NIHIL ARCANUM MIHI ALIENUM EST
When I first started planning this bulletin, I had imagined that Sylvia, Julia and I would be leaving North Carolina for California for a couple of weeks over Thanksgiving, departing on November 18, and that I would thus not be able to publish any intensive research this month. We then learned that our son’s new house, being built in Los Altos, would not be occupiable until late November, so we had to postpone our visit until mid-December. The tragic fires in the state have imposed additional stresses on Pacific Gas and Electric, which has accordingly been tardy in installing the power-lines for the house (which involved digging a trench under the road). PG&E may not be the best managed utility in the country, but others’ suffering has been unimaginable, and we must all be patient.
Nevertheless, I decided that I needed a break from the more intensive and exhausting work that a segment like the study of the House of Peierls demanded, and I am using this opportunity to bring readers up-to-date on a number of research projects.
The BBC and Christopher Andrew
One of my most intense recent frustrations has to do with the behaviour of the BBC, specifically the editors of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, and what I have called the ‘grandstanding’ of Sir Christopher Andrew, who is wheeled out by the corporation when it wants to add gravitas to some segment on intelligence. The matter in question concerns an intelligence officer, Eric Roberts, who was informed in 1947 by Guy Liddell of suspicions about a senior MI6 officer’s being a Soviet mole, but was then apparently strongly discouraged from saying anything further in 1949, when he (Roberts) returned from an assignment in Vienna. The easiest way for me to explain the saga here is to reproduce part of the text that I sent to Sarah Sands, the current editor of Today. (She was not Editor when the segment in question was aired, but I would claim that she holds a professional responsibility on behalf of her predecessors.)
“The story was issued by Sanchia Berg on July 14, 2015, and the related Magazine entry can be seen at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33414358 . It concerns a letter that Eric Roberts, an MI5 field agent, wrote to Harry Lee, an old friend, in the late 1960s. Sir Christopher Andrew is quoted as commenting: ‘It’s the most extraordinary intelligence document I’ve ever seen. It’s 14 pages long – it will keep conspiracy theorists going for another 14 years. It’s a mixture of fact and fiction and the other thought I have is to be desperately sorry for the individual who wrote it.’
Now, I suspect that you will agree that, in order for the ‘conspiracy theorists’ (itself an odd, and disparaging, term for the authorised historian of MI5 to use) to be kept busy, the letter would have to become publicly available for inspection. A research colleague of mine approached Ms. Berg, asking about the letter’s availability. Her reply was evasive, maintaining that, as far as she knew, the family had not published the letter in full, and suggesting we consult ‘Agent Jack’, by Robert Hutton, for possible further extracts. Hutton does indeed quote from Roberts’s letter, but provides no clue as to its whereabouts, and our attempts to contact him on the matter have remained unanswered.
We thus next contacted Sir Christopher himself, and were astonished to receive his reply, by email, part of which ran as follows: “Sorry, I don’t have a clear recollection of this document.” Given the significance that he imparted to the document only four years ago, it seems inexplicable to me that Sir Christopher could have so easily forgotten about it. And, in view of the fact that he is regarded as the doyen of intelligence historians, I believe those of us who toil without such publicity deserve greater consideration than he offers us by what I can only describe as irresponsible behaviour. I know of other prominent researchers in this field who resent Sir Christopher’s constant criticism of anyone whose research into intelligence penetration contradicts his often erroneous conclusions.
I wonder, therefore, whether it is timely for you to enter the ring, to contact Sir Christopher about his high-handed behaviour, to ask him to offer the world an explanation, to re-consider using him for such promotional purposes in the future, and perhaps to engage other academics and historians who would provide a more insightful opinion on intelligence matters. Most important of all, however, I should like you and Ms. Berg to provide to the public the letter so vigorously advertised by your programme.”
I sent this letter, both by email and by airmail, on October 9. I never received any acknowledgment, let alone a reply. On October 28, I accordingly sent a letter to both Mohit Bakaya, Controller of Radio 4, and Bob Shennan, Director of BBC Radio, requesting them to intervene and give me a response. Four weeks later, I have heard nothing. Between them, three BBC’s executives trousering annually well over half a million pounds of license fee money from the public cannot organise themselves even to send out an acknowledgment of a letter from a member of the public. True, I am not a license-payer, but BBC promotes its brand strongly overseas, and I am a UK tax-payer. (The BBC website knows where I live from my TCP/IP address, and thus prevents me from viewing recent videos from the cricket coverage, yet it does send me annoying pop-up windows inviting me to participate in a survey. I thus feel entitled to offer the institution my opinions.)
It seems to me that, if Sir Christopher Andrew is too senile to provide continuity and enlightenment in these matters, his contract with the BBC should be terminated. And if he has been muzzled by MI5 because of its discomfort over the revelations, he should disqualify himself from any further involvement since he can no longer provide objective analysis. So what do I do next? Invoke the Curse of Gnome, and appeal to Private Eye? Organise a demonstration in Trafalgar Square? Chain myself to the railings at Broadcasting House? Engage the support of Greta Thunberg?
On November 26th, I decided to try to call Mr Shennan in person. First, I inspected the ‘Contact’ button on the BBC website, but the last thing the BBC wants members of the public to do is actually ‘contact’ any of its precious executives, so you will find no telephone numbers there. ‘Contact’ in BBC-speak means reading the institution’s ‘how to’ guides. By pressing the ‘Complaints’ tab, however, I did find a number to call, in Darlington, with the disturbing rubric ‘charged as geographic numbers’ (I do not know what that means), so I decided to call the main switchboard at Broadcasting House, and asked to be put through to Mr. Brennan. After the operator took down my particulars, so that I could be introduced appropriately to Mr. Brennan’s PA, I was soon talking to that lady. After I explained my mission, she told me that Mr. Brennan has since been promoted. I had noticed that he is now a member of the Executive Board, but wondered, since my letter had also gone to Sarah Sands and Mohit Bakaya, why none of the three could have responded. A positive signal, however – the PA remembered my letter, and had in fact sent it to ‘Audience Services’. I expressed my alarm that, without some person with authority taking responsibility for tracking its progress, my letter might disappear in another Reithian or Birtian labyrinth, and reminded the good woman that, since the BBC had my email address, it did not have to rely on the slow transatlantic postal traffic (a factor she had brought up as a reason for the tardiness in response) to keep me informed of progress. She committed to be that pointperson: we shall see.
Meanwhile, Robert Hutton’s book about Eric Roberts, Agent Jack, was published this month in the USA, and I received my copy forty years to the day after Anthony Blunt’s pardon was disclosed. (Forty Years On – what a great title for a play!) I immediately turned to the pages where the exchanges between Guy Liddell and Roberts are recorded, and reproduce their contents as follows. Before Roberts left for Austria in 1947 (no specific date offered), on secondment to MI6 (SIS), Liddell ‘hinted that he suspected MI6 might have been penetrated by the Soviets’. On his return in 1949 (‘after just over year’, which suggests a late 1947 departure), dispirited from a fruitless mission trying to inveigle Soviet intelligence to approach him, Roberts talked to Liddell again, looking for career advice. But Liddell ‘changed the subject’, and wanted to know whether Roberts suspected that MI5 had itself been infiltrated by a traitor. He followed up by asking Roberts how he thought MI5 might have been penetrated.
The conversation prompted Roberts to reflect on the time he had confided to Dick Brooman-White, another officer in MI5, that he suspected two MI5 men might be working for the Abwehr. (Infuriatingly, the encounter is undated: all that Hutton writes is ‘not long after he began working for Rothschild’, which suggests early 1941.) One of the men was in Maxwell Knight’s department, and the other was ‘a man with access to some of MI5’s greatest secrets’. At the time, Brooman-White ridiculed his suspicions, saying (with unconscious irony): “You will be suspecting Victor Rothschild next!” According to Andrew Boyle, Brooman-White, who died in 1964, went to his grave firmly believing in Philby’s innocence, so he was perhaps not the best judge of character. Apparently, Roberts did not share this anecdote with Liddell in 1949, but when he suggested to him that the ‘perfect spy’ would ‘be a member of one or two of the most exclusive clubs’, and thus have an unimpeachable reputation, Liddell went very silent, and the conversation came to a close. The two men never spoke again.
(Can traitors be detected by their habits? In an article on John le Carré in the Times Literary Supplement of November 8, the writer of spy fiction Mick Herron recalls that his father, when watching the first scene of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on television in 1979 immediately identified Bill Haydon (as played by Ian Richardson) as the traitor because he entered the room carrying a cup of tea, on which he had balanced a saucer, to prevent spillage. “That’s a strange way of carrying his tea”, said Herron pêre. “I bet he’s the traitor.” P.S. I have never read any of Mick Herron’s books. Mark Amory’s enthusiasm for him in the Spectator’s Books of the Year segment suggests that I should.)
Years later, in 1968, when Roberts had retired to an island off Vancouver, he was visited by Barry Russell Jones of MI5, who presented him with a sealed envelope that contained the name of a man who had confessed to being as Soviet spy four years earlier, ‘in return for a guarantee of anonymity and immunity from prosecution’. The name was, of course, Anthony Blunt, the same person whom Roberts had identified to Brooman-White. As Hutton observes: “He now believed he had got the country for whom the man was spying wrong, but not the identity of the agent.” Blunt had been recruited as Liddell’s personal assistant.
Thus it must have been all too poignant for Liddell in 1949. As attentive readers of Misdefending the Realm will recall, Liddell was very aware of Soviet penetration of MI5, since Blunt – alongside Leo Long – had been discovered stealing secrets during the war, and had been let go with a slap on the wrist and a spot of gardening-leave. And, early in 1949, MI5 was deep in the inquiry into the leakages from the British Embassy, prompted by the VENONA traffic, that would lead to the unmasking of Donald Maclean. Moreover, it was clear that MI5 had been building a file on Kim Philby, whose possible guilt had been strengthened by the mysterious Volkov incident in 1945, and the increase in radio traffic between London and Moscow immediately after Volkov’s attempt to flee to the West. It was all starting to unravel for Liddell. Moreover, it sounds as if MI5 and SIS had performed a deal whereby SIS would stay silent about Blunt if MI5 kept quiet about Philby.
Yet we still do not have the transcripts of the letters that so excited Christopher Andrew. Material to keep the conspiracy theorists active for years? So far just old-fashioned clues, traditional digging at the coalface, and confirmation of cover-ups. In other words, routine business in the world of intelligence.
At the end of the month, I completed my reading of Agent Jack. Robert Hutton has written a very engaging and accessible account, in the style of Ben Macintyre, of a story that needs to be told. But I wonder whether he has missed the larger point. The ‘Fifth Column’ that MI5 encouraged was a fantasy of Victor Rothschild and Guy Liddell, sustained by a blatant provocation exercise. It was dominated by some veritable fruitcakes, and it did contain some potentially dangerous Nazi enthusiasts, including some German nationals who never should have been allowed to work on sensitive weapons programmes where they were able to purloin or copy important material. But neither the Abwehr nor the Wehrmacht ever knew of their existence, and no information passed on to Roberts ever reached Nazi hands. The artificial group was never a true ‘Fifth Column’.
Moreover, the project sheds searching light on the characters and motivation of Liddell and Rothschild. Liddell is again shown to be a man of straw, who allowed matters to drift because he did not want to face the implications of the entrapment: at some stage, MI5 would have to recommend that that the offenders be arrested. But a highly skeptical Home Office would demand that an open trial be carried out, whereupon both the identity of Roberts and the nature of the illegal provocation exercise would come to light. Thus Liddell and Rothschild ignored the obvious, and tried to continue the program even after the war was over as a default from taking any decision at all. Petrie, White and Hollis were all critical of the operation, and wanted it closed down, and the perpetrators prosecuted. But Liddell waffled, and Rothschild temporised, not considering the possible outcomes of a highly controversial provocation game. After the war, Rothschild omitted any mention of the operation in his in-house history of the department.
Rothschild’s motivations must be carefully scrutinised, however. Here was the leader of MI5’s anti-sabotage group (B1c) taking control of what was effectively a counter-espionage project, one that should strictly have been managed by Roger Hollis’s F Division. Moreover, Rothschild maintained separate, highly detailed files of all the several hundred persons who were part of Roberts’s ‘Fifth Column’ organisation. Hutton refers to the accusations made against Rothschild as a Soviet agent – something Rothschild strenuously denied in the Thatcher era, even misguidedly asking the Prime Minister to provide Sabine Lee-esque ‘proof’ that he had not been a spy – and also points out that fact that Rothschild’s crony, Anthony Blunt, turned out to be a dangerous Soviet agent. Yet Hutton never considers investigating whether Rothschild’s motives might have been to distract attention from the Soviet subversive threat, and prepare for his putative Moscow controllers a list of possibly dangerous opponents who would need to be eliminated.
In addition, Hutton, in his focus on the years of the ‘Fifth Column’ investigation, leaves unattended the hare that he scares out of Roberts’s experiences in Vienna, and who might have architected the utter failure of Roberts’s mission. Vienna was in 1947 and 1948 a very dangerous place, and to think that a bank-clerk with a gift for enticement in his own country could somehow star as a potential plant with Soviet intelligence was an exercise in self-delusion. Why would SIS have plucked Roberts from obscurity, and on what pretext would they have had him resident in Vienna? Sanchia Berg reported, citing Roberts’s letter, that he was ‘posing as a disaffected British civil servant and passing low-grade harmless information, to a Communist named Jellinek’, and that he, Roberts, then declined to meet a ‘star agent’ maintained by the SIS station chief, George Kennedy Young. Young revealed to Roberts a few weeks later that his ‘star agent’ turned out to be a Soviet spy, and Roberts credited Liddell’s advice for his evasion of the encounter.
Moreover, if Liddell confided to Roberts that he thought SIS had been penetrated, why on earth would he have encouraged Roberts to be recruited by SIS for a mission the security of which was highly questionable? And why would Roberts have accepted such an assignment in the knowledge that his recruiters contained a mole? It also seems bizarre that Barry Russell Jones would travel all the way to Vancouver to discuss Blunt’s pardon with Roberts. Was that, in itself, not a great security risk, especially if MI5 suspected that Roberts himself was a Soviet agent, as Roberts hinted at in his letter? What else had Roberts done to warrant such attention? Lastly, Young’s replacement in 1950 as station chief in Vienna was one Andrew King, who concealed his communist past from his superiors. Nigel West wrote, in The Friends (p 73), that Philby in 1946 ‘could not have had any illusions about keeping his Party membership concealed, for Andrew King, one of his contemporaries at Cambridge and another rising star in SIS, had attended Party meetings with him at Cambridge.’ Since Philby was stationed in Turkey in 1947, was it perhaps King whom Liddell was warning Roberts about?
There is a lot more to be told here, and I am analyzing it with one of my most supportive and dedicated coldspur colleagues – someone who understands well the mechanics of ‘dangling’ operations.
The House of Peierls
I have received some very positive reactions to last month’s segment on Rudolf Peierls. I was hoping for some challenges, as well, as I believed my piece might arouse some controversy. I had alerted Frank Close and Sabine Lee shortly before it appeared, but heard nothing from either of them. True, I had given up on Ms. Lee (Professor of Modern History and Head of School in History and Cultures at Birmingham University), as it was clear from her last message to me that she was clueless about the process of historical analysis and the establishment of ‘proofs’, but I expected some response from Professor Close. After all, he had been tutored by Peierls, was – and remains – an admirer, is in touch with Peierls family members, and had urgently encouraged me to drop my investigation into Peierls’s libel action. I had occasion to contact Close in the middle of the month with some questions about Bruno Pontecorvo, and asked him, in an aside, whether he had had a chance to read my article.
I was a bit dumbfounded by his response. He said he had ‘skimmed’ it. ‘Skimmed’, eh? That was all. Now, as some of my readers point out to me, my pieces are not easily read superficially. They call for either intense concentration, or icy disdain. Is it not extraordinary that an academic in Frank Close’s shoes, with his biographies of Pontecorvo and Fuchs published, and given Peierls’s close involvement in the affairs of both these men and of Alan Nunn May, would not show more intellectual interest in a piece that tries to evolve our understanding of what was going on in the parallel worlds of British and Soviet physics, and the intelligence subterfuges behind them – especially since Close has so stoutly defended Peierls’s innocence in the whole endeavor? In a way, I am not surprised. I have learned that persons – especially academics – who have found themselves on a lofty pedestal, but who harbour secret fears that they do not really deserve such recognition, frequently display such behaviour. Remarkably, Close and I continue to have cordial email exchanges about other matters of intelligence; yet any discussion of Peierls appears to be off limits. I refuse to consider myself insulted [are you sure? Ed.], and shall continue as if nothing were awry.
I learned from my days as a Gartner Group analyst that companies did not really care much when you got their story or strategy wrong, as in that case they complacently believed that they had hoodwinked you, and what they were up to remained a secret. What really upset them was the realisation that you had worked out the truth. I suspect I may have stumbled on a more accurate account of Peierls’s career, and that Close has been stunned into silence. Moreover, there is an amusing side to this process of ‘skimming’. The point I was asking Close about concerned an FBI document on Pontecorvo from December 1949: he replied that he was not aware of any such document. I pointed out the pages in Half Life where he had discussed it, and I believe he was a little humbled. We shall see what evolves: I should be very interested if any of the Peierls controversy comes up during the Skimmer’s forthcoming book-signing tour for Trinity. I am sure my spies on the ground will keep me informed.
I shall be returning to Peierls’s activities, concentrating on his time in the UK, and his associations with other scientists, especially with Max Born and Klaus Fuchs, in a future coldspur bulletin. As dedicated readers will recall, I analysed the efforts of Peierls and Born to secure Fuchs’s return to the UK from detention in Canada in Misdefending the Realm (pp 216-223), and it would probably be appropriate for me to reproduce that section on coldspur, as a segue to my next piece on Peierls. At the time of writing that segment of my book, I was using notes that I had taken from the Peierls-Born correspondence at the Bodleian. Sadly, I shall not now have access to that resource, or Peierls’s numerous other letters. Sabine Lee’s two volumes of the Peierls Letters (very expensive, poorly edited, and selected very much with a bias towards highly technical scientific exchanges) will be of little use, I fear. Christopher Laucht has written some interesting passages about Peierls’s correspondences in Elemental Germans, but my study will have to rely mostly on other sources until I can return to Oxford some time. I plan for the next chapter to appear on coldspur in February or March of next year.
RSS and the Undetected Radios
I had started gathering my research for the last episode of ‘The Undetected Radios’ when I came across (thanks to the photographic skills of my London-based researcher, Dr. Kevin Jones) some obscure files at the National Archives that covered aspects of the history of the Radio Security Service, as well as others that contained various interrogations of German intelligence officers after the war. While these files did nothing to contradict my main conclusions so far (that the tensions between MI5 and SIS over the RSS were more highly strung than portrayed, that both the RSS and the Abwehr/Funküberwachung greatly misrepresented the strength of their interception and direction-finding capabilities after the war, that agents were in many cases poorly trained and ill- prepared for infiltration into Europe, and were much more frequently discovered by local betrayal than through interception and location-finding, that SOE’s and SIS’ wireless equipment was often defective, that RSS’s general surveillance of illicit transmissions was very lax, and the state of Britain’s mobile-direction finding service feeble, and that the Double-Cross organisation acted very naively in managing its agents’ wireless communications), these archives certainly revealed some valuable new detail on some of the personalities and committees involved. I have thus decided to allocate one more chapter summarizing these findings before I cover the final six months of wireless activity up until D-Day. My current plan is to write this additional report in January of next year.
Maclean and Boyle
Regrettably, there is little to report on the Boyle-Gallienne connection (see http://www.coldspur.com/two-cambridge-spies-dutch-connections-1/ and http://www.coldspur.com/the-importance-of-chronology-with-special-reference-to-liddell-philby/ . National Archive files including Gallienne’s reports from Estonia are not revealing, and do not show any links between Soviet Intelligence, Krivitsky, and the ‘Imperial Council’ spy. My following up the rather feeble leads in the Boyle archive led me to an unresolved question about Liddell’s role in leaking information to writers such as Boyle, and an expressed intent to explore the Springhall archive in depth, a project not yet started. So this matter has had to be placed on the back-burner for a while.
Project ‘Hegira’ and the Double-Agents
I have recently been studying some of the lesser-known files at The National Archives. One of these, KV 4/211, was titled ‘Functions and Disposal of Special Agents in Event of Invasion of UK’. Well, that ‘Disposal’ was somewhat alarming, but I learned a fair amount about Project Hegira, which was designed at the beginning of 1941 as a procedure for ensuring that double agents, and other potentially dangerous individuals, would not be allowed to escape and inform the invaders of what MI5 had been up to. The file contains few sparkling revelations, although Hegira was a project that has not received the attention it deserves. You will find no mention of it in Christopher Andrew’s authorised History of MI5, nor in Nigel West’s unauthorised account of the story of the Security Service’s development.
One might have thought that MI5 had more important fish to fry than the safety or security exposures of having double agents ‘fall into the hands of the enemy’, as the introductory letter describes the problem, but, in early 1941, when there were only three named agents, it appeared to be a manageable problem. The fact that the project seemed unworkable was highlighted later by Cyril Mills in a long memorandum of March 25, 1943, when he wrote about the stretch on resources to handle all the agents, especially since Billy Luke had now left B1A. He recommended instead that all agents should be taken to Colonel Stevens’s Camp020 for incarceration, or to its back-up location in the country. But by then, the threat of invasion had receded.
Yet the file betrays some secrets. For those analysts still keen to portray MI5 as some kind of secret police organisation, it may come as a shock to learn that ‘Tar’ Robertson had to apply to the Special Branch to borrow five pairs of handcuffs (as well as pistols, and ammunition) to be used in the event of invasion. These had to be signed for, and duly returned, at the end of 1943, when the threat of an invasion had disappeared. All the letters and receipts are here to be inspected. It is difficult to think of the civil security service of any other country being forced to go through such bureaucratic procedures, and to document it all for posterity, providing evidence that all legal processes were being followed.
The plan was to secrete double agents and other dubious personages in Colwyn Bay, in North Wales, and hotels were identified for their accommodation. I suppose that such locations would have been the last place where the dastardly Nazis would have looked for their ‘Fifth Column’, but perhaps the agents would by then have suffered so much under their strict Methodist landladies that they would have been willing to talk to anyone. (I hasten to add that, despite my experiences with the University of Aberystwyth, I have nothing against what must be called ‘the Welsh Methodist Landlady community’.) But what is highly interesting is the identification of such agents in the memoranda and letters, as the latter reveal important facts about the existence of such persons at different times. Thus, in January 1941, the emphasis is on TATE, SNOW and STORK. Two months later, GANDER and SUMMER are listed. Soon after, reflecting capture of other agents, MUTT and JEFF are added, and, as the year goes on, we see the names of BALLOON and others.
I was familiar with most of these names, even such as VICTOIRE, who was a Frenchwoman of dubious character who had ‘escaped’ to Britain after betraying the Interallié network. She was not an exclusive MI5 ‘double agent’, as her fate – and expense of upkeep – was shared between MI5, SOE and SIS. (I have just finished David Tremain’s epic and encyclopaedic, but ultimately indigestible, Double Agent Victoire: Mathilde Carré and the Interallié Network, which describes a wilderness of subterfuge and double-dealing in French, Polish and British agent networks in France in 1941 and 1942, so I was well-armed.) But other names were puzzling.
Agent STORK, for instance. I could not recall ever reading about a double agent with the cryptonym STORK. Neither West, nor Andrew, nor even Ben Macintyre lists this person in their books. Yet here he was in KV 4/211, described as a Norwegian agent, accompanied by a wife and son, who would need to be evacuated to the fjords of North Wales. I found his name in one place, in Guy Liddell’s Diaries, and Nigel West, in his published version of the same, provides an extract for February 17, 1941, which notes that STORK, ’who has refused to go into his house at Hendon as his wife is going to have a baby’. (Was that the reason for the choice of cryptonym?) But West lists STORK as an MI5 ‘agent’, as if he were a hired hand to spy on domestic institutions like the Communist Party. I have found no record of the real name of STORK, or when and how he landed in the United Kingdom. And his name quickly disappears from the roster. It is all very odd.
Two others of special interest are Reisen (GANDER) and Caroli (SUMMER). Reisen (listed as ‘Riesen’) is mentioned in March 1941, but in all other accounts his name fades away – except for here, where Cyril Mills refers to him in his letter of March 1942! Nigel West just records that Reisen was no longer used after the end of 1940, as he had a transmitter only. Moreover, he was probably not a committed anti-Nazi, and thus potentially dangerous, but the revelation here is astonishing, since the implication is that he has not had to be interned since the time that he was de-activated. SUMMER disappears after March 1941, however, as if he no longer had need to be specially ‘disposed of’ in the event of invasion. Studious readers of coldspur will recall that a far more ominous explanation of SUMMER’s disappearance from the scene has been posited: that he was extrajudicially hanged in prison after his attempt to escape and kill his guard in the process. If that did indeed happen in March 1941 (as some authors have suggested), it would explain why his name was no longer mentioned when the list of agents to be transported to the provinces increased in 1941 and into 1942.
By 1943, the whole operation (now affectionately referred to as ‘Mills’ Circus’, after the member of the Bertram Mills Circus family who worked for MI5 and Robertson, Cyril Mills), was called off. The handcuffs could then be safely returned to a grateful Special Branch.
Following my pointed remarks about the inferior quality of Nigel West’s entry on Guy Liddell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I wrote to my contact at the ODNB, pointing her to my coldspur article. She promised that its editors would look into the topic, and get back to me. In what has become a sadly predictable phenomenon, I never heard back. So I thought I should check out the latest versions of the biographies of intelligence officers, physicists and spies, and accordingly spent a couple of hours recently at the University of North Carolina Library in Wilmington, using the on-line access provided, to verify whether any changes had been made.
Sadly, nothing has changed. Liddell’s entry was last updated on May 24, 2008. And I was struck by how unimpressive and incomplete many of the entries were. Dick White (head of MI5 and SIS) was responsible for the entries on Roger Hollis (who succeeded White as head of MI5) and John Sinclair (whom White succeeded as head of SIS). An unimaginative choice. There is no mention of Philby, or how Sinclair protected him, in the latter entry. The entry for Klaus Fuchs is by one Mary Flowers, who coyly refers to a ‘relationship’ at Harwell, but does not identify Erna Skinner. The biographies of Max Born, Nevill Mott, Herbert Fröhlich and Joseph Rotblat are all very bland, and omit any controversial aspects.
What struck me most, however, was that the ODNB carries no entry for Bruno Pontecorvo, the famous Italian-born physicist who defected in 1950, and has been suspected by some of spying for the Soviet Union (a fact which Roy Medvedev confirmed in Let History Judge). Now, the reason for this cannot be nationality: after all, the ODNB finds room for Pyotr Kapitza, the Soviet physicist who spent many years in Cambridge in the 1930s, and even was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1929, but never became a British citizen. Pontecorvo took up British citizenship in 1948, and other proven spies (such as Fuchs) have been awarded entries. I again wrote to my contact at the ODNB, asking for an explanation over this extraordinary omission, but answer came there none.
No doubt the ODNB is struggling with its business model, and finding it difficult to attract thorough and objective writers who know their stuff, and to create a mechanism for updating entries in the light of new research findings. It is all rather sad, but the ODNB is turning out to be little better than Wikipedia – and in some cases inferior. I often have reason to dip into the volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography on my shelf, and am rewarded by the unfailingly fascinating, thorough and elegant (though frequently overdiscreet) accounts of lives – in a recent trawl in the 1961-70 edition, for instance, Cockcroft, Forster, and Eliot – to be found there. The ODNB has sacrificed quality for volume.
“The art of writing history is the art of understanding men and events more profoundly than they were understood when they lived and happened.” (Michael Oakeshott)
“The great challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people’s heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions – and this is precisely where recorded and recordable history cannot reach.” (Michael Frayn, in Postscript to Copenhagen)
One of my most loyal supporters has urged me to publish the chapter on methodology from my thesis. When my editor and I considered how the thesis should be adapted for publication as a book, we agreed that the introductory chapter, which contained some historical background as well as a detailed exposition of my methodology, should be trimmed back. Some of the material was omitted, a brief Preface on methodology was added, while another section was incorporated into Chapter 8 of Misdefending the Realm. I have now thus posted the complete content of the original chapter on coldspur, and it can be found here.
In the longer term, I have a number of other projects that I want to pursue.
- The Apostates: One important topic that I believe has not been addressed comprehensively is that of members of the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) who renounced their membership – or were banned from the party. I am thinking predominantly of such as Frederick Copeman and Humphrey Slater. Did they rebel against Stalinism, but remain communists? Or did some perform a complete volte-face, and suddenly become crusty conservatives? Some became informers – but was the apostasy sometimes a ruse engineered by the Party? And were they in danger? Were their occasionally premature and unusual deaths not accidental? (I think of the fate of Juliet Poyntz and others in America, thrown from high buildings . . . )
Incidentally, I was reminded of the parallels in the USA when I started reading The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr, by the estimable Harvey Klehr. A couple of weeks ago, I had noticed a letter in the New York Times Book Review from one Jonathan Brent, who described himself as ‘the visiting Alger Hiss professor of history at Bard College’. I found it hard to believe that a chair would be named after the notorious Soviet spy, but it is true. It was as if a Kim Philby chair in Moral Philosophy had been established at Trinity College, Cambridge. And then I noticed a blurb on the back cover of Klehr’s book from the same Jonathan Brent, here introduced as ‘YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and author of Inside the Stalin Archives’. No mention of the Alger Hiss professorship. Quite understandable, but rather coy, Professor Klehr (Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Politics and History at Emory University), but how very odd! For Klehr, along with John Earl Haynes, wrote VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, the book that confirmed Hiss’s guilt despite the protestations of the Left. Perhaps Mellon and Hiss are designed to cancel each other out, but shouldn’t Klehr have perhaps been more open about Brent’s credentials, and how he liked to describe himself? It would have been an amusing flourish.
2. Chapman Pincher: I have for some time intended to perform a thorough analysis of Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, and the claims he makes about Roger Hollis. Sadly, Pincher’s thesis was fuelled very much by ‘insider’ information, often anonymous, and mostly unverifiable, and some of his claims are openly ridiculous. Others may be confirmed or refuted by more reliable evidence.
3. Alexander Foote & Canada: The enigma of Alexander (Alan) Foote remains, an earthy uneducated countryman who rose to become not only an expert wireless operator (true) but also a skillful negotiator of international banks (highly unlikely). I intend to return to the two different editions of his ghost-written memoir Handbook for Spies, and the extensive archives from Kew, to check out his career – and also those of the mysterious Sedlacek and Roessler. Foote showed a deep interest in the processes of the Canadian Royal Commission into the Gouzenko affair, primarily because of the interrogation of his banking contact there, and the Dallin archive may show up some fresh intelligence. My correspondent via coldspur Greg McNulty has performed some diligent delving into Foote, and I look forward to collaborating with him further on these matters.
4. Pontecorvo and Liverpool University: The case-histories of Herbert Skinner, Klaus Fuchs and Bruno Pontecorvo indicate that Liverpool University was sometimes unwittingly involved in a strange game of academic musical chairs, where positions were to be opened up for the putting out of distressed spies to grass. The integration of archival material from Kew and Churchill College suggests that MI5 learned of Pontecorvo’s communism a few months before it let it be recorded for posterity in Pontecorvo’s files. Once Fuchs was arrested, the prospect of having to park him at Liverpool disappeared, but similar plans to deal with Pontecorvo had antedated even Fuchs’s arrest. All this is complicated by a running feud between John Cockcroft (of AERE Harwell) and James Chadwick (whose chair at Liverpool Skinner filled in a very puzzling sequence of events) over Harwell’s intrusions on the turf of British universities, and its being granted generous capital expenditures. Chadwick was reluctant to leave Liverpool, his staff did not want him to leave, he had good relations with his boss . . . and yet he left. Who pushed him, how, and why? One little-known irony of the whole fiasco is that, while Fuchs and Pontecorvo, as potentially dangerous communists, were going to be dumped on to a provincial university where it was assumed that they could do no harm, Nunn May, who was convicted of espionage, was blacklisted by all British universities on his release from prison. A very English arrangement.
5. MI5 & Gouzenko: Another aspect of the Gouzenko case that puzzles me is the way that SIS succeeded in hi-jacking the inquiry away from MI5. Canada was MI5’s territory, and, while posts were sometimes shared between the two services (the MI5 representative happened to be returning to the UK when the story broke), there was no reason for SIS to intercept the communications that came to the Foreign Office in that September of 1945, with the result that Philby heard of it before Liddell and White. This is not a major item of research, more a loose end that needs to be tidied up. Yet Roger Hollis’s subsequent interrogation of Gouzenko is also problematic.
6. Isaiah Berlin in Lisbon: I had left readers in suspense when describing the surely coincidental presence of Isaiah Berlin in Lisbon, in January 1941, at the same time that Sonia was attempting to get her visa papers for the final leg of her journey to Britain. Berlin was characteristically evasive about his movements before and during his stay in Portugal, and the account of his activities on behalf of the Jewish Agency needs to be inspected more closely. I doubt whether any further documentary evidence will turn up, but Henry Hardy has already discovered that contemporary guest records for the period that Berlin stayed at the hotel have gone missing . . .
7. The Law, ter Braak and Caroli: I believe that the British authorities got themselves into a fearful tangle when they enabled the passing of the Treachery Act in 1940, in an attempt to be able to exploit newer legislation that would address the challenge of prosecuting enemy agents infiltrated into the United Kingdom, without having the embarrassment of a public trial, and the possible security exposure concerning the Double-Cross system. Giselle Jakobs, in her study of her grandfather (executed as one of those spies) The Spy in the Tower, has very capably analysed the unsatisfactory attempt to resolve the dilemma, but my study of archival material suggests to me that the topic is worthy of deeper inspection. This casualness about precision in legal verbiage extended into the Official Secrets Act, and the prosecution and conviction of Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs. I have not looked closely into the literature yet, but I believe justice has not yet been done to the legitimacy of the forces applied to some of these ‘traitors’. I notice that an article on the Treachery Act was published in the Modern Law Review of January 1941 by D. Seaborne Davies. I have ‘skimmed’ this short piece, and shall study it carefully at some later date.
8. The Oxford Ring: I am again not very hopeful, but I believe some tighter analysis of the group of Communists that comprised the counterpart to the Cambridge Spies and the latter’s cohorts is required. Guy Burgess was a link between the two, but MI5’s investigation into the Ring was abandoned when supposed members of it started committing suicide. Nigel West has identified Arthur Wynn as its leader, and archival material is starting to surface that may shed more light on his activities, and his links with other such subversives.
That should keep me busy for a while. And then there are always books coming out that generate fresh controversy. I expect Ben Macintyre’s book on Sonia, planned for publication early next year, will be one such volume . . . Lastly, I realised that I have not updated my examples of the Hyperbolic Contrast for a couple of years, so the latest entries can be seen here. The newest Commonplace entries appear here. And my December bulletin will be published on or around December 16.