Special Bulletin: B2B or not B2B?

I interrupt the normal monthly schedule to present a report on MI5 structure in WWII that should not wait any longer – and probably does not merit prime billing as a monthly blog post, as it is of even more recondite interest than my normal articles. Yet it addresses a serious oversight in the authorised history of MI5, Christopher Andrew’s Defend the Realm. I thank Dr. Giselle Jakobs for her very helpful comments during the creation of this piece, and welcome comments from my readers.

I also take the opportunity to update the tale of Aberystwyth. On the night of November 4, at 9:45 PM local (East Coast) time, I received a brief email attaching a schedule for the Security Conference which starts on November 15. In it can be found my session: ‘Elusive Transmissions: The Riddle of Radio Detection in Wartime Britain’. My messages had been completely ignored, and I have had to request, very respectfully, that my presentation be removed. I apologise to the thousands of my fans who were about to flock to Gregynog Hall to listen to me. And it is probably true: ‘I shall not eat lunch in Aberystwyth again’.

B2B or not B2B

The group within MI5 that has become renowned for managing the group of German double-agents in World War II is regularly identified as ‘B1A’. Led by the charismatic figure of Tommy (‘Passion Pants’) Robertson, known as ‘Tar’, it carefully shepherded TATE, GARBO, TRICYCLE, TREASURE and others through the process of passing on carefully prepared messages, some by invisible ink, some by wireless, to the Abwehr controllers who believed they were still working for the Nazis. It maintained credible real-life experiences for them, selected a mixture of harmless facts and mendacious reports for them to pass on, and fed off the Germans’ weaknesses to convince the enemy that the major D-Day landing would take place near the Pas de Calais rather than in Normandy.

The histories and biographies mainly appear to reinforce this identity. If you read Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross (2012), you will find the following: “A live spy was more useful than a dead one, though a lot more trouble. Section B1A was launched, a new subsection of Liddell’s B Section with Tar Robertson at the helm”. The event is undated, but the text strongly indicates August 1940. Nigel West, in MI5 (1981) writes of the time of the establishment of the Twenty (XX) Committee, in early January 1941: “B1(a) continued [sic] to manage the agents on a day-to-day basis but their efforts were now combined with B1(b), a hybrid unit devoted to the art of assessment of the enemy.” And in his authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (2009 – US title), Christopher Andrew introduces B1a, ‘the double agent section of B Division’, as existing as early as May 1940, when MI5 was undertaking risky manoeuvres with agent SNOW and his Abwehr case officer, Major Ritter. Dick White’s biographer, Tom Bower, in The Perfect English Spy (1995), has Robertson’s B1(a) in existence by September 1939. Geoffrey Elliott’s biography of Robertson, Gentleman Spymaster (2011) completely avoids the issue of reporting structures before 1941.

Yet any researcher who inspects the files of these double-agents – and unturned spies – at the National Archives will soon become bewildered by the range of identifiers used by many of the participants – especially Tar Robertson. He or she may find Robertson given the tag ‘B3’ between September 1939 and September 1940. For a short while thereafter, he appears as ‘W2’. In the first half of 1941, letters and memoranda refer to him as ‘B2’. It is not until the end of July 1941 that he first appears as ‘B1A’. What is going on? And why are the histories so inattentive to this issue?

Well, one historian was careful. John Masterman, the Oxford historian who chaired the XX Committee, wrote, in a note on p100 of his history of the project, The Double Cross System, (1972): “Until Sir David Petrie’s reorganisation in 1941 the section dealing with double-cross agents was otherwise named, but for purposes of convenience it will be mentioned as B.1.a. throughout.” (Readers will notice already the discrepancies in format: B1A, B1(a), B1a, and B.1.a: I shall use the first form in all references from now on.) Masterman referred to a predecessor unit, W Branch, that had been established in July 1940, but left the rest of the puzzle unresolved. But shouldn’t we expect, from the authorised historian (Andrew) especially, that he would pay proper diligence to important issues of chronology and organisational structure, instead of skipping over the anomalies as if they didn’t matter?

At a high level, perhaps, it doesn’t matter, as the association of Robertson and B1A will be a stable linkage with which to identify MI5’s agent-handling group. But since the negotiations, rivalries, resentments and plotting that went on behind these organisational changes are an important part of the history of MI5 and its exploitation of double agents, I believe it is important to set the record straight. At the same time, I suspect the many researchers who are delving into the files that are continually being released at Kew may find a reliable guide to the evolution of Britain’s counter-espionage organisation during World War II a useful backdrop for their research.

A sceptical reader of Macintyre’s book might have asked: how was it that such an obvious unit descriptor as ‘B1A’ was unused and available when it came time to launch Robertson’s new unit? Information about MI5’s structure at the beginning of the war is very elusive, but on page 19 of my book Misdefending the Realm I reproduce a chart (found in the archives at KV 4/127) with the following observation: “Nevertheless, ‘B’ Branch still looks essentially unmanageable, with the following subsections and chiefs:

B (Investigation) Harker & Liddell;

B.1 (Internal Security in HM Forces) Alexander;

B.1a (Navy) Watson;

B.2 (Germany) Cooke;

B.2a (Nazi) Curry;

B.2b (C.E. Germany) Whyte;

B.2c (BUF, Italian Fascists) Sinclair;

B.3 (Arms Traffic) Robertson;

B.4a (Civil Security – home) Sissmore and Mr Younger;

B.4b (Civil Security – foreign) Dick White;

B.5a (Spec. Enquiries) Boddington, Badham;

B.5b (M Organisation) Knight;

B.6 (Enquiries) Hunter.”

So it is clear that a predecessor B1A unit did exist, although it had nothing to do with managing potential double agents. We can also see that Robertson is identified as B3, responsible for Arms Traffic, a function that Geoffrey Elliott assumes was to deal with the frequently clandestine way in which surplus weaponry was bought and sold to support various conflicts and insurgencies around the world, such as the Spanish Civil War.

At this stage, it may be suitable to explore exactly what this system of nomenclature meant. MI5 was composed of Branches (or Divisions), terms which in books about MI5 are used almost interchangeably. (In a Note on page 127 of his history, Christopher Andrew writes: “Within MI5 ‘branch’ and ‘division’ were often used interchangeably. In internal administrative documents ‘branch’ and predominated until 1931, ‘division’ from 1931 to 1940, ‘branch’ in 1941-2 and ‘division’ from 1943 to 1950. From 1953 onwards the accepted term was ‘branch’.) Beneath these were ‘sections’, sometimes referred to as ‘sub-sections’. One can see that the organisation before WWI was very flat, with most sections occupied by only one officer. The implication, however, is that there is no direct equivalence between an officer and a code, and that a section name (e.g. B.4a) could refer to either of the officers who represented it.

When a researcher reads memoranda and letters written by and to certain officers, the equivalence between the officer and the section is frequently tenuous. Thus a letter may be identified as originating from B1A (for example, Robertson), but the response is sent, likewise, to B1A, which should presumably mean any of the officers in that section, or even whoever happened to be on duty at that time. Attempts are often made to remove the confusion by adding the name of the individual officer intended to make sure the right recipient receives the message, e.g. “B.2b (Mr Hart)”. It is not a watertight system, but it probably reflects the relative chaos in which MI5 grew, especially at the beginning of the war, when formalities, written job responsibilities and training were cast by the wayside. My view is that it was unlikely that it was a system designed to confound the Germans for reasons of security: I suspect British military, governmental and intelligence departments that had daily business with MI5 were more confused than the Abwehr. And it appears to have perplexed the authorized historian. Let us just note that each code properly defines a section, and that the section’s leader is, by default, customarily given that nomenclature.

In any case, at some stage, the mission of B3 morphed into one of interception of illicit wireless. We owe it to John Curry’s official history of MI5, The Security Service 1908-1945, published internally in 1946, and by the Public Record Office in 1999, for the information that ‘A section known as B.3., under Lt.-Colonel Simpson, C.M.G., R.E. had been established at the beginning of the war to deal with these inquiries [i.e. reports of suspicious Morse signals picked up by wireless receivers]”. I have covered the short, fascinating but enigmatic career of Lt.-Col Simpson at MI5 elsewhere on this website (MysteryofUndetectedRadios), but it is clear that Robertson was working for Simpson for the whole first year of the war, when he was handling the SNOW case. Curry refers to an unnamed section run by Lt.-Col. Hinchley-Cooke ‘which had always dealt with German espionage’, but ‘continued to be in the same isolated position which it had held for some years.’ (Isolation seems to have been a key feature of all departments.) From the chart above, we can see that this unit was B2, with Hinchley-Cooke being presented as ‘Cooke’. Curry (who at that time worked as B2A for Hinchley-Cooke) also informs us that Robertson’s involvement with wireless usage by SNOW (though not stated thus explicitly) was then leading him into attempts to ‘find a key to the Abwehr system of wireless communication’. He adds: “He [Captain Robertson] was also in charge of the section responsible for the investigation of all reports of illicit wireless transmissions and for co-ordinating the work in this connection of the police, the Radio Security Service and the G.P.O.” Robertson was clearly gaining in experience, importance, and visibility in his time at B3.

At some time in the Spring of 1940, however, there was a fallout between Simpson and MI5, and Liddell had to look for a replacement. He eventually picked Malcom Frost, who had previously worked for the BBC, and was not only a crony of Lord Swinton, who had taken overall control of MI5 after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, but also was a member of the Security Executive itself. It was at this stage that the function of the old B3 was proposed to be established at a higher level – a W (Wireless) Branch, which was the brainchild of Swinton himself. Thus Frost, an ambitious character, was initially promised that his organisation, ‘established inside the Security Service and . . . intended to deal with the interception of enemy communications for the purpose of detecting their agents’, would report at the same level as B, with initial supervision by Liddell. Liddell, who had replaced Harker as head of B Branch on June 11, was also assistant to acting director Jasper Harker, but also shared his role for an uncomfortable time with a solicitor introduced by Swinton, William Crocker. This was a desperately difficult time for Liddell.

Despite Liddell’s initial enthusiasm for Frost, the latter’s arrogance and unreliability soon undermined his standing with his new MI5 peers. Frost had been appointed head of W Branch on July 24, 1940: a month later Liddell folded the Branch, much to Frost’s disgust, into B as a conventional Section, with Robertson and his team moving with him.  Andrew tells us that Crocker left in September after a row with Swinton. As the dilemma about where to place the Radio Security Service (RSS) became more urgent, Frost expressed the desire that the whole organisation should report to him, an attitude that went completely against the grain of what MI5’s senior management was thinking. By the end of November, even his ally Swinton was telling Liddell that Frost could not stay in MI5. (Yet Frost was a survivor, not leaving MI5 until January 1943.) On December 6, Liddell wrote in his Diary that Robertson had told him that working for Frost was intolerable, and Liddell was forced to move Robertson’s unit out of the W Section, and park it (including Robertson and Cholmondeley, and possibly Luke and Reed) elsewhere. In the latter months of 1940 (from early September onward), Robertson is thus identified in the archival reports as ‘W2’: another part of his career is explained.

Liddell was inhibited from making solid and durable changes to MI5’s structure at this time, since David Petrie had by then been invited to review MI5’s operation as a pending successor to Vernon Kell, Jasper Harker having being recognised as too weak a character to take over the leadership. Thus, until Petrie’s arrival in early 1941, and the restructuring that took place at the end of July of that year, Robertson’s team was placed in B2. Now B2 has always been somewhat of a murky entity: according to Curry, now that Crocker was out of the way, he himself became in September 1940 Liddell’s deputy, thus opening up a slot for Robertson at B2. (This promotion does not appear to be verifiable from any other source, so we should be wary of Curry’s claim.) Liddell reportedly arranged B Division into seven subject areas, but probably did not publicize the new organisation very aggressively, in view of Swinton looking over his shoulder. But it would explain why B2A was available at this time, as, by now, B2’s other officer had been moved into a new role. Hinchley-Cooke, who was half-German, was increasingly being used to interrogate captured agents at Latchmere House, and his legal expertise was being used more in decisions made about bringing such agents to trial, which meant he no longer led the B2 unit. The National Archives show that Hinchley-Cooke was identifiable as B13 by October 1, 1940, perhaps replacing an enigmatic ‘J R S’ whose name appears as B13 in the last months of 1939.

Dick White now appears as B2 (and occasionally B2B), so it is clear that Liddell had appointed him to take a leading role in handling German espionage. Nigel West and Christopher Andrew (who does not even recognize B2’s existence until his saga reaches 1950: B2 was re-created after the war) are oddly very parsimonious in their coverage of White in 1940 and 1941. West states, however, that ‘early in the war Liddell looked to his pre-war hands, Dick White, Tar Robertson and Jack Curry to cope with the problem of German espionage’. Dick White and Roger Hollis had both been given assistant-director rank in July 1940. According to West (and Bower), White at this time became Liddell’s deputy, although that would conflict with the story as Curry tells it. According to Curry’s account, White did not take on that role until July 1941, when Curry moved across to take over the new F Division.  Bower even grants a larger part of the XX programme to White, asserting that ‘Arthur Owens [SNOW] was White’s first double-agent’. Perhaps Liddell had two deputies: that was the model in SIS, although it was a policy bound to cause resentments and uncertainty. In any case, the evidence shows that White was busily engaged with Robertson in discussing the fate of their captured agents, and arguing with Swinton (and vicariously, Churchill) why their execution was not a sensible policy.

There is some confusion about the remainder of B2. The group that was eventually known in the Petrie era as B1B, under Helenus Milmo, which at some stage brought in Herbert Hart, was responsible for ‘analyzing ISOS decrypts, Abwehr communications with the double agents and other intelligence relevant to the Double-Cross system’ (Andrew). Yet Andrew again prematurely misrepresents the B1B nomenclature as being current in August 1940, since records tell us that, in the first half of 1941, Milmo was identified as B2C (and once as B3C!), and Hart as B2B, which suggests that they were pursuing separate agendas. (What happened to B2C Sinclair is not clear, while Curry shows that B2B Whyte would later become B4A, in the ‘Country’ section.) Whether Milmo and Hart had also been in Frost’s ill-fated W Branch is uncertain: Hart did not join MI5, and sign the Official Secrets Act until July 3, 1940, so he may have been waiting in the wings until the new B2 organisation took shape a couple of months later. The main conclusion, however, is that Robertson had an identity and home as B2A in the first seven months of 1941. Another stage in his career is explained, although whether personnel in other wartime units who communicated with him, such as RSS, understood what was going on may be another question.

We have the firmest confirmation of the final order in Curry’s history, since he provides a detailed chart of the structure that Petrie imposed after his appointment as Director-General in March 1941. Yet how much the ideas were his, and how much he was swayed by Swinton, is unclear: Curry states that, on April 22, Petrie decided to ‘follow the Swinton recommendation of splitting up B Division’. The new structure was announced on July 15, and implemented on August 1. This shows White as Assistant-Director to Liddell, and in charge of B1 (titled ‘Espionage’, but, more accurately ‘Counter-Espionage’), Robertson is B1A, responsible for Special Agents, and Hart is B1B, ‘Espionage Special Sources’ – rather enigmatically suggesting that Milmo is no longer part of the picture, although archival documents show that he was still B1B in 1942. (As I have pointed out, Curry may not be 100% reliable – but he does provide more detail than Andrew or West.) B2 is now ‘Agents’ under Maxwell Knight, whose group has been generally known as the ‘M’ organisation, but which was clearly B2B in the chart I offered above. (The ‘agents’ here were mostly British citizens recruited to infiltrate subversive organisations on the mainland, previously Fascist groups, and now the Communist Party.) A large part of Knight’s group would shortly be moved away from him, and in August 1941 B2 was apparently dissolved, with Knight joining a staff unit titled ‘Agents and Press Section’ reporting directly to Harker and Petrie. A new Division, F Division, was also created at this time, initially under Curry, responsible for ‘Subversive Activities’, and it is here that Roger Hollis found his home, as F2, watching ‘Communism and Left Wing Movements’.

The main outcome of this restructuring is that Robertson found his happier and permanent home at B1A, under Dick White, and that is how we remember him. What is extraordinary in this whole saga is how unhelpful the ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ histories are in providing a comprehensive and comprehensible explanation of how the structures of MI5 evolved. One might say: if they cannot get facts like that right, how accurate is the rest of their story? I hope that this narrative helps remove the confusion, and that it will find its way into a future rewritten history of MI5. I encourage any researchers who discover facts that expand or counter any of what I have written to contact me.

 

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

Confessions of a Conspiracy Theorist

And an update on ter Braak . . .

Some Famous Conspiracy Theorists (Nos 17-20 in a series of 50)

Titus Oates

Maximilien Robespierre

Joseph Stalin

Tony Percy

A Lesson from Salisbury

As most readers familiar with the Skryalin affair will know, recently two GRU officers masquerading as tourists with an enthusiasm for Early English architecture were shown, through the means of a surveillance camera, sauntering through Salisbury. Soon after those pictures were published, I was interested to read the following statement in the New York Times: “Matthew Dean, the head of Salisbury’s City Council and owner of a local pub, the Duke of York, said he hoped it would put to rest conspiracy theories circulating about the crime.” The implied hope behind Mr. Dean’s statement was that a more convincing theory, one backed up by more solid evidence, would oust alternative explanations that lacked any real factual basis, and that tended to exploit hidden fears and motivations.

I do not know to which other theories Mr. Dean was referring (poison planted by British intelligence? release of a germ from Porton Down by a disgruntled employee?), but the obvious implication was that all ‘conspiracy theories’ are inherently false and deceptive. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is a pejorative term. Yet MI5, in trying to work out what had happened, and conjecturing that the attack was probably engineered by some part of Russian ‘intelligence’, would have had to create some kind of theory about how Novichok found its way to the back-streets of Salisbury. Whether the action of a single deranged agent (which in truth by definition could not be a conspiracy), or a deed plotted deeply in the conference-rooms of the Lubianka, any hypothesis would presumably come under the category of ‘conspiracy theory’. Yet the strong evidence that the perpetrators had been identified would in fact make this particular ‘conspiracy theory’ a winner over inferior versions. With the GRU now nailed, the conspiracy is almost certainly proven: the ‘theoretical’ aspect of it is retired. What happened next, however, was that the established facts became a conspiracy theory of their own: Marcello Foa, the new chairman of Italy’s state broadcaster RAI, was reported in the New York Times on September 28 as saying that he doubted the evidence that Moscow’s operatives poisoned Skryalin, as it was ‘too obvious’.

You can read an informative article about conspiracy theories at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory. Such theories not based on any tangible evidence are mostly the dreamchildren of the ambitious but frustrated, the third-rate who cannot gain the influence or power they think they deserve, and thus have to attribute their failure to some malign cabal. In authoritarian regimes many despots, who are classical conspiracy theorists, are paranoiac about challenges to their power, as they realise their grip on it is artificial and resented.  In liberal democracies, a mistrust of the ‘authorities’ – often governmental institutions who have forgotten their sense of accountability to the public – and their apparent determination to protect institutions or persons, frequently leads to scepticism about the official line, and gullible members of the citizenry may become susceptible to dubious theories enthusiastically promoted. Fantasy drives facts, and an emotional appeal is made to baser instincts than reason. The Internet has reinforced the presence of such theories, as it is neutral, undiluted and universal.

Conspiracy and the Historians

This is especially true in the domain of intelligence and counter-intelligence, since the appeal to ‘national security’ may be overused in the process of concealing the facts. The curious public might justifiably wonder why certain information is withheld. Yet, if there is an obvious mismatch between the evidence and the outcome, the discretion will provide a void that activists will cheerfully fill. This was the point I made in my August blog, where I thought it naive of Christopher-Davenport Hines to attack the media for investigating obvious loopholes in the official stories of dubious goings-on when the intelligence services had shown such an obvious disdain for coming clean and admitting their mistakes in their accounts to the public. Thus the conspiracies entered by officers in government services, whereby they agree to keep uncomfortable facts hidden from the public, in fact exert an influence of provoking further conspiracy theories.

This dynamic can lead to tensions between the authorities and those serious analysts who, while not wanting to put the nation’s security at risk, believe a more open approach to disclosure of information is desirable. In his Introduction to Seven Spies who Changed the World (1991), Nigel West wrote: “Whilst there are plenty of conspiracy theorists perhaps a little too willing to advocate global schemes of labyrinthine complexity, often constructed on foundations of dubious evidence, there is plenty of room in our culture for due recognition to be given to what might be termed ‘the secret world’.” (That, incidentally, is the title of Sir Christopher Andrew’s recent history of intelligence.) West’s not very precisely articulated point (who was supposed to be granting the ‘due recognition’ that was not happening?) was presumably that while the public should make allowances that some degree of secrecy is needed to protect policies, practices and personnel from public scrutiny, the curious media should be encouraged to speculate. He preceded the above remarks by pointing out a quantum of double standards in the approach to historiography, some sentences that I believe are worth quoting in full.

Nigel West

“Security considerations are entirely valid as motives for omitting certain aspects of history from publication, but the historians who have either submitted to censorship or imposed it upon themselves can hardly blame the public for seeking to learn more about episodes and incidents that have previously been consigned, for the sake of discretion, to locked vaults. However, for them to deride those historiographers who overcome the obstacles and gain access to an ‘airport-bookstall school of history’ betrays an intellectual arrogance of breathtaking proportions.” (This is akin to the Davenport-Hines defence of ‘experts’, I believe.) He clearly moves part of the blame to those historians who have performed some sort of compromise with ‘the secret world’. But to whom could West have been referring?

He wrote this in 1991, and somewhat bizarrely, given the timing, also observed that Professors Hinsley and Howard ‘have been commissioned by the government to write official accounts of the parts played by British intelligence services during World War II’. (The first volume had appeared in 1979, and the last in 1990.) Perhaps West had not yet studied them:  his criticisms seem to have been directed elsewhere. As the author of a history of MI5 (1981) that presumably fell into that ‘airport-bookstall’ school, a serious, very useful, but inevitably flawed book, West was of course not aware that Professor Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 would be appearing at the end of the following decade. Yet he still had a barb for Andrew, who may have fallen into that set ‘who have either submitted to censorship or imposed it upon themselves’. In a Note on this section of his Introduction he singles out Professors Cameron Watt and Andrew as the culprits who have unjustly scorned the popular historiographers, and gets his own back by panning Andrew’s recent Inside the KGB (1990): “The latter [Andrew] himself fell foul of his academic colleagues when he published Inside the KGB with Oleg Gordievsky without supporting documentation. It was noted that the book contained virtually no new research and depended heavily on either secondary sources or a single source without verification.” Touché! I am sure West was referring to the review by Tennant Bagley, former Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Soviet Division, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Andrew had ‘taken shortcuts in the historian’s disciplines that diminish the book’s authority’. Further: “He often leans on a single source, while overlooking more reliable ones, and by trusting earlier writers who got their information second-hand, so he has perpetuated mistakes that any knowledgeable reader will spot.” ‘Officially Unreliable’, in other words.

Sir Christopher Andrew

But this feud between the confidants on the inside and the sceptics on the outside continues. Gordievsky is very much in the news again now, because of Ben Macintyre’s controversial new biography of the KGB defector, The Spy and the Traitor, to which I shall return in a future blog. On page 319 of this work Macintyre writes, seemingly oblivious to the criticisms addressed to Andrew and Gordievsky: “He [Gordievsky] gave lectures, listened to music, and wrote books with the historian Christopher Andrew, works of detailed scholarship [sic] that still stand as the most comprehensive accounts of Soviet intelligence to date.” Macintyre appears a little too trusting of what Gordievsky and the SIS insiders who minded him chose to tell the author. Is this simply a Mutual Admiration Society, the gathering around the ‘Yoda’ of intelligence history (see my August blog), in other words a relatively benign form of conspiracy, or is it something more dangerous? The point is that the balance of secrecy has been weighted too far on the side of government bodies, and certain historians, by colluding with them, exacerbate the problem.

Ben Macintyre

I believe that what West hints at concerning self-censorship is a very serious matter. For example, if a historian signs the Official Secrets Act, in my opinion he or she is compromised as a serious analyst. If an authority essentially imposes silence on certain topics as the cost of gaining secret insider information, that academic is in practice prohibited from writing or teaching authoritatively about any subject, as he or she may have to ignore evidence that could be critical to the study of that topic.  (I suspect that such a person is also barred from admitting that he or she has even signed the Act.) I do not understand why any academic would consent to such a restriction, except out of gratitude that one is considered important enough to be confided in secrets that the broader world does not know about, or as a necessary preliminary in a consulting assignment. The result of such flattery is that the academic can presumably be trusted by the government authority to put a vague positive spin on the activities of the contracting department, but the inevitable outcome is that he or she becomes part of a ‘conspiracy of silence’.

And mysteries persist. Thus, when the facts appear not to match the official story, or ‘insiders’ leak accounts that contradict it, the serious objective historian, without special access to official sources (whom one should not trust, anyway), and sharing the open archives with everyone else, has to develop his or her hypotheses in an attempt to explain why the authorities would not want the details of a particular event or exploit not to become public. And I believe a serious academic fist can be made of such research without the author’s becoming a member of the ‘airport-bookstall’ school. (Oh, if only Misdefending the Realm appeared alongside Ben Macintyre’s oeuvre on airport bookstalls!)  It simply requires a solid methodology, hard work, and a strong regard for chronology – laced with a careful amount of imagination.  Of necessity, the theories that emanate from such work will involve the actions of multiple persons – hence a ‘conspiracy’.

My Experience

I have very direct experience of this process myself. When writing my thesis on communist subversion in WWII, one episode constantly niggled at me: Why would the Foreign Office have condoned a visit by Guy Burgess and Isaiah Berlin to Moscow at a time (July 1940) when the Soviet Union was helping Nazi Germany in the war effort? I developed a hypothesis that it must have been planned as some kind of back-channel from Churchill’s administration to Stalin, but could not pinpoint why. I even ran the idea up the tentative flagpole in my original History Today article on The Undercover Egghead (see https://www.historytoday.com/antony-percy/isaiah-berlin-undercover-egghead ), but gained no shred of feedback to either encourage or squelch the notion. Given the conspiracy of silence that obnubilated Burgess and all those who were hoodwinked by him, it was very difficult to find any documentary evidence to support my idea.

It turned out that the argument of my thesis rested very heavily on this event: it was the pivot. However, as I developed the case, from a very detailed study of the chronology, and of the actions of dozens of parties at the time, it seemed to me that Churchill, in June and July 1940, at a very critical time of the war, was taking on a very cagey tactic in trying to play Hitler off Stalin while not encouraging the two dictators to gang up on the British Empire. Britain was that summer still facing an imminent invasion – long before the USA entered the hostilities – and Churchill had to use every feint, including the pretence that a peace faction still held considerable sway, to discourage Hitler from making a naval assault when the country’s defences were still weak. Yet he had to deter Stalin from concluding that Britain was finished.

When I wrote this up, my supervisor, Professor Glees, was rightly very critical and interrogatory. I had no primary evidence that this is what was happening, and I suppose my thesis was at that juncture in jeopardy. And then, a sudden bulletin from a contact in the UK arrived: the National Archives had just released (October 2015) a new file on Burgess that confirmed that he had been sent to Moscow in July 1940 to convince the Comintern to abandon its pact with Nazi Germany and join the allies (p 81 of Misdefending the Realm). In other words, Churchill had indeed intended to remind Stalin of Britain’s resolve, and to convince him to ignore rumours of the burgeoning peace movement. In the light of Burgess’s treachery revealed later, politicians and civil servants who knew about his employment by the Foreign Office at that time had covered up the facts when reporting to a sceptical House of Commons on the flight of Burgess and Maclean to the Soviet Union – a conspiracy. When I showed this to Professor Glees, he was convinced, and I could move on.

One of the warnings that Professor Glees constantly gave me was not to ‘chase hares’. While I understand what he meant by this, I disagreed with the advice to the extent that a curious historian has to ‘chase hares’, else he or she will never catch anything of interest at all. Otherwise you end up with the kind of dry-as-dust history that A. J. P. Taylor characterised as ‘what one clerk said to another’, in a famous London Review of Books review in 1982 (see https://www.lrb.co.uk/v04/n03/ajp-taylor/what-one-clerk-said-to-another ). The key is not to get obsessed with any particular lagomorph, and to call off the hunt when the prey in question begins to look like a minor species of unicorn. Burgess in Moscow (which he never reached until he fled in 1951, by the way) was one thing. On the other hand, I remember trying to pin down whether Sedlacek and Roessler, the shadowy figures in the Swiss espionage ring in WWII, were actually one and the same person (for reasons that I shall explore another time), before concluding that the evidence was too flimsy, and that I had to move on. The point is that creating ‘conspiracy theories’ that either turn out to have substance, or have to be abandoned for lack of evidence, is the meat and potatoes of historical research.

One reason why I decided to write this piece is that, in the last few years, I have been privately called out by at least two very respectable academics as being a ‘conspiracy theorist’. This happened because, in the course of email exchanges about historical figures, I had suggested that perhaps things were not as they seemed, and started to explore possible alternative explanations. I believe both persons, whose judgments I overall respect very highly, were perhaps a little too attached to the institution or personage to which or to whom they had dedicated a significant part of their professional life, and became very defensive. And I politely told them so, and said that I thought they were overreacting to private, provocative questions from a curious mind, one trying to seek the truth (or at least, the facts). They were both very reliant on the ‘authorised histories’ for their information, and, when I pointed out that these were very unreliable sources of what actually happened, one of these academics very sensibly responded: ‘But that is all we have’.

And that is the nub of what I see as a major problem. Now that the official or authorised histories have been written about MI5, SIS (although only up to 1949), Intelligence in WWII, and the Joint Intelligence Committee (Volume 1, to 1956), with one on GCHQ scheduled for next year, it leaves many observers perhaps concluding that the deed is done, that there will shortly be no more to be said. But that would be a travesty. A large volume of files is continually being released at Kew that will cause a dramatic re-assessment of what actually occurred. The preamble to the Government Official History series boasts that the aim of the volumes is ‘to produce major histories in their own right, compiled by historians eminent in the field, who are afforded free access to all relevant material in the official archives’. One of the works listed is SOE in France, by M. R. D. Foot, which was written in 1966, when he assuredly did not enjoy ‘free access’ to all the archives. Yet the work had to be revised and updated in 2006, and Professor Foot was fortunately around to perform the job. *  It covers only one country, however: the others remain without an official history. Why? Similar exercises will be needed with the other histories – especially that of MI5, with which I am most familiar.

M R D Foot

[* Attentive readers will recall that I read SOE in France during the passage of Hurricane Florence. I had borrowed this volume from the University Library in Wilmington, but afterwards thought that I should read the 2004 updated edition, which I had to buy via Abebooks. In an extended Preface, Foot admits the embargo put upon him four decades ago on even mentioning SIS, and informs us that “I have been able to be more straightforward about a service from part of which part of SOE derived.”. So are there important new revelations to be made here? There is no entry for SIS, or Gambier-Parry, or Menzies, or Section VIII in the Index, and I thus have to trawl through the text looking for fresh insights. The pages have been reset: the Notes are now at the back. What a drag.]

In Search of a Forum

Thus my objectives in writing about these issues are twofold: first, to gain greater scrutiny on the more dubious claims that have established themselves in the authorised histories, and second, to create a mechanism where they may be examined in detail, and perhaps overturned, or at least clarified. How can these goals be achieved?  For some time I have been looking for a forum where reputable historians and experts could discuss and explore some of the remaining conundrums of British intelligence, espionage, and counter-espionage over the past eighty years or so. I do not believe the conventional media work. The specialty intelligence journals are too exclusive and expensive, and move too slowly. History Today is very cautious about stepping into recent history, with all its controversies of interpretation. There appears to be a lack of drive in the conference business. For example, a few years ago, I was privileged to be invited to a conference on Governments-in-Exile in World War II, hosted at Lancaster House by SIS under the guise of the Foreign Office. It was an excellent event built around a fascinating, underexposed subject, with many impressive speakers from a variety of European countries. The organisers promised that proceedings of the event would be published – but nothing happened.

The Internet should provide part of the answer, but it is too chaotic, too frenzied, and too undisciplined. There are many vitally useful sites for gaining information not available elsewhere (though they need to be processed carefully), but no place where issues can be moderated and discussed seriously without a free-for-all, and insults and . . .  ahem . . . a surfeit of conspiracy theories. In the broader world, cliques and mutual admiration societies exist: cults of personality grow, such as the idolizing that surrounds Sir Christopher Andrew (as I pointed out in August.). The Official Secrets Act exerts its baleful influence. Moreover, it is not always certain that historians possess a sincere desire to discover the facts. I believe that too many experts maintain entrenched positions, sometime forgetting that, since they have been fed certain lines by insiders who may have had a message to get across, the experience may not count as reliable sourcing. Some academics do not like being challenged on any published position they have held, and thus do not encourage an open, egalitarian approach to the discipline, an example of which I offer in the following anecdote.

I occasionally try to contact authors of books on intelligence that I have read, especially when I want to follow up on a point of contention. It also now serves as a way of drawing attention to coldspur and Misdefending the Realm. Sometimes I have to track such persons down through their agents. I am always careful to be polite and deferential, saying how much I enjoyed the book (even if I didn’t), as I know how tough this business of writing is, and how easily mistakes slip in. When one academic published a book on Soviet spycraft a few years ago, I wrote to ask clarification over a matter of identity, as the writer seemed to have conflated the names of two ‘illegal’ Soviet agents into one – namely Ignaty Reif and Ignace Reiss. The response was sharp, patronising, and dismissive. I was instructed to read his text more carefully. I persevered. In the end, I had to resort to pointing out the photographs of the two characters in Deadly Illusions, the book about Alexander Orlov by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, and to asking the historian whether he thought they were the same person. I could imagine the gulp at the other end of the line. The author rather grudgingly admitted that I was right, and said he would correct the error (which would not have been a simple task) in the second edition of his book. At least he responded. Not everyone does.

The perennial problem is that so many loose end and unresolved mysteries exist in the world of intelligence, and so many untruths are perpetuated by careless assimilation that a process for bringing some order to the chaos is highly desirable. Ever since I first published my blog on Officially Unreliable, I have imagined putting on a colloquium around that theme, where assembled experts would present papers that would then be discussed. These matters are complex. Competence in intelligence matters needs to be complemented by expertise in civil and constitutional law, in wireless telegraphy, and in political and military history – even in psychology. I understand that some academics would be hesitant to display their knowledge of a subject in the company of rivals, but I still thought such a forum would be of immense interest to many who study security and intelligence affairs. I thus suggested such an event to the faculty at the University of Buckingham, compiling a sample agenda with speakers, as I thought it would show thought-leadership, and add to the prestige of the department. Unfortunately, after some initial enthusiasm, the idea went nowhere, and likewise a plan for a conference in partnership with another entity also foundered.

Trouble in Aberystwyth

Gregynog Hall, Aberystwyth

With this background, in mid-August Professor Glees happened to wonder whether I would be interested in presenting at a conference on intelligence that the University of Aberystwyth is holding this November. I jumped at the opportunity: it would be a chance to get myself in front of an audience, and I could perhaps combine the trip to the UK with some opportunities with other institutions to talk about my book. I checked out the website, noticed that submissions for papers had to be in by August 25, and thus compiled a description based on some of my recent research into wireless transmission and interception that I thought would be of lively interest. (The Conference did not specify any real agenda at that time.) After a few days, I received a brief message acknowledging my submission, and requesting me to fill out a registration form (with payment).

Well, of course I was not going to register until I knew my submission had been accepted. I had explained in my covering letter the logistics problems: Aberystwyth knew where I lived, and what was involved. So I waited. And waited. About a month later, I checked the website again. The expiration date for submissions was now September 25, but there was still nothing published about conference tracks, themes, committed outside speakers, etc. I had notionally given up on the idea as a waste of time, when Professor Glees, in a solicitous email about Hurricane Florence, happened to ask me whether I would be attending the conference. I replied immediately, telling the Professor what had happened, and saying that I thought that the whole thing was a disaster.

Then a couple of days later, I received a very brief email from Aberystwyth from someone who just signed his name as ‘Gerry’, with no indication of his role at the university, saying merely: “Your paper has been accepted.  Please proceed with your registration”, again providing a link to the sign-up url. My guess was that Professor Glees probably knew the people there, and had intervened on my behalf, and his contacting them had provoked this message. So I very warmly thanked ‘Gerry’, but explained again the logistics of the situation, and that I was not going to commit to attending the conference until I knew a lot more about its substance, the requirements for submitting papers, the main speakers, etc. etc. – quite natural requests by any active participant, I would have thought. I replied the same day (September 21), and immediately started contacting other institutions in the UK at which I thought I might also speak, admitting that it was very short notice, but explaining the dilemma I was in.

Two of these institutions responded immediately – enthusiastically but cautiously, given the lack of time to prepare. Six weeks later, I am still awaiting a proper response from Aberystwyth. (I received a brief acknowledgment from an administrator on October 5, who wrote that Gerry would get back to me ‘as soon as possible’. ‘You mean when he has recovered from the Eisteddfod?’ Have I walked into a David Lodge novel?) I have therefore told my other contacts that I shall not be going ahead with my visit. I know a fair amount about the conference business, having worked for Gartner Group for over twelve years, and I can confidently say that the University of Aberystwyth is the biggest shambles I have yet encountered. All they really wanted was my money – and they seem utterly unaware that I don’t even get out of bed for less than £10,000.  It is all very unprofessional and discourteous, and I do not understand why anyone would attend one of its conferences unless he or she were ordered to.

Some of my friends were alarmed by my resolve. “Don’t you realise, Tony, that you’ll never eat lunch in Aberystwyth again!”, and “Won’t that scotch your chances of ever being invited to join Sir Christopher Andrew’s Cambridge Security Initiative?” And I shrugged my shoulders, saying: “If those are the sacrifices that have to be made when calling out rank incompetence, then so be it.” And I quoted to them what the great T. H. Huxley said: “Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards, if they are to be so called, which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters.” (That would be a good watchword for historians with an eye on awards and gongs.) The conference for the Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies (see https://www.aber.ac.uk/en/interpol/research/research-centres-and-institutes/ciiss/ciissconference2018/: still no agenda, as I write on October 31, for an event to be held in two weeks’ time) will have to go on without me. (Is there a conspiracy afoot?)

One last initiative I made to help publicise my cause was to write to the Press just before I published my recent piece on the faked suicide of ter Braak. I fondly imagined that, with the continued public interest in matters of espionage, occasionally highlighted by the release of new materials at the National Archives, my hitherto untold story of extrajudicial murder of an Abwehr agent engineered by MI5 during World War II might constitute a considerable scoop for one of the British dailies. I thus gave a glimpse of my findings, serially to the Times the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail, alerting them to my imminent posting, and inviting them to put together a coincident story around my publication date at the end of the month. None of the newspapers even acknowledged my email, even though they had provided an address for the public to submit stories to them. I did the same with Private Eye (knowing that it had been largely responsible for unmasking Anthony Blunt: see http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-468 ), accepting that the matter was probably not really current enough for its ambit. I did receive a courteous declinatory email from the Editor, Ian Hislop.

The Nub of the Matter

So what is the meat of all this? Are these just specialist issues of intelligence arcana? I think not. Intelligence history is of little value unless it is deeply integrated into political and military history. Stalin manipulated Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta because his spies in the UK and the USA forewarned him of their negotiating tactics over Eastern Europe. He mistrusted the commitment of his Alliance counterparts because they fed to him only a small edited sub-section of the ULTRA decrypts that his agents were sending to him through the London Embassy. The invasion of Europe could have been fatally undermined because of the reckless way that the XX Committee and B.1a in MI5 orchestrated the wireless transmissions of their Abwehr double agents. These are the kinds of question that I have been pursuing in my research, trying to gain attention to my argument that the official and unofficial histories of WWII and the Cold War need always to be re-assessed in the light of fresh developments.

I have developed a classification for such issues into seven states. These are not necessarily stages through which issues pass, but it may be that an evolution from 1 to 7 does occur in some cases.
State 1: No apparent public controversy exists. The official (or ‘authorised’) explanation is broadly accepted and echoed, but questions of evidence or logic gather on the truth of the claim, and are not easily dispelled. Examples of State 1 are Churchill’s reported edict on banning any decryption of Russian signals after the Soviet Union entered the war, and the still not satisfactorily explained death of Hugh Gaitskell.

State 2: No discernible ‘official’ position exists. A matter of intelligence is covered with contradictions and paradoxes, with no distinctive theory gaining strong support. The truth may be lost in ‘the wilderness of mirrors’. An example of State 2 is the allegiance and role of the scientist Wilfrid Mann when assigned to work in the USA.

State 3: A maverick theory carrying some definite sense is postulated, but its sources are undefined or dubious: the hypothesis may be diminished because of very constrained publicity and awareness. Examples of State 3 are the possible execution of Gösta Caroli, and the claim that Michael Foot was a KGB agent of influence.

State 4: A serious debate among historians takes place, reflecting multiple views. Some sources may be verifiable, but they are frequently secondary, and carelessly repeated: questions still remain unresolved because of the lack of primary sources. Examples of State 4 are Britain’s use of the Rote Drei in Switzerland to communicate ULTRA to Stalin, and the identification of the Soviet spy with the cryptonym ELLI.

State 5: Strong support for an alternative explanation is found, but it lacks conclusive evidence, and thus cannot be accepted in official forums. An example of State 5 is the assertion that Admiral Canaris was not simply a plotter against Hitler, but was actively assisting British intelligence.

State 6: A carefully argued new explanation, backed up by solid research, receives local or peer-group acceptance, but is not broadly or officially accepted, probably owing to lack of awareness and interest, and may have segments missing.  Examples of State 6 are this author’s explanation that the political objective of Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow was known and approved by leading civil servants, and my theory that Soviet agent SONIA’s arrival in the UK was orchestrated by SIS and MI5.

State 7:  A simmering ‘conspiracy theory’ is resolved and accepted, becoming part of authorised history, or is at least recognized by leading established historians: sceptics, however, may turn against the establishment for making official what is still unpopular in some quarters. An example of State 7 is the confirmation through the VENONA transcripts that Alger Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent, which has provoked some leftist backlash to the effect that this is an establishment conspiracy theory, and that he was in fact innocent.

An Alphabet-Sized List of Intelligence Mysteries from WWII & After

I conclude this piece by listing twenty-six conundrums that I have come across during my researches. For the sake of conciseness (at the risk of over-simplification) I restrict my description of each to 75 words. They appear in no particular order. (Readers who would like to inspect a deeper coverage of a subset of such topics might like to look at Nigel West’s Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of World War II, published in London in 1984. It appeared in the USA the following year with the title A Thread of Deceit – and the same sub-title.)

A. The cover-up over Guy Burgess: The House of Commons was misled over Guy Burgess’s career when the post-mortem into Burgess’s and Maclean’s escape occurred. Sir Patrick Reilly provided a parliamentary response which completely overlooked Burgess’s employment by the Foreign Office and D Section before and during the war, claiming that he had simply worked for the BBC. Who exactly knew about his mission to Moscow, and who ordered his activities to be hushed up? (State: 6)

B. Roessler & Sedlacek: Roessler was the shadowy figure identified as LUCY in the Swiss spy ring. But Alexander Foote wrote that LUCY was the Czech intelligence officer Sedlacek (aka Selzinger), who was issued with a British passport by SIS before he went to Switzerland. Were Roessler and Sedlacek one person? Is Roessler’s well-publicised bio, showing a life in Germany, fake? Or was Foote confused? Why was his error not corrected? Can anyone supply a photograph of Sedlacek? (State: 1)

C. ULTRA & Rote Drei: While the official line is that ULTRA was never distributed to Stalin through an Anglo-Soviet spy ring in Switzerland, too many prominent voices have claimed otherwise. It is a much more plausible explanation than that of LUCY receiving his information directly from inside German intelligence. If Foote was an agent of Dansey’s Z Organisation, the answer becomes even clearer. Why were claims from insiders so strenuously denied? (State: 4)

D. Foote & the Z Organisation: Much of the evidence points towards the fact that Alexander Foote, who had outwardly been recruited to Soviet espionage through the International Brigade in Spain, was in fact a member of Claude Dansey’s parallel intelligence structure to SIS, the Z organisation. Foote’s role as an apprentice to – and then replacement for – agent SONIA (Ursula Kuczynski) then makes much more sense, even though officers in Z denied it. Why wouldn’t they? (State: 3)

E. Double-Cross agents & the Radio Security Service: Many commentators have observed that the wireless transmission practices of several XX agents in WWII were highly reckless, and should have caused German intelligence to question the efficiency of Britain’s wireless detection mechanisms. Even if the Abwehr was tacitly sympathetic to anti-Hitler initiatives, why did the XX Committee and the London Controlling Station risk the whole plan of deceit by condoning such irresponsible behaviour? (State: 1)

F. Manipulation of agent SONIA: The ease with which agent SONIA was able to pass, in the winter of 1940-41, from Switzerland to the UK via Portugal has been overlooked. Yet a close study of the archives show that she was abetted by generous practices on behalf of SIS and MI5 (and by Foote’s perjury), which facilitated her being installed in Oxfordshire as a Soviet spy. Was this all in fact engineered by Claude Dansey of the Z Organisation? (State: 6)

G. The Identification of ELLI: ELLI was the cryptonym of a Soviet agent – probably in MI5 – disclosed by the defector Gouzenko in 1945. Various theories have been promoted as to who lay behind the name: Guy Liddell (John Costello); Roger Hollis (Chapman Pincher); and Leo Long (Christopher Andrew, the authorised historian, relying on Gordievsky). For various reasons, all are unlikely, and the answer may rely on the opening of Russian archives. When, President Putin? (State: 4)

H. Leo Long in MI14: When Joan Miller published ‘One Girl’s War’ in 1986, the British government tried to ban it. It contained an obvious pointer to the detection of Leo Long’s wartime espionage in MI14, working for Anthony Blunt. It seems obvious that MI5 tried to hush up the discovery up at that time, and Long was even recruited for intelligence work in Germany after the war. What was going on, and why has Miller’s work been overlooked? (State: 6)

I. Fuchs as British agent?: In his biography of Klaus Fuchs, ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’, Mike Rossiter tells of files he found at Kew that suggested that Fuchs was collaborating with the British government while at Los Alamos. These files were subsequently withdrawn, and other files have been withheld. Why the secrecy? It could be another reason for MI5’s considerable coyness over the Fuchs affair, but why would Fuchs have not brought it up at his trial? (State: 1)

J. Demise of Denniston: Alistair Denniston was a loyal and (mostly) effective leader of GC&CS from 1919 to 1942, yet he alone of all chiefs was not knighted, and his pension was reduced – a major humiliation. Was there a reason beyond his rather dilatory response to the organisational problems posed by the growth of the unit? The published records are contradictory: did Denniston simply rebel too outspokenly at the intrusion of military experts on his turf? (State: 1)

K. Churchill’s ban on Soviet traffic: Professor Hinsley reported on Churchill’s edict, when the Soviet Union became an ally in June 1941, that its diplomatic cable and wireless traffic should not be inspected. Uncharacteristically for Churchill, however, no minuted decision was made, and we know that work did continue, especially when Denniston’s project on ISCOT messages was set up in 1943. Was it a PR exercise by Churchill designed to gain Stalin’s attention and cooperation? (State: 1)

L. Colonel Simpson: One of the astutest contributions to Britain’s wireless interception capabilities was made by Lt.-Col. Simpson of MI5, in 1939 and 1940, when the RSS reported to Military Intelligence. Simpson wanted RSS to report to MI5, but it was wrested away from him, eventually landing with SIS, and he was quickly moved away. An internal history of MI5 says this led to a ‘Greek tragedy’. The authorised history of MI5 ignores Simpson. Why? (State: 1)

M. Wilfrid Mann: The atomic scientist Wilfrid Mann wrote a memoir titled ’Was there a Fifth Man?’, essentially denying it, and then on his deathbed admitted it was he, even as self-described ‘experts’ declared his innocence. Yet CIA agents claimed that Mann had been turned by them, after he had been assigned to work in the USA, to feed information to Donald Maclean. What is the real truth about his career and his loyalties? (State: 2)

N. Death of Gaitskell: When Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in 1956 was diagnosed as lupus, some wondered whether he had been poisoned at the Soviet Embassy, perhaps to enable Moscow’s favoured Harold Wilson to replace him. When such a plot was debunked, however, the possible poisoning was forgotten. Could Gaitskell’s presence at Kim Philby’s 1934 marriage in Vienna had something to do with it? Was Gaitskell planning to unmask him? (State: 1)

O. Ter Braak’s ‘Suicide’: The circumstances of the claimed suicide of the Abwehr spy who parachuted into Britain in early November 1940 are extremely suspicious. The archival evidence points to the fact that MI5 engineered his death after trying to surveil his espionage activities and wireless traffic. MI5 probably concluded that matters had run irretrievably out of control when ter Braak ran out of money, and was abandoned by the Abwehr. Was he then eliminated in a faked suicide? (State: 6)

P. MI5’s passivity over Gouzenko: When the information about the Soviet defector in Canada, Igor Gouzenko, was passed on to London in September 1945, the cable was routed to Kim Philby of SIS, instead of MI5, who was responsible for espionage on Canadian territory. Guy Liddell thus learned about the defection from Philby, who took control of the response, arranging for Roger Hollis to be sent to Toronto to interview Gouzenko. Why was MI5 so passive? (State: 1)

Q. Execution of Gösta Caroli?: The Swedish Abwehr agent Gösta Caroli, who had been ‘turned’ by MI5, in January 1941 reneged on his agreement, tried to throttle his guard, and to escape across the North Sea. He was captured, and incarcerated, and reputedly returned to Sweden after the war. Leonard Mosley (and others) say he was hanged to protect the XX System. His files at Kew stop abruptly. What really happened? Was he ‘bumped off’, as Liddell’s Diary strongly suggests? (State: 3)

R. Dansey & SOE: Claude Dansey, assistant chief of SIS under Menzies, was reputed (according to the witness Sir Patrick Reilly) to have schemed to undermine the efforts of SOE, and was witnessed celebrating some of its failures. Apart from a disdain for noisy sabotage projects that interfered with gaining intelligence, and his contempt for university-trained men, what else lay behind this reputation? And, as a believer in ‘turning’ agents, was he SIS’s representative on the XX Committee? (State: 1)

S. Rothschild a Soviet agent of influence: Victor Rothschild made strenuous efforts to clear his name of the accusation that he had been a Soviet spy, yet his associations with such as Burgess and Philby, and his other actions furthering the communist cause, cause such as Christopher Andrew to suggest that he was an equally dangerous agent of influence. Were he and his wife the couple given the cryptonyms DAVID and ROSA? His name is carefully redacted from many files at Kew. (State: 5)

T. Isaiah Berlin in Lisbon: Isaiah Berlin, intriguing between SIS’s Section D and the Jewish Agency, happened to be in Lisbon in January 1941 when agent SONIA was granted her visa to travel to the UK. She also learned from somebody the address in Oxford where her father was staying. Was Berlin – who had recently accompanied Guy Burgess on their abandoned mission to Moscow, and just visited Oxford – her courier? What else was he up to in Lisbon? (State: 3)

U. The sacking of Jane Archer: The only source for the October 1940 sacking of Jane Archer, MI5’s shrewdest counter-subversion officer, is from her boss, Guy Liddell, who ascribes it to her continued mocking of the acting head of MI5, Jasper Harker. But did Liddell and Archer, who then headed the team of Regional Security Liaison Officers, have a serious fall-out over double-agent policy? Archival evidence points to a very pivotal meeting just before the event. (State: 1)

V. The disappearance of Major Frost & W Section: Malcolm Frost was recruited by Guy Liddell from the BBC in the summer of 1940 to fill the radio interception vacancy created by Lt.-Col. Simpson’s departure. Frost quickly gained enemies, but was a survivor, and did not leave MI5 until November 1942. So why does the authorised history completely overlook his contribution, and his group, W Section, especially since Frost was in charge of double-agents when the Abwehr LENA operation was executed? (State: 1)

W. Michael Foot as Soviet agent of influence: In his memoir, the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky claimed that the Labour leader Michael Foot had been a Soviet agent, BOOT, something that was enthusiastically picked up by Ben Macintyre in his volume ‘The Spy and the Traitor’. Private Eye has already come to Foot’s defence, pointing to his published criticism of the Soviet regime. Was Foot an ‘agent of influence’, and did he really accept money from Soviet contacts? How reliable is Gordievsky? (State: 3)

X. Cairncross’s Confession: The Fifth Man John Cairncross managed to hoodwink both his interrogators from MI5 as well as Nigel West, the writer who collaborated on his memoir ‘The Enigma Spy’. A careful study of the chronology shows he was active much longer than he claimed. Why were the obvious anomalies in his account of the chronology and his activities not pursued more aggressively? And why was he allowed to go into exile? (State: 2)

Y. SONIA and the Quebec Agreement: It has now entered popular historical lore that one of agent SONIA’s major coups was the revelation of the Quebec Agreement to her bosses in Moscow. Yet such claims rest on an impossible sequence of events in the autumn of 1941, and, despite authoritative-sounding assertions, no conclusive evidence has emerged from the Russian archives. If the secret was revealed to the Soviets (probably in the USA), who was responsible? (State: 3)

Z. Walter Gill: Walter Gill, the Oxford don recruited to RSS, who essentially defined Britain’s policy towards interception and detection of possible German spies at the end of 1940, was mysteriously and perfunctorily sacked from RSS a few months later. Yet the delayed timing of his report (December 1940) was very odd: he made a fatal but obvious flaw in his conclusions, but the report was endorsed. Was he set up? Why was he fired? (State: 1)

This list is not inclusive, nor its artificial length constrained: items may be retired, and new ones added. I welcome feedback. But why, I wonder, is there apparently not very much interest in these matters? Is it due simply to indolence, or is it a lack of curiosity? Extrajudicial executions, poisonings, faked suicides, moles, double agents, secret organisations, unexplained slights, hidden archives, political denials – is this not all as topical as ever? I cannot believe everyone is ganging up in a dark conspiracy to silence me. Or maybe everything is as it should be, and I am simply imagining things  . . . In order that these conundrums not be forgotten, I thus lay them all out on coldspur for others to pick up, just in case my body is found one misty morning under a hedge in County Ceredigion.

An Update on ter Braak

I have a professional researcher and collaborator in London, Dr. Kevin Jones (whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting) who is an expert at navigating the indexes at Kew, and who on my behalf inspects undigitised files at the National Archives, namely those that I cannot acquire and download. He has recently been delving around some of the lesser known folders that have a bearing on the ter Braak case, and I wanted to bring some aspects of these to readers’ attention to provide an update to the analysis outlined in last month’s blog.

One of the challenging dimensions of ter Braak’s life as a fugitive is the level of political compliance in the plan to let him roam, and then to eliminate him. It is clear from Swinton’s endorsement of the initiative for a speedy inquest, and his approval of the decision not to engage in recriminations over the Cambridge Police Force, that he was either party to the original decision, or had been convinced of the need for extraordinary measures when matters started to run out of control. Given the speed with which actions progressed after ter Braak’s death, it is more probable that he had approved the whole operation in advance.

But how much did Churchill know? Swinton had been brought in by Churchill to oversee MI5, and parts of SIS, after Vernon Kell had been dismissed, since Churchill was not confident in MI5’s ability to defend the country against the ‘Fifth Column’ menace that he then believed had been a prime factor in the defeat of the France and the Low Countries. Swinton had not been a universally popular choice at the House of Commons, but, when the Fifth Column ‘menace’ was shown by August 1940 to have been illusory, Swinton’s supervision of MI5, and mission to help Jasper Harker, the acting Director-General, to rebuild the service, continued, and his focus on subversion shifted to the arrival of the Abwehr agents. The files PREM 3/418/1 and 2 show records pertaining to the establishment of Swinton’s Committee, the Home Defence (Security) Executive, and correspondence on enemy agents between Swinton and the Prime Minister.

On September 10, Churchill made a request at Cabinet for a report on information obtained from enemy agents in the UK. The records show that he was informed about the declared mission of the four agents who landed in Kent (three of whom were executed) and of Gösta Caroli (who was successfully ‘turned’ – for a while). Reports from the interrogations indicated that the spies believed they were the advance guard of an invasion that was to follow in a couple of weeks. When Swinton reported, on October 4, on the spies who landed by boat in Scotland, however, he showed that Churchill already knew about ‘Agent 5 and Agent 6 who are being used successfully in deception operations already’. The list provided to Churchill has yet been found, but is highly noteworthy that it cannot be the same list that MI5 used for RSLO training (KV 4/407), since ter Braak appeared there as Agent 5, but he had not yet arrived when this memorandum was written!

Thus we have proof that Churchill knew about the emerging Double-Cross operation as early as October 1940, if not sooner. This all goes against the grain of what the authorised historians tell us. In his recent book, The Secret World, Christopher Andrew suggests that the first report given by MI5 to Churchill on the actions of the XX Committee did not occur until March 26, 1943. “It was an instant success with the Prime Minister. Churchill wrote on it in red ink: ‘deeply interesting’”, writes Andrew. This is rather hard to believe: that Churchill, with his massive interest in intelligence matters, and having been made aware of Nazi agents being used for deception in the autumn of 1940, would let the matter drop for two-and-half years.

In addition, it would seem that Swinton was passing Churchill a longer list than was being maintained by MI5. Given what I have written about overlooked spies not appearing in the official records, it would be fascinating to learn what names had been given to the Prime Minister at this stage. The archive is confoundingly sparse at this point. On October 31, Swinton advised Churchill of the arrival of the spies Lund, Edvardsen and Joost, but the narrative stops on November 2, just after ter Braak has landed. Is that significant? The search for other revealing items that might fill out this story continues.

At this stage, one can only speculate what went on between Swinton and Churchill. Since ter Braak was not a captured spy, perhaps Swinton would have interpreted his guidance literally, and decided to conceal the project from his boss. What would Churchill have thought of an armed agent running loose in the Cambridge area? Might he have approved of the plan to monitor his activities in order to learn more? Knowing his expressed desire at this time to see more spies executed, however, it is more likely that he would have cancelled the project, and have ter Braak hauled in. I just hope that some other records are found that shed light on this intriguing dynamic.

I also made some changes to the September text in the light of a re-discovery of passages in Guy Liddell’s Diaries, to which Dr. Giselle Jakobs had pointed me. I had read these a long time ago when I was not focussed on the LENA agents. They show very clearly that, just after Caroli’s recapture, Liddell discussed very seriously with his superiors (and Valentine Vivian in SIS) the possibility of ‘elimination’ or ‘bumping off’ of recalcitrant German agents. This is not the language of judicial trial and possible execution. Yet Caroli’s possible career after incarceration is plagued with contradictions, a matter to which I shall eventually have to return. In the meantime, please see Dr. Jakobs’s website at http://www.josefjakobs.info/ for a recent posting on Caroli,

Lastly (for this month, anyway!), is the fate of Jasper Harker. In last month’s blog, I had begun to cast doubt on Guy Liddell’s declared rationale for Jane Archer’s dismissal, namely that she had ridiculed Harker one time too many. Liddell reports the sacking on November 18, 1940, and, two days later, suggests that she should speak to David Petrie. Clearly, by that time Petrie has already been invited to take over the direction of MI5, so Harker’s fate was effectively sealed at that time. Ironically, Swinton was one of the few (apart from the disgraced Vernon Kell) who had supported Harker, and saw it as part of his mission to help him with the reconstruction of MI5. What PREM 3/418/1 shows is that, as early as August 29, 1940, Desmond Morton (an ex-MI5 officer, and Churchill’s right-hand man on intelligence) was telling Churchill of the multiple criticisms of Harker from within MI5, and reported that he was ‘a weak man’. Given the military circumstances, and the pressures, it seems that Swinton (whose judgment of character was not good, as is shown by his endorsements of Joseph Ball and William Crocker) was slow in realising that Harker was not up to the job, while Jane Archer – alongside multiple other officers in MI5 – had come to the conclusion much earlier that he was dragging down morale. It casts even more doubt on the reason for Archer’s forced departure, and, if a meeting with Petrie could not salvage her employment in MI5, suggests that there were deeper reasons for the parting of the ways.

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

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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 3)

The Death of a Cambridge Spy

“Warning: Some images may cause distress”  (I reproduce this warning verbatim from the folder on the Abwehr spy Willem ter Braak at the National Archives. When you read down, you will see the reason for the caution.  And the analysis behind this photograph suggests some highly controversial behaviour from British counter-intelligence in WWII, explored here in depth for the first time.)

Ter Braak’s Death Certificate

It has long been an article of faith that British Intelligence controlled all the Abwehr spy networks in Britain during World War II. On July 15, 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Robertson, identified as B.1a in MI5, reported to the W Board that his organisation controlled all the active networks of spies originally deployed by the Abwehr in Britain. In his book The Double-Cross System, published in 1972, John Masterman boldly declared that ‘we actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country’. This opinion was endorsed by Sir Michael Howard in Volume 5 of the authorised History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, issued in 1990, who reported that ‘the Radio Security Service had discovered no uncontrolled agents operating’. Very soon after Robertson’s submission, Colonel J H Bevan, head of the London Controlling Section of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, attended a meeting of the XX Committee. The great deception programme could begin.

The importance of this claim has two dimensions. At the time, it was critical that no undetected network of spies could send reports back to Germany that countered the false information that was going to be transmitted by the double agents, such as a lack of substance behind the reported movements of a dummy army that would turn out to be the most critical aspect of the FORTITUDE deception campaign for the invasion of Europe. Even more critical, perhaps, it was vital that no leakage of information arrived in Germany to suggest that any spies had actually been turned. Historically, it became a matter of pride that the combination of disciplined reception procedures, rapid decisions on the viability of double agents, and interception of Abwehr radio intelligence confirming both the activities of planted agents and the acceptance of their stories, had conspired to eliminate the possibility of any agent’s survival undetected. In particular, the reputation of the Radio Security Service (RSS) for comprehensive interception of illicit transmissions was at stake. This was one of the major stories of British intelligence success in World War II.

Yet doubts occasionally surface about how watertight the processes were. It should be noted that Sir Michael Howard did not assuredly declare that no agents were operating, but merely that the RSS had not discovered any. Guy Liddell, the wartime head of counter-espionage in MI5, also suggested in the summer of 1940 that there might be a few German agents at large.  It would be useful had the authorities provided a comprehensive table of all German agents captured, and what the outcome of their detention was. Howard tells us that sixteen spies were eventually executed, of whom nine met their deaths between December 1940 and December 1941. Volume 4 of the authorised history contains several Appendices that list agents and their fates, but it is not inclusive. Masterman’s Double-Cross System provided a list of thirty-nine double agents, which contains details on each agent’s method of communication, tasks undertaken, as well as the reason for the conclusion of the case, but did not identify them by name. When the magazine After the Battle, in issue Number 11 of 1976, reprinted Masterman’s list, it added some information, such as giving real names, where it could. In his history, MI5, Nigel West extended the number to list forty-seven double agents, a roster that does not include fictitious ‘notional’ agents created to add verisimilitude and vigour to a real agent’s recruitment efforts. After the Battle also offered in-depth profiles of the sixteen who were executed, a list that is confirmed exactly by West (pp 342-343), who also lists two spies executed in Gibraltar.

But were all agents truly detected? And was the outcome solely execution or being turned? The latter dilemma was a subject of intense negotiation between MI5 and Lord Swinton of the Security Executive, who represented Churchill’s preferences. In the heat of the Battle of Britain, Churchill wanted to see more spies executed, as a signal to warn others, and as a show of efficacy to the British public. MI5 was of a more cautious bent, wanting to preserve captured agents as an element to be turned, or a source of information, although it accepted that some spies would have to be executed in order to show the Germans a (partially) successful programme of arrest and conviction, as well as a degree of ruthlessness. The Abwehr would have been perplexed if none had been captured and condemned. Yet there were risks as well. Should a turned spy turn out to be unreliable, or his usefulness to be outworn, a decision on his treatment had to be made. A public trial might expose too many secrets about the process, and if the agent had misled his controllers about his sincerity, he might constitute a serious security risk even if incarcerated. A year later, MI5 had to deal with the realities of deals made, and gone sour, in the case of SUMMER (Gösta Caroli), as Hinsley explains: “In November 1941, however, in discussions held between Swinton, MI5, the DPP and the Attorney General about SUMMER and GANDER, whose careers as double-agents had come to an end, it was agreed that no question of prosecution could arise if MI5 had used an agent or given him a promise: the risk that an agent’s double-cross work would be revealed in court had to be considered; and a promise once given had to be honoured. MI5, to avoid undue publicity, should prepare a statement to be approved by the Home Office before release to the Press through the Ministry of Information.”

It can be seen that MI5 faced a wrenching choice: if a trial and possible execution were not possible, a potentially dangerous agent (especially if he had been exposed to the Double-Cross, or XX, System) would have to be incarcerated and held incommunicado in order to preserve secrecy. Thus uncertainty rests over those agents who evaded capture for any period of time, and over those whose career ended in untidy circumstances, such as Caroli, who in fact broke his side of the bargain, as I shall explain later. The history of these individuals makes the simple conclusions of most accounts of the Double-Cross operation much more complex. This chapter discusses a few of those who fall into those categories, with special attention to the puzzling case of the Dutchman ter Braak (real name Engelbertus Fukken), who was reported to have committed suicide after parachuting into the Buckinghamshire countryside and successfully evading the authorities – including RSS – in the winter of 1940-1941.

The suspicion that the authorised accounts are not complete is reinforced by the occasional comment from Guy Liddell’s Diaries. For example, on August 21, 1940, he wrote: “H. K. BRUIN came over in guise of refugee from Holland, had wireless set he had been using to communicate weather and other information to Germans. Self-confessed agent working for Dr. Rantzau. Is this a shooting case?” Liddell indicated that BRUIN had been active for a while, since one of his goals had been to alert his bosses about British troop movements into Belgium. Yet we never learn how BRUIN was detected, whether an attempt was made to turn him, or whether he simply went to trial. It is an astonishing entry that completely undermines the clean story that has been presented since. On September 14, Liddell also notes that KUHIRT and SCHROEDER are expected to arrive, but that is the only reference to them.

One major assumption that British intelligence made was that the Abwehr was exclusively responsible for placing agents in Britain. In 1981, the journalist and historian Leonard Mosley (no relation to the fascist, Oswald) published a book title The Druid, which claimed that the Sicherheitsdienst (identified by Mosley as the SS, but an abbreviation which probably indicated the German Security Service rather than the familiar SS, the Schutzstaffel, under which the Sicherheitsdienst was originally created), dismayed by the quality of intelligence it was gaining from Admiral Canaris’s Abwehr, in May 1941 parachuted in a spy with ties to Welsh nationalists who survived the war, reporting alongside the set of turned agents. Mosley had been fed with enough leads by his contacts in intelligence to believe that the story was true, but had been hushed up. Yet any substance of truth in his account was overwhelmed by the way his informers embroidered it, and by the many fanciful touches he introduced, with the result that it is very difficult to identify reliable facts among the many fictions. In his 1998 study of bogus memoirs of espionage exploits in WWII, Counterfeit Spies, Nigel West effectively demolished Mosley’s narrative, concluding that ‘most of the book can be traced to three published sources: Ladislas Farago’s The Game of the Foxes; Masterman’s The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939-45 and Popov’s Spy Counterspy.’ [Note: Mosley was an accomplished and careful historian: I have recently read his excellent 1978 biography of the Dulles siblings John Foster, Eleanor and Allen, which also happens to contain some revealing letters to the author by Kim Philby, written from Moscow, as well as Mosley’s absorbing account of the period leading up to the Second World War, On Borrowed Time, published in 1966.]

A Tale of Two Schmidts

A last misconception that has refused to die is the account that appeared in Charles Wighton’s and Gunter Peis’s Hitler’s Spies and Saboteurs, the title used when the book appeared in the USA in 1958. We should recall that this was well before the date (1972) in which any details of the Double-Cross System were made available to the public. Wighton and Peis, claiming to have had access to the diaries of the head of Abwehr Abteilung II (Sabotage and Subversion), General Irwin Lahousen, described in detail some of the exploits of Abwehr spies in Britain. Apart from a chapter that revealed an enormous amount of detail about Arthur Owens (whom we know as SNOW), the authors laid out a convincing account of how two Danish agents had been recruited by the Abwehr in the summer of 1940, and parachuted in to Wiltshire. One, Jorgen Björnson, severely damaged his ankle on landing in a tree, while his companion, Hans Schmidt, came to earth successfully, located his injured colleague, walked into Salisbury for provisions, contacted Hamburg by wireless, and arranged through the Hamburg station for SNOW to set up a sympathetic doctor to attend to Björnson’s ankle. Björnson was soon captured and incarcerated, but Schmidt roamed free, picking up intelligence in southern England. After a breather in Wales to evade the radio monitors, whom Hamburg suspected were closing in on its agent, Schmidt resumed his espionage activity, even found work on a farm, married, and had a child, and continued transmitting his information to Germany until April 1945.

This book does not appear to have been challenged by any authority at the time. After all, despite the authors’ lack of awareness of the Double-Cross project, too many facts were close to the truth, and drawing attention to the activities of these German agents might have allowed some skeletons to escape from the closet before the authorities were ready to share their secrets. Many years later, in the issue of the magazine After the Battle referred to above, the editor and sleuth Winston G. Ramsey listed They Spied on England (the original UK title of Wighton’s and Peis’s book) as a source of information, but made no mention of Björnson and Hans Schmidt – apart from a careless but understandable error of expanding on Masterman’s list of double-cross agents by identifying TATE as Hans Schmidt, when in fact it should be Wulf Schmidt. And herein lies the key to the mystery. There was only one Schmidt.

Yet the story resurfaced in 2017. Last year Bernard O’Connor published a book titled Operation LENA and Hitler’s Plots to Blow Up Britain, an account of Abwehr incursions into British and Irish – and US  –  territory between January 1940 and the end of the war. (Operation LENA was the name given to the undertaking to infiltrate spies and saboteurs to Britain in late 1940 to prepare for and facilitate the imminent invasion of Britain by the German forces.) This volume appears to be a very thoroughly researched book, cataloguing a series of initiatives by the Abwehr to cause havoc, or gain intelligence, in Eire and Great Britain, and it is liberally sprinkled with references to the archives. O’Connor reproduces as fact, however, the whole story of Björnson and Schmidt, commenting only that ‘these two agents are not mentioned in most accounts of the German espionage service’. The author betrays some confusion, however, by maintaining only one entry for ‘Schmidt, Hans/Wulf’, identifying him as TATE, but pointing to two separate passages in his book.

The farrago can probably be explained by the fact that several episodes in the Björnson/Schmidt saga are almost identical copies of events in the Caroli/Schmidt adventure. Both teams travelled from Hamburg to Brussels via Paris, and were delayed by the weather. Both Björnson and Caroli had a dalliance with a servant girl along the way. Björnson was incapacitated in his fall – as was Caroli, whose wireless equipment knocked him out. Hans Schmidt made his way to a nearby town, as did Wulf Schmidt. Both Schmidts arranged for SNOW to meet them, but with Wulf, it was High Wycombe, not Salisbury. (Landing in Wiltshire had been the original goal of the Caroli/Schmidt airdrop, as Nicholas Mosley reported.) SNOW arranged for a sympathetic doctor to treat both Caroli and Björnson. Caroli was arrested, as was Björnson. Both Schmidts were able to roam – apparently freely  – for the remainder of the war, but they both had a clandestine meeting in London with a Japanese diplomat who provided them with more funds. The details of Hans Schmidt’s employment at a farm, and of his marriage, match Wulf’s exactly – except that Wulf had been under the control of the XX Committee.

[Note: The writer Nigel West asserts that the anecdotes about broken ankles, doctors, SNOW’s visit, etc. were invented by MI5 as a smokescreen to explain Caroli’s time of interrogation at Latchmere House.]

How this happened is easier to understand when the circumstances of the authorship are considered. ‘Charles Wighton’ never existed: it was the pen-name of one Jacques Weil, a former Swiss resistance fighter in France whose organisation was subsumed by SOE (Special Operations Executive). Under the same name, he wrote a disguised memoir of himself, titled Pin-Stripe Saboteur, in which he concealed his identity as ‘Simon’ while recounting his adventures in espionage in occupied France. (Nigel West criticises the book for suggesting that the PROSPER network in France was sacrificed for a ‘Machiavellian scheme’ to mislead the enemy about a second front, but does not indicate he knows who Wighton really was.) Gunter Peis was an Austrian journalist, who had met Lahousen after the war. Lahousen was indeed a real figure, who had very significantly provided important evidence against Goering, Ribbentrop and others at the Nuremberg Trials. He had fortuitously escaped punishment for the Stauffenberg plot on Hitler because he had been moved to the Russian Front in 1943, and been severely injured. He did indeed maintain a war diary, which was not available at the time, but, since it is now inspectable on-line, the reader can verify that its entries discuss activities at a very high level. Lahousen had far too wide an area of responsibility, in charge of sabotage (not espionage) across the whole of Europe, to know the details of operatives trained and sent out by the Hamburg Abwehrstelle.

General Lahousen

Wighton and Peis quoted some entries from the Diaries in their story, but they can now be proved to have been faked. What seems clear is that the authors must have used the existence of the Lahousen Diaries as an alibi for a largely reliable source within British Intelligence to tell a surprising story about German espionage in Britain. The source – and Wighton/Weil admits to having a high-level friend in British Intelligence towards the end of Pin-Stripe Saboteur – must have been close enough to the action (or to classified documents) to have been able to relate a sizable amount of information that was true, but which became garbled in the transfer to the author. And if that source knew about the Double-Cross System, he or she withheld that aspect of the story because of the strict embargo that had been placed on all those involved under the Official Secrets Act. (In 1976, Peis repeated some of those initial errors in his book about TATE, The Mirrors of Deception, but he still did not have access to the unreleased files at that time.) Two major conclusions can be drawn from this exercise: i) the RSS was indeed not fooled or evaded by what turned out to be an imaginary duo of Nazi agents; and ii) unreliable sources can easily be elevated to a level of authenticity that they do not deserve once they appear alongside authoritative academic references. (See OfficiallyUnreliable for more on this topic.) O’Connor’s book should be withdrawn.

The Strange Suicide of Ter Braak

The case of J. Willem ter Braak is much more alarming, however. The archival documents on ter Braak (actually classified under his real name, Fukken) would have us believe that the Dutchman parachuted into Britain successfully, was not detected, and was thus not turned, but eventually committed suicide after some months of semi-successful espionage and wireless transmission, followed by a period of rapidly increasing desperation, as his money ran out. As will be shown, this is a highly controversial story, as, if true, it would point to massive failures in security and detection at a time when Britain was supposed to be on highest alert. Yet, if it is not true, what alternative explanation could there be?

On November 3, 1940, a German parachute was found in a field near Haversham, in Buckinghamshire, but the owner was not found, and the search was apparently abandoned after a few weeks. On April 1, 1941, the body of an illegal alien was found in an air-raid shelter in Cambridge, an apparent suicide. The narrative proposed by a superficial examination of the documents in his Kew file runs as follows: MI5 was swiftly able to match the corpse with the person who had landed five months before, and, with the aid of articles found on the agent’s body, and items (including his transceiver) found in a compartment at the Left Luggage Office at Cambridge Railway Station, was able to construct the life that ter Braak had led in the interim. Having evaded capture, he had made his way to Cambridge, acquired a rental accommodation, as well as a bare office premises, and probably broadcast to his controllers in Hamburg until his batteries ran low. He had experienced problems with his food ration cards, but local officialdom had been careless. While pretending to have to leave Cambridge, he had in fact found other rental accommodation in the city, from where he made several excursions to London and to surrounding areas. Having not heard from his Abwehr bosses (possibly because he was not able to get his receiver to work), he was running short of money, and may have asked for help by communicating via traditional mail, using invisible ink and a poste restante address. Having wrapped himself up against the cold, in order to watch for help to be parachuted in that never arrived, he felt abandoned, and shot himself in despair.

What is extraordinary is how the official line has been accepted, even after the release of the files on ter Braak from Kew. For example, the German historian Monika Siedentopf, in her 2014 work, Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sealion), offers one paragraph on ter Braak, merely echoing the conclusion of the authorised historian, Professor Hinsley. She does not appear to have read KV 2/114, the Ter Braak archive, however, as she provides no reference to it in her long list of TNA sources. It is quite extraordinary, given the length of time that this fugitive remained at large, how little attention has been given to him. (The records were declassified nineteen years ago.) Yet several aspects of the case merit very close inspection, namely: 1) MI5’s expectation that a parachutist would arrive; 2) ter Braak’s ability to escape initial attempts to capture him, and remain at large for several months; 3) the deductions made by MI5 concerning his wireless activity; 4) his struggles with his ration-book; 5) the evidence of ter Braak’s movements, and possible involvement in espionage and sabotage; 6) the reaction of MI5 when ter Braak’s body was found, and the subsequent cover-up; and 7) the highly controversial aspects of the victim’s ‘suicide’. I shall now explore each in depth.

Surprise?

In view of the heightened fears about invasion at the time, the recent well-publicised scare about a Fifth Column, the scars from the Battle of Britain, as well as the successful detention of several spies arriving by air and by sea, one might expect the authorities to have been better organised to handle the arrival of further enemy parachutists. Despite the Battle of Britain notionally having been won by then, Guy Liddell, head of B Branch, responsible for counter-espionage, himself wrote on November 15 of ‘one of the worst bombing raids  . . . since the beginning of the war’. The procedures for communicating and following-up on such incidents of infiltration were, moreover, well documented. And yet, when the Haversham parachute was found, the local constabulary ‘forgot’ to inform the Regional Security Liaison Officer responsible. The outcome was that ter Braak managed to escape to Cambridge, about forty miles away, by November 4, and found lodgings there. One might have expected an intense manhunt to have been ordered, but the authorities remained calm. In an almost comical twist, on November 26, three weeks later, Worlledge of RSS suggested to Frost of MI5 that bloodhounds should perhaps be used to help track down the fugitive: two days later, Frost earnestly replies that they were in fact tried, without success.

Complementary to this strange behaviour are the very revealing observations made by MI5 officers. The day that ter Braak’s parachute was found (November 3) Liddell rather drily recorded the details, which merit citation in full: “An enemy parachute landing was reported today. A complete parachute with harness overalls and flying helmet was found neatly folded and placed in a hedge beside a bridle path on Hill Far [sic], Haversham, Bucks. The parachute was wet but the clothing inside dry, and it appears that it may have been dropped during the past two or three days. Inside the parachute was a paper wrapping for chocolate made in Belgium, and a packet containing a white tablet, probably concentrated food. The packet had recently been opened and contents consumed. The parachute had without doubt been used, and the parachutist landed uninjured and is still at large. There is no trace of a crashed aircraft and the parachute was undoubtedly deliberately dropped.” (This entry does not appear in the published extracts of Liddell’s Diaries edited by Nigel West, it should be noted.)

Chocolate wrapper from Brussels found in the parachute

Liddell did not record, however, how he received this news, or how he was able to conclude that the spy had not suffered any contusions in his touching the ground. The message probably came directly from T. A. (‘Tar’) Robertson, then working for Major Frost of W Branch (sometimes called Section W, which had recently been subsumed into B Division), whom the local constabulary had contacted, via the Special Branch. Readers should bear in mind that, as Masterman’s account makes clear (p 100), while the authorised history of MI5 assuredly does not, that the famed B.1a section responsible for managing double-agents, led by Robertson, was not created until June 1941, long after the last LENA agent had landed. (After a showdown with Frost, when Robertson had complained to Liddell that he could no longer work with him, Liddell made the decision on December 12 to transplant Robertson ‘and all his minions’ out of W Branch into an established unit of B Division.) Yet Liddell never questioned why the relevant RSLO (one of the Regional Security Liaison Officers, namely B Division representatives dispersed around Britain, and first in line to investigate possible spy threats) was not informed, or why the message had not arrived through the proper channels. And he never referred to the case again in his diaries until ter Braak’s body was found, an extraordinary example of ‘the dog not barking in the night-time’. Why would it not be of supreme importance to him, and for his chronicle, to record how the hunt for the fugitive progressed?

It is also noteworthy that the proceedings of meetings of the RSLOs and the Security Executive (the supervisory body installed by Churchill to manage domestic intelligence) in the period October 1940 to April 1941 focus almost exclusively on what the procedures should be for processing captured agents, not on how resources should be deployed to tracking down undetected agents whose traces of arrival have been found. It is very telling that, at a meeting a few weeks before ter Braak’s body was found, the RSLOs engineered a change in the communications procedures, which now required that the Police Constables first inform them, who would in turn let W Branch know of a suspected agent. What is also intriguing is that the notes supplied for White’s address at the meeting (on February 18) specifically refer to ‘the Haversham parachutist’, indicating that he was still at large, but nowhere does this highly provocative state of affairs appear to engage the attention of the participants.

What should have been fresh in the minds of the RSLOs, however, was the case of SUMMER (Gösta Caroli), a supposedly turned agent who had tried, on January 13, to kill his guard and flee the country, being arrested at Ely, not far from Cambridge. (I have not yet discovered any record of what they were told of the affair.) Masterman later hinted that the RSLOs must have been in the know, since he wrote that SUMMER was apprehended ‘after some anxious hours in which we had been compelled to warn the appropriate authorities over half England to set a watch for the fugitive’ – a pattern of behaviour in marked contrast to the lethargy over ter Braak. Masterman went on to write: “His escape, had it succeeded, would indeed have wrecked all our schemes, but as things were no harm was done – not even to the strangled guard, who was the richer for a stimulating experience (and a good story) at the expense of some small temporary inconvenience.” Masterman’s levity was misplaced: if the guard had indeed talked carelessly about the event, the outcome might have been just as calamitous. I shall return to SUMMER’s fate later.

A full chapter – a thesis, even – could be written on this aspect of British security measures at the time. One of the most unprofessional, almost scandalous, aspects of the affair is that the role of Malcolm Frost and W Branch has been completely excised from the authorised history, as if Robertson always worked for the not yet created B1a. Neither Malcom Frost nor W Branch (nor even the RSLO organisation) appears in the index of Sir Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, Defending the Realm. Yet, at a time (November 1940) when Frost was being scorned by such as Swinton for his ego and his ambition, and he was apparently driving Robertson to distraction, the Director of Military Intelligence, Beaumont-Nesbitt, was writing to Frost, almost as an equal, to suggest that the military authorities should be given the responsibility for handling suspected spies after their arrest. It was a very puzzling relationship.

The focus returns to Liddell, since his Diaries are such a central source of the story. In the middle of November, instead of instantly organising pursuit of the dangerous quarry, he started plans for the formation of the famous XX Committee, and then had to deal with the sacking of Jane Archer, which in his journals he ascribed to her extended derisory comments about the MI5 head-in-waiting, Jasper Harker. (In April 1940, Jane Archer had been taken out of her vital role as lead in Soviet counter-espionage to design the RSLO group, and then manage the team of RSLOs.) Yet the timetable offered by the ter Braak archive lays open a completely new interpretation. Had Jane Archer perhaps challenged Liddell’s methods of undermining her authority through Section W’s continued bypassing of the RSLOs, who seem to have respected her skills very highly? Archer knew that Liddell could not be held totally responsible for the dysfunction in MI5, as an ungainly organisation had been forced upon the service by Swinton. In August 1940, however, Frost’s W Branch had been moved under Liddell’s ‘B’ organisation, and tensions between Frost’s group and the rest of ‘B’ were slow to be resolved.

The presumed cause for Archer’s sacking comes solely from Liddell himself, but in his Diary (in a passage also not published by Nigel West) he refers to a contentious conference on October 31 between himself, Archer and Frost. It would not be surprising if the highly capable Archer, perhaps still smarting about her removal from Communist work, had in fact challenged Liddell quite robustly over the way the whole RSLO infrastructure was being undermined, and over Liddell’s inability to control Frost, and that she thus forced a rupture. The timing of this meeting occurs just before ter Braak’s arrival: if Liddell was expecting him, as he admitted, could it be that he and Archer disagreed about a level of secrecy required in dealing with the Abwehr spy, that would have entailed excluding the RSLOs? I have found no documentary evidence of this, but it seems highly possible that he could not convince her otherwise, leading to a dissension that brought on her forced resignation. Liddell may then have made recourse to an external enduring motif to explain her dismissal. In addition, Frost was certainly a problem: on December 6, Robertson declared he could no longer work for him, and Liddell, who had been so enthusiastic about his ‘man from the B.B.C.’ a few months before, must have been having second thoughts.

Thus, after the heated events of the winter, and the arrival of David Petrie (who, after a few weeks of intense analysis, was officially appointed as the new Director-General in mid-February 1941) to shake things up, it is with some degree of astonishment that the ter Braak case suddenly reappears in Liddell’s Diary. We read in his entry for April 1, 1941, that he has, the same day the body was found, already been informed of the discovery, and of the verdict of suicide (before any inquest, one should note). The local police force had very speedily undertaken their investigations, being able to inform Liddell that ‘he had lived in Cambridge for about four months’ (an incorrect calculation, as it happens), having arrived with a small suitcase and parcel. Liddell concluded his entry as follows: “On form I should say he was undoubtedly a parachutist, and probably one whom we expected at that time.” (In a more public forum, however, he was much more guarded: at a meeting with the RSLOs in Oxford a few days later, he merely commented that the person discovered was ‘probably’ the parachutist from November.)

So why would Liddell not have pointed out that fact – that ter Braak had been expected – when the parachute was found? And why might MI5 have expected his arrival? Ter Braak was, according to most accounts, not in fact linked with the Operation LENA spies (e.g. Caroli and Wulf Schmidt), so the story has been encouraged that MI5 would not have learned about his role from Caroli (SUMMER) or Wulf Schmidt (TATE). After the war, in June 1946, when MI5 interrogated Abwehr officials, and showed them ter Braak’s photograph, neither Nikolaus Ritter (head of Abwehr I in Hamburg), nor Jules Boeckel (who replaced Ritter in March 1941) could identify who he was. Ritter, who denied that ter Braak was a LENA agent perhaps a bit too assertively, said his wireless apparatus was not designed for summer use (unlike the LENA agents), and Boeckel suggested that he might have been managed by Brussels, which would make excellent sense, given the origin of the chocolate wrapping that Liddell had referred to. (Though one has to question such an obvious clue: why would an ostentatious wrapper be packed into the parachute, and were parachutes not supposed to be buried or burned on arrival, rather than being ‘neatly folded’?) Thus two scenarios present themselves:  1) The RSS had picked up Abwehr messages, with the resulting decrypts pointing to an imminent drop by the Brussels station. (I have not yet been able to inspect the detailed source records at Kew. And we recall Liddell’s comments about KUHIRT and SCHROEDER.) 2) Ter Braak was indeed a LENA agent, and Liddell had been warned of his arrival by TATE, but for some reason all the Abwehr officers after the war wanted to disown any connection with him. That would not be surprising if the Churchill assassination plot (see below) were indeed true. Abwehr officers, in any case, gained a well-deserved reputation for not speaking, under interrogation, openly and directly about their wartime experiences.

Finally, we have the evidence of Robertson. On November 15, this gallant officer had had to apologise to Michael Ryde, the RSLO in Reading, stating that the blame for the failure in communications lay with the Chief Constable of Buckinghamshire, who should have reported the matter to the RSLO rather than alerting adjacent police forces. The same day, Robertson wrote to Ronald Haylor, the RSLO for the adjacent region of Nottingham, to make a similar apology, explaining that he did not hear about the parachutist until November 3 (i.e. the same day that Liddell learned of it), but enigmatically added that he did not recommend ‘using the parachutist for our own purposes, so I think it would be advisable to lay on as wide a hunt as is possible’. Is this not an extraordinary careless way of representing MI5’s intentions, and expressing the necessity of speeding up isolation of the spy? First of all, Robertson obliquely admitted that MI5 had ulterior purposes in considering the exploitation of parachutists (for the emerging Double-Cross System), and implicitly that the RSLOs knew of this project, but at the same time indicated that efforts to track down spies could be restrained – and no doubt were being held back – in the cause of presumed monitoring of their activities. He very significantly echoed this policy when, after Jakobs had parachuted in on January 31, 1941, Liddell noted in his Diary that Robertson wanted to give him [Jakobs] a run ‘in order that we may find out exactly how much these people can ascertain if they are left to themselves’.

Yet it was a very risky and slapdash judgment to make about the potential of a double agent when MI5 had not even identified or interrogated the suspect, and did not know how dedicated a Nazi he was. As soon as every agent was captured, he or she should have been sent to Camp 020 at Latchmere House in Ham, for interrogation by Colonel R. W. G. Stevens, but such a consideration appeared far from the minds of Liddell and Robertson in this instance. On November 18, Robertson wrote two more significant letters. The first was to Colonel Wethered, the RSLO for Birmingham, following up on a telephone call with him the previous day. It is clear from this long letter that Wethered knew nothing about the parachutist before then. The RSLOs had not been informed. The same day, Robertson had an important insight, showing all the wiliness of the veteran officer’s knowledge about fugitives, and wrote to Worlledge of RSS in the following terms: “This brings one to the conclusion that the parachutist, if he is at large, must have gone to some hiding-place.” Indeed, for that is what fugitives do the world over – unless they are allowed to survive in broad daylight. Suddenly, a pattern for ter Braak’s bewildering ability to stay on the run emerges.

Ter Braak’s Wireless

What is critical to this story is the use of wireless: ter Braak had a working set, and RSS was supposed to be supremely well-equipped to deal with incidences of illicit transmissions from within the nation’s borders (see earlier Chapters 1 and 2 in this saga). Thus an inspection of what RSS and related units did or did not do, and how MI5 responded to their actions, is highly important. The analysis by MI5 officers of ter Braak’s wireless activity can be seen to take place in three stages. There is an initial assessment necessary to provide the political cover for informing the government of what happened, completed by May 1941. That is followed by a deeper internal review later that year. The last stage occurs after the war, when Abwehr officers have been interrogated about the case.

After the wireless apparatus had been discovered in the left luggage office on the day after the corpse was found, Herbert Hart (B2.b, the Oxford academic, who the following October was to marry Jenifer Fischer-Williams, the Soviet spy and probable betrayer of Walter Krivitsky to Guy Burgess), on April 11 sent it to the SIS for examination. Marriott (B2.a) recorded on May 6 that he had received the report from SIS, which had, strangely, been ‘missing’ for a while. The report included the statement that the apparatus was ‘identical in design to one taken from enemy agents off coast of Scotland, though not so complete.’ It added: ‘The separate H.T. and L.T. battery completely run down [sic], while H.T. batteries in suitcase show 195 volts instead of normal 270.’ The conclusion was that the set had been used considerably

Hart’s official May 7 report to Dick White, head of B.1, responsible for ‘Espionage’, offers a different conclusion, however: “Ter BRAAK’s wireless transmitting set has been examined and the expert opinion is that it had probably been used in the effort to establish contact, but it is impossible to say whether the effort was successful or not.” This last observation was an embellishment by Hart, as SIS ventured no opinion on that unverifiable truth. Moreover, that was not the only opinion Hart inserted. He also described the set as follows, saying that the search at Cambridge Railway Station revealed ‘a brown Moroccan leather case containing a W/T set similar in all respects to sets brought to this country by enemy agents who had been dropped by parachute and captured’. This statement is false in many respects. There had been only four admitted enemy agents who had been dropped by parachute – TATE, SUMMER, GIRAFFE (Graf) and GANDER (Geysen). The last three brought with them a device that contained a transmitter only. The SIS report referred to the three agents who had been arrested in Scotland on September 30, Drucke, Walti, and Eriksen, but they had not arrived by parachute. And there is a combination of naivety and excessive detail in Hart’s report as well. He offers a conclusion that ‘there are strong grounds for thinking that Ter BRAAK was, in fact, the parachutist whose parachute was discovered on 3.11.40 at 12.00 hrs at Hill Farm, Haversham, Bucks.’, when, as has been shown above, Liddell had come firmly to that conclusion the day that ter Braak’s body was found. Hart also provides some details about ter Braak’s ‘self-inflicted wound’ that should perhaps have been kept under wraps.

A reason that this report might have been considered unsuitable for wider dissemination is that, while White’s forwarding of it appears in the ter Braak files at TNA (KV 2/114), Hart’s report is absent. It can, however, be found in a folder concerned with ‘immobilisation and arrest of enemy agents’ (KV 4/406). Thus Hart’s misrepresentations might have been deemed unsuitable for inclusion, as they both contradicted facts elsewhere, and told too much: his memorandum somehow managed to escape to another file. Were Liddell and White withholding information from Hart, and letting him blunder on in the dark? That would be highly unlikely, given Hart’s deep involvement in the case, and the sensitivity of his mission. It seems much more probable that he was guided to write a report that emphasized the similarity between ter Braak’s case and those of other agents, and that for some reason MI5 wanted ter Braak’s possible wireless activity to be minimized. After all, it would not help much if the report – to be sent to all the RSLOs – indicated that RSS had not been succeeded in performing its job properly.

MI5 picked up the investigation again in the autumn. Hart had provided some details about ter Braak’s movements with suitcases, gathered from his landladies, that indicated that the agent had concealed the wireless set from both of them. By this time MI5 officers have started to theorise more profoundly. Now under the new leadership of Petrie, a fresh organisation is in place: head of B1.a is ‘Robertson, ‘Special Agents’, and Hart is now alongside him as B1.b ‘Espionage Special Sources’. (Dick White is now head of B.1, while Frost now reports to Liddell as head of B.3, responsible overall for ‘Communications’, which includes B.3A, ‘Censorship and Reception Analysis’, B.3B, ‘Illicit Wireless Investigation and Liaison with RSS’, and B.3C, ‘Lights and Pigeons’.) On September 10, Gwyer in B1.a issued a long report. It informs us that, during both his periods of lodging, from early November to late March, ter Braak never left his accommodation overnight. He had rented an office above the agents who had found his rental properties, but apparently visited it only two or three times, and was never seen taking a suitcase with him when he left in the mornings. Gwyer’s conclusion was that he could not accept the view (apparently promoted by Fl. Lieutenant Cholmondeley of B.2a, the officer who later cooked up the Operation Mincemeat scheme with Ewen Montagu) that ter Braak failed to communicate by wireless, pointing out that he had one aerial suitable for night-time transmission. (And the SIS report indicated that he was given two crystals, and thus had two frequencies to use, the lower one being necessary for night-time use.) “We know that he was only equipped with one aerial which was suitable for the frequency he was instructed to use at night, but we also know  . . . that the only time that he was alone with his wireless set, apparently, was at night. He could not have transmitted during the day, as he could not have left lodgings with a wireless set in a suitcase without somebody noticing this fact. Equally, he could not have used his office for transmissions if he was there so infrequently.”

Gwyer owned up to a high degree of precision in his estimates. He stated that ter Braak’s batteries, ‘exhausted at time of his death’ would not have lasted more than two months, although how he came to that conclusion without knowing how frequently, or for how long, the apparatus had been used is not explained. Ter Braak was able to replace his low tension battery, but not the high tension one, and thus had to purchase an accumulator. His conclusion was that ter Braak had probably transmitted successfully up until about Christmas 1940, after which he communicated in secret ink, using a poste restante address. Gwyer assumed that he had asked for a new battery through this medium, and was expecting delivery from a new agent. When none appeared, he killed himself. Gwyer’s colleague, R. T. Reed, added that ‘contacts during the day would have been impossible, because of aerial provided and difficult to avoid suspicion or capture if seen’, but expert judgment (in the person of Dr. Brian Austin) has informed me that adapting an aerial for the night-time frequency should have been a straightforward task. In Dr. Austin’s words: “Ter Braak’s single piece of aerial wire, of some unknown length, could have been made to work at maximum efficiency on both the frequencies allocated to him.”

Perhaps ter Braak had not been properly trained for such adaptations. In his interrogation after the war, Lahousen (the officer who headed Sabotage and Subversion) criticised the Abwehr’s radio ‘expert’, Rasehorn, for being ‘not very well qualified’, asserting that ‘his wireless connexions did not work’. Thus there could have been deficiencies in understanding in both Abwehr and MI5 camps. Indeed Reed’s expertise must also be questioned. On July 24, he had written a report on wireless telegraphy which stated: “I tested the set of ter BRAAK in communication with Radlett. The aerial that he was given is satisfactory on 4508 kcs, but will not work effectively on 5435 kcs., which is his day frequency. According to the file of Ter BRAAK, it would seem that he never tried to get into communication during the night time and only tried during the day time.” Did Reed adjust the aerial? It is not clear. Yet how did anyone know about ter Braak’s failure, since other testimony points to the fact that ter Braak did not even take his set out during the day? The evidence provided elsewhere is that ter Braak could have communicated only in the night-time.

It is only at this stage that the RSS appears to become seriously involved, which is quite astonishing. Back in November 1940, RSS was certainly deploying its interception capabilities. A report from W.2 (Robertson, working for Frost, whose main interest at that time was investigating ground communications with aircraft) on November 5 declares that the unit was hunting the spy, with promising indications. “From the intercepts produced by R.S.S., it seems likely that there is at least one wireless set being operated in the country. Every effort is of course [sic] being made to locate this.” Dr. Austin has estimated that, at the frequencies used by ter Braak, a successful Direction-Finding station would have had to be as close as 6 miles away for his ground wave to be picked up – a calculation that might suggest that Lt.-Col. Simpson’s planned dispersions (see Chapter 2) were not dense enough. The nearest station appears to have been one at Steeple Bumstead, about twenty miles south of Cambridge, but, with a known enemy agent on the loose in the area, one might perhaps expect a more flexible campaign to have been undertaken to track down the suspect.

The same day (November 5), Robertson reports that all the intercepts appearing in RSS’s weekly report have been identified. And a week later, Hinchley-Cooke in B.13 receives a report from Robertson that ‘so far neither the Bucks Police nor R.S.S. have been able to find any trace of the man.’ One could reflect that the parachutist might not have considered helping the authorities by remaining in the small county of Buckinghamshire, but the current record then goes quiet. Did MI5 not really care what happened after that? So, much later, during this post mortem, when Robertson asks Hughes of B3.b (the liaison between MI5 and RSS), on September 11, 1941, to enquire of RSS ‘whether any station heard on 4508 kcs or possibly 5435, in period November 4 1940 to January 31 1941, between 2100 and 0900 GMT using a 3 letter call of the type others used having a circular code, i.e. LNP, GIK, etc’, one’s first reaction is, even if the exact frequencies and callsigns were not known then, why would such an intense action have not been performed at the time of the hunt? And why would Robertson and Hughes not ask whether any traffic had been intercepted from Hamburg during the time of ter Braak’s fugitive status?

The description of the exchange that followed deserves quoting in full. Thus Hughes to Robertson on September 14, 1941: “With regard to your note of the 11th Sept. concerning the possible workings in connection with the Cambridge ‘suicide’ case, the Controller, R.S.S. replies that they are doing what they can with extracted records, but that the original traffic of that period has been destroyed. It is not possible for RSS to keep all original logs for any great length of time as the volume would be entirely unmanageable, so I am afraid there are not likely to be any useful results of this inquiry. Is there any other line of attack you would like me to suggest to RSS? RSS are hoping to be able to make records of any QZZ traffic which they pick up during this week. Only part of the text is likely to be recorded, but I think this will be satisfactory for your purpose.” And two days later, Reed writes: “I spoke with Major Morton Evans yesterday and asked if it were possible to keep a careful radio check on the East-Anglia area. We decided that this was technically impracticable. The only line to take was that if any station was suspected of working in the East Anglia area – by the results of the direction finding stations – special attention should be paid to it. Should any such station be intercepted, Major Morton-Evans will see that this is done.”

Group of ex-RSS members and supporters, Bletchley Park, 2013
Bob King is seated, far right. Stanley Ames and Dr. Brian Austin, standing, far left.

Over the years, this puzzling interchange has tested many members of RSS. At one of the assemblies of ex-RSS interceptors and officers, at which enthusiasts also take part, in 2015, with ter Braak’s records then open at last, a group discussed how RSS could have avoided picking up his signals. After all, they should have had enough density of voluntary interceptors to simply pick up the groundwaves. Bob King, who had been working at Arkley, the location to which all logs were sent, at the time, offered the following possible reasons (which I reproduce here in their original form):

  1. He did not transmit.
  2. If he did his procedure was not suspicious.
  3. His calls were very short and with a non-resonant aerial very weak.
  4. No one was listening at the right time on the right frequency. (Not so likely).
  5. He was heard and his logs arrived at Arkley but not fitting any group was marked in the books as ‘Suspect’ and awaiting further reports.
  6. He was reported to Arkley, and log readers were told to ignore [signals] believing it to be an agent already covered.

What Bob King overlooked in this analysis was the detection of signals from ter Braak’s controllers in Hamburg. According to the confident doctrine of Walter Gill, whose report was written just after ter Braak arrived, the absence of agents in the UK could be determined by the fact that no incoming transmissions were intercepted by the RSS’s major stations. Yet, if ter Braak had a receiver, messages would surely have been sent to him – at least in the first few weeks. Thus, one must conclude that RSS picked up those signals (even if ter Braak was unable to), but that MI5 chose not to act on that discovery. In light of the fact that MI5’s leaders admitted that an unidentified German agent had parachuted in with a wireless apparatus of some kind, Gill’s policy appears at best bizarre, and at worst, simply irresponsible.

Interrogations with Abwehr officers after the war did not disclose much else, although now new officers in B1.a were still asking the same questions. Joan Paine of B1.a in September 1946 still acts as if she does not know whether ter Braak and the Buckinghamshire parachutist are the same person, which makes it appear as if she had been deliberately kept in the dark. Her colleague Warrec expresses the same uncertainty. But the Abwehr officers either do not know any more, or pretend they do not. Karl Krazer, of the Hamburg unit, asserted that the last LENA mission took place in September 1940, and thus ter Braak could not have been part of it. Moreover, he echoes Ritter’s claim that LENA agents all had ‘summer-time’ transmitters, unlike ter Braak, thus providing an opinion contrary to what Hart had said. Both Krazer and Richter recommended speaking to Sensburg of Brussels. The file on Sensburg is dominated by his time as head of the Athens Abwehrstelle, whither he was transferred from Brussels in May 1941. He was surely still in charge when ter Braak’s crisis occurred.

The documents also confirm that a Brussels-based agent named Fackenheim was close to being parachuted into Britain, but was confounded by the weather. Yet Fackenheim was returned to Germany in the autumn of 1940, so he could not have been around in April 1941. Sensburg also gave final instructions to Waldberg, Kieboom, Pons and Meier, who were sent to the Kent Coast by trawler early in September, all of whom except Pons being subsequently executed, so his role in handling ter Braak sounds very probable, even though Sensburg does not list ter Braak as a member of the LENA operation. (Interestingly, Jakobs and Richter, both of whom were sent out later than ter Braak, are listed as LENA agents by Sensburg, thus contradicting Krazer. Again, these Abwehr officers may not have been entirely honest.) But the opportunity to interrogate Sensburg on that matter seems to have been missed. A few extracts from ULTRA intercepts describe some of his actions, but nothing concerning spies sent to Britain. Perhaps senior MI5 officers were hoping the whole issue would die a gradual death.

Ter Braak’s Mission and Movements

So what was ter Braak doing in Cambridge? It might seem an unlikely city to conduct espionage, although several military airfields were in reasonably close reach. One theory, promoted by Winston G. Ramsey in After the Battle, suggests that the spy was sent, by SS General Walter Schreckenbach, on a special mission to assassinate Churchill, and it describes how ter Braak was trailed, his lodgings searched while he was out, and found to contain ‘a wireless transmitter, detonators, a Luger pistol, a file on Mr. Churchill’s movements and three crudely forged Dutch passports’. The writer provides no source for this fantasy, which sounds like a crudely conceived smokescreen. (The assassination plot is echoed by Charles Whiting, in his 2000 book Hitler’s Secret War, though whether he used Ramsey as a source, or shared Ramsey’s informant, is not clear. Whiting is of the school that considers that ter Braak was indeed one of Ritter’s LENA agents, while he repeats Ramsey’s more credible account of how ter Braak’s body was found. He does not list Nikolaus Ritter in his Acknowledgments, but it is evident from his text that Ritter became a friend after the war, and was a major source of his information, thus undermining Ritter’s testimony to his interrogators.) It would have been highly unlikely for the SS to select an Abwehr operative for such a scheme; it would not be good practice to try to mix sabotage/destruction with espionage (although it did sometimes happen), as sabotage is noisy, and gains attention, while espionage is quiet and clandestine. An assassin would not need a wireless, just a rapid means of escape. The pistol found by ter Braak’s body was a Browning, not a Luger. And why ter Braak would languish in Cambridge for five months if charged with such a mission cannot be answered.

Ter Braak’s passport

Another explanation, which surfaced when a flurry of memories was published in the Cambridge Evening News in January and February 1975, following the After the Battle investigations, was that ter Braak had come to blackmail prominent émigré academics living in England into cooperating with the enemy, presumably by threatening their relatives. “One person on ter Braak’s list”, the account read, “was professor of Law at Clare College, Kurt Lipstein, who had left relatives behind in Germany when he came to England in 1936”. But the leads appear not to have been followed up. A perhaps more convincing explanation was that ter Braak was guiding German aircraft to military targets in the area, and that that ‘Army Intelligence knew that signals were being given during raids and troop movements in the Cherry Hinton area’ (which was part of Cambridge). A major example provided was a raid by Dornier 17s as tanks were being unloaded in the Cambridge marshalling yard, with eleven fatalities as a result. Yet the date given was February 24, 1941, when ter Braak’s radio was supposed to be no longer working. Can we rely on that? Or was he indeed still broadcasting at that time, and was that a fact that MI5 chose to conceal when it realised it might have had blood on its hands by allowing him to remain active? Did MI5 then attempt retrospectively to ‘silence’ ter Braak from December?

The National Registration Card of ter Braak

Yet Cambridge was indeed his objective. The false and very clumsy identity-card he was provided with in Brussels (see photograph) gives a non-existent address of ‘Oxford Street, Cambridge’. It has one person’s handwriting in places where that of an official and the owner should appear. The number of the residence was entered after the name of the street, in continental style. The Christian name appeared, wrongly, before the surname, and the card was machine-folded, not hand-folded. (These failures were provocatively used at RSLO training in February 1941.) Thus we have to face the facts that the spy apparently landed on October 31 or November 1 (since enemy aircraft were spotted both those nights, and the parachute was wet from rains since) and was able to extricate himself from his parachute, conceal it neatly, pick up his two suitcases, and somehow walk the forty miles from Milton Keynes without being spotted, or gain transport from some unsuspecting or abetting agency, not reaching Cambridge until November 4. The parachute was found at noon on November 3: this was at a time when the head of counter-intelligence at MI5 declared the service was expecting him, and a ‘thorough search of all woods, buildings’ was in process and that ‘enquiries are being made at all shops, cafes, hotels, railway stations, etc.’. One report, from November 12, says that the parachute was found near the house of a man who was under suspicion, but no more is said of this gentleman, or whether he was able to help ter Braak on his journey to Cambridge. Thus we have to conclude that Ter Braak either arrived in Cambridge with at least three days’ stubble on his chin, and a wet overcoat, having slept in the open, with a suitcase on either arm, yet failed to provoke any attention, or found shelter with some sympathizer. He then successfully installed himself with Mr. and Mrs. Sennitt of 58 St Barnabas Road, Cambridge, after gaining their address from a  rental agency.

Ter Braak’s movements overall were erratic, and showed no focused pattern of activity. They were partly re-creatable because the spy rather enigmatically kept all his used bus-tickets, and thus his journeys around the countryside, and once to London, could be traced. But, since he never spent a night away from Cambridge until his final foray into the night, they are not really germane to the story. MI5 knew, from interrogations of other agents, that reporting on the success of bombing-raids was a major part of their mission, so it is likely that ter Braak was involved in such activity. What is far more intriguing is how he managed to deceive the authorities for so long. Most of the recorded saga refers to his travails with his ration-book, but the failure of everyone (rental agency, or landlord and landlady) to make even a cursory inspection of his identity card, is dumbfounding. What is noteworthy about the card, apart from its obvious forgery to the eye, was the fact that it contained a serial number that had been provided to the Abwehr by SNOW, thus showing that, even if the Hamburg Abwehrstelle did not know about ter Braak, Nikolaus Ritter was clearly passing on seemingly valid numbers to be shared by the Brussels Abwehrstelle. Evidence of such cooperation could of course reinforce the theory that ter Braak was indeed one of the LENA team. Only when the Food Office in Feltham looked up the ID card number supplied by ter Braak did it realise, very tardily, that the number was one issued to a Mr. Burton. When challenged on explaining this, ter Braak panicked and left his lodgings, saying he was leaving Cambridge, but in fact he only moved to a different accommodation in the city.

What occurred with ter Braak’s National Registration Card and ration-book would come back to haunt MI5. The card found on ter Braak’s body had the number BFAB 318-1 (see image). When ter Braak’s landlord, Mr. Sennitt, dutifully went to see the Assistant Aliens Officer of the Cambridge Borough Police after ter Braak’s arrival, in order to report the Dutchman’s presence, the officer told Sennitt to get hold of a copy book and get the Dutchman to write his name, and date of arrival in it. As Hart reported: ‘the Assistant Aliens Officer concluded his remarks to Mr. Sennitt by saying: “Don’t you worry, the fellow will be along shortly soon to report himself.”’ Hart added that ‘ter Braak, of course, did nothing of the sort and nothing further was done by the Assistant Aliens Officer’. That was quite an extraordinary oversight by the Officer, but why Sennitt – or even the rental agency, Haslop & Co. – had not thought to ask for the alien’s identity papers on first encountering him, is also worthy of comment. Were all regional towns, cities and their establishments not on high alert for detection of an alien parachutist? Experiences with other dubious-looking strangers, such as the three spies who landed in Scotland by boat (Drucke, Walti, and Eriksen – see above), show that inspection of ID cards was the first task to be undertaken.

That hurdle passed, ter Braak had to provide a ration-book to his landlady, so she could buy provisions for him. Yet the forged one he supplied was seen to have expired in July 1940. Here the narrative diverges. Hart’s memorandum indicates that that fact was ‘soon’ discovered by ter Braak, although the word ‘soon’ is enigmatically written in by hand, replacing the word ‘not’, a paradox, and maybe a subconscious error, that Hart did not attempt to explain. The hidden notion may be revealed in the report by the Cambridge Borough Police, dated April 24, 1941, where the officer wrote that Mr. Sennitt agreed to visit the Food Office in Cambridge to obtain an emergency ration card, while ter Braak wrote off for a new one. Again, why no one asked how ter Braak had managed to survive beforehand with an out-of-date ration book is a question unraised by all concerned. It should be recalled that November 1940 was the peak of the Blitz, when Hitler was trying to strangle Britain to death: nearly 7,000 civilians died from German bombing that month, and offences against the use of ration-books were publicly listed to deter abuse.

Here again, Hart distorted the truth. In his memorandum, he wrote that ter Braak applied on November 28, 1940 to the Food Office appropriate to the number on his Identity Card (i.e. Feltham Food Office) for a new book, ‘explaining away the fact that his book had become out of date and had not been used on the ground that he had been living in Cafes and Hotels’. Yet the only address on the Identity card was ‘Cambridge, 7 Oxford Street’, and MI5 officer Gwyer’s report of September 10, 1941 expressed puzzlement as to how ter Braak knew to write to an office in Feltham. “He himself never visited the Food Office, his emergency cards being drawn by his landlord. It is true that the Food Office may have told the landlord which was the correct office for ter Braak to apply to, but the Police Report of April 21st states ‘so far as Mrs. Sennitt (the landlady) is aware, Braak sent the old book to either Cambridge Street Road or Terrace, London’”. The issue is mysteriously left unresolved, though later in his report Gwyer refers to Mrs. Sennitt as ‘an incompetent witness’. Mrs Sennitt persisted in questioning ter Braak each week about the receipt of his new ration book, and each time, on receiving a negative answer, she would acquire another temporary one.

Ter Braak’s application for a new ration book

I reproduce ter Braak’s application here: the date is clear; a Food Officer has entered the wording of ter Braak’s explanation for survival without a book, and also entered his National Registration number, as we can confirm. The Ration Book number is printed – CA 567132. (Hart mistakenly listed it as CA 567123, which might explain some later confusion. The Cambridge Borough Police had by April 4, 1941 verified that that number had been issued by the Feltham Food Office to one William Widhers, a civil servant employed by the Prison Commissioners. This was the same number that had been provided on August 9, 1940, to MI5, in the name of Burton, and was passed on, nominally through SNOW, as a safe number for the Abwehr to use. MI5 then tried to contact Burton to clear up the duplication, but he was away, and the error had to be ascribed to ‘mistakes by the registration authorities’.) The timing after the receipt of ter Braak’s submission is not precise in Hart’s account: he wrote that, ‘on receipt of ter Braak’s application,’ Feltham Food Office looked up the number of the ID, found that it had been issued to a Mr. Burton, and thus sent the official form R.G. 32 to ter Braak, asking for full particulars. At some stage ter Braak must have sent in his R.G. 32, as a letter from Feltham, dated January 25, asks him to confirm that he no longer wants a new book, and that the previous request was a mistake.  Ter Braak’s reply of January 28, 1941 can be seen in the accompanying image. Either the Feltham office had been very sluggish in sending out the original R.G.32, or it had been very lenient in not demanding the prompt return of the form. Again, no questions appear to have been raised about the efficiency of the process, or the lack of consultation between the Feltham and Cambridge Food Offices.

One can now understand why ter Braak probably relaxed up until the end of January. He had followed the protocols, submitted his application, continued to receive temporary ration books (though to the consternation and amazement of his landlady), and could carry on with whatever he was doing. Yet the lie he gives in his letter about the Dutch Emergency Committee, and its supplying him with a new ration book ‘a few weeks ago’ with the result that he no longer needs a new one, does betray some desperation. Moreover, the normal number of weekly emergency ration books that was allowed to be issued was six: the Food Office in Cambridge had been lax enough to extend it to twelve in ter Braak’s case. Eventually its patience ran out – on January 30, just before ter Braak’s letter was received in Feltham, The Cambridge Office informed Mrs Sennitt that ter Braak was required to pay a visit to the Food Officer.

At this stage, ter Braak panicked. “He appeared agitated’, said Mrs Sennitt later. He told his landlady that he had to go to London, and would have to quit his premises. Only then did Mrs Sennitt notice his second suitcase (containing his wireless set), which he put in the taxi taking him to the railway station. Yet, by a remarkable coincidence, Mr Sennitt, who suddenly realized that he had to follow him to regain the front-door key, could not find ter Braak when he explored all the carriages in the London train waiting to leave. And a few days later, Mrs Sennitt bumped into ter Braak on the street in Cambridge, at which he explained that he had had to return for a few days.

In fact, ter Braak, again using the rental agency, had arrived the same day he left the Sennitts, on January 31, with his two suitcases, at 11 Montague Road, the residence of Miss Rosina Greenwood, to begin a new rental. Part of the arrangement was that he did not require feeding (apart from toast and tea at breakfast), so Miss Greenwood had no need to ask her new lodger for a ration book. Yet the indolence of the authorities is perplexing. Why on earth would Mr and Mrs Sennitt, who had watched a lodger with dubious papers suddenly come under close examination from the Food Office, one who apparently never followed up with the Aliens Officer, and then observed him displaying erratic and mendacious behavior in suddenly quitting his lodgings and making spurious claims about going to London, yet not boarding the train, but taking a mysterious suitcase with him which they had not seen before, not think they should perhaps report such behaviour to the authorities? Had they perhaps been primed to stay silent about the whole business?

Yet ter Braak managed to stay undetected for another two months. He continued his perambulations; he made a visit to London; in mid-March he went to Peterborough for the day. He visited his office above the agents for the last time on February 12. Obviously it was important for him to stay in Cambridge, although one might judge that he could have been safer settling down in another city, with a different Food Office. Why did he think he could remain safe? He left the house each day, but, according to Miss Greenwood, never took either of his suitcases with him. And then, according to one report, a fortnight before he left for the last time, in mid-March, he told his landlady that he would be leaving in two weeks. Gwyer’s report, however, states that he left his lodgings on March 29, without settling the bill, but taking with him nearly all his luggage, and returning the key to his landlady. He told her he would be back on April 5. Incredibly, apart from an aside where he tells us that ter Braak asked, on March 20, a fellow lodger who was employed at Lloyd’s Bank to cash some dollar notes for him (an account that is incidentally undermined by the subsequent police report which states that ter Braak asked Mr Sennit, his first landlord, to exchange some dollars, which duly occurred at Lloyd’s Bank), Hart’s memorandum just devotes one sentence to ter Braak’s time at 11 Montague Road, and does not discuss the circumstances of his departure at all.

The ‘Suicide’

The investigation into ter Braak’s death was beset with contradiction and controversy immediately his body was found. It was perhaps a bit hasty of Liddell to record confidently in his diary on that day, before any official police report or inquest the following assertions: “He had evidently shot himself and had been dead some 36 hours. His Dutch papers were out of order and did not show any authority to land. He had lived in Cambridge for about four months [thus echoing the erroneous Police calculation]. He had arrived about 4th November with a small suitcase and parcel.” Such a conclusion would have required the Cambridge Police to have traced ter Braak’s residence through two rentals in the space of a few hours. Yet that unit did not deliver its report on finding the body until April 4, the day of the coroner’s inquest. Amazingly, that report declares that the first landlady’s address was determined only through ascertaining that the suit that ter Braak was wearing had been bought at the Fifty Shilling Tailors in Petty Cury, and the purchaser had given his name and address of 58 Barnabas Road, Cambridge. The report continues: “Detective-Inspector Ernest Bird went with Captain Hughes and Detective Sergeant Robinson to that address, and interviewed the occupier.” The officers then had to make ‘continued enquiries’ to trace the suitcases in the Left Luggage Office, as well as tracking down and interviewing ter Braak’s second landlady. This constituted an impressive piece of work by the Cambridge constabulary, in order to be prepared for the April 4 inquest.

Liddell appeared to be on top of the case, and have paranormal insight, as he recorded the following in his April 3 entry: “There is no doubt that he was the parachutist who was reported to have come down near Bletchley. We have obtained his wireless set which was in the cloak-room of Cambridge Railway station.” It appears he had been kept informed by Robertson, who in another memorandum written on April 2, indicates that Mr. Hughes, the Regional Officer at Cambridge, had spoken to him on the telephone the previous evening, informing him that the police had spoken to the first landlady (only). Hughes called again on that morning (April 2) to let Robertson know that they had found ter Braak’s possessions at the station. But at that time they had not yet interviewed Miss Greenwood: Liddell should not have been able to know for certain that ter Braak had resided in Cambridge ‘for about four months’ as he stated in his April 1 diary entry. He clearly anticipated the error from the April 4 report.

In any case, MI5 was preparing single-mindedly for a quick and clean inquest. As early as April 2, Brigadier-General Jasper Harker, Deputy Director-General, wrote a letter to the coroner W.R. Wallis, pointing out how delicate the case was, and how grateful he was to Wallis for consenting to take the case in camera. ‘We have in our possession information which satisfies us beyond any doubt that the deceased was an enemy agent’, he wrote, an extraordinarily premature claim if it had been based on materials found on ter Braak’s body, and definitely not yet in the possession of MI5. Harker continued: “You will appreciate that it is of paramount importance that no report of any kind should be published with reference to the proceedings before you”, adding that the Home Office had approved MI5’s request for secrecy. All went off very smoothly. Dixon was able to report to Dick White that ‘I am pleased to say that the Coroner’s inquest went off very successfully, Brigadier Harker’s letter helping in no small degree.” The target of Jane Archer’s lampoonery had come through.

Yet the facts of the death should have provoked some deep questions. The police report said that the body had first been found by an electrician who had entered the air-raid shelter to complete electric installation at 11 am on the 1st April. “He had at once telephoned the police. Nothing had been disturbed by him.” Police photographers then took pictures of the body, which was then removed: a list of possessions found on the body was made. Yet when After the Battle published the results of its investigation in 1976, it told how its researcher had interviewed Mrs. Alice Stutley, who had been Air Raid Shelter Marshal for her area in 1941. She told her interviewer that she had been walking her dog in the park, Christ’s Pieces, where six air-raid shelters stood. At about 9 a.m. a small boy came up to her and said that there was a dead man in the second shelter. She at first took the observation as an April Fool’s Day joke, but, when the lad persisted, inspected the site herself, confirmed that a corpse was there, and informed the police, who likewise thought she was jesting. When he finally agreed, she showed him the body. She heard nothing more until that evening, when she received a knock on the door, and two unidentified men asked her if she was the one who had found the body. ‘When she said she was they warned her in no uncertain terms to keep it to herself and not to say a word to anybody”.

Christ’s Pieces, Cambridge

Yet they were too late. Apparently, the next day the Cambridge News contained details of the discovery (according to After the Battle), but they were withdrawn after an urgent call from the Ministry of Information, the government department responsible for censorship. In the 1974 interview, Mrs Stutley told the investigator that the fact that the name of the dead man was ter Braak and that he was a German spy was ‘common knowledge amongst the older residents of the area’. And small boys talk.

But now we come to the most arresting part of the story. I present the photographs of the corpse here – the pictures that the authorities might cause ‘some distress’. In his words, Mrs Stutley also told the investigator the following: “She found the body of a man, dressed in a dark overcoat, horn-rim glasses and black homberg (sic) hat, wedged tightly underneath one of the fixed slatted seats. She could see no pistol but it was evident that he had been shot in the head.” Unless Mrs Stutley had some strangely defective vision, which allowed her to see accurately the details of ter Braak’s body but not the weapon a foot in front of it, or had some inexplicable reason to lie, her evidence would suggest that the weapon was not present when she inspected the corpse, but must have been later planted next to it.

Ter Braak’s Corpse

Apart from that, one cannot look at the sad photograph without thinking: how could a man who committed suicide manage to wedge himself underneath a seat after he shot himself? And, as the police report informs us, ‘a bullet wound was traced above the left ear’. Even an amateur criminologist could point out that, in order for a suicide to shoot himself in the left side of his temple, he would have to be left-handed. Was that so? Did a graphologist ever study the writing in his letter to the Feltham Food Office (shown below), or ask his landladies whether they noted how he wrote? To me, the slant of the words in his letter suggests the script of a right-hander, but should that not have received expert analysis? Was the weapon inspected for any fingerprints? The report tells us that it was a Browning Automatic Revolver, No 468225, Calibre 7F/M55. Did the bullet-hole match the calibre of the pistol? And was the weapon traceable? It certainly looks like a Browning High Power, manufactured in Belgium under German control from 1940: did MI5 record whether such a device was found on other agents?  As I noted earlier, the report on Gösta Caroli tells us that he carried an unnamed German revolver, and the After the Battle story, in its more fanciful exposé of ter Braak’s room being searched, relates that a Luger was found in his possessions. Whatever the real facts were, the whole process of the post-mortem shows an extraordinary slackness and naivety. Perhaps the authorities though they would get away with it, as they believed the photographs would never come to light, and that they had instantly hushed the source of any dissent and rumour that might shed light on the true circumstances of ter Braak’s death.

Ter Braak’s Letter to Feltham Food Office

Certainly, there were circumstances that might have led ter Braak to consider suicide: he was running out of money, the Food Office was tightening up on his papers, and he may have felt abandoned if and when he ventured out at night to make contact with someone who could provide him with money, and no help came. Why did he cover himself in newspapers, no doubt to keep warm, if he had already considered killing himself as an option? Did he consider all hope gone when he failed to make contact with another parachutist? That seems unlikely, as none was scheduled to help him: Richter was dropped later to verify whether TATE had been turned, not to help ter Braak. Did he receive guidance to make a rendez-vous with SNOW, perhaps, and was then ambushed? Was another agent actually scheduled to parachute in, like Fackenheim, but was frustrated by the weather? These questions may remain unanswerable unless further documents are released.

Yet indications that the death was not actually a suicide can be seen in later memoranda concerning the case. On September 11, 1941, while Robertson was charged in carrying out a deeper investigation, he sent a message to Hughes of B.3.b (responsible for liaison with RSS) that included the sentence that I quoted earlier: “This investigation is in connection with the Cambridge ‘suicide’ and while I believe you may have had some general enquiries made I think that these new suggestions may narrow down our field of search considerably and prove more fruitful.” The appearance of the word ‘suicide’ in quotation-marks is a clear expression that the word should not be taken literally. Three days later, Hughes echoes and reinforces the notion, showing that he is another in the know: “With regard to your note of the 11th Sept. concerning the possible workings in connection with the Cambridge ‘suicide’ case, the Controller, R.S.S. replies that they are doing what they can with extracted records, but that the original traffic of that period has been destroyed.” But the coroner had given his verdict. Why should the MI5 officers question it? The weeders of the archive were as careless as Robertson and Hughes were in their missives.

Thus, if ter Braak was not a suicide, who was responsible? Was he murdered by a person or persons unknown, with MI5 deciding that it would be too dangerous to bring his case into the open? The reactions of Liddell and others after the incident suggest not. The only other explanation is that MI5 engineered an extrajudicial killing since it had no reasonable alternative.

MI5’s Blunder

“It is not altogether fanciful to speculate how much more happy and more useful his career might have been if he [ter Braak] could have fallen into the hands of the Security Service and become a double agent.” (Sir John Masterman, in The Double-Cross System, Chapter 3)

A possible sequence of events leading to such a decision could run as follows. When it learned of the imminent arrival of another agent, MI5, instead of making the immediate step of preparing to arrest him, and interrogate him in order to determine whether he could be turned, or would have to be executed, decided on a new ploy. It would watch the agent’s actions and movements, to try to discover exactly what his mission was, the substance of the messages he passed back to Germany, and whether he had any contacts in the country. It is possible that this strategy was promoted by Frost, opposed by Archer and perhaps Robertson, but gained a measure of support from Liddell, who managed to sell the proposal upwards to Harker and Swinton. This strategy meant that a select number of agencies (one or two RSLOs, Police, rental office, landlords, Food Offices, etc.) would have to be brought into the subterfuge. No doubt ter Braak’s messages were picked up by RSS, and analysed, but a stop was put on them. For a while, the project progressed smoothly. But then matters started to get out of control. The spy’s wireless stopped functioning. The problems with the ration cards began to extend to a broader base of officials, which meant that it was becoming increasingly difficult to allow him to survive unchallenged. Bombing casualties could perhaps be attributed to him. Yet there was also pressure from the RSLOs for more disclosure, and greater control. How would they react if they learned that they had not been taken into their bosses’ confidence, and that MI5 senior officers had tried to deceive them? So something had be done with ter Braak.  But what?

It was too late to try to turn him, as, even if he had become compliant, the Abwehr would wonder why an agent who was desperately running out of battery power and money had suddenly come to life again. MI5 could not now arrange a trial, as it would bring the spotlight on to the circumstances as to how the country’s security defences had failed by allowing a parachutist to evade dragnets, identity checks, ration-book requirements, and police surveillance for so many months. When the story got out, it would make MI5 a laughing-stock, and heads would surely roll. So the obvious answer was to eliminate ter Braak. Masterman’s observation (above) now appears cynical rather than sympathetic.

There could have been a precedent for such an action a short time before. As I outlined above, Gösta Caroli (SUMMER) tried to strangle his minder on January 13, 1941, and then attempted an escape with a canoe on a motor-cycle towards the North Sea. He was soon captured, but he had clearly broken his commitments, and would have been a constant danger because of what he knew and where his true allegiances still lay. (He had attempted suicide on October 11, 1940.) The conventional story is that Caroli was incarcerated (at Huntercombe, 020R, a reserve camp for Latchmere House), and then repatriated to Sweden after the war. Yet this account is suspiciously contradictory, as Nigel West, in Seven Spies Who Changed the World, tells us that Caroli was interned at Camp WX on the isle of Man.  Elsewhere, West writes in MI5: “SUMMER was deported to Sweden at the end of hostilities and found a job in an agricultural seed firm near Malmo. His health deteriorated gradually and he died in 1975, having spent his final ten years in a wheelchair.” Yet Hinsley’s official history has no trace of SUMMER after his arrest, and his file at TNA stops abruptly at the same point. If the Double-Cross System had to remain a secret until 1972, why would the British have allowed a renegade from it to return to his homeland to talk about it?

The prolonged incarceration and repatriation might well be a ‘legend’ created by MI5, especially given the confusion that MI5 officers may have generated through the conflicting accounts that they leaked to journalists and historians. For other writers point to a more grisly end. In his book The Druid, Nicholas Mosley presents the following commentary: “He [Cassio = SUMMER = Caroli] was indeed dead, but not by suicide. After his capture, the English had put him on trial for espionage and at Birmingham prison, in the first week of February, 1941, he had been hanged. Every old lag in the jail was talking about it. It was one of the executions the British had carefully not made public, in case someone in Germany wondered exactly what had happened to Cassio between his landing in Britain and his death four months later. But you couldn’t stop warders and released prisoners from talking.” And, in a more serious work, Time-Life’s The Secret War (1981), the author, Francis Russell, writes: ‘For his effort, Summer met the traditional fate of the spy – execution’. Unfortunately, it is not clear what the source for this claim is: Russell acknowledges a number of distinguished intelligence experts who assisted him, but none of his statements is individually attributed.   (The Swedish biographers of TATE, Tommy Jonason & Simon Olsson, attribute to Nigel West the fact that Caroli was imprisoned at Huntercombe after the Isle of Man, but West in fact makes no such claim, as I have recently discovered, having acquired the book. Mysteriously, given their nationality, Jonason and Olsson offer no details of Caroli’s supposed return to Sweden, listing in their Bibliography only an unpublished manuscript by themselves on the short-lived double agent.  Their only photographs of him are sourced to a Claes Caroli, but are from Gösta’s pre-arrest period.)

Gosta Caroli

Hinsley does indeed refer to SUMMER in terms suggesting he was still alive in November 1941, when Swinton, the chief of the Security Executive, held discussions with MI5, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Attorney-General, on what should be done with double-agents whose career had come to an end, specifically about SUMMER and GANDER. But that minute should perhaps not be trusted: it was fearfully late to be discussing what to do with SUMMER when he had tried to abscond to Germany ten months beforehand: he was either incarcerated or dead by then. Ironically, in March 1941, MI5 recorded the opinion that executions were wasteful, and that ‘intelligence should have precedence over blood-letting’. Hinsley notes that MI5 was ‘also fearful of the damage to security that might follow from the fact that, as was inevitable when a spy was put on trial, the Press demanded maximum publicity about the case’.

What represent solid evidence to support the idea that Caroli could have been murdered are entries from Liddell’s Diary. On January 16, 1941 (i.e. immediately after Caroli’s desperate escape attempt, which Liddell recorded graphically the day that it occurred), Liddell noted: “We had a long discussion this morning about SUMMER’s future and that of the other people with whom he has been associated. We have all come to the conclusion that somehow or other SUMMER must be eliminated.” And on February 3, he added, concerning how parachutists should be handled: “It was agreed that V.V. [Valentine Vivian, of SIS] and I should make representations to Swinton that bumping off should be the exception rather than the rule.” This crude language, not suggestive of a formal trial and sentencing, indicates that an exception had probably already been made. A week later, he discussed the matter with the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Davidson, who appeared to support the notion that a case for ‘bumping off’ agents should be prepared by Liddell and Vivian. The archives show that executions would be the order of the day if an invasion occurred, but these are the clearest indications that extrajudicial killing was considered acceptable when captured spies could not yet be considered part of an enemy military force.

And is it possible that MI5 was influenced by the case of Krivitsky, the Soviet defector whom Liddell and others had interrogated just a year beforehand? On February 10, just as the whole ter Braak saga was winding down to its embarrassing conclusion, Krivitsky was found dead in a Washington hotel, very probably a victim of a murder by Stalin’s Special Tasks force made to look like a suicide. If these were extraordinary times, and the risks to the security and success of the whole Double-Cross operation could be multiplied by careless talk from a bitter ex-double agent in prison, maybe the ‘wet business’ (mokrie dyela) of the NKVD should be imitated. For MI5 had indeed dug itself a large hole in its management of ter Braak, and an obvious ‘suicide’, and quick and secret inquest would be the cleanest solution to its quandary.

Lastly, MI5 had some unfinished business to attend to. It had to account for the intolerable leaks in security that had allowed ter Braak to remain undetected, and ensure the correct disciplinary action was undertaken, and it had to make discrete arrangements for the disposal of ter Braak’s body. Lord Swinton wanted a full inquiry. But this was obviously a time for mercy. On May 7, 1941, Dick White, on behalf of B.2, drafted a letter to be sent to the RSLOs that drew attention to the lessons learned from the exercise, and identified the failings of the Cambridge officer involved. Liddell approved it, but added that he was very anxious that the RSLOs ‘should not make use of it in such a way as to pillory the Cambridge police’. David Petrie reinforced this motion of tolerance, and wrote a letter to Swinton, in which he explained that it was ‘the human element’ that failed, and repeated the need not to ‘pillory’ the Cambridge police.  The eventual cover memorandum clearly put the blame ‘almost wholly on the slackness of the Assistant Aliens Officer’ but the clause that ‘It is not, however desired that the conduct of the Cambridge Police should be singled out for condemnation’ was underlined in the letter. Thus the unfortunate office – who must surely have been receiving guidance from his superiors – was not unjustly dealt with, and the much greater failings of the security infrastructure, including the bewildering inefficiency of the RSS to detect illicit wireless signals, were conveniently overlooked.

As for the disposal of ter Braak, the archive is silent after the inquest, but investigative journalism thirty-three years later, as reported in After the Battle, unveiled an eerie tale of switched bodies and curious reporters trying to chase down the burial. In summary, John O’Hannan, a funeral director at the time, was asked by the police to move the body from the shelter, and sworn to silence, but he believed that one of his assistants informed the Press, whose members pestered him. Instructed to bury the body in an unmarked grave when the Coroner’s certificate was issued, he switched the body with that of another suicide in order to distract reporters, and moved the corpse to the church at Great Shelford, three miles south of Cambridge, where he had made arrangements with the vicar. “At 9:00 a.m. on April 7, Ter Braak was buried, attended only by the Vicar, the gravedigger, Mr Duisly the clerk and Mr. O’Hannan.” Recently, the town of Great Shelford has researched ter Braak’s death, and given him public recognition. (see https://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/nazi-spy-who-getting-gravestone-13257650)

Ter Braak’s Grave at Great Shelford

In summary, MI5’s collusion in ter Braak’s fate can be described as follows:

  • Liddell betrayed the fact that he knew of ter Braak’s impending arrival
  • A probable clash between Archer and Liddell over policy was concealed
  • Robertson disclosed the fact that ter Braak was being considered for XX work
  • The procedures for informing RSLOs were bypassed
  • Ter Braak, unlike other agents, was not pursued vigorously
  • Ter Braak’s identity card was not checked
  • Ter Braak’s transmissions were ignored
  • MI5 officers made imaginative assessments of ter Braak’s radio usage
  • Ter Braak’s problems with ration cards were suppressed
  • MI5 did not discuss ter Braak’s fugitive problems with RSLOs
  • Ter Braak’s suspicious movements were ignored
  • The finding of ter Braak’s corpse was mismanaged and its state misrepresented
  • Liddell accepted too hastily the report of suicide
  • The Cambridge Police Report was anticipated by Liddell and Harker
  • MI5 showed secretive and inappropriate haste over the inquest
  • MI5 tried to silence news reports
  • The authorities showed indulgence over serious breaches of security protocol
  • Petrie and Swinton tried to draw attention away from the errors of Cambridge Police
  • Robertson and others referred elliptically to a ‘suicide’
  • Hart was encouraged to write a mendacious report

Conclusions

MI5’s problem was that it conceived, despite opposition, an imaginative but risky plan, and then failed to think through the consequences.  If it tried to manipulate and monitor an enemy agent, what happened when that agent outlived his usefulness? Great Britain was not a totalitarian state, with arbitrary powers of arrest and execution: the rule of law applied.  At the time, one can understand, perhaps, why its officers felt ashamed at such a lapse in ‘fair play’ in dealing so savagely with a dangerous element whom they had toyed with. Hence the enormous cover-up. Yet, in looking back from seventy-seven years ahead, one could wonder what other choice they had. The deed paled in comparison with what the NKVD and Gestapo were doing at the time – or even with the murders and executions that some SOE agents would soon be performing in France.

The confidentiality of the Double-Cross System – even though MI5’s officers did not then understand how vital it would turn out to be for the winning of the war – would surely have been at stake if it had ever become public that Britain’s Security Service had actually acted as a puppet-master for German spies airlifted into Britain. If they had simply recommended to Special Branch that ter Braak be arrested, even if he were eventually executed, it would have been impossible to keep the lid on the whole exercise. Yet the notion of extrajudicial – even legal – execution, was apparently such an anathema to the culture of Britain’s counterespionage officers (despite Liddell’s casual aside about a ‘shooting-case’) that they must have had some deep misgivings over the whole episode. Liddell’s admissions in his Diaries show that such decisions were not taken lightly, and required approval at higher levels. They learned their lesson, however: no more monitored agents were allowed to roam at large, and the next two who arrived, Jakobs (who parachuted in on January 31, 1941) and Richter (May 13), went fairly promptly to the firing-range and the gallows respectively.

The Abwehr’s lack of interest in the ter Braak case is puzzling. No doubt the news of the ‘suicide’ reached it in some way at the time, as Ritter and Co. would have needed to know of a convincing explanation as to why their agent had stopped communicating, but did not appear to have been arrested. Maybe SNOW was able to pass on a ‘rumour’. Yet why, after the war, Abwehr officers claimed no knowledge of who he was, both Ritter in Hamburg and Sensburg in Brussels, even though ter Braak was given an identity card number provided by SNOW, and the obvious (too obvious?) evidence of activity in Brussels was provided with the parachute paraphernalia, remains a conundrum. Perhaps ter Braak really had been on a mission of such dastardliness that the interrogated officers believed it might hurt their chances if they admitted to knowledge of it. On the other hand, their interrogators did not really press them on the subject. That question may have to remain a mystery.

As for the RSS, it was vindicated. No doubt it did pick up all the signals that ter Braak sent before his batteries ran out, but, when they were sent to the headquarters at Arkley, the monitors were guided not to be concerned about them, to the extent of using direction-finding equipment to locate them precisely, or even sending out sniffer-vans. The messages themselves, however, were no doubt closely inspected, and probably deciphered, since ter Braak would have been using a cipher-wheel similar to that issued to TATE. At the same time, the fact that an Abwehr agent had been able to evade British detection-finding equipment for many weeks would have been a convenient message for MI5 to have acknowledged by its counterparts as it tried to maintain the illusion of a flawed system of radio interception in the country. And that, of course, is the most significant underlying discovery of this whole research exercise, the saga of the ‘Mystery of the Undetected Radios’.

So was this irregular outcome the ‘Greek tragedy’ hinted at in Curry’s report at the end of the war? Probably not. It all happened before the transfer of RSS to SIS, and, if there had been an aberrant directive to Arkley on the investigation of illicit domestic traffic, it would have been engineered by MI5. The reporting structure of RSS was at that time irrelevant. SIS can in no way be held responsible for what happened, unless a malign influence on MI5’s policy towards foreign agents was somehow exercised by such as Claude Dansey. (We should perhaps recall that Dansey had, with MI5’s connivance, recently engineered Soviet spy SONIA’s British citizenship and passport, giving her the right to leave Switzerland and enter the UK as an observed agent.) Such a hypothesis, however, would push speculation too far into undocumented conspiracy theory. We are left, however, with the bewildering story of Malcolm Frost’s being airbrushed out of history, like one of Stalin’s commissars.

Finally, the archive itself. For those researchers who claim that archives alone can tell us what really happened, this exercise has an ambiguous message. The whole ter Braak/Fukken dossier has an unreal air about it, as if it had been carefully selected and crafted to display a solid and incontrovertible story. Superficially, it does just that, with the memoranda about missed opportunities, and flawed systems, and inattentive watchdogs, and all-too-human failure, embellished by realistic accounts of inquests, exchanges with bureaucrats, photographs of a corpse, and statements by experts into subjects such as wireless messaging. Yet a deeper inspection reveals all the contradictions, anomalies and misrepresentations that are bound to occur when a broad conspiracy is under way, and too many persons are involved. Maybe we should treat the release of the whole file as a challenge by MI5 and the Home Office, and whatever other authorities were involved. Maybe they intended to say: “Look. Enough time has passed. The clues are here. Work out what really happened. Revealing the secret really no longer affects the security of the country, or the reputation of MI5. All the participants are now dead. Go ahead.”

On the other hand, it could simply be that so much institutional memory has been lost that no one understands the complications behind these fragmentary documents any more.                                 © Antony Percy, 2018

(I am again grateful to Dr. Brian Austin for his advice on wireless matters. The opinions here are my own. Readers may be interested in a fictionalised account of ter Braak’s time in Cambridge by Tony Rowland, titled Traitor Lodger German Spy, now available in paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Traitor-Lodger-German-Tony-Rowland/dp/1912309475/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1537892509&sr=8-1&keywords=tony+rowland+spy  I have deliberately delayed reading this work until I completed this month’s posting.)

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

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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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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 II, 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?

(* I have since discovered that Anthony Blunt is one of the featured spies in West’s book. October 1, 2018)

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-Hines 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?

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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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