleman, but that was no certainty, and there were sometimes wives to consider (such as Mrs. Pontecorvo.) Latent hypocrisy existed, in (for example) Cockcroft’s hope that Fuchs and Davison might still help the government’s cause. It was an attempt at back-stairs fixing, and the fact that it was covered-up indicated government embarrassment at the process. They displayed naivety in believing that the story would not come out. It was bound to happen, as indeed it did with Davison, although Skinner’s ‘removal’ appears to have been successfully concealed.

(I should also note that a similar process was applied to Kim Philby. He was dismissed from MI6, and made to feel distinctly uncomfortable, but allowed to pursue a journalistic career, again in the belief that his utility to his bosses in Moscow would rapidly disintegrate. Yet he had loyal friends still in the Service, and became an embarrassment. Some historians claim that Dick White allowed him to escape from Beirut as the least embarrassing option.)

What final lessons can be learned? The experiences with Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Davison (and to a lesser extent, Skinner) reinforce that fact that MI5 was hopelessly unprepared for the challenge of vetting for highly sensitive projects. Awarding scientists citizenship does not guarantee loyalty: the Official Secrets and Treachery Acts will not deter the committed spy. Stricter checks at recruitment should have been essential, although they might not have eliminated the expert dissimulator. Vetting procedures should have been defended and executed sternly, with no exceptions. Yet MI5 also showed a bewilderingly disappointing lack of insight into how the Soviet Union, and especially the NKVD/KGB, worked, which meant that they were clueless when it came to assessing an ‘émigré’ like Davison, who fitted into no known category. Until the Burgess-Maclean debacle, they continued to believe in the essential loyalty of well-educated Britons. They continued to ignore Krivitsky’s warnings and advice, and failed to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union’s domestic policies, and strategies for espionage abroad. It should instead have built up a comprehensive dossier of intelligence on the structure and methods of its ideological adversary, as did Hugh Trevor-Roper with the Abwehr, and promoted a strong message of prevention to its political masters and colleagues. That opportunity had faded when its sharpest counter-espionage officer, Jane Archer, was sidelined, and then fired, in 1940.

The events surrounding these scientists should surely provide material for a major novel or Fraynian dramatic work.  The line between inducement and threats, on the one hand, and careful psychological pressure, on the other, could have had vastly different outcomes, and could perhaps be compared to the treatment of the homosexuals Burgess and Turing, and how the former managed to get away with scandalous behaviour, while the latter was driven to suicide. Perhaps whatever strategy was tried was flawed, as it was too late by then, but dumping on universities was undistinguished and hypocritical. Demotion, removal from critical secret work, and removal of oxygen sent a signal that might have been successful with a more timid character like Davison, but it would not have worked with a showman like Pontecorvo.

This business of counter-intelligence is tough: MI5 was not a disciplined and ruthless machine, but simply another institution with its rivalries, ambitions, flaws, and politics to handle. It was poor at learning from experience, however, and sluggish in setting up policies to deal with the unexpected, instead spending vast amounts of fruitless time and effort in watching people, and opening correspondence. It thus muddled along, and found itself having to cover up for its missteps, and choosing to deceive the government and the public. For a long time, the ruse appeared to be successful. Seventy years have passed. A close and integrative, horizontal rather than vertical, inspection of the released archives, however, complemented by a careful analysis of biographical records, has allowed a more accurate account of the goings-on of 1950 to be assembled.

Primary Sources:

National Archives files on Pontecorvo, Fuchs, the Skinners, Davison: the Guy Liddell Diaries

The Mountford memoir at Liverpool University

Britain and Atomic Energy by Margaret Gowing

Half-Life by Frank Close

The Pontecorvo Affair by Simone Turchetti

Klaus Fuchs: A Biography by Norman Moss

Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy by Robert Chadwell Williams

The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter

Trinity by Frank Close

Atomic Spy by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan

Elemental Germans by Christopher Laucht

The Atom Bomb Spies by H. Montgomery Hyde

Scientist Spies by Paul Broda

Bird of Passage by Rudolf Peierls

Sir Rudolf Peierls, Correspondence, Volume 1 edited by Sabine Lee

Cockcroft and the Atom by Guy Hartcup & T E Allibone

The Neutron and the Bomb by Andrew Brown

Joseph Rotblat, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience by Andrew Brown

Churchill’s Bomb by Graham Farmelow

Defend the Realm by Christopher Andrew

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Sonia & MI6’s Hidden Hand

[This report lays out the detailed arguments behind the recent article in the ‘Mail on Sunday’ that featured research by Professor Glees and me. We claimed that MI6 had engaged upon a reckless exercise to try to manipulate Sonia as some kind of ‘double-agent’, but had been fooled completely by Sonia’s working as a courier for the atom-spy Klaus Fuchs. This piece reproduces and recapitulates some of my earlier research on Sonia, but also presents some new analysis.]

Sonia’s Home in Switzerland

Background and Sources

The story starts – probably – in the summer of 1939. One has to qualify many of the Switzerland-based events in this saga with ‘probably’ because so much of the evidence is provided by Ursula and Len Beurton themselves, who, in their testimonies to British immigration officials, told so many lies that it is difficult to trust anything they said. Moreover, Ursula (agent SONIA) then compounded the mendaciousness in her GRU-controlled memoir, Sonjas Rapport. We can recognise the first set of untruths because the statements are often self-contradictory, and easily refuted through an examination of the archival record. Many of Sonia’s claims in her book have been shown to be false by simple inspection of time and space, or by other records that have come to light that show persons she talks about were simply not where she said they were at the time, or by knowledge of the modus operandi of her employer, the GRU. Yet Sonia’s account has been cited by numerous historians as if it were a reliable version of what happened.

The primary source for assembling the story is a rich set of files at the UK National Archives – not just on Sonia, but on her family, the Kuczynskis, and her husband Len Beurton, on the senior International Brigader she recruited for her team in Switzerland, Alexander Foote, and on other Communist agents such as Oliver Green, whose exploits reflect usefully on the policies and practices of MI5. The files on the primary spy for whom Sonia acted as courier, Klaus Fuchs, are also very relevant, as are, to a lesser extent, the Diaries of Guy Liddell, the head of counter-espionage at MI5 at this time. (I have taken one hundred pages of notes from the on-line Diaries, without recording a single reference to Ursula, Kuczynski, Hamburger, or Beurton. The absence of nocturnal canine latration, whether because of redaction or by Liddell’s choice, is highly significant.) MI6 files are regrettably not available, but correspondence between, and memoranda to and from, officers of the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service are scattered among the files, as are occasional items from the Home Office and the Foreign Office. These records are complemented by a variegated set of files concerning the Radio Security Service (RSS), which was responsible for wireless interception in WWII.

More recently, some analysts have been promoting the value of files held in Russian archives, although nearly all of these derive from KGB (State Security) records rather than those of the GRU (Military Intelligence), for whom the Beurtons worked. William Tyrer and Svetlana Chervonnaya (see www.documentstalk.com ), have cited items of relevance, yet the existence of actual documents is hard to verify. What Chervonnaya shows are primarily American, not Soviet documents, and her focus is on American history. Moreover, her website appears to have fallen into disuse in recent times. The Vassiliev Papers, again focussing on KGB matters, are a highly reliable source, and show some important facts about Sonia, at a time when the KGB was exerting more control over the GRU.  They also reveal some interesting information about Sonia and her brother after they escaped to East Germany.

Solid literature on Sonia is sparse. Alexander Foote’s memoir, Handbook for Spies, brings some psychologically convincing insights into his time with Sonia in Switzerland, as well as plausible observations on Sonia’s marriage to Len, but we have to recall that the book was ghost-written by MI5’s Courtenay Young. John Green’s 2017 study of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, is a useful compendium in some ways, drawing much from Kuczynski family memoirs and interviews, and helping with a few facts, but it contains many errors, and is too adulatory of the family’s ‘fight against capitalism’, thereby side-stepping any awkward anomalies in the records. (For example, he writes of the family’s ‘overall achievements and its contribution to our humanistic legacy’, a statement straight out of the Felix Dzerzhinsky playbook.) I have started to inspect one or two books in Russian: Vladimir Lota’s book on the GRU (cited in last month’s coldspur post) provides convincing proof of the communications of the Rote Drei in Switzerland (although nothing of Sonia’s), and presents photographs of decrypted GRU telegrams. I ordered V.V. Beshanov’s book on Sonia, Superfrau iz GRU on May 3 of this year, but it has not yet arrived: I hope to be able to report on it in a later bulletin.

What is certain is that Sonia was stranded in Switzerland in the summer of 1939. She had moved from Poland, where her daughter Janina, by her lover in China, Johannes Patra, had been born in 1936, but the affair had damaged her marriage to Rudolf (Rolf) Hamburger. Sonia’s visa was due to expire at the end of September: she and Rolf had acquired Honduran passports, but they were of dubious stature. If Sonia were to be extradited to her German homeland, she would almost certainly face death as a Jew and Communist. She had recruited the International Brigaders Alexander Foote and Len Beurton as wireless operators, but they were working as spies in Germany during the summer, and were not withdrawn until just before war broke out.

Exactly what happened in those months is difficult to determine. Sonia’s account is illogical and inconsistent, and John Green skirts around that period, as if he didn’t trust her version of events, but also didn’t want to draw attention to the deceits. I gave an account in Sonia’s Radio: Part 2, but it is worth delving a little more deeply now, as the subterfuges hint strongly at strings working behind the scenes. The anomalies point strongly to the first plottings by the MI6 representative in Switzerland, Victor Farrell. What is certain is that Claude Dansey, the head of the shadow Z Organisation within MI6, and the deputy to the new Director-General, Stewart Menzies, had established its base in Geneva at the beginning of the war, and that Dansey himself was around to watch as these intrigues progressed, including Sonia’s divorce from Rolf Hamburger. Dansey did not return to Britain until November 1939.

In Handbook for Spies, Alexander Foote indicates that at this time Sonia’s husband, Rolf (identified as ‘Schultz’) was ‘incarcerated in a Chinese jail for Communist activities’. In Foote’s version of the story, therefore, Rolf never appears in Switzerland, and Foote records his visit to Sonia’s chalet, where she lived singly with her two children and the nurse. Foote then collapses the whole story of Sonia’s divorce and marriage as follows: “Sonia was increasingly dissatisfied with the life and work and wished to return [sic: she had never stayed there for long] to England. The main obstacle, apart from Moscow’s views, was of course her German passport. Therefore, in order to get British nationality, she managed to persuade Bill [Len Beurton] to agree to marry her if she could get a divorce from Schultz. She managed to obtain a divorce in the Swiss courts early in 1940, and straight away married Bill and was thus entitled to a British passport.” He adds that, throughout this whole exercise, ‘she had no intention of being unfaithful to Schultz’, but the charade of a mariage de convenance fell apart when she and Len fell in love. This is all nonsense, of course, because of her affair with Patra, and Foote’s suggestion that Sonia was feeling useless and ‘homesick’, with Moscow resisting her plans to withdraw from espionage. Sonia would have done what she was told.

Ursula Beurton (Sonia)

In Sonya’s Report, the author imaginatively has both her husband and her lover in Switzerland at the same time that summer, but the chronology is gloriously vague. “In the early summer of 1939, as the danger of war increased daily, an expired German passport was useless to an emigrant. My Honduras passport did not give me real security either. Centre asked what possibilities there might be of obtaining another passport for me. We proposed that, before Rolf left Europe, we should start divorce proceedings and I would enter into a pro-forma marriage with an Englishman.” Apart from the somewhat premature series of activities described, Jim [Foote] won the lottery, since his age was closer to Sonia’s: Rolf came to see Sonia for the last time. “When his return to China had been approved, Centre enquired whether he would be prepared to work under Ernst [Patra]. Generous and principled as he was, Rolf had a high opinion of Ernst and agreed.” The display of lofty unselfishness is comical: the notion that Soviet agents would have the freedom to accept or decline Centre’s instructions is absurd.

Sonia then compounds the unlikelihood of this domestic drama by having Ernst visit Switzerland, to see his daughter for the first and only time, and she then (apparently in about July 1939) sees off her husband and her lover from the train station in Caux. (Green informs us that Sonia and Patra did not see each other between 1935 and 1955.) Helpfully, Rolf, before he left, had written a letter to facilitate the divorce proceedings, which Sonia ‘ever since the spring’ had been trying to finalise. (So much for Sonia’s suggestion to ‘start divorce proceedings’ in early summer.) Why Rolf could not have more actively contributed by playing his part while in Switzerland is not explained. But then Foote tries to back out of the arranged marriage, claiming some difficulties with a girl in Spain, and a possible breach of promise. Why he had not thought of that earlier is likewise not explained, but Foote then recommends Len to take his place, and Len gallantly accepts the assignment, with Sonia saying that she will divorce him as soon as required. By February 1940, Sonia had collected all the documents she needed in order to marry.

When Foote was interrogated by MI5 and MI6 officers in late 1947, however, a different story emerged. In a report distributed by Percy Sillitoe (from KV 2/1613-1, pp 23-28), Foote’s first testimony claimed that Sonia’s divorce had been put through without Hamburger’s knowledge, ‘Foote providing the principal false evidence of Hamburger’s misconduct in London’. Later, however, Foote was shown information at Broadway (MI6’s head office) suggesting that Hamburger had been in Switzerland in 1939, indicating that the Security Intelligence Service was already keeping close tabs on the extended members of the Kuczynski clan. Foote was shown a photograph of Hamburger but was apparently ‘quite unable to identify it’.

When challenged later, Foote revealed even more to the MI5 officers Hemblys-Scales and Serpell, the latter writing the report: “Foote replied blandly that he had been the sole witness in the case. It was on his false testimony that Sonia obtained her divorce from Rudolf Hamburger and Foote made no bones at all about the perjury he had committed in the Swiss courts. When I asked him what was the false evidence he had produced, he said that it had been a story of Rudolf Hamburger’s adultery with one of Sonia’s sisters in a London hotel. I asked which sister was selected for this episode and Foote replied, Mrs. Lewis. After these revelations, I can no longer feel surprised at the anxiety shown by the Beurtons over the Hamburger divorce during their conversations with Mr. Skardon and myself at Great Rollright.” And, if Foote’s testimony were truthful, he would obviously have had to tell the Geneva court that he knew what Hamburger looked like. In fact, he had committed obvious perjury, as he now confessed.

Lastly, we have the records from Moscow acquired by William Tyrer, although his story contains its own contradictions. In a personal communication to me, he claimed that Sonia and her husband lived with Honduran documents after she and Rolf went to the Honduran consulate in Geneva, some time in mid-1939. Tyrer then, somewhat implausibly, suggests that, with her Swiss mission completed, she set her sights on going to Great Britain, where she would be more useful, and moreover closer to her family – but that this desire awoke only after August 1940! He then cites a reliable-sounding but undated document (Tsa MO RF, Op. 23397, delo 1, l. 33-37: The Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of RF, op. 23397, file 1, pp. 33-37) that purports to record a wireless message from Sonia to Moscow Centre in late August 1939. It is remarkable in many dimensions, not least because it suggests that the thought of divorce has only just occurred to her, directly contradicting what she wrote in her memoir, and because it also asserts that Rolf is already working in China, a fact of which Moscow Centre would clearly have been aware, if it were true, and about which it would thus not have to be informed.

The text of the message (the name of the translator is not given, but it could be Chervonnaya, since the English is choppy) runs as follows: “In case of war, I will be sent to Honduras, where I won’t be able to work on your assignments. In this connection, I have the following suggestion. The idea is, that I divorce officially with Rolf and marry “Jim” or “John”. The marriage would be fictitious, but it would help me to obtain a permanent British passport, with which I’d be able to travel around the European countries without any obstacles and would be able to go to Britain at any time.

     … At present, I am still on a firm footing in Switzerland – my husband works as an architect in China, myself with two kids, I am unable to travel to join him, because China is in war. Waiting for my husband’s arrival, I am taking a rest with the kids at a mountain resort. With the help of my father, I am maintaining ties with some officials of the League of Nations, which also helps to improve my credibility.”

Fortunately for Sonia, Moscow Centre went along with her plan. For some reason, they did not point out to Sonia that, in the event of war, she would not be able to gad around Europe purely on the basis of a British passport. But why, if she was proposing to divorce Rolf, would she lament that she was unable to join him in China? (Note that Sonia here, in September 1939, first recommends the idea of divorce, while claiming in her memoir that Rolf had left the previous month, having already agreed to it. That the divorce was ‘unofficial’ beforehand is evident.) And how would she know, having just seen Rolf off at the train-station in Caux, that he was already working there as an architect? Even more incredibly, why would she be waiting for her husband’s arrival in late August 1939, if they had agreed to split? And, if Moscow had just approved Rolf’s return to China, why would he be on his way back again?

The conclusion must be that this document is a clumsy fake, inserted into the archive at some unspecified time, and forgotten when the GRU helped Sonia write her memoir. It is much more likely that Moscow approved the divorce plans much earlier, ordered Rolf to return to China so that he was out of the way and thus could not mess up the legal process, and then engaged in orchestrating Sonia’s new British citizenship and infiltration into the United Kingdom as a courier. And it is at this stage that MI6 starts to consider the possibilities of using the opportunity to manipulate Sonia.

Step One: Facilitating Sonia’s divorce and re-marriage

The marriage certificate of Len and Ursula Beurton

There is no doubt that Alexander Foote had been recruited by MI6. The file KV 2/1613-1 specifically records how in 1947, after his desertion and return to Britain, MI5 warned Foote not to talk about his intelligence experiences, using the claim that he had been a deserter from the R.A.F. as a threat hanging over him. One does not have to buy in to the argument that he was eventually used as a medium for passing on packaged ULTRA secrets to the Soviets (as I do) to conclude that he had been infiltrated into the Swiss network in order to gain insights into its wireless techniques. Indeed, one might assume that he started passing on the practices described in Handbook for Spies to his controllers in Berne as early as 1940, when he became the leading operator for the Rote Drei.

Thus, when faced with the prospect that Sonia intended to marry Foote when she had gained her divorce, MI6 would have been appalled at the plan. It would not have helped them to have Foote repatriated to the United Kingdom as soon as he had become effective. Yet the notion of potentially manipulating Sonia was attractive: Len Beurton would be proposed as the replacement candidate to marry Sonia. Foote would then come up with a bogus explanation as to why he could not go through with the marriage, and would instead provide false evidence against Rolf Hamburger, since the Swiss courts were apparently rather sticky when it came to granting divorces against absent spouses. Whether Rolf actually provided the letter that was supposed to grease the wheels is dubious: apparently it was not enough to convince the authorities.

So how did MI6 hope to use Sonia at this stage of the war? Of course, the Soviet Union’s pact with Nazi Germany was in effect: in principle, she might have been able to inform them of strategic intelligence. Yet her utility in Britain would have been very constrained. Any activity on UK soil – including contacts with as yet undiscovered sources – would transfer to MI5’s area of responsibility, and the Security Service would therefore have to be party to the plot, and take over the supervision and surveillance of Sonia. Perhaps they thought that she would lead them to other GRU agents in Europe, and would repay her new masters for their kindness in saving her from persecution in Germany. I suspect, however, that the real agenda was to use her as some kind of ‘double agent’ *, perhaps to feed her disinformation that she would be bound to transmit to Moscow Centre, and thereby gain further insights into her encipherment techniques. When her messages were intercepted (so went the plan), the fact that she had been passed texts that she would encode would provide an excellent crib for assisting in decryption – a technique that mirrored what RSS and GC&CS were performing with transmissions performed by the Abwehr.

(* ‘Double-agent’ is not really the appropriate term, as it suggests a continuing dual role. ‘Controlled enemy agent’ is the preferred description. I shall explore this phenomenon further in the coming final chapter of ‘The Mystery of the Undetected Radios’.)

According to her marriage certificate, Sonia received her divorce on December 29, 1939 (not in October, as she for some reason told UK immigration officers later), and was married to Len Beurton on February 23, 1940. Yet one further action hints at the connivance of MI6.

The anecdote appears in both Foote’s and Sonia’s narratives, although the details and motivations differ slightly, and it involves Olga Muth, Sonia’s nanny. Muth had been hired shortly after Nina’s birth in April 1936, and accompanied Sonia to London, back to Poland, and then to Switzerland. Sonia presents Olga as becoming distraught over the prospect of being separated from Nina, Sonia’s daughter, and, in the knowledge that Sonia had a wireless transmitter, goes to the British consulate in Montreux to denounce her as a spy. Foote states that Olga was distressed by Sonia’s disloyalty to Rolf in not just marrying Len, but subsequently falling in love with him.

In Foote’s account, Olga rings up the Consulate to denounce Sonia and Len as Soviet spies, telling them where the transmitter was hidden. In both versions, her broken English was incomprehensible, and she was thus ignored. During his interrogation in London, Foote additionally claimed (KV 2/1611-1) ‘that Ursula and Beurton were considered by Moscow to have been compromised by the action of Olga Muth, and it was the basis of their return to England.’ This is quite absurd: if they had been rumbled in Switzerland by the British, they would hardly have been allowed to settle in Britain. MI5’s Serpell sagely made a note, questioning why Sonia and Len would have been denounced to the British authorities rather than the Swiss? One might thus ask: Had the whole business been a ruse concocted to suggest distancing of the Beurtons from MI6 in Switzerland?

Step Two: Providing Sonia with a Passport

Milicent Bagot

On March 11, 1940, Sonia visited the British Consulate in Geneva to apply for a British passport, based on her marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files). She records that the reaction of the Consul was ‘distinctly cool’, Victor Farrell no doubt affecting a lack of enthusiasm for the whole venture. Mr. Livingston passed her application on to the Passport Office in London, adding the annotation that the purpose of her marriage was probably to confer British nationality on her, and then he rather provocatively appended the strange observation: ‘Husband is understood to be under medical treatment, and intends to return to Switzerland after escorting the applicant to England.’ Why Beurton, if he had recovered enough to make the arduous journey across Europe to Britain in war-time, would jeopardise his health, and then want to repeat the ordeal by returning to Switzerland for medical treatment instead of seeking it in the UK, is not evident.

I have described the events that took place next in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 2, and Chapter 8, but it is worth summarizing them here. The application was processed quickly, before Milicent Bagot, who was very familiar with the Kuczynski family, could advise against it. Sonia’s brother Jürgen had actually been interned as a dangerous communist, collaborating with another noted incendiary, Hans Kahle, in organizing espionage, but was conveniently released at about the same time that Sonia’s passport application was approved, in May. Len Beurton was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and thus not a person whose re-entry was to be encouraged. Cazalet in MI5 too late pointed out the anomalies, but stated that Sonia’s passport should be issued for limited duration, and should not be used for travel.

One bizarre item in the KV 6/41 file shows that Sonia, perhaps concerned that the application was not moving fast enough, actually sent a letter to her father (addressed mystifyingly as ‘Renée’: his forenames were Robert René) requesting local pressure on the Passport Office. In this missive, she curiously refers to herself in the third person (‘Maria’), and informs her family that ‘Maria’s husband’ (aka ‘Georgie’) has just written to the Office to advance his claim. As it happened, the passport had been approved the day before: it is not clear how Len’s personal approach would have helped his suit, unless he perhaps thought that making an overt breach from his chequered past would somehow make the Passport office look on his submission with more favour. Len’s letter has not survived, but it was not necessary.

Thus it is apparent that MI6 was able to bulldoze through the application, even though Sonia was known to be one of a dangerous Communist family, with lower-level officers in MI5 speaking strongly against the award, at a time when the Soviet Union was supporting Nazi Germany in the war effort against Great Britain. It is quite extraordinary that, during a period when any German refugees were looked at with great suspicion, and as rumours of a dangerous ‘Fifth Column’ of hostile aliens were gathering momentum, MI6 would go to strenuous efforts to facilitate the entry into the United Kingdom of a known German-born revolutionary. Laconically, Sonia reported in her memoir: “In the late autumn of 1940, Centre suggested that Len and I move to England”, as if the thought had just occurred to them. (This is presumably the sentiment that Tyrer echoes in his notes.)

Step Three: Exploiting Len’s Extended Presence in Switzerland

Len Beurton

Len’s status in 1940 is a little perplexing. We know from the infamous ‘Geneva Letter’ (see The Letter from Geneva) that Farrell must have engaged him for some intelligence-gathering purposes, with the Falkenberg connection providing a vital insight into how prominent German minds against Hitler might be thinking. Yet it surely cannot have been MI6’s intention to prevent his leaving with Sonia, as it would draw undue attention to her situation, and would make her passage more hazardous. Was the statement about his returning to Switzerland a blind, when they knew that he would struggle to gain a transit visa, and might be even less welcome in the UK than Sonia was?

Sonia wrote that ‘as a former member of the International Brigade, Len could not travel through Spain and had to stay in Geneva until we [Moscow? The British Consulate?] could find a different route for him.’ Yet she presents this observation very late in the cycle, after she and Len had received instructions from Moscow towards the end of 1940. It is difficult to imagine that they could have been so uninformed at this stage. She confirmed the fact when she was interviewed by customs officials in Liverpool on February 4, 1941, saying (after lying about how long she had been in Switzerland) that her husband had been unable to leave Switzerland as he could not obtain a Spanish visa.

The untruths about Len’s poor health (and other matters) start here. There are two interrogation reports on Sonia on file: one dated February 8, from Security and Immigration, and the other February 15, from the Home Office. In the former report, she is quoted as saying that Len had been in Switzerland for about two years ‘for health reasons’. She cannot give a date for when she first met him, but claims she went to Switzerland for the last time ‘just before the outbreak of war’, and that Len had paid visits to Germany during the previous nine months in an attempt to secure money owed her. She married Beurton in February 1940, ‘having secured a divorce from her former husband’. Fortunately, Len had now recovered from his tuberculosis, but had not been able to acquire a Spanish visa necessary for reaching Portugal, because of his membership of the International Brigades. Yet, despite Len’s ‘recovery’, she still cites his ill-health as an counter to the Spanish government’s obduracy, suggesting that his inability to fight should remove their concern.

The Home Office Report gives a slightly different story. Now Sonia claims that she had been in Switzerland since February 1940, thus eliding the circumstances by which she had been able to acquire her divorce papers. She was presumably not questioned as to where she had been prior to her arrival. She again says that Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, but now embroiders the reason why she had to leave Switzerland without him – that she was, as she coyly admitted, ‘afraid to stay any longer owing to her connection with a well-known anti-Nazi family’. That family was of course the Kuczynskis, to which she was rather tightly bound, not simply ‘connected’. She does not indicate here that Len has recovered, and thus leaves the argument that he was unfit to be a fighting man in place.

The report goes on to say that the Spanish visa ‘has been refused by the Spanish authorities as he is still of military age and when it was pointed out to them that he was medically unfit they said that the grounds for refusal were that he was an engineer and therefore as valuable as a fighting man.’ It is not clear whether the officials derived this information from Sonia herself, or another source, but it does confirm that Len’s invalidity has already been raised as a reason for letting him depart. Sonia rather ingenuously concluded her statement by indicating that ‘Mr. Beurton would attempt to leave France by a cargo boat from Marseilles’. A simple cross-check between different statements to customs officials and Livingston’s passport application would have turned up an enormous contradiction about the supposed frailty of Len’s health and his desire to join his wife in England as soon as possible, as well as a cavalcade of lies about their movements in Europe. MI5 and MI6 were simply not interested

In any case, Len surely did face a challenge in trying to pass through France and Spain because of his history as an International Brigader, and this fact would consume some more of MI6’s devious energies later. Meanwhile, he made himself useful. In Handbook for Spies, Foote stated that Len gradually extricated himself from the Soviet organisation, and that contact ceased after March 1941 (when Sonia was safely ensconced in Oxfordshire). This was the period when Farrell presumably nurtured him, believing him also to be an ally, and indebted to the British authorities, and used him for intelligence-gathering purposes. Some time after his return to the United Kingdom, Len apparently tried to revive his career with MI6. In the Alexander Foote archive, in KV 2/1612-2, can be found a statement that Beurton ‘gave information about his work with KWEI, Z.156 [presumably von Falkenberg] and Rolf SUESS which was of little value, and he tried to obtain employment with British intelligence. This offer was refused, and in July 1943 he asked for help in joining the R.A.F. on the strength of “having rendered valuable assistance in Switzerland”’.

The exact sequence and timing of events is uncertain, but K 6/41 tends to undermine the ‘intelligence’ application in favour of the ‘R. A. F’ story. There, Colonel Vivian of MI6 confirms the approach, informing Shillito on August 17, 1943 that Beurton presented himself at the War Office with an introductory letter, asking for an interview with (name redacted). (But why else would Vivian have been involved?) Yet Beurton waited a long time to make this approach, as if he was not certain whether he was working for the GRU, or MI6, or both. He must have been getting rather desperate. Shillito had picked up the case again, and was busy asking questions at this time. Perhaps the combination of Farrell’s reminder in March, the imminent birth of his and Sonia’s baby, and his failure to find employment were making Len a bit desperate. MI6 in London were obviously quite aware of his services to the Swiss station, but had no wish to recruit him. If they were interested in taking him on, they would surely have acted soon after his arrival.

Step Four: Arranging the passage of Sonia and her children to Lisbon

The Grande Hotel, Estoril

Refugee literature informs us how arduous was the trek across France and Spain to the relative safety of Portugal. For a lone woman travelling with a nine-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, it must have been especially difficult. Yet Sonia’s children (Maik and Janina) almost did not make it. The original passport application had specified that Sonia wanted her children added to the passport, but it seems that this inclusion did not guarantee their ability to travel, presumably since they had been born as German citizens, and had not been naturalized. This discovery occurred very late in the day. Sonia did not notice the dilemma until shortly before she left, apparently, or may have assumed that their status as appendages to her passport gave them right of entry. Else she may have considered that perhaps the original plan was for her to travel alone, leaving the children in Len’s (or somebody else’s) care. Sonia ignores the whole issue of her children’s approval process, merely stating that she planned to leave at the end of December.

Yet KV 6/41 shows that an urgent plaintext telegram was sent from Geneva to London on November 21, 1940, reflecting the recognition that the children might be turned away on attempting to land. (The question of whether they would have got past the Embassy in Lisbon is not raised.) Extraordinarily, the cable states, even at this late stage, that the children would be accompanied by their parents [sic, plural], and throws in the name of Sonia’s father, (“Doctor Kuczynski of London University’), as if that impressive academic touch would seal the deal. Mystifyingly still, Cazalet’s response of December 10 misses the point entirely, stating that MI5 (to whom the request was addressed) ‘have no objection to the names of Mrs. Ursula BEURTON’s children being added to her passport and the children accompanying their mother to this country’. His memo to Stafford of the Passport and Permit Office, dated December 4, clearly indicates that the problem was due to the fact that they were ‘German born children’.

Once she and her children arrived in Lisbon, Sonia faced multiple challenges in planning her transit. This section of her memoir is probably one of the more reliable parts, in the bare outline of their movements. She wrote a letter to her parents in which she described the horrendous journey, the unheated bus through France, the icy cold in which they stood waiting at customs houses, alleviated by a more comfortable train ride from Barcelona to Madrid, and then a more stressful passage to Lisbon, where they arrived on December 24, 1940, with all three of them ill. The British consulate explained that Sonia was ‘about the most insignificant person on the long list’, so she moved, somewhat incongruously, to a comfortable hotel up the coast in Estoril (the ‘Grande’, “once the setting for the European aristocracy to spend its summers”), using monies from Moscow Centre’s account. “After about three weeks, the consulate informed me that we would be taken to England by ship”, she wrote. Yet the letter she wrote to her family on January 4 indicates that she already knew then that the waiting-time would be ‘about three weeks’ – not a bad prospect for someone so lowly on the pecking-order. She had been granted a Category ‘C’ endorsement (no internment required) on January 10. It appeared that MI6 had primed the consulate: Sonia gave the game away again.

Moscow also helped with the expenses involved in transporting Sonia and her family across Europe. While funding was tight in Switzerland, and caused special stresses, Foote informed his interrogators that ‘Albert’ (Radó) managed to send $3,500 to her in Portugal. This was obviously essential for Sonia’s living expenses while staying at the Grande Hotel. Sonia admitted this contribution in her memoir. Yet she was clearly indebted to MI6 for working behind the scenes to advance her priority up the queue of desperate refugees waiting to gain a spot on one of the ships bound for Liverpool. No questions were apparently asked about her source of funds or her lavish accommodation.

Step Five: Helping Sonia Settle in Britain

‘The Wake Arms’ in Epping

In two respects, MI6 helped Sonia with her accommodation and trysting arrangements in England. In one extraordinary item of testimony, Foote told his interrogators (KV 6/43-243A) that, before Sonia left Switzerland, she asked Foote to send a message to Moscow giving the address in Essex where her GRU contact was to meet. Foote’s notebook revealed that Sonia was to ‘meet with the Russians on 1st & 15th of every month at 3pm GMT at Wake Arms in Epping’. This location has an especial interest, since some of the items of correspondence intercepted at the Summertown address in September and October 1942 came from Epping. It would nevertheless not have been an easy place to travel to and from for a mother with two young children resident in Oxford. Yet Epping had its enduring attractions. In 1944, Sonia consequently decided to send Nina, aged seven, to a ‘boarding school in beautiful rural surroundings near Epping Forest’, Micha having already won a scholarship to a boarding school in Eastbourne, Sussex. Nannies and boarding-schools: those are the emblems of the truly dedicated Communist with important work to do.

What is astonishing about this item is how Sonia must have gained the intelligence. Unless the claim was a gross invention by Foote (which seems unlikely, given its detail, and the context), we have to consider the alternatives for the source of a message that was to be sent to Moscow. It therefore could not have originated from Moscow, but we also have to consider why Moscow would need this information. Did Sonia believe that Moscow would have to pass it on to her GRU contact in London, so that she and her handler could meet successfully? Surely not: Moscow was in constant touch with London. Or was she simply confirming what her GRU contact had told her already? Yet, even if she had been able to contact the GRU in London, by wireless, or possibly by coded letter to her sister or father, there would have been no need for her to inform Moscow, as her relatives must have derived the data from the local GRU residency.

Thus we have to assume that the address was given to her by Farrell in MI6. The implication that MI6 was in communication with GRU officers in London about the plan to bring Sonia to Britain, and aiding the process of setting up her treffs, is too scandalous and impossible to consider. I suggest one tentative interpretation. What probably happened is that Sonia had been able to inform Moscow that MI6 was going to recommend a suitable meeting-place (presumably with the objective of surveilling it closely), and, at the last minute before she left, it gave her the times and location for Epping. Her message thus constituted a warning to her bosses that this place was not to be used. There is no other evidence that she travelled regularly to Epping, which would have been an arduous journey from Oxford, although much easier from Hampstead, if that is where MI6 believed she would probably take up residence.

The fact that Foote had to inform Moscow of the arrangement must mean that the GRU was aware that Sonia was negotiating with MI6. That was in principle also a dangerous path, as such collaboration was severely frowned upon. In late 1943, Radó received a royal carpeting when he suggested to Moscow that he and Foote seek shelter in the British consulate in Geneva when the Gestapo started applying pressure to the Swiss, and mopped up the Rote Drei network. Sonia must have wisely told Moscow everything, and gained their approval for going along with MI6’s game, as it represented the best chance of gaining the foothold in Britain that they all desired.

The other instance where MI6 helped her was in her attempt to learn where her destination in England would be. I laid out in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 8 how she sent a desperate letter from Lisbon to her father’s address in London, which was redirected to the address in Oxford that she would later give, as her destination, to the immigration officer in Liverpool. Whether Oxford was chosen as part of a deep strategy by the GRU, as a sensible idea by MI6, or out of a firm preference from the Kucyznski family is unclear. It may well have been the latter, as Jürgen Kuczynski had expressed dismay that Sonia was coming to Britain, where she might draw undue attention by MI5 and Special Branch to his own subversive activities on behalf of the Party. The anguish in her letter shows that Sonia must have known already that she was not welcome in London, and would be directed elsewhere. Yet Sonia did learn what this address was before she arrived in Liverpool. Some emissary from MI6 must have provided this information care of the Consul in Lisbon: there is no other reasonable explanation. In Chapter 8 I put forward one speculative notion.

The voyage to Liverpool took three weeks: the Avoceta arrived on February 4. After the interrogation(s) (in which she was now able to provide a destination address), Sonia managed to find a hotel to stay in, and after an air-raid interrupted night, the next morning travelled smoothly by train to Oxford. Thereafter, her account does not ring true. She claimed that her parents were staying with friends at the Oxford address (78 Woodstock Road, as the MI5 files tell us: they followed her there), but that they had to return to London ‘because their room was needed by their friends’ relatives’. Implausibly, Sonia states that, because house-hunting in Oxford was ‘hopeless’, she tried to find something in the bombed cities, but that was impossible too. (Did she travel to Portsmouth? Coventry? Liverpool? She does not say.)  ‘At last’ she found a furnished room, but had to send the children away, as the landlady insisted on only one renter. So she found a room at the vicarage in Glympton, near Woodstock, settled down, and started her fortnightly visits to London.

If one were not aware of her brother’s objections, one night ask why on earth she didn’t move to the bosom of her family in London, so she would have grandparents to look after her children, and be able to carry on her trysts so much more easily? Apparently ‘moving in with them was out of the question’, as her parents were staying with friends in an overcrowded house’. In April 1941, she conveniently found the furnished bungalow in Kidlington, with no landlady, and the ability to keep her children with her. What she also omitted to mention, however, was that, during these hectic weeks, she was actually residing with her sister, Barbara, Mrs Taylor, at 97 Kingston Road, Oxford, as the constabulary report of February 24 informs us. Barbara’s husband, Duncan Burnett Macrae Taylor, was a trainee wireless operator in the R. A. F., and thus may well have been the officer Sonia claimed to have developed as an informer (‘James’) when she boasted of her ‘network’ in her memoir. Moreover, the report says that her parents are still living at 78 Woodstock Road. It is no wonder that Sonia fails to describe this part of her life in Oxford in any detail.

Step Six: Allowing Sonia to Carry On Unsurveilled

Kidlington Airport

What is clear from the archives is that a minimal surveillance of Sonia was undertaken, but it was of the generic kind of instructing the local constabulary ‘to keep an eye on her’, as if they might surprise her in the act of planting a bomb somewhere. It extended to intercepting her mail, but specifically did not track her movements. The problem is that much of the initiative came from younger officers, like Hugh Shillito, who were trying to do their job, but had clearly not been filled in on the bigger picture. Shillito (B.10.e) wrote to Major Ryde in Reading (the Special Branch representative) on February 7, suggesting that Sonia might want to ‘be kept under observation’. Yet he gives no indication that she is a communist, and related to subversives who have been interned. He merely states that she ‘clearly comes from an entirely different social stratum, and it appears that the marriage was one of convenience’. He says that Len’s ‘present whereabouts are unknown’. It is obvious that he has not been briefed properly, has not spoken to Milicent Bagot, has not read the immigration reports, and is completely unaware of the Communist group that Sonia was part of. He ends his request with the statement: ‘I shall be very interested to hear the result of any enquiries you may make’, but one could hardly expect Major Ryde to jump into action on the basis of this weak letter.

Shillito in fact copied his letter to the Oxford Constabulary, and Ryde did send it on to the Oxford City Police. Acting Detective-Sergeant Jevons did make enquiries, and discovered the facts about the Taylors, and also that Sonia’s father held ‘strong Communist views’, facts that he reported to Shillito on February 24. The very next day, Hyde sent a letter to Shillito, enclosing a copy of the Beurtons’ marriage certificate. This is shocking and absurd: Why did these dedicated civil servants have to educate an MI5 officer about the details of the case? I have noticed that MI5 officers often seemed remarkably ignorant of the marital status of Len and Sonia: when Sonia’s application for a passport came through in March 1940, Cazalet had even indicated that they thought Len was in Germany, in February 1940, which would have been a ridiculous supposition if he had married Sonia the previous month.

Thus Shillito appears to have been kept in the dark, deliberately. His response to Ryde of March 1 suggests that the marriage is all news to him. In any case, at that point Shillito effectively signs off, deeming no further action required, and again expresses the perennial hope that ‘an eye can be kept’ on Sonia. The file is passed to B4, as it appears to be a Communist Party matter. Thereafter, Sonia and Shillito disappear from the archival radar, the case not taking on new life until her husband’s repatriation in July 1942, by which time Shillito has been heavily involved with the business of Oliver Green, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and a spy who had been convicted and imprisoned, not for espionage, but for forging petrol coupons. In the reorganization of July 1941, after Petrie’s arrival, Shillito had been moved into the new F Division, tracking CP members, and was given a new assignment.

According to Sonia’s account, the hounds (if that is how these tentative inquisitors must be characterized) must have been called off at about the time she first met with her controller in London, in May, after several abortive attempts. She travelled up to London every couple of weeks, to speak to her father, and colleagues like Hans Kahle. She stayed with her parents, or one of her sisters, presumably leaving her children behind. She never explains how they were taken care of. It was in 1941, of course, that Peter Wright claimed that she maintained ‘a nest of spies’, something that surely should have gained the attention of any agency chartered with ‘keeping an eye on her’. As readers of these bulletins will know by now, I largely discount Wright’s allegations, although it is possible that Sonia developed contacts in important scientific research organisations in Oxford.  And yet, throughout the rest of 1941, no one apparently noticed any of her journeys and absences, or pondered how a mother was able to leave her kids behind so regularly.

The political environment changed in 1941, of course. The Battle of Britain was over; the threat of invasion receded; the search for parachuted German agents waned; Hitler turned his attention eastwards and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22. With Churchill’s immediate message of support to Stalin, and signals from the Y Board and the Foreign Office that counter-intelligence operations against the Soviet Union should be wound down, Sonia would have been seen in a different light. What possible harm could a lone and disconnected housewife perform to the cause of the war?

MI6’s need for insights into Soviet decryption techniques, however, did not go away, and GCHQ never completely abandoned its plans for attacking Soviet traffic. It was in the summer of 1941 that Sonia, having assembled her wireless transmitter at Glympton, began transmitting regularly to Moscow, and the only surviving message concerning her wireless activity (not from her directly, but from the Soviet Embassy) dates from July of this year. As I have outlined, her attempts to contact her bosses at that time were made from Kidlington, and were (apparently) never picked up. Thus it would appear that MI6 fell into a fallow period with Sonia, not certain what to do with her, and perhaps frustrated in noticing that, having installed herself as a competent wireless operator in Oxfordshire, she stubbornly refused to co-operate by sending any messages that could be intercepted.

The circumstances surrounding Sonia’s broadcasts in 1941, and the apparent failure of RSS to pick them up, are still perplexing. Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach Hamburg, or enemy wireless operators working on the Continent. Such signals should have immediately drawn attention, but they would have been harder to pick up at that wavelength, and it is probable that the Voluntary Interceptors (VIs) had not been instructed to perform General Searches in this range. We can only speculate as to how well MI6 understood the technicalities of waveband selection for the cuckoo they had transplanted into their nest, or how reluctant they would have been to divulge too much about her presence to RSS officers who were supposed to detect her.

We do know that, by early 1942, a VI picked up such a signal from the Soviet Embassy, but location-finding techniques still had great difficulty in tracking it down. It may be that, not until MI6 took over the fixed direction-finding stations from the Post Office in late 1941, and built new ones, and connected them all, was the RSS able to include in its ambit a greater range of frequencies, and pass some of them to the VIs. One RSS officer, Bob King, assured me that the complete spectrum of wavelengths was monitored, and, moreover, that Sonia’s transmissions were picked up, and instructions received to ignore them, but the dating of such events suggests they were post-war. I shall pick up this fascinating aspect of the story in the conclusion to my series The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.

The final anomalous oversight of this period was Sonia’s momentous meetings with Klaus Fuchs. Yet those encounters properly belong to the time after Beurton’s arrival back in the United Kingdom, which was an important scheme by MI6 in its own right. It would be Len’s controversial arrangements for rejoining his wife that would gain Hugh Shillito’s attention again.

Step 7: Orchestrating Len’s Repatriation

Eleanor Rathbone

One extraordinary aspect of the whole project concerning Len’s repatriation is the extreme lengths that MI6 went to. When far more-deserving candidates, such as escaped prisoners-of-war, were struggling to gain passage back to England, Beurton, a known communist, agent in a Swiss spy network, and member of an official Black List, benefitted from the provision of false papers, and the advantage of an aircraft return to Poole, Dorset instead of the dangerous and slow sea journey that most refugees had to endure. (The busy MI9 route out of Gibraltar also used aircraft.) It is difficult to imagine that MI6 would go to such extreme lengths purely because of the pressure applied by leftist friends of the Kuczynskis, and for the office of the Foreign Secretary to become involved only draws attention to the anomaly.

Readers will recall that, when Sonia arrived in Liverpool in early February 1941, one of the accounts that she gave of Len’s absence was that he had gone two years ago to Switzerland for treatment for tuberculosis, that he had recovered and was thus fit to travel, but that the failure of the Spanish to grant him a transit visa had prevented his accompanying her. (And that this intelligence was in contradiction of what the passport application from Geneva had indicated.) Unsurprisingly, the testimonies now differ. Sonia reported that Radó had applied pressure on Len, saying that his work in Switzerland was more important, and Len had been influenced by him. But when he asked Moscow what he should do, they told him to ‘do as Sonya says’ – an extremely unlikely interchange.

Foote described it differently: “Bill [Len] then pulled out of the organisation, and though he remained in Switzerland until 1942 he had no more official contact with us after March 1941. Moscow allowed him to try to make arrangements to leave at the end of 1941 and even assisted him in obtaining a British passport by getting a leading British politician to intervene on his behalf. The politician concerned acted, I am sure, quite innocently in this as worked through a number of cut-outs, and the person in question would probably have been horrified at the thought of assisting a Russian spy.” Probably a more accurate account, and a useful commentary by the MI5 ghost-writer, to be sure. Radó echoed Foote’s account in Codename Dora, indicating that ‘John’ [Len] stayed on to provide training (‘at Central’s request’) but then observed that Len was able to leave the country by the spring of 1941. Even if Radó was mistaken over the date of Len’s derparture, it strongly suggests that Len was not occupied with the Rote Drei any longer.

Sonia made much of Len’s struggles to gain any priority with the consulate in the queue of escapees trying to reach Britain, and she said she then contacted Hans Kahle, who, in turn invoked the support of Eleanor Rathbone, the left wing MP, who pleaded on the basis of Len’s eagerness to join the British Army. It might have suited MI6 to keep Len in place for a while, since he was providing useful information on anti-Nazi thinking from his association with General von Falkenhausen, but someone obviously concluded that he would be of more use back in Britain. Events then took some extraordinary turns, involving some barefaced lies that apparently did not concern the authorities, who were, after all, responsible for some of them.

For example, Sonia wrote that Rathbone must have asked a question in Parliament, along the lines of : “Why is a British citizen and anti-fascist with military experience in the Spanish Civil War, who is abroad and wants to volunteer for the British Army, not being given the support of His Majesty’s Government in order to return to his home country?” She overlooked the obvious paradox that, in order to gain a transit visa necessary for repatriation and then enlisting, Beurton had to be declared unfit for military service in Geneva. A veritable Catch22. [I cannot find, in the 1942 Hansard records, this question from the MP for the Combined Universities, but Miss Rathbone was a vigorous and regular critic of government policy.]

When Rathbone wrote to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, she explained that Beurton had gone to Switzerland before the war for health reasons, and then underwent a serious ski-ing accident that prevented him from leaving. For good measure, the International Brigade Association secretary, Mr Jack Brent, threw in (orally) that Beurton probably had tuberculosis as well, and would therefore be unfit for military service, thus undermining Rathbone’s appeal. This submission conveniently reinforced the ‘legend’ that Sonia had built up about Len’s affliction, yet rather over-egged the pudding with the details of Len’s misfortunes while ski-ing. Of course, the myth that Len was unfit for military service was necessary in an effort to convince the Vichy French and Spanish authorities that Len could not contribute to the war effort, but it rather undermined the urgency of the reasons why the British authorities would be eager to repatriate a tubercular, crippled Communist subversive. Did they perhaps not recall that Klaus Fuchs’s brother Gerhard had arrived by aeroplane in the UK from Switzerland in July 1939, but had been denied entry, and had been forced to return, because he had tuberculosis?

In any case, the Foreign Office wisely pointed out that Beurton would probably need to be pronounced unfit by an impartial medical board in order to gain transit visas from the French and Spanish authorities. On June 3, Livingston, of the Geneva consulate, informed Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that Beurton had been trying to leave for two years (some slight exaggeration), but he was able to supply the good news that, in April, the doctor attached to the French consulate had declared him unfit for military service. Thereafter, they had applied for French and Spanish visas. The Spaniards, not smelling a rat (or possibly receiving some form of encouragement), had granted the visa, but the French were still delaying things. Yet what Livingston did not state at this juncture was that Beurton had already, on March 9, been issued with a false passport in the name of John William Miller. This fellow must have been a really important asset.

The final visa was issued on July 8, Beurton left Geneva on July 13, and Livingston reported his departure on July 20. There is no record of his journey on file, but Beurton apparently was given VIP treatment, not taking the regular MI9 route for escaped POWs and agents from occupied Europe via Madrid to Gibraltar, but enjoying instead the diplomatic route, and the comfort of a quick plane from Lisbon. He arrived at Poole Airport on July 29, hale, but a little peeved that the he had to undergo an interrogation, as he felt that the authorities in Lisbon should have warned immigration about his arrival. He confidently declared that his passport was a forgery, denied that he had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, indicated that he had gone to Germany in January 1939 to retrieve property owned by Rudolf Kuczynski, and intimated that he had an affair with the latter’s daughter, Ursula. He boasted that he had survived on a $20,000 legacy that he had been carrying round in cash. Furthermore he stated that he and Ursula were married in May 1940, and that they did not leave Switzerland at the beginning of the war as they were waiting for his wife’s divorce papers to come through. He was, however, quick to mention his contact from the League of Nations, L. T. Wang.

A more incriminating farrago of lies would have been difficult to concoct. On August 5, Vesey (B4A) wrote to MI6 expressing surprise that the Passport Control Officer would have issued a false British passport to man whose history must have been known. MI6 replied to Vesey that he had been given a faked passport as he had been refused a transit visa in his own name, adding that the PCO in Geneva was ‘of course’ not aware of the ‘individual circular’ concerning Beurton, who had in the meantime approached the ‘Passport Control’ (i.e. MI6 itself) to join the Armed Forces. MI6 was meanwhile very interested in Wang and Kwei. Vesey and a representative from MI6 would interrogate Beurton in October about the questionable legacy and his actions with Sonia’s friend Marie Guinzberg at the UN in gaining a Bolivian passport. Yet interest in all these suspicious activities was buried.

Step 8: Suppressing Leads on Sonia’s and Len’s Activities

Klaus Fuchs

I have written at length on the apparent confusion surrounding MI5’s surveillance of the Kidlington and Summertown addresses, and the Beurtons’ telephone and mail (see http://www.coldspur.com/special-bulletin-response-to-denis-lenihan/, of March 19, 2020). Sonia claimed that she and Len had to move out of the Kidlington house very soon after Len’s arrival, but was fortunate in finding accommodation in the annex to the house owned by Neville Laski and his wife. Sonia was careful in picking landlords of impeccable standing: Laski was a notable jurist, and may have acted as a solicitor for MI5 at some stage. When the Beurtons moved to The Firs at Great Rollright after the war, they rented from Sir Arthur Salter, the Member of Parliament for Oxford University from 1937 to 1950.

My main conclusion was that Hugh Shillito, having been emboldened by a successful investigation of Oliver Green’s espionage activities, shifted his attention back to the Beurtons soon after Len’s arrival in July 1942, but was firmly discouraged by senior MI5 officers from pursuing the leads too energetically. For example, the apparent failure to follow up on the provocative batch of letters listed on file is perplexing. Just after the time (November 1942) when he had gained the enthusiastic support of Director-General Petrie, and his immediate supervisor Roger Hollis, for his prosecution of the Green case, Shillito made the outlandish suggestion that Sonia and Len were probably Soviet spies. Yet this was information that some senior officers did not want to hear.

It would be quite plausible that Liddell and White had been drawn into the plot by MI6 at this stage, but that Petrie and Hollis (who had replaced his former boss, John Curry, as head of F Division in November 1941), had not. F2 was responsible for ‘Communism and Left-wing Movements’, but Sonia and Len were not associated with the Party, or visibly part of any ‘movement’, so they, along with many other free-flowing communists (such as Jürgen Kuczynski and Fritz Kahle) were allowed to behave unhindered. Perhaps a case was made on those lines that the Beurtons should be ignored. As late as July 1943, however, when the very disgruntled but severely anti-communist Curry had been transferred to MI6, Shillito was still grumbling to his former director that he thought the Beurtons were Soviet agents.

Yet it is the Fuchs business that dominates this period. Sonia had been introduced to Fuchs through her brother, Jürgen. From Sonia’s account, one would get the impression that she cycled out to the Banbury area a dozen times or more, sometimes meeting Fuchs in person, sometimes leaving a message in a shared ‘letterbox’ to arrange a subsequent meeting. When Fuchs passed her a hundred-page book of blueprints, she had to travel to London to inform her handler (by a secret chalk sign) that they would meet outside Oxford, and she then had to pedal out to the junction of the A34 and the A40 to hand over the formulae and drawings. Frank Close echoes the account of these idyllic trysts, even quoting what Sonia later told the local Oxford newspapers: “During the final months of 1942, and throughout 1943, Fuchs and Sonya met at regular intervals near Banbury, always at weekends. She would come from Oxford by train in the morning, Fuchs arriving from Birmingham in the afternoon. One meeting was in Overthorpe Park, two miles east of Banbury, and within easy reach by bicycle or on foot.”

One can already see the contradictions. Did Sonia bike the whole thirty miles to Banbury, or did she take her bicycle to the train station, and then ride out to Overthorpe Park? Remember, most of these adventures would have occurred in the windy and rainy English winter of 1942-1943: moreover the Beurtons’ son, Peter, was born in September 1943, which would have hindered Sonia’s cycling excursions in the latter part of this period. Fuchs would not have been able to make regular forays to duboks in North Oxfordshire just to inform Sonia when the next meeting should be. Sonia promoted the notion that they walked around arm-in-arm, as if they were lovers, to throw off any suspicions. Yet most of this must be fantasy.

Sonia probably met Fuchs for the first time in a café near Birmingham railway station, in late summer 1942, and on that occasion they probably only checked each other out. The Vassiliev Papers record that she had reported that Fuchs had already passed papers to her by October 22 (and they also inform us that Fuchs’s previous handler, Kremer, had returned to the Soviet Union in August 1942). MI5 later claimed that such meetings occurred only every two or three months (echoing what Fuchs told them in his confession), and lasted only a few minutes, which would appear to make more sense, with Fuchs needing to be careful about absenting himself from Birmingham. If Sonia had indeed been taking her bike to Oxford station at regular intervals, surely ‘keeping an eye on her’ would have quickly led to her being stopped, and interrogated about her business? And what happened if her bicycle had broken down and she had secret plans in her basket?

Sonia’s handling of Fuchs lasted only one year. They had their infamous ‘Quebec Agreement’ meeting in mid-August 1943, and a final tryst in November. So, even allowing for MI5’s possible distortions to cover their ineptitude, she and Fuchs probably met only about three or four times before, which, logistically, makes much more sense. More poignantly, this period happened to coincide almost exactly with Len’s presence, and idleness, before being enlisted in the R. A. F. on November 18, 1943, as a trainee wireless operator. Len had expressed to Vesey, in October 1942, his annoyance at being turned down by the Air Force, whom he was keen to join, for health reasons. But his ill health was a myth. Had MI6 been working behind the scenes to disrupt his application? And what about the support of Rathbone, Cadogan and Eden for getting this man into the fight against the Nazis? Did Rathbone conveniently forget about the vociferous appeal she had made on behalf of the valiant British fighting-man?

That there might be significance behind the apparent coincidence of Fuchs’s productivity and Len’s wireless activity is too horrendous to consider, but Beurton had surely taken over the operation of the radio in Kidlington from Sonia. Was that what MI6 conceived as his role? Unless they were interested purely in improved marital relations for Sonia and Len, MI6 must have had plans for him. Yet he could not be used for intelligence purposes in the UK, and he could possibly be a danger if used in the Armed Forces, as his later problems in being accepted reveal. Farrell’s letter of March 1943 remains puzzling, but could have been a coded reminder that Len needed to re-commit to the cause of British Intelligence, and advice from his new-found ‘friend’ would be timely.

Whether Sonia actually used her apparatus to transmit from the new address in Summertown is mainly speculation. The discovery of her set in January 1943 has been analysed studiously. Certainly she claimed that she transmitted regularly, and that her children confirmed her nocturnal activities, but the evidence is sparse. GCHQ, on behalf of RSS, claimed very unscientifically to Peter Wright that she could not have transmitted undetected, but of course her messages might have been intercepted, and decisions made to leave Sonia untouched and uninterrupted. Wright himself wrote vaguely of Sonia’s lost messages, and scoured the globe for them. William Tyrer’s dossier contains a number of unverifiable, mostly undated, messages from Moscow to Sonia, but they are largely very unbusinesslike and novelettish, and mostly predate the Fuchs era or are placed after the war. If she did transmit anything from the Summertown address, it would have been relatively harmless material, and used as a distraction to draw attention away from Kidlington.

With her knowledge and experience from direction-finding in Poland, however, it would have been career suicide for her to transmit repeatedly from a single address in densely populated England, and expect not to be detected. Thus one must assume that either a) if she had been a genuine, freely-operating spy, she would not have used her apparatus (maybe surprised that the authorities did not investigate her equipment), but would have taken advantage instead of Len and the Soviet Embassy to ensure that her secrets reached Moscow; or b) if she had been aware of MI6’s attempts to control her, she would have transmitted only her variant of ‘chicken-feed’, which would be enough to keep her watchers busy, but would never reveal any information that might cast doubt on her ‘new’ loyalties, even if GC&CS were able to decipher her messages. In any case, MI6 were stuck with the cuckoo in their nest, and, at the peak of Great Britain-Soviet Union ‘co-operation’ in 1942-43, had to sit back and let things take their course. Even though the extent of Sonia’s espionage may have been overstated, she certainly duped British Intelligence in her coup with Fuchs.

Step 9: Keeping the Lid On, 1944-1946

‘The Firs’ at Great Rollright

After Fuchs’s departure for the USA in December 1943, and Len’s enlistment in the R. A. F., Sonia’s espionage activities waned. She claimed that she maintained her contacts, and continued to use her wireless, even stating that she sent her son, Micha, and daughter, Nina, to boarding-schools in Eastbourne and Epping respectively so that they would not notice her nocturnal transmissions. How the financially strained Beurtons found the money to pay for private education is never explained, although MI6 has been known to help out in this manner for well-deserving cases. Certainly Sonia helped Erich Henschke and other anti-fascists in the OSS project to drop agents into Germany, in late 1944, but since her brother Jürgen was actually engaged by the American OSS at the time, her actions would not have been regarded as suspicious.

She also had some contact with Melita Norwood (TINA) who was probably of even more use to the Soviets than was Fuchs, but this lasted only for a short time in 1945. Melita’s mother was on friendly terms with Sonia’s mother, and Sonia and Melita had met shortly after Sonia’s arrival in 1941. It would not have been efficient for Sonia, based in Oxfordshire, to have couriered for Norwood, who was, after all, a KGB agent. The Vassiliev Papers (Yellow Notebook No. 1: File 82702) tell us that, even though Norwood had been recruited by the OGPU as far back as 1935, the receipt of papers from her in June 1945 was only the second batch she handed over. Moreover, she had left her job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in 1943 to bear her child, and was out of action for over a year. Thus the claim that David Burke makes in The Spy Who Came In From the Co-Op (p 14), that Sonia ‘was Melita Norwood’s controller between 1941 and 1944’ should be quickly dismissed.

MI5, in the person of Shillito, continued to dig around, noticing the anomalies in Beurton’s sickness record.  Shillito also noted that Sonia’s first husband Rudolf had been arrested as a spy in Persia, which resuscitated his suspicions about Sonia. Sargant of O.D.3a had to respond to Air Ministry questions about Len’s dubious story concerning money and health. It was apparent that the Service was now having a difficult time keeping up consistent appearances of the plot to which it had colluded, and struggled to explain why Beurton had been given a fake passport. The rumours even reached the US Embassy, who in August 1944 were anxious to track down Rudolf Hamburger’s wife and family. Roger Hollis himself was called upon to respond to an inquiry from M. J. Lynch. In a letter dated August 10, 1944, Hollis made the best fist he could, admitting that the Beurtons had ‘communist sympathies’, and had probably been funded by the Soviets, adding, however, that MI5’s enquiries had come to nothing, and that neither Mr or Mrs Beurton had been noticed performing anything nefarious. He clearly hoped the problem would go away.

In any case, Moscow Centre at this time decided to loosen its ties with Sonia, although it articulated this message via the Embassy, which had become a much safer way of exchanging vital information by this time. One of the more convincing messages cited in William Tyrer’s dossier, dated January 15, 1945, and sent to Sklyarov in London, runs as follows:

“For your personal information. In the mountain country [Switzerland] Sonia was in contact with Albert [Rado] and his wife. The counterintelligence in your country knows about Albert’s activities in the mountain country and his work for us. There are grounds to suppose that to some degree the counterintelligence may learn about Sonia’s work during her stay in Albert’s country.

     In this connection:

     1. Any personal contact with Sonia should be ceased and not to be resumed without our authorization.

     2. To forbid Sonia to be engaged in our work. She should lead the life of a model mother, wife and housekeeper. Report on the execution. Direktor.”

Moscow was apparently alarmed by the break-up of the Swiss Ring, and the fact that Alexander Foote and Radó might have betrayed information about Sonia’s past activity. Yet there is a trace of disingenuousness here: how could they have imagined that British counter-intelligence was ignorant of Sonia’s career? Nevertheless, the pressure increased, with Gouzenko’s defection in Canada in September 1945 causing panic, and the closing down of multiple agents. The Vassiliev Notebooks (Yellow Notebook, No, 1, p 86) confirm that Moscow cut off all contact with Sonia in January 1946. When Fuchs returned to the UK in 1946, he had to seek out a new go-between. Thereafter, while Sonia was said to communicate occasionally (the language is ambiguous and puzzling), her sister Renate was used as an intermediary to get funds to her. Sonia claimed that she still used her wireless set at this time, having moved to The Firs in Great Rollright, and Bob King of the Discrimination Section of RSS reported to me that he was certain that her messages were picked up by the RSS interceptors, but buried by senior officers.

Before the dramatic defection in July 1947 of Alexander Foote, back to the British, and his subsequent interrogation by MI5, one last twist in the story occurred, revealing the awkwardnesses of MI5 officers having to explain the situation. In April 1946, the FBI, still trying to establish the whereabouts of Rudolf Hamburger, through J. Cimperman, contacted MI5 to determine whether they might approach Ursula Beurton. This time, it fell upon John Marriott (him of the XX Committee, now F2C), and he shared the remarkable information that a letter from the FBI of July 13, 1945 had referred to an address in Geneva (129 Rue de Lausanne), reportedly the address through which Hamburger could be contacted, which was the same address where Mrs. Beurton had last stayed in in Switzerland. Furthermore, she had indicated in 1941, when he arrived, that she thought her husband was still resident there.

One might imagine that an astute officer would either have concealed this information from the Americans, or, alternatively, shown great enthusiasm in following up this extraordinary coincidence. Marriott used it, however, to suggest to Cimperman that the relationships between the two men and Mrs. Beurton made it ‘undesirable’ to approach the lady. Yet he did promise to make further enquiries. The wretched Hamburger meanwhile had been taken back to Moscow from Persia, cruelly interrogated on the suspicion of being a spy, and sentenced to a long stay in a labour-camp. Peter Wright claims in Spycatcher that Hamburger had been an MI6 spy, although John Green comments that this story has never been corroborated.

Maybe foolishly (why would he think that Hamburger still had a link with Geneva?), Marriott agreed to follow up, and turned to the MI6 office responsible – Kim Philby. The same day, he wrote to Philby, explaining the situation, and asking him to make enquiries about the address, and provide, if possible, information on the whereabouts of Hamburger. Marriott revealed his discomfort about Cimperman’s approach directly to Philby, stating: “For a variety of reasons I do not feel able to comply with this request,. . .”, hinting at a tacit, awkward understanding between the two. Two weeks later, Philby, having initiated the appropriate search, responded with a very enigmatic explanation, also confirming that his contact was trying to establish whether Beurton was still living at that address. Continuing to play his role of the simpleton, he added that ‘we have no knowledge of the present whereabouts of HAMBURGER’. Marriott was soon able to enlighten Philby that Beurton was now a Guardsman with the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards in the B.A.O.R. He then sent a very useless and bland letter to Cimperman, which did nothing to shed light on the mystery of the shared address. Apparently nobody followed up with Len or Sonia to learn more about what may have been a Soviet safe-house. Philby clearly wanted to bury the story.

Step 10: Foote and Fuchs: Allowing Sonia and Len to Escape

Alexander Foote

Two challenges remained for the Beurtons – the defection of Alexander Foote, and the arrest of Klaus Fuchs.

The GRU had always harboured its suspicions about Foote’s loyalties, because of his relationship with the British consulate in Geneva, and especially when he encouraged Radó to take cover with him there in November 1943. After Foote was released from prison in November 1944, he made his way to Paris, where he made the extraordinarily bold decision to travel to Moscow to face the music, arriving in mid-January 1945. During the next couple of years, MI5 and MI6 communicated desultorily on Foote’s fate. Foote, meanwhile, was undergoing intense interrogation, and his brazenness in afforming his loyalty must have impressed the Soviets. He was sent to spy school, and on March 7, 1947, left Moscow for Berlin, with a new identity, and a mission to operate as a Soviet agent in South America. On July 2, he defected to the British authorities in Berlin. Claude Dansey did not see his hero return: he had died, discarded, disliked and dejected, on June 11.

Foote was initially interrogated by MI6, and quickly revealed, as is evident from the first Interrogation Report of July 14, that he had worked alongside ‘Sonia’ in the Rote Drei, and that ‘Sonia’ was the alias given to her by the Russian Secret Service, her real name being Ursula KUTSCINSKI’ [sic]. MI5’s Serpell (who had replaced an exasperated Shillito by then) was sent out to interrogate Foote, who immediately voiced his concerns about Sonia’s probable espionage in Britain.  Foote was brought back to the UK, under an assumed name, and arrived at Northolt on August 7. All this must have been a little embarrassing for MI6, who know saw matters spiralling out of control, with officers who had not been ‘indoctrinated’ in the case, including the new Director-General, spreading the news around. Percy Sillitoe contacted the Canadians about the Gouzenko connection; Serpell excitedly got in touch with the American Embassy. Foote, meanwhile, had a crisis of conscience: Sonia had, after all, been his collaborator and tutor, and he sent her a furtive message via Fred Ullmann, another International Brigader who had originally helped recruit him, that she and Len should be on their guard.

This news re-awakened MI5, with the familiar Marriott (now B1b) seeking information on the Beurtons’ whereabouts, since they had lost track of Len since his discharge in August 1945.  He immediately requested a Home Office Warrant check put on the Beurton’s correspondence, as it had apparently just come to his notice that they had both been Soviet spies in Switzerland during the early part of the war. Further revelations from the interrogation of Foote came to light: “Foote suggested that another symptom of SONIA’s continued link with MOSCOW after she reached England was contained in a message he had from Moscow in 1941 about the efforts to get BEURTON back to the U.K. The message said that ELEANOR RATHBONE and others were helping.”

Marriott treated the deluge of Foote’s divulgements as if they were all news to him, and wrote, apparently without irony: “It is not clear why Ursula Beurton left Switzerland as she did at the end of 1940 to proceed to this country, but on the evidence of Foote she did so with at least Russian concurrence and the possibility therefore cannot be excluded that she came here with a  mission.” (Indeed. Had he not read the files in the Registry?) On August 18, he disingenuously tried to finesse the issue by noting that ‘the circumstances of the issue of this latter passport are known to me, and are not relevant to my inquiries.’ The outcome was that Serpell, accompanied by William Skardon, went to The Firs on September 13, to interrogate Sonia and Len.

This extraordinary encounter has been thoroughly reported on, by such as Chapman Pincher and John Green. It seemed the intention of Serpell and Skardon was to put Sonia at her ease, by assuring her that they knew that she had not engaged in any espionage activity in Britain, but instead indicating that they wanted to learn more about what had happened in Switzerland. Yet Sonia had been prepared for the visit by Foote. While Serpell’s continued references to her marriage unnerved Sonia, she realised that if she stuck to her guns, and remained silent, no ill could come out of the exercise. After all, British Intelligence had as much to lose from the truth coming out as she did.

While the focus of the questions seemed to be on events in Switzerland (and Marriott’s notes had indicated that questions concerning Len Beurton’s passport were uppermost in his mind), Serpell and Skardon seemed singularly uninterested in Len, who joined the gathering later, and even indicated that he thought that he was on their side (which, of course, he had been, for a while). The behaviour of the officers in this encounter bewildered Sonia: it was as if MI5 had been trying to catch her out, but they performed with total clumsiness. Serpell and Skardon revealed events in Switzerland that could only have been communicated by Foote. Certainly, the visit confirmed that any espionage activity by her and Len would have to cease at that stage, but Moscow had already decreed that outcome. Or was it a subtle indication that MI5 knew all about her, and that she and Len should make their escape while the going was good? That is an interpretation that John Green hypothesizes. Remarkably, the Home Office Warrant letter checks on not only Sonia, but on other members of her family, were withdrawn immediately after this encounter. So life carried on smoothly for a couple of years.

The arrest of Fuchs, on February 3, 1950, was more alarming. Sonia feared that he would reveal everything under interrogation, and, indeed, as early as February 20, J. D. Robertson (B2A) remarked that Sonia might be induced to talk because of the announcement of his arrest, although it is not clear what prompted him to make that connection. Fuchs had indeed spoken of a female contact he had had encounters with in Banbury, which should have set some MI5 pulses beating faster. Sonia herself wrote that ‘when the press mentioned that Klaus had been meeting a foreign woman with black hair in Banbury I expected my arrest any day’. Frank Close, in his biography of Fuchs, Trinity, reports that ‘the files record enigmatically that she was “touch not”’, but indicates that a pencilled annotation explained that this should be “tough nut”. Quite so: I have not been able to verify this, but the message is clear.

In any case, Sonia jumped the gun, and escaped with her two youngest children to East Germany on February 27, while Fuchs’s trial was under way. The extraordinary gaffe in this exercise was that no effort at preventing her departure was made, despite the obvious recognition that MI5 had shown (such as in Robertson’s note) that she might have been connected to the case. It was obviously easier to have her out of the way. She was untouchable.  As Sonia herself wrote: “Either it was complete stupidity on the part of MI5 never to have connected me with Klaus, or they may have let me go with it, since every further discovery would have increased their disgrace.”

Sonia’s departure must have been recorded, yet many MI5 officers remained in the dark. They even expressed the desire for bringing her and Len in for questioning. Fuchs continued to reveal more. On June 16, Robertson reported that Jürgen Kuczynski was the person who had originally put Fuchs in touch with the Russians.  On June 22, a letter was sent to the GPO, requesting a Home Office Warrant for Sonia, as ‘we have recently received information which indicates that Ursula Beurton has not relinquished her connection with Soviet espionage since her arrival in the U.K.in 1941’. Even Director-General Sillitoe was on the act, asking Rutherford on July 25 about the whereabouts of Sonia and her husband. On June 27, Len Beurton, who had been recovering from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident, was also allowed to leave the country untouched. On August 22, Robertson at last learned that Sonia had flown the coop. Not until November did Fuchs, obviously having been informed that Sonia and Len had safely left the country, admit that Sonia was his contact, and on December 18 he recognized her in a photograph. All through 1950, Liddell made no comment in his diaries about the Kuczynski link – or, if he did, the passages have been redacted. When Sonia was at last identified, his chagrin, and that of all senior officers in MI5 and MI6, must have been immense.

Conclusions

Claude Dansey

What started out as an imaginative opportunity for MI6 turned into a nightmare. It enabled the entry into Britain of a spy dedicated to the communist cause, one who helped her masters acquire secrets that would have been used to destroy the pluralist democracy. No doubt encouraged by the fruitful achievements of the emerging MI5 operation of developing double-agents (at that time, SNOW), Claude Dansey, the deputy to Stewart Menzies, alighted upon the availability of Ursula Hamburger to implement a similar project for Soviet spies. He was in Switzerland from September to November 1939, as Sonia’s divorce proceedings culminated. His man, van den Heuvel, and Farrell, the Passport Control Officer who was van den Heuvel’s deputy, became the instruments to make the plan a reality. In believing that they were saving Sonia’s life by abetting her escape, MI6 succumbed to the illusion that she and Len would be permanently beholden to them.

Yet managing so-called ‘double-agents’ is a hazardous business. It requires both very tight operational security, restricting knowledge of the project to as few persons as possible, and maintaining exclusive control over the agents’ movements and communications. The handling agency can never be sure that the person assumed to having been turned has made an ideological about-face, and switched his or her loyalties. Thus, unless a very tight rein is held over the agents’ behaviour, there is always the risk that, in their communications, they will betray the fact that they are being manipulated, or even arrange unsurveilled meetings where they will be able to describe what is going on. That is why they are properly called ‘controlled enemy agents’. MI5 knew this; the Abwehr knew this; the CIA, in its enthusiasm for transplanting the Double-Cross techniques to their own theatre of operations after the war, were slow to recognize the truth. For some reason MI6 did not think through the implications of bringing Sonia and Len into their fold.

The brunt of the burden fell upon MI5, who were responsible for domestic security against subversion and espionage. And the archive shows clearly how the service was divided over how to handle Len and Sonia once they arrived in Britain. The senior officers (Liddell and White, but not the Director-General) were surely complicit with MI6 in the scheme. Junior officers and recruits (such as Shillito, Cazalet, Reed, Vesey, J. D. Robertson, Bagot, Serpell) were kept in the dark, and left to stumble around, pursuing leads, until they became too energized in their suspicions, recommended some kind of interrogation or prosecution, and had to be gently talked out of it. (At a high-level meeting on January 25, 1950 between Lord Portal, Roger Makins, Liddell and White at the Ministry of Supply, this uncomfortable truth was even admitted.) The middle ranks (such as Marriott, Hollis, and Curry) were no doubt brought, at least partially, into the subterfuge, and were delegated the unpleasant tasks of dealing with other organisations, such as the Foreign Office, MI6 and the FBI. As can be seen, primarily in Marriott’s anguished correspondence, they struggled dismally with explaining away the inexplicable. The complexities of the project and its intelligence ramifications were clearly too deep to be entrusted to the Directors-General, one a soldier (Petrie) and the other a policeman (Sillitoe), although Petrie’s anti-communist vigour would mean that he probably had to have things explained to him after the Green case.

Above all, the exercise shows how improbable the theory must be that Roger Hollis single-handedly, as a Soviet mole, managed to protect Sonia (and Len) from the attention and prosecution that they obviously deserved. This theory has taken root so deeply that new historical works and biographies regularly appear that take it for granted that the assertions of Chapman Pincher and Peter Wright should be accepted unquestionably. Hollis’s guilt is affirmed purely on the basis that he must have protected Sonia (Len is rarely mentioned). The mass of detail that shows how Sonia and Len were nurtured, supported, assisted, recruited, even lied for – and then deliberately ignored, and allowed to escape – proves that it could not have been because of Hollis’s skills in throwing a blanket of ignorance around the couple with the outcome that they were thus able to remain unmolested. Even if Hollis had possessed the power and authority to insist that they were harmless, the widespread knowledge about their background, the illicit marriage, the recruitment of Len by MI6, the phony stories about ex-husbands, tuberculosis, and ski-ing injuries, about forged passports, dubious medical certificates, and unlikely inheritances would have made his protestations a laughing-stock.

In the English edition of her memoir, Sonia wrote: “I know no Fifth Man, and I must also spoil the speculation or, as some writers state, ‘the fact’ that I ever had anything to do with the one-time director of MI5, Roger Hollis”. That may be one of the few true statements she made in her book. Later in life, however, she wryly admitted that she mused over the possibility that someone in MI5 was protecting her. Indeed, madam.

As for the GRU, Sonia’s penetration of British atomic research was a coup, although perhaps not as astounding as the mythology has made it. Fuchs was her source for only a year, and modern assessments indicate that, as far as the United Kingdom was concerned, Engelbert Broda and Melita Norwood were probably far more valuable contributors to the Soviet’s purloining of weapons secrets. Sonia’s connection with Norwood has often been overplayed. Yet Sonia’s achievements were a significant blow to the prestige of British Intelligence, which had held a worldwide reputation now revealed to be unmerited. In the first couple of decades after the war, the Soviet Union and East Germany openly denied the activities of their spies, wanting to impress their citizens that their scientific achievements were attributable to Communist ingenuity.

Only when the spy scandals were rolled out in the United States and Great Britain did the mood change to one of pride in how their intelligence services had outfoxed the West’s. Then they lauded openly the achievements of their ‘atomic spies’, promoting memoirs like Sonia’s. President Putin, relying on his public’s fragile connection with history, after a brief fling promoting Soviet spy exploits (see the case of Svetlana Lokhova and The Spy Who Changed History, at http://www.coldspur.com/four-books-on-espionage/ ) seems now to want to return to the Cold War status quo ante, reinforcing the idea that the Soviet Union’s success with nuclear weaponry owed more to Russian skills than it did to underhand espionage and the theft of the discoveries of former allies.

One has to assume that the GRU in Moscow knew exactly what was going on at the time, and took a back seat while MI6 floundered. Immediately Sonia or Len was first approached by MI6 with any sort of feeler, each would have reported it to Moscow. Thus all further moves would have been passed on as well. Anthony Blunt was keeping his bosses informed, and relayed to them the lukewarm attention that Hugh Shillito paid to CP and GRU spies. The GRU must have wondered exactly what MI6 was up to, if it believed the opposition’s service could manipulate Soviet agents with such naivety. Indeed, around this time, the GRU’s sister service, the NKGB (as the NKVD-KGB was known at that time), was so dumbfounded by the fact that British Intelligence could allow the Cambridge Ring to flourish that it issued an internal report suggesting that the whole exercise was one of disinformation. Referring to the Double-Cross (XX) Committee as one of the vital institutions involved, Elena Modrzchinskaya, the head of the Third Department of the NKGB’s First Directorate, published the report in November 1942: it took almost two years for the suspicions to be disproved, and credibility in the sources re-established.

Yet, if MI6 and MI5 showed an alarming amateurishness about the whole process, the GRU’s agents likewise put on a dismal display of tradecraft. Before placing ‘illegals’ in the western democracies, the GRU and OGPU/NKVD invested an enormous amount of time in creating solid ‘legends’ for their agents, where, supported by false passports, individuals of indeterminate central and eastern European origin were allowed to establish convincing identities and occupations in the cities from which they operated. The GRU could not have exerted any influence on the stories that Sonia and Len concocted before embarking on their journeys to Britain, yet they – especially Sonia – should have been well indoctrinated into the necessity of maintaining a coherent narrative about their previous travel, objectives, sources of funds, business activities, and disabilities.

Sonia and Len behaved, however, completely amateurishly. Their accounts to the immigration authorities were absurd. It was as if they did not even discuss what their separate stories should be if they were interrogated, and how these rigmaroles would mesh together. The resulting narrative was so ridiculous that it should immediately have been discredited, and the suspects hauled in. We now know, of course, why that did not happen. Perhaps the Soviets, and Len and Sonia in particular, were so sure of MI6’s game-plan that they felt that they did not need to bother. But that assumption would have been based on granting the fragmented and pluralistic British intelligence services a discipline and unity that may have existed in the Soviet Union, but simply was unrealistic in a democratic society.

What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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