Special Bulletin: Hurricane Florence

Trees down on the triangle with Irwin Drive

I interrupt my regular bulletins to report on our experiences with Hurricane Florence. This major storm passed directly over St. James, in Southport, North Carolina, where our family lives, and caused some catastrophic devastation. It left us without power for several days, and we were able to keep up with what was going on only through our battery-driven radio, and cellphone contact with friends – some of whom had evacuated the town for safer havens. St. James issued a ‘mandatory’ evacuation order, but that meant that, if you did decide to stay, it was at your own risk, with no access to emergency facilities. About 300 families – maybe 15-20% of the occupants of St. James – decided, like us, to sit it out.

We have survived hurricanes up to a category 3 or even 4 beforehand. We have a variety of hurricane-shutters installed. While we are only a couple of miles from the ocean, we reside at the highest point in St James, about thirty feet above sea-level, which means we drain quickly. Brunswick County beaches face south-west, so the winds are normally less severe. We have stands of trees protecting us on the south side, where the first, ninth and seventh holes of the Members Club golf course – as well as the driving-range – help to break up the fiercest gales. And our closest friends are 1500 miles away. All of which reinforced our decision to stay. But we do not have a generator. . .

Our shutters are of a variety. Several are managed by a hand-driven crank, with a ratchet mechanism. Many are true shutters, which are closed and secured by bolting on a simple iron rod – downstairs from the outside (see picture) and upstairs from the inside, with one notable exception. We also have concertina-type doors that roll across the two large window-doors at the back of the house. The front door, and the windows of the recently converted back porch are all designed to resist hurricane-force 4 winds.

The hurricane shutters at No. 3835

But this was no ordinary hurricane. It was enormous – about half the size of France, which is 210,000 square miles. And even though it was only a category 2 when it made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, it brought an enormous volume of water with it. The water temperatures in the western Atlantic were very warm (in the 80s Fahrenheit), which gave Florence some enormous punch. She took a very slow and erratic path, which meant she stayed over the Cape Fear region for days. Forty inches of rain was expected in some parts (I am writing this on Sunday 16th September, without access to any news). Moreover, the ground was saturated. We have had sixty inches of rain this year before Florence arrived – over half of in the summer months – which means that trees were weakened, and there was nowhere for the water to go. Storm surge – abetted by the tides when they were high – was the biggest danger.

So Florence arrived on Thursday afternoon, when the first drops fell. We lost power about sixteen hours later. At noon on Friday, the eye passed over us, an episode normally accompanied by clear skies and calmness, although we learned from observation and the radio that the eye had filled in with rain. Two hours later, the gales returned, and it has been raining – mostly in torrents – ever since (11:00 am on Sunday, as I write), when raindrops are still falling into the new stream in our back yard. That means that the backside of the storm spent about forty-five hours to pass through: at two miles per hour, about 800 miles in radius. (I make these estimates with the help of my spies watching the radar on the Weather Channel from out-of-state safe houses, and communicating with me over an encrypted cellular connection. For security reasons, I cannot identify them by name, but their cryptonyms are ORCHARDIST, SAILOR, and TREASURER. They know who they are, and I am very grateful to them.)

At the end of our driveway

But this is a very serious matter. People have lost their lives, and property damage must be immense. We are in the hands of highly dedicated engineers and linesmen trying to restore our power. St. James is isolated, with all access roads impassable, and the main interstates (95 & 40) are also closed off in sections. I have not ventured beyond my driveway, but the flooding here must be disastrous in places. A few trees came down in the triangle opposite our house, but fortunately did not damage any property. One of Sylvia’s Bradford peartrees did not survive.

Sylvia’s Bradford Pear – probably cannot be replanted

I also took a few photographs of the flooded 1st hole at the Members Club, by the tee of which our house sits. (See below). We shall learn more soon, I hope.

The picturesque first hole at the Members Club. Be sure to take enough club to carry the demanding water hazard that bestrides the fairway . . .

Now you have cleared the water, you will need all of your 3-wood to reach this demanding par five, with its green well-protected by sand and water, and then face a tricky eagle putt.

Looking back to the first tee of the Members Club ‘Water Hole’. (Actually all eighteen are now called ‘the Water Hole’.)

And what about that last shutter? For some reason, the house designer decided that for two windows – in separate rooms – upstairs, each window would not have its own internal bar, but instead they would be linked and secured by an external bar that crossed the intervening wall. That means that a ladder has to be used to free the shutters, fold them back, and then bolt the shared bar tight. And the ladder has to be moved. Well, not only do I not really work on ladders any more, since the last practice I had with this, several years ago, the holly-tree in front of the windows has grown to such an extent that I had to abandon the exercise (see photograph), and risk the possibility that hurtling pine-cones (very dangerous missiles, by the way) would not break through our defenses.

The exposed windows!

One benefit of all of this was that I had a little nook during the day where enough light came through that I was able to read, as there was little else to do but meditate. (I was able to read Professor Foot’s extraordinary ‘SOE in France’, written in 1966 when he could not even admit that SIS existed.) During one long session, I started calculating how much water Florence actually dropped on SE North Carolina. If you take a section of 10000 square miles, which is not massive, just a portion of the tract that Florence covered, and a tenth of Florence’s area – Brunswick County is 1050 square miles, about 150 % of the size of Surrey, England, the area of which is 642 square miles – and project 40 inches of rain, I could fairly easily calculate mentally the number of cubic yards of water that must have fallen in the broader local area. Then I had to convert that number into recognizable gallons. But how many gallons in a cubic yard? I reckoned about 40, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed me the divisor was 54. So I was able to adjust my result to come up with 2,000,000,000,000 gallons, that is 2 European billion, and an American 2,000 billion. That means 6 cubic miles of water for the section I describe. Multiply that by six, and Coldspur diehards will recall that this amount would be enough to fill Lake Tahoe.

[Note: On September 19, the New York Times reported that Florence had dumped 8 trillion gallons on North Carolina alone. Sounds right.]

Lastly, I plucked from my shelves ‘The Connoisseur’s Crossword Book’, edited by Alan Cash, and published by Penguin in 1964. I had completed a few of the puzzles, but most had lain dormant, and it was a convenient way of spending the time, alternately reading a couple of clues by flashlight, and then trying to solve them in the dark. The first few were by the ‘legendary’ (though he did in fact exist) Ximenes, and it surprised me a) how verbose he was allowed (or allowed himself) to be, and b) how unXiminean his clueing occasionally was. Thus I was initially baffled by the following:
‘Refer with a certain amount of freedom – yes, with more of it (5)’, until I realized it was much more obvious than I had imagined. I believe the Times of today would have rejected what D. S. MacNutt was able to deploy in the Observer sixty year ago. He disobeyed some of his own rules (such as clue length), and his clues reflect a number of awkward structures (e.g. overuse of ‘I’ and cockneyisms, clumsy joining segments, superfluous ‘thes’ in anagrams, duplicated signifiers in the same puzzle, rather dubious indicators of troublesome letter sequences, and references to living persons), as well as classic and literary references that would be considered far too academic and esoteric for today’s solvers. Still, his influence on the craft of cruciverbalism was enormous, and I believe that individual setter styles ought to be allowed to transcend too rigorous formalism.

My thanks to everyone – especially those in England – who passed on their good wishes at a time that I was not able to respond. I shall do so individually. In the meantime, expect a stunning and shocking story on Coldspur on the regular last day of the month. This one will blow you away more than Florence ever could!

The power was restored at about 8 a.m. today, Monday. Wilmington still cut off, St. James still isolated, and water not potable, but we are making progress. Yet there is more rain forecast, and I hear thunder in the background, and it is getting closer.

Postscript: Now that we are on-line again, I can see how devastating the damage has been, how many lives were lost, and how many are suffering. We were lucky, and I thank all the responders and service people helping out those whose property has been ruined by the storm. In fact, just as I was about to post this on Monday afternoon, we lost cable, Internet and telephone service. It came back at about 1:50 today, Tuesday.

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Filed under Crosswords, Geography, Personal, Science

Four Books on Espionage

A Very Principled Boy by Mark A. Bradley (Basic Books, 2014, pp 348)

The Spy Who Changed History by Svetlana Lokhova (William Collins, 2018, pp 476)

A Spy Named Orphan by Roland Philipps (Norton & Company [in USA], 2018, pp 440)

Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins, 2018, pp 642)

A Very Principled Boy

Mark Bradley

By now, many readers may have been sated by stories of the Cambridge Spies, but may not be aware that Oxford University was determined not be outdone in infamy. Despite the observations of Professor Trevor-Roper, who, with an air almost of regret, asserted that his university had not produced any Soviet agents of its own, Oxford certainly had solid claims to a comparable Comintern-spawned ring. When MI5 and SIS in the 1960s, after the confessions of Anthony Blunt, performed their internal investigation into further penetration of the services by Soviet spies, they discovered that Arthur Wynn was probably responsible for recruiting at Oxford a number of agents in the 1930s, including Christopher Hill and Jenifer Hart (née Fischer-Williams). After Bernard Floud and Phoebe Pool (independently) committed suicide, however, the mandarins decided that they should perhaps let any other sleeping dogs lie, lest any action provoke an epidemic of self-destruction that might have challenged even the considerable skills of Chief Inspector Morse.

Yet another furtive element had existed in the nest on the Isis – Rhodes Scholars. It surprises me that so many paragons of the USA educational system, chosen for their all-round excellence, whether they brought the virus of Communist idealism with them across the Atlantic, or became infected with it by their colleagues and acquaintances at places like the Oxford Labour Club and October Club, turned out to be such bad apples. The group included Daniel Boorstin, Peter Rhodes, Donald Wheeler, and the New Zealander Ian Milner. But the most renowned individual – and the one who did the most damage – was Duncan Lee, the subject of this book. Its title derives from an assessment of Lee by a Yale professor: ‘a thorough gentleman, earnest, high-minded, tactful, clean, and honorable, and a man of unusual intellectual power and promise’. Lee also happened to attend my alma mater, the college of Christ Church, and thus I have a particular interest in him.

Duncan Lee

The author of A Very Principled Boy, Mark A. Bradley, was a Rhodes scholar himself, and his conclusion is that Lee, whose family was related to the famous Confederate general, had leftist tendencies, but was converted to a commitment to the Communist cause by his wife, Isabelle Gibb (known as Ishbel), whom he met at a dance in Oxford in May 1936. Lee had a conventional upbringing to prepare him for committing to a Great Cause: he was born in China, of earnest Episcopalian missionaries, Edmund and Lucy, and he admired his parents’ dedicated but fruitless attempts at converting the natives to Christianity. The family moved back to the United States in 1927, where, after a stellar academic career at boarding-schools, Duncan was accepted by Yale in 1931. He read widely and had deep thoughts, but remained unpoliticized, concentrating more on awards and honours, with the result that he was selected for a Rhodes scholarship in January 1935.

At Oxford, he met the already radicalized Ishbel in May 1936: they were engaged by August, and shocked his parents by their obvious cohabitation when Lucy and Edmund visited that summer. The couple visited Germany that autumn, and made the pilgrimage to the Soviet Union the following year. By then Ishbel had converted Duncan to the communist cause, and they were able to close their eyes to Stalin’s Great Terror. When they returned to Oxford, Duncan shocked his parents by telling them that he and Isabel were planning to join the Communist Party.  After their marriage in May 1938, the Lees moved to the United States, where their subversive activities were reported to the FBI, who did nothing. Duncan then took up an honest communist job working as a lawyer on Wall Street. One of the partners of the firm was William Donovan, who was in April 1942 invited by Roosevelt to set up the OSS, the equivalent of Britain’s SIS. Lee moved to the OSS as Donovan’s assistant, at about the same time he was recruited, via Joseph Golos and Mary Price, to become a spy for the Soviet Union.

What distinguished Lee’s espionage was that he never handed over any physical document. Everything he gave to Mary, and her successor, Elizabeth Bentley (after Price had a health breakdown) was passed over orally. So when Bentley, in her famous 1945 confession to the FBI, identified Lee as a prime informant, he buckled down and denied everything. And even when the VENONA project, the decryptions of which revealed secret cable communications between the Washington outstation and Moscow Centre, confirmed that Lee was a prominent Soviet agent, the FBI could not afford to unveil such a sensitive source. Lee brazened it out, but it cost him his marriage (the FBI made it difficult for him to rejoin his wife and family in Bermuda), and his clean conscience. Yet he had betrayed some of the most significant secrets of World War I, those that condemned eastern Europe to Soviet domination. Lee remarried, moved to Canada, and died in 1988 after leaving a testimony for his children that portrayed himself as a victim.

Hadley tells all this in a very cool and professional way. He has delved into all the appropriate sources and archives. His judgments are sound. His conclusion on Lee’s motivations and make-up could stand as a classic assessment of many others of his tribe: “Although there is no evidence that the CIA’s psychiatrists ever studied Lee’s background, his personality reflected several of the basic traits that they have seen in others who have stolen their country’s secrets. Most spies have the ability to exhibit a sham, superficial loyalty. As narcissists who believe themselves destined to play a special role in history, they have already led lives full of mini-defections before they finally cross into full-blown betrayal. Perhaps most importantly, they are capable of ignoring the devil in themselves while condemning it in others. This permits them to deflect guilt, blame, and responsibility.” And further: “Lee’s multiple sexual affairs, or ‘mini-defections’, his compartmented personality, his violation of his government’s and mentor’s trust, his prodigious ability to lie, his belief that his hour had come when Mary Price recruited him to spy for the Soviets, his wallowing in victimhood, and his cruel attacks on Bentley underscore how accurately the CIA’s profile fits. To unleash these traits and commit espionage, Lee needed only a great cause, access to classified information, and a permissive environment.”

And what happened to the redoubtable Ishbel, who put Duncan on his perfidious track? She returned to Oxford with their four children, and then moved to Edinburgh, where she married John Petrie (who, so far as I can tell, was not closely related to David Petrie, the wartime head of MI5). To her dying day, she refused to acknowledge that Duncan had been involved in espionage. A retired CIA officer interviewed her in 1989, but drew a complete blank. In 1997, she published a brief memoir titled Not a Bowl of Cherries, emblazoned with a drawing of Christ Church’s Tom Tower on its cover, and a blurb that merely states that she was divorced from her American lawyer husband. “Duncan felt the charges made by Elizabeth Bentley very keenly, and not only because he had to answer them before a Committee of Congress and two grand juries in 1947 and 1954,’, she writes, adding: “Needless to say the charges were never substantiated.” The VENONA transcripts had been published two years before, but that did not cause the lady to even flutter. “Mainly, though, the whole crazy scene was so unlike Duncan’s style and unlike anything he had ever experienced,” was her only comment. She died in 2005. The capacity of Lenin’s and Stalin’s useful idiots for selective self-delusion and mendacity is unlimited.

Ishbel Petrie’s ‘Not a Bowl of Cherries’

The Spy Who Changed History

Let me get the ridiculous title out of the way first. This book is clearly not to be confused with Mike Rossiter’s 2014 book about Klaus Fuchs, The Spy Who Changed the World, or with Nigel West’s 1991 compendium Seven Spies Who Changed the World, a select group that excludes all of the Cambridge Spies, no doubt to their evident chagrin had they all survived long enough to learn about it. Now, a Great Spy might make History, but he or she cannot change History, because History is integral and unvariable, and any self-respecting spy who didn’t believe that he or she was in truth having an effect on the course of history was obviously in the wrong job, and should have been working for Facebook helping to spot harmful fake news posts. The other alarming item about the choice of titles is that this book is subtitled The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Won the Race for America’s Top Secrets, which should set off warning signals among those of us who were not aware that the project to engage in massive plundering of industrial secrets in order to be prepared to destroy the owner of such technology was actually a race to be won. What other competitors were there in this race, one wonders, and why should such sordid endeavours be sanctified with such puffery?

Svetlana Lokhova

Next, the author. Svetlana Lokhova is described as ‘a By-Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and was ‘until recently a Fellow of the Cambridge Security Initiative jointly chaired by the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and Professor Christopher Andrew, former official historian of MI5’. So her association with those names should obviously add some gloss to that rather enigmatic introduction, right? Or was her fellowship rescinded? Her website biography claims as one of her accomplishments that she ‘identified the Sixth Man, Cedric Belfrage’, which is hardly a newsworthy achievement, and should pose questions about her credentials, and what the depth of her reading has been. Yet the unfortunate author has since had to deny suggestions that she was too closely involved with the disgraced Trump official General Michael Flynn (see https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-39863781), in a tale that is echoed somewhat by the case of another young Russian academic, this time in the USA, Sara Butina. Apparently the author had to flee, with her baby, to a retreat 600 miles from London to escape all the adverse publicity. I would not bring this up unless her work had not irritated me as a piece of inappropriate Russian propaganda: I tried to contact Ms. Lokhova via her website, but she has not granted me the favour of a reply.

Stanislav Shumovsky

So who was this epoch-making spy? His name was Stanislav Shumovsky, and Lokhova has a very innovative tale to tell. She had been given exclusive access to NKVD files (an alarming signal, in fact, which historians should be wary of) and has thus been able to disclose information unavailable to western analysts. Shumovsky was a Pole, born in 1902, whose career in flying was cut short by a crash. He then developed such depth of expertise as an aeronautical technician that he was selected to be enrolled at Harvard in 1931, with the cryptonym BLERIOT, after his hero. This was before the USA had officially recognized the Soviet Union, so trade between the two countries was impossible. The Russians, however, had their eye more on stealing industrial secrets than on paying for them. At Harvard, Shumovsky was taught by the aviation expert Jerome Hunsaker, and set about recruiting agents to the cause. He exploited mainly Jews, the offspring of parents who had escaped from pre-revolutionary Russia, but an Englishman, Norman Leslie Haight, was also in his network. In the year 1933, when the much better-known Gaik Ovakimian came to the US to be Shumovsky’s boss, Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union, which opened up dealings quite considerably, and made institutions and corporations more positive about the country. In 1939, 18,000 pages of technical documents, 487 sets of designs, and 54 samples of new technology were shipped back to Moscow, in areas such as wind-tunnel design, high-altitude flying, and bomb-loading. Shumovsky travelled thousands of miles inspecting manufacturing plants to learn from American techniques. He arranged for Semyonov and other scientists, who would later work on the ENORMOZ atomic-bomb project, to be enrolled at MIT, which was now considered a finishing-school for ‘legal’ Soviet spies, and returned to Moscow in 1939. The capstone of his efforts was probably the unveiling of the Soviet Union’s most advanced strategic bomber in 1947.

Not only did I find all this activity distasteful, I also thought Lokhova’s treatment of it betrayed too much of a celebratory attitude towards the achievements of Comrade Stalin. There was an obtuseness about Lenin and Stalin in failing to understand that the creativity of the American free-enterprise system was what allowed so many inventions to be pursued, and yet Lokhova echoes such hypocrisy in comments such as the following: “Despite being a lifelong and dedicated Communist, he [Shumovsky] had come to respect American scientists and entrepreneurs for their extraordinary achievements in his beloved field of aviation. He had worked in the heart of capitalism and seen the rewards on offer for a successful entrepreneur like Donald Douglas, but was never tempted to defect; he was too aware of the inequalities and injustices of capitalism. All the American technological treasures he acquired were the tools needed to defend his people from a merciless invader.” She goes on to praise Shumovsky’s  ‘remarkable’ skills, as he was able to exploit the disenchanted, the greedy and the idealistic – all in a cause of ugly Stalin totalitarianism that she never actually admits, as she glorifies the Soviet Union’s ability to wage war – one that Stalin thought was inevitable, even if the Americans did not.

She is also rather scathing about Western histories of intelligence, suggesting that they are ‘biased’, since they rely primarily on open western sources, or accounts from journalists and defectors. According to the author, the accounts of such as Elizabeth Bentley and Harry Gold were ‘problematic’: the results of the VENONA project have long been ‘unreliable’. You mean that they have failed to exploit those famously open archives of the Kremlin, Ms. Lokhova, and that we should be looking to the official Russian state-sponsored publications for the unvarnished truth? Given that President Putin decided to close the KGB archives after an exciting decade when western historians were allowed to gain a glimpse of what the secret police had recorded, one must view Ms. Lokhova’s access with some suspicion. I have written elsewhere (see SoniaandtheQuebecAgreement) about the highly dubious way in which Russian archives have been selectively revealed to compliant historians.

As an example, the author reveals, on page 389, that the nuclear scientist Igor Kurchatov ‘responded enthusiastically’ when Stalin made the decision on 27 September, 1942 to restart research on the atomic bomb. Kurchatov was then put in charge of the project, and became an eager consumer of all the pillaged information that Ovakimian and his agents provided for him. He provided long lists of further secrets needed, as evidenced, apparently, from Kurchatov’s letters to Molotov. Lokhova informs us that Kurchatov’s note to Stalin on accepting the challenge ‘testified not only how deep was the penetration of British laboratories in Cambridge, Birmingham and Liverpool, as well as the Chicago Metals Lab . . .’. Such a revelation should cause some flutters in English academic coops, as Kurchatov was later received and remembered with much fondness by British scientists. As Dr. Brian Austin writes, in his biography of Basil Schonland: “ . . . it was actually this giant of a man’s [Kurchatov’s] wholeheartedness and bonhomie that had endeared him to so many at Harwell . . .” (see below).The role of Fuchs and Peierls at Birmingham has been well publicised, of course, but such statements about Kurchatov’s knowledge of deeper and broader espionage merit further evidence, which Lokhova does not provide. Her source (given only as ‘USSR’s Atomic Project Documents and Materials, Moscow Naeuka, 1998’) can therefore not implicitly be relied on. She reproduces a couple of pages of VENONA transcripts identifying Shumovsky (unreliable? – see above), but offers us no NKVD documents.

Dr. Schonland, assistant director of AERE, Harwell, and Professor Igor Kurchatov, before the latter’s lecture at Harwell on April 25, 1956. The congeniality of the occasion is perhaps surprising, given that the body of the SIS diver ‘Buster’ Crabb had been found six days earlier near the S.S. Ordzhonikidze, on which vessel Kurchatov had arrived with Bulganin and Khrushchev, and that Khrushchev was at the same time threatening to drop H-Bombs on West Germany. (photograph courtesy of Dr. Brian Austin)

In a somewhat fawning review of Sir Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence in this month’s Literary Review, Professor Michael Goodman (who is on the Advisory Board of the Cambridge Security Initiative – not a connection he declares in his piece) refers to the historian as ‘the doyen of the academic study of intelligence on the UK  . . . [who] has really made the field his own’, and ‘the great Yoda [who he? Ed.] of intelligence studies in the UK’. He added that ‘there are few academics working on intelligence in the UK who cannot trace the origins of their work back to him’. Well, I am not sure that that is a healthy state of affairs, and I don’t count myself in that number, but Ms. Lokhova surely does. In her Acknowledgements, Ms. Lokhova says that she owes ‘an enormous debt to Professor Sir Christopher Andrew for introducing me to the fascinating study of intelligence history . .  .  Over the many years it has taken me to complete this work, Chris [sic] has been unstinting in his support and praise for my work.” Now that the text has appeared, I am not sure that the high-sounding Cambridge Security Initiative would still want its name associated with this book. Maybe that is why Ms. Lokhova is no longer a Fellow of the Initiative. ‘Former people’ – ‘byvshie lyudi’: that is what they were called in Stalin’s Russia.

Sir Christopher Andrew

Thus, for all its breakthrough revelations, it is difficult to accept Lokhova’s work completely seriously. The Spy Who Changed History fits in well with President Putin’s desire to reinvigorate Mother Russia and to bring alive again the heroic nature of the communist era. We all know that he regarded the dismantling of the Soviet Union as one of the most tragic events of the century, and Ms. Lokhova’s work falls uneasily on the wrong side of the propaganda campaign to further that goal. Maybe the most important lesson we should take from her book is that today the Chinese may have similar designs on Western technology as the Soviets did in the 1930s and 1940s.

A Spy Named Orphan

Donald Maclean

Of the Cambridge Five (or was it Thirteen? One struggles to remember . . . ), Donald Maclean was perhaps the most enigmatic. Burgess was brazen and undisciplined; Cairncross cerebral and reclusive; Blunt artificial and aloof; Philby calculating and ruthless. But none of them was tortured so severely by his traitorous activity as was Maclean, given the cryptonym ‘SIROTA’, Orphan, because of his famous father, who died in 1932. He was, in Civil Service parlance, ‘very able’ – a high-flyer expected to go far. He was also, when he was not drinking, a hard and productive worker, but the fact that he was at the same time toiling so industriously for a foreign power anguished him. At one stage, he wanted to get out, but his handlers would not let him as he was too valuable – unlike Blunt, who was able to persuade the boys from Moscow that he would be of little use to them after the war. And then, when in 1951 Maclean escaped with Burgess (to be followed later by Philby), he alone adapted successfully to life under the Communist state. He became a well-respected analyst of international affairs, whose reports were regarded seriously in the West. A famous photograph shows him at Burgess’s funeral – austere, almost pious, as if he were an acolyte at some papal ceremony, which in one sense I suppose he was.

At Guy Burgess’s Funeral

Yet do we need another biography of him? What more is there to tell? Robert Cecil gave us his personal, sometimes fond, but not uncritical portrait of Maclean in 1988, in his A Divided Life. Michael Holzman, of a more leftist persuasion, offered a summary that exploited much new material in his 2014 work Donald and Melinda Maclean: Idealism and Espionage, including an analysis of his published work from the Soviet Union, but it was not generally available, being self-published. And there have been dozens of related works that have picked at Maclean’s boyhood, his indoctrination at Gresham’s School, Holt, and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and traced his turbulent career in the Foreign Office, and the highly dubious circumstances of his escape with Burgess in 1951. ‘The Enigma of Donald Maclean’ is how Roland Phipps subtitles his work, incidentally reinforcing the Maclean puzzling persona. So perhaps readers should look forward to an unravelling of the riddle, and an explanation of why such an otherwise sensible boy was taken in by all the nonsense of the Communist utopia?

Roland Philipps

Roland Philipps (whose first book this is) has solid qualifications. He claims two relevant grandfathers – Roger Makins, the last Foreign Office man to see Maclean in 1951, and the unreconstructed Communist Wogan Philipps. He is a publisher with the right contacts: his ‘matchless friend and brilliant author’ Ben Macintyre encouraged him to write the book. (How come Benny Boy never urged me on? Do not write in. I think I know the answer  . . .) Philipps has enjoyed access to the full Philip Toynbee and Alan Maclean papers, and help from all manner of archival resources in the UK, as well as an impressive list of experts in the field. Thus we learn details about Maclean’s life and career that have not been revealed elsewhere. I should add, however, that the author had not then had the benefit of reading Misdefending the Realm: else his Chapter 5, ‘Homer’, that covers Maclean’s relationship with Isaiah Berlin in Washington would have been a tad sharper and more insightful. (I have brought this point to Mr. Philipps’ attention, and he graciously acknowledged my message.)

I noticed a few false notes and errors. When Philipps writes on page 133: “Yet none of the Five was passing on information that would harm British interests, which therefore meant they could not be real traitors to their country  . . .”, it is not clear whether he is representing Moscow’s opinion, or his own. His reference to ‘the rabid witch-hunts of the McCarthy era’, on page 284, has too much of the unthinking leftist sloganeering about it. He misrepresents some details in the Krivitsky affair. Yet it his conclusion that is the most disappointing. It runs: “Donald Maclean’s conscience was inspired by his Victorian, church-going parents, and then was forged in the godless atmosphere of the General Strike, the Depression and the rise of fascism. He was dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice for the largest number, the humanism referred to by Izvestia. His conscience and the fulfilment of the secret life enabled him to maintain his core beliefs through the purges and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and when many others fell away he continued to work for what he still believed in resistance to the capitalist hegemony and atomic might of his wife’s country. There is purity about this consistency that makes his collapse into alcoholism in Cairo and afterwards all the more painful.”

I don’t think this is good enough. (And it sounds rather like an obituary in Pravda.) The same could be said of Duncan Lee and his ‘Victorian, church-going parents’, but what about all those other young men growing up in the 1930s who had moralising parents or difficult fathers but who were not attracted to the plodding deceits of communism, and instead saw through Stalin and his communist edifice as a destroyer of millions rather than as a ‘pursuer of peace and justice for the largest number’? A ‘purity about his consistency’? To praise a stubborn commitment to evil in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is in fact loathsome and soul-destroying and averse to those principles one claimed to cherish is simply perverse. Moreover, Philipps quotes without comment Maclean’s best man, Mark Culme-Seymour, who had felt ‘betrayed by a man he had loved and trusted’, and had the effrontery to write to Alan Maclean, Donald’s brother, that Maclean ‘was a victim of our times and I will cling on to the idea that he was a noble victim, no matter how profoundly misguided’. Victimisation – the scourge of 21st century denial of responsibility (and remember Duncan Lee above). For Philipps to record this observation without comment shows simply bad taste. And his epitaph, on depicting Donald and his father lying side-by-side in graves in Penn, Buckinghamshire, is the equivocal and rather distressing statement: “. . . the remains of two men with the same name, both men of their times, of high ideals, optimism and strong consciences. Men with similar but differing beliefs and truths to which they remained firm, perhaps too doggedly firm.” The old thread of moral equivalence.

Thus A Spy Named Orphan is an intriguing and comprehensive – almost ‘definitive’ – account of a spy who, even he did not make Nigel West’s Top Seven, was one of the most significant betrayers of Western security. Yet we are no nearer to knowing exactly why he chose that path. Maybe it was something in the water at Gresham’s School, Holt, but more likely it was due to a mentor who encouraged what Robert Cecil called ‘Gresham’s radical heritage’ under its headmaster J. R. Eccles. Certainly that tradition allowed not only Maclean, but also such (temporary or permanent) subversives as James Klugmann, Bernard Floud, Roger and Brian Simon, Cedric Belfrage, Stephen Spender, Christopher Strachey and W. H. Auden to flourish and reinforce each other, with Tom Wintringham leading the way a decade before. One master whom the author identifies as wielding such an influence was Frank McEachran, who (as Philipps tells us) has also been claimed as a model for Hector in Alan Bennett’s History Boys. McEachran gains a short vignette in A Spy Named Orphan as ‘the Svengali-like teacher’, who, though ‘not a Marxist himself’, urged Maclean and Klugmann ‘to read Marx, and imbibe the core ideas on the state, class struggle and historical materialism’. Ah yes. I recognize those ‘academic Marxists’ (or non-Marxists), who are supposed to be quite harmless, but encourage their pupils to swallow at the pump of Marx’s banalities. That’s what the War Office and MI5 concluded about Anthony Blunt when they allowed him back into intelligence – not practical or dangerous at all. So another armchair revolutionary, McEachran, caught his ‘victims’ [!] at a most impressionable age, and they were hooked.

Frank McEachran and his ‘Cauldron of Spells’

Enemies Within

Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines may have wondered why the Times Literary Supplement review of Enemies Within had to be shared with some upstart he had never heard of. Ben Macintyre perhaps, but Antony Percy? After all, R D-H has written one-hundred-and-sixty entries for The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, while I have written only one. And he is a Major League historian, and biographer of such subjects as W. H. Auden, Maynard Keynes and Harold MacMillan, while I am a latecomer who have never even been put on a shortlist for a possible interview by Melvyn Bragg. On the other hand, I was greatly honoured to have Misdefending the Realm appear alongside Enemies Within in Mark Seaman’s review of May 27. And I have coldspur, while Mr. Davenport-Hines does not.

So why has Mr. Davenport-Hines turned his attention to the world of espionage? As an expert analyst on social trends (look to his book on the Profumo era, for example), he brings a depth of knowledge of social climes, and a capability for narrative strength, to this intriguing topic. The flyer is promising: “With its vast scope, ambition and scholarship, Enemies Within charts how the undermining of authority, the rejection of expertise and the suspicion of educational advantages began, and how these have transformed the social and political agenda of modern Britain.” It sets out to challenge ‘entrenched assumptions about abused trust, corruption and Establishment coverups’. If indeed Davenport-Hines can explain why the Cambridge Five betrayed their country (a task that has apparently fallen beyond the capabilities of other biographers), and how it was that they managed to provoke such a passive response from the authorities, his massive work would indeed have to be compulsory reading.

But it is a heady programme. First of all, while he brings several new facts to the table, it is not clear who his audience is. While his research into some new areas (such as the Rhodes scholars) make this an indispensable book for the dedicated student of espionage history, the latter will be very familiar with most of the accounts of the nefariousness of the 1950s and 1960s. On the other hand, such masses of detail may overwhelm the more casual reader, who will no doubt be familiar with much of the story, but become confused by the mass of names and events. A long preliminary discussion over Soviet history really does not belong here, and adds little. If his case for a fresh analysis of political dynamics in Britain is to hold water, it is critical that any major new lessons that Davenport-Hines derives from his material can clearly be ascribed to a pattern of particular incidents. Yet, as he declared in his Introduction, the author does not really believe in the truth that the wills and actions of individuals can exert a powerful effect on history.

Davenport-Hines lays out some early guidelines that point to the nature of his argument: “Historians fumble their catches when they study individuals’ motives and individuals’ ideas rather than the institutions in which people work, respond, find motivation and develop their ideas.” “One aim of this book is to rebut the Titus Oates commentators who have commandeered the history of communist espionage in twentieth-century Britain.” “The key to understanding the successes of Moscow’s penetration agents in government ministries, the failures to detect them swiftly and the counter-espionage mistakes in handling them lies in sex discrimination rather than class discrimination.” Are these a priori impulses, or a posteriori conclusions? One’s immediate reaction might be to challenge all of these assertions: that individuals can exercise no individual choice but are driven by workplace factors, that a free market in espionage history has somehow been made an oligopoly (pace Sir Christopher Andrew’s dominance), and that the fashionable theme of sex discrimination has suddenly become a retrospective critical factor for assessing British political structures and why cover-ups were engaged in. So how does Davenport-Hines go about it?

The author develops his theme by covering a vast and rich array of incidents, but it is not clear which episodes support which aspect of his argument. As he tells it, overall, MI5 performed an honourable and professional job in countering the Communist subversion. The criticism that the intelligence services were guilty of aristocratic in-breeding, or homosexual camaraderie, is quite misplaced: the symptoms of failure were more male chauvinism, since female expertise was discarded or overlooked. The blame for misrepresenting what happened lies with the gutter press, with irresponsible journalist and writers, and an ill-educated Labour Party. The Cambridge spies did far more harm in eroding trust between civil servants than they did in betraying secrets. Yet even worse were the journalists. “The mole-hunters of the 1980s were foul-minded, mercenary and pernicious. Their besmirching of individuals and institutions changed the political culture and electoral moods of Britain far beyond any achievement of Moscow agents or agencies,” he writes, as if the Press had invented the whole story. The spies, he claims, could not be prosecuted because conviction would have been difficult without a confession, the evidence against them (such as in VENONA transcriptions) being too sensitive to be used in court. (But he also admits that a prosecution of Burgess would have released too many embarrassing secrets about his past career in diplomacy.) Finally, the recent loss of trust in ‘experts’ has opened the debate to untutored discussion.

This seems to me a strange line to take, and it is not helped by Davenport-Hines’s approach. The problem is that he really shows no methodology in his use of sources, making no distinction as to why some are reliable and some not, with the result that (for instance) he is taken in by a letter to one of the authorized historians of intelligence, Sir Michael Howard, who wrote an absurd letter to the Times after the Blunt fiasco claiming that inactivity was justified as Blunt had been useful as an asset in MI5’s hands. Davenport-Hones largely accepts the official histories on trust, when they need to be treated with a high degree of scepticism: he refers to Sir Christopher Andrew ‘whose painstaking research and careful conclusions belied the conspiracy theorists’. Yet, for all the diligence of the undertaking, the authorised history of MI5 is inadequate: a selective, censored and far from definitive work, and its sources cannot be verified. Davenport-Hines tends to accept unquestioningly the pronouncements of the Great and the Good (such as Gladwyn Jebb on Laurence Grand), is too quick to come to the defence of officers like the hapless Dick White against his justified critics, or the ‘luckless’ (rather than incompetent) Robert Armstrong, and is too hasty in backing the opinions of his fellow-academic Hugh Trevor-Roper. His opinion on the amount of harm perpetrated by the spies would appear to run counter to that of another well-respected ‘expert’, Nigel West, who wrote, in The Crown Jewels: “Undoubtedly, the damage inflicted by Philby, Burgess, and Blunt can only be described as colossal, and on a much greater scale than has ever been officially admitted.”

In addition, I noticed multiple minor but important errors (for example, over Fitzroy Maclean, Kitty Harris’s birthplace, the identification of ELLI, Liddell’s handling of Burgess, Petrie’s accession as head of MI5, the identities of Joe and Jane Archer, and the ‘turning’ of Wilfrid Mann).  He denies the existence of an Oxford ring of spies, and judges the confessed traitor Jenifer Hart to be innocent. He is very contradictory about the role of religion in the 1930s. He makes the extraordinary claim (p 442) that the spies were relics of the 1941-45 period, when the Soviet Union was an ally, although they had been infiltrated long before. And the case for anti-feminism is weakly made, coming in almost as an afterthought. “My belief is that the dynamics of departments in government ministries and agency were gender-bound more than class-bound”, he writes, but that is rather like criticising Trollope for not writing about the ‘LBGQT community’. If there were a case to be made there, it would be over the sidelining of MI5’s sharpest counter-espionage officer, Jane Archer. Davenport-Hines picks up the fact that she was not forced to retire when she married (at the outbreak of war), but he does not develop the theme to support his argument. And how would ‘feminine’ influence have changed things? Would it have made vetting more rigorous, a pattern he would appear to disdain? Which characteristics of the ’gentler sex’ would he have preferred to have seen holding sway in the Civil Service? Those of Jenifer Hart or Ellen Wilkinson? Or those of Margaret Thatcher – or even Rosa Klebb? He does not tell us.

Kathleen (aka ‘Jane’) Archer, nee Sissmore, MI5’s most capable counter-espionage officer

Yet my main cavil with the book is the fact that the author turns the undermining of civil institutions, which was undeniably effected by the actions of the Cambridge spies, into a free pass for the intelligence services and the politicians themselves, as if they were merely victims, and responded only as they could, given the constraints. On page 368, he writes that trust is one of the elements that distinguished liberal democracies from despotisms. But if a certain trust has been shown to be broken, it should be reviewed. Since the objective of the spies was to erode the whole blooming edifice of a liberal democracy, the fact that the civilities of political trust were fractured first should hardly have come as a surprise. That was why we had a Security Service in the first place. The fact was, however, that MI5 received solid leads about the deep insertion of Soviet spies from Krivitsky, but lacked the guts and insight to pursue them single-mindedly. As an institution, it never planned what it would do if it found such traitors in its midst, so it was in ‘react mode’ every time another ghastly truth came out. Davenport-Hines says that he prefers the level of trust that existed before positive vetting arrived in 1951 to ‘Gestapo methods, Stalinist purges, American loyalty tests or HUAC scapegoating’, as if there were no less draconian alternatives. But the careless way that the threat was managed could have paved the way for such totalitarian horrors.

MI5 (and SIS) should not have trusted anyone for sensitive work in intelligence simply because that person came with a good reputation. In a pluralist democracy, trust has to be earned and protected: reputation is everything. As a result, rather than facing the facts, the two intelligence services indulged in an operation of continuous cover-up, over Fuchs (when the survival of MI5 was at stake), over Burgess’s and Maclean’s career, over Blunt, over Cairncross, and even over Philby, for whom SIS had no realistic strategy. They did encourage the prosecution of outsiders (like Fuchs, and Nunn May, and Blake), but not those native Englishmen whom they had recruited themselves. Their selectivity therefore looked hypocritical. Out of this desire to protect the institution there came a great betrayal of trust to the British public, whom the authorities thought inferior and not deserving of openness. The result was that a natural void occurred for the inquiring newshounds and journalists, who smelled that the facts were not being told. The indomitable Chapman Pincher, for one, was fed both truths and lies by his informers, and it often suited the authorities to have the waters permanently muddied. The official histories came too late, and tried to finesse the problems.

I believe it is also very dangerous to draw simple sociological conclusions over such a large sweep of history. When, for my doctoral thesis, I was studying MI5 over a period of just two years (1939-41), I was exposed to multiple dynamics in organizational frameworks, managerial conflicts, personal relationships and affiliations, and individual ambitions, betrayals and mis-steps, all in an environment of rapidly shifting political fortunes and alliances. In that context I felt comfortable making judgments about the wisdom or foolishness of decisions taken or not taken. To analyse a period of sixty years, and replace one grand theme of misplaced Establishment loyalty with one that identifies failures ascribed to gender-bound, as opposed to class-bound, weaknesses, does not move the debate forward constructively. The psychology of each mole gets smothered in the sociological generalisations, and the personal contributions of different political and intelligence leaders become homogenized.  “Institutional life, not parental influence, made Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby what they were. They disliked the bullying, discomfort, injustice and surveillance of their schooling,” Davenport-Hines writes with apparent authority, ignoring the fact that a far greater majority of young adults were subjected to the same disciplines, but did not become traitors. Kim Philby himself warned of the danger of ‘long-range psychology’.

I suppose it all comes down to this matter of trust. Davenport-Hines wants the judgments of the experts (like him) to be trusted. He is a believer in epistocracy – government by the knowledgeable. But this is the world of espionage and intelligence. You cannot trust the memoirs of those who took part, whether spies or intelligence officers. You cannot trust the experts, especially not the authorised historians. You cannot trust the politicians. You cannot trust the scoop-seeking journalists. You cannot even trust the original documents – the archives – as they have been doctored and weeded, and maybe even deliberately planted with disinformation. Davenport-Hines does not explain why he trusts some sources, but not others, and also appears to be of the opinion that the Great British Public should not be trusted with the facts about the security services which should be accountable to it. Thus he has compiled a fascinatingly rich and enjoyable romp through a century of subversion and counter-intelligence, but, since the reader cannot rely on the sources of his judgments, he or she has to parse very carefully any claim he makes. Enemies Within is a very impressive achievement, but it is very difficult to interpret with confidence a canvas this large because of the multiple distortions of reality that are woven into the fabric in every sector. The problem is that the experts very quickly come to resemble the Establishment, and, as another famous political critic wrote of related goings-on: “ . . . already it was impossible to say which was which”.

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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 2)

Cyril Fairchild of RSS: Ditchling Beacon, 1939

When I set about my research into the puzzle of the apparent failure of the British Radio-Direction Finding mechanisms to detect the German agents incorporated in the Double-Cross System, I thought it would turn out to be a relatively straightforward case of guile – foolish, perhaps, and lucky – but still a feint. Yet my readings led me to conclude that here was a multi-dimensional enigma, involving the following conundrums: the bizarre and humbling treatment of Gill, after he made a breakthrough analysis; Gill’s mistake over the assumption that Hitler’s agents all had receivers as well as transmitters; the mystery of Lt.-Col. Simpson, who made a significant impact, but was almost completely removed from the records; the deceptions of Dick White about the timetable of the Double Cross System; the misrepresentations of Guy Liddell about his organisation; the official exaggeration of the Abwehr strategy, and finessing of some technical aspects of their agents’ method of operating; the contradictory representations, by various ‘experts’, of the state-of-the-art of wireless direction-finding; and the scanty coverage of the topic by the authorised historians.

Yet perhaps the most extraordinary finding was the almost apocalyptic observation that appeared in John Curry’s confidential history of MI5 compiled at the end of the war, asserting that the decisions made about the responsibility for the Radio Security Service (RSS) had caused a tragedy of Greek proportions to take place. This judgment was made when the war had recently been won, and the activities of the Double Cross Committee, in exploiting the agents under its control to promote the message that a dummy army (FUSAG) was assembled to invade the Pas de Calais, had been a primary contributor to the success. Was Curry hinting at the Cold War, and the betrayal of Eastern Europe by the Allies? Was he suggesting that British Intelligence had abdicated its responsibility for monitoring illicit Soviet transmissions? Did a careless decision not to deploy the RSS with the correct discipline allow the Soviets to transmit undetected, or did a careful decision to soft-pedal RSS in order to allow the spies to be surveilled open up a different exposure? Or was he simply lamenting the handing-over of control of RSS to SIS, with the struggle over the release of ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material implying a colossal failure in joint intelligence? Given the political climate at the time, it is difficult to posit any other scenario beyond these. And, in fact, archival documents that have recently come to my attention firmly suggest that it was complacency about German agents that led to carelessness over other threats.

In my May blog, I had referred, in passing, to three documents written by the enigmatic Lt.-Col. Simpson that I believed were no longer extant. In June, through the agency of Dr. Brian Austin, I managed to contact a wartime RSS operator, one Bob King (who can be found in Pidgeon: see below) now in his nineties, who passed on to me a few files. One, though undated and unauthored, was surely an early draft of a contribution by John Curry of MI5 to his 1946 history of the institution (as the style was unmistakeable), but included comments that did not find their way into the eventual published version. The second was the 1938 report by Simpson on the threats constituted by the use of low-powered and miniaturized wireless transmitters in time of war, and what infrastructure, technology and organisation would be required to take on and eliminate such a menace. The discovery of this document is as if one of the lost plays of Aristophanes had suddenly been found. Likewise, I had not been able to locate this report from the Index of the National Archives at Kew, but, if any of Simpson’s contributions have been made publicly available, it astounds me that no historian appears to have grasped the significance of both these pieces. Another absorbing item is a report by an engineer who worked on a secret wireless interception project under the Metropolitan Police. I have no doubts whatever as to the authenticity of these documents, and shall use them (and others) to update the story in this entry. Moreover, in an email communication, Bob King assured me that Sonia’s illicit messages were picked up by the RSS, but the unit was told to ignore them. This nugget of information has enormous significance, and I shall address it in a future episode.

I had originally intended that this chapter would move the whole story – including progress in wireless transmission and detection techniques made by British, Soviet and German espionage and counter-espionage agencies – up to June 1942. The discovery of these new sources, however, means that this piece is dedicated to a deeper analysis of the evolution of RSS leading up to its transfer to SIS in the spring of 1941, and the immediate decisions made in the months afterwards.  I shall return to a full discussion of Phase 2 (January 1941 to June 1942) in a couple of months’ time.

RSS finds its Home

  • Background

For my research on the RSS as displayed in ‘Sonia’s Radio’, I had relied primarily on the Introduction to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Secret World, subtitled Behind the Curtain of British Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War, written by its Editor, Edward Harrison, for much of my information on the evolution of the Radio Security Service in the first two years of the war. That was complemented by a revealing chapter in Nigel West’s GCHQ, although West probably ascribes too much importance to the role of Lord Sandhurst, since West enjoyed exclusive access to the Sandhurst papers, and relied on them for much of his narrative. I found valuable, but mainly anecdotal, evidence in Geoffrey Pidgeon’s The Secret Wireless War, some rather fragmented accounts in Frank Birch’s often inscrutable Official History of British Sigint (which frequently reads as if it had been poorly translated from a foreign language, probably German), and some revealing but often imprecise material in Professor Hinsley’s official history of British Intelligence in the Second World War. Philip Davies’s MI6 and the Machinery of Spying is overall very thorough and contains good corrective analysis. But Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 is very disappointing in its coverage, considering that it is the authorised history, and that RSS was an integral part of SIS after the spring of 1941. I had inspected some of the source material at the National Archives on a visit in 2017, but, since little of it has been digitised, I have not been able to analyse any other since, apart from a few pieces shared by other researchers.

I recently discovered (thanks to Stan Ames, an RSS enthusiast) a longer paper published by Harrison, which appeared in the English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV, no. 506, dated January 13, 2009. It is titled ‘British Radio Security and Intelligence, 1939-1943’, and provides a very comprehensive account of this critical era in wireless and intelligence. Harrison, who suggests that his contribution ‘fills the gap’ in offering an academic article ‘dedicated to the organisation’ of RSS, generally provides an insightful guide to the literature, and skilfully exploits a broad number of sources. He crisply explains the evolution of RSS, taking the line that MI8 tried to find it a  home in MI5; that MI5 resisted, because of issues of overstretch and competence; how Walter Gill, introduced to the unit late in 1939, brought to it new skills in discrimination (isolating and organising signals of relevance from among a vast noise in the ether); how Gill’s findings shifted efforts towards Abwehr signals abroad rather than illicit transmissions from the UK; and how, because of this geographical re-focusing, with the approval of the imminently-to-be-appointed chief of MI5, David Petrie, RSS was handed over to SIS early in 1941, with official approval occurring in May. He then relates the continuing battles between MI5 and SIS – primarily through the personalities of Guy Liddell, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Maurice Cowgill – over the availability of ISOS decrypts that MI5 thought were critical for the smooth running of the Double-Cross system. It is a masterful and highly valuable contribution to the history.

Yet Harrison’s story does, I believe, not perform full justice to RSS, or describe accurately the manoeuvrings that went on behind the scenes to determine the control of RSS. It is a more a study of the relationships and tensions between MI5 and SIS than of the machinery and contributions of RSS itself, and Harrison is perhaps a touch too respectful of Trevor-Roper’s role, describing him as ‘the intellectual inspiration of RSS’. Moreover, Harrison largely ignores some of the figures who participated. He says nothing about Lord Sandhurst, who was appointed to RSS, and played some role in recruiting or training the Volunteer Interceptor force in the first months of the war. (As indicated above, this may have been a sagacious choice, as Sandhurst’s involvement remains somewhat controversial.) Harrison does not mention, however, the greater contribution of Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson, who wrote the seminal paper that defined the structures, technology and organisation that he felt were vital for protecting the nation’s defences. Harrison seems to be unaware of SIS’s own clandestine interception capabilities constructed in cooperation with the Metropolitan Police, documented by Kenworthy, and chronicled in the National Archives, which throw a bizarre light on the whole issue of MI5/SIS territorial control. He rather bizarrely devotes a section to Malcom Frost’s late efforts to increase the efficiency of the mobile detection units without offering an explanation of what illicit operators they were supposed to be pursuing. He mentions Richard Gambier-Parry, who headed SIS’s Section VIII, under which RSS resided, only in passing. He offers a restrained analysis of John Curry’s highly provocative assessment of the ‘Greek tragedy’ that resulted from SIS’s takeover of RSS, an opinion that Curry himself appeared to abjure elsewhere.

Moreover, Harrison brings to the surface a number of anomalies and paradoxes that are not satisfactorily addressed in his paper, and I have to backtrack a little to the topics I introduced in the first chapter of this saga to refresh the story. I should point out that I am not attempting to offer a comprehensive account of RSS’s history, but to focus on the questions highly relevant to radio interception and direction-finding policies in WWII. Who drove the takeover of RSS by SIS? Why were domestic interception and detection so casually executed? Why were Sonia’s radio transmissions overlooked? Why did British intelligence believe it could convince the Abwehr that the Double Cross agents had not been detectable?

  • The Strange Decline of Lt.-Col. Simpson

Simpson’s Report: First Page

Now that one of Simpson’s papers has come to light, one can understand his considerable strengths, as well as what probably caused him to fall into disfavour. (If not familiar with him, readers should inspect Chapter 1 of this saga first.) His October 1938 report to the Director of Security Service at the War Office, titled ‘Illicit W/T Communication’, is a masterful explanation of the way developments in wireless technology could allow a nest of foreign spies to remain undetected in Britain. He pointed out that low-power transmitters would be able to broadcast to receiving stations overseas (in Germany) while remaining difficult to detect locally via normal ground waves. He recommended the establishment of three fixed Direction-Finding (DF) stations, each complemented by a pair of portable (i.e. mobile) stations, that in turn would be supported by a set of hand apparatuses that could be used for house-to-house search. Landlines to connect the DF stations would be essential, and a line would also link the main DF station with the fixed Interception station. The project was to be enabled by the recruitment of ‘some 50 or 60 picked amateurs out of the 4,000 now existing in this country’; Simpson did add, however, that he believed that the creation of such an organisation was already under way.

Lt.-Colonel Simpson’s Plan for Interception, 1938

Simpson expressed concern about the suitability of the G.P.O., the institution currently chartered with executing MI5’s requirements in this area, since it had a more regulatory and bureaucratic approach to the issue of frequency usage. ‘Our objective’ (which should probably not be interpreted as ‘MI5’s objective’, but as a national interest), he said, is to prevent any unauthorised transmissions, not just investigate them after they had happened. That is why he focused on developing a more elite, professional staff from among all the amateurs who held experimental licenses. He did add, however, the intriguing comment that one of the objectives would be to ‘locate the source of transmission with the least possible delay, but not necessarily stop it’, hinting at the notion of possible control of alien broadcasts, but in fact suggesting a desire to distort the suspected propaganda signals to make them unintelligible. His final appeal was for centralised control over the whole process of interception, direction-finding, and message gathering, and that, when the collection ‘of a certain class of highly confidential intelligence’ had been made, it would be conveyed to the appropriate department ‘to take the necessary executive action’. Lastly, he nominated three very distinguished names to serve on a Technical Advisory Committee, Dr. James Robinson, Director of Wireless Research at the Air Ministry, Captain Round, an expert in DF and interception work, and Mr. K. Tremellen, ‘the greatest practical authority alive on the subject of short-wave communication’. Strangely, none of these names appears in the authorised histories.

Some of Simpson’s ideas would be echoed later (e.g. the need for unification of resources, the professionalisation of voluntary interceptors), but his recommendations were perhaps influenced by two notions that were gradually becoming obsolete: i) a too technical approach that emphasised that the problem was one simply of interception and location, not foreshadowing the technique of traffic analysis, and the way in which that process, alongside (even partial) decryption, fed back into the act of discrimination, and ii) the belief, perhaps encouraged by WWI memories of German spy threats, that the country was riddled with German agents, equipped with wireless, who were ready to spring into action. What is also significant that he articulated the mission as ‘closing . . . all illicit channels of communication with the enemy in time of war, and of locating sources of political propaganda in time of peace’. What he did not include was the need to protect the realm from hostile (not necessarily declared enemy) communications designed to help subvert the country – i.e. transmissions by Communist spies, whether in time of peace or war. This must have been a failure of knowledge or imagination, and it is astonishing that, since he was offering his report on behalf of MI5, he was allowed to make his submission to the Director of Security Service at the War Office without this oversight being pointed out.

John Bryden, in Fighting to Lose, suggests that MI5 rejected his ideas there and then, ‘being firmly of the view that German agents would only be using the mails or couriers to send in their reports’, and that the matter was turned back to the War Office. But that does not make sense. The source that Bryden provides for this explanation (Curry) does not give that as the reason: Curry blamed it on the administrative burden and financial commitments required. Moreover, despite the fact that the War Office approved Simpson’s recommendation that the RSS unit be set up, it did not endorse his ideas of ‘unified control’, and when MI5 declined to become involved, Simpson stayed on as the Security Service’s expert. He was surely happy to see his recommendations accepted, no matter where the unit reported. (His perspective on MI5 ownership is a little ambiguous: at one stage in his report he refers to ‘our’ DF or interception stations, but then goes on to write that they would be used ‘in conjunction with M.I.5.’ It appears he had an open mind on the command structure.) Bryden and Curry do agree, however, that the founding of MI1(g) was attributable to MI5’s lack of eagerness to take charge. Accordingly, RSS started collaborating with the Post Office in March 1939, with MI5 demoted to the sidelines, waiting for results.

Simpson may have been somewhat deflated, but thus hung around in MI5 (though without warm recognition from Liddell, his boss in MI5’s Counter-Espionage B Division). The fragment from Curry indicates that he was vigorously promoting his original vision of unified control, and stressing the importance of the Post Office in harnessing the appropriate resources to tackle the threat of illicit transmissions by supplying suitable personnel, and moving to build the new facilities required. Indeed, Curry reports that Simpson was the main muscle behind the establishment of the Voluntary Interceptor system: a recognition that other commentators have overlooked. As B3b, he was actively supplying the liaison between MI5 that was later mirrored in SIS’s Section V. As MI5’s representative on the Technical Committee on Leakage of Information (TCLI) that the War Office set up in October, 1939, he was quick (in February 1940) to try to persuade the Ministry of Home Security to bring pressure on to the GPO. He attended the critical meeting on March 20 at Bletchley Park after which GC&CS agreed to set up the ISOS decryption unit. Yet his stubbornness in believing that a domestic German menace was being overlooked (when none existed) must have clashed with the messages coming from RSS. His emphasis on the need for widely dispersed Voluntary Interceptors to pick up illicit ground signals turned out to be something of a luxury, although the wide dissemination of interceptors greatly aided the ability of the unit to avoid omissions provoked by the whimsicality of ‘skip zones’ and the presence of thunderstorms. His expressed frustrations with the GPO’s lack of urgency in constructing new DF and Interception stations was probably on target, but his insistence that the detection of illicit wireless was ‘extremely unsatisfactory’ was not.

Maybe the SNOW affair changed Liddell’s mind somewhat. Simpson’s ideas must have had a slight resurgence with the ‘Fifth Column’ scare in the summer of 1940, but Liddell’s entering discussions with ‘the BBC man’ Malcolm Frost in May 1940 suggests that Simpson was no longer around. (Frost had been the BBC representative on the TCLI, and thus presumably had caught Liddell’s eye as a possible replacement for Simpson.) Indeed, the system of Regional Security Liaison Officers that MI5 set up by Guy Liddell in June 1940, specifically to address the threat of illicit wireless (and which was headed by Jane Archer, mysteriously sidelined from her expert role in tracking Communist subversion) mapped very closely to Simpson’s areas of demarcation. But when that was shown to be a false alarm, his whole infrastructure was seen to be somewhat redundant, especially in the light of the lessons being learned by Gill and Trevor-Roper in the RSS organisation. Interceptors were needed in large numbers, but did not have to be located so evenly around the country in order to pick up ground waves. Simpson’s attendance at the meeting at Bletchley Park where the revelations about the discovery of Abwehr traffic were made is the last reference that Liddell makes to him in his Diaries.

Still, Simpson’s omission from the record books (outside Curry) is extremely puzzling, and some of his contribution remains uncredited. For example, his report clearly refers to the 4,000 amateurs known to the Post Office who had the potential of providing the elite force that Simpson needed. Yet most histories and memoirs attribute the imaginative idea to Lord Sandhurst, who was reportedly recruited by RSS at the outbreak of war to develop a professional force of interceptors to replace the largely part-time group assembled by Colonel Worlledge. Sandhurst, who had also been instructed to liaise with R. L. Hughes of MI5 (who, Curry informs us was B3b, responsible for liaison with the RSS and the BBC, and thus working directly for Simpson at that time), soon approached Arthur Watts, the President of the Radio Society of Great Britain. Watts had ‘several thousand’ members who were radio hams, so Sandhurst then began to select the most suitable for training. Thus Simpson’s contribution is overlooked: Davies, like Harrison, remarkably makes no mention of wireless expertise in MI5 before Frost.  Simpson will turn up again in this account, when I write about the negotiations to find RSS a suitable home, but the verdict on his contribution must be that he was technically correct, but strategically wrong. He brilliantly assessed the state of the art of short-wave wireless telegraphy, and its potential subversive use, but he was caught up in the tide of searching for a phantom menace – the German W/T agents installed in the English countryside – and failed to gain the confidence of his colleagues in MI5. The irony was that the flock of interceptors he identified to protect the nation did not need to be precisely dispersed to detect ground waves, as there were no illicit operators at large at that time, but the volume and placement of such individuals did turn out to be essential to pick up the mass of signals originating from overseas.

  • The Rise and Fall of Walter Gill

Walter Gill

Walter Gill, on the other hand, was (in a specialised sense) technically wrong, but strategically correct. It still comes as a surprise to some observers that nearly all the Abwehr agents infiltrated by air or sea in 1940 were equipped only with a transmitter, and not with a combined transmitter-receiver, or with a separate receiver. Operating ‘blind’, without any confirmation that one’s message was being received at all, or perhaps not clearly enough (and thus needed to be re-sent) would appear to reflect a less than serious objective by the perpetrators of the scheme. And that is one interpretation that can be cast on the German planning, as I have suggested. (Preparations for sending agents into Britain did not begin until July 1940.) Yet that phenomenon is confirmed by the archival reports, as well as by the memoirs of some of the members of RSS. While Gill showed great insight over the question of the source of beams guiding German aircraft, his thesis, that if the supposed German agents could hear their controllers’ signals, then so should the operators in RSS have been able to, and that there were therefore none operating, was based on a false assumption. The focus on enemy signals originating abroad, and the eventual deciphering of many of them (ULTRA), was, however, a major contributor to the success of the war.

Gill’s policy must come under continual scrutiny, however. I have recently read accounts of two Abwehr agents who parachuted on to English soil before the main wave (Operation LENA) that arrived in early September 1940. Each of this pair was reported to have brought a working transmitter/receiver unit and successfully exchanged messages with his controller. Such transmissions were presumably not detected by RSS, since Gill claimed the unit had not identified any unexplained outgoing Abwehr signals. Such agents might therefore have been able to transmit undetected for some time, contrary to the accounts that the authorised and semi-official historians would have us believe. I shall investigate such adventures in my next chapter, to judge whether this was all an elaborate hoax. It should perhaps also be noted that Gill came to his breakthrough conclusion about the absence of German agents in Britain in December 1939, when SNOW was, almost certainly, the only wireless operator recruited by the Abwehr. His report, however, was not written until November, 1940, when the experience of Operation LENA, under which a dozen or more spies landed on British soil, would have sharpened sensitivities in MI5. Indeed, as early as July 13, 1940, Liddell felt compelled to record in his diary the following: “While I feel it is likely that there are a few German agents here, possibly transmitting by wireless, I do not envisage anything in the nature of large bodies of individuals going out to stab us in the back as soon as the Germans invade this country.” That observation indicates that the Gill doctrine had not been accepted wholesale at that time, and Liddell did not have complete trust in the energies of RSS.

I have little here to add to my account of Gill’s demise that I described two months ago, but the account that Hugh Trevor-Roper gave of Gill’s departure is somewhat paradoxical. Trevor-Roper was known for his caustic dismissals of many of those he encountered in wartime, especially the blimpish characters he considered to be his intellectual inferiors, but he clearly had some admiration and affection for Gill. Gill had been a lecturer on electricity at Oxford University, and a successful Bursar at Merton College, although Trevor-Roper had diminished his overall academic qualifications by writing that he ‘could only by a charitable laxity of definition be included among the educated’, a harsh and inaccurate judgment (as revealed in Dr. Austin’s detailed profile of him), which sheds more light on Trevor-Roper’s arrogance than on Gill’s cultural accomplishments. Yet they worked well together as a team. Trevor-Roper, however, when commenting on Gill’s clumsy and harsh dismissal and demotion, could only comment (in Sideways into SIS) as follows: “The real genius of the affair, Major Gill, was also deliberately overlooked. Left to find other employment, he became a radar officer and an expert on captured German equipment. Under the new regime, his name was never mentioned.”

Was there a reason for Trevor-Roper’s coyness over Gill’s treatment, which he also characterised simply as ‘rather shabby’? After all, Gill had been fired without even a formal notification, and then demoted from Major to Captain. Major Cowgill, the offended SIS officer (who had joined SIS only in March 1939, so did not enjoy a reputation of any sort), had repeatedly called for Trevor-Roper, who had been just as complicit in the affair as Gill, to be court-martialled. Yet Trevor-Roper escaped unscathed, even though the head of RSS, Colonel Worlledge, lost his job as well. It is surprising that Trevor-Roper did not provide a more comprehensive coverage of the whole business. In fact he concluded that Cowgill in fact ‘had every right to explode’, as Worlledge had revealed secrets concerning intelligence and security ‘not only to his official contacts in the Armed Services intelligence departments . . . but also (horror of horrors!) to the civilians of the Post Office.’ Perhaps Gill and Worlledge were punished because, as military veterans from WWI, they should have known better. In fact, as will be shown, it was a bit more complicated than that.

One last mysterious incident concerns Gill’s reappearance in April 1942. Despite what Trevor-Roper wrote over fifty years later, Gill’s name was apparently mentioned again, because (as Harrison reports) Trevor-Roper was in contact by letter with F. E. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), who was Churchill’s scientific adviser, at a time when Trevor-Roper, disenchanted again with his work in SIS, was looking for other opportunities. As Adam’s Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper makes clear, he was highly frustrated over the failure of RSS management (Maltby and Gambier-Parry) to keep technical policy aligned with intelligence aims. He had earlier rather indiscreetly criticised the leaders of RSS, specifically Gambier-Parry, and now told Lindemann that Menzies (chief of SIS) had called him in, and then accused him (Trevor-Roper) ‘of having supplied facts to Gill which he had supplied to you and you to Swinton’. Is that ‘he’ Menzies or Gill? Unlikely the former, as Trevor-Roper would presumably not have been party to information passed by Menzies to Lindemann: Menzies would in that case have been concerned about a breach of security elsewhere.

So if it was Gill supplying facts to Lindemann that got back to Menzies via Swinton of the Security Executive, what could those facts have been about, and on what basis were Gill and Trevor-Roper still in communication over important matters if Gill was by then working in a completely unrelated sphere of the war effort? And why would Gill want to leak secrets to Lindemann? It may be relevant that, at exactly this time, as Dr. Austin informs us, Gill joined the Army Operational Research Group, where he was responsible for investigating advanced aspects of Army field communications, but no details of the exchange have come to light. It sounds very much as if Gill and Trevor-Roper had stayed in touch, as ex-colleagues who had collaborated very productively on the matter of intelligent signals analysis, and that Gill was a man whose reputation had been restored, and had connections with influential persons. Another interesting twist to the story (as related by Sisman) is that when Trevor-Roper made a trip to Ireland in early 1942, i.e. just before the contact with Gill, Colonel Worlledge invited him to his home, Glenwilliam Castle, where ‘over a convivial dinner each outlined to the other what he knew of the takeover of RSS by SIS’. The existence of this conversation hints at untold scheming and plotting. Vivian of SIS was later to use this incident to make the astonishing claim that Trevor-Roper had gone to Dublin to betray the Ultra secret to the Germans, and that he had been ‘motivated by resentment against SIS for its treatment of Worlledge, and of Gill in particular.’ (Vivian was by now unstable: Liddell reports that he suffered a nervous breakdown in June 1942.) Trevor-Roper’s published account of Gill’s dismissal was clearly much more muted than this: he was surely concealing something of substance, but it may have no important connection with the fate and mission of RSS.

Gill’s major contribution to the debate about RSS’s future was his November 19, 1940, paper on the Organisation of RSS. Curry represented the arguments therein (the whole Theseus episode, after which focus was shifted to interception of overseas transmissions) as a clinching argument for RSS’s ‘vitality and value’, and for moving it into MI5, but that judgment appears weak and woolly. The timing of this report suggests it was produced under some pressure, but Gill’s account expresses no concern about the current organisation, or the allocation of work between RSS & GC&CS, and it concludes simply with a modest request for more resources. Yet the report includes a very telling statement concerning Direction Finding: “Any of the residue [i.e. the messages remaining after known ones had been identified] found by D.F. to be outside the country could for the above purpose have been neglected [but were not].”  RSS was successful in tracking those same messages, but, by implication, some unknown messages did originate inside the country. Gill gave, however, no indication of how these were investigated, a statement that should have alarmed MI5’s officers. If anything, the case as he made it was an argument against moving the unit to MI5, contrary to what Curry claimed. As we shall see, the question of territory and ownership would play a strong role in the decision, and MI5, even if the service had an outspoken champion, was on its weakest footing at this stage. The transfer to MI5 of course did not happen, but it did provoke a major debate about where RSS should report. Had Gill performed his job, and was thus no longer needed? Or was his demise just an accident of politics? That question may be unanswerable.

  • Kenworthy and the Secret Interception Unit

SIS was a notoriously secret organisation, but even it had clandestine corners that were not apparently known to all its officers, or even its authorised historian. In Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 the author informed us that the strategic split between the responsibilities of MI5 and MI6 (SIS) was made on October 1, 1931, when the semi-autonomous unit of the Special Branch, SS1, which consisted of the familiar Guy Liddell and his colleague Hugh Miller, experts in counter-subversion, was peeled off from the Metropolitan Police and handed over to MI5. SIS was also stripped of its domestic intelligence network, the ‘Casuals’, which was causing an embarrassment. This decision apparently simplified and clarified the missions for MI5 and SIS to handle subversion in the Empire and in foreign countries, respectively. “Thus . . . the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service took on their modern form and distinct spheres of responsibility which were to survive for at least the next eight years”, Jeffery wrote, with a high degree of authority (p 236).

Yet it was not quite like that. The reader will learn, from Nigel West’s 1986 book, GCHQ, that in 1930, a Commander Kenworthy reported ‘an illicit Comintern circuit operating between a site just outside Moscow and a terraced house in a suburb of London’. (The Moscow location was verified by direction-finders located in Palestine’s Sarafand, in India, and in London, thereby showing that widely dispersed location-finders working in harness could place remote transmitters with an accuracy that could not always be exercised in more confined areas. Such phenomena perplexed security officers like Liddell.) West added that Kenworthy was ‘the controller of the Home Office intercept station at Grove Park, Camberwell’. It might surprise some that the Home Office was involved with interception. Indeed, in West’s later book (2005) on this Comintern project, MASK, the author informs us that ‘GC&CS’s [sic] monitoring station at Grove Park, Camberwell, headed by Commander Kenworthy, first began intercepting Wheeton’s signals in February 1934 . . .’. Aided by the revelation by an MI5 mole of the cipher used, the codebreakers Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman were able to read the traffic until January 1937. By employing the full force of the direction-finding equipment of the Army (Fort Bridgewoods), Navy (Flowerdown) and Air Force (Waddington), the team of technicians were able to locate the members of a worldwide Comintern ring.

Fort Bridgewoods

The intercept station, however, was not run consciously by the Home Office or by GC&CS. It was run clandestinely by the Metropolitan Police. We owe it to a memorandum by Kenworthy himself, available at HW 3/81 at the National Archives, for a richer account of how Special Branch, assisted by both SIS and MI5, kept a watch on traffic that the armed forces declined to surveille. Supported by secret funds, an interception unit was encouraged by its experience in the General Strike (1926) to seek support from SIS in trying to detect foreign diplomatic stations which did not have ‘Berne List’ status (the latter presumably representing official frequencies allocated by international agreement). Kenworthy made it clear that Admiral Sinclair, the chief of SIS, was intimately familiar with what was going on. Remarkably, Kenworthy indicated that the expertise in interception gained by his unit entitled him to attend Y [= Signals Interception] Committee meetings, where the Services ‘looked to him for guidance’. He described his success in locating the illicit Comintern operator in Wimbledon, also showing that he and his colleague Lambert developed a portable direction-finding piece of apparatus that was critical for their mission.

What is intriguing is that The Metropolitan Police was the institution responsible for tracking the increasing volume of diplomatic traffic that appeared in the 1930s. “The Services were however disinclined to intercept Diplomatic (Commercial) Wireless to any extent as it would lead to a curtailment of the examination of their particular Service channels of Foreign Countries, as it became more and more important that encouragement should be given to Police by S.I.S”, Kenworthy wrote. Soon SIS was funding the exercise, as it was difficult to account for the expenses internally, and not long thereafter the new Receiving Station at Denmark Hill was constructed. Some official funding was approved, and made public, in 1938, but SIS maintained a controlling interest in the project. (At the base of one of his many organisational charts, Birch lists the Police Y Station at Denmark Hill as being controlled by the Foreign Office, i.e. SIS’s sponsor!) Now the interest of GC&CS (which reported to Admiral Sinclair, SIS’s chief) was piqued. In 1939 it decided that Commercial traffic should be intercepted as well, requiring a workload that Denmark Hill could not handle. “G.C. & C.S. realised that more facilities were required but unfortunately they had to cloak their activities and could not openly control wireless stations.” Everything that was going on was contrary to the rules of the protocol-oriented GPO. The outcome was that a new interception station was set up at Sandridge, near St. Albans, ‘specially for G.C. & C. S.’. Finally, to tidy up the picture, GC&CS took over the complete Police signals intelligence capability between November 1939 and January 1940, as the summary of the relevant files at the National Archives website informs us. (Regrettably, I have not yet been able to inspect the complete file.)

This whole chapter in British signals intelligence contains some remarkable ironies. The first is that the task of intercepting commercial and diplomatic traffic had devolved to a clandestine unit of Scotland Yard, a fact that appears to have been overlooked by all historians except Frank Birch. (HW 3/81 was not declassified until 2004: Andrew and Jeffery would have had access to it anyway, but chose not to use it.) The second is that SIS was involved in intercepting traffic occurring within the territorial boundaries of the UK, which flagrantly broke the rules that had been set up in 1931 guiding the missions of the two intelligence services. Since one of the main planks of the argument for placing, in early 1941, RSS under SIS’s aegis was the fact that RSS, after the beginning of the war, changed its focus from domestic to international interception, the episode sheds fresh light on the sincerity and professionalism of Sinclair and Menzies. The third irony is that MI5 knew all about this incursion on its turf, but apparently did not raise any protest: Curry mentions, without judgment, that ‘a certain amount of interception work was being done by M.I.6’, referring to the illicit set operated by the Russians. (One of Kenworthy’s paragraphs reads: “A conference took place with S.I.S. and M.I.5. The latter pointed out that strictly speaking the G.P.O. as the Communication Authority were the Department who should tackle these sorts of jobs but for reasons best known to S.I.S. and M.I.5. G.P.O. were not considered a very secure body.”) In early 1941, the Security Service, already weak in its drive and leadership, would have been on insecure footing had it tried to play the territorial card.

The fourth irony is that GC&CS was allowed to enter the interception game at the beginning of the war (the transfer presumably muscled through quickly by Menzies) at a time when Commander Denniston was making vigorous representations about interceptors invading his own domain of cryptography, an action that led to Worlledge and Gill losing their jobs. Denniston was extremely possessive about GC&CS’s ownership of cryptanalysis, even though he and others (according to Birch) accepted that ‘Y generally involved interception, traffic analysis and ‘low-level cryptanalysis’. But Hinsley also records that, in the summer of 1940, Denniston opposed the demand from MI8 (RSS) that its Traffic Analysis staff of 70 officers be transferred to GC&CS (on the basis that Traffic Analysis and cryptanalysis should be done in the same place), on the grounds that ‘his establishment should continue to be a cryptanalytical centre’ (only).

Kenworthy thus moved to GC&CS, worked there during the war, when it became GCHQ, and retired in 1957. Though working for Bletchley Park, he was stationed at Knockholt, where he led the project to intercept German Teleprinter Communications. This was the very important ‘Fish’ set of non-Morse messages, and Kenworthy wrote a report on that activity in 1946. But of enduring interest to this area of research is his achievement in developing, so early, effective handheld location-finding equipment. I have not yet been able to trace the extent to which his inventions passed on to the GPO in wartime, apart from a brief mention by Curry, who stated that Kenworthy’s portable D-F set was tested by MI5, and that ‘some interesting Mobile Unit operations were carried out on connection with this case [the detection of the Comintern transmissions]’. I thus have not been able to determine whether the apparent dilatoriness of the GPO – so frequently demeaned by intelligence officers – was caused by inadequate technology or by official edict.

  • The Transfer to SIS

So was the transfer of RSS to SIS a smooth operation, or was it bedevilled with conflict and controversy? One can learn little from the authorised histories. The History of British Intelligence in the Second World War contains some errors, as well as some very puzzling observations that do not always make sense. Christopher Andrew does not mention the episode at all, or even the mission that MI5 shared with MI8/RSS. You will not find Lt.-Colonel Simpson, Malcolm Frost, the RSS, or even Section B3, in his Index. Keith Jeffery devotes just two sentences of his equally massive book to the adoption by Section VIII of RSS, indicating simply that it occurred ‘on Petrie’s recommendation’. He has nothing to say about Trevor-Roper, and Cowgill receives just a cursory mention. Geoffrey Pidgeon records the event as follows: “In January 1941, Swinton recommended that RSS be handed over to SIS, but this met with fierce opposition throughout the upper echelons of MI5, resulting in a battle that reached the highest levels”.  However, since Pidgeon (like many commentators) appeared to be under the impression that RSS had been run hitherto by MI5, his account may have been coloured. Nigel West, in his 1985 history, MI5, represents the struggle as one more between Menzies, the SIS chief, and Worlledge of RSS than a conflict between SIS and MI5, although West’s somewhat haphazard chronology of events means it is difficult to follow his narrative. He does, however, make the provocative claim that the change-over ‘was, in effect, “C”s (i.e. Menzies’s) final consolidation of his grasp on signals interception, and was only achieved after a closely-fought struggle with MI5’s ‘old guard’, but this interesting thread is not picked up or developed in his history, MI6, which came out two years later. Since Menzies did not assume his leadership of SIS until November 1939, and did not enjoy a reputation as a deep thinker or strategist, West’s opinion comes over as rather startling. I shall return to it later.

Stewart Menzies

So what does the evidence indicate? Birch suggests that several agencies had had their eyes on the prize of domestic interception, namely MI1b, MI5, SIS, the armed services, the police and the Post Office, before the 1938 decision that the War Office should be in charge, and the establishment of RSS. MI5 had a natural interest, because of the mission it shared with the unit, but, as has been explained, was reluctant to plunge in. Lt.-Col. Simpson must have grown frustrated, because he expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs on September 15, 1939, and, according to Curry ‘suggested that the assistance of Colonel xxxxxxxx [name redacted] (an M.I.6. officer) should be sought’. Now, there were not many established Colonels in SIS at that time. Sinclair, mortally ill, was an Admiral, and Colonel Dansey was absent in Switzerland between September and November 1939. Unless Simpson intended to invoke Dansey, not knowing he was abroad, that left Colonel Menzies, head of Section II (military) and Sinclair’s deputy, Colonel Vivian, head of Section V (counter-espionage). Another officer, however, had been promoted to Colonel earlier that year – Richard Gambier-Parry, head of the Communications unit, Section VIII. There is no doubt, given the length of the name redacted, that it is he whom Simpson approached, and the significance of this connection will be explored later. It is not clear why Simpson decided to voice his frustrations at this time, apart from the fact that war had recently been declared. Was he annoyed at the pace of RSS hiring? Or at the shift to tracking overseas transmissions? Or at MI5’s continued reticence to grab the bull by the horns? The fragment from Curry’s report indicates that his ideas had moved on to consider broader issues of signals security, but his plans at that time encompassed a leading role for MI5 as the hub of a wireless intelligence organisation that it must have been reluctant to assume. Perhaps Gambier-Parry was an old ally, and this was a move to invite SIS to step in. But Simpson might have upset his bosses in MI5 during the process.

Richard Gambier-Parry

RSS was in fact moving along reasonably well: the GPO must have been propelled into action, though perhaps reluctantly. It did not think its mission was to build interception stations that would be focusing on detecting traffic originating from overseas. Three new Direction-Finding stations had been set up, and arrangements had been made in August for linking them with telephone lines. Lord Sandhurst was turning the corps of radio amateurs into a more professional body, though perhaps not as quickly as Simpson would have liked. As Nigel West writes: “The operators had to be skilled, discreet and dedicated, so the recruitment process was necessarily slow. By Christmas 1939, the Home South Region boasted only seven VIs (Voluntary Interceptors) on its roll.” Within three months, RSS had recruited fifty VIs, who were tracking 600 sources – all on the other side of the Channel. West reports that the Home South section had produced 1,932 logs by the end of the year, a figure that grew to 3,052 by March 1940. And, by that time, Gill and Trevor-Roper had cracked the Abwehr hand-cipher, and Bletchley Park had agreed to set up a special-purpose cryptographic unit to handle the traffic. RSS’s reputation was on the rise, but its role probably not broadly understood.

At the same time, fierce arguments over policy and organisation were being discussed by members of the Y Committee, which broadly was responsible for interception, traffic analysis, and low-grade cryptography. There were disagreements about the degree to which the needs of the three Services should be shared, or kept separate, but there was also questioning as to why SIS (whose head, Menzies, chaired the meetings) should control proceedings. It took an appeal to Lord Hankey, the ultimate committee man, for a solution, which involved a stronger Y Committee with a full-time chairman, and supporting clerical staff. Frank Birch suggests some of the confusion when he indicates that the news about the interception and decryption of Abwehr traffic in Europe, and the establishment of GC&CS’s ISOS group appeared to come as some surprise to the committee. ‘Officially, all this was no one’s concern’, he wrote, but in May 1940 the Committee gave formal recognition to the extension of RSS’s responsibility to provide preliminary investigation of these groups of signals. Seven months into the war, the Committee was still in reactive mode, instead of setting policy. The full Committee met for the first time not until January 1, 1941.

In the summer of 1940, after Simpson’s departure, Liddell also found a new candidate to lead B3b (Simpson’s unit), one Maurice Frost of the BBC, whom Swinton encouraged Liddell to hire. After initial good impressions, Frost was signed up, and in June 1940, Liddell reported plans for Frost to set up a new branch (the W Branch), instead of reporting to Liddell in B. The decision was made in July, and ‘Tar’ Robertson (who was handling SNOW) was deputed to work for him. But Liddell had to backtrack, and in August the W unit was folded back into B Branch, much to Frost’s annoyance. (Curry’s report states that Frost was Director of the W Division at this time ‘which comprised B.3’. It is probable that Liddell’s journal is more accurate than Curry’s memory on this matter.  MI5 was also notoriously inconsistent in its naming conventions for Branches and Divisions.) Yet Frost was beginning to get under everybody’s skin by this time. Robertson declared he could not work under him, and even Lord Swinton, who had supported Frost’s recruitment, said in late November 1940 that Frost could not stay in MI5. His ambition and untrustworthiness had become intolerable: moreover, he probably did not possess the appropriate skills for such a job. His interest was more in establishing a service to monitor foreign broadcasts.

Matters appeared to come to a disruptive head in September. According to Hinsley, the War Office concluded that its own interception capabilities (of German Air Force Enigma traffic) were not keeping up with GC&CS’s capacity to absorb it. Thus, on Winston’s Churchill’s bidding, Hankey ordered a transfer of an unspecified number of ‘operators’ from RSS to the Services, ‘overruling RSS’s protests’. This was probably a gross misjudgement: the failure to detect the enemy’s movements in the Nazis’ overrun of Europe in the summer of 1940 was due more to an incapacity to analyse and integrate intelligence properly than a paucity of intercepts. That was the insight that Gill and Trevor-Roper had arrived at.  Moreover, the War Office was responsible for MI8, which was where the unit reported. RSS received intercepts from its team of VIs, the permanent stations managed by the Post Office, as well the Armed Forces, the BBC and the cable companies, so simply shifting operators around was not likely to fix the poorly identified problem. Somehow the discoveries that Gill and Trevor-Roper had made about Abwehr communications with agents as the German war machine moved across Europe in the summer of 1940 should have made it to the General Staff, but there was no mechanism for that to happen.

By now, however, MI8 was feeling the pressure. On October 9 it pushed MI5 to take over the RSS unit en bloc, as it needed to concentrate on military matters, clearly not understanding that the work that RSS was doing was much more closely related to the theatre of war than the stated mission of detecting illicit domestic transmissions. But, of course, MI5 did know. Moreover, Brigadier Allen (MI5’s assistant director) went on record as saying that the service was being asked to take over an organisation that was breaking down. MI5 thus still demurred, because of cost and complexity, and because it understood that the current concentration on Abwehr traffic in Europe (and beyond) made the procedural case for the responsibility’s belonging to the Security Service completely tenuous. MI8 and MI5 were at cross-purposes. No doubt the secret but successful execution of an unchartered mission had to be revealed. The publication of Gill’s report in November 1940 thus brought the achievements of RSS into the open, perhaps preventing any further poaching by the Military, but inevitably driving the unit further away from MI5.

MI5 was also experiencing considerable turmoil at the time: even as Vivian of SIS was reminding MI5 officers (via Jasper Harker) of the correct procedures for communicating with SIS, Liddell was lobbying for Vivian to head MI5, so confusing was the current leadership. Lord Swinton, who headed the Security Executive set up by Churchill, had made life difficult for acting Director-General Jasper Harker, and had inserted William Crocker as an awkward co-head of B Division with Liddell. On December 3, 1940, Churchill’s security adviser, Desmond Morton, had told the Premier that MI5 was ‘close to collapse’, but the previous month the Lord President of the Council, John Anderson, had already brought in David Petrie to review its operation. Petrie had in fact been offered the job of Director-General, but declined to accept until he had performed a proper survey of the operation. He did not complete his report until February 13, 1941, but by January 30 he had already recommended to Swinton that SIS take over RSS. Where is the evidence of the struggle of ‘MI5’s old guard’, identified by West? It seems they put up no fight at all.

David Petrie

Yet the same day that Petrie arrived in MI5 to perform his investigation (January 1), Swinton approached the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General F. H. N. Davidson to discuss the future of RSS. In an exchange that underlined what critical observers might say about the oxymoron of ‘military intelligence’, Davidson was reported to respond that he found RSS and related matters ‘very interesting, very complicated, and a strain on one’s brain’. Maybe this ‘very model of a modern major-general’ was simply overwhelmed, since he had assumed his new post only the previous month. Harrison, having inspected the Davidson papers, observes that Davidson noted in his diary that Swinton was ‘not satisfied that it [RSS] was doing its stuff’. Whether Swinton understood what RSS’s ‘stuff’ was, or consulted Lt.-Colonel Simpson, as a possibly sharper analyst of RSS’s failings, is not recorded. Davidson’s overall contribution is ambiguous: Cavendish-Bentinck, a normally good judge of character, who was the highly successful Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for most of the war, recorded that Davidson was ‘a very mediocre officer, with a permanent desire to make our reports fit in with the views of the CIGS [Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff].’ On the other hand, the official history of the JIC makes it clear that Davidson sensibly pressed, in January 1941, for a more integrated view of intelligence to assist the war effort – although he did not include MI5 or SIS in his choice of contributors to the process.

When Worlledge opposed the transfer on February 14 (’vigorously’, as Davies informs us), he also cast aspersions on SIS’s administrative skills, as well as making tactless criticisms of Gambier-Parry’s technical abilities, a mis-step that would later cost him his job. Why Worlledge was so set against SIS’s taking over RSS is puzzling, since it should have been clear to him that MI5 was even less endowed with managerial and technical talent than SIS. Hinsley writes that ‘the MI8 Colonel in any case fervently believed that the Services should control Sigint in time of war’. Was Worlledge perhaps aware of the Metropolitan Police unit, and its mobile detection exercises over the Comintern spies, and harboured some doubts about SIS’s interception policy and strategy?

Maybe Davidson was a fast learner, and had quickly unravelled the complications of RSS. The next day, he questioned Petrie’s decision, pointing out that ‘MI6 is concerned with the transmitting of signals and not their interception or location’, a claim that, as has been shown above, merely indicated that the Director of Military Intelligence did not know the full story of what was going on in the world of interception. Yet Davidson’s preference appeared to be to keep RSS under MI8 control rather than pass it to MI5, echoing his clearly diminished regard for the civilian services. Swinton coolly demolished Davidson’s objections, drawing on his position as supremo of both Intelligence Services to ensure that matters would work out fine, that the necessary committees would be in place to handle overlaps and conflicts, and that more professional training of RSS personnel would address his colleague’s concerns. Davidson was subdued, but not eliminated as a threat. Nigel West informs us that Davidson would later cross swords with Menzies, as he was not happy about the civilian nature of GC&CS, and wanted to wrest control back to the War Office. He believed the Office had not gained the results from interception which it merited for the investment it had made.

Yet another extraordinary step occurred before the eventual decision was made. According to Curry: “Early in 1941 it was suggested that an independent adviser, Mr. Kirke of the B.B.C., should carry out an investigation into R.S.S. organisation from the technical point of view and make recommendations for its future running by M.I.5.” The passive voice disguises an unlikely initiative: that the opinion of a BBC manager, supposedly independent of Frost and his objectives, might have been considered a fair judge of the best home for RSS, with the outcome of the investigation apparently pre-determined, and when in the past year the unit had moved well away from its mission of tracking voice broadcasting, and Frost himself had fallen out of favour, is simply shocking. Unsurprisingly, ‘this proposal aroused considerable opposition’. Curry nevertheless noted that ‘although it was partially carried out’, it resulted in meetings between the Director-General of the Security Service and representatives of SIS. Unsurprisingly, Petrie’s recommendation held. Liddell reported in his diary entry for March 6 that Gambier-Parry of SIS was taking over RSS, and the formal transfer occurred the next day.

  • The Aftermath: RSS under Gambier-Parry

RSS was indeed transferred to the control of Colonel Gambier-Parry in Section VIII of SIS. Gambier-Parry was a larger-than-life character who had been recruited by Sinclair in 1938 to fix the ailing communications systems of SIS and its satellites overseas. Gambier-Parry was an expert on radio: he had worked for the BBC, and for Philco, an American radio company. He had a reputation for being able to get things done, while showing a disdain for any bureaucrats who placed constraints on his will. From most accounts of those who worked for him, he was a popular figure who brought much energy and understanding to the complex challenges facing SIS. He thus embarked on a crash programme of building transmitter-receivers for the locations on the Continent, establishing broadcasting stations in safe places on the UK mainland, and devising the protocols to allow them to communicate securely.

Section VIII was certainly not in the business of interception – overtly, at least. Yet an enigmatic comment by Keith Jeffery in his history of SIS hints at a perhaps clandestine programme that has otherwise escaped the analysts. When Maurice Hankey performed his investigation into SIS at the beginning of 1940, one of the officers he interviewed was Rear-Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, seeking his views on the effectiveness of the Secret Intelligence Service. Godfrey was less than enthusiastic about GC&CS, though Jeffery then wrote: “But for Godfrey ‘the one really bright spot’ was the ‘” Y’ side”, in particular the intercepted signals and call signs, which the Admiralty found of the greatest possible use. All praise for this state of affairs’, he added, ‘was due to Colonel Gambier-Parry’. Now Admiral Godfrey was no slouch: he was a well-respected intelligence officer (celebrated for being Ian Fleming’s boss and mentor), and had even been a candidate to replace Admiral Sinclair as head of SIS. It is thus highly unlikely that he would have misunderstood someone else’s contribution as that of Gambier-Parry. This insight therefore does appear to confirm what Nigel West alluded to, namely SIS’s deeper involvement with interception than the authorised histories are prepared to admit.

Guy Liddell knew in March that Gambier-Parry would be taking over RSS, and he was initially optimistic about the changeover, although he recorded in his diary his concern that RSS might now concentrate on ISOS messages solely, to the detriment of MI5’s total interests. Swinton informed the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Alexander Cadogan on March 10, and on March 16 a meeting was held between representatives of MI5, RSS and SIS to discuss responsibilities. Liddell’s diary entry shows that Gambier-Parry was already putting his stamp on the organisation: “It was agreed that G.P. should set up two Y. masts and retain a limited number of skilled V.I.s. At present there were some 450, many of whom were useless and could be returned to store. He would have expert personnel with his Y. masts who would know the ether and be in a position to eliminate anything but the suspicious traffic. Any communication thought to be peculiar would be sent to the W. Analysis Committee and would be co-related and distributed by Cowgill’s organisation. G.P.s organisation would only be responsible for sifting in the first instance genuine traffic from the suspicious.” It seems clear that Gambier-Parry believed the interceptors themselves were capable of deciding what should be investigated, and would be authorized to do so.

In a significant move, Felix Cowgill had replaced Valentine Vivian as head of Section V in January. It was Cowgill who had objected so strongly to Worlledge’s initiative over the Morocco revelation, and for some reason he was given the task of developing a charter for the new RSS. Liddell again wrote an ominous comment on the proposal in his entry for April 10: “It seems to lay far too much emphasis on the interception of the Group traffic and to neglect the possibility of illicit transmissions in this country. We are replying in this sense.” Was someone guiding the novice Cowgill on this issue? Liddell reinforced his concerns in a conversation with Gambier-Parry on May 1, when he urged that he did not want transmissions from the UK ignored. Gambier-Parry gave a very revealing response, echoing the Gill doctrine that traffic had to be two-way, and arguing that ‘thus we have good chance of picking up traffic from abroad’. Gambier-Parry thus appeared to be set out in an unnecessarily dogmatic vein, parroting a policy that he had not crafted himself. Why would he not show greater sensitivity to his customer’s needs? Since the source of previously unidentified short-wave signals could not easily be located, why would Gambier-Parry promote a policy of diminishing efforts at direction-finding on the mainland? It was another indication that, despite the experience from the MASK exercise, non-Abwehr traffic was not going to be considered seriously. Meanwhile, the highly security-conscious Cowgill was already tightening up on the distribution of ISOS material.

The official handover occurred in early May. Gambier-Parry moved swiftly, installing a long-time friend, Major E. H. Maltby, as Controller of RSS. Liddell reported that Army Signals was taking over the responsibilities of the sniffer vans. A new interception station was set up at Hanslope Park, and some select VIs were recruited to become part of a more professional Royal Signals cadre there. Gambier-Parry dismissed Gill in an unprofessional manner, but Worlledge, contrary to some reports, was not fired immediately. He was instead effectively demoted, to work under Cowgill of Section V. Worlledge did not last long there: Dick White reported later that he resigned that summer on a matter of policy. He might have found working for Cowgill intolerable, but it is also quite possible, given his outspoken comments the previous December, that he did maintain grave concerns about the way interception policy was being diverted away from the mission that he had been attempting to execute. As for Trevor-Roper, he escaped dismissal – no doubt because he and Gambier-Parry had enjoyed hunting together with the Whaddon hounds before the war. “In the world of neurotic policemen and timid placemen who rule the secret service, he moves like Falstaff, or some figure from Balzac, if not Rabelais”, wrote the Oxford don of his comic-opera friend. Adam Sisman goes on to record that, after his appointment as head of Section VIII, “Gambier-Parry had seized an opportunity to establish his headquarters at Whaddon Hall, which was not far from Bletchley. There he lived like a colonial governor, with a fleet of camouflaged Packards at his disposal.”

Whaddon Hall in wartime

On May 20, Liddell chaired the first meeting of the Joint Wireless Committee, attended also by Malty, White, Cowgill and Frost. This was a series of fortnightly gatherings that would eventually create deep rifts between the two security services. The first resolution at this meeting ran as follows: “It was agreed that it was the function of the committee to coordinate the mutual interests of S.I.S. and the Security Service in the Radio Security Section [sic: according to Trevor-Roper, ‘Section’ was a temporary name soon abandoned]. It should lay down general directions for the operation of R.S.S. and decide priorities of service to be supplied by R.S.S. to S.I.S. and the Security Services.” It was also resolved to invite Mr. Strachey from GC&CS to become a member, and Captain Trevor-Roper was appointed Secretary. On the provocative and controversial matter of detecting domestic illicit transmissions, the minute for Item 4 read as follows: “It was agreed to proceed with a limited policy of ‘snifting’ in cases where intelligence information gave rise to a reasonable belief that an illicit transmitter existed at any known location in the British Isles. All Sections of the Security Service should be informed of the facilities available but demands should be strictly allotted to those important cases where the position of a wireless set by any individual was considered a genuine possibility. Major Frost would consult with Mr Dick White on the importance of the cases submitted, and the priority to be given to them.” The bland implication here is that some examples of illicit transmissions would be ‘unimportant’. But who would be the judge of that unless the incident were properly investigated?

That same week, at the end of May 1941, agent Sonia of Soviet Military Intelligence sent, from her lodgings in Oxfordshire, her first wireless message from British territory to her masters in Moscow.

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

So what evidence is there for Nigel West’s claim about SIS’s long-term ambitions to gain control over interception, and that Gambier-Parry’s Communications Section may have been assisting in its objectives? We have the clandestine operation that uncovered the Comintern spies, sponsored by SIS. Lt.-Colonel Simpson may inadvertently have helped the SIS’s cause when he brought Gambier-Parry into the picture in September 1939. That may have provoked SIS into moving on the Denmark Hill operation: the unit was transferred to GC&CS as the disputes over RSS’s future heated up in the winter of 1939-1940. We have the evidence of Admiral Godfrey, who appreciated Gambier-Parry’s valuable contribution to interception and traffic analysis in early 1940. Worlledge is outspoken on his concerns over Gambier-Parry’s and SIS’s suitability for tackling the interception problem thoroughly, and resigns on a point of policy. And SIS’s charter for RSS is oddly delegated to Major Cowgill, who is a relative newcomer to the business, has had no involvement in telecommunications, and does not work for Gambier-Parry. Moreover, Cowgill has recently taken over from Colonel Vivian, who was always bitter enemies with a man who is now his rival as second-in-command at SIS, Colonel Dansey. Dansey will be familiar to readers of Sonia’s Radio, and the most perspicacious of you will recall, from Part 9, that I pointed out an exchange of opinions between Dansey and Gambier-Parry in 1943, which showed conclusively that Dansey maintained a very active interest in clandestine wireless communications. As the saga enters the phase where SIS is in control of RSS, Liddell is soon seen to harbour grave concerns about the purity of SIS’s intentions, and Gambier-Parry gives the impression of voicing a dangerous policy crafted by someone else.  But why would SIS set out so obstructively, not accepting MI5’s requirements, or attending to their legitimate concerns?

Claude Dansey

An observer might ask at this stage: why did the JIC not take a firmer interest in all these negotiations? The committee was in fact still finding its feet after a revitalisation arising from Churchill’s accession to the premiership. MI5 and SIS were not even admitted to the committee until mid-1940, and were normally represented by Brigadiers Allen and Menzies, respectively, who might not have known exactly what was going on, or may not have been certain how much they should disclose. After all, Cavendish-Bentinck, even as Chairman of the JIC, did not know about ULTRA at this time. Yet Hinsley records that the first attempt during the war to involve the JIC in the discussion of Sigint policy and organisation foundered on Menzies’s opposition. This is an extraordinary assertion, given that Menzies, as a newcomer, presumably could not have had much clout, and he would not have been able to display his ULTRA card. As I have shown, the Y Committee, which determined interception priorities, was likewise undergoing a high degree of turmoil at the time. The whole dispersal of policy and practice for interception and intelligence gathering seems a glorious muddle, and then one remembers that glorious muddling-through is the modus operandi of liberal democracies, and the reason they thrive. Halfway through this chapter of RSS’s wartime translocation, the Conservative administration of Chamberlain had been replaced by Churchill’s coalition, with new ministers, new ideas, new appointments. There was in fact a great deal of trust and creative, open discussion between the departments, unlike the fiercely competitive agencies in Hitler’s Germany, or those cowed into indecision under Stalin, with both intelligence groups mainly telling their respective dictators what they wanted to hear.

And, finally, what about the ‘Greek tragedy’ alluded to by John Curry? We recall that this judgment appeared in the official internal history completed by Curry in 1946. Yet in his draft chapter on Illicit Interception dated October 22, 1945, Curry (who was a rather cautious and neurotic individual, as Liddell’s Diaries inform us) came to a very different conclusion. “It is nevertheless true to say that the benefits derived as a result of R.S.S. being under the control, first of the War Office, and secondly of M.I.6. were considerable and the results achieved and the benefits to intelligence work were immense. However, one is left with the feeling that had M.I.5 accepted responsibility for the organisation in 1938 a great deal of the trouble which ultimately arose between R.S.S. and M.I.5. and the ultimate change of command in 1941, would never have arisen and indeed the organisation detecting illicit wireless transmissions would have been just as good, if not better, than the one that ultimately emerged.”

That is a weak and fudgy statement that sounds as if Curry was trying to please too many audiences. Why those multiple ‘ultimates’? Is Curry referring to friction between RSS and MI5 before the ‘ultimate change of command’, or that which occurred afterwards? Was his subjective and unanalytical ‘feeling’ shared by other officers? Why did Curry alone believe that MI5 would have found the right talent and skills to sort out RSS’s house, when its own organisation was in such a mess, and short of managerial talent, and Simpson had resigned? If the SIS control turned out to be a disaster, why did he not say so?

I suspect that the ‘Greek tragedy’ conclusion may have been inserted by Petrie himself. Harrison implies (tacitly) that it might have been the Director-General who doctored Curry’s official history, since he disagreed with Curry’s conclusions, and wanted a firmer statement made on Cowgill’s obstinacies. Harrison, by the way, clearly identifies the ‘Greek tragedy’ as the withholding of ISOS material in April 1942 by Cowgill. Yet that was an Act III episode that was overcome before the finale. I have pointed out before how the circumstances of Petrie’s retirement are finessed by Andrew: I suspect Petrie had discovered some of the nasty smells that derived from a flawed interception policy when he retired in 1946. It is possible that he then realised that a deal between SIS and MI5 had already been in the works when his opinion was sought, one that effectively hamstrung him in his effort to protect the nation from the malign efforts of Soviet spies. Ensuring that his opinion of the whole affair was recorded for posterity was his swan-song.

(I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Austin, for his very helpful comments during the evolution of this article, and to Stan Ames and Bob King for their research contributions and insights. The conclusions made in it, and any errors therein, are mine alone.)

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Homo Sovieticus

Aeroflot Advertisement, New York Times, 2017

A few months ago, I noticed an advertisement that Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, had placed in the New York Times. The appearance reminded me of an approach I had made to the airline over forty-five years ago, in England, when, obviously with not enough serious things to do at the time, and maybe overtaken by some temporary lovelorn Weltschmerz, I had written a letter to its Publicity Manager, suggesting a slogan that it might profitably use to help promote its brand.

Miraculously, this letter recently came to light as I was sorting out some old files. I keep telling my wife, Sylvia, that she need not worry about the clutter that I have accumulated and taken with me over the years – from England to Connecticut, to New Jersey and to Pennsylvania, and then back to Connecticut before our retirement transplantation to North Carolina in 2001. The University of Eastern Montana has generously committed to purchasing the whole Percy archive, so that it will eventually be boxed up and sent to the Ethel Hays Memorial Library in Billings for careful and patient inspection by students of mid-twentieth century social life in suburban Surrey, England.

I reproduce the letter here:

Letter to Aeroflot, March 1972

It reads:

“Dear Sir,

I notice that you have started advertising on London buses. I have for some time thought that a good slogan for Aeroflot would be: ‘Happiness is just an Ilyushin’, which is a pretty awful pun, but a fairly Russian sentiment. E.G.

. . .В себя ли заглянешь, там прошлого нет и следа;

И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно . . .  (Lermontov)

Yours faithfully, R. A. Percy”

[Dimitri Obolensky, in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, translates this fragment of an untitled poem as follows: “If you look within yourself, there is not a trace of the past there; the joys and the torments – everything there is worthless  . . .”]

I am not sure why Aeroflot was advertising on London Transport vehicles at the time, since the Man on the Clapham Omnibus was probably not considering then a holiday in Sochi or Stalingrad, and anyone who did not have to use the airline would surely choose the western equivalent. Nevertheless, I thought my sally quite witty at the time, though I did not receive the favour of a reply. Did homo sovieticus, with his known frail sense of humour, not deem my proposal worthy of merit? After all, humour was a dangerous commodity in Soviet times: repeating a joke about Stalin might get you denounced by a work colleague or neighbour and sent to the Gulag, while Stalin himself derived his variety of laughs from ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak late at night, and forcing his drinking-pals on the Politburo to watch him.

I think it unlikely that the state-controlled entity would have hired a Briton as its publicity manager, but of course it may not have had a publicity manager at all. Maybe my letter did not reach the right person, or maybe it did, but he or she could not be bothered to reply to some eccentric Briton. Or maybe the letter was taken seriously, but then the manager thought about Jimmy Ruffin’s massive 1966 hit What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQywZYoGB1g) , and considered that its vibrant phrase ‘Happiness is just an illusion/filled with darkness and confusion’ might not communicate the appropriate atmosphere as Aeroflot’s passengers prepared to board the 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Minsk. We shall never know.

The Stalin-Class S. S. Baltika

My first real encounter with homo sovieticus had occurred when I was a member of a school party to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. As we went through customs after disembarking from the good ship Baltika, I recall the officer asking me, in all seriousness, whether I was bringing in ‘veppons’ with me. After verifying what he had asked, I was able to deny such an attempt at contrabandage. I had conceived of no plans to abet an armed uprising in the Land of the Proletariat, as I thought it might deleteriously affect my prospects of taking up the place offered me at Christ Church, Oxford, the following October. Moreover, it seemed a rather pointless question to pose, as I am sure the commissars would have inspected all baggage anyway, but perhaps they would have doubled my sentence if they had caught me lying to them, as well as smuggling in arms. Yet it showed the absurd protocol-oriented thinking of the security organs: ‘Be sure to ask members of English school groups whether they are smuggling in weapons to assist a Troyskyist insurrection against the glorious motherland’.

At least it was not as naïve as the question that the US customs officer asked me, when I visited that country for the first time about eleven years later: ‘Do you have any intentions to overthrow the government of the United States?’. Did he really expect a straight answer? When H. G. Wells asked his mistress, Moura Budberg, whether she was a spy, she told him very precisely that, whether she was a spy or not, the answer would have to be ‘No’. That’s what spies do: lies and subterfuge. If I really did have plans for subversion in the United States, the first thing I would have done when I eventually immigrated here would be to plant a large Stars and Stripes on my front lawn, and wear one of those little pins that US politicians choose to place in their lapels, in the manner that Guy Burgess always sported his Old Etonian tie, to prove their patriotism. So the answer in Washington, as in Leningrad, was ‘No’. That was, incidentally, what Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote to his parents in July 1940 that Americans were ‘open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances’. These same people who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, and Alger Hiss for perjury, would have to work to convict Tony Percy for the lesser charge of deceiving a customs official.

H.G. Wells, Maxim Gorky & Moura Budberg

I did not manage to speak to many homines sovietici during my time in the Soviet Union, but I did have one or two furtive meetings with a young man who was obviously dead scared of the KGB, but even keener to acquire nylon shirts and ballpoint pens from me, which I handed over at a night-time assignation in some park in Leningrad. That was clearly very foolish on my part, but it gave me an early indication that, despite the several decades of Leninist, Stalinist, Khruschevian and Brezhnevian indoctrination and oppression, the Communist Experiment had not succeeded in eliminating the free human spirit completely. Moreover, despite the ‘command economy’, the Soviets could not provide its citizens with even basic goods. When the Soviet troops invaded eastern Europe in 1944, among other violations, they cleared the shelves, grabbed watches, and marvelled at flush toilets that worked. As Clive James wrote in his essay on Coco Chanel: “It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.”

Piata-Victoriei Square, Bucharest

My only other direct experience with life behind the Iron Curtain was in Bucharest, in 1980. In an assignment on which I now look back on with some shame, I was chartered with flying to Romania to install a software package that turned out to be for the benefit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, probably for the Securitate. I changed planes in Zürich, and took a TAROM flight (not in an Ilyushin, I think, but in a BAC-111) to reach Ceausescu’s version of a workers’ paradise. The flight crew was surly, for they had surely glimpsed the delights of Zürich once more, but knew that they were trapped in Romania, and had probably been spied upon as they walked round one of the most glittering of the foreign cities. And yet: I had been briefed beforehand to bring in some good whisky and a stack of ‘male magazines’ to please my contacts among the party loyalists. This time, I was able to bypass customs as a VIP: my host escorted me past the lines directly to the car waiting for us, where I was driven to my hotel, and handed over my copies of The Cricketer and Church Times for the enjoyment of the Romanian nomenklatura. I spent the Sunday walking around the city. The population was mostly cowed and nervous: there was a crude attempt to entrap me in the main square. During my project, I was able to watch at close hand the dynamics of the work environment in the Ministry, where the leader (obviously a carefully selected Party apparatchik) was quick to quash any independence of thought, or attempts at humour, in the cadre that he managed. A true homo sovieticus daciensis.

The fantasy that occupied Lenin’s mind was that a new breed of mankind could be created, based on solid proletariat lineage, and communist instruction. The New Man would be obedient, loyal, malleable, unimaginative, unselfish, unthinking. Universal literacy meant universal indoctrination. The assumption was accompanied by the belief that, while such characteristics could be inculcated in captive youth, inherited traits of the ‘bourgeoisie’ would have to be eradicated. The easiest way of achieving that was to kill them off, if they did not escape first. There were almost as many executions in the Red Terror of 1918 as there had been death sentences in Russian courts between 1815 and 1917, as Stephen Kotkin reminds us in Volume 1 of his epic new biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin also recounts the following: “Still, Lenin personally also forced through the deportation in fall 1922 of theologians, linguists, historians, mathematicians, and other intellectuals on two chartered German ships, dubbed the Philosophers’ Steamers. GPU notes on them recorded ‘knows a foreign language,’ ‘uses irony’.” Irony was not an attribute that homo sovieticus could easily deploy. What was going on had nevertheless been clear to some right from the start. In its issue of June 2, 2018, the Spectator magazine reprinted an item from ‘News of the Week’ a century ago, where Lenin and Trotsky were called out as charlatans and despots, and the revolution a cruel sham.

The trouble was that, once all the persons with education or talent had been eliminated or exiled, there were left only hooligans, psychopaths, or clodpolls to run the country. Kotkin again: “A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’” This hatred of any intellectual pretensions – and thus presumptions about independent thinking – would lead straight to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with their execution of persons wearing eyeglasses, as they latter could obviously read, and thus might harbour ideas subversive to agrarian levelling.

Oleg Gordievsky

Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, crystallized the issue in his memoir Next Stop Execution. “Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” [The author acknowledged the ungrammatical plural form he used.] Thus Gordievsky classified both the common citizenry intimidated into submission and the apparatchiks themselves as homines sovietici. He also pointed out that what he found refreshing in English people generally was their capability for spontaneity, their discretion, their politeness, all qualities that had been practically eliminated in Russia under Communism. He may have been moving in sequestered circles, but the message is clear.

I sometimes reflect on what the life of a Soviet citizen, living perhaps from around 1922 to 1985, must have been like, if he or she survived that long. Growing up among famine and terror, informing against family members, with relatives perhaps disappearing into the Gulag because of the whisperings of a jealous neighbor, or the repeating of a dubious joke against Stalin, witnessing the show-trials and their ghastly verdicts, surviving the Nazi invasion and the horrors of serving in the Soviet armed forces, and then dealing with the long post-war deprivation and propaganda, dying before the curtain was pulled back, and the whole horrible mess was shown to be rotten. Yet some citizens had been taken in: they believed that all the suffering was worthwhile in the cause of Communism. In Secondhand Time, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich offers searing portraits of such persons, as well as of those few who kept their independence of thought alive. Some beaten down by the oppression, some claiming that those who challenged Stalin were guilty, some merely accepting that it was a society based upon murder, some who willingly made all the sacrifices called for. Perhaps it was a close-run thing: the Communist Experiment, which cast its shadow over all of Eastern Europe after the battle against Fascism was won, almost succeeded in snuffing out the light.

(Incidentally, in connection with this, I recommend Omer Bartov’s searing Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, published this year. Its title is unfortunate, as it is not about genocide. It tells of the citizens of a town in Galicia in the twentieth century, eventually caught between the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It shows how individuals of any background, whether they were Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Jews, when provoked by pernicious demagogues or poisonous dogmas, could all behave cruelly to betray or murder people – neighbours – who had formerly been harmless to them. All it took was being taken in by the rants of perceived victimhood and revenge, or believing that they might thus be able to save their own skins for a little longer by denouncing or eliminating someone else.)

I was prompted to write this piece, and dredge out some old memories, by my reading of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War a few months ago. In many ways, this is an extraordinary book, broad in its compass, and reflecting some deep and insightful research. But I think it is also a very immoral work. It starts off by suggesting, in hoary Leninist terminology, that the battle was between ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ – a false contrast, as it was essentially between totalitarianism and liberal, pluralist democracy. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.) Westad goes on to suggest that the Cold War’s intensity could have been averted if the West had cooperated with the Soviet Union more – a position that ranks of sheer appeasement, and neglects the lessons of ‘cooperation’ that dramatically failed in World War II. (see  http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/)  But what really inflamed me was the following sentence: “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” On reading that, I felt like hurling the volume from a high window upon the place beneath, being stopped solely by the fact that it was a library book, and that it might also have fallen on one of the peasants tending to the estate, or even damaged the azaleas.

Some people opposed the . . .  rule’? Is that what the Gulag and the Great Terror and the Ukrainian Famine were about, and the samizdat literature of the refuseniks, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many many more? Did these people protest noisily in the streets, and then go home to their private dwellings, resume their work, perhaps writing letters to the editors of progressive magazines about the ‘wicked Tories’ (sorry, I mean ‘Communists’)? How on earth could a respectable academic be so tone-deaf to the sufferings and struggles of the twentieth century? Only if he himself had been indoctrinated and propagandized by the left-wing cant that declares that Stalin was misunderstood, that he had to eliminate real enemies of his revolution, that the problem with Communism was not its goals but its execution, that capitalism is essentially bad, and must be dismantled in the name of Equality, and all that has been gradually built with liberal democracy should be abandoned. Roland Philipps, who recently published a biography of Donald Maclean (‘A Spy Named Orphan’), and who boasts both the diplomat Roger Makins (the last mandarin to see Maclean before he absconded to Moscow) and Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips (who served as an ambulance-driver with the Republicans in Spain) as his grandfathers, asked Wogan, shortly before he died in 1993, where he stood on the durability of Communism. “He said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again, and next time be successful.” Ah, me. Wogan Phillips, like Donald Maclean, was a classic homo sovieticus to the end.

Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips

As we consider the popularity of such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it is as if all the horrors of socialism have been forgotten. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a full-page report on the disaster of Venezuela without mentioning the word ‘socialism’ once: it was apparently Chávez’s and Maduro’s ‘populism’ that put them in power. A generation is growing up in China that will not remember Tiananmen Square, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will not be found in the history books. Maybe there is an analogy to the fashion that, as a schoolboy, I was given a rosy view of the British Empire, and was not told of the 1943 famine in India, or the post-war atrocities in Kenya. But I soon concluded that imperialism was an expensive, immoral and pointless anachronism, and had no interlocking relationship with liberal democracy, or even capitalism, despite what the Marxists said. This endemic blindness to history is ten times worse.

So why did my generation of teachers not point out the horrors of communism? Was it because they had participated in WWII, and still saw the Soviet Union as a gallant ally against Hitler?  Were they really taken in by the marxisant nonsense that emerged from the Left Bank and the London School of Economics? Or were they simply trying to ratchet down the hostility of the Cold War, out of sympathy for the long-suffering Soviet citizenry? I cannot recall a single mentor of mine who called out the giant prison-camp for what it really was. Not the historians, not the Russian teachers. The latter may have been a bit too enamoured with the culture to make the necessary distinction. Even Ronald Hingley, one of my dons at Oxford, who was banned from ever revisiting the Soviet Union after his criticisms of it, did not encourage debate. I had to sort it out myself, and from reading works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, under the snooker-table in my library rests a complete set of the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century, issued in 96 weekly parts in the 1960s. (Yes, you Billings librarians: soon they too shall be yours.) In part 37, that glittering historian, TV showman, hypocrite and Soviet stooge A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” For a whole generation, perhaps, the rot started here. That’s what we mostly heard in the 1960s. But Lenin was vicious, and terror was his avowed method of domination.

President Putin is now trying to restore Stalin’s reputation, as a generation that witnessed the horrors of his dictatorship is now disappearing. So is Putin then a homo sovieticus? Well, I’d say ‘No’. Maybe he was once, but he is more a secret policeman who enjoys power. The appellation should be used more to describe those cowed and indoctrinated by the regime rather than those who command it. Putin’s restoration of Stalin is more a call to national pride than a desire to re-implement the totalitarian state. Communism is over in Russia: mostly they accept that the Great Experiment failed, and they don’t want to try it again. More like state capitalism on Chinese lines, with similar tight media and information control, but with less entrepreneurialism. As several observers have noted, Putin is more of a fascist now than a communist, and fascism is not an international movement. Maybe there was a chance for the West to reach out (‘cooperate’!) after the fall of communism, but the extension of NATO to the Baltic States was what probably pushed Putin over the edge. The Crimea and Ukraine have different histories from those in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and I would doubt whether Putin has designs on re-invading what Kotkin calls Russia’s ‘limitrophe’ again. He is happier selectively cosying up to individual nations of Europe, especially to those countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and now maybe Italy and Austria, and even Turkey) whose current leaders express sympathy for his type of nationalism, while trying to undermine the structure of the European Union itself, and the NATO alliance.

So whom to fear now – outside Islamoterrorism? Maybe homo europaensis? I suspect that the affection that many Remainers have for the European Union is the fact that it is a softer version of the Socialist State, taking care of us all, trying to achieve ‘stability’ by paying lip-service to global capitalism while trying to rein it in at the same time, and handing out other people’s money to good causes. And it is that same unresponsive and self-regarding bureaucracy that antagonizes the Brexiteers, infuriated at losing democratic control to a body that really does not allow any contrariness in its hallways. (Where is the Opposition Party in Brussels?) I did not vote in the Referendum, but, if I had known then of all the legal complexities, I might have voted ‘Remain’, and fought for reform from inside. But my instincts were for ‘Leave’. If the European Project means tighter integration, political and economic, then the UK would do best to get out as soon as possible, a conclusion other countries may come to. The more oppressive and inflexible the European Union’s demands are (to discourage any other defectors), the more vigorously should the UK push against its increasing stranglehold. That does not mean goodbye to Goethe and Verdi, or those comforting ’cultural exchanges’, but it does require a bold stance on trade agreements, and limitations on migration of labour. We should beware of all high-faluting political projects that are experimental, and which remove the responsibility of politicians to their local constituents, as real human beings will be used (and maybe destroyed) in the process. A journalist in the New York Times wrote a few weeks ago that he was ‘passionate’ about the European Union. That is a dangerous sign: never become passionate over mega-political institutions. No Communist Experiment. No New Deal. No Great Society. No European Project. (And, of course, no Third Reich or Cultural Revolution.) Better simply to embrace the glorious muddle that is liberal democracy, and continue to try to make it work. Clive James again: “It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.”  (I wish I had been aware of that quotation earlier: I would have used it as one of the headliners to Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.)

I close with a riposte to A. J. P. Taylor, extracted from one of the great books of the twentieth century, The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of the best pieces from Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple columns in the Daily Telegraph, from 1955 to 1980. These pieces are magnificent, daft, absurd, hilarious, and even prescient, where Life can be seen to imitate Art, as Wharton dismantles all the clichéd cant of the times, and anticipates many of the self-appointed spokespersons of loony causes and champions of exaggerated entitlement and victimisation who followed in the decades to come. Occasionally he is simply serious, in an old-fashioned way, as (for example) where he takes down the unflinching leftist Professor G. D. H. Cole, who in 1956 was trying to rally the comrades by reminding them that ‘while much has been done badly in the Soviet Union, the Soviet worker enjoys in most matters an immensely enlarged freedom’, adding that ‘to throw away Socialism because it can be “perverted” to serve totalitarian ends is to throw out the baby with the dirty bath-water’. Writes Wharton:

“This is familiar and most manifest nonsense. What has gone ‘amiss’ in Socialist countries is no mere chance disfigurement, like a false moustache scrawled by a madman on a masterpiece. It is Socialism itself, taken to its logical conclusion.

The death of freedom, the enslavement of the masses, the withering of art and culture, the restless, ruthless hunt for scapegoats, the aggressive folie de grandeur of Socialist dictators – these are no mere ‘perversions’ of Socialism. They are Socialism unperverted, an integral and predictable part of any truly Socialist system.

We are not faced here with so much dirty bath-water surrounding a perfectly healthy, wholesome Socialist baby. The dirty bathwater is Socialism, and the baby was drowned in it at birth.”

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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 1)

[A review of Misdefending the Realm appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of May 25. The text can be seen here.]

A G.P.O. detector-van, circa 1925. Note the well-camouflaged postilion on the roof of the vehicle.

The successful invasion of France by the Allied Forces in May 1944 was achieved largely because of the successful project to mislead the Germans about the planned landing site – the Pas de Calais rather than the actual beachhead in Normandy. Operation OVERLORD was a winner because of Plan BODYGUARD and the latter’s Directive for FORTITUDE. Yet the ability of the Abwehr – and hence the Wehrmacht – to be deceived so comprehensively by the group of double agents recruited by MI5, and run by Britain’s Double Cross (XX) Committee, opens up the management of these agents to some searching inspection. The relentless question, posed by many historians of this period, can be expressed essentially as follows: Why did the XX Committee allow such intensive wireless transmissions (especially from agent GARBO) to take place, knowing that any respectable interception agency would have located them and arrested the operators?

The Strategic Dilemma

In last month’s blog, I started analyzing the statement by Sir Michael Howard, the author of Volume 5 of British Intelligence in the Second World War (‘Strategic Deception’) concerning the challenges the Abwehr faced in exploiting its agents in Britain. Howard wrote: “The most satisfactory channel was radio transmission, but for this three problems had to be solved. First, the agents had to be provided with transmitting and receiving sets, and after June 1940 this was easier said than done. Secondly their missions had to evade detection by the security authorities; and finally they had to communicate in a secure cypher.” What were Howard’s sources in divining this strategy?

Howard was strangely subdued as to how the Abwehr went about its mission, or how the German intelligence service overcame these supposed challenges. He records a few sporadic observations, and refers to Professor Sir Harry Hinsley’s and C. A. G. Simkin’s Volume 4 (‘Security and Counter-Intelligence’), which also writes about the XX Committee, but says little about Abwehr strategies. As I have pointed out before, it seems that the authors of this volume did not want to engage the technical challenges too energetically.  The discussion of such is relegated to a very amateurish and inadequate Appendix 3 (‘Technical Problems Affecting Radio Communications by the Double-Cross Agents’), written by an anonymous ‘former MI 5 officer from his personal experience’, which only skims the surface of the intricate subterfuges and negotiations that were undertaken to allow the agents to communicate with their supposed controllers in occupied Europe.

In fact the wireless strategy of the Abwehr was haphazard, tentative, and frequently incompetent. At the end of 1940, when the main wave of agents arrived on UK shores, mainly by parachute, most of the spies were equipped only with transmitters, not receivers, as they were planned to be used only as temporary informants before the imminent invasion. Howard’s description of the Abwehr’s objectives thus misrepresent its intentions. The chances of a heavy wireless set, strapped to the parachutist, surviving the fall from a low height, were not considered healthy. When one of the surviving sets (belonging to Wulf Schmidt, agent TATE) was at last made operable, the Abwehr gave advice for charging it up from motor-cycle batteries that, if followed, would have burned the valves. When Lily Sergueiev (agent TREASURE) was, after an inordinate amount of bureaucratic muddle, finally given her visa by the Abwehr to leave France for Madrid, as late as October 1943, her advised method of communication was still invisible ink, even though she had been trained in wireless operation. The acquisition of agent GARBO’s (Juan Pujol’s) wireless set had to be arranged by MI5: TREASURE likewise had to convince her Abwehr boss that she could go to Lisbon to pick up a set, under cover of being employed by the Ministry of Information. Agent BRUTUS (Roman Czerniawski) appealed to his controller to send him a more powerful transmitter, but the Germans prevaricated. It was as if the Abwehr only very late in the war considered seriously the use of wireless as a means of communicating intelligence.

The British, on the other hand, as they started to realise that the double-agents could be used more for strategic deception than simply gathering information about the enemy’s intentions, concluded that critical information needed to be forwarded in a timely fashion. Letters with invisible ink or microdots, sent to intermediaries, simply took too long, and the XX Committee thus inveigled the Abwehr into more intensive use of radio. Yet this was a very delicate path to follow, for the double agents would have to deploy their wireless sets as if the whole exercise had been initiated by the Abwehr itself, complemented by the ingenuity of the spies themselves. Thereafter, once radio communication had been set up, the XX Committee, and the officers of B.1.a of MI5 who controlled the agents and liaised with the Radio Security Service (RSS), had the outwardly conflicting goals of a) ensuring crisp and reliable communication between the agents and their handlers, and b) pretending that their powers of radio-detection and location-finding (generally known as ‘D/F’, for ‘direction-finding’, even though the term does not explicitly include ‘locating’) were so poor that their own agencies were incapable of intercepting the transmissions and hunting down the culprits.

One can thus present the dilemmas faced by the architects of strategic deception as follows:

  • The authorities had to ensure that no unauthorised enemy transmissions were made from UK soil. Hence good detection and direction-finding were paramount.
  • They had to be confident that the Abwehr trusted the communications of their agents and that they were kept in place providing ‘useful’ information. Hence D/F had to be shown to be inadequate, or extraordinarily imaginative transmission techniques, masking location, or using wavelengths close to dominant broadcasters, had to be used.
  • At the same time, MI5 had to discourage illicit broadcasts by embassies and governments-in-exile, since information might be passed on that would undermine the ‘bodyguard of lies’ being woven by the official deception agency. In order to do this, an effective interception and D/F operation had to be managed.
  • Thus all illicit broadcasts, by such agencies, or by rogue private operators, had to be shut down. If news of this got out, the Abwehr would no doubt hear of it, which would lead them to conclude that the operation was an effective instrument of surveillance. How, therefore, could the Abwehr be convinced that the British D/F operation made sense?
  • The British experts needed to keep informed about the capabilities of the Nazi D/F operation. This process would mature soon, when SOE, the Special Operations Executive, started up its insertion of wireless agents into France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and later in the war when the shared Soviet-British espionage network in the neutral territory of Switzerland was pinned down by Gestapo technology and silenced in 1943. Would the Germans not assume that its enemy’s capabilities were as advanced as its own? Thus the XX Committee, abetted by the RSS, focused on such practices as reducing radiation emissions as far as possible without weakening the signal so much that it could not be picked up across the Channel.
  • Meanwhile, doubts lingered over the efficacy of the domestic interception operation. RSS was known to be very capable at locating, fairly broadly, transmitting stations in occupied Europe. It also gave great assistance to the MI5 in testing the strength of agents’ signals when the location of the transmitter was known. But how good – or committed – was it at detecting all other sources (such as the Communist transmitters that MI5 was nervously following)? If known operators could bypass RSS detection, what unknown agents were doing the same? This knowledge of undetected transmissions (some acknowledgeable, others not) increased suspicion of the efficacy of RSS processes.

This chapter starts to explore the evolution of this tangled operation. The official histories provide little guidance: there is no comprehensive account of the RSS organisation outside some mainly affectionate memoirs. Frank Birch’s multi-volume history of British Sigint is opaque, and often self-contradictory: it is overloaded with obscure organizational subtleties, and fails to make crisp conclusions. Some facts can be gleaned by a close inspection of the agents’ folders at the National Archives: occasionally a fascinating handwritten note of ‘Copy to Wireless Folder’ can be seen on documents, but no such Folder has been released. Several documents listed in the Indices of the agents’ folders have been plainly destroyed (some entries having a line through them with the descriptor ‘DEST’!). Yet enough tidbits of information can be gathered from the National Archives, including the unedited (but redacted) original of Guy Liddell’s very revealing Diaries, to indicate that the challenge of masking the D/F operation was taken very seriously by some intelligence officers. Strangely, however, many reckless decisions were made, too, that could have jeopardized the whole campaign.

Four Phases

I have divided the period in question into four segments. The divisions are in some respects arbitrary, but they do delineate some clear shifts in trends, and in the conduct of the war (up to the Normandy landings).

Phase 1: Learning the Ropes (September 1939 to the end of 1940):

This phase is characterised by a fear of invasion, and of supposed ‘Fifth Columnists’ assisting it. It is a period of organisational dysfunction, with no clear command over the personnel and technology required to intercept illicit transmissions, or the detection of strategic wireless communications from overseas. British Intelligence quickly learns, from its experiences with the suspected triple agent SNOW, and the rather undisciplined attempts by the Germans to land spies in the UK, the lessons deriving from analysis of radio traffic, and the role of detection-finding. The W Board and the XX Committee are set up as a structure to explore ways of handling double agents, but by then MI5 is losing control of an important asset with insights into the problem of interception.

Phase 2: Conflicts and Tensions (January 1941 to June 1942):

Organisational change brings improved management and leadership to MI5, but the placement of RSS under SIS (with which MI5 was initially happy) leaves the Security Service with a sense of lost control. SIS’s tightness over security means MI5 does not receive the decrypts it regards as essential to the task of running its double agents, and RSS’s mission shifts more to overseas work. Both MI5 and SIS try to deal with their prima donnas. Even the Controlling Officer of Deception faces political attacks. RSS is outwardly cooperative in direction-finding, but MI5 questions its ability and commitment to the Security Service’s aims. The situation regarding the Soviet Union is clarified by its entry to the war as an ally, but is then complicated by the wireless activity of Soviet spies.

Phase 3: From Defence to Offence (June 1942 to May 1943):

Progress is made: Masterman persuades the head of SIS to release decrypts to the XX Committee, and he confidently declares that the operation controls all German spies. The new Controlling Officer of Deception (Bevan) brings energy and imagination to the overall deception plans for OVERLORD: the strategy for double agents evolves to using them to mislead the enemy about the proposed landings in Europe. Knowledge of Abwehr communications has increased. With the arrival of GARBO, the XX Committee develops plans to expand the usage of wireless telegraphy among the agents it is controlling, as the method of communication will be faster, and more reliable.

Phase 4: High Stakes (May 1943 to June 1944):

As the pressures on the security of the Double-Cross operation increase, doubts surface. MI5 expresses anxiety about RSS’s abdicating monitoring of Army transmissions, a loophole the Abwehr seems to be aware of. Gambier-Parry, head of Section VII in SIS, is not fully trusted. Concerns intensify about the volume of traffic being sent, but that remain undetected by British surveillance. Concerns are expressed about rumours of suspicions within the Abwehr about the reliability of their spies in England. Interception of Abwehr messages, however, appears to confirm that the messages of the double agents are overall being trusted. Transmissions by third parties (embassies, Soviet spies and visitors) alarm MI5, which reflects on its technical lack of expertise. While periods of radio silence have to be imposed, the double agents (especially GARBO) continue to send long-winded messages, remaining on the air for hours. Yet the deception is successful.

This chapter covers Phase 1. The other Phases will be examined in future postings.

RSS & The Fifth Column Threat

For the first nine months of the war, MI5 was focussed almost entirely on the risk that a Fifth Column, taking its instructions from German radio broadcasts, might aid the Nazi invasion when it came. The Germans had set up several radio stations broadcasting in English, of which the New British Broadcasting Station was the most prominent. Apart from the obvious propaganda in its messages, MI5 believed that the signals included coded instructions that subversive refugees – and ardent British Union of Fascists – would decipher. The Security Service even believed that some privately-owned transmitters were sending information back to their masters, even though the use of unregistered transmitters was illegal. Prime Minister Chamberlain chartered his Minister Without Portfolio, Maurice Hankey, with investigating such leaks, and in November 1939 a new unit, MI8(c), was set up to take over responsibility for wireless interception from MI1(g). Guy Liddell, head of Counter-Espionage in MI5, did not think anyone was taking the matter of disguised radio codes seriously enough: no one – neither MI8, nor GC&CS, nor SIS, nor MI5 itself – was adequately equipped or motivated to assume the work.

The problem endured into Churchill’s administration, which took over the reins in May 1940. Ironically, Churchill was the most vehement about the Fifth Column threat, installing a new layer of management over the intelligence services, and firing the veteran head of MI5, Vernon Kell. An apparently valuable expert in telecommunications and cyphers, Lt.-Colonel Simpson, had recently been lost from the service. As a possible replacement, an officer from the BBC, Malcolm Frost, who started to work with Liddell, reinforced the claim that the NBBS was sending coded messages to subversives, and Frost probably saw an opportunity to enter the limelight by taking on the challenge of deciphering them. Yet, by the spring of 1940, the RSS (the Radio Security Service) had concluded that the lack of domestic wireless transmissions suggested that the threat from a Fifth Column was minimal. It came to these conclusions in an imaginative fashion, but the logic behind that judgment was to come to harm relationships between SIS (to whom RSS eventually reported), and MI5, responsible for domestic security.

The exact origin and identity of RSS are murky, some accounts suggesting that it was subsumed into MI8(c), and in fact became the bulk of that section, which officially reported to the War Office – a clash between militarism and amateurism that would lead to later tensions. (Please see SoniasRadioPart2 for a fuller account of the origins of this unit.) Some official archives suggest that RSS had been set up in 1938, and was a team composed largely of Voluntary Interceptors – amateur radio hams – who watched the ether for unusual signals, and a team of mobile direction-finding units nominally reporting to the General Post Office. That latter part is clearly true, but Frank Birch’s Official History of British Signals Intelligence indicates that, when the financial approval for an organisation called IWI (Interception of Illicit Wireless Communications) was granted in March 1939, that unit was soon named MI1(g), later reassigned MI8(c), and that the definitive organisation permanently known as RSS developed under MI8(c)’s control.  (Some archival documents tantalisingly refer to an entity titled the ‘Radio Section’, as if it had been a department of M11g, and then lent its name to the larger organisation.) Internal MI5 documents, such as Dick White’s Notes for Counter-Espionage Training in 1943 (KV 4-170), strongly assert that RSS was set up only at the outbreak of war. In any case, the section known as RSS had moved to Wormwood Scrubs, in the same building as MI5, in September 1939, and thus enjoyed close collaboration with MI5’s officers while keeping its separate identity. The official history informs us that the completion of the transfer from MI1(g) did not take place until November.

The critical conclusion that RSS made was based on the interception of transmissions from the German intermediary ship, the Theseus. The relevant sentences from Hinsley’s history are worth quoting in full: “The organisation responsible for the interception of illicit wireless transmission, the future RSS, continued to be controlled by the War Office – by MI 1(g) till November 1939 and by MI8 (c) after that date – with the GPO acting as its agent for the provision of men and material and the maintenance and operation of the intercept stations. By the outbreak of war its headquarters staff had been located close to GC and CS, which was to be responsible for cryptanalytic work on the intercepts, and it had finally established the beginnings of a network with the decision in March 1939 to establish three fixed and four mobile stations and the recruitment, from June 1939, of an auxiliary observer corps of amateur radio enthusiasts. But it had listened in vain for transmissions from the United Kingdom – in vain because it was still the case that no transmissions were being made apart from those on Snow’s set which was operating under MI5’s control. Since Snow’s signals had not been heard before MI5 took control of him, the failure to intercept others was understandably attributed to the inefficiency of the watch or to technical problems, notably the difficulty of picking up low-powered high frequency signals except at very close or very long range. By December 1939, however, it had been recognised that the difficulty did not apply to transmissions made from Germany to agents: they had to be able to receive their control stations’ signals, and if they could hear them, so could the RSS.”

What Hinsley does not explicitly state is that the task of deciphering these messages was undertaken by a Major E. W. B. (Walter) Gill of RSS, in conjunction with his aide, Hugh Trevor-Roper. Gill, who had served as a wireless intelligence officer in World War I, had been recruited by Colonel Worlledge only that same month, December 1939. Exactly why Gill had joined at this critical moment is unclear from the familiar accounts: John Bryden, in Fighting to Lose, describes Gill as primarily ‘a Canadian army signals officer’, and explains that a unit in Ottawa had picked up ‘the clandestine wireless traffic from Canada’, whereupon Gill had arrived at the War Office ‘looking for advice on how to handle it’. Bryden clearly states that the clandestine traffic was the Germany enemy-agent transmissions, and that Gill’s mission was to ensure that RSS abandoned its beacon-searches for the newer phenomenon. If Gill needed advice, why did the War Office not turn to Simpson, first, rather than planting Gill at MI8c with a directive role? Why could it not give those instructions to Worlledge directly? Who was making these critical decisions?

E. W. B. Gill

Bryden’s explanation does not really make sense. Indeed, it does not appear that Gill was shipped over from Canada. According to a biographical article by Dr. Brian Austin, Gill was aged 56, and employed as Bursar of Merton College when he volunteered for duty on the outbreak of war. Indeed, Gill had plenty of relevant experience for his role as head of the ‘discrimination section’ at RSS. In WW I, he had been instrumental in interpreting the wireless messages of the Zeppelins, and had also set up wireless intercept stations in Egypt. After demobilization, in July 1919, Gill was put in charge of the wireless intercept station at Devizes, where, as Austin notes, the attention of the listening devices including listening to allies as well. With an OBE awarded, Gill then returned to civilian life in the Electrical Laboratory at Oxford, and in 1934 published a short memoir of his life in the military titled War, Wireless and Wangles. Dr. Austin, who has performed intensive research into Gill’s life, reports that he was identified in a scheme of Lord Hankey’s as a potentially useful asset in signals intelligence (sigint), and assigned to RSS to work on discrimination, an aspect of traffic analysis that isolates signals of interest.  Given Hankey’s charter at that time, as described earlier, that makes excellent sense.

Trevor-Roper, who described Gill as ‘a genial philistine with very little respect for red tape, hierarchy, convention or tradition’, confirms for us that Gill was Bursar of Merton College when he invited Trevor-Roper to join him at the RSS, an observation that does not sit tidily with that of a sudden visit from Canada, and an order from the War Office. MI5 records that GC & CS turned down RSS’s requests for assuming the task of inspecting the messages, as it was too busy, and thus Gill and Trevor-Roper set about decrypting them themselves. By late January, 1940, Gill and Trevor-Roper had solved the cipher, and thus informed GC & CS of their achievement. That provoked Denniston’s ire. (Gill had performed a similar act in World War I, but the War Office had reacted positively to his breaking of the rules.) Perhaps as a punishment, Gill was then ordered – on loan –  to Oxford to set up a radar-training school, but, on returning to duty, was demoted and sent to the Siberia of Catterick. He must surely have upset someone with influence, and Hankey could not save him.

Yet, if RSS dabbled dangerously into GC & Cs’s domain of cryptography, it perhaps departed too rapidly from its own mission of interception and counter-espionage. It overlooked a very pertinent fact. Gill’s report, written in November 1940, states, on the basis that ‘it takes two to make a wireless communication’, that ‘if the agent can hear his replies, so can we, and the watch on the German agent stations is thus of first importance to see if they are working to any station we may not have heard’. The serious flaw in RSS’s logic, which I do not believe anyone has picked up, is that SNOW had been supplied with a transmitter only. Since any undetected agents would likewise probably have no receiver capability, there would not have been any messages sent out to them by their ‘control stations’, and thus absence of evidence of acknowledgment or guidance from Abwehr controllers was no solid indication that there were no other agents in possession of transmitters. Gill’s conclusions about the likelihood of undetected wireless agents in Britain may have been sound, but it was based on the assumption that these agents had receivers. If this was an acknowledged flaw in Gill’s reasoning, he could have been reprimanded, and the decision overturned. But it was not: his recommendations were adopted, and echoed by the official histories.

Thus Gill, with his disdain for the proper procedure, was ultimately responsible for a major strategic decision while gaining enemies on all fronts. At exactly the same time that Lt-Colonel Simpson was bolstering RSS and pressing for tight domestic surveillance, Gill turned its attention elsewhere. He incurred the annoyance of Denniston in GC & CS for stepping on its turf, and, with his boss, Worlledge, later touting his achievements in a case involving espionage in Morocco, he also trod on the sensitive toes of Major Cowgill in SIS. While the known technical difficulty of picking up medium-range signals could still have inhibited the detection of active agents infiltrated by the Germans, Gill persuaded his superiors that interception efforts should be focussed overseas. This new policy was articulated in the following account of the decision (at MI5’s 1943 training session of intelligence officers): “As far as stray agents in the U.K. were concerned it was held that rather than try to get on to their ground waves, they would watch the controls in Europe and would get the reflection of the existence of an enemy agent in the U.K.” Yet Dick White’s report includes a very misleading and surprising statement, relating to Gill’s discoveries of early 1940: “He [Gill] therefore obtained from M.I.5 (Captain T. A. Robertson) full information concerning double-cross W/T agents run by M.I.5, and directed the machinery of R.S.S. to a systematic study of first the control, then the other out-stations, of the enemy W/T system thus penetrated.” White is unambiguously referring to the time when the detected traffic was sent to GC& CS, and rejected, early in 1940. There was, however, no network of double-cross agents being run at that time. SNOW was the only candidate. What was White’s intention here in misrepresenting the facts, so soon after the event? Might have he wanted to inflate the breadth and depth of RSS’s capabilities, and to underline the correctness of its new mission?

Nevertheless, out of convenience, and because of the difficulties in picking up short-wave radio signals from close proximity, a policy was adopted of abandonment of any attempt to detect illicit wireless at source, replaced by a reliance purely on reflected signals.  Liddell hints at a tortured fear several times in his Diaries without every describing the explicit reasons for his sense of horror – namely, that he knew agents might have transmitters only, and that not all dangerous illicit transmissions were actually issuing from enemy (i.e. German) agents. Moreover, this concern echoed further, and was even represented by one of the historians (Curry) as a disaster of almost existential proportions.

Gill’s demise is astonishing. Here was an officer with an outstanding WWI record in wireless interception, awarded an OBE, bearing an impressive résumé of original scientific analysis in the inter-war years, sponsored by an influential minister, Lord Hankey, and recognised for some important analysis of German radio traffic. He was then dumped unceremoniously, not even being informed of his sacking, demoted from Major to Captain, and despatched to the Royal Signals Training Centre at Catterick. The obituaries written about him all point out his puckish humour, and his impatience with any cant or humbuggery. He must surely have spoken up in inappropriate terms about Denniston, or made other unpublished criticisms, to incur such treatment, but Denniston himself was under the gun, disliked by the Armed Forces staff, and shortly to be demoted himself. It is a mystery that suggests there was more going on than has been recorded. Was Gill really such an unpopular performer in the eyes of the Top Brass?

Such tensions between cryptography and interception had been highlighted by ongoing disagreements between GC & CS and the intelligence units of the Armed Forces, who were all investing more money and personnel into sigint, but who were resenting the amount of control that GC & CS wielded over the committees that made decisions about interception. The Y Committee, which was responsible for wireless interception policy, had held a meeting on December 28, 1939 (chaired by Denniston), that did not succeed in reconciling the disparate views expressed, representable mainly as the conflict between Service independence and inter-Service centralised control. In familiar tradition, the Minister Without Portfolio, Lord Hankey was asked to arbitrate. Hankey was a committee man, and his recommendation of strengthening the Y Committee, under a new chairman from the Admiralty, and joint secretaries nominated by the War Office and the Air Ministry, was adopted on March 1, 1940. In May, this new committee officially recognised RSS’s vital role in exploring these overseas groups before handing them over for attention by the Service analysis stations.

Double Agents

Meanwhile, MI5 had been exposed to its first experiences with double agents. (The primary reference for the double-cross operation is John Masterman’s The Double-Cross System, but, while giving a first-class breakdown of the mechanisms and principles of the operation, it is as much a work of public relations as it is formal history. Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross is engagingly written, and an excellent guide, but contains many mistakes.) This period was dominated by the case of agent SNOW, a Welshman named Arthur Owens. Owens, who was a businessman specializing in batteries, had been an occasional agent for SIS, but was discovered by MI5 to have been in contact with the Abwehr on business visits to Germany. He had been given a wireless transmitter by his Abwehr controllers, and started signalling in early September 1939. He was by then, however, under MI5 supervision, and his messages were initially sent from Wandsworth Prison. (A lively account of Owens’s career as a double, and possible triple-agent, can be found in James Hayward’s Double Agent Snow.) What is important for the story of detection and deception is what MI5 learned early in the cycle, before the mass of would-be spies arrived in the autumn of 1940, with the result that the Security Service was prepared when the tide arrived.  It was at this stage that many of the formative ideas about deception, and what was required to make it successful, were forged.

Agent SNOW (Arthur Owens)

SNOW’s exchanges with the Abwehr also provoked some highly important breakthroughs. This particular aspect of how the SNOW experience assisted cryptology generally has been told concisely and comprehensively several times (for example in Nigel West’s MI5), so I shall simply summarise it here, and add some commentary. The knowledge of the codes that SNOW used in his communications facilitated for Gill and Trevor-Roper, and then Oliver Strachey and Dillwyn Knox in GC&CS, the task of deciphering Abwehr messages. Some of these were based on use of the Enigma machine, but communications with agents in the field, and outlying bases that would not have been secure enough to be entrusted with Enigma machines, used hand cyphers (such as pinwheels with codes).

Early in 1940, RSS’s team of Voluntary Interceptors had been able to ‘pinpoint’ [a term that Nigel West provocatively uses] a vessel, the Theseus, lying in the North Sea as the originator of the transmissions received by SNOW, and the source of messages to other agents in Western Europe. It is, however, extremely unlikely that location finding was accurate enough at that time to give precise co-ordinates of any transmitter without local sniffers being required. It is not clear from the accounts whether a broad area was identified, and the precise location of the German vessel established by aircraft inspection, or whether a purely electronic identification of the location of the Theseus had been made. ‘Pinpointing’ is a regrettable term. Indeed, Frank Birch offers the following laconic observation about the state-of-the-art at this stage of the war: “The optimism of enthusiasts as to the pinpoint [sic] accuracy of D/F fixes was shattered early in 1940 by the Norwegian campaign.” Nevertheless, through this successful detection exercise, RSS was able to supply GC&CS with a constant stream of traffic to the cryptanalysts in Bletchley Park.

Yet the questioning of SNOW in early 1939, when he had informed his contacts in MI5 of the immediate plans of the Abwehr to deliver to him a wireless-set, are also very revealing, in that they show both the mixed ambitions of the Abwehr as well as the ignorance of MI5 about wireless matters. The set itself was delivered to a left-luggage locker at Victoria Station, and MI5 arranged for the equipment to be removed and inspected by SIS before allowing SNOW to explain its workings, and hand over its codes and callsigns that he was supposed to use. The device was small, and portable, and was claimed to have a range of 12,000 miles, using an ordinary 350-volt battery, and also to be activatable by plugging into a normal lamp-socket. Yet it was a transmitter only: SNOW was to inform his masters when transmissions would start by means of the regular mail service, and, in time, acquire a short-wave set that would allow reception. This is quite an extraordinary revelation, showing how unambitious the Abwehr was in its wireless plans at this time. A transmission without any mechanism for immediate confirmation was a highly quixotic venture, and the Abwehr’s relying on its agent to construct a receiver (a more complicated piece of apparatus than a transmitter) and manipulate it properly betrays an overall lack of seriousness that again belies Howard’s confident assertions about Abwehr strategy.

An earlier interrogation of SNOW had been carried out, in September 1938, by Edward Hinchley-Cooke, an enigmatic figure in the whole saga. Hinchley-Cooke is a puzzle, primarily because the authorized historian of MI5, Christopher Andrew, gives him no coverage at all after the early 1920s. He features regularly, up until 1943, as an interrogator of Germans in Liddell’s Diaries, but Nigel West (who also edited the published version of the Diaries) never places him in any of his organisation charts in his own history. Hinchley-Cooke had a German mother, and spoke German very fluently, which is probably the reason that he was brought into so many of the interrogations and prosecutions of Nazi agents. John Curry, in his history of MI5, suggests that Hinchley-Cooke was ‘attached to’ B Division in 1939, while working for the War Office, because of his interrogatory skills, but then clearly states that he was on the Director-General’s Staff after Petrie’s reorganization of summer 1941. John Bryden indicates that Hinchley-Cooke was the sole MI5 officer working on German counter-espionage up to the outbreak of the war. Moreover, Hinchley-Cooke’s questioning of SNOW was not very subtle. He failed to follow up on SNOW’s evasive answers, and it is clear that Hinchley-Cooke had no understanding of the principles of radio communication and codes. He was accompanied by an Inspector and Superintendent from Special Branch, but their names are redacted, and they contributed little to the proceedings. This lack of technical expertise would come to dog MI5 in a big way.

The Strange Career of Lt.-Colonel Simpson

Yet MI5 did possess competency – for a while. Even more astonishing than the oversight with Hinchley-Cooke is the failure of the authorised historian to include any reference to a key figure behind the events of 1939, one Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson. Perhaps Andrew’s omission (quite probably a matter of strong guidance to the authorised historian by MI5’s mandarins) is due to the fact that Simpson appears to have been appallingly mishandled. We owe it to Curry’s ‘official’ history, published for internal use in 1946, to describe for us how Simpson was appointed to advise MI5 on all matters relating to wireless after the Security Service had declined to take on the responsibility for establishing the Radio Security Service in late 1938. Simpson was well qualified, having been head of MI1(b), the code- and cipher-breaking agency in WWI, and an executive with the Marconi company between the wars. Nigel West’s Dictionary of  Signals Intelligence informs us that in 1915 ‘Simpson established a General Headquarters cipher bureau at Le Touquet to analyse material collected from intercepted enemy landline communications’, and that ‘within a year, MI1(b) had built direction-finding stations at Leiston in Suffolk and Devizes in Wiltshire, with a control facility on the roof of the War Office in London’. MI1(b) was a core group that was amalgamated into the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) in 1919. So Simpson was eminently qualified to define the next generation of interception facilities. And it should be noted that Walter Gill had been the head of the Devizes station, possibly appointed by Simpson: one might expect him and Simpson to have been collaborators, even friends.

Simpson’s efforts appear, however, to have been wasted. Curry would go on to write: “One of the conspicuous illustrations of these tendencies has been the refusal in December 1938 to grapple with the problem of wireless and the consequent establishment of R.S.S. under M.I.8 with results recalling the principles of Greek tragedy.” This extraordinary uncensored commentary on ‘Greek tragedy’ must hint at disasters undocumented. If the war was won, and the Double Cross operation judged to be an utter success, where did the calamities lie? Which character would suffer in Act V? Would it be Liddell’s failure to be appointed Director-General of MI5 in 1953? Where were the bodies buried? Why did MI5 allow this judgment from Curry to appear?

Curry states that B.3 (which Simpson headed, a section under chief of counter-espionage Guy Liddell) was not set up until the beginning of the war, but Simpson was clearly active in some influential capacity throughout 1939. He wrote (at least) three important papers, none of which appear to have survived. In an October 1938 report that surely provoked the December decision, he had crisply laid out the investments, equipment, and organisation that an effective Security Service would require to defend the realm against illicit wireless, pointing out that technology had advanced considerably in the past few years. This scenario would include three fixed Direction-Finding stations, and a corps of several dozen Voluntary Interceptors to track the airwaves. Hinsley and Simkins reinforce the importance of Simpson’s recommendations, writing that his report ‘reached the disturbing conclusion that interception arrangements were so inadequate that had recent developments led to the outbreak of hostilities a skilled agent could have established a reliable wireless service and maintained it for a considerable period with almost complete immunity; he added that such a service might well be already in existence.’

Simpson took over responsibility for B.3, a section that was set up to liaise with the RSS, and to deal with suspected illicit transmissions, in person being involved with any search and prosecution decisions. He was clearly closely involved with the SNOW case during 1939, but was moved to write another report, dated February 2, 1940, which harshly criticized ‘the state of affairs concerning the detection of illicit wireless’, although he laid most of the blame at the General Post Office for its failure to provide the appropriate skilled staff in operating the sniffer-vans that would hunt down transmitters to individual residences. His career with MI5 effectively ended at that point, as he was reportedly moved over to General Wavell’s army in the Middle East: whether he was pushed out, or resigned in frustration, is not clear. The source of this story may be Stephen Dorrill, who writes in his 2000 history of MI6 (SIS) that Simpson was appointed by Wavell to prepare to counter possible Soviet intervention in Transcaucasia. Since Dorrill then states, however, that Simpson, ‘a former managing director of Marconi’ [correct], ‘had been ADC to the Grand Duke Nicholas in the Russian Army’s Caucasus “Savage Division”’, Dorrill may have got the wrong Simpson. That experience does not sound as if it comes from the ‘Memoirs of a Wireless Interception Man’. In any case, Curry’s observation that MI5 ‘lost his services’ at that time suggests that he resigned. An intriguing correspondence that Mark Rowe, author of Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940, discovered in Bristol record offices, indicates that, in April 1940, Simpson was still recruiting Voluntary Interceptors to the RSS organisation. Maybe he did not move to the Middle East, but worked for a while championing what he saw as RSS’s true role, and applying pressure to his successor, Malcom Frost (see below).

Curry’s suggestion that Simpson stated that the fault lay with the staff operating the sniffer-vans may have been a political comment that veiled the truth. If sniffer-vans were going to be effective in following up triangulations of illicit transmissions, they would have to work in real-time in close communication with the Y Service that tracked signals. Sending them out the next day to try to detect noise would be a fruitless task unless the service expected the offenders to transmit at the same time that day. Moreover, the sight of such vans would immediately have deterred further transmissions, as we learned from the activities of the communist Green network (see SoniasRadioPart9). The Gestapo would soon perfect such an operation, with radio contact between vans and central control (which I shall describe in a later chapter), but one can easily imagine a more casual approach in island Britain at this time. Simpson’s criticisms, and imminent departure, hint at such more serious problems. Perhaps he had identified the inevitable conflict between efficient location-finding and controlled double agents using wireless, and his name has thus to be excised from the record, like one of Stalin’s commissars disappearing from a photograph?

What is even more astonishing is Guy Liddell’s almost complete exclusion of any reference to Simpson in his Diaries. The complete (but redacted) version of the diaries at the National Archives contains just one reference to Simpson by name (when he is called to investigate Verey lights at Harwich Harbour), and one veiled reference to his positional identity (B.3) when, on March 20, 1940, shortly before he resigned, Simpson attended a meeting with Liddell, Worlledge of M.I.I.8, and G.C.& C.S. officers and ‘cypher experts’, to discuss decrypted messages from Germany. Yet the organisation of B3 is very puzzling. If Simpson headed it (as Curry clearly states), T. A. (‘Tar’) Robertson must have been his subordinate, yet Robertson signs off his reports as ‘B3’ in the autumn of 1939, while a couple of anonymous memoranda, signed off as ‘B3.a’ while Robertson was away, may have been written by Simpson. Robertson worked closely with Simpson on the SNOW case: Robertson refers to Simpson’s attending a meeting at Robertson’s house without clarifying the management relationship.

Yet there may have been problems with authority and rank. Simpson was a Lt.-Colonel with a proper military background, while Robertson was only a Captain at this time (soon promoted to Major after Simpson left). In the rank-obsessed climate of wartime Britain, that would have been a problem if Simpson had truly been subordinate to Robertson. Curry muddies the waters even more, since elsewhere he writes that a subsection B.3.B was responsible for liaison with RSS. That is how the structure appears in his diagram of the organisation after the Petrie decisions in July 1941: I have found no specific reference to B.3.B in the time that Simpson was around. Maybe with some purposeful vagueness, without giving a precise date, Curry writes: “It [B.3.B] derived from the section under Captain later Lt.-Colonel Robertson and Lt. Colonel Simpson which, before and soon after the beginning of the war, was concerned with the arrangements for developing the R.S.S. organisation and for maintaining liaison with it . . .” If anything, it points to an awkward compromise joint leadership, akin to the role that Liddell was sharing with Lord Swinton’s pal Crocker at the time. William Crocker, a solicitor, was another disastrous imposition forced upon MI5, this time by Sir Joseph Ball, who was responsible for handling the Fifth Column ‘menace’ on Swinton’s Security Executive.

Liddell frequently talked to Robertson about the SNOW affair, but ignored – or bypassed  –  the expert brought in to design the RSS architecture, and makes no mention of his career, or the reasons for his leaving, even though what occupied Simpson’s time (the laxity over tracking down illicit wireless) was a subject that worried Liddell just as much. Robertson himself is recorded as speaking to Liddell in a fashion that passed on Simpson’s opinions (such as the criticism of the sniffer vans), and it appears that Robertson was content working under/with Simpson (unlike his relationship with Simpson’s eventual successor, Malcolm Frost). Thus Liddell’s studied rejection of Simpson’s significance is even more surprising. Did he perhaps resent an officer being foisted upon him? Did Simpson argue and activate too strongly for taking on RSS within the B3 section? It all points to a mysterious clash of personalities, or a disagreement over policy, not just a later embarrassment that might have required his name to be redacted. One must also wonder whether Gill and Simpson had crossed swords at some time. Gill, as I pointed out earlier, had been head of the interception station at Devizes, which was one of the monitoring posts established by Simpson. The highly oppositional strategies of a) RSS being consumed by foreign broadcasts, and being passed to SIS (Gill), and b) MI5 securing its control over illicit transmissions in Britain by taking over RSS (Simpson), would have clashed mightily. Is it possible that Gill was inserted into RSS to ensure that the unit did not fall into the hands of MI5? Moreover, the neglect by the authorised historian, Christopher Andrew, to write anything about B3 section must count as either a colossal oversight or an act of censorship – especially since Andrew recognised Simpson’s intellectual contribution in his earlier (1999) Introduction to the publication of Curry’s History.

SNOW’s Radio Activity

To return to SNOW. The coverage of SNOW’s radio activity after MI5 took control is infuriatingly elusive in the books that write about him, from Nigel West’s rather choppy MI5 (1981), through Volume 4 of The Official History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, by Hinsley and Simkins (1990) and Christopher Andrew’s authorized history of MI5 Defend the Realm (2009), to James Hayward’s breezy Double Agent Snow (2013) and John Bryden’s Fighting to Lose (2014). The archives on SNOW are typically disorganised, with much repetition, as well as many undated and anonymous reports, and it is consequently very difficult to identify exactly what wireless equipment is being referred to in the various documents.

The narrative on his wireless activity appears to run as follows: As outlined earlier, the Abwehr originally, in January 1939, provided SNOW with a transmitter only, suggesting that he himself construct a receiver. SNOW had been apprenticed as an electrical engineer, and was an expert on batteries, but constructing a reliable transmitter was no simple task. In the interim, it would mean that confirmation of receipt, transmission times, etc. would have to be conducted by letter, through SNOW’s purported business contacts in Germany – an extraordinary convoluted process, but one which was acceptable during peace-time. The Abwehr apparently had plans to send SNOW to the Americas at one stage: hence the extraordinary wide radius the transmitter enjoyed. The set was flexible and portable. It could be tuned to different wavelengths, unlike later models used, which required individual crystals. But it was unreliable, burning up under SIS/MI1(g) tests, and the boffins had to restore a resistance unit so that it would do the same again when SNOW tried to use it. In fact, SNOW was still having problems with it in July 1939, when he wrote to his contact Auerbach saying that he had at last rectified the faulty resistance. And transmitting successfully over 12,000 miles, had SNOW been able to smuggle his set overseas, would have required a very large antenna.

SNOW’s career was then disrupted by family matters: a jealous wife reported him to the authorities, telling them that he had disposed of his wireless set. MI5 tracked SNOW down to Surbiton, whither he had moved with his mistress on August 29, and, with his guidance, Robertson and his colleagues discovered a receiver in the bathroom cupboard, and his original transmitter buried in the garden. (Hayward notes that the receiver was a ‘crude’ device, and that SNOW had ‘apparently’ constructed it himself: maybe the experts from the Royal Signals had actually delivered it for him.) When war broke out, SNOW was arrested, and MI5 started broadcasting on his behalf, officially using him as a double agent. After the initial broadcast from Wandsworth Prison, the officers feared that the Germans might be able to triangulate the origin of the signals, and then ask themselves how a clandestine transmitter could be allowed to operate from such an institution. In fact they were being unduly cautious: locations could be identified only to the level of a large conurbation, and (certainly at this stage of the war) it would have taken a platoon of sniffer-vans, supported perhaps by portable equipment, to narrow the search to a particular building.  Moreover, German goniometric techniques were inhibited by geography: it took at least three receiving stations to plot an accurate fix, and their dominant Eastern orientation meant it was more difficult for them to triangulate transmissions from the UK. The British authorities would nevertheless have been mindful of the successful, but highly complex, process that allowed them to home in on the illicit Soviet MASK transmitter in Wimbledon a few years before.

Hereafter the story becomes contradictory. SNOW did make contact with his Abwehr controllers on September 19, but, given the problems he was experiencing with his apparatus, Hamburg promised to send him a new transmitter. MI5 reported how unreliable the current transmitter was. On February 29, Liddell noted that SNOW’s set had blown up, and a telegram had had to be concocted to send to the Abwehr to indicate that he had not been raided. His apparatus required a 98 foot antenna, which did not work reliably if misaligned. (The device had a knob – a ‘tuner’ – to control frequencies, but required corresponding changes to the antenna length if a frequency was switched. Using a knob would have been less reliable as a way of selecting a frequency than the insertion of a fixed frequency crystal.) Signals were not strong: Hamburg said they were weaker than those coming from Ireland. MI1(c) had been monitoring SNOW’s transmission: they said that jamming by a powerful station was causing interference. A note of February 29, 1940 indicates that the intrusion of dampness caused the equipment to burn up, with advice to use an outside antenna to avoid the use of the relay circuit.

A typical British suitcase wireless transmitter/receiver of early WWII

Yet, in another Case History, undated, but probably written in April 1940, as it refers to events that month as in the recent past, and describes how ‘every two or three months’ SNOW travels to Antwerp to meet Dr. Rantzau (whose real name was Ritter) – a record which must have preceded the Nazi invasion of the Low Countries. Here the writer tells us that SNOW ‘broadcasts every evening’. At some stage, SNOW’s set must have been improved after the stumblings earlier in the year: the archive notes that seamen couriers (quaintly described as ‘lascars’) did bring over new parts in April 1940, but the arrangement of having a separate receiver and transmitter was clumsy, and maybe the range of the machine made it more liable to direction-finding. Back in March 1939, MI5’s B.3 (i.e. Lt.-Colonel Simpson) had sought the opinion of Colonel Yule of MI1(g) as to how long he thought it should take for ‘our internal intercept and D/F organisation’ to locate SNOW’s transmitter, clearly concerned about what the Germans were thinking. Yule had organized some rather casual efforts to track SNOW’s frequency, and even mentioned detector vans, but the initiative appeared to fizzle.

Despite his studied ignoring of Simpson, Guy Liddell himself showed remarkable foresightedness in understanding the sensitivity of this issue, and the value of downplaying the radio-detection capabilities of the British security organs. In a diary entry for October 28, 1939, he wrote: “Brigadier Martin of MI.1 has suggested that a representative of the News Chronicle who thinks he had detected an illicit wireless station, should be shown the apparatus we use and taken round in a van in order to get a cross-bearing. He would then write up the story in the Press. D.S.S. telephoned Martin to say that we had strong objections to any publicity being given to this matter. It was in our interests that the Germans should regard us as grossly inefficient in these matters, particularly as ‘Snow’ is sending them weather reports. If they thought our organisation was that good they might well ask how it was that he managed to get his messages through.” This episode shows how quickly Liddell summed up the value of subterfuge against the obvious appeal of propaganda, at a time when the British press was very keen on providing the public with ammunition against the Fifth Column threat.

Nikolaus Ritter, Chief of Abwehr Air Intelligence

Direction-Finding

The British were not the only group to be thinking about wireless detection. When SNOW visited Rantzau in Antwerp in early April, 1940, prepared by MI5 to probe the enemy’s thoughts on detection-finding, Rantzau told him that he should not be concerned about being detected, as ‘as it was a very difficult thing to track down short wave wireless sets’. This information – that shortwave sets were immune to detection and direction-finding – was one he had originally given to SNOW as early as January 1939, a revelation that SNOW had passed on to a sceptical Robertson. Now, in April, 1940, Rantzau even mentioned the Abwehr’s strenuous efforts to track down such sets closer to hand. The details are redacted, but these were probably sets managed by the Soviet Red Orchestra. Rantzau told SNOW that a transmitter had been detected in the Wilhelmshaven area, but it had been impossible to run it down. In the light of later experience with this communist network, and with SOE wireless operators inserted into Nazi-controlled territory, primarily in France, this rather sanguine opinion would need to be changed.

“This is nonsense”, declares Bryden, perhaps too brusquely, implying that Rantzau was being devious, and in his book he gives an oversimplified account of how triangulation worked. In the early part of 1940, techniques were surely not that advanced. I quote Bryden’s summary in full: “Obviously, in order to survive in enemy territory, it is helpful for a spy to change frequencies and call signs as often as practical., but the most important necessity is to send from different locations. DR. RANTZAU was not asked the most critical question: Was it safe for JOHNNY – the name Ritter preferred to use for Owens – to always be sending from the same place? The Germans were soon to provide the answer when Britain’s sabotage agency, Special Operations Executive, began landing its agents into occupied Europe. Their wireless transmissions were DF’d and they were caught by the score. The only MI5 officer with the technical clout to challenge DR. RANTZAU’s advice – Colonel Simpson – had left. In his absence, Robertson chose to believe his German opponent.”

What is extraordinary is that, the very same month (April 1940), SNOW’s transmissions had been picked up by the French ‘illicit wireless service’, as Liddell reported. The French were, of course, conveniently at a distance where clear signals could be picked up. Fortunately, the French had sent a report to GC&CS, whence Commander Denniston forwarded it to Gill in RSS, who contacted MI5. “We are telling them to lay off”, wrote Liddell. Robertson sent a letter to Major Cowgill of SIS, telling them that MI5 knew all about the station. But, if a French service had been able to pick up SNOW’s signals, and to determine that it was probably an illicit set operating from the United Kingdom, why did MI5 not imagine that the Germans would conclude that the British should have been able to do the same, making allowances for the dispersion of their interception stations? (This is a vital point that Bryden makes, although he does not discuss the subject of ‘dead’ zones.) And was it not a careless mistake to brush off the interest of the French so casually? It could have been a leaky organisation, and the rumour that the British were manipulating a German agent could have spread.

Despite the provocative but fortuitous French experience, the problems in performing accurate direction-finding of short-wave radio signals were officially well recognized at the time. Frank Birch, in his Official History of British Sigint, 1914-1945, wrote: “Intertwined with the problem of interception was that of D/F, greatly complicated since 1918 by the development of shortwave transmissions and the general awareness among signals personnel of the need to defeat, as far as possible, D/F operation”, rather cryptically hinting at defensive methods that British signals would need to employ against German capabilities. Surprisingly, Birch did not explain why short-wave transmissions were less easy to detect: it was because their signals were bounced off the ionosphere, which gave them a greater range, but made their isolation more difficult. M.R.D. Foot, in his book on SOE, informs us that this phenomenon is called ‘skip’:  the signals bounce between the ionosphere and earth, and create ‘zones of silence and zones of good reception that may alternate all around the globe – and may vary according to time of day, season of the year, or prevalence of sunspots.’ (As will be shown below, Simpson offered a similar explanation of this phenomenon.) These signals were also subject to interference from local electronic activity, but, if that were too intense, it would have affected reception on behalf of the intended audience as well. Birch also pointed out that, while the Germans were able to specify their frequencies to the level of one kilocycle, the British were precise only to five, and ‘and in practice measurements were often up to a hundred kilocycles out’. Birch went on to write: “Now, its frequency was an attribute of a signal on which both traffic analysts and cryptanalysts partly based their work, and by February 1940 the nuisance of inaccuracy had become generally recognised as acute. But the remedy was still far to seek.”

Earlier in this piece, I quoted the MI5 report about giving up on trying to ‘get on to their ground waves’. The way that short-wave transmissions worked, ground waves would be emitted from the antenna, as a source of radiation, and could be picked up until the curvature of the earth (or unusual geological formations) attenuated them completely. In order to reach a remote target, the antenna would also emit skywaves, which would use the ionosphere to ‘bounce’ those signals beyond the horizon. But there would be a dead zone between the area where the ground wave penetrated and the larger expanse where the signals could be picked up – both by the desired station, as well as by interception stations with roughly the same distance and sphere of receptivity. (see diagram) These areas are technically called ‘lobes’, and their dimensions are dependent upon whether the antenna is placed horizontally or vertically. And that is why the detection and location of illicit radio were problematical. Interception stations within the skip zone would receive nothing if they were also beyond the ground wave range. And it would require at least two stations in the right place to attempt a fix, while the distortions of the skip zone could confuse the analysts.

Ground waves, sky waves and the ‘Skip Zone’

Birch was even more outspoken elsewhere, and it is worthwhile quoting in full an important paragraph: “On its own, D/F has been described [here he cites a Naval source] as ‘by far the most important source of communications intelligence, if the cryptographers are out of form.’ This is no doubt true, but truer still is another authoritative statement that ‘independently of Special Intelligence, D/F was useful, but in a much narrower field’. Optimistic illusions as to its accuracy were shattered early in the war. ‘It was the exception rather that the rule for a fix to be obtained that could be classified as being within ‘forty-mile radius’, and there were many occasions on which even such fixes turned out to be very wrong indeed’. In spite of the multiplication of stations carefully sited so that as many as 30 or more bearings could be taken of a simple transmission, in spite of improved equipment by technical staffs and the working out of a mathematical method of calculating the position of a unit, based on the ‘weight’ or class of bearings, investigations by experts revealed that ‘a good operator was nine-tenths of the battle.’ In plotting, skill and experience mattered more than gadgets and quantity of bearings. In short, D/F ‘as practised from 1939 to 1945 was an art – not a science.’” That judgment would appear to contradict directly the rather overawed conclusion that the American intelligence officer Norman Holmes Pearson offered in his Foreword to John Masterman’s book: “The techniques of intercepting messages sent by wireless were highly developed. So was the science of direction-finding by which the location of the transmitting instrument could be determined.” That is how mythologies begin.

Simpson had himself contributed to the debate. Again, we have to rely on Curry. Before he left B.3, Simpson wrote the third report that we know of: ‘Notes on the Detection of Illicit Wireless 1940’, with a view to investigating reports of suspected illicit wireless transmission. In Curry’s somewhat clumsy words: “He explained the problems connected with Ionosphere or Reflected Ray communication and ground rays, and suggested that secret agents would be able to avoid bulky or intricate apparatus and that only low-power would be employed. He said that, assuming an efficient receiving station in Germany, it would be possible to select a suitable wave-length, having regard to range and seasonal conditions, which would give a regular, reliable service. If such a station were to be established in a carefully chosen locality in this country it would very likely not be heard at all by our permanent interception and D/F stations. Such a station could be situated in the centre of a densely populated area or alternatively installed in a small car. He set out detailed instructions for procedure in dealing with investigations in these circumstances.” What those instructions were, we shall apparently never know. But his advice appears to have been ignored – or to have been politically unsuitable.

Simpson’s message was picked up by Hinsley and Simkins in Volume 4 of their History. “Since Snow’s signals had not been heard before MI5 took control of him, the failure to intercept others was understandably attributed to the inefficiency of the watch or to technical problems, notably the difficulty of picking up low-powered high frequency signals except at very close or very long range”, they wrote, to which Bryden has a riposte. In a note concerning the official claim, he comments: “This is correct, but it does not mean that the transmitters could not be located. The British Post Office was already using mobile direction-finding units to pick up local transmissions, and the Germans in Holland and France were to develop the technique to a fine art.” He goes on to say ‘the spy could change frequencies by changing the crystals in his set.’ For 1940, Bryden probably anticipates a little too much, and credits the Post Office vans with a little too much finesse. (It is one thing to roam around potentially busy locations, like Embassy districts, and another to chance upon illicit transmissions from private residencies around the countryside.) We now know that Simpson criticized the skills of the mobile direction-finding units (as did Liddell), but they may have been limited by technology. Furthermore, changing crystals had other implications, and was not available to every operator at this time. The commentaries on SNOW’s apparatus inform us that, in order to change a frequency, if a crystal were inserted (or the change made by the advanced facility of using a knob), the length of the antenna had to be changed as well. Matters were not as cut and dried as Bryden represents them: the state-of-the-art was probably more in the vein of what Rantzau and Simpson independently stated at about the same time.

The confusion is reinforced by other conversations. Liddell had discussed the question of detection with Menzies, the head of SIS, in April 1940. By then, Menzies claimed that it had wireless sets ‘operating from German territory and all over the continent’, a boast that would incidentally appear to be belied by Keith Jeffery’s authorised history. Thus Menzies’s statement was probably more goal than reality. Menzies echoed the general confidence when he told Liddell that he thought that SIS’s newest sets were ‘extremely difficult to pick up’, and he doubted very much ‘whether any monitoring system however widespread will be effective against them’. Where Menzies derived this science is not explained (he had no doubt been briefed by his head of Section VII, the telecommunications expert Richard Gambier-Parry, who was known for treating non-technicians with some arrogance) but it led Liddell to compare SNOW’s set, even with its new valves, very unfavourably against the SIS’s latest technology. Liddell concluded that diary’s entry with a not unreservedly confident belief that the British were ahead of the Germans in this matter. Both Rantzau and Menzies would later have to revise their opinions.

[This whole puzzle of direction-finding is tantalisingly highlighted by the titles of a set of lectures given by Herbert Hart, Major Morton Evans and Major Frost at the MI5 training session for regional officers on January 5th, 1943. They were, respectively, ‘Intercept Intelligence and its uses’, ‘The work of R.S.S. Interception and discrimination of Axis secret communications and its bearing in detection of illicit W/T’, and ‘Investigation into illicit W/T’. Unlike Dick White’s comprehensive notes, the details appear to have been destroyed.]

In any case, SNOW was provided with a new transmitter/receiver in August 1940, when the courier BISCUIT (Sam McCarthy) went to Lisbon, and was handed over a suit-case containing a new apparatus, known as an Afu. This is the equipment described in a later 1941 report: “His [SNOW’s] second set was a mains operated transmitter and receiver of excellent construction, the reception frequency being 5,800 kcs and the transmission frequency either on 6636 kc or on 6536 kc. The even frequency was used on odd days, the odd frequency on even days. The antenna used consisted of about 90 ft. in one leg and counter-poise 15 ft. long in the other. There was no difficulty in erecting this or its subsequent many locations and no difficulty experienced anywhere.” Hardly the discreet apparatus that could be easily concealed from the landlady, but it presumably gave much more reliable service until SNOW was closed down in 1941, and his wireless taken over for other agents. But there was a cost, too, since only two frequencies were offered, appearing to be delivered by separate crystals rather than a controlling knob: more reliable, but with fewer options.

Thus the Abwehr’s initial experiments with wireless were very tentative. It was as if they did not take the need for close two-way communication very seriously. They did not supply SNOW with reliable equipment, and accepted long periods of silence with equanimity. This was, of course, when western borders of Europe were still open for travel. The Afu set was ideal for smuggling overseas, concealed in a suitcase, but was probably not robust enough to survive a parachute jump. The pattern of the next wave of agents to arrive would reinforce this phenomenon, however. Spies were not planned to be long-term subversives: their terms of activity were expected to be short as they facilitated conquest. Hitler was expecting a successful invasion of the British Isles after he moved through Western Europe, and won the air-battle. Investing in a miniaturised, robust and flexible combined transmitter/receiver was not a priority. This lack of imagination about the potential of agents equipped with wireless would require the British to take the lead, and help put ideas in the minds of their adversaries.

The XX Committee

Meanwhile, MI5 was increasing its attention on the strategic challenges of handling double agents. The original idea had in fact come from the French, In June 1938, the intelligence office Paillole had visited MI5 to instruct them on such a policy and practice, and in October 1939 Dick White, Liddell’s right-hand man, had gone to France to get a refresher. On January 10, 1940, Liddell entered the following observation in his Diary: “With a view to supplying double-agents with information, commands have been asked to send in reports on local information or rumour which they, as ordinary members of the public, can pick up from observation or from gossip. Xxxxxx xxxx xxxx [redacted], this information will be supplied for transmission to the enemy. It is hoped that once confidence is established in this way it will be possible to mislead the enemy at a critical time. In addition it is felt that the reports will provide M.I. with some picture of the extent of leakage that is going on.” Yet MI5’s resources in this field were now scant. SNOW, the only agent with a wireless snow under double control, was acting suspiciously. Moreover, his wireless blew up on February 29, and a false telegram had to be concocted to show that he his operation had not been raided. A series of adventures would ensue, but he was finally cut off on April 13, 1941. MI5 officers by then considered that his Abwehr control, Rantzau (= Ritter), had wised up to what was happening.

The Fifth Column hysteria confused practically everybody about a native threat to abet the coming invasion. Throughout the year, Liddell would report regularly on illicit broadcasts detected, but they would inevitably end up as being harmless, normally foreign embassies trying to break the rules. In July 1940, Malcolm Frost, the BBC man, was appointed to head a new branch (W) to coordinate SIS and MI5 activities concerned with Radio Security, supported on a committee by representatives from the RAF, the Army, and the Royal Navy. It looked like an auspicious move, although at about the same time, Churchill rather unhelpfully told the British public that the Fifth Column menace ‘had always been exaggerated’, perhaps forgetting that he himself had been the prime cause of that hyperbolic reaction. On October 1, Liddell rather enigmatically reported that a W Committee had been set up, at the instigation of the Director of Military Intelligence, ‘to control false rumours and disseminate false information’.

Tensions arose almost immediately. It did not make sense for a man recently recruited from the BBC for his radio expertise, with no experience in counter-espionage fieldcraft, to be put in charge of the new group responsible for locating enemy agents. In the summer of 1940, Liddell had reported that he was impressed with Frost (‘strikes me as an extremely able and knowledgeable person’). In July, Liddell and Frost discussed the new group that Frost would lead ‘under the guidance of RSS [MI.8]’, with Robertson as his deputy. As soon as they heard about this, MI.8 applied fresh pressure on MI5 that the Security Service should absorb RSS completely (including all the civilian Voluntary Interceptors). MI5 was generally still very wary over taking responsibility for activities deriving from foreign soil. Soon, moreover, Frost was bridling over the demands from MI.8 for him to hire dozens of military people to carry out the RSS’s mission – a demand that had been ironically crafted by Lt.-Colonel Simpson. Frost declared that he wanted to hire his own people. Frost was appointed head of W Branch in August, but it was soon subsumed into Liddell’s organisation as a section (B3) – Simpson’s old organisation, where Robertson worked. The W Committee soon morphed into the W Board, and delegated its detailed work to the XX (Double-Cross) Committee, which started to meet in January 1941. This was a dysfunctional mess.

By then, B3 was in tatters. Frost had always wanted his own Branch, reporting at the same level as Liddell, and his ambitiousness, arrogance, and intriguing started to grate. Lord Swinton, the head of the Security Executive (who had encouraged Liddell to charge Frost with setting up the new group on radio security only a few months before), said that the bumptious Frost had to go: Tar Robertson found Frost impossible to work for. Frost had of necessity (as head of B3) been an integral part of the debates over the German agents in the preceding months, but he had no expertise in this area. In December 1940, Liddell reported that Robertson and his group of agent handlers had been moved over to B Branch, as the new B1a section, ‘back where they belonged’.  Yet the initial handling of captured agents was in fact carried out by a group named B8L: you will find no mention of that entity in Curry’s, West’s or Andrew’s book. [One should not trust official authorities on the structure of Liddell’s ‘B’ branch: memoranda in the TATE file show Robertson, after being identified as ‘W’ in November 1940, reporting as ‘B2a’ long into 1941, which would have put him under Maxwell Knight’s ‘Agents’ section. Andrew’s implication that B1a had been run by Robertson since early 1940 (p 249) is patently false. McIntyre makes the same blatant mistake (p 38).] It took the early 1941 arrival of David Petrie, as the new MI5 chief, to bring some permanent structure to the service. Yet Curry’s organisation chart for July 1941 still shows the unpopular survivor Frost in charge of B.3 (Communications), including B.3.B (Illicit Wireless Investigations; R.S.S. Liaison). Robertson is only then under Dick White in charge of B.1.a (Special Agents).

In the middle of November, the W Committee had set up objectives for the planned Double-Cross System, and, at exactly the time that Malcolm Frost was falling into greater disfavour, the Oxford don John Masterman (who had been tutor to Dick White) was interviewed to help the project. He became the highly successful chairman of the XX Committee, which had its first meeting on January 2, 1941, and was to convene weekly throughout the war, the last meeting being on May 10, 1945. The W Board (the new name for the W Committee, to which the XX Committee reported) was responsible for setting overall policy, but it left the details of managing double agents to Masterman and the team of B.1a, later led by a happier Tar Robertson.

Sir John Masterman, Chairman of the XX Committee

By then a new tactical thrust from the Germans had taken place. The Battle of Britain had started on July 10, 1940, and, in anticipation of a swift victory, Hitler ordered that spies be inserted into Britain to inform the invasion force of weather conditions, troop movements, the condition of aerodromes, etc. Between the beginning of September and the end of November, about a couple of dozen agents arrived on British shores.  MI5 had used SNOW, however, to pass on examples of identification numbers for ration-cards to the Abwehr, so that the British were able to detect forgeries supplied to captured agents during this later swarm. This gave MI5 an inkling of the possibilities of deception, with some important feedback, and constituted one of the most important coups of the campaign, as it verified the trust that the Abwehr held in SNOW. Owing to SNOW’s information, predominantly the supply of false identity card numbers, and the decryption of the Abwehr hand cyphers, the British were ready for the infiltrators. A few arrived by sea, the majority by air. Most were arrested within hours. Several were executed: a couple committed suicide. And some were turned into double agents.

One remarkable aspect of the project was that, while most of the spies were equipped with wireless apparatus, it normally consisted of a transmitter only. That decision had been made primarily out of optimistic pragmatism: the Nazis expected the invasion force to arrive shortly afterwards, and there was no need for the spies to receive additional instructions after they had supplied the information they had been instructed to gather. But it was not an exclusive policy, nor one governed by the logistics of carrying a set by boat, or landing with a heavy unit by parachute. (Agent TATE was told that the type of set they were to use in England depended on whether they crossed by sea or by air, as there was not yet any shock-proof apparatus available. But that was clearly not the whole truth.) The first wave that arrived on the Kent coast on September 3rd all had transmitters only. Gosta Caroli (SUMMER), who was parachuted in three days later, brought a combined transmitter/receiver with him, strapped to his chest – but it knocked him unconscious when he landed. Amazingly, he had never experienced a practice jump. TATE (Wulf Schmidt), underwent a bad landing from low altitude on September 20, owing to poor weather, and he hurt his hand and ankle because of the weight of the equipment strapped on to him. Dr. Ritter (aka Rantzau) had informed TATE that arrangements were being made for him to take with him to England a separate transmitter and receiver and also a large transmitter (called a ‘Z.B.V.’) which would be dropped separately and which he could destroy if the smaller sets were unbroken after landing. How exactly a probably injured airman was supposed to grope around the countryside looking for another parachute with transmitter/receiver, and then conceal them, before looking for a safe haven, without provoking interest from the local population, is not addressed. The spies were expendable.

Yet MI5 had to move fast. The spies were expected to report quickly (in about a week) to their masters, and the Security Service did not want any uncontrolled messages going back to Hamburg. SUMMER had forewarned them about TATE’s arrival, but a tight procedure of isolating the agents from each other was required. If they could not be quickly turned, and with confidence, they would have to be detained, isolated, and probably executed. Having been interrogated and threatened at Camp 020 on Ham Common over a period of thirteen days, TATE was turned, and eventually made contact with the Germans on October 16, sending a message under the control of B1.a of MI5 that he was safe but had been hurt on landing. A similar excuse had to be concocted for SUMMER (who was by no means a Nazi like TATE, and more easily turned). SUMMER was viewed by the Abwehr as an agent in SNOW’s network, and the authorities in the UK had dithered. SUMMER was installed at a safe house in Hinxton Grange, where his operator sent a message on his behalf on September 27, claiming that Caroli had recovered from his injury and was now lodging near Cambridge.

SUMMER had provided his interrogators with vital information. After gaining consciousness, he realised he had missed the first agreed time for transmitting (2-4 am), but he was arrested before the second (6-8 pm) arrived. The notes in his Kew archive declare that he agreed to give all information and details of his code on condition that his colleague coming over soon (TATE) should not be shot. He had known the colleague only since July; he would also have receiver and transmitter. Details of contacts, the type of cipher used, and frequencies, were all to be ‘found on file’. Here can be seen callsigns, the cipher wheel used for encryption, the choices of frequencies (4000 or 6000 kcs). TATE would use the same kind of cipher, he said, but with a different key.  He was given no instructions on what to do when his batteries ran down – again a probable sign that the Abwehr thought that the invasion was imminent. Poor SUMMER had been told that if he was caught with his set he would be shot. If he was caught without his set, he was told to tell a tale. Early the following year, SUMMER would try to escape and attempt suicide. But that is for the next episode.

John Bryden , in Fighting to Lose, argues that Ritter and the Abwehr were in control all the time. “Ritter found he could plant double agents on MI5 by allowing the British to intercept wireless messages in easy-to-break ciphers that referred to his spies before they set out for England,” he writes. His case is based on the fact that, since Hitler called off the invasion on September 8 (and that Canaris, the head of the Abwehr knew that), the landing of spies was a sop. Ritter was not taken in by the fake identity papers; Caroli and the others who arrived after him were intended to be caught. Ritter’s objective, by sending back lengthy questionnaires to SNOW, was at least to gain some useful intelligence. Bryden’s criticism of MI5 are justified, but his account does not explain how well TATE (especially) was able to mislead the Abwehr so successfully later in the war. And Germany’s attentions were now moving elsewhere: on December 18, 1940,  the directive for Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union – was created. Britain was, temporarily, no longer subject to invasion.

Summary & Conclusions

Four major conclusions can be derived from the analysis of Phase 1:

  • The British authorities lost control of the supervision of the interception of illicit domestic wireless transmissions. MI5 fumbled by claiming it had neither the expertise nor the bandwidth to assume the responsibility. To help, it recruited an expert (Simpson) who was cast aside, with his recommendations being overthrown by the well-intentioned thoughts of a wireless interception expert but counter-espionage amateur (Gill), and an ineffective Signals officer (Worlledge). All three (as well as Denniston of GC & CS) were soon unceremoniously discarded. The official accounts of the decision to concentrate interception away from Britain points to a clumsy and grotesque attempt to conceal what must have been a major embarrassment. Curry referred to a ‘Greek Tragedy’, which suggests more than the casual sacrifice of Simpson: it suggests an undocumented drama affecting the essence of MI5. Did Simpson point out the irreconcilable conflict of having an efficient RDF capability, and running double agents through wireless transmission? Or do Curry’s words hint at a completely undocumented fiasco, such as an abandonment of surveillance of Soviet spy networks? The fact that the Double Cross Operation has been lauded as such a success would suggest the latter. The act of representing Britain’s D/F capabilities as ineffectual may have helped the deception campaign, but nothing I have found in the archives suggests that it was a deliberate decision, as opposed to an accident of circumstances. The answer may not be knowable, but my further research, as this saga evolves, may throw up something. Curry’s ‘Tragedy’ must mean something, and Andrew’s unwillingness to follow up on the issue is itself significant.
  • MI5’s counter-espionage section showed a combination of strategic imagination and operational clumsiness. For a group that was so unprepared as to what it should do when it found it had recruited Soviet spies to its corps, B Branch’s Liddell showed some farsighted insight when it came to the possibilities of using double agents for deception. Liddell quickly recognised the necessity of keeping British radio detection-finding capabilities under wraps, well before the massive deception campaign associated with FORTITUDE was conceived. Yet he was overcome by events rather than preparing for them: his mismanagement of Simpson and Frost, his reluctance to engage with Gill, and his slowness in reorganising his officers dealing with Nazi espionage, show that he was an ineffectual leader who did not show decisiveness in putting the structures and personnel in place for the smooth execution of its mission. True, he was operating under extreme pressures, but it is the duty of leaders to rise above them.
  • The Abwehr started off at half-cock with its wireless strategy, and displayed no firm intention that radio communications by spies would play a large part in the war. The agents they tried to insert at the end of 1940 were of low calibre and motivation, poorly prepared, and supplied with inferior equipment. The Abwehr’s treatment of SNOW remains an enigma. There were many in British Security who thought that SNOW was so unreliable that he should be dropped immediately. Yet MI5 and B.1a persevered. It is clear that Ritter and his cohorts had suspicions that SNOW was being run by their adversaries, yet they ignored the obvious signs. Why did they not suspect that the ID numbers passed on were phony? Or maybe they thought that it did not matter. John Bryden’s arguments should not be discounted completely, but the Abwehr’s behaviour was in many ways as naïve of that of the British.
  • While the evidence is sometimes contradictory (maybe deliberately so, some of it written long after), it seems that precise direction-finding and location of short-wave radio transmitters was at this stage of the war still something of a black art. The techniques of sending low-powered short-wave transmissions to bounce off the ionosphere, and skip large areas of potential interception, represented a considerable exposure to any nation’s domestic security. Both the German and the British intelligence organisation showed awareness that technology in this area was going to be a critical factor in the espionage and counter-espionage wars.

Thus Phase 1 of the saga came to a close. The focus in 1941 will be primarily on TATE and SUMMER, although it is in fact one of the quieter periods of wireless espionage. SNOW was determined to be too much of a risk, and he was soon taken out of commission. The second wave of double agents had yet to enter the stage. And the unsettling matter of reorganisation, of MI5 as well as the placement of RSS, would bring some clarity, some improvements, but also a lot of tension to the management of double agents.

(I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Austin, a retired academic from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Electronics at the University of Liverpool, for his recent guidance to me on matters of wireless telegraphy. Any mistakes or misrepresentations made in this piece are my responsibility alone.)

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

 

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Double-Crossing the Soviets?

“In view of the damage that Sonia helped to inflict on Western interests through her assistance to Fuchs alone, the suggestion by some authors that she was some kind of double agent being used by MI5 as a means of passing misleading information to the Russians is ridiculous. In a BBC radio programme in 2002, Markus Wolf, the former spymaster of the East German intelligence agency the Stasi, who knew Sonia in her later years, categorically denied that she had been any kind of ‘double’. Released MI5 documents confirm that view.” (Chapman Pincher, in Treachery, p 208)

When Chapman Pincher wrote these sentences, he was guilty of what could be called Professor Hinsley Syndrome, a pattern of hinting at unexplained rumours, and then pretending to refute them by simple denial. Careful readers of coldspur will recall, from Sonia’s Radio, Chapter 5, that I quoted the following utterance from the official historian of British intelligence in World War II: “There is no truth in the much-publicised claim that the British authorities made use of the ‘Lucy’ ring, a Soviet espionage organisation which operated from Switzerland, to forward intelligence to Moscow”.

Now, if you are assigned the role of ‘official’ historian of anything, my view is that you should follow these precepts:

  • Never dignify a rumour that you want stifled, whether you believe it has merit or not, by even mentioning it.
  • If you are going to identify a rumour, explain what it is, where it derives, who is promoting it, and on what grounds the claims in it are made.
  • If you then want to deflate the rumour, explain in a detailed fashion why it should be disregarded.

Otherwise, all you do is provoke interest, and encourage readers to postulate ‘There’s no smoke without fire’ and wonder ‘what is he or she trying to hide?’

Pincher was not an official historian (nor a very disciplined one), but the outcome is the same. Moreover, he refers to ‘some authors’, which suggests that the culprit was not a one-man-band. Yet the only author that I can identify who suggests anything close is Jerry Dan, the nom de plume of one Nigel Bance, who in his Ultimate Deception, an odd compilation of fact and fiction, implies that a high-level plot, approved by Churchill, funnelled information about the Manhattan project (the US-based exercise that researched and developed atomic weaponry) through Sonia to Stalin. But the channelling of disinformation through a known enemy agent does not automatically mean that that person becomes a double agent. A double agent is a turned spy, switching allegiances, perhaps under threat of death, to become a vehicle for the side that captures him or her. There is no evidence that Sonia was ever confronted and pressured to be controlled by the British, or subsequently consented to such a move. On the contrary: the little evidence we have suggests that MI5 officers recognised her as a sometime Soviet spy, declared openly to her that they believed she had been inactive during her time in the UK, and tried to haul her in only after she had flown the coop. (Some of this archival evidence may be disinformation to muddy the waters, of course.)

Pincher’s statement is thus problematic in many aspects. No source for the claim that Sonia was a double agent is identified. Wolf’s denial means nothing, as all it declares is that Sonia was never turned. Pincher’s claim that MI5 documents ‘confirm this view’ is completely hollow: it is almost impossible for archives to prove a negative, and he does not identify what files support his case. However, by expressing the rumour in this way, Pincher’s dismissal of the claim does not explicitly reject the more nuanced notion that Sonia may have been fed information (or disinformation, or a mixture of the two) to pass on to her bosses in Moscow, without ever acting as a double agent. Lastly, and most significant of all, if the implication is that Sonia was manipulated as ‘some kind of double agent’, it would suggest that British intelligence knew that her role in the United Kingdom was that of a Soviet agent in communication with her controls in Moscow. Why, then, did they do nothing about it? Exploring this avenue would have severely damaged Pincher’s theory that Sonia was able to thrive solely because of the efforts of her protector, Roger Hollis.

European Espionage Patterns in WWII

Before I explore the various accounts that might bolster the claim that British Intelligence could have attempted to mirror its success with the Double-Cross System (in which the complete Abwehr-supplied network of agents in the United Kingdom was turned and managed) by taking some measure of control over Soviet spies, it will be useful to apply some structure to the variety of espionage efforts that were undertaken in Europe during World War II, and then to analyse what made the Double-Cross operation successful.

I have thus created the following chart:

 Please double-click on the image to see it fully.

I do not believe any historian has produced a similar classification, as comparative studies of intelligence in World War II are thin on the ground, and tend to skim the surface of what is a highly intriguing subject. Readers may have suggestions as to how to improve or amplify the chart, but I think that, as it stands, it can teach several useful lessons.

  • The Soviet Union was far more energetic in spying against its allies than it was against its enemy. The main reason that this conclusion is true is that, in the couple of decades before the war, the Soviet Union had treated Great Britain (and its Empire) as the major enemy, and had made espionage investments accordingly. Lenin believed that the inevitable worldwide revolution would break out in Germany first, only for his successors to watch how communists in that country were either quietened, exiled, imprisoned, or killed. Thus the build-up of the Red Orchestra, the Soviet Union’s espionage network in Western Europe, was a slower and arduous process. Yet the dividends of recruiting Soviet spies in Britain in the early 1930s, and inserting them into the fabric of British institutions, paid off handsomely by the time the war started. While its network in Germany was gradually mopped up by German counter-intelligence, Moscow could take advantage of British accommodation of, and indulgence to, Soviet sympathisers in government and the intelligence services to gain detailed secrets about Nazi war-plans from its ally. These revelations dwarfed what information the British government was prepared to pass on openly.
  • It was very difficult to sustain an intelligence network in a totalitarian country. If the country being spied upon is a ruthless, totalitarian state that has little respect for human life, the life expectancy of agents trying to report its secrets will be short. Nazi Germany used its radio-detection and location-finding apparatus mechanisms ruthlessly to track down illegal broadcasts. Suspects and those caught red-handed were tortured, confessions with names of contacts extracted, and the victims normally executed. Soviet tradecraft was not solid enough to isolate spies from each other, and the bosses in Moscow had little concern about the capture of their agents. The Red Orchestra was wrapped up in Germany by August 1942. In the latter stages of the war, the NKVD parachuted into Germany spies who were hopelessly unprepared and ill-equipped for what they would face. Planting spies in the Soviet Union was even more difficult, owing to the distances involved, and the challenges in getting any information out. Instead, the Nazis and the Soviets both looked to prisoners-of-war as a primary source of intelligence.
  • Agents in neutral countries were of dubious reliability. While Britain’s SIS should have been able to have in place a productive agent network in Europe at the time war broke out, a combination of spending restrictions and incompetence (e.g. the Venlo incident in the Netherlands) meant that its forces were thin. A shadow structure (the ‘Z’ organisation) was developed under Colonel Dansey, but that was also pared back. As the Nazi war machine rolled over Europe, the residual centres of espionage activity in Europe in WII were in the neutral countries, predominantly Portugal, Switzerland, and Turkey, with Spain and Sweden in the background. All participants had agents in the three main countries, constantly looking over their shoulders. Yet those claiming to have access to proprietary information would often offer it for financial reasons, would not offer it exclusively to one party, and it was not always reliable. In Switzerland, some members of the Soviet network were also working for British intelligence, and, in addition, informants passed on their secrets to Swiss intelligence. Thus espionage on neutral territory was always a speculative venture, as the motivations and intentions of agents not under direct control could not reliably be assessed. British intelligence was always fearful that anti-Nazis might turn out to be fervent communists – as was frequently the case in Nazi-occupied countries.
  • Fascism attracted fewer espionage activists than did communism. While communism had an international and idealistic appeal, and thus exerted a broad influence that crossed national boundaries, the German style of Fascism, especially when its cruelty became apparent, had fewer ideological sympathisers. For example, the feared ‘Fifth Column’ in Britain petered out: few fascist enthusiasts wanted Hitler as a future dictator. Soviet citizens who initially welcomed German troops as liberators from Communism were soon subjected to the brutality of Nazi methods of oppression, and thus quickly antagonized. Thus, as the Nazi empire extended its range, apart from the rise of notable quislings and their followers, and an ugly contribution by anti-Semitic collaborators, kernels of civic populations eager to abet Nazi successes were thin on the ground. The Nazis relied on criminals, hoodlums, and the morally bankrupt to assist in their counter-intelligence efforts. Even Germany’s Abwehr was sprinkled with patriotic Germans who wanted Hitler to fail, as the failed coup against him proved. In addition, Hitler, as aggressor, did not strongly believe in the value of intelligence, trusting his army and weapons to crush opposition without the need for complementary information on the activities of his adversaries. Only when faced with the Allied assault on Europe did the role of intelligence gain more significance for the Wehrmacht.
  • British counter-intelligence versus Germany was in direct contrast to its performance against the Soviet Union. The major intelligence successes for Britain were the decryption of Enigma traffic, and the management of the Double-Cross System, by which Germany’s complete network of agents in Britain was turned and manipulated. This latter programme, coupled with realistic illusory effects about non-existent battalions, contributed largely to the success of the Normandy landings. While Germany also deployed such tactics (such as the Englandspiel, by which SOE agents captured in the Netherlands – and France – sent positive messages to London to entice further landings), nothing approached the comprehensiveness and thoroughness by which British intelligence provided a mixture of facts and disinformation to help misdirect German suppositions about the location of the invasion of France in 1944. This success was in dynamic contrast to MI5’s woeful performance against the Soviet Union, where a lack of discipline in assessing the threat of homegrown communists, and a weak and appeasing stance against the Soviet Union, left a large network of spies untouched. This failure resulted from a reluctance to accept that the country, while a temporary ally against Nazi Germany, remained a permanent adversary and threat.
  • Wireless was the greatest asset in espionage, and its biggest liability. Couriers were a valuable mechanism for passing on secrets at the outbreak of war, but the Nazi invasions of much of Europe made their use far more difficult – such as British communications from Switzerland. Surprisingly, perhaps, invisible writing (in letters passed through the mail) was still a useful technique. When Soviet wirelesses failed in western Europe, the Communists had to resort to couriers, but the passage of material in diplomatic bags from (say) London to Moscow took several weeks, thus putting more pressure on speedier radio communications. Britain’s ability to mount more aggressive work through the XX system increased markedly when GARBO acquired a wireless transmitter. Wireless messages were faster, but could be intercepted, and thus required encryption. Much of the British counter-intelligence success was gained by decrypting Enigma and hand-cypher traffic, such as the Abwehr’s reports from Madrid and Paris to Berlin that transcribed the reports given by XX agents to their German handlers, which thus confirmed that the Double-Cross bait had been accepted. The Battle of the Atlantic was won and lost by the fact that Germany and Britain at different stages had an advantage in deciphering their adversaries’ open communications on the air. At the same time, within any country, techniques in location-finding improved quickly, leading to more portable equipment and greater precision in tracing illicit communications. Telephonic cable communications, such as those possible on natively controlled territory, remained highly secure.

Yet the most startling fact is how inconsistently Britain’s counter-intelligence performed. Germany’s utter failure to deploy agents successfully in Britain (and thus Britain’s complete success in nullifying them) was diametrically different from the Soviet Union’s complete success in penetrating Britain’s defences (and Britain’s corresponding utter failure in countering such subversion). This cannot be ascribed solely to the role of the Soviet Union as an ally. That transformation occurred only in June 1941 (Barbarossa), and two years of bitter experiences later, the new threat that the Soviet Union represented was recognised – admittedly sooner by military and intelligence officers than by diplomats and politicians. Britain knew about a Soviet espionage campaign, and tolerated it. Stalin did not regard the alliance against Hitler as a reason for pausing in the quest for secrets from his partners, nor would he have expected Great Britain and the United States to loosen their efforts. I have written before about the apparent belief by Dansey that he could undermine the Soviet espionage network, in a fashion perhaps similar to the Double-Cross System. But what was different is that British counter-intelligence officers massively underestimated the scope and depth of the Moscow-controlled espionage that was going on under their noses.

The Double-Cross Operation

The Double-Cross operation was conceived as early as November 1940, when Britain was essentially fighting alone, and still under threat from invasion. Historians almost universally accept that its success in convincing German Intelligence that its agents were passing on accurate reports on Allied military plans for the invasion of Europe consisted a vital part of the deception campaign. Why was it so successful? What lessons can be learned from it? Analysis of it (notably by Masterman, Howard, Andrew, West, Holt, Hastings, and Macintyre) indicates a number of vital features:

  • Ill-preparedness of inserted agents: It was difficult enough to insert agents across the North Sea, either by boat or by parachute. Those that did make the journey were not well-prepared, as far as their knowledge of British customs and the language, and the reliability of their wireless equipment (if they had it), were concerned.
  • Inclusivity: By early 1942, MI5 was confident that it had trapped 80% of all spies, through interrogation and interception of radio messages, and by the summer, that it was in control of all. (Though Guy Liddell, head of B Division in MI5, would in his Diaries later cast doubt on the expertise behind such claims.) If spies refused to be turned and to cooperate, they were executed.
  • Authenticity: Only authorized spies were used in the operation. MI5 initiated no ‘coat-trailing’, namely offering up volunteers to the Abwehr. (GARBO had, admittedly, offered his services in Spain, after being rejected by the British, and TREASURE had approached the Abwehr in Paris after declining an offer to work for German intelligence before the war.) The motivations and psychologies of those who committed to turn were severely tested before being approved for deception work.
  • Patience: The operation was undertaken by a passive requirement to keep agents viable, and learn more about Nazi invasion plans – a defensive manoeuvre – and only as the war progressed was it converted into an offensive strategy, namely that of deceiving the enemy about the eventual Normandy landings. Subsidiary objectives (such as learning more about Enigma encryptions) were clearly laid out. This kept the team very focused.
  • Plausibility: An immense effort was expended in ensuring that the messages sent by double agents were plausible, namely that the disinformation was combined with a high degree of realism concerning events, location, contacts, etc. and a sprinkling of facts that could be verified. Painstaking details were created around the lives of the fictional spies in GARBO’s network.
  • Isolation: Solid tradecraft was used to ensure that the double agents did not know about each other, and thus never had a chance to exchange notes about the experience. Agents were rarely allowed to transmit messages themselves.
  • Verifiability: Messages that were transmitted on behalf of double agents to controllers in Madrid would later be re-sent by the Abwehr to Berlin, and thus the XX Committee, able to review transcripts of Enigma traffic provided by Bletchley Park, could verify that their information had been received and accepted.
  • Secrecy: While the XX Committee had representation by the Intelligence Services and the Armed Forces, a high degree of secrecy was demanded and maintained. Even the Joint Intelligence Committee was not initially aware of its activities. (Yet Anthony Blunt, MI5’s representative on various committees dealing with strategic deception, gave his Moscow masters a full account of what was happening.)
  • Integrity: The Committee was very sensitive to its mission, and conscious that, by delivering disinformation, the process might have unexpected consequences (such as the attempted rerouting of V1 and V2 bombs short of London.) No decision was made casually: highly sensitive decisions were made very carefully.
  • Leadership: The committee was ably led by John Masterman, a tactful and persuasive chairman, who inspired confidence, and commanded attendance at meetings that were held every week until the end of the war.

The success was also abetted by the defects of the Abwehr organization. It was a failing of human nature for officers in the Abwehr to want to believe that their hand-picked agents were successful. Maintaining the story that their agents were trustworthy and valuable was a career-helping activity, the alternative for some officers perhaps being sent to the Russian Front. The voices of those that queried whether the agents were in fact being controlled by the British were quickly quashed. There were even Abwehr officers (e.g. Jebsen) who were surely aware of what was happening, but desired an Allied victory. (Jebsen’s refusal to talk, when arrested by the Gestapo, was critical to the success of FORTITUDE, part of the OVERLORD deception plan named BODYGUARD.) Kliemann (who controlled TREASURE) was an amateur, an Austrian more concerned about his romantic life than serious spycraft, and he did not have his heart in the business.

Yet some exposures could have fatally damaged the exercise. The agents’ true loyalty was always suspect: they could have inserted codes into their wireless transmissions to indicate that they were fake, and thus experienced operators were brought in to adopt their transmission patterns, and act as surrogates. One double agent, SNOW, was suspected of being a triple agent, and was withdrawn. TREASURE was immediately suspended when MI5 learned that she had omitted to inform her handlers about a special code she was to insert into messages to indicate to the Abwehr that she was being controlled. Despite their confidence over radio transmission detection, intelligence officers were always fearful of an undetected spy in their midst, and had to be wary of reports emanating from the embassies of ‘neutral’ countries, which might contradict the information the XX Committee was disseminating. There were occasional accidental releases of intelligence hinting at the operation, or uncannily similar bulletins issued by discrete agents, that were fortunately not picked up by the enemy.

Finally, there was the major unexplained phenomenon of undetected radio traffic. Given the progress that the Gestapo had made in improvements in radio direction-finding and location, it should have been obvious for the Germans to assume that the British had made similar advances. It is still astonishing to consider the ability with which agents were apparently allowed to move about Britain, carrying bulky wireless equipment, and to install themselves invisibly in lodgings where they were able to transmit lengthy, wordy, messages without their ever being detected, and without the Abwehr ever seriously analysing why and how their agents were able to operate so freely. The official historian, Michael Howard, provocatively wrote that ‘their [the agents’] transmissions had to evade detection by the security authorities’. He was describing the challenges from the perspective of the Abwehr, but, pari passu, he sharply identified how canny a game the XX Committee had to play, with turned agents operating wireless equipment that its own detection powers would have to overlook. He left unexplained the extent to which RSS, the Radio Security Service, had been brought in to the secret, and whether the network’s integrity was kept intact by virtue of a) the deployment of transmission techniques that managed to evade the detectors, or b) the guidance by influential members of RSS who would have been capable of ensuring that the signals were ignored.

Howard then appeared to explain things, but in an unconvincing way: he informed us that Lieut Col TA (‘Tar’) Robertson (of B1A in MI5) on July 15, 1942 told the Y Board, the committee responsible for overall wireless monitoring, that ‘the RSS had discovered no uncontrolled agents reporting’, an observation that would appear to confirm that the RSS was aware of the transmissions of authorised double agents, could discriminate between them and possible illicit occurrences, and was confident, presumably, that no felonious transmissions had gone undetected. (Robertson’s statement granted the RSS an omnipotence that Guy Liddell would repeatedly question in his Diaries.) Howard also related how 500 transmissions were made between January 1944 and D-Day: the ‘security authorities’ presumably did not pick them up, and somehow the Abwehr must have been convinced of their undetectability. What Howard did not record was the fact that, in March 1943, the Abwehr instructed the agent GARBO to imitate call-signs of the British Army, whose messages were not analysed by the Radio Security Service. This reality immediately undermines Robertson’s confident assertion, and leaves unanswered many questions concerning the stumbles in Britain’s radio detection-finding operation. Howard never resolved this paradox, which is a highly controversial topic, and one to which I shall return in a future article.

(For a refresher on the activities of the RSS, I refer you to Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 9)

Application of XX to the Soviets?

It is in this context – of a disciplined procedure for handling double agents, complemented by a fear that the enemy would suddenly realise that the exercise was a total sham (owing to exposures such as the efficacy of Britain’s radio detection-finding techniques) – that any inspection of possible manipulation of Soviet agents must be understood.

The story starts with Colonel Dansey’s Z Organisation, a shadow espionage service set up within SIS in the late 1930s. The experts seem to agree that some of the agents who worked for the Soviet subsection of the so-called ‘Rote Kapelle’ (‘Red Orchestra’) in Switzerland were also working for the British, whose strongest remaining ‘Z’ outstation, at the outbreak of war, was in Geneva. In Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 6, I present the case for concluding that Alexander Foote, one of the leading wireless operators in the Swiss network (‘Rote Drei’), was actually a double agent planted by Dansey. Foote had perjured himself to the Swiss authorities when providing evidence that Sonia’s husband, Rolf Hamburger, had committed adultery in London with Sonia’s sister, thus enabling Sonia to enter an arranged, and probably bigamous, marriage with Foote’s colleague Len Beurton. This, in turn, allowed her to gain British citizenship (the objective of her bosses in Moscow), and re-enter Britain as a citizen, whereafter she was able to act as a courier for the atomic scientist and spy, Klaus Fuchs.

Credulity is strained to accept that the British Intelligence Services, knowing that a Soviet agent, one of the infamous Kuczynski family, whose members were the bane of the British authorities in defending subversive Communists in Britain and preventing their being expelled, would not attempt to confound her plans for migrating to the United Kingdom at a time when the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany. On the contrary, her marriage and her transport were facilitated, and lower members of MI5, the domestic security service, were misled about the facts of her application. The obvious conclusion would be that Dansey hoped to be able to manipulate her when she was safely installed, as a means of monitoring and intercepting her radio transmissions with a view to decipherment (since the provision of a ‘crib’ would have greatly facilitated the process), or as a way of planting false information on her, or as a means of identifying her contacts, or for some combination of the above purposes. According to his biographers, Dansey had been a pioneer of double-cross operations in World War I, strongly believing that, if you convinced your enemy that his agent is ‘loose and operating’, it was ‘of infinitely greater value than having a dead man’.

Complementary to this analysis are the well-documented assertions, despite the blunt denial by the official historian of wartime British Intelligence of such, that the British authorities used members of the Rote Drei to pass on to the Soviets thickly veiled summaries of highly confidential intelligence gained from decryption of Nazi signals traffic (‘ULTRA’). I describe these in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 4. Further reading appears to confirm the accuracy of this interpretation of the exercise: for example, I have recently read Hidden Weapons: Allied Secret or Undercover Services in World War II, by Basil Collier, who received ULTRA material when working in Fighter Command. Collier added to the chorus of experts who suggest that the official explanation was incorrect when he wrote, in 1982: “I have always supposed that Lucy received from the British the substance of Enigma decrypts, but this has been authoritatively denied.”

According to the more reliable accounts, Rudolf Roessler (LUCY), the primary source of information to the Soviets about the Nazi battle-plans, was not recruited until the autumn of 1942. Great Britain had become frustrated with trying to pass massaged intelligence derived from the ULTRA programme through its military mission in Moscow, and had thus decided to exploit its contacts in Switzerland. Thus the intelligence provided to Lucy was authentic, but not genuine: the information passed was accurate, but its authorship was concealed. By the Law of Unintended Consequences, however, the project had the effect of reducing Stalin’s trust rather than provoking his gratitude. The Soviet leader naturally wanted to know the source of such intelligence, and since he was receiving comprehensive transcriptions of ULTRA traffic from his well-placed spies within Britain’s political infrastructure, he naturally mistrusted the LUCY material, judged Britain’s official cooperation to be minimal, and wondered whether he was being manipulated. Thus the whole programme rebounded poorly on the British Intelligence Services. They had a poor understanding of the psychology of their dictator-ally, and they were blithely ignorant of the fact that the task of passing on information was being executed more efficiently by traitors in their midst.

The LUCY project was thus one concerning information – intelligence, even though its method of delivery was deceptive. Yet the main campaign of disinformation – if indeed there was one – came earlier. And, if Chapman Pincher’s disguised references can be interpreted correctly, it concerned research into atomic weapons.

Pincher clearly had read Jerry Dan’s 2003 work, Ultimate Deception, since he cites it in his attempt to pin the revelation of the Quebec Agreement to Sonia. Ultimate Deception, subtitled How Stalin stole the Bomb, is an extraordinary work, primarily because it is very difficult to separate fact from fiction. It includes as appendices a number of documents from the NKVD/KGB archives, which look as if they are genuine, but perhaps not authentic – i.e. they were assuredly crafted by qualified officials, but may have been written and inserted some time after the fact, to deliver an alternative story. [see below] The main thrust of Dan’s account seems to be that the British government engineered a disinformation campaign to convince the Soviets that British interest in nuclear weaponry was nugatory, while spies in its midst (most surprisingly, the newly-revealed Soviet sympathiser John Anderson, Home Secretary, Lord President of the Council, and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in Churchill’s wartime coalition administration) facilitated the delivery of atomic secrets to Stalin, thus accelerating his development of the bomb.

The blurb for Ultimate Deception is unhelpful: “Is the ULTIMATE DECEPTION merely historical fiction or is it a genuine account of an extraordinary wartime episode?”, it challenges us. If the author, editor and publisher abandon their readers so equivocally, I am not going to spend any more time here analysing the strengths and defects of this work. Pincher hinted at other sources. What else can be found?

The precise role of Klaus Fuchs has come under the microscope. In his very careful biography of Fuchs, The Spy Who Changed the World, Mike Rossiter describes a puzzling series of events. Rossiter has studied documents that indicate that, after the war, when he returned to a position at AERE Harwell, Fuchs provided confidential information to the British on the construction of nuclear reactors and other topics that he had gained from his time in the USA at Los Alamos. The implication here is that Fuchs had been spying on the Americans. President Truman had signed the McMahon Act on August 1, 1946, which made it illegal for the United States to share nuclear information with any other country, thus brusquely annulling the commitment to technology sharing embodied in the Quebec Agreement of 1943. (According to Graham Farmelo’s account in Churchill’s Bomb (2013), Truman’s officials could not find a copy of the Quebec Agreement, and had to request a copy from London.) Coincidentally, August 1, 1946 was the day that Fuchs took up his position at Harwell. Prime Minister Attlee was seriously peeved at Truman’s betrayal: it would not be surprising if Fuchs had been approached with the goal of maximising knowledge that would contribute to Britain’s now independent atomic weapons programme. Yet picking his brains over information learned before the McMahon Act was passed can hardly count as espionage.

Rossiter believes this transaction may have affected Fuchs’s confession. Rossiter discovered at the National Archives a file titled ‘Miscellaneous Super Bomb Notes by Klaus Fuchs’, dated 1954, but when he went back to re-inspect it in November 2013, it had been withdrawn at the request of the Ministry of Defence, as if the idea of collaboration between Fuchs and the Ministry were an item of some embarrassment. If this were so, it is perhaps surprising that Fuchs did not bring this matter up with his lawyer, as he surely was expecting a stiff sentence. The episode could even hint instead at influence by bureaucrats who knew what Fuchs was up to, and even approved it. After all, in the USA, Roosevelt’s nefarious emissary, Joseph Davies, had stated that Soviet stealing of atomic secrets was morally justified (Ottawa Citizen, February 19, 1946, according to David Levy). Yet, if it was not considered embarrassing to mention Fuchs in this context in 1954, why should it be so in 2013? Despite this unseemly and provocative attempt at a cover-up, there seems to be no indication of any controlled release of information (or disinformation) to Soviet Russia using Fuchs as an intermediary.

Then there is the case of Wilfrid Basil Mann, whose role in the saga of atomic secrets remains elusive. I have written about Mann before (see Mann Overboard!), pointing out the discrepancies in the account of the scientist’s negotiations to leave the Tube Alloys project in London, and gain a transfer to Washington. This career move suggested to me connivance over a clandestine move by the British authorities, which now seems to be supported in other accounts. Reliable testimony on Mann’s life is sparse, but I note that Nigel West, in his history of the stealing of atomic secrets, Mortal Crimes (2004), wrote of Mann that he was ‘cultivated by the KGB to the point that he was run as a double agent by the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff’, thus finessing the question of whether Mann had been recruited by SIS (see below).  It was not clear at the time where West derived his information; West also appears to contradict the terminological rules he set up himself as to the nature of a ‘double agent’. (I have developed a diagram that sets out to distinguish ‘spies’ and ‘double agents’ based on their initial recruitment and allegiance, and later conversions or treachery: it must be noted that, in order to be considered a ‘double agent’, the organization the agent is then working for must know that he is a confirmed agent of a foreign power. See here:

Spy Mole, or DoubleAgent?

Andrew Lownie, who published a biography of Guy Burgess in 2016, then found further incriminating evidence in the papers of Patrick Reilly (which I have since confirmed) that indicated that Mann was a Soviet spy (cryptonym MALONE) disclosing confidential intelligence to his masters. Lownie referred to the thinly veiled description of Mann in Climate of Treason (1979), where Andrew Boyle wrote that ‘Basil’ was identified and ‘broke down quickly and easily’. “He was given the choice of continuing to work for the Russians as a double agent under CIA direction, or face prosecution under American law. He agreed to provide Maclean with useless information in return for immunity from prosecution and American citizenship”, wrote Lownie. Boyle’s account, nourished by CIA contacts, explained that Mann had been tailed because of his contact with Donald Maclean, and, having been turned, was tutored (by James Angleton) to advise Maclean which information the later should extract from the US Energy Commission’s headquarters, and then pass on to the Soviets. Thus we have a clear glimpse of a disinformation exercise. Yet why the Americans thought it useful to supply any information to the Russians at this time, and why they did not haul Maclean in if they had proof he was a spy, is not clear. Despite Mann’s having been ‘turned’, he was not ‘controlled’, and still could have signalled to his Soviet handler, or Maclean himself, that the latter was under suspicion, which would, while increasing Maclean’s emotional instability, probably also have accelerated his flight.

In 2000, when Mann was 92 years old, Dan tracked him down to a retirement home in Owings Mills, Maryland. He did not gain much fresh information from his prey, although he did extract a confession from Mann that he was indeed ‘the Fifth Man’ (the subject of his rhetorically-titled memoir, Was There a Fifth Man?). Since John Cairncross had long been outed as Number 5, that admission was perhaps surprising. Dan appended the photograph he took of Mann (below) with the following (partial) text: “After a short period with the British nuclear programme in Canada Mann returned to Washington as a member of MI6, advising Donald Maclean on atomic matters, reporting to Welsh, and liaising with James Angleton of the CIA. Under suspicion after Maclean’s defection, Mann was replaced by Dr Robert Press, an attaché at the Embassy. From 1951-1980 Mann worked at the US National Bureau of Standards, and headed the radioactivity department. He later became a naturalized American citizen, but was accused in 1979 of being a Soviet agent, the same year Anthony Blunt was publicly named a wartime spy. Mann was a double agent, working for both British Intelligence and the NKVD, the Russians believing he was part of the British wartime Double X operation. During the war and in the post-war period Mann had been in regular contact with Gorsky, Kukin, Kreshin and Barkovsky. The author visited Mann in Rainbow Hall, a retirement home in Owings Mills, near Baltimore, just months before he died in March 2001. KGB veterans confirm that Mann was a Soviet agent of considerable influence. His codename in NKVD transmissions from London was Malone. In his debriefing session in Moscow Philby argued that Mann was unstable and his information should not be relied upon.”

Wilfrid Basil Mann in 2000

Nigel West agrees, in his Dictionary of British Intelligence, that Soviet archives appear to confirm that the spy identified as MALONE was indeed Mann. And here is the relevant page from the NKVD archive, as presented by Dan:

 

It is dated August 23, 1945, and confirms that MALONE is an ‘agent of the NKGB, employee of the special technical bureau of the second department of the intelligence service [SIS]’. Yet this chronology is complicated by the fact that Mann, in his memoir, states that he returned to the UK from Washington on 29 September 1945, docking at Southampton. This archival entry, however, reports a meeting between the head of the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research, [Sir Edward] Appleton, attended by MALONE, that took place on August 17. If Mann was truly MALONE, and had in fact been debriefed after his return, either he or the NKGB archive was falsifying the record. Mann also dissembles about his appointment to the ‘civil service’, after which he moved to Canada, arriving at Chalk River on 27 July, 1946, to continue his further career in counter-espionage.

But what is astonishing in Dan’s account is the claim that Mann came under suspicion only after Maclean’s desertion. Moreover, Dan does not allude to Mann’s being turned. Thus his classification of Mann’s being a double agent, because he worked ‘for both British Intelligence and the NKVD’ is also spurious. More accurately Mann was a spy (like Nunn May) who had made a personal allegiance to the Communist movement, had been recruited to SIS (like Kim Philby), and had then acted as an advisor to Donald Maclean (another mole), perhaps spying for Britain and the Soviet Union against the Americans (when Maclean was not aware of Mann’s true loyalties), and then had been turned by the CIA (or so they thought). No wonder Mann became a little unstable: he did not have the temperament of a TRICYCLE (Dusko Popov) or a GARBO (Juan Pujol Garcia) to handle the stress of such dissimulation and conflict of roles. In this mass of rumours, the exact chronology of Mann’s activities is probably never definable. Yet the most fascinating fact coming out of Dan’s summary is where he asserts that the Russians believed there was a British wartime Double Cross operation targeted at the Soviet Union. I shall return to this topic shortly.

Akin to the Mann/MALONE case is that of Cedric Belfrage. In many ways his career has similarities to that of Mann – a British citizen with communist convictions who ended up in the United States, and then came under suspicion from the US authorities. Only Belfrage’s identity was revealed more blatantly, by the Soviet courier Elisabeth Bentley, who had taken over the network of her lover and NKVD illegal agent in New York, Jacob Golos, when the latter died in November 1943. She told the FBI, in her 1945 confession, of Belfrage’s activities while working for British Security Coordination (BSC), the representative of Britain’s overall intelligence interests in the USA. Belfrage then left the USA at the end of the war, to take up a position with the Allied government of occupation in Germany, but returned to the USA in 1947, when the FBI started interrogating him. The fact that he lied to the FBI about his removal of documents from BSC to hand over to one V.J. Jerome was confirmed later in VENONA decrypts, where Belfrage’s activity as the agent with cryptonym UNC/9, during the period 1943-1945, is clearly shown. Belfrage was not charged by the FBI. As Nigel West writes: “Despite Bentley’s incriminating testimony, because the offenses he had committed against British interests had occurred in America, he was never charged.” Instead, he was subject to a deportation order after being called to give evidence at the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953.  He fought the order, but was eventually deported to England in August 1955.

Yet there is another link in the ‘double agent’ movement. John Simkin has written in depth on Belfrage in his Spartacus blog (http://spartacus-educational.com/spartacus-blogURL61.htm). As if coming to Belfrage’s defence while challenging the perspective of a BBC programme on Belfrage, Simkin makes the somewhat strange statement: “However, as he explained in his own interview with the FBI in April, 1947, he only passed information to the Soviet Union on behalf of BSC. Belfrage, like several intelligence officers, worked as a double agent in the war.” He attempts to make the case that, as Belfrage was working for the BSC when he was passing secrets to the Soviets, he was providing that information under orders, as if Belfrage’s testimony in this matter should be trusted. Yet, with all his communist affiliations and obvious illicit disclosures – Belfrage joined the Party in the US in 1937, only to drop it, as many others did, for cover – Belfrage should be characterized more as a Soviet spy who was recruited by a British intelligence organisation, in this case, BSC, just as Mann was, rather than as an idealistic anti-fascist who took a long time to understand the reality of communism. Simkin presents Belfrage as innocent – in other words, that he was a true patriot under cover feeding selected information to the Soviets. But that would make him a supremely competent intelligence officer – not a double agent.

Simkin may have become excited about what is a fascinating thread in this story – the need for America’s OSS (the wartime predecessor of the CIA) to understand what double-crossing was about. Simkin quotes a passage from the History of BSC that indicates that BSC was helping the Americans run double agents. “Many of the FBI’s troubles with double agents arose from their lack of understanding of the European mind and outlook, and their inability to place in charge of a double agent officers with a background likely to win his friendship and sympathy”, he quotes, adding that ‘the book also attempts to explain why the BSC double agents had to be given real intelligence to pass to another country’. “Finally, double agents cannot be used to deceive the enemy unless they are given, from time to time, true and useful intelligence material which they are permitted to transmit, for otherwise the enemy will realize that their information is of no value and will soon discard them.” I have a copy of this work in front of me. The chapter on ‘Double Agents’ very clearly states “A man or woman who is already permanently engaged in espionage on the enemy’s behalf must be persuaded or coerced to retain his employment but to transfer his allegiance to the other side.” If Belfrage had been in this category, he would have had to be a proven Soviet agent first, known to the authorities, and then coaxed to shift his allegiances. That is not the claim. Moreover, this book focuses exclusively on counter-espionage against the Nazis: Simkin’s inability to distinguish between the highly different circumstances of the Double Cross System and the management of suspected Soviet spies represents a colossal failure in analysis.

Were the Americans clumsily trying to imitate the practices of the XX System, but now against communist spies? In June 1943, the OSS had transferred the Yale academic Norman Holmes Pearson to London to learn from British counter-intelligence operations, and he became a member of the XX Committee in 1944, where he offered advice on some of the ethically more troublesome decisions that had to be made. (Other Americans involved in the BODYGUARD deception plans were allowed to attend XX meetings.) Holmes also recruited James Angleton as his assistant, an experience that had a long-lasting effect on the future CIA officer, who developed close relations with both Wilfrid Mann and Kim Philby. In his study of this period, Cloak and Gown, Robin Winks wrote: “James Murphy [counter-intelligence chief in OSS] was beginning to think that the next task would be to detect Soviet intelligence agents in the west, including those who worked under the cover of their own embassies. The NKVD had begun as a defensive intelligence organization with the goal of saving the revolution in Russia, but in its Cheka guise it had turned into an offensive operation. In this Murphy was joined by Norman Pearson, privy to the secrets of the British use of double agents against the Germans. At some point between August and December 1943 Murphy mentioned his concern to Angleton, who was fascinated by the notion of penetrating the enemy by exploiting its own agents.”

Yet it was one thing to turn a captured Nazi parachuting into the country, and quite another to attempt to convince an isolated but committed Soviet spy to change his allegiance fully to the other side! Most of the Abwehr agents landed in the United Kingdom were not Nazi enthusiasts, and quite quickly agreed to their new role. The most stubborn, TATE, took some time to be convinced, even though the alternative was a death sentence. And, indeed, many spies were led to the hangman’s noose or the firing-squad as the only alternative course of action. That threat did not loom over Blunt or Philby, Long or Cairncross. Guy Liddell would have preferred to shuffle off Nunn May or Fuchs, when they were proved to be spies, off to some provincial university, and Leo Long was encouraged to go on some kind of long stretch of Gardening Leave to repent, before being called back to intelligence duties. The punishment that the Cambridge Five faced, since MI5 did not want any messy trial to be undertaken, and knew that only a confession would procure a conviction, was the British version of the Comfy Chair so menacingly offered by Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition. Did Pearson and Angleton really think they had a model for a strategy? After all, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg quietly went to the electric chair because they refused to implicate others, or change their opinions. The whole performance seems very ingenuous, but a fuller study of that aspect of OSS/CIA policy must remain for another day.

This intrinsically absurd phenomenon received official approbation after Margaret Thatcher unmasked Anthony Blunt in the House of Commons in 1979. Richard Davenport-Hines writes, in his Enemies Within (2018), that the official historian of intelligence, Sir Michael Howard, had a letter published in the Times, on November 21, which exculpated MI5’s cover-up. Decrying ‘witch-hunts’ (of course, but we must remember that while there was no such entity as ‘witches’, ‘unidentified Soviet spies’ was a very real category), Howard apparently gave a ‘temperate explanation’. The Times archive on-line does not go back that far, but Davenport-Hines next quotes from the letter: “When an enemy agent is discovered, the natural instinct of the security authorities is not to expose but to use him, and the greater his importance the stronger his instinct will be. Not only is he a mine of useful information, but if his employers are unaware that he has been ‘blown’, they will keep in contact with him. He can then be used as a double agent, feeding them information. For MI5, the value of keeping Professor Blunt as a card in their hands rather than discarding him by handing him over to justice must have been a major factor in the minds of those who made the decision.”

This is manifest nonsense. Blunt had managed to extricate himself from any commitments to his Soviet handlers soon after the war, and had lain idle, as a spy, for almost two decades before Michael Straight revealed Blunt’s activities, and MI5 successfully gained a confession from him in 1964. His importance then as a source was negligible. He was not a ‘mine of information’: on the contrary, he lied and dissembled about the whole story. If he had started producing ‘disinformation’ for Moscow, presumably under some threat of prosecution otherwise, Soviet intelligence would have immediately smelled a rat. Moreover, what would have stopped him telling his contacts what had happened, and thus alerting them to the deception? Was a minder going to accompany Blunt on his assignations to ensure that he passed on the information correctly? Howard’s ingenuous message should have received a vigorous riposte, but Davenport-Hines appears to have been taken in as well.

And what had the Soviets thought of all this wartime Double-Cross activity? After all, they were well aware of what was going on with Masterman’s committee, since Anthony Blunt kept them well-informed. Indeed, in 1943 Moscow Centre’s suspicions that British Intelligence might be double-crossing them were raised after Kim Philby made an operational mistake. According to West’s and Tsarev’s Crown Jewels, Moscow was shocked that Philby had decided to recruit as a source Peter Smollett (né Smolka) in the Ministry of Information, to be handled by Guy Burgess, without gaining permission first. ‘The Centre was appalled: who was Smollett?’ Notwithstanding that this, on the surface, showed a bewildering amount of ignorance about a person who was known to be a friend of the Communists, had visited the Soviet Union, and written a sympathetic book about it, Moscow was unconvinced by Burgess’s protestations, and documented that they now had set themselves the task of discovering what disinformation the British were planting on them. Lieutenant Elena Modrzchinskaya, who headed the English section of the NKVD, in July 1943 sent a damning report to her boss, Merkulov, claiming that the XX Committee was conducting a well-coordinated program against the Soviets as well as the Nazis. It was a typical display of obtuseness that only homo sovieticus could accomplish, in which Moscow displayed disgust at the untrustworthiness of its ally, while at the same time indulging in deep penetration of the latter’s political infrastructure in order to steal secrets.

It all blew over. At some stage the NKVD leaders decided that their spies had provided them with so much rich material that it was highly likely that it consisted of genuine confidential documents illicitly gained, and they could also not identify exactly which information was false. Burgess pointed out that it would be impossible for the British authorities to maintain so many double agents in places of influence. Just because the British had developed an efficient double-cross system against the Nazis, it did not automatically mean that they would deploy it against their allies. Russian paranoia had come into play. Thus by October 1943 the credibility of the network in Britain was restored. The London residency was told to take great care in handling the group, but the period of suspicion had come to a close by August 1944. Just before then, Blunt had given his bosses a comprehensive account of the XX System, which would have described its sole focus on the Abwehr, and that helped the NKVD to relax. Moreover, a delegation to Moscow, early in 1944, led by John Bevan, the head of the London Controlling Section (responsible for deception) had explained the whole BODYGUARD project to the Soviets, with the result that Lieutenant-General Kuznetsov of the General Staff was able to master its intricacies. Presumably Messrs. Murphy and Pearson were not aware of this goodwill visit.

Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU, for whom Fuchs and Sonia worked) would have been unaware of all this turmoil. Yet it is hard to imagine that the GRU did not observe the whole matter of Sonia’s installation in England with a certain amount of amazement. How could the British authorities be so dumb as to facilitate her transfer? Even Sonia recorded in her memoir that she thought she had some kind of protector helping her in MI5. The evidence (such as the phony-looking extracts from the Soviet archives that suggest Sonia was merely loyally passing on information about German war plans) indicate that they went along with the game, using the surreptitious wireless set for the real business. Yet they must overall have concluded that the naivety of British Intelligence outweighed its natural wiliness, else they would not have been so indulgent with Alexander Foote. They had concerns that he might be a British plant back in Switzerland, and Foote must have performed heroically after his return to Moscow in 1945 to convince his interrogators that he was the genuine article.

The links between the activities of the XX Committee and attempts to turn Communist spies do have some substance, however. After the war, General Leslie Hollis *, then Chief of Staff to the Ministry of Defence, set up what was called the ‘Hollis Committee’, effectively taking over the role of the old W Board, which had directed high-level policy for the management of double agents, and to which the XX Committee had reported. To complement it, a little-known committee was set up to replace the wartime XX Committee, titled the Inter-Service Communications Intelligence Committee, under the chairmanship of ‘TAR’ Robertson (him who was so important a figure in the Double-Cross operation), to coordinate ongoing deception plans. The only adversary of substance, to whom such plans might be directed, was the Soviet Union. This committee did explore some ideas, such as using GARBO to infiltrate Soviet intelligence via Nazi officers recruited by the Soviets, although that particular exploit was abandoned. Moreover, there is evidence of loftier attempts to pass misinformation to the Russians. Thaddeus Holt, in his epic account of military deception in WWII, The Deceivers, writes about postwar efforts by the British and the Americans to mislead the Soviets as to the state of Western research and development, and ‘in particular to induce them to fritter their resources in directions known to the West to be unproductive’. Holt refers in passing to Operations THUMBTACK, CLASSROOM and BOYHOOD that were under discussion in 1948, and the little that Holt offers about them suggests that the first of these could well apply to nuclear secrets. (I am astonished that such an accomplished historian as Holt could, as late as 2007, solemnly describe the attempts to mislead the Soviets without acknowledging that the whole wartime deception plan had been revealed to them by the Cambridge spies.)

[* Were Roger Hollis, director-general of MI5, and General Leslie Hollis perhaps cousins? Roger was born in Wells in 1905, and his father, George Arthur, was at that time a curate. Leslie was born in Walcot, Bath, in 1897, and his father, Charles Joseph, was also a curate . . .]

But Fuchs seems a highly unlikely candidate to have been adopted at this time, and there is no evidence (that I have found) which would suggest that efforts had been undertaken to persuade Sonia to act as a double agent as the Cold War got under way. By then, her utility had diminished. Dansey, the premier candidate for the project of her manipulation, had died in 1947. The only clear incidents – with Mann and Belfrage – both occurred in the United States, where British Security Co-ordination, more closely linked to SIS than to MI5, rather clumsily succeeded in recruiting officers with communist sympathies to perform some sort of propaganda. Inspired by the heroics from Masterman and his team, BSC (and the OSS, FBI and CIA) then may have made even clumsier attempts to convince them to work against their Soviet bosses. Yet the conditions that made double-crossing of Nazi spies successful in wartime Britain – threats, confidence in the reoriented agent, tight and exclusive control, painstaking preparation, a high degree of security – simply did not obtain with the management of Soviet spies.

As for domestic lessons from the exercises during the war, and afterwards, we know that Britain was harsher with foreign-born spies (e.g. Fuchs, Blake) than it was with native-born Englishmen (and Scotsmen) who had betrayed their country from what the Security Service considered was a misguided sense of mission. (If obtuseness was the métier of homo sovieticus, that of homo britannicus was hypocrisy.) But MI5 (and MI6) did not linger long over the thought that they might be turned to good advantage. These characters did what they did out of political conviction, not from shabby mercenary motives, and the preference was, when their guilt was established, to hush the whole matter up and get the pests secluded somewhere, maybe abroad (like Cairncross), or preferably, perhaps, behind the Iron Curtain. If the intelligence services had tried to turn them as a bargain for non-prosecution, how would they ever have been convinced that an ideological volte-face had occurred, and that their victims had been defanged? The spies would still have had to communicate with their controllers in person, so it would have been impossible to supervise their duplicity. Guessing full well that they did not control the full network, what could MI5 and SIS possibly have hoped to achieve?

Pincher’s vague denials should thus be seen more as a smokescreen to deflect attention from the more plausible scenario that British intelligence tried to manipulate Sonia. She was never any kind of double agent, and any plans to assist her were conceived long before the XX Committee was created. If Dansey, as Colonel Z, did try to facilitate her passage into a role where the SIS might have had some measure of supervision over her, it was far more likely that it would have been simply a discreet attempt to decrypt her wireless transmissions. The official histories provide no insights. Dansey himself does not appear in the index of any of the five bulky volumes of the History of British Intelligence in World War II, which cannot be attributed solely to the fact of his unpopularity. It is true that the authors were reticent in identifying individuals, but then there is no reference to the Z Organisation, either. The lack of coverage means nothing. It could indicate that there was a massive cover-up over an intelligence disaster: it could indicate that there truly was some manipulation, but that the historians were ‘encouraged’ not to write about it. But it surely cannot mean that nothing of significance at all happened around the indulgent treatment of Sonia. And the fact is that SIS and MI5 were outwitted. The Soviets swindled the British.

[I encourage readers who may have insights into Pincher’s claims to contact me at antonypercy@aol.com]

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

 

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Politics

Struggles at the Desktop

Monitoring the home security system at 3835 Members Club Boulevard

[Warning: This article may not be suitable for readers of a sensitive disposition. It describes encounters with information technology that may be disturbing to some.]

“Nowadays if there is an error in the input program the computer not only detects it but gives the approximate description and location of the error and recommends procedure for correction.” (Gerald S. Hawkins, in Stonehenge Decoded, 1965)

When IBM hired me as a trainee Systems Engineer in 1969, it was not because of my data processing skills. That day in late August, when I walked into the Katherine Street office in Croydon, Surrey (shortly before the branch moved into the new building on Cherry Orchard Road), I did not know the difference between a punched-card and a paper-clip. It was not a classical career beginning, and not a carefully-planned strategic move. In an indecisive third year at Oxford, I had applied to take the Certificate of Education after the completion of my degree in Modern Languages, but soon began to have doubts. On a weeklong visit to a local primary school in Purley, Surrey, before the first term started, I had innocently queried the headmaster as to why the classes did not appear to be learning multiplication tables by rote. “Oh, Mr Percy!”, he replied with a condescending smile. ‘We don’t do tables any more!” For this was the era of ‘child-centred’ learning, where every infant had to discover for him- or her-self that 7 x 8 resulted in 56, and so on. I recall the way that tables and mental arithmetic were drilled into my generation about fifteen years earlier, and how the pattern of number combinations has stayed with me ever since. In 1968, however, I was entering the world of Progressive Education.

Perhaps my aspirations were also checked by my term of teaching-practice. Having had a term of almost total inactivity, owing to my being on crutches because of a rugby injury, I was informed, in December 1968, that I was urgently needed as a replacement at Bognor Regis * Comprehensive School, as the previous teacher of Russian had been fired for getting one of his pupils pregnant. I did not learn the cause of the summons until I arrived: the school was also going through a painful merger of a grammar-school with a secondary modern, which also dampened what remained of my enthusiasm. Halfway through this term, I decided that a quick return to the classroom was perhaps not the most life-enhancing prospect to be contemplated. Taking advice from some outfit that suggested that my interest in chess, bridge, crosswords and logic puzzles might open up some doors in the computing industry, I secured interviews with some manufacturers, of which NCR and IBM were the most satisfactory. I took care to complete my Certificate of Education so that I could have a back-up career lest the corridors of business found my talents wanting.

[* Bognor Regis is a coastal town in West Sussex. It gained its regal addendum after King George V recuperated there, and the monarch’s dying words have been apocryphally reported as ‘Bugger Bognor!’. When Ursula Kuczynski (agent SONIA) needed a place for her children to stay while she returned to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1938, she left them with a friend in Felpham, which is part of Bognor. There is no truth to the rumour that I was in 1969 undertaking, under deep cover, some early sleuthing into Sonia’s contacts.]

Unfortunately, IBM was a little slow to snap up the opportunity to make me an offer, so I had to write to them to explain to them that this entrepreneurial youth was thirsting to make his contribution to the computing revolution. Perhaps the company was waiting for such a show of initiative, since I was rewarded with an appointment at the Head Office in Chiswick, to meet one of their Personnel Managers (no ‘Human Resources’ in those days: employees were certainly not ‘associates’, and customers were assuredly not ‘guests’). I was delighted to find that this benevolent soul had also studied Russian at Oxford. He started to quote me a quatrain of Pushkin’s, which I was happily able to complete. I passed the interview. I was in.

Before I started the eight-week basic training course at Sudbury, Middlesex, I had a week in the office, where I was directed to a small room, and given a Programmed Instruction text on IBM’s System/360 to work through. These matters were all rather daunting to me, and I recall I had to interrupt my study to ask the Systems Engineering Manager what the meaning of some concept was. It all comes back to me quite clearly: I wanted to know what was special about the sixteen ‘registers’ of any 360 computer system. Registers were (and no doubt still are) the mechanism by which the locations of computer memory were addressed, but they also seemed to have some properties that lent themselves to high-speed arithmetic. Somewhat confused, I asked the manager whether he could explain their nature to me. “Oh, I never really understood all that stuff”, he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.” I think we adjourned to the squash court soon after that, and I gave him a good runaround in return.

The Systems Engineering class was tough. All new recruits were required to go through the same basic training, to make sure they were immersed into the IBM way of doing things. I recall a few students who had already served several years with IBM’s rival, ICL, and were thus already very familiar with the concepts and practice of data processing. Most of the graduates straight from university had scientific backgrounds, and had used computers in their laboratory work. There were times when I wondered whether I would make it. My ability to learn seemed to correlate exactly with the ability of the individual instructor to present topics in schemas that matched how my brain was able to integrate new ideas, namely very logically, with clear step-by-step evolution, and no grand jumps that left canyons of unexplored territory behind. Gradually, things began to make sense. I completed the three stages of the training about a year later, and was ready to roll.

Unfortunately, IBM was not sure at that time exactly what the role of systems engineers was, as anti-trust threats had meant that the company could not hand out systems engineering resources to its customers for free. At the same time, we were neophytes eager to learn by practical experience, while the projects we were given were haphazard, not always suitable, and not always educational. I soon learned that I liked coding, appreciated the value of well-designed and well-implemented systems, and became very frustrated with poorly written documentation. And I did have a knack for working out what was at fault when things went wrong, although that experience was marred by a disastrous project where I was asked to make some changes to a Vehicle Scheduling Package for a prominent and demanding customer. There was no guide to how the product worked, and I stumbled for weeks in trying to tweak it to meet the idiosyncratic needs of the customer. I received no help: the project was simply abandoned, I believe. But two lessons started to emerge in my mind: i) the knowledge that there was a logical explanation for every computer failure, and ii) the importance of good diagnostics being built into any product.

I move forward seven or eight years, and two jobs later. I was working as European Customer Service Manager for a small American software company. Our flagship product was known as a transaction-processing monitor, an adjunct to the operating system that handled communications with a network of terminals and managed the user programs that the customer wrote to provide on-line business functions. One of the challenges with this software configuration was that a motley set of technologies all operated in one partition, all clamoring for resources, and all potentially stepping on each other. Much of the code was written in low-level Assembler language, which provided greater manipulative power, and faster execution speeds, but also provided opportunities for corrupting storage occupied by other software. Frequent were the ‘core dumps’ (we still called them such, even though ferrite cores had been superseded as memory components by then) that were mailed in by customers when the system blew up, and we were unable to detect what had happened over the telephone. Then the support team would compare the state of computer memory with source listings of our product, in order to find out where our product (it was frequently the fault of the product) had gone wrong.

One particularly stubborn problem endures in my memory. A prestigious customer had experienced an execution failure, not recreatable, that caused the partition to explode. (The customer was actually the institution where the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, for whom Sonia had acted as courier in 1942-43, was working when he confessed in January 1950: there is no truth in the rumour that I was sent in by MI5, under subterfuge, to undertake an audit of its security procedures.) The requisite hundreds of sheets of print-out were sent in. No one could work out what had happened, and I devoted hours and hours to it. Eventually, I determined that it looked as if an error routine in IBM’s telecommunications package, VTAM, had failed to save properly the register contents that had been passed to it (and which had to be restored when the routine had completed its work), as all processes used those same registers I had been puzzled about back in 1969. I called the customer with my tentative suggestion, and asked him to pursue the matter with IBM. The next day he called back: indeed, one of the error handlers was incorrectly saving and restoring registers. He apologized for not searching for, and applying, the fix that would remedy the problem. Much goodwill was gained.

The second experience that reinforced my earlier lesson was in helping to roll out a new feature in the product, something called ‘Multiple Record Hold’ (MRH). The previous version had allowed only one file record to be held at a time, which was a heavy constraint. If a user application wanted to prevent anyone else accessing a customer record, say, while it then checked an inventory record that it might want to deplete, the systems designer was in a bind. MRH addressed that problem. But our developers designed and coded the feature too quickly and carelessly. Several occasions would arise where the programmer would try to invoke the feature inappropriately (for example, invalid keys, or multiple requests to the same file), or the software detected something illogical. It would return an ‘L’ code to the program, indicating such. But the programmer had no idea what it meant. There must have been several dozen places in the source code where an ‘L’ error code was returned. We, as support personnel, had to trace through the record of programmatic requests, and the source code listed, to detect at what point in the logic the ‘L’ had been returned, and then provide an explanation. But it could all have been made so simple: an auxiliary area existed where a return code could have been posted, and a corresponding piece of documentation could have explained what every code meant, with an enormous benefit in productivity. I was just about to start coding this enhancement when I was invited to work as Director of Technical Services for the parent company in Norwalk, Connecticut. At that time the flagship product was on the way out: the feature was never implemented. And so my wife and I, with ten-month-old son, moved to the USA.

[In parenthesis, for the more technical among my readership, I should also mention here that an unusual feature of this product was that the Control Program was written in a high-level language, COBOL, a decision presumably made in the interests of clarity and maintainability, not in the cause of performance. But when some advanced features were added to the product, it became necessary for the CP [not the Communist Party] to access low-level bitstrings, something COBOL cannot do. Thus an Assembler (low-level) language subroutine called GETBITS was added, to return statuses for further decision-taking and logic-branching. I recall very clearly how one of our most demanding – and shrewdest – customers in the UK, when undergoing performance problems, ascertained, through the use of a testing device, that GETBITS was consuming 6% of all machine cycles on its 370/145 – an enormous amount. Furthermore, when I inspected the new CP code, I discovered that, in many circumstances, the GETBITS routine was being invoked, but the CP was then taking branches that were completely independent of the results of the call! When I vaguely suggested to the President of the Company (who had probably written much of the original code himself) that I could rewrite the whole CP in Assembler language on my weekends, and deliver a much faster system to our customers, he declared, very seriously, that anyone who attempted that would be fired. He still relocated me to report to him in Connecticut, but later gracelessly told me that he only did so because the Director of R & D persuaded him. On such whims do whole lives change.]

The reason for this long introduction is that I recently had to replace my home PC, and experienced massive problems. For some months, my old HP Pavilion had been warning me of its imminent demise. The fan had broken, and the device was presumably in danger of overheating. I would get a warning message each time I re-booted, and occasionally Windows would blow up. So shortly before Christmas, I bought an HP Envy Desktop, preparing to install it after my winter break. I did not buy a printer or monitor: I had an HP Photosmart printer that was working well, and, only a year ago, I had had to replace the monitor that had suddenly died on me with a new model. This new monitor had HDMI support, but, since my PC was so old, it did not support an HDMI connection, and I thus had to use the older-generation VGA connector. This apparently meant that I had no sound support on my computer, but that was no great loss, even though I could not listen to music while I was working. I got used to it. Early in January, I thus loaded up the printer with new ink cartridges, backed up the files on the old PC, checked the cable configurations to ensure I knew what socket went in where, and unpacked the new machine.

To start with, all went very smoothly. True, Windows10 was a bit of a shock, with some features apparently dropped, and some weird patterns of activity occurring, such as random duplication of keyboard strokes. But overall it worked, and I restored my files (well, partially: but that’s another story.) Then I suddenly realised that I was not getting any sound from the computer, despite the new HDMI connection. The driver was okay, the system told me that the graphics was working properly, and yet no sound emanated from the monitor. It took me a while to work out that, all that long year ago, I had been sold a monitor with no sound support. Well, it was my fault for not asking, I suppose, but I think the salesperson was at fault, as well. Maybe he just wanted to move that product off the shelf. After all, why would I want to move from an antiquated broken monitor that supported sound to a spiffy new one that didn’t? There’s a lesson.

Next, I tried the printer. And here is where the problems started. Word documents would not print at all; PDFs would print, but very faintly. Crossword grids from the Web printed out partially. Emails from my queue printed fine, however. (I have one to prove it, as it relates to my problems.) What was going on with my device, which had been working so well a day beforehand? What caused such erratic behavior, where some items came out fine, but others were ignored? I did not believe it was a dirty printhead problem (something I had encountered and fixed a couple of years ago). My first step was, on my next trip into Wilmington (thirty-five miles away) to go to Best Buy, the store where I had bought both the printer and the PC, and ask for their advice. They immediately said ‘buy a new printer’, hinting that many users suffered from the same or similar experiences, as it would be too expensive to investigate the problem, and printers were so cheap. But I wasn’t going to give up that quickly.

After looking on the Web for users with similar complaints, I tried a number of things. I reloaded the printer driver (the current version was dated October 2015, which was perhaps not encouraging). I deleted the device, and added it back in. I reset it. I set it up as a default printer. I tried printing test pages. At some stage I logged on to the Microsoft and HP support forums, where ‘experts’ (but not employees of the respective companies) would generously offer suggestions to fix the problem. Nothing worked. Eventually, an HP employee joined the forum, and tried to help me. I shan’t go through all the steps he recommended, but he ended up giving me secret codes to enter on the printer itself, to determine why it wasn’t able to operate any off-line functions either. But even this process did not work as he outlined, as it was interrupted by another message. At this stage, we agreed that I should call up HP customer support.

Since the problem appeared to be with my newly warranted PC, I called the number for desktop computers, and was soon speaking to a support representative (in India), to whom I gave all the relevant information. Then, when I described my problem, he said that I needed to speak to the Ink-jet support group, and gave me another number to call. I went through the same process, was given a case-number, and started providing details of my problem. But when I gave the representative the Serial ID of my printer, she (in the US, this time) told me that I would have to pay for support, as the device was no longer under warranty. This did not completely surprise me – I have paid for such telephone support from HP beforehand – but I was not actually in the mood, given the trials I had already experienced, for having to pay for diagnosis that I really felt was HP’s responsibility. I somehow convinced her that she should at least provide an initial investigation of the problem for free. So we downloaded some software that allowed her to control my computer while I watched.

What happened next was rather disturbing. The representative asked me what make of router I was using, and when I responded ‘Ubee’, she expressed a degree of shock, almost one of recognition, as if the Ubee-Photosmart combination was a known toxic one. I tried to determine whether that was the case, but received no reply, as she started manipulating the Ubee tables on my PC. Clearly, she knows what she is doing, I said to myself. And then the connections were lost. First, the phone contact disappeared. She sent me a message indicating such, so I quickly sent her a text, imploring her to call me back. Then that connection went dead, too, and I was left stranded, with the shape of my router tables unknown, and the problem unresolved.

At least I had a case number. I called back, but this time was routed to another call-centre in India. Even though I gave the representative there the case-number, and told him what had happened, he claimed he could do nothing for me. I rung off in exasperation, hoping that the contact in the USA would call me back. But nothing happened. I suspect that the supervisor of the representative trying to help me in the USA had interrupted the process, probably reprimanding the young lady for not charging me for such support time, and thus had broken off all contact. I shall never know. Even when an HP customer relations person (who had presumably kept an eye on the forum, and had been alerted by the HP technician who joined it) contacted me afterwards, he was powerless to find out what had been going on. But to abandon a customer half-way through a process when the device was under the control of a remote technician was scandalous, in my unhumble opinion.

So I gave up, and bought a new printer, from Epson. Never again any HP products for me.

Perhaps it was all a strange coincidence, but one afterthought came to me. If my printer had enough intelligence in it that, when I ran out of ink, and inserted new cartridges, it could send a message in real-time to HP Central to encourage me to buy a replacement set, maybe it was also smart enough to detect that it was now being driven by a more modern, faster computer, and that a process akin to what we systems engineers used to call ‘graceful degradation’ should occur, so that the user would have to buy a new printer? That was the immediate recommendation of the technician at the company who sold me the printer, remember. After all, Apple has admitted slowing down its devices to preserve battery power, and Volkswagen fudged emissions when engines detected that they were running under laboratory tests. I would not be at all surprised if something like that happened.

And then my wife’s laptop computer started having problems. She would be told that an important Security update needed to be installed on Windows10, after which the process would hog her computer for hours on end, only to fail with the message ‘0x800700c1‘, when it was 99% complete. We ignored it for a while, since I was mightily consumed with sorting out my own PC, but I at last got round to investigating. ‘Contact Microsoft Support’ was the guidance, so I went on-line, and was soon directed to a document titled “You receive the error message ‘Something went wrong’, when attempting to install the latest version of Windows10.” I was amazed to learn that the company offered ‘many steps that I could try’, as there were ‘many possible reasons your device may be unable to update to the latest version of Windows’. This was extraordinary. A specific error message had been issued, yet the software had no clue as to what circumstances had cause it to fail, and the user of a consumer product was supposed to experiment with all these approaches in order to resolve the problem? What on earth would the Little Old Lady from Dubuque do?

I decided to request an on-line chat with a support person. This did not take long, and I was put in touch with Parthiban, in India. We set up the protocol by which such persons take over control of the computer, and he soon decided that the problem was due to a corrupt database, and a conflict with Norton Security. He initiated the update again, but he had to sign off before the process completed, leaving me with a link that I could invoke in case of failure. I was given a case-number, and waited for an hour or so. And then the installation failed again. So the next day, I used the reinvocation, and was before long involved in another on-line chat, with Deepthi. Now Deepthi did not appear to know what he (or she) was doing, as I could watch him wandering aimlessly around HP configuration options. My mistrust was justified, as he suddenly signed off the session without letting me know why.

Accordingly, the next day, I reinvoked the link, and noticed that I was 93rd in line, so decided to try again later. The queue had then diminished to 21, so I tried it again, and was soon engaged in an on-line exchange with Praveen. His diagnosis was that some cookies needed to be removed, and Norton Security had to be disabled for a while, as it was inhibiting the execution of the Microsoft Update routines. So I watched as he cheerfully went through the whole process leading up to the installation of the updates. Then he left me to watch for an hour, until the update failed again.

Yet, when I tried to re-invoke the link to resume my interchange, I was told that it was no longer valid. This time, I resolved to speak to a real person, called the support number, and, after a wait of about fifteen minutes, I described my problem to the support representative. She took my number, and soon I was talking to another agent, named Tony. (By asking him what time it was where he was working, I determined that he must be located somewhere in the Mid-West.) Anyway, while he seemed to be unable to look up my Call Number, and discover what approaches had already been applied, Tony sounded much more confident, and judged that I needed a larger partition size to run the routines. So I watched as he downloaded the Minitool Partition Wizard (how come Microsoft does not supply this facility?), which ran for about half an hour. That task having been successfully completed, he said he was going to re-install the whole of Windows10, so that I would not have to deal with a separate Security Update. I was getting a bit anxious as this process started, so I begged him to stay on-line until it completed, indicating that he could multitask with other customers while the update continued. Yet he was so confident that his solution would work, he said we should ring off: he did however commit to calling me in another hour to check how things were going.

Predictably, the update failed. After about an hour and a half of installation, verification, preparation and execution, I received a short message, with no diagnostic code: ‘Windows installation has failed’. And this saga would not be complete unless I informed you that, no, Agent 4 (Tony) never called me back, despite his promise. I had been abandoned again.

Before finally agreeing to give up completely, and simply to ignore the messages emanating from Microsoft that were constantly bugging my wife, as she worked at her computer, informing her that her security was at risk, and that updates still needed to be installed, I decide to post a plaintive appeal on the Microsoft Support Forum. I summarized all that had occurred, and expressed my frustration at Microsoft’s shoddy installation software, and its even more unprofessional support agents, who appeared to apply guesswork in trying to resolve problems, and repeatedly left consumers like me hanging dry. My appeal was quickly picked up by a Microsoft employee who has been very patient in going through my experiences. Yet his final recommendation, after I gave him the status of my Windows10 System Build, and maintenance applied, sounded very much like the process that Agent 4 had undertaken. When I pointed this out, he urged me to try what was (he said) a very simple process: indeed, he himself had written the on-line document that guided it. So I sat down, went through his steps, disabling Norton Security and trying again when that package told me that one of Microsoft’s modules was unsafe, and had had to be removed. About ninety minutes later, the Microsoft software, having gone through download, installation, verification, and preparation, started its execution. After half an hour, I received exactly the same message that had appeared in the previous try: ‘Windows installation has failed’.

The Forum Observer responded promptly, requesting that I send him (via OneDrive) a couple of log files from an obscure Windows folder. I am not sure why no one had thought of inspecting such data before (I had in fact suggested such a course of action several days earlier, as I suspected such files should exist somewhere). I had not used OneDrive (Microsoft’s file-sharing service on the Cloud) before, but I retrieved the logs, followed the instructions from my iPad, created the OneDrive link, and posted it on the Forum page.

And then I received the following amazing message from the moderator:

“A Windows upgrade requires DISM utility to work and in your case DISM fails which then triggers a rollback.

Error initializing DISM Session: [0x800700c1], [gle=0 x800700c1]

Right-click Start>Command Prompt (admin) and type in:

DISM /ONLINE/ CLEANUP-IMAGE/ SCANHEALTH

If that fails with 193 post back the DISM log present at C:\Windows\Logs\DISM\ again through Onedrive”

As John McEnroe would say: ‘You cannot be serious!” And don’t you just hate it when your DISM fails? So I went ahead, and yes, the SCANHEALTH failed with a 193, and I posted on the forum the link to the DISM log on OneDrive. Isn’t this exciting?

The next news was not good. My contact thought that the damage ‘was beyond repair, and that I would either have to reset Windows or do a clean install. He pointed me to another link, where a Mr Carmack had published a document titled ‘Clean Install Windows 10”. Mr Carmack attempted to sell the process by describing it as ‘a game-changing learning experience that will make you permanently the master of my PC’, going on to write that ‘to stretch this out over days or weeks you’ll learn better how each change affects performance.’ But typical home users of PCs do not have ambitions of becoming geeks, taking up Windows maintenance as a hobby. The only game I wanted changed was the one of getting Microsoft to fix its software. The steps that Mr Carmack outlined are monstrous (see https://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_10-windows_install/clean-install-windows-10/1c426bdf-79b1-4d42-be93-17378d93e587), and must be very prone to error. And, even if I went through all this, what were the chances the problem would recur? I replied in this vein, thanking the moderator again, suggesting it was perhaps time to give up. ‘So what are the implications of simply ignoring the attempts by Windows to install the Security updates? Maybe the laptop should simply be replaced?’, I asked.

There is an easier way, replied the moderator. He outlined some other steps, recommending that I do a reset, ‘as it might remove the corrupt driver which is preventing the upgrade’.  He had no idea what might have caused the problem, and suggested yet another site ‘where the experts might be able to help you better’. But, if a driver has been identified as defective, I wondered, why could it not be replaced? At this stage, I concluded that I had had enough. My wife and I would live with whatever nonsense Microsoft imposed on us, and replace the laptop with something from Apple when the time came.

It was difficult for me to imagine that my wife’s PC was the only one on the planet undergoing such experiences. She is a woman in a million, I know, but I do not understand how her rarity should extend to the tribulations on her laptop computer. And the exercise also reminded me how little way the software industry (or Microsoft, at any rate) has come in fifty years. The company delivers an upgrade to a system that is in many ways incompatible with the previous versions, and it has disabled certain functions. The on-line documentation frequently does not match how the screens of system information appear, so one is left groping. The diagnostic codes given when the software encounters problems are meaningless and obscure. One can find jokey tutorials on YouTube, but they are badly designed, often delivered in mumbles, and do not explain enough about the Whys of a particular feature. The support personnel who try to help the bewildered consumer are poorly trained, not provided with proper tools, and thus engage in guesswork. And, of course, we fogies have to deal with tracking down those tiny labels with product serial numbers, pasted in the most inaccessible places on the equipment, that have to be read with a magnifying-glass.

What galls me even more is that we (in the USA, anyway) are currently facing a bombardment of in-your-face advertising from Microsoft that promotes its new expertise in Artificial Intelligence as ‘Empowering Imagination’. It depresses me to think how such technology will be abused by a company so obviously inept at managing the release and maintenance of its own software. Perhaps the techniques of neural networks should be applied to Microsoft’s own configuration and diagnostic problems before they are imposed upon an unsuspecting world? Yet again, we have been here beforehand. I recall the surge of enthusiasm about AI about thirty years ago, when all number of hyperbolic claims were made about the advent of rule-based systems. Now we hear it again, with all sort of nonsense about systems that will be able to teach themselves how to be more effective, and thus achieve all manner of breakthroughs in medical diagnosis, or fraud detection, or whatever. Computers can be programmed to give results that appear to reflect intelligence, such as beating grandmasters at chess, but that does not mean that they are inherently intelligent.

Maybe this generation of AI is different, but a caveat remains. A key principle of computing science has been the verifiability of systems – the fact that code must be inspected to determine whether the logic has been implemented according to specifications. (If proper specifications actually exist, of course, which is a whole other problem: see Multiple Record Hold.) Thus I used to experience the process of ‘structured walk-throughs’, where one’s peers would wade laboriously through the code a colleague had written to apply more stringent tests that might escape the test data environment. If the onus of decision-making has now been delegated to the computing system itself, who now takes responsibility when something goes wrong? I was both amused and perturbed to read, in the New York Times, earlier this month, how engineers at Google have started analyzing how computers using neural networks reach the conclusions they do, as if the experts are concerned about the level of auditability that these systems provide. “Understanding how these systems work will become more important as they make decisions, like who gets a job and how a self-driving car responds to emergencies”, the article declared. (I write this the day after the Uber self-driving car in Tempe killed a pedestrian during a test-run.) Their concerns are appropriate: I smell litigation over unexplained, and inexplicable, disasters. The paradox is that, if the processes of AI are verifiable, the technology is considered mundane and unimaginative, while, if they are not, it is uncontrollable and dangerous.  What do you think, HAL?

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

A few years ago, the Times of London informed me it could no longer issue a cheque for the occasional fees for published Listener crossword puzzles without my submitting a complex form that confirmed that I was a proper US-resident tax-payer. The cost to complete the forms required was almost as much as the crossword fee, so I didn’t bother. Last year, my bank in the UK (with whom I have had an account since 1965) told me that I would have to change my deposit account into a long-term instrument that would mature in three years, as it was no longer allowed to pay interest on accounts to overseas customers. This month, I received a letter from Barclaycard (with whom I have had a sterling credit card for about forty years) advising me that my account would have to be closed in early April unless I could provide proof of a residential address in the United Kingdom. Thus another convenience (for paying magazine subscriptions, downloading files from the National Archives, purchasing gifts, even ordering a copy of my own book from amazon to send to a reviewer – all in sterling) disappears. I have maintained my UK citizenship, have paid all tax at source, as appropriate, and have always declared all my (puny) UK-based income to the US Internal Revenue Service. It is comforting to know that the British authorities are cracking down on the real risks to currency and tax fraud, and thus discouraging me from any further investments or expenditure in the UK, while allowing all that other soiled money from Russia and other places to be brought into London for the purposes of acquiring valuable assets and helping the economy.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Sonia and the Quebec Agreement

[I have been reading the continuous appeals that come from my thousands of readers across the globe: ‘Give us more on Sonia!’ You can obviously not have enough of her. So, coming soon: Sonia and the Great Train Robbery, Sonia and Lord Lucan: The Hidden Affair, and Sonia and the Brexit Conspiracy. But for now, a return to World War II  . . .]

The Quebec Conference, August 1943

In the foreground, President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Behind King – Anthony Eden and Brendan Bracken. Note, on Bracken’s left, a British official using his PDA to send a text message to Josef Stalin.

“Whereas it is vital to our common safety in the present War to bring the Tube Alloys project to fruition at the earliest moment; and whereas this may be more speedily achieved if all available British and American brains and resources are pooled; and whereas owing to war conditions it would be an improvident use of war resources to duplicate plants on a large scale on both sides of the Atlantic and therefore a far greater expense has fallen upon the United States;

It is agreed between us

First, that we will never use this agency against each other.

Secondly, that we will not use it against third parties without each other’s consent.

Thirdly, that that we will not either of us communicate any information about Tube Alloys to third parties except by mutual consent.”

(Introduction to the Quebec Agreement, August 19, 1943)

The first suggestion that Ursula Beurton, née Kuczynski, agent SONIA of the Soviet Union’s military intelligence (GRU), had transmitted to her bosses in Moscow, very soon after the event, the details of the Quebec Agreement, appears to be in Chapman Pincher’s 2009 book Treachery. The Quebec Conference constituted an important achievement in the conduct of the war, as one of its protocols was the agreement by which Roosevelt and Churchill committed to share atomic weapons research, now driven by the US-controlled Manhattan Project. If Pincher’s claim could be shown to be true, it would add another arrow to the bow of that band of historians who like to assert that the Cold War was provoked largely by the deception and distrust that the leaders of the two western democracies displayed towards Joseph Stalin. It would bring the advent of the Cold War forward a couple of years from an event frequently described as marking it, the defection in Ottawa of the Soviet cypher clerk Igor Gouzenko in 1945. It would also confirm the presence of a highly-placed Soviet mole in British government or intelligence agencies. On the other hand, should the evidence turn out to be implausible, it would indicate that Russian military intelligence is still engaged in disinformation exercises. This article shows that the contradictions and anomalies in the accounts of the leakage of this secret leave the published claims about Sonia’s activity open to a great deal of scepticism.

The agreement itself was significant, as British efforts to continue the Tube Alloys project (the name by which the research activity was disguised in the UK) early in 1943 were on hold. The country realized that it had neither the resources nor the time to deliver the bomb independently before the probable end of the war. On the other hand, many Americans were suspicious of Britain’s post-war plans for commercialisation of the technology, as well as being concerned about the number of foreign-born scientists working on the project in Britain and Canada. Some officials were understandably also very wary about the Anglo-Russian agreement on exchange of scientific information, which had been signed – with the knowledge of some, but apparently not of Roosevelt – in September 1942. Moreover, Roosevelt’s haphazard approach to strategy, delegation, and communication only made the status of cooperation even more shaky, a situation that Churchill was not willing to endure any longer. A visit to London in mid-July 1943 by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, and Vannevar Bush, Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, led to negotiations that paved the way for the signing of the agreement on August 19. The significance for the Allied war effort was that the Soviet Union took no part in the negotiations, and was not formally notified of the proceedings. Thus a high degree of security was wrapped around this item on the Quebec agenda, lest Stalin be offended by the private plotting of his allies in their war against Nazi Germany.

The danger implied by the betrayal of such sensitive information can easily be overstated, however. Chapman Pincher concluded that ‘what Stalin regarded as his allies’ perfidy inevitably affected his attitude when, on 28 November, he met Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran to discuss both the war and the postwar situation’, even suggesting that the dictator might have interpreted the snub as ‘the first icy gust of the cold war to come’. This is, of course, pure conjecture on Pincher’s part: Stalin may, it is true, have been ill-disposed towards Roosevelt and Churchill at this time. He was still annoyed at the delays in opening the second front, and he had responded acrimoniously to Churchill in October when the British premier told him that he was suspending the Arctic convoys.  He was also irritated by the fact that his denials over the Katyn Forest massacre had recently been loudly rejected by the Polish government-in-exile. So ascribing Stalin’s peevishness to the conferring of his allies – when Stalin refused to travel any further than Iran to meet them, while Roosevelt and Churchill crossed half the world – and attributing the blame of the cold war on them, is a bit far-fetched.

Moreover, Stalin knew exactly what had been going on: he had dozens of spies in the UK, the USA and Canada keeping him informed of progress on the research into atomic weaponry. Yet Britain long remained a richer source of knowledge than the USA. The spy John Cairncross had been working for the Minister Without Portfolio, Lord Hankey, since September 1939, and had started providing copies of secret documents ever since Moscow sent out a questionnaire on the subject in the summer of 1941.  (Cairncross was transferred to GC&CS – Bletchley Park – in August 1942.) The fact that the UK and the USA signed an agreement would not have shocked the Soviet leader. Of course, if Stalin had discovered precise clauses that threatened the Soviet Union, his reaction might have been far more negative than if he had simply gained the impression that cooperative efforts between the USA and the UK were being regularised. Yet, while politicians soft on Soviet horrors, such as Roosevelt himself, and Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Minister, were reaching out to Stalin as a fellow-democrat and ‘man of peace’, Stalin harboured no illusions. He continued to regard the ‘imperialist’ powers as permanent adversaries, believed in the threat of ‘capitalist encirclement’, and was preparing for the time it would take for the Soviet Union to gather strength again after the war to face the inevitable conflict with his wartime allies. That is why he was so desperate to lay his hands on nuclear secrets. In fact, knowing about the shift of development exclusively to the USA helped his plans.

The emphases in the Agreement should be noted, too. While the first three clauses (listed above) are important, it is worth pointing out that a fourth clause was spelled out in much more detail, recognizing the dispute about commercial opportunities after the war, and providing a mechanism for its resolution. (see http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Quebec.shtml) The detail applied to this clause suggests that more time was spent on it, and that the question of post-war rights was the primary occupation of the participants. One could now judge this focus as a distraction that was inappropriately mercenary at a time when the survival of western civilization was at stake. Moreover, the three main clauses – so casually laid out – contain their own seeds of controversy: the commitment to keep secrets to themselves shows a remarkably naïve perspective on the power of the respective governments to prevent espionage, while Stalin, if he did indeed read the verbiage, might have interpreted the conditions as a way of neutralising the threat by forming a stronger alliance with one of the parties – probably the USA, given Roosevelt’s warmness towards the Soviet Union – so that Great Britain would not be able to act independently. (One of Stalin’s first acts at Tehran was to peel Roosevelt away from Churchill for private talks, thus driving a wedge between them.) The force of the second clause must also be questioned: neither the US Congress nor the House of Commons (nor even Churchill’s Cabinet) had approved the condition, and the issue of how transferrable it was to the President’s and Prime Minister’s successors was also problematic. Both Roosevelt and Churchill would later affect surprise at the clauses they had approved in Quebec.

An important aspect of the event is that it was essentially two-layered. That some sort of announcement was in the works was common knowledge among the members of the Tube Alloys project: the team of scientists waiting in Britain was hoping for a positive message from the vanguard of James Chadwick, Rudolf Peierls, O. R. Frisch and Mark Oliphant, who had been sent out to the USA in early August, that the differences of opinion had been reconciled, and that the team could continue its work as a joint project with the Americans. Thus the fact that some tentative agreement had been made would be no surprise: Peierls, in his autobiography, Bird of Passage, even states that they heard news about progress in the negotiations before they left for the USA. This claim would appear to be supported by Margaret Gowing, who described (in her official history) how Sir John Anderson, Lord President and Churchill’s envoy, had been sent out to Washington at the beginning of August to negotiate the terms of an agreement with Bush and Dr. J. B. Conant. Matters progressed quickly, with the result that Anderson, on August 10, took with him to Quebec, to pass to Churchill, the draft of a paper identified then as ‘the Tube Alloys Agreement’. Wallace Akers, who was head of the Tube Alloys project in the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research, apparently grew so excited that he gained approval from Anderson to invite the four scientists from Britain to the USA, with the result that they arrived – with a haste that stretches credulity, and which discomforted their hosts – just over a week later.

The detailed text of the agreement, however, would have been considered a much more confidential matter, and Churchill and his team went to great lengths to keep the specifics secret. While, over sixty-five years later, the nature of the affront to Stalin when he learned about the agreement could be severely exaggerated, at the time, when Churchill and Roosevelt were completely unaware of the infiltration by Soviet spies in the fabric of government, the need for security was intense. Churchill was already so nervous about the risk of Ultra secrets being betrayed to the Germans via Soviet connections that he allowed only a heavily processed version of decrypts to be released to them. He was similarly guarded about nuclear secrets. On the other hand, Stalin knew that a conference was taking place: he sent to the two leaders an unpleasant telegram concerning Italy’s surrender on the last day of the sessions, and the tone of this message intensified Churchill’s fear of him.

In the first version of Treachery (page 5), Pincher claimed that the Russian archives showed that ‘on Saturday, September 4, 1943 – only sixteen days after the signing – Sonia, sitting in Oxford, supplied the Red Army Intelligence Center with an account of all the essential aspects of the Quebec Agreement’. Later in the book, on page 187, he wrote that “On 4 September, Sonia also transmitted a list of the atomic scientists chosen to work in America.” Pincher could provide no precise text for this document, but went on to write that the GRU archives recorded: “On 19 August 1943, in a secret personal message to Marshal Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill reported about their agreed plans for the surrender of Italy and other matters but there was no word about the fact that they had also made an additional secret agreement about the use of nuclear weapons.” While Sonia’s prime role had been to service the communist scientist and spy Klaus Fuchs, Pincher concluded that Fuchs could not have been the source of this item of information. Sonia had not seen Fuchs since mid-August (he argued), and there was no mechanism by which the details of the agreement could have been passed to him in that time-frame.

What complicates Pincher’s thesis, however, is how, in Treachery, he selectively cites an earlier source, Ultimate Deception, (How Stalin stole the bomb), by Jerry Dan, actually the pen-name of one Nigel Bance. Dan’s book, published in 2003, consists of a detailed account of the Soviet Union’s quest for nuclear technology, gained from interviewing GRU and KGB sources in Russia, and using a rich vein of original documents, some of which the author reproduces in his book. (Dan’s work is a curious mélange of fact and fiction that needs to be parsed very carefully.) Dan’s critical sentences (p 208) about Sonia and the scientists are worth quoting in full: “General Groves, the newly installed head of the Manhattan Engineering District, the US codename for their atomic bomb project, agreed to the British request that a number of its scientists should work in America. Lord Cherwell, Wallace Akers and Michael Perrin, his deputy, met to decide what names to put forward to Groves, who reserved the right of refusal. Advised by two of his scientists, Mark Oliphant and James Chadwick, a list was finally agreed . . .  Word quickly spread in the scientific community as to who was on the list. Fuchs provided the names to Ruth [=Sonia], who then transmitted them to a grateful Moscow on September 4.”

A few items here are noteworthy. The first is that Dan, despite his privileged access to archival sources, makes no mention of the Quebec Agreement itself in describing Sonia’s transmissions of September 1943. The second is that he implies that the process, extensive and drawn-out (‘finally agreed’), must have taken several weeks to accomplish. (Some of the scientists were not yet British citizens, and had to be naturalized.) Yet he claims the list was in Sonia’s hands in early September: this does not make sense. The third is that Oliphant and Chadwick are defined as playing a key role in the selection of the scientists – yet they had both travelled to the USA with Peierls and Simon in August, and were still being briefed by Groves in September. Peierls recorded that the selection did not take place until after Niels Bohr arrived in the United Kingdom in October. Margaret Gowing, in Part 1 of her official history, Britain and Atomic Energy 1939-1945, confirms this. In addition, she wrote that ‘by the time the Combined Policy Committee formally ratified the proposals for collaboration in December 1943, the various missions and visits had been approved by General Groves, and the various British scientists concerned were already in, or on their way to, the United States’, thus reinforcing a more leisurely timetable. The idea that Fuchs (or anyone else) provided them to Sonia in early September cannot be taken seriously. Pincher carefully avoids endorsing Dan’s comment about Fuchs while using him as a buttress for his argument. This theme of the betrayal of the list of scientists occurring impossibly early will recur, and will be analysed in depth later.

Pincher’s account thus raises some provocative questions. The only text that he cited is clearly not an archival source record: it is a piece of commentary inserted at a later date. (From Dan’s examples, this appears to be a common practice in Soviet archives.) A truly current historical entry would not be able to report on the absence of any communication on something that had been withheld. Why was Pincher able to quote only the later analysis, and not the source? What exactly had Sonia provided in her message? What ‘essential aspects’ had been communicated? And how do we know that it was indeed Sonia who sent it? And, if had been Sonia, given that her son Peter was born four days after the radio message was sent, how did she meet her informant? Did he or she visit her house in Oxford? If so, would that not have been an enormous risk for the individual? Or did she really travel (she would take the train to Banbury in her various rendezvous with Fuchs) to make the encounter with her contact?

In 2009, Pincher had a definite theory. He was confident enough to name the MI5 officer Roger Hollis as ELLI, the spy within MI5 – later identified but not named by the Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko in 1945 – and declared him the informant. Pincher made some imaginative jumps in promoting his thesis that Hollis would have gained access to the information through his colleague at Tube Alloys, Roger Perrin. Pincher relied, however, on a 2002 work written (in Russian) by Bokcharev and Kolpakidi, Superfrau iz GRU, for the insight that ‘on 4 September, Sonia reported data on the results of the conference’. Pincher hypothesized that Hollis had reason to travel to the Oxford area from his office in London at that time, and, since Hollis was an old friend of Neville Laski’s, at whose house Sonia was accommodated, he had justifiable reasons for visiting her to pass over the information.

In the revised (‘Updated and Uncensored’) version of Treachery published in 2012, Pincher   appeared to bolster his claim by citing that, in July 2011 ‘the Moscow-based historian Dr Svetlana Chervonnaya reported having discovered a Soviet document confirming that Sonia had sent the information about the Quebec Agreement on 4 September 1943 and that, after translation into Russian, it was taken straight to Stalin’. Again, is this archival record merely a retrospective annotation? Once more, no text of the source document was provided. Were intelligence officers under Stalin thus methodical in reporting such routine events? After all, it is well-known that Stalin devoured all intelligence gained from his spy network. Why would this fact be worth recording? And, if the GRU was anxious, in the first decade of the 21st century, to make a case about western treachery from the 1940s, why not show the world the proof?

I can find no trace of any document pertaining to the Quebec Agreement on Dr Chervonnaya’s website www.documentstalk.com. Nor can I find any reference to it in the Vassiliev papers, which are available on-line through the Wilson Center in Washington. I have not read Superfrau iz GRU. Sonia chose not to (or was not allowed to) mention this critical event in her memoir Sonjas Rapport. The VENONA transcripts for this period appear to contain no references to Quebec, although one cable does cover a visit to the UK made in late August by the spy Cedric Belfrage, of the British Security Commission in New York. The other classical works about the opening up of the Soviet archives are likewise silent on any disclosure of the Quebec Agreement to Soviet Intelligence at the time. It is by no means clear who is quoting and echoing whom in these rumours of espionage. Yet Pincher’s poorly sourced claim has already started to become adopted by historians and biographers. In his 2011 account of the life of the Soviet spy in Canada, Fred Rose, David Levy, citing Pincher, accepts without question the fact that the details of the Quebec Agreement were leaked by ‘a highly-placed mole in British intelligence’, although he ambivalently declines to echo Pincher’s claim that that person was Roger Hollis. “Stalin apparently arrived in Tehran feeling himself the victim of a low blow, a dirty Anglo-American trick”, is nevertheless his confident conclusion.

In 2016, William Tyrer published an article titled The Unresolved Mystery of Elli in the International Journal of Intelligence. In this piece, Tyrer re-presented some of the arguments that Pincher gathered for his case that ELLI was Hollis, including the communication of the details on the Quebec Agreement, but concluded that the cases for ELLI being either Hollis or the known KGB agent Leo Long (as Christopher Andrew had claimed) were then ‘even weaker’.  Without either analyzing in detail some of the stronger evidence that Pincher provided to bolster his case, however, or the many anomalies and contradictions in it, Tyrer came to the unsupported conclusion that the idea that ‘Hollis was ELLI or a supermole appears to be more and more unlikely.’ Part of his argument rested on his claim that it was Fuchs, not Hollis, who was in the best position to provide Sonia with the information. While accepting without question the validity of the origin of the story of the leak to Stalin, Tyrer departed radically from Pincher’s analysis, going on to note the following: “But Sonia’s source for this information about the Agreement was very likely Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet atomic spy. At the time, Fuchs was part of a contingency of British scientists waiting in England for news that Roosevelt and Churchill had signed the Quebec Agreement. When the Agreement was finally signed, the British scientists, including Fuchs, were permitted to travel to the U.S. While the Agreement was kept a close secret – even Liddell at MI5 appeared to not know about it – Fuchs was probably sufficiently connected to hear its details.”

So what was the basis of this ‘connection’? How solid is that ‘probably’? Tyrer appeared to derive this conclusion from the evidence of the Russian writer on intelligence and military affairs, Vladimir Lota, who, Tyrer asserts, had access to some GRU files ‘off limits to other researchers’. Tyrer offered in a footnote that Lota wrote: “On 4 September, U. Kuczysnki reported to the Center information on the outcomes of the conference in Quebec. She had also learned that English scientists Pierls [sic], Chadwick, Simon and Olifant [sic] had departed for Washington. U. Kuczynski had received this information from Klaus Fuchs . . .” Tyrer added a detailed reference in The Russian Military Review for this nugget, and even provided a long URL for confirmation. Yet this passage needs to be inspected closely to test its validity.

Tyrer credited Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya (the same person who aided Pincher) with the information: her opinion on the Fuchs/Hollis controversy is unknown to me. Yet some questions arise. Would GRU records really have referred to Sonia as U. Kuczynski, her birth-name? Why would Lota use this formulation, when she was known through her memoir as Ruth Werner, her proper name was then Ursula Beurton, and the archives refer to agents through their cryptonyms? And why would Chervonnaya indicate to Pincher that she had discovered this nugget herself, while informing Tyrer that Lota had exclusive access to the archive where it was found? Why would Pincher interpret her guidance as incriminating Hollis, while Tyrer uses it to point the blame towards Fuchs? Nevertheless, despite the uncertainties, and the fact that Pincher and Tyrer offer contradictory analyses of how the secret was leaked, Tyrer’s somewhat speculative contribution has started to pass into lore. If you inspect the very thorough and apparently authoritative text of the Wikipedia entry on the Quebec Agreement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_Agreement) , you will find there the confident assertion that Sonia betrayed the secret to Moscow, and that it is attributed to Tyrer’s article on ELLI. There is no mention of Lota, or Chervonnaya, or Bokcharev and Kolpakidi, or a verifiable GRU archival source document – or even Chapman Pincher or Jerry Dan.

While Tyrer’s theory is orthogonal to the issue of ELLI, and whether Hollis did indeed own that cryptonym, this sequence of events seems highly unlikely (as Pincher would no doubt have agreed). As explained earlier, Peierls, Frisch and Oliphant had arrived in Washington the same day on which the Quebec Agreement had been signed, August 19, so the second piece of information – that Peierls and Co. had departed – would appear to have originated some time before. (A symptom of the confusion over dates here is that the historian Nigel West, in his study of Soviet penetration of the Manhattan project, Mortal Crimes, not only has the Peierls team crossing the Atlantic after the Quebec Agreement, but also sets it in August 1942.) Pincher himself recorded (again citing Russian archives) that Sonia did not see Fuchs between mid-August and November 1943. The spies and scientists were indeed ‘waiting’ for news about a hypothetical agreement, but when did they learn the news? The official historian of the atomic project, Margaret Gowing, wrote that Chadwick, Peierls and Oliphant did not even learn about the Los Alamos project from General Groves until September 1943. Fuchs had to gain a non-immigrant visa for the USA, but did not apply until October 22 (according to Norman Moss), which was granted on November 18 (much to the consternation of Milicent Bagot in MI5, as the National Archives at Kew confirm). Richard Rhodes, in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, describes how, as late as November 1943, Chadwick asked Frisch whether he would like to work in the United States, informing him that he would have to become a British citizen to gain his clearance. Fuchs and twenty-nine other scientists left soon afterwards, even though General Groves did not complete the approval process until December, after they had left the country.

Irrespective of exactly what insight was revealed illegally to Sonia, from all standpoints – temporal, logistical, security – it would seem impossible for Fuchs to have been the messenger. Yet the text in the passage by Lota that Tyrer supplies shows another anomaly. The ‘also’ is a strange construction to use when it introduces an event (the departure of Peierls & Co.)  that preceded the activities (concerning the Quebec Agreement) to which this event is additive! Is it not more likely that ‘this information’ that Lota writes about is the immediately antecedent statement about the departure of Peierls & co., in apposition to ‘the outcomes of the conference’, and not any revelation of the details of the Quebec Agreement itself? If the group had left for Washington in time to arrive on August 19, the departure must have been about a week beforehand. Since Fuchs had an appointment with Sonia in mid-August, it would suggest that it was on that occasion  – before the Quebec conference was held – that he passed on the news that Peierls & Co. had left. This scenario – that he reported solely on the departure of the vanguard, rather than the selection of the larger team of scientists approved for immigration – is far more plausible. He could not have known the details of the ‘Quebec Agreement’ at that time, although it is presumably quite possible that Rudolf Peierls, soon after August 10, when he learned of his invitation to rush over to the USA, had passed on to his protégé that an agreement in principle (‘the Tube Alloys Agreement’) had been forged, and that it would probably be endorsed at the meeting in Quebec. On the other hand, if Sonia did indeed learn more about the Quebec Agreement itself before her transmission of September 4, it surely must have come from someone else.

While Pincher also made a gratuitous and unfounded claim that the director-general of MI5, Sir David Petrie, ‘would have received a copy of the Quebec Agreement’, his argument that Sonia’s informant must have been Hollis relies primarily on the supposition that he probably heard about it from Michael Perrin, Akers’s deputy. Perrin was Hollis’s liaison in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, who arranged the original approval for Fuchs to be employed. Pincher states that Perrin ‘knew that the agreement had been signed because he had been given the “all-clear” to dispatch the first batch of scientists.’ Pincher wildly distorts the facts: Perrin certainly did not have that authority. Gowing informs us that the first meeting of the Combined Policy Committee did not take place until September 8, and that Chadwick had to make a further visit to the USA to discuss interchange with Groves. The decision on scientists had to await the return of Chadwick and his team from the USA. Unless Pincher was carelessly confusing the departure of the advance team in August with that of the larger contingent in November, his statement about Sonia’s providing the list of approved scientists as early as September 4 must be pure hokum, and casts much doubt on the veracity of his sources. And, as Tyrer sensibly countered, if Hollis’s superior officers David Petrie, Dick White and Guy Liddell did not know about the Agreement (Liddell refers to it for the first time in 1945), how would Hollis have been able to get his hands on it? As Michael Goodman’s official history of the Joint Intelligence Committee informs us, neither the JIC (nor even the Cabinet) knew about the details of the atomic weapons program until Hiroshima occurred. But using this argument as a way of showing that Pincher’s obsession with Roger Hollis was misguided and forlorn, and thus turning the finger of guilt on Fuchs, does not seem a profitable research avenue to pursue.

Moreover, Pincher’s explanation for the anonymity and obscurity of this piece of evidence is also illogical. Why would the GRU hold back on such an obvious coup, and not release the information until everyone involved was dead? Pincher believed the survival of relatives was part of the reason. In her memoir, Sonjas Rapport, (published in 1977) Sonia refrained (under the control of the GRU itself) from identifying Fuchs at all. He was still alive, and reputedly still not in great odour with the Soviets, as he had confessed, in their view unnecessarily, to espionage. After he died in 1988, however, she was allowed to speak up. Pincher records that she admitted her role as a courier for Fuchs in a television programme, and in the English translation of her memoir, Sonya’s Report, published in 1991, she added several paragraphs about Fuchs. For instance, she included the misleading observation that Fuchs must have ‘behaved naively’ when interrogated by William Skardon ‘the most psychologically astute interrogator of the British secret service’ – a judgment that severely overstates the ex-detective’s capabilities.

Then what about her coup with the Quebec Agreement? Even though Sonia was quick to make some political points in her memoir (such as the demands from the British public for the opening of the second front), she said nothing about the development of the joint plans for atomic weapons research, or how it doubtless betrayed the goodwill of the gallant Soviet people. Pincher wrote that this was ‘presumably because of continuing need to protect its source’ (in his view, Hollis). Yet Hollis had died in 1973: why would the GRU need to protect him? The GRU, however, did not relax its influence even after Fuchs died. Pincher also informed us that Sonia went to her death without revealing her coup over the details of the Quebec Agreement. “The GRU had been unwilling to release the secret while she was alive and did so only in a one-upmanship clash forced on it by old KGB officers”, he added. (Pincher did not explain how he came to this conclusion.) Yet his narrative does not make sense. For any department of Soviet intelligence to conceal such a propaganda coup is quite out of character: one can imagine an initiative to distort a historical event for political purposes as highly likely. If archival information has surfaced that sheds light on what happened seventy-five years ago, why not publish it? (Tyrer suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the GRU is waiting for the death of Hollis’s widow, reminding us that Hollis died in 1973. I have not been able to track the birth or death of Edith Valentine Hollis, née Hammond, but Tyrer informs me that he saw her, in ‘a very healthy state’, only five or six years ago, in Catcott, Somerset.) And were there no confirmations of the Agreement from American sources that survived in the archives of the KGB and the GRU? (Stalin always liked confirmation of reports from the rival intelligence service.) What has been going on?

First of all, if the details of the Quebec Agreement were truly revealed in September, and if the cases for Hollis and Fuchs are both weak, who was the third party responsible? Could it have been Rudolph Peierls? As was explained earlier, Wallace Akers had invited Peierls and his colleagues to the USA at the beginning of August.   Unfortunately, Peierls does not cover the details of this visit in his memoir, but he may have been deceptive – not for the first time. Peierls (who recruited Klaus Fuchs) was a highly dubious character, as I have explained in Misdefending the Realm, and was not to be trusted to keep secrets to himself. When Fuchs was arrested in 1950, Peierls also came under suspicion. Could he have been the intermediary? Even with these facts, and with the assumption that Peierls did learn, very soon afterwards, the details of the agreement that had been signed, it is difficult to imagine how he could have communicated a message without detection across the Atlantic. He was a very cautious man, and overall worked very assiduously to make sure that his fingerprints were not on any trace of espionage. If he did tell Fuchs anything, it must have been whatever condensed message he had received about the status of negotiations, and the purpose of his voyage, before the Quebec Agreement was signed

Tyrer has, however, researched who would have known about the Agreement, and, having delved into the archives at Kew, has come up with a list of British officials who were informed of it. Much of this information can be confirmed by Gowing, since Appendix 4 in her history contains the text of the Agreement and the list of members of the Combined Policy Committee that was chartered with supervising the project in Washington: her text adds useful commentary. Thus the extended list includes names such as Sir John Anderson (Lord President of the Council, who drafted the agreement), W L Gorrell Barnes, J. M. Martin (Churchill’s secretary), Captain E Clifford (Office of the War Cabinet), Colonel J. J. Llewellin (the British Cabinet Minister Resident in Washington), Field-Marshal Sir John Dill (head of the British Joint Services Mission in Washington), and C. D. Howe (Canadian representative). Dill, Llewellin and Howe were all members of the Combined Policy Committee. Tyrer added that it was likely that Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s Chief Scientific Advisor, also received a copy, a fact that is confirmed by Gowing, as well as by the Oxford Companion to World War II. Might he be a link?

Even though Cherwell, the scientist known as ‘the Prof’, was not even in the Cabinet, he knew far more than the members of that body (apart from Churchill and John Anderson, presumably). Gowing also presented the startling information that Cherwell (partially to dissuade the Americans of the commercial competitive threat) had promoted the argument that the atomic bomb would be required after the war in case the Soviet Union acquired it. Cherwell therefore does not hold the profile of someone who would leak deliberately. Indeed, while this opinion in fact mirrored what Churchill himself was telling the Americans, it was astonishingly bold thinking for the summer of 1943. There would have been American generals who sympathized with that perspective, but Roosevelt and his aide Harry Hopkins would have been taken aback, given that their main political agenda was maximizing the opportunity to cooperate with Stalin in creating a peaceful post-war order. Hopkins was undoubtedly a bit naive. He seems to have been cleared of passing secrets to the Russians (something he was accused of), but he was more sympathetic to them, far too trusting of Stalin, and has even been characterised as a Soviet ‘agent of influence’.  He surely did not pass on any secret documents directly, but he might have said something to a spy on Roosevelt’s staff, in the same fashion that Cherwell might have confided in a trusted colleague, and the message could have been passed on. It should also be pointed out that Roosevelt had, unbeknownst to the team that went to London, already decided that the Agreement should go ahead. Thus Cherwell’s comparatively belligerent attitude would not have disqualified him from remaining a confidant: he might provide a clue to who the perpetrator was.

One of the objections to the claim that Roger Hollis was ELLI has been the fact that Soviet intelligence experts have reportedly expressed bewilderment at the proposition, and no evidence has appeared in Russian archives equating Hollis’s name with that cryptonym. (One can read claims that the defector Oleg Gordievsky knew that ELLI was Hollis, but was persuaded to keep quiet about it by MI5 and SIS as terms of his freedom after he escaped to the West in 1985. Gordievsky is still alive: I should like his attention drawn to this piece . . . ) On the other hand, some Soviet officers have reputedly pointed the finger at Victor Rothschild as an agent working for the Soviets, and Lord Rothschild was obliged to protest, late in life, that he had never been a spy, and even looked for vindication from Margaret Thatcher’s government that would disprove such an assertion (an impossible task). As I have shown in my book, Misdefending the Realm, Rothschild was at least an ‘agent of influence’ who exercised a dangerous effect on MI5’s attitude towards communists when he was employed by the Security Service during the war. His primary biographer, Norman Rose, underplayed his leftist beliefs and contributions towards Zionist ambitions in his book, Elusive Rothschild. Roland Perry went as far as naming Rothschild as a Soviet spy in his undisciplined The Fifth Man, a work that should be treated very circumspectly.

Did Rothschild have an opportunity to leak the details of the Quebec Agreement? He was a well-respected scientist, and a close friend of Lord Cherwell and of Churchill himself. His status allowed him to move freely around government institutions, especially in his role as an auditor of security on behalf of MI5. He was also a very close friend of Duff Cooper, who headed the Security Executive (and, as Rose reports, would join Cooper in making fun of David Petrie, the head of MI5). On the surface, it would appear much more likely that he would have learned about the Quebec Agreement before Fuchs or Hollis did. He might also have had a mechanism for contacting Sonia, through her father, Robert, or her brother, Jürgen, in London, or his friends. By the summer of 1943, Sonia’s landlord, Neville Laski, was living next to the Kuczynskis in Hampstead. (Remarkably, MI5 noted this fact on August 16, while Peierls was in transit to the USA: was this mere coincidence?) Laski was more right-wing himself, and a solicitor for the Home Office (and maybe even MI5), but his wife, Cissie, came from a fervently Communist family. Her brother was the Communist Jack Gaster, who married Isaiah Berlin’s close friend, Maire Lynd. If the Laskis moved out to their house in Oxford at weekends (as Pincher claims), Rothschild might have been able to pass messages to her for Sonia to transmit.

Yet this theory would appear to fall down over chronology, as well, certainly if Rothschild’s source were posited to be Cherwell or Churchill. Churchill did not return to London from his extended tour of Canada and the USA until September 19, after which date Cherwell soon received the news. Cherwell wrote a letter to Churchill deprecating the terms of the Agreement, but not until October 19. Unless information about the agreement, sent by encrypted telegram, had been carelessly shared with Rothschild (or some other), the timetable of Sonia’s reported transmission must exclude him. The notion that Robert Kuczynski could have been a vital link in the chain has been pointed out by several historians. Robert Chadwell Williams, the author of a 1987 biography of Fuchs, Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, wrote: “Her father continued his relationships with highly placed British officials, including Stafford Cripps, and passed Sonia information from Churchill’s War Cabinet.” (p 59) Cripps must be added to the list of suspects, although the chronology is still dubious.

Yet another prominent name should be added to the mix. In his monumental work, Hitler’s Spies, David Kahn informs us (p 311) that, on September 1, 1943, the Nazi spy JOSEFINE commented on the Quebec Conference. While the only extract that Kahn cites is information about the cross-Channel invasion, this fact shows that details of the conference were being passed to foreign embassies. For JOSEFINE (as Kahn also points out) was a pseudonym for the military, naval and air attachés at the Swedish Embassy in London, who were presumably passing information through the diplomatic bag to Stockholm. In his history of MI6, Nigel West explains that the identity of JOSEFINE was later unveiled by ‘one of MI5’s ablest officers’, whose name was Anthony Blunt. The leaks appeared to have originated with William Strang in the Foreign Office, who may have carelessly passed on information to Johan Oxenstierna, the Swedish naval attaché. Moreover, Blunt, as head of B1(b), was responsible for opening and inspecting the contents of diplomatic bags before they were shipped onwards, so, if information about atomic weaponry was also included in the report, he would have been in an excellent position to pick it up, and Sonia would have been redundant.

And a final avenue to be explored is the role of C. D. Howe, the Canadian representative on the Combined Policy Committee. I notice that in his afore-mentioned biography of Fred Rose (‘Stalin’s Man in Canada’), David Levy reports that Howe, head of the Department of Munitions and Supply, had in 1943 been approached for the formula of the explosive RDX by the Russians – the very same quest that resulted in Rose’s term in prison. ‘Canada was willing to supply it but the Americans were opposed’, writes Levy. Howe was a very influential Canadian businessman and politician, and he had been informed of the Manhattan Project in June 1943. His Wikipedia entry enigmatically records that ‘Howe had an excellent reputation, even in the Soviet Union’, although it does not explain the nature of his exchanges with Soviet representatives. Maybe he was a dubious choice for participation on the committee: perhaps his communications were entirely innocent. Yet it does appear problematic that a trusted member of the secret committee apparently had unofficial meetings with Soviet operatives seeking strategic technology.

Thus, if a leak really did take place, was Sonia truly involved, and did she in fact transmit this message herself? As I have shown in my on-line saga, Sonia’s Radio (www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio) Sonia’s husband, Len Beurton, was probably operating a wireless set out of the property they maintained in Kidlington, Oxfordshire. While TNA records show that Beurton returned to the domestic home shortly before Sonia’s labour, the Kidlington property was no doubt still in use. He would have been in a far fitter state to broadcast the news, and Sonia, aware that her decoy transmitter was being surveilled by Britain’s radio detection organs, would not have risked sending details of such a sensitive matter over her own equipment. That is, of course, if we can rely on these unseen Soviet archives that attribute the news to Sonia. It seems far more likely that the much more porous American administration  – outwardly much more sympathetic to Soviet Russia than even Anthony Eden’s Foreign Office, and populated at the highest level by Soviet spies – passed on the news to Moscow. For example, the spy Lauchlin Currie was one of Roosevelt’s administrative assistants, and Harry Hopkins might have given him the information. Harry Dexter White was also regularly passing on strategic information from the Treasury.  For some reason, intelligence officers in the GRU might have wished to muddy the waters by giving the credit to Sonia instead of revealing that the information was leaked through a KGB medium, or through a different country altogether.

The status of the GRU at this time, however, is particularly poignant. In the summer and autumn of 1943 the KGB (in fact named the NKGB at that time) voiced serious concerns about the reliability of its own atomic espionage network. The USA ring had been very slow in building contacts with access to inner secrets of the Manhattan project; KGB leaders asked questions about the duplication of effort between the GRU and its own organization; and strong doubts were starting to be raised about the reliability of the Cambridge Five – had they been turned by British intelligence? In mid-August Merkulov (head of the KGB) approved the transfer of GRU resources to the KGB, with the eventual outcome that Fuchs was assigned to a KGB handler in February 1944. Remarkably, the KGB had considered recruiting Fuchs when it discovered that he was one of the elected scientists set to work in the USA. Kukin, who had replaced Gorsky as head of the London station, was informed only then (in November) that Fuchs had been an agent of the GRU since 1941 – another indication that a leak came from elsewhere. Thus the GRU historians, working retrospectively, might have become a little carried away in describing this considerable coup over their overweening rivals.

In any case, there exists a great danger that a process of ‘ahistorical drift’, whereby the existence of an unverifiable story gains acceptance by being repeated in more serious historical studies, will take place with this event. One strong conclusion from all this noise might be that Fuchs passed on critical secrets to Sonia on two occasions. In August, he revealed the departure of Peierls & Co. In November, just before he left the UK (on the occasion when Sonia gave him his instructions for assignments in the USA), he may have known enough to tell her something about the Quebec Agreement, and certainly would have known of the list of approved scientists. Peierls could indeed have been the source of information by then. Then we would be left with a clumsy conflation of the two episodes in the Soviet archives, with Fuchs as the sole informer. Alternatively, another party did inform Sonia about the Quebec Agreement in early September, and she combined that information from him or her with her report from Fuchs.

One critical indication that Sonia would have been receiving intelligence elsewhere is that, before the rendezvous in November, she must have been passed instructions from a well-informed GRU contact, namely what Fuchs should do in the USA to meet his new contact. The GRU (or KGB) already knew that Fuchs (and the others) would soon be on their way to the USA. This item is extremely important: the necessary presence of alternative GRU channels of communication appears to have been overlooked in the various histories of its role in espionage in Britain. Thus, as Kukin’s testimony suggests, the meeting between Fuchs and Sonia in November was probably triggered more by Moscow Centre’s need to inform Fuchs of new subversive arrangements in the USA than it was by Fuchs’s (now redundant) requirement to inform Sonia of his imminent departure. In the latter half of November, therefore, there must have been some intensive wireless communication taking place between the Kremlin and the Soviet Embassy in London. The attribution of the leaks to Fuchs in August could well be a smokescreen designed to distract attention from more sensitive channels elsewhere.

An analysis of the various rendezvous between Fuchs and Sonia merits a study of its own. If, as Pincher, Williams, and others imply, the two arranged to meet about every three months, the encounters of August and November were extremely fortuitous. For them to have timed the first at exactly the date by which Peierls had heard about the coming agreement, but before he left for the USA, and the second for the time when Fuchs would have heard that his voyage had been approved, but just before he boarded the Andes on November 24, shows remarkable imagination. Sonia’s pregnancy should surely have been a consideration when they arranged, in August 1943, their next Treff. Mike Rossiter, in his 2014 biography of Fuchs, The Spy Who Changed the World, introduces a new gloss. He echoes the three-month intervals, but also claims that, as the Soviet Union’s own atomic project (Enormoz) got under way, Sonia was ordered to meet Fuchs ‘with increasing regularity’. Rossiter clumsily compromises the whole story by claiming that it was in September that Fuchs ‘became aware that he would probably be going to the United States’ – an account that satisfies neither of the scenarios. He does not indicate the source of these insights. Perhaps Fuchs and Sonia used the dubok (‘hiding-place’), which Sonia describes in the English version of her memoir, to leave messages requesting unscheduled meetings, but that must have been a very haphazard way of doing business. Maybe they used other human intermediaries, or maybe Fuchs even visited her lodgings, despite Sonia’s protestations to the contrary. Sonia ignores all this drama, only mentioning – rather implausibly – that Moscow Centre asked her to come up with a rendezvous in New York when Fuchs was about to be relocated. The inevitable conclusion from this analysis is that all attempts to plot the movements and exchanges of Fuchs and Sonia invariably include a large amount of guesswork.

It seems much more likely that the KGB took charge of this highly important project. Sonia regularly visited her relatives in London, and maybe they visited her in Oxford. Moscow was no doubt able to monitor the progress of the post-Quebec approval processes much more closely through its spies in London, and merely used Sonia as an intermediary to Fuchs, to make sure he would be as productive across the Pond as he was this side of it. The transfer of so much responsibility to Sonia looks like a clumsy attempt to boost their heroine’s reputation, and a wily ruse to shift attention away from her father, and from the role of some more highly-placed spies in Britain’s political administration.

Thus the most charitable interpretation of this garbled communication is that the historians involved have all confused a vague indication of improving US-Anglo relations as the Quebec Agreement itself, and the news of the departure of the vanguard with the final selection of scientists made in November. But it takes a remarkable coincidence, or a large measure of collusion, for all of them to misread similarly the evidence they claim to have discovered in the Russian archives, and to get the chronology so stupendously wrong. If claims are made that Stalin did indeed learn about the terms of the Quebec Agreement as early as September 1943, a credible explanation of how the agent responsible received the information is a vital part of the argument. Knowledge of the timing, format and exact content of the message would be a critical component of the analysis. The echo of the bewildering account of the list of scientists being passed on shouts out for documentary evidence. The puzzle behind this story can be represented in the following scenarios:

  1. No secret information about the Agreement was in fact sent to Moscow in September (in which case the GRU is involved in disinformation, a hoax);
  2. Secret information was sent, but not by Sonia (in which case the GRU should explain why it is attributing the leak to Sonia);
  3. Sonia (or her husband, Len Beurton) did transmit confidential information about the Agreement (in which case a comparison of source documents, and the text in the GRU archive should help identify who was responsible).

A proper resolution of this affair can therefore only come from the following steps:

  • Verifying the existence of a real document in the GRU archive, dated September 1943, that relates to the signing of the Quebec Agreement, and assessing whether this is a full and accurate transcript of the Agreement, or simply a summarization, or even an anticipation, of it, and whether it is genuine, or may have been inserted at a later date;
  • Verifying the existence of a dated document from the same period that speaks of the transit of scientists based in Britain to the United States, and assessing whether it refers to the recent past departure of the advance party in August, or the approval of the final team assembled in November for future departure in December;
  • Determining the source of the intelligence;
  • If the source is claimed to have come from the UK in September 1943, developing a hypothesis as to how the informant could have learned about the Agreement, or acquired a copy of it, especially given Sonia’s late-stage pregnancy;
  • Investigating whether the intelligence might have been gained elsewhere (e.g. through US sources), and whether it was falsely ascribed to Sonia or her husband.

Until the original documents referred to by such as Lota and Chervonnaya surface, a question-mark must linger over the claimed breach, through Sonia, of the security of the Quebec Agreement and the intelligence on the list of approved scientists. Yet if such documents do come to the surface, they may well help in the identification of ELLI.

“The historian must have a mulish obstinacy, a refusal to be gulled; he must be incredulous of his evidence or he will trip over the deliberately falsified”. (Sherman Kent in Writing History, p 7)

Breaking News: I have just discovered that Oxford Digital Media is releasing a film about Sonia’s espionage, titled The Spy Who Stole the Atom Bomb. See a trailer at http://www.thespywhostoletheatombomb.com/. I have not yet ascertained where it will be shown, but I regret that I was not engaged  as a consultant.  Please contact me if you have additional information. I have sent ODM an email suggesting that the producers of the film might want to read ‘Sonia’s Radio’.  8:30 PM, February 28.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

Soviet Espionage: Transatlantic Connections

Perceptive readers of my November 2017 blog will have noted that, while I confidently outlined the political climate in the UK in 1940, in the months after Kritvitsky’s revelations, I was more circumspect about the conditions in the USA, and why his warnings were ignored there. Had a band of moles been inserted deeply and clandestinely into US institutions, in similar fashion to the how the careers of the Cambridge spies were prompted? Was the F.B.I., the equivalent of MI5, trained to be on the alert against Communist subversion? Did the two counter-espionage services collaborate? Why was Krivitsky’s evidence to the Dies Committee, in an open forum (unlike the clandestine way Krivitsky provided testimony to British intelligence) not taken seriously? Were there links between the Soviet spies in the UK and the Americas? In summary, were the patterns of denial the same? Above all, I needed to understand better why the evidence provided in September 1939 by the Soviet courier Whittaker Chambers (who had broken off contact with the NKVD in 1938) had been ignored by J. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I., and by President Roosevelt. This was apparently a far more scandalous act of negligence than that which occurred in the UK. What was going on?

I realised that I needed to dig around a lot more. I had many years ago read Chambers’s memoir Witness (1952), and more recently some of the major works on Soviet espionage (Dallin’s Soviet Espionage (1955), Lamphere’s The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story (1986), Andrew’s and Gordievsky’s  KGB: The Inside Story (1990), Weinberg’s and Vassiliev’s The Haunted Wood (1999), Haynes’ and Klehr’s In Denial (2003), and Haynes’, Klehr’s and Vassiliev’s Spies (2009)) without taking careful notes of the history of the KGB and GRU in America. A review of them has since reminded me that the state of play in the US was different from that in the UK in at least four significant ways: 1) The USA did not officially recognise the Soviet government until Roosevelt’s administration took the plunge in October 1933, which meant that the Soviet Union had no diplomatic presence in the US to mastermind operations, or to provide a channel for sending information back to Moscow; 2) The Soviet Union was slow to conclude that the USA was going to be a far more important country to track closely, with its influence on global affairs overtaking that of the British Empire, and its technological developments providing a rich lode of secrets to be stolen; 3) Since the New Deal was philosophically very sympathetic to the Soviet Union’s totalitarian instincts, the US government was in fact recruiting intellectuals and professionals with seriously leftist opinions and instincts, which meant that the problem of infection of the corridors of power via subterfuge was no longer necessary; and 4) While Soviet spies and couriers were able to cross between Europe and North America with impunity, there was an almost complete absence of exchange of intelligence about them between the different security services. Yet none of these books analyses in depth the ideological background of the dozens of officials who ended up spying for the Soviet Union, or why they considered that such treacherous behavior was necessary. I continue my search.

To start with, I have been boning up on other aspects of the transatlantic connections. I referred in my November blog to the cultural denial in the US over Soviet infiltration, and the threat it represented. While on holiday in California and Maui in December, I read M. Stanton Evans’s Blacklisted by History (The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies) (2007), and the memoir by one of the spies unmasked by Igor Gouzenko’s revelations in Canada in 1945, Gordon Lunan’s Redhanded (Inside the spy ring that changed the world) (2005). Lunan was a Scotsman who emigrated to Canada in 1938, and spent five years in prison for his role as a courier between some of the atom spies. He died in 2005. I have also read, this month, Lewis E. Lehrman’s Churchill, Roosevelt & Company (2017), which has an illuminating chapter on Harry Dexter White, the U.S. Treasury official who collaborated with John Maynard Keynes at Bretton Woods, and who was a Soviet spy.

Re-examining the McCarthy hearings is critical because a) they have suffered from a host of leftist distortion in the decades since, and b) their proceedings reveal a mine of information about the allegiances of dozens of US government officials around the war years. The name of Senator Joe McCarthy is almost always linked to the notions of ‘witch-hunt’ and ‘hysteria’ in today’s press. For example, on one page of Gordon Corera’s recent book Cyberspies appear the following two statements: “Venona’s revelations helped fuel the McCarthy era of witch-hunts in Washington amid fears that the Soviets had reached deep into the establishment”, and “That [Philby tipping off Maclean & Burgess] intensified the spy hysteria sweeping Britain and America.” Comparisons are also fluidly made between McCarthyism and the Trump administration. In a letter published in the December 22/29 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, the irrepressible Edward Horowitz wrote: “The paranoid style in American politics embodied by the late senator [McCarthy] and his followers seems to have been ominously resurrected in 2016”, while in the London Review of Books of January 4, Gordon Lears, in an otherwise very level-headed piece, wrote: “In its capacity to exclude dissent, it is like no other formation of mass opinion in my adult life, although it recalls a few dim childhood memories of anti-communist hysteria in the early 1950s.”

But wait! ‘Witch-hunts’? Whereas there is no such entity as ‘witches’, and thus hunts for them are bound to be abortive, Communist spies were a very real menace in the 1930 and 1940s, and for a long time after. To classify attempts to root out such subversives as ‘witch-hunts’, at a time when Stalin had been engaging in the most monstrous show-trials (or sentences without trial) of the century, resulting in the deaths of millions of innocents, displays an incredible degree of hypocrisy. And to classify as ‘paranoia’ or ‘hysteria’ the energies of those trying to defend the nation against such infection reflects an enormous naivety about the nature of the threat. Do such people not realise that it was Stalin’s plan to strengthen his country after the war before taking on the inevitable showdown with ‘the imperialists’? Did they really want to transform the USA into a totalitarian prison-camp on the lines of Stalin’s Russia? What is more, McCarthy’s role is frequently distorted. It is often overlooked that the better publicized investigations were undertaken by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), i.e. not by the Senate, to which McCarthy belonged.

The lore of McCarthyism focusses on attempts to deprive writers and actors (darlings in the public eye) of their right to a living, but, in reality, the thrust of the Senate hearings was very much on political infiltration, particularly in the State Department and the Army. Stanton Evans performs a very thorough job in explaining how the well-researched inquiries by McCarthy and his team were constantly stalled and deflected by career officials, primarily in the State Department. It was not considered a disqualification for a diplomat or civil servant to be (or have been) a communist, and McCarthy was instead attacked as the subversive. As Evans writes: “Throughout, the White House, Department of Justice, and other agencies of the Truman government showed far more interest in tracking down McCarthy’s sources than in uncovering alleged Soviet agents or Communist Party members, or in addressing the lax security standards deplored by the LRB [Labor Relations Board]. In the view of the Truman administration, the problem with Joe McCarthy was not that he didn’t have inside sources of loyalty data but that he all too obviously did. Which was from a national security standpoint beneficial, as information on such cases was sorely needed.”

Yet there were dozens of Soviet sympathizers in Roosevelt’s administration, many of whom engaged in real espionage. And this is where Evans misses an opportunity. Oddly, in his text he never mentions Walter Krivitsky (who was intensely interrogated by the Dies committee in 1939, and was a friend of Whittaker Chambers). Surely the highly public episode of Krivitsky’s denunciation of Stalin and his techniques merited some examination? Stanton provides some analysis of what happened before 1941, but fails to explain how all these persons had been hired, or whether there was a deep plot by Moscow to recruit early at academic institutions (along the lines of the Cambridge-Oxford strategy). He provides no thorough analysis of the different strains of socialist, from the democratic New Dealer, through the committed totalitarian and the dedicated Communist, to the Stalinist devotee and actual spy for the Soviet Union. He fails to explore the question of whether subterfuge was actually necessary – unlike in Britain, where Philby, Burgess and Maclean at least had to go through some display of ideological realignment before being recruited by the various government services.

The problem was that, from Roosevelt’s own leadership, the proliferation of government officials with open sympathies for Stalin’s Soviet Union was not something to be regretted. It had been going on for some time, and had been tolerated. This became clear in 1939. The pattern of subversion had started with Whittaker Chambers, who, when he became the leading courier for Soviet intelligence in 1932, was instructed to cut all his ties with the Communist Party. But it was Chambers himself who, shocked by the Moscow show-trials, and the persecution and murder of agents in situations like his, decided to cut himself loose, defy an order to travel to Moscow, and then go into hiding – all before the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact provoked tremors in such persons –  and then confess all in 1939. In September, he was convinced by Isaac Don Levine (the same man who befriended Krivitsky, and ghost-wrote for him) to speak to Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. At this meeting, Chambers named eighteen contacts in influential positions in government. Berle informed the White House, but Roosevelt did nothing: Chambers was not interviewed by the FBI until 1942.

As Andrew and Gordievsky write: “Roosevelt was not interested. He seems simply to have dismissed the whole idea of espionage rings within his administration as absurd. Equally remarkably, Berle simply pigeonholed his own report. He made no charges about Hiss until 1941, when he mentioned Chambers’s charges to Hiss’s former employer, Supreme Court Justice Feliks Frankfurter, and to the diplomat Dean Acheson. Both dismissed them out of hand. Berle took no further action; he did not send a report of his interview with Chambers to the FBI until the bureau requested it in 1943. Among others who brought Chambers’s story to Roosevelt’s attention were Ambassador William Bullitt, labor leader David Dubinsky, and journalist Walter Winchell. Once again, the president brushed the charges aside.”

And when Krivitsky provided his testimony to the Dies Committee, Roosevelt was equally defiant. In November 1940, as Gary Kern reports, Roosevelt replied to him: “I do not agree with you. I do not regard the Communists as any present or future threat to our country. In fact, I look upon Russia as our strongest ally in the years to come. As I told you when you began your investigation, you should confine yourself to Nazis and Fascists. While I do not believe in Communism, Russia is far better off and the world is safer with Russia under Communism than under the tsars. Stalin is a great leader, and although I deplore some of his methods, it is the only way he can safeguard his government

This is quite an extraordinary statement of political philosophy. Expressing a conviction that the Soviet Union might become an ally (implicitly against the Nazis: the US was not yet at war) was one thing. After all, Churchill was issuing similar messages. And, in the summer of 1940 in Britain, the campaign against a ‘Fifth Column’ likewise included Communists (and pacifists) among its targets – an initiative which, because of Guy Burgess’s moves, would likewise be restricted to ‘Nazis and Fascists’. But Roosevelt went further: he denied that communism was a threat to the country, and effectively gave his seal of approval to Stalin’s dictatorship. The millions who had been slaughtered under Stalin’s despotism had no say in the debate whether the country was ‘better off’, and to suggest that the only alternative to Stalinism was a perpetuation of Romanov tsarism reflects a monumental naivety. The fact that Roosevelt considered that Stalin’s government deserved to be safeguarded implies that the American president believed that the victims of Stalin’s purges were all guilty of attempting to undermine him, presumably as part of the rings of ‘capitalist encirclement’. Or else he was woefully ill-informed about the dictator’s regime. In any case, the conceptual similarities between New Dealerism and totalitarian control could not be more clear.

Another explanation might be that it was Roosevelt’s intellectual flabbiness – his vanity, his deviousness, his manipulativeness, all features accepted by his biographers – that led him to make such statements. He was notorious for sending contradictory messages to his subordinates, and for refusing to have any commandment confirmed in writing, as he implicitly did not believe in any kind of ‘cabinet’ decision-making, and wanted to reserve for himself the flexibility to change his mind at will, often bypassing his immediate ministers and ambassadors. This behavior was all part of his assumption that his role was to cooperate with Stalin on a higher plane, and thus ensure the safety of the world. Whichever case is true, it shows an example of unbridled hubris, and contempt for the democratic process. If he had seriously felt that certain state secrets should be passed to Stalin, he could have arranged for such communications (as did Churchill, with the massaged Ultra messages). Yet, instead, he condoned a furtive and uncontrolled process of leakage. Such behavior was irresponsibly ingenuous, and arguably treasonous.

What is more, a real Soviet agent had confessed to the security authorities, and named spies in Roosevelt’s administration. There was no exact equivalent in the United Kingdom of 1940, since no native Briton with a communist background had been recruited solely as a courier. The Cambridge group were indeed all spies. The closest analogue is perhaps Goronwy Rees, who was recruited as a spy, but had a Damascene conversion (or, if not a real conversion, a shocking revelation that the cause was unjust) after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact. If he had gone to the authorities then, and named names, there must have been a possibility that his testimony would have been taken seriously: that is why Guy Burgess wanted him killed. Yet Chambers identified such persons as Harry Dexter White, Alger Hiss and Lauchlin Currie – and Roosevelt did not care. (Chambers wrote that FDR laughed out loud when informed of what was going on.) If Churchill had been offered significant evidence that equivalent figures (say John Maynard Keynes, Alexander Cadogan, and Orme Sargent) had been providing confidential material to the Soviet Union, they would have been purged (UK-style) immediately, and a wholesale cleansing of the stables would have occurred. And how close Krivitsky came! It is my belief – and that of others – that Krivitsky knew more than he was prepared to divulge when he was interrogated in January 1940, but the incompetence of MI5 and SIS on that occasion was dwarfed by the nonchalance of Roosevelt.

So what had been happening with US governmental institutions? Initial study gives the impression that no deep subversion in American universities had been taking place (although Harvard does feature prominently in the resumés of the offenders). Yet there were links with the Soviet espionage structure in Britain, which had been developed several years earlier. The curricula vitae of some of the agents bespeak much, hinting at hitherto unexplored relationships. In alphabetical order, here are some details of those spies (most of whom were revealed by Whittaker Chambers), many identifiable in the Venona transcripts, who had transatlantic links (with cryptonyms in parentheses):

Solomon Adler [SACHS or SAX]: Adler was born in Leeds in 1909, and studied at New College, Oxford (1927-1930), where he took a first, and then a master’s degree in economics at the London School of Economics. He moved to the USA in 1935 to perform research, and at some stage joined the Treasury Department. He became a US citizen in 1940, and was posted to China, from where he advised Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Identified by Chambers in 1939, he was a subject of a loyalty test in 1949, after which he returned to the UK to teach at Cambridge. He then moved back to China, and died in 1994.

Cedric Belfrage [CHARLIE]: Belfrage was born in 1904, and attended Gresham’s School, Holt, the same institution that educated W. H. Auden, Donald Maclean, Bernard and Peter Floud, James Klugmann, Brian Simon and Tom Wintringham. He reportedly went to Cambridge University (college unknown), leaving soon thereafter, in 1927, for Hollywood. He joined the Communist Party in 1937, and was recruited by British Security Coordination with responsibility for the Western hemisphere in December 1941. Identified by Chambers in 1939, his spying came to an end when he was inadvertently compromised by Earl Browder, head of the CPUSA in 1943. Nevertheless, at the end of the war, he obtained a post with the military government in Germany (like Jürgen Kuczynski). He appeared before the HUAC in 1953, and was deported back to England in 1955, as he had never taken up US citizenship. He then wrote some sophistical and self-serving volumes of autobigraphy.

Lauchlin Currie [PAGE]: Currie was a Canadian citizen, born in Nova Scotia in 1902, who was educated at the London School of Economics. He moved to Harvard for a doctorate in economics, became an American citizen in 1943, and was hired by Harry White at the Treasury. After a spell at the Federal Reserve Board, he joined the White House staff as an administrative assistant to Roosevelt in 1939. Two years later he was sent to China, and fulfilled other missions for FDR. He became deputy administrator of the Foreign Economic Administration in 1943, but resigned after the death of Roosevelt. Chambers had identified him as at least a ‘fellow-traveller’ in 1939: Venona confirmed his role, and Currie escaped to Colombia in 1950. He was stripped of his US citizenship in 195

George Eltenton [DORIN]: Eltenton was British, a communist sympathiser, and a physicist who at some stage studied at the Cavendish Laboratory. He visited the USSR in 1931 under the auspices of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR and from 1933 to 1938 worked at the Institute of Chemical Physics in Leningrad. In 1942 while working in the USA he made indirect contact with Robert Oppenheimer with a request for information for the USSR about atom bomb technology. He approached the noted nuclear physicist through Haakon Chevalier. He was picked up in June 1946 by the FBI, and admitted trying to obtain documents on behalf of the Soviet consulate. He moved back to Britain in 1947. His wife Ada was an even more ardent communist than George, and worked at the nest of fellow-travellers and spies that was the Institute for Pacific Relations.

Elsie Fairfax-Cholmeley [GIRL FRIEND]: Fairfax-Cholmeley was the daughter of British missionaries in China, also a communist. At some stage, she became the second wife of Israel Epstein [MINAYEV], born in Warsaw, another Soviet spy, recruited in China in 1937. In a 1942 report, it was stated that she managed to escape from Hong Kong. She and her husband apparently visited Britain in 1944, but were able to reach the USA that year, where Fairfax-Cholmeley worked for the Institute of Pacific Relations alongside Anthony Jenkinson, or/and for United China Relief. Probably in 1951, the Epsteins left to return to China. Elsie died in 1984.

Michael Greenberg [YANK]: Greenberg was British, born in 1914, and attended Manchester Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was described as “the sort of fellow one could take to lunch at the Pitt Club” by Sir John Colville. A Chinese scholar, he was an effective Communist proselytizer as he knew how to put on social graces. He claimed that, in the City of London most people shared the Marxist analysis of capitalism that he had learned in Cambridge in the 1930s, but that they were, by contrast, quite content with the implicit inequalities.  He was a friend of Michael Straight, and won a scholarship to Harvard in 1939. Roland Perry states that he had by then been recruited by KGB. He became editor of Pacific Affairs, a journal published by the Institute of Pacific Relations. In 1942, Greenberg was appointed China specialist for Board of Economic Warfare, within Foreign Economic Administration. He was given the cryptonym ‘YANK’, as he had by then gained US citizenship. He resigned in 1946 after Bentley’s defection, and was questioned by the FBI in 1947. He did not admit to passing on information, returned to the UK, but was denied both US & GB citizenship. He died in 1992.

Anthony Jenkinson: Little is known about this Briton, except that he was a member of the Institute of Pacific Relations, working alongside Elsie Fairfax-Cholmeley. His name was mentioned alongside that of Fairfax-Cholmeley and Michael Greenberg in the Us Senate Sub-Committee report on the Institute for Pacific Relations.

Herbert Norman: Norman was a Canadian whom Chambers described as ‘an alumnus of the Cambridge circle’, alongside Greenberg and Straight. He was born in Japan, to missionary parents, in 1909, and, having taken his graduate degree in history at the University of Toronto, studied at Trinity College from 1933-1936, under the tutelage of John Cornford. Amy Knight (in How The Cold War Began) presents evidence that he joined the Communist Party in 1934. He entered the graduate program at Harvard in 1936, to study Japanese history. Stanton describes him as ‘a Cambridge grad who specialized in far East Affairs and would rise to a high-ranking job in Canada’s diplomatic service.’ He was also closely involved with the Institute of Pacific Relations. After suspicions of his having been a communist spy were voiced in the 1950s, he committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the Swedish Embassy in Cairo, in 1957 – a method of departure from this life experienced by several Soviet spies.

Michael Straight [NIGEL]: Straight was born in the US in 1916, but moved, after his mother’s remarriage, to Dartington Hall. He studied at the London School of Economics in 1933, and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he joined a Communist cell, and the Apostles. He became Secretary and President-elect of the Cambridge Union. Straight was recruited by the GRU in 1937 by Anthony Blunt, who passed on orders that he should return to the USA to gain information on the US banking industry. He spied in the USA, but confessed to his deeds when about to be re-hired by the US government in 1963, in the process naming Blunt and Leo Long.  He was a close friend of Roosevelt, and a speechwriter for the president. He claimed that Rothschild’s wife was in love with him (Blunt encouraged him to have an affair, according to Roland Perry); he married Belinda Compton, sister of Catherine Walston, who was to become Graham Greene’s lover. Guy Burgess tipped him off about Krivitsky during the former’s abortive trip to Moscow with Isaiah Berlin in the summer of 1940. Thereafter Straight moved to the State Department to watch Krivitsky’s movements, leading to the latter’s assassination. Straight died in 2004.

Julian Wadleigh [104TH]: Wadleigh was born in the US in Greenfield, Mass. in 1904, but moved as a child to the UK, where he attended Furzie School in New Milton, and then Marlborough College. He took his undergraduate degree at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Greats from 1922 to 1925.  His father, a clergyman, was based in Switzerland, c/o Haskard & Co. in Florence. He was known as the ‘bolshie American’ at Oxford, which indicates that his left-wing views were well-developed at that stage. He was awarded a second-class degree at Oxford, and subsequently enrolled at the London School of Economics, where he met his wife. He moved to the US for a fellowship at the University of Chicago, and then joined the Department of Agriculture in 1932. (His wife left him for a Canadian economist, but returned in 1936). Wadleigh then joined the Trade Agreements Division of the State Department in 1936, soon meeting Eleanor Nelson, a leftist, who put him in touch with communists in Washington. He was introduced to an intermediary named ‘Harold Wilson’ and then to Whittaker Chambers. Wadleigh was aware of Stalin’s purges and the murder of Ignace Reiss, but still went to Turkey in 1938. When he came back, Chambers told him he was defecting. He and his wife divorced, but both remarried (his wife marrying Carroll Daugherty, who was also named by Chambers), after which Wadleigh went to Italy and stayed with his brother Dickie, an intelligence officer. Even though his identity was revealed by Chambers, Wadleigh was able to write articles in the New York Post in July 1949 explaining why he spied for the Communists, and did not lose his job. He died in 1994.

I believe this list alone provides some great opportunities for further research. It includes the careers of Britons who seem to have avoided the radar-screen of espionage history writing up until now. It is hard to find firm evidence of the educational careers of these spies as they studied in the UK, yet it must exist somewhere. The pattern hints at extended rings of subversives – not only at the known hive of evil-doing at Cambridge University, but also at networks at Oxford and the London School of Economics. (How many familiar with the inextinguishable ‘Cambridge Five’ would not recognise the names of Leo Long and of Michael Straight, let alone those of Michael Greenberg and Herbert Norman?) It suggests extended efforts by the NKVD/KGB and GRU to export some of the expertise it had developed in Britain to the United States. And it all reflects some extraordinary light on the reactions of the respective governments of the two countries to the discovery of reputed Soviet espionage in their midst. Did they communicate at all, as these dubious persons crossed the Atlantic Ocean? Apparently not, since many in the United States maintained an intense dislike for Britain as a former colonial oppressor. Yet the National Archives are gradually revealing more about some of these goings-on. For example, in 2006, files on George Eltenton were declassified, and scope for further integrative research presents itself.

Lastly, there is the Canadian connection. In September 1945, the Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in Ottawa, taking over a hundred documents with him. These files identified a ring of Communists, or communist sympathisers, who had been handing over secret material to the Soviet Union. The response of the Canadian government was markedly different from that of the USA or the UK. In the USA, where a large amount of support, even collusion, over the betrayal of confidential information was evident, and the process was delegated to the Senate to hear testimony from witnesses, the latter were able to invoke the Fifth Amendment in order not to incriminate themselves. In the UK, where the identification of spies was largely reliant on information gained from counter-espionage means (such as the Venona transcripts), the authorities were strongly opposed to revealing to the Russians that they had decrypted their secret messages, and thus were dependent on gaining confessions from suspects before any trial could be conducted. That was the case with Klaus Fuchs, as it was indeed also with Alan Nunn May, who was spirited to England, and confessed, as a result of the Gouzenko revelations. May was arrested on March 5, 1946, the same day that Churchill gave his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in Fulton, Missouri.

The Canadian government, on the other hand, exploited wartime conditions to set up a Commission to investigate the evidence and interview the persons identified. Named the Kelloch-Taschereau Commission, it was set up on February 13, 1946, when it began hearing Gouzenko’s testimony. Two days later, the suspects were arrested, and were required to give their evidence, in a fashion that bypassed many of their traditional rights. Yet, as a mechanism for showing the world the deep subversive activities of Soviet espionage, it was a very successful exercise. The commission issued an interim report on March 4, 1946, and its final version (which can be inspected in full at http://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/472640/publication.html ) in July of that year. The trials of the suspects took place between March 1946 and March 1947: Gordon Lunan, who was considered one of the most important, had acted as a go-between for GRU colonel Rogov and three others accused, namely Edward Mazerall, Durnford Smith, and Israel Halperin. (It was Halperin’s address-book that led to Klaus Fuchs, and Herbert Norman was likewise unmasked by this object.) Under pressure, and fearing a possible death penalty, Lunan confessed in February 1946, and agreed to cooperate.

The definitive book on the Gouzenko affair is Amy Knight’s How The Cold War Began (2005). Yet I believe this work suffers from a common malaise in academic history of this genre: it suggests that the Cold War was caused by a mistrust of Stalin by the West, and that the ‘hunt for Soviet spies’ (as the phrase appears in the subtitle of Knight’s book) was somehow misguided. But there was no hunt. The names came out in broad daylight, and the intentions of Soviet intelligence were clear: to steal secrets from the West. In the USA, the identification of spies by Chambers had been ignored. Moreover, most governmental authorities had determined well before September 1945 that Stalin had misled the Allies at Yalta, and was not to be trusted. The roots of that breakdown went back to Warsaw in 1944, with Stalin’s cowardly refusal to assist in the uprising. Yet the follow-up was anaemic. Knight writes, without a trace of irony: “In chronicling Gouzenko’s story, this book renews a debate that began in the McCarthy era and divides historians to this day. To what extent were the people accused of passing secrets to the Soviets during the 1940s really spies, and to what extent were they merely individuals sympathetic to the communist cause and unwittingly drawn into the Soviet espionage network?” As if that distinction has any substance or merit: they were spies, and they knew it. For example, Fred Rose, one of her primary subjects, went into hiding when the CP was banned, and then approached the GRU in 1942: Knight reports that. Her implicit sympathy for communist ‘ideals’ pervades her work, and she shows all the conventional disdain for McCarthy and his operations (‘the frenzy of the espionage scare’).

Gordon Lunan originally published his memoir as The Making of A Spy. In 2005, it was re-issued, and updated, as Redhanded: Inside the Spy Ring that Changed the World. The title reflects the fact that Lunan admits his role as a spy: indeed the work is lacking in self-pity, and gives the impression that, for all the injustices of the process, and the way he was interrogated, his sentence of five years in the penitentiary was deserved. Moreover, it is a touching and well-written account of growing up in England in the 1920s and 1930s, a world that will be recognized by those who have read, say, George Orwell’s memoirs and fictionalized accounts of those times. Lunan was born in Kirkcaldy in Scotland in 1914: his family moved to Leeds when he was four years old. He was educated at Mill Hill School (although that institution’s website does not appear to be aware of his existence), after which he drifted into leftist circles, although he claims he never joined the communist party. He explains his decision to move suddenly to Canada in 1938 as in impulsive one made in order to ‘see the world’, and he quickly associated himself with ‘anti-fascist’ causes when he arrived there. He nevertheless managed to be recruited by the Wartime Information Board in 1943, where he was approached by Rogov of Soviet military intelligence. He provides some strong insights into government corruption, and is forthright in describing how the war commission undermined individual rights. He also offers a ruthless exposé of prison conditions, yet never suggests that his punishment was unearned. Lunan died soon after the book was published.

Yet there is humbuggery in Lunan’s account, as well. The account of his emigration is very dubious: he describes watching a May Day parade in London in 1938, where protests against the government’s inaction in Spain were being made. It was then, he writes ‘that I finally decided that war would surely come and that I had better see more of the world before the sword of Damocles dropped’. But escaping from the world of advertising in London to a similar milieu in Canada was hardly ‘seeing the world’. Is it possible he was despatched there by the CPGB, or by Soviet controllers? Installed in Canada, he was easily taken in by the hypocrisy expressed by the Nazi-Soviet pact, which was hardly the reaction of someone only on the fringes of the Communist Party. He sounds much more like a hard-line Stalinist: he completely ignores the monstrosities of Stalin’s prison-camp. His final appeal in the book shows all the self-serving cant of the communist apologist: “We must use the democratic rights we still have – to vote, to speak up in our communities, to write letters to the press and to the politicians – to show that we count. But to do so, we must first arm ourselves with a knowledge of our own history and the ability to take a critical look at world events, at history in the making.” Well, of course, comrade. Do exactly that. But nobody had those rights in the communist paradise, did they? There is a mountain of self-delusion in such statements. Yet it is a familiar refrain: ‘we thought we were helping Stalin, who was an ally in war, and were told that our governments were not doing enough to help him’. One can read this sad message again and again: last year Hamish MacGibbon trotted out the same explanation in Maverick Spy, the book about his spy father, James.

The reaction to the Gouzenko revelations shed a lot of light on the attitudes of the respective governments. Moscow Centre – promptly alerted by Kim Philby as to what was going on – was appalled, and after initial protests, by July 1946 had brought back home all its diplomats suspected of spying. The Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, was typically spineless: he initially wanted Gouzenko to return to the Embassy. He declared to the House of Commons that what he felt most important was ‘to see that nothing should be done which would cause the Russian Embassy to believe that Canada had the least suspicion of anything which was taking place there.’ No ‘hunt for spies’ in Ottawa, but abject appeasement. Mackenzie then travelled to Washington and London and had to be dissuaded from continuing to Moscow, since he was confident that the Soviet leader ‘would never have countenanced such activities’. The American press generally expressed naivety about what was going on, with Time and the New York Herald Tribune even condoning the espionage. One might have imagined that the British and American governments might have wondered whether, if a relative backwater like Ottawa was so riddled with Soviet spies, perhaps Washington and London might be similarly infected. Gouzenko, after all, had identified Nunn May, and given broad hints to the identity of Alger Hiss. But the USA was beset by indolence and nonchalance, and, in the United Kingdom, MI5 had by this time similarly transformed itself into an institution that condoned communism (as my book Misdefending the Realm explains). Thus, apart from a robust stance by Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, the British administration was suffused with the hope that the whole shooting-match was vastly overblown, and by the desire to keep matters firmly undercover. It was only when the courier Elizabeth Bentley revealed to the FBI all that she knew, on November 2, 1945, that the authorities started to become alive again, reinforced by the fact that decrypts from the Venona programme (though concealed from the public) started coming off the production line in 1946.

In summary, the common assessment of the Gouzenko affair is one of surprise and shock. The reaction of the Western Allies has been characterised as one of surprise, because they had no inkling of what was happening, and of shock, because Stalin was supposed to be an ally with whom they were ‘cooperating’. The negative attitude of Stalin had been ascribed to the fact that he was insulted when he discovered that the USA and Britain were sharing atomic secrets behind his back. But the democracies had had ample warning, from Chambers and Krivitsky, of what Stalin was up to, while Stalin had no misconceptions about the long-term adversarial relationship. He had had hundreds of spies working for over a decade, pillaging Western technology and secrets: he would not have expected anything less. As for Knight’s thesis that the Gouzenko affair signalled the beginning of the Cold War, enlightened opinion seems to have forgotten even this incident. The London Review of Books of January 25 carries a review of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History, under the headline ‘Who started it?’ Yet the index to Westad’s book contains no entry for Gouzenko, or even for Soviet espionage. Has a new generation of historians overlooked what went on?

If the democracies had developed mechanisms for sharing intelligence in the 1930s, I suspect a more robust counter to Stalin’s espionage might have been effected. And I believe that a lot remains to be uncovered in the relationships between the activities of the spies in the UK, the USA, and Canada, and how the authorities acted – or failed to react – in response. The lack of intelligence-sharing between the UK and the USA existed for reasons of territoriality, traditional mistrust, and political inclination. The most notorious lapse was probably the role of Kitty Harris, sometime wife of Earl Browder, the head of the CPUSA, as Donald Maclean’s courier and lover. But there were clearly other incidents. The renowned distaste for communism by the head of the F.B.I., Edgar J. Hoover, had been long muted – a phenomenon that merits further study. And I shall continue to look out for an explanation of the intellectual and academic relationships – especially as Harvard is concerned. In a future blog entry, I also plan to disclose the curious relationship between Alexander Foote and the testimony of one of the witnesses before the Canadian commission. Anyone with any insights or sources that can contribute to this debate, or who can shed more light on the more obscure of the characters listed, is encouraged to contact me at antonypercy@aol.com.

P.S. Shortly before he died, in 2014, Chapman Pincher advised me to study his new edition of Treachery, which included a number of new items of research, some based on Russian archives. I at last acquired the 2012 edition (‘Updated and Uncensored Version’), and have started reading it. Yet it is difficult to detect what is new unless one performs an exact comparison with the first edition. Indeed, I have found some useful fresh nuggets and insights, but the work is still flawed because of its relentless a priori argument that Roger Hollis was the GRU spy ELLI. It is impossible to conceive that such an insignificant and incompetent officer could have masterminded the whole Sonia deception, and hoodwinked his colleagues and superiors about what was going on. I continue to believe that Pincher was fed a bundle of false clues in order that he would be distracted from the main quarry.  More to be reported later.

January Commonplace entries appear here.

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Isaiah in Love

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

December Commonplace entries duly posted here. (December 31)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(© Antony Percy 2012)

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