Category Archives: Espionage/Intelligence

HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp

Peter Wright

(This report, on the dubious testimony of Peter Wright, the author of Spycatcher, concerning Agent Sonia and her wireless transmissions, is a long and challenging one, and I issue my customary health warning: Do not read this if you are of a sensitive disposition, or while operating agricultural machinery. I decided to lay out every step of my reasoning, with references, as I believe that, with the delivery of the authorised History of GCHQ in a few months’ time, it is important to present a comprehensive story of the slice of wartime Soviet wireless traffic that Wright focused on in his book. The interest in Spycatcher indicates that a mass of persons are fascinated by this topic: questions about possible traitors in the midst of the Security Service do not go away. I believe the issuance of this report is especially timely, as the recent feature in the Mail on Sunday should intensify the interest in the case that Wright made against Sonia and her alleged protector, Roger Hollis. If any of my readers would prefer to work with a Word version of this bulletin, in the belief that they might want to pore over it, and annotate it, please contact me at antonypercy@aol.com.  After a thorough background check by my team of ultra-sensitive, highly-trained, Moscow-based security personnel, the report will be sent to you.)

“Stella Rimington and some friends in the Security Service called Wright ‘the KGB illegal’, because, with his appearance and his lisp we could imagine that he was really a KGB officer.”                                                                                                         (Defending The Realm, p 518)

“I want to prove that Hollis was a spy; if I can do that I will be happy.” (Peter Wright to Malcolm Turnbull, from the latter’s ‘Spycatcher Trial’, p 31)

“The time has come for there to be an openness about the secret world of so long ago … the consequences of Hollis being a spy are enormous. Not only does it mean that MI5 is probably still staffed by people with similar view to him, but it means that ASIO was established on terms with the advice of a Russian spy.” (Peter Wright in the witness-box, Sydney, December 1986)

Contents:

  1. Peter Wright and ‘Spycatcher’
  2. The Background
  3. Cable or Wireless?
  4. War and Peace
  5. VENONA and HASP
  6. Wright on HASP
  7. The Remaining Questions
  8. The Drought of 1942-44
  9. Why did Wright Mangle the Story so much?
  10. Conclusions

Peter Wright and ‘Spycatcher’

As an ex-IBMer (1969-1973), until I read Spycatcher in the late nineteen-eighties, the only ‘HASP’ I knew was the Houston Automated Spooling Priority program (about which I shall mercifully write no more). One of the major contributions to mole-hunting that Peter Wright believed he made, in his best-selling account of dodgy business within MI5, was the unveiling of a new source of electronic intelligence, namely (as he described it) ‘the wartime traffic stored by the Swedish authorities known as HASP’. By citing a previously unknown and ever since unrevealed message that purported to indicate the size of Sonia’s ‘network’ of spies in 1941, Wright’s assertion has exerted quite a considerable influence on the mythology of Soviet ‘superspy’ SONIA. If judged as credible, his testimony boosts her achievements in England even beyond what the woman claimed in her memoir, Sonya’s Report. Moreover, Wright used this discovery as a major reason for confirming his belief that Roger Hollis was the Soviet mole known as ELLI: he drew attention to this accusation in his presence in the witness-box during the Spycatcher trial, and thus the process by which he came to this conclusion is of profound significance.

Spycatcher sold over two million copies. This success was mainly due to the outcome of Her Majesty’s Government’s lawsuit against the author before publication, with Malcom Turnbull’s successful defence in the trial of 1986-87 issuing a stern blow to the forces of hypocritical secrecy. He was able to show that the British authorities had connived at, or even encouraged, the publication of Chapman Pincher’s two books, Their Trade is Treachery, and Too Secret Too Long (as well as Nigel West’s A Matter of Trust), which made nonsense of the claim that a ban on the whole of Spycatcher was necessary for security reasons. It was the obstinacy of Margaret Thatcher, abetted by poor advice, that caused the lawsuit to be pursued. The irony was that it was Wright who had fed Pincher most of his stories, and Pincher would later amplify Wright’s case against Hollis with the very influential Treachery. That is why this article is so important. Those two million-plus readers need to learn the facts about a critical part of Wright’s story.

The Background

Another significant outcome of a careful study of Wright’s claims concerning the HASP story is the uncovering of secrets about the interception and decryption of electronic traffic that the British intelligence services (MI5, MI6 and, especially, GCHQ) would rather the public remain ignorant of. The authorised histories of MI5 (Andrew) and MI6 (Jeffery) steered well clear of analysis of the mechanics of wartime electronic espionage, since these volumes were designed and controlled as organs of public relations. No discussion of Sonia, or the controversies surrounding illicit wireless in wartime Britain, can be found in their books, and Andrew (especially) points readers towards the secondary literature without any indication of how reliable it is, or how selectively it should be explored.  Moreover, I regret that I am not confident that all will be revealed to us when the authorised history of GCHQ (Behind the Enigma, by Professor John Ferris) is published later this year. While a subsidiary objective of my focus on Wright is thus to provide a more rigorous analysis of the often puzzling story of the Allied effort to interpret Soviet intelligence traffic in World War II, a more thorough account will have to wait until a later bulletin.

The secondary literature almost universally shows an alarming confusion about the techniques and technology that underlay the surveillance of the traffic of foreign powers before, during, and after WWII. The largely American literature on the VENONA program (to which HASP was a critical adjunct: see below) is distressingly weak on technology, and focuses almost exclusively on the interception of traffic in the United States. Even such a well-researched and methodical work as Philip H. J. Davies’s MI6 and the Machinery of Spying contains only two short references to VENONA, guiding the reader (note 32, p 237) for ‘a (contested) British version of the story’ to Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. This seems to me a gross abdication of critical responsibility. Davies concentrates of human ‘machinery’, not technology, and delegates coverage of problematic matters to a source he instantly characterizes as dubious. It would appear, therefore, that, even though Wright’s story does not derive from any published archive, his controversial memoir has become the default – but flawed – authority. Yet he was a minor officer in the grand scheme of things, and an elderly man with a grudge and a failing memory when his book was composed.

It is certainly difficult to obtain reliable confirmation of the essence of HASP from other academic, or pseudo-academic, sources. One might, for example, have expected to learn about it in Richard J. Aldrich’s 2010 work, GCHQ, yet, while providing a comprehensive chapter on HASP’s cousin VENONA, the author does not mention the term. The only other analyst who appears to have written explicitly about HASP without simply echoing Wright’s account is Nigel West, in his 2009 book Venona. West has overall provided a competent guidebook to the initial breakthroughs on decryption, and an excellent coverage of the content of VENONA traffic, with emphasis on the London-Moscow communications, although it would benefit from a revision to consider the relevance of such sources as the Vassiliev Notebooks (see https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks). Venona is a highly readable summary for the curious student of intelligence, but West’s coverage of the mechanics of VENONA is spotty and inconsistent. Moreover, his representation of the HASP traffic is so different from that of Wright that I believe the topic merits greater scrutiny, and it is my goal here to provide that level of inspection, and assess the validity of what Wright claimed. This is uncharted and complex territory, however, and the landscape is strewn with pitfalls.

VENONA was one of the major successes of British-American co-operation on intelligence matters after WWII. Owing to a procedural mistake in 1943, a large number of GRU (military and naval intelligence) and NKVD/KGB (* state security) messages exchanged between Moscow and outlying stations in foreign embassies employed a defective technique for enciphering highly confidential messages – the re-use of so-called ‘one-time pads’. Intelligence agencies have regarded one-time pads as the most watertight way of preventing enemy decryption of messages, and they were adopted by the Soviet Union in the 1930s. (Many readers will be familiar with the concept if they have read Leo Marks’s Between Silk and Cyanide.) Alert cryptanalysts in the National Security Agency (NSA), inspecting messages in 1946, noticed unusual patterns, and in 1948 were joined by their British counterparts from GCHQ in exploring the phenomenon. By applying painstaking techniques to detect repeated sequences, they were able to initiate a project that gradually disclosed several networks of spies in the USA, Canada, Britain and Australia, leading to the successful prosecution of such as Julius Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, and Alan Nunn May, and the identification of Donald Maclean. VENONA was not formally revealed to the public until 1995.

Yet exactly what this ‘re-use’ entailed, and where and when it took place, and to which cryptological tools it applied, remains one of the most vexing puzzles in the VENONA story. It is as if the practitioners, when explaining their successes to the lay historians who carried their accounts to the world, wished to keep the process and sequence of events to themselves, as a defensive measure to protect their secrets, and maybe, even, to exaggerate what they were able to accomplish. A deep integrative history is sorely needed.

[* The naming of the Soviet Security Organization changed frequently. In 1934, the OGPU was transformed into the NKVD, which for a few months in 1941 became the NKGB, before reverting to NKVD until April 1943. In March 1946, it became the MGB, but foreign intelligence was transferred to the Committee for Information (KI) from October 1947 to November 1951. In March 1953, on Stalin’s death, the unit was combined with the MVD, out of which the KGB emerged, after Beria’s execution, in March 1954. Source: Christopher Andrew. I sometimes use ‘KGB’ in this article to refer to the permanent body, as do many authors.]

Cable or Wireless?

Eastern Telegraph Cables: 1901

One conundrum in the analysis of VENONA and HASP has endured: no author on the subject is precise about where and when VENONA (or HASP) was the result of intercepting cable traffic, and where and when it involved wireless traffic. This distinction is important when one considers the challenges facing the counter-espionage organisations of the nations trying to protect themselves. The term ‘cable’ is frequently used as a generic term for ‘telegram’, reflecting its historical background, but telegrams sent by wireless should definitely not be called ‘cables’. Christopher Andrew, in Defending the Realm, makes a useful distinction, but his account is incomplete and thus overall unsatisfying. He contrasts (on page 376) the regulations pertaining in the UK, where ‘even before the Soviet entry into the war, the Foreign Office had agreed that the Soviet embassy in London could communicate with Moscow by radio on set frequencies’, and adds that a project was soon underway to intercept these messages. On the other hand, no corresponding agreement existed in the USA, where, instead, ‘Soviet messages were written out for transmission by cable companies, which, in accordance with wartime censorship laws, supplied copies to the US authorities.’

This statement is probably an echo of what appears in the staff (but not ‘official’) story of VENONA, issued by the NSA/CIA in 1966 (VENONA: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, edited by Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner). In the Preface (p xii) appear the following sentences: “Although Soviet intelligence services had clandestine radio transmitters in diplomatic missions located in several American cities, these apparently were to be used only in emergencies. In consequence, KGB and GRU stations cabled their important messages over commercial telegraph lines and sent bulky reports and documents – including most of the information acquired by agents – in diplomatic pouches.” This statement moves us closer to the truth, but in my opinion still misrepresents the essence of the Soviet strategy concerning clandestine systems, and does not explain whether these secret channels were intercepted at all.

Confusion abounds. For example, in the very first sentence of Venona, Nigel West writes of the project to intercept Japanese traffic in October 1942 as follows: “Cable 906 purported to be a routine circular in seven parts and, as it had come off the wireless circuit linking Tokyo to Berlin and Helsinki, it underwent the usual Allied scrutiny to see if it betrayed any information of strategic significance.” Cables cannot ‘come off’ (whatever that means) ‘wireless circuits’, and it is inaccurate to describe temporary wireless paths as ‘circuits’, since wireless transmission is by definition unconnected. It makes sense to refer to a ‘circuit’ linking ‘Tokyo to Berlin and Helsinki’ only in terms of a conceptual agreement about callsigns, frequencies, and schedules between intelligence services and outposts. As another example, the heading for the NSA’s official packaging of the London to Moscow traffic (at  https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/Venona-London-GRU.pdf ) is titled ‘London GRU – Moscow Center Cables: Cables Decrypted by the National Security Administration’s Venona Project’, a regrettable misrepresentation of reality. The messages were sent by wireless.

The misconception is aggrandized by Peter Wright himself. In Spycatcher, the author, the self-professed expert in these matters, writes (p 182): “Whereas the Americans had all the Soviet radio traffic passing to and from the USA during and after the war, in Britain Churchill ordered all anti-Soviet intelligence work to cease during the wartime alliance, and GCHQ did not begin taking the traffic again until the very end of the war.” Sadly, every clause of this woeful sentence contains at least one blatant error, which casts serious doubt on his reliability on other matters. Specifically:

  1. The Soviet VENONA traffic to and from the USA was almost exclusively commercial cable traffic.
  2. ‘Had all the Soviet radio traffic’ is meaningless. Did the Americans intercept it all? Most certainly not. As other experts have pointed out, wireless traffic was banned (officially) during the war. The Soviets used wireless as an emergency back-up system, but also as a channel for clandestine espionage traffic.
  3. No one can point to the minute where Churchill ordered all interception, let alone all intelligence work, to cease. Hinsley’s famous footnote [see below] speaks only of ‘decryption and decoding’, not interception, and does not constitute an authoritative record. (Professor Glees reports conversations with Hinsley on this point in his book The Secrets of the Service: what Glees was told, namely that the Y Board may have issued such an order, now appears to be confirmed by the in-house history of the NSA.) We know that interception of signals continued, if erratically, throughout the war, and that Alastair Denniston, previously head of GC&CS, started his new project on Soviet traffic in late 1942.
  4. GCHQ did not come into existence until 1946. Before that the institution was known as GC&CS (Government Code & Cypher School). During the war, however, RSS was responsible for ‘taking the traffic’, and never reported to GC&CS. We know from RSS files that it monitored Soviet traffic, and that the ISCOT project started picking up Comintern messages in 1943.

Within this fog of misrepresentation a very important distinction remains. A cable is a wire, with the important corollary that those agencies that control the input to the physical cable may have special authority (or power) to intercept and store the traffic that is passed to them. Such transmissions can also be detected clandestinely by specialized sensory equipment, which would have to be laid close to the cable. Thus cables are a direct, bounded, targeted medium and not universally detectable. (Today’s fibre optic cables, which GCHQ and the NSA tap, follow largely the same oceanic paths used by the cables laid at the end of the nineteenth century.) Wireless traffic is looser: it is transmitted over the ether. It may be picked up by local groundwaves, or, remotely, by any receiving device that is geographically well-positioned to receive shortwave transmissions, allowing for the vagaries of atmospheric conditions, and frequencies used. Yet, while the atmosphere is lawless, the source of the transmission is frequently concealed, and the activity unpredictable. Wireless transmission presents a completely different set of security challenges.

P. S. I am grateful to Ian W. who, on the day this report was published, informed me that ‘cables’ might be transmitted for part of their journey over ‘wireless’ links – something I had suspected, but had not been able to verify. Ian also mentioned that, half a century ago, it was common for wireless contacts to be referred to as ‘circuits’.

War and Peace

Earlier in the century, circumstances – and improvements in technology – had encouraged the use of wireless as a medium for confidential traffic. Private or nationally-owned cable facilities had been shown to be liable to attack and destruction. Such sabotage happened when the British cut Germany’s nationally-owned transatlantic cables in 1914, an event that forced German diplomatic traffic to be routed through ‘neutral’ third parties. Britain used its sway to intercept German traffic, and with cryptological skills abetted by the provision of codebooks supplied by the Russians, started deciphering German messages. In February 1917, the British deciphered the Zimmermann Telegram, which had encouraged Mexico to join forces against the United States. When Zimmermann admitted the truth behind the cable telegram, public disgust brought the USA into the war.

Such an exposure encouraged experimentation with a rapidly developing wireless technology. (In Spycatcher, Peter Wright himself explained how, after World War I, his father assisted Marconi in convincing the British government that the beaming of short-wave wireless signals would be more effective than deploying long-wave technology as a means of linking the Empire.) In turn, as practices and understanding matured, that led to the important adoption of water-tight encryption mechanisms. Correspondingly, in the next two decades of peace, host governments tried to monitor such processes that originated on their home territory, by attempting to pick up open transmissions from the air, to set about decrypting them, and thus identifying possible hostile threats. The British project known as MASK, which detected Comintern traffic in London in the mid-thirties, was an example of such.

The advent of war, however, made a more spirited approach to trapping and prosecuting illicit wireless transmissions much more urgent. For example, at the outset of World War II, the British were fearful of the possibility of swarms of enemy wireless operators in their midst. They were initially not so scared about routine intelligence-gathering as they were about the (imaginary) menace of such spies using wireless to guide German bombers to their targets. The government also wanted to control the dissemination overseas of secret intelligence by conventional agencies. It made demands to foreign embassies and legations about being informed of wireless frequencies, and even call-signs, before giving approval for their use. Since a tacit understanding about reciprocal needs existed, governments often turned a blind eye to some technical breaches (such as the British with the Soviets, and the Swiss with the British). To monitor abuse of the airwaves, interception services then had to deploy enhanced wireless detection mechanisms to collect such clandestine messages, and maybe direction-finding/location-finding systems and vehicles to verify the source of such messages (as happened with the Soviet Embassy in London in 1942.) The elimination of any possibly overlooked German wireless agents was critical for the success of the Double-Cross system.

The UK government thus permitted the use of wireless transmitters on embassy premises only for Allies, while allowing, as a special case, the Polish and Czechoslovak governments-in-exile to have their own independent wireless stations, the Czech station in Woldingham, Surrey playing a very significant role. In the UK, all represented governments (including those in exile) clearly had a preference for using wireless rather than cable, in the belief that the traffic might not be picked up at all, and thus be more secure. The Soviet Union was in a unique position, as it was officially neither ally nor enemy from September 1939 until June 1941, but was hardly neutral, as it had, in that period been in a pact with Nazi Germany, and had aided the latter’s war effort against Great Britain. In those circumstances, it was supposed to use its wireless apparatus in the Embassy for diplomatic traffic only, and was instructed to inform His Majesty’s Government of frequencies and callsigns being used.   

Thus, when any embassy or legation in World War II wanted to send a ‘telegram’, it still maintained some level of choice. First, it had to deal with the local government, consider the regulations, and assess how strictly the rules were going to be enforced. Indeed, many such messages were enciphered, but still sent over private circuits. Copies were frequently taken by the local authorities, especially by those who (as with the USA) forbad the use of clandestine wireless by foreign governments. Indeed (as Romerstein and Breindel remind us in The Venona Secrets), in 1943 the US Federal Communications Commission detected illicit radio signals coming from the Soviet consulates in New York and San Francisco, and confiscated the apparatus. Consequently, the NKVD and GRU in the USA had to rely almost exclusively on commercial telegraph agencies to send their messages to Moscow. Likewise, all confidential traffic beyond the diplomatic bag that was sent back to Moscow by the embassy in Canberra, Australia (a vital VENONA source), was officially transmitted by commercial cable companies.

Romerstein’s and Breindel’s account corresponds in general with what NSA officers have written. Their statement is an echo of what appears in Benson’s and Warner’s history mentioned above. In that work’s Preface (p xii) appear the following sentences: “Although Soviet intelligence services had clandestine radio transmitters in diplomatic missions located in several American cities, these apparently were to be used only in emergencies. In consequence, KGB and GRU stations cabled their important messages over commercial telegraph lines and sent bulky reports and documents – including most of the information acquired by agents – in diplomatic pouches.”

Yet the FBI offers an intriguing twist to this story. In the archive of that institution (‘The Vault’) can be found some provocative assertions. An undated memorandum outlining considerations in using VENONA information in prosecutions (p 63) declares that ‘these Soviet messages are made up of telegrams and cables and radio messages sent between Soviet intelligence operators in the United States and Moscow.” While that is an implausible triad (cables and radio messages are both ‘telegrams’), it suggests a more complicated situation. And, on page 72, the writer measures, with some timidity, some political considerations, indicating that the Soviet Union might react in a hostile fashion to the news that the USA had been spying on its wartime ally, thus not acting ‘in good faith’. He writes: “ . . .  while no written record has been located in Bureau files to verify this it has been stated by NSA officials that during the war Soviet diplomats in the U.S. were granted permission to use Army radio facilities at the Pentagon to send messages to Moscow. It has been stated that President Roosevelt granted this permission and accompanied it with the promise to the Soviets that their messages would not be intercepted or interfered with by U.S. authorities.”

One can imagine the frequently naïve Roosevelt making an offer like this, but it is difficult to imagine that the wary Russians would take such an offer at face value, and have their cypher-clerks trek over to the Pentagon to send their material in the knowledge that it would probably be intercepted. Moreover, not all their traffic derived from Washington: New York and San Francisco were busy outlets. The item is undated, and apparently unconfirmed, and thus needs to be recorded as a footnote of questionable significance.

On the other hand, what is certain is that the Soviet Embassy in London breached the rules, even before Barbarossa, first of all by sending not just diplomatic traffic but also military and intelligence reports to Moscow on the acknowledged channels. Yet Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU), which was for a while the only functioning intelligence unit in the Soviet Embassy, as the NKVD officers had reputedly been recalled for almost all of 1940, went far beyond what was permitted in order to deceive surveillance mechanisms. I refer to a VENONA message of July 17, 1940, from London to Moscow, which is titled ‘Setting up an illicit radio in the Soviet Embassy’. It unambiguously refers to apparatus sent over in the diplomatic bag, but without clear instructions, and requests more guidance on setting up the antenna. The GRU in London was trying to establish an alternative mechanism for transmission without informing its hosts, and, when the GRU rather absurdly suddenly were about to run out of one-time pads in August/September 1940, messages at that time specify that the ‘emergency system’ should be used. The emergency system was planned not just as a back-up procedure using a book-directed system for creating random keys (in place of the printed one-time pads), but as the deployment of an alternative wireless transmitter/receiver apparatus. (I analyse this phenomenon in more detail at the end of this report.)

To summarize, in the context of World War II: the pressures on combatants to prevent unauthorised intelligence from leaving the nation were intense. The distinction between the media was very important, as cables were finite, self-contained, and asynchronous, and could easily be collected by the host country. Wireless messages, on the other hand, were open, unconstrained, and always somewhat speculative, but required a sophisticated infrastructure just to be intercepted. Synchronicity was the goal with wireless, but was not always achieved: your target might not pick up your message and acknowledge it, or might receive it only partially. On the other hand, an unintended bystander might intercept it. Moreover, to circumvent the efforts of the authorities, units wanting to send intelligence back to their controllers would sometimes set up alternative wireless systems in secret, of which the local government had not been notified. I do not believe any analyst of VENONA has explained in detail how the respective traffic was transmitted or collected in each country, i.e. by cable, by authorised wireless, or by unauthorised wireless. Certainly, the experience – and opportunity – differed greatly for the British and American authorities.

VENONA & HASP

This confusion appears to have leaked into the VENONA-HASP muddle. In order to put the HASP phenomenon into the context of VENONA, I shall soon turn to the texts of Peter Wright, the primary source about HASP, and add detailed commentary on each passage. One of the difficult concepts to bear in mind with VERONA and HASP is that decryption (with the exception of the Australian intercepts) did not happen in real time. We are thus dealing with a process that attempted to decrypt messages that may have been transmitted two or three decades earlier, which were intercepted and stored at the time, but represent only a small percentage of the total messages that could have been theoretically available. Thus discontinuities and gaps are par for the course. Moreover, it is important to understand that the Soviets did not realise for several years that their systems had been exposed, and consequently did not rush to fix the problem. The fact of the breakthrough was revealed to the Soviets by the spies William Weisband and Kim Philby in 1949. Only then did the Soviets change their procedures, but they could do nothing about the historical traffic of 1940-48.

VENONA itself is a murky project filled with anomalies and unanswered questions, beyond the scope of analysis in this article. The set of facts that need to be borne in mind when considering HASP are the following:

  1. The key years of 1945 (when the damaged Soviet codebook gained at Petsamo was acquired by the USA, and when the GRU cypher-clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in Canada); 1946 (when Meredith Gardner made the first major VENONA decryption); 1949 (when ex-Comintern wireless operator Alexander Foote revealed GRU techniques in Handbook for Spies); 1954 (when Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, Soviet cypher experts who had worked in Stockholm, defected in Australia); and 1959 (when the Swedes handed over HASP, the result of their decryption successes, to GCHQ and NSA).
  2. The GRU developed an auxiliary clandestine system to maintain secrecy. This consisted of a) an alternative method of using a secure one-time pad exploiting a reference book known to both parties (which could be used on the regular channel), and b) a separate wireless receiver-transmitter and protocols, not to be announced to the domestic authorities.
  3. In the USA and in Australia, the Soviet units used commercial cable channels almost exclusively. In Britain, all traffic was sent by wireless.

Wright on HASP

In 1987, Peter Wright (with the assistance of the journalist Paul Greengrass) published his best-selling work Spycatcher, an account of the efforts by the so-called ‘FLUENCY’ committee to identify a suspected mole in the senior ranks of MI5. Wright, who had been ‘chief technical officer’ within the service, was appointed chairman of the committee when it was set up in 1964. Because of the way the programme had unmasked figures such as Fuchs and Maclean, the disclosures from the VENONA project were viewed as possibly important providers of further breakthroughs. Yet successes with VENONA traffic had been slowing down in the early 1950s, and Wright stated that the project had come to a halt in 1954. A few years later a fresh injection gave the project new life. I do not intend to discuss the broader issues explored in Spycatcher: my focus is on a strict analysis of the passages where Wright writes about HASP.

Pp 185-187 [i] “In 1959, a new discovery was made which resuscitated VENONA again. GCHQ discovered that the Swedish Signals Intelligence Service had taken and stored a considerable amount of new wartime traffic, including some GRU radio messages sent to and from London during the early years of the war. “

Wright appears confused from the outset. He explicitly states that this traffic included messages that could be classified as ‘GRU’ and ‘radio’. But if this traffic had been stored, but not decrypted, how did the Swedish Service, or the receiving agency, GCHQ, know they were GRU exchanges until they were decrypted? Moreover, Wright states that these were radio messages sent ‘to and from London’. Does that mean between London and Stockholm or between London and Moscow? The suggestion could conceivably be the latter, as Stockholm would have been geographically well-situated to pick up messages targeted at Moscow, and there would be little reason for the GRU station in London to communicate with its Swedish counterpart (although a few such messages do exist in the archive). Why the Swedes would be interested, however, in intercepting and storing traffic that did not concern them directly is a puzzle in its own way. As an added complication, Fred. B. Wrixon, in his Codes, Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communications, states that the Swedes ‘had intercepted some GRU radio exchanges between agents [sic: my italics] in Great Britain and their headquarters in the Soviet Union’, (p 118), and that GCHQ gave the name HASP to the project to decipher them. Wrixon’s source is not stated. How Wrixon derived this information is not clear, but it eerily echoes one of Wright’s more outlandish caprices.

Did Wright mislead his readers, whether intentionally or not? I think so. His assertion about the nature of the traffic appears to be contradicted by Nigel West, who, in Venona, on page 120, presents an alternative explanation. He writes: “ . . . in 1959 the Swedish National Defence Radio Institute (Forsvarets Radioanstalt, FRA,) revealed that it had retained copies of a vast quantity of the Stockholm-Moscow traffic and negotiated with GCHQ to release its archive to the NSA via Cheltenham. This was the batch of intercepts codenamed HASP, and, bearing in mind that some of these texts had been encoded and signed by Petrov, there must have been a great temptation to confront him with them – if only to tax his memory by seeking clues to the missing, unrecovered groups.” West further explains that when the HASP material became available, ‘two 1945 VENONA intercepts from the Stockholm embassy, dated 16 July and 21 September, showed that Petrov, then codenamed SEAMAN, had been the personal cipher-clerk to two rezidents, first Mrs Yartseva, then Vasili F. Razin. However, their experience in Sweden had not prepared the Petrovs for the atmosphere of intrigue in Canberra.”

Thus West makes a very clear connection between traffic obtained locally in Sweden and the defection of Petrov and his wife in April 1954, and suggests, moreover, that HASP material was exclusively Stockholm-Moscow traffic. This is markedly in contrast to Wright’s representation. Yet West does not explain what the relationship was between the HASP and the VENONA material, how the former helped the GCHQ cryptanalysts, or where he derived his information. He refers to intercepts, but were these raw encrypted data, or partially decrypted texts – or both? The logic is very elusive, since the HASP messages are not separately identifiable, but it would appear that additional information enabled the cryptonym MORYAK (SEAMAN), as a key member of the Soviet embassy in Stockholm, to be identified as Petrov. And indeed, the source telegrams confirm Petrov’s statements from the memoir that he and his wife published in 1956.

The message of July 16 can be seen at: https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/dated/1945/16jul_cipher_text_seaman.pdf, but the VENONA records of September 21 appear to contain no Moscow-Stockholm traffic. Nevertheless, the identity of SEAMAN can be confirmed from earlier traffic from Stockholm to Moscow, when Petrov was working in Moscow (see telegrams No. 797, of September 6, 1941, and No. 821, of April 30, 1942), before the Petrovs’ dramatic seven-month journey to Stockholm, via Siberia, South Africa, and Great Britain.

A significant distinction between the respective descriptions of HASP by Wright and West can thus be seen, with West, to support his cause, providing more tangible evidence of what the traffic contained. The account of another historian, Christopher Andrew, would appear to reinforce West’s description, although without actually mentioning HASP. On page 380 of Defend the Realm, Andrew writes: “Following requests during 1960, the Swedes supplied copies of wartime GRU telegrams exchanged between Moscow and the Stockholm residency, some of which were discovered to have employed the same one-time pads used in hitherto unbroken traffic with London. One hundred and seventy-eight GRU messages from the period March 1940 to April 1942 were successfully decrypted in whole or part.” Andrew’s message is explicit: these messages were not London-Stockholm traffic, but Stockholm-Moscow messages that the Swedes had apparently enjoyed some success in decrypting. His log of successful decryption applies to London-Moscow traffic, however, the suggestion being that both sets of traffic used the same one-time pads, and that no progress had been made by GCHQ on the London messages beforehand.

Moreover, what does that strange, anonymous notion behind ‘requests’ indicate? How did the ‘requestor’ learn about them? What was the crypto-analytical expertise of the Swedes, and had they previously shared experiences with GCHQ and NSA? The certain implication here is that the FRA had successfully deciphered some local GRU traffic, as West informed us. Yet it was not the messages themselves that were of relevance to GCHQ’s investigations, but a suggestion that the process of using stale one-time pads had been deployed, and that the revelations from these could be applied to traffic that the GCHQ possessed, but had been unable to break. This insight from Andrew (the source is the typically useless ‘Secret Service Archives’ from the authorised ‘historian’), and his immediately following comments, will turn out to be critical in working out what happened. It should also be noted that Andrew specifically contradicts Wright’s description of the essence of HASP, yet, with characteristic unscholarliness, includes Spycatcher in his bibliography.

Andrew’s failure to specify explicitly whether these one-time pads were the conventional set of random numbers created and printed by the KGB, or the alternative ‘reference-book’ mechanism used as a back-up system, is a critical oversight. I note also that this notion of ‘re-use’ suggests that deploying the same conventional pads across different intelligence stations was as much against the rules as was the ‘re-use’ over time of pads by a single pair of stations. Alternatively, it could mean that London-Moscow and Stockholm-Moscow both used the same reference-book in their emergency systems. In any case, this ‘re-use’ evidently occurred in 1940, well before the much publicized year of 1943 described in the VENONA histories as the time when the first infraction occurred. Andrew provides no guidance for his readers.

[ii] “GCHQ persuaded the Swedes to relinquish their neutrality, and pass the material over for analysis. The discovery of the Swedish HASP material was one of the main reasons for Arthur’s [Arthur Martin’s] return to D1. He was one of the few officers inside MI5 with direct experience of VENONA, having worked intimately with it during the Fuchs and Maclean investigations.

            There were high hopes that HASP would transform VENONA by providing more intelligence about unknown cryptonyms and, just as important, by providing more groups for the codebook, which would, in turn, lead to further breaks in VENONA material already held.

The first point here is a reminder of Sweden’s neutrality – not just during World War II, but during the Cold War, when it was not a member of NATO. Like Portugal and Switzerland, Sweden had been abuzz with spies during World War II, and its proximity to the northern ports of German-occupied Poland and the Baltic States meant that Stockholm was well-positioned to supply information on German naval capabilities, repairs, etc. Hence the feverish wireless communications with Moscow. Moreover, that neutrality apparently endured, so that Sweden would not have been a natural sharer of decryption techniques with NATO members. Yet Sweden was not ‘neutral’ enough to be free of suspicions about Soviet intentions, and thus pursued its own program of trying to gather wireless intelligence.

In Venona, Nigel West relates how the Swedes collaborated with the more advanced, cryptanalytically speaking, Finns, who had provided the American with highly useful aids when they handed over the partially burned Petsamo codebooks that had been retrieved from the Soviet consulate in June 1941. And, no doubt, informal links were in place between the Swedes and the British, as Wright’s text suggests. West even indicates that the Finns managed to understand how the Soviets ‘built code-tables and relied on a very straightforward mathematical formula to encode emergency signals’, but it is not clear exactly how this happened, or whether the lessons learned applied to the GRU as well as to the NKVD.

Wright’s suggestion here, however, is that HASP was, in essence, different from traditional VENONA, although it is not immediately obvious in what manner. The implication is that HASP would share much with the VENONA traffic, such as the use of the same codebook (the reference by which otherwise meaningless sequences of numbers represented terms, functions, identities of persons, countries, institutions, etc., sometimes known as a nomenclator).  The studies of VENONA tell us that the different functions of Soviet commercial organisations and intelligence (Amtorg, NKVD, GRU, Naval GRU and Foreign Ministry) used different code-books, and thus breakthroughs in one area did not mean that other successes naturally followed. For instance, all departments referred to the Germans as ‘KOLBASNIKI’ (’SAUSAGE-DEALERS’), but in the NKVD book, that word could have been represented as, say, ‘1146’, and in that of the GRU, ‘9452’.

This system was all independent of one-time pads for further encryption. Yet, if Andrew’s description is correct, Wright’s concluding sentence in this extract makes more sense. If the Swedes had managed to make inroads into the GRU codebook from the analysis of their local messages, that experience would transfer directly to the British study of GRU traffic. The emphasis on ‘VENONA material already held’ is telling. Wright is starting to backtrack from his original characterisation.

[iii] Moreover, since powerful new computers were becoming available, it made sense to reopen the whole program (I was never convinced that the effort should have been dropped in the 1950s), and the pace gradually increased, with vigorous encouragement by Arthur, through the early 1960s.

            In fact, there were no great immediate discoveries in the HASP material which related to Britain. Most of the material consisted of routine reports from GRU offices of bomb damage in various parts of Britain, and estimates of British military capability. There were dozens of cryptonyms, some of whom were interesting, but long since dead. J. B. S. Haldane, for instance, who was working in the Admiralty’s submarine experimental station at Haslar, researching into deep diving techniques, was supplying details of the programs to the CPGB, who were passing it on to the GRU in London. Another spy identified in the traffic was the Honourable Owen Montagu, the son of Lord Swaythling (not to be confused with Euan Montagu, who organized the celebrated ‘Man Who Never Was’ deception operation during the war). He was a freelance journalist, and from the traffic it was clear that he was used by the Russians to collect political intelligence in the Labour Party, and to a lesser degree the CPGB.

Some of this is puzzling. Unfortunately, a detailed history of the evolutionary progress of the VENONA decrypts is not possible, based solely on the selection of documents released. As West writes in his Introduction: “Whereas the American policy appears to have provided a measure of protection to the living, being those suspected Soviet sources who were never positively identified or confronted with the allegations, their British partners seem to have adopted political embarrassment as their principal criterion for eliminating sensitive names. The only other deliberate excision in the declassified documents is the consistent removal throughout of all references to the first date of circulation. Each VENONA text is marked with the last, and therefore most recent, distribution, but it is impossible to determine precisely when the first break in a particular message was achieved, or to chart the subsequent program of the cryptographers.”

Overall, West’s statement is accurate, although some decrypts (such as those on BARON) do reveal a series of release dates, and others have had the issuance date deleted. Unfortunately, many of the critical items related to HASP, such as the discovery of the X Group, have no release dates at all, so it is impossible to determine how much of the messages had been decrypted before the contribution of the HASP codewords – and code-book. Wright’s seemingly authoritative view is that the project was suspended in the early 1950s, and then reactivated at the end of the decade, but the redacted (or concealed) data on the issuance of new decrypts does allow us to create only a very partial evolution of texts through time.

All this information described by Wright appeared as original VENONA material when described by West in Venona (pp 62-63), and it can clearly be traced by studying the on-line archive. So why does Wright revert to ‘the HASP material which related to Britain’? He appears to be going back to his initial position, that HASP consisted of traffic intercepted by the Swedes. That might have reinforced the idea that HASP was a motley set of messages that included local Stockholm-Moscow GRU/KGB traffic as well as interceptions of wireless messages between London and Moscow – and maybe more. Yet that scenario continues to look unlikely. And if these reports were ‘routine’, presumably familiar through VENONA messages already deciphered, why did Wright not say so?

J B S Haldane

Furthermore, he introduces Haldane and Montagu as if their appearance were no surprise, and not scandalous. Haldane’s cryptonym was INTELLECTUAL and Montague’s NOBILITY: when did Wright learn that? The appearance of these cryptonyms would not have been ‘routine’ if this was the first occurrence, and their identities were not known. In fact, it would have been a stunning discovery to learn that one of Britain’s most respected scientists was a named spy. The fact that they were dead was irrelevant – except when it came to GCHQ’s heightened protectiveness about references to hallowed public figures, and maybe to their survivors. Wright’s manner here is astonishingly casual.

It does not help that Nigel West (pp 75-81) presents the discoveries about Group X and Haldane as standard VENONA traffic without mentioning any contribution from HASP. He confidently identifies INTELLIGENTSIA as J. B. S. Haldane, and NOBILITY as the Honourable Ivor Montagu. After all, West’s understanding of HASP was that it concerned Stockholm-Moscow traffic: he writes that the arrival of HASP allowed the project to ‘be put back into gear’, but does not explain how that happened. West provides a lot of useful and fascinating information about Haldane’s background and activities, but (for example) sheds no light on how the decryption of the codeword INTELLECTUAL took place.

Christopher Andrew, however, is more explicit on this portion of the traffic, although he, too, still does not mention HASP, and the description of it as ‘new’ VENONA is misleading and unfortunate. “The main discovery from this new VENONA source was the existence of a wartime GRU agent network in Britain codenamed the ‘X Group’, which was active by, if not before, 1940. The identity of the leader of the Group, or at least its chief contact with the GRU London residency, codenamed INTELLIGENTSIA, was revealed in a decrypted telegram to Moscow on 25 July 1940 from his case officer as one of the CPGB’s wealthiest and most aristocratic members . . .” Thereafter, Andrew rather surprisingly goes on to identify INTELLIGENTSIA as Ivor Montagu, instead of ‘Montagu’s friend’, J. B. S. Haldane. In an endnote (p 926, No 81), Andrew states that ‘West misidentifies NOBILITY as Ivor Montagu and INTELLIGENTSIA as Haldane’, but provides no argument for this. Certainly the meaning of the two cryptonyms would appear to suit West’s interpretation better.

In 2012, Nigel West amplified his previous analysis in the Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, where he added further detail: “. . .  this unexpected windfall consisted of 390 partially deciphered messages, exchanged with Moscow between December 1940 and April 1446 [sic!]. The FRA had succeeded, as early as 1947, in reading a few messages, and between 1957 and 1959, some 53 texts were broken out. Information identifying individual Soviet spies had then been passed to the Allmänna Säkerhetstjänsten (General Security Service), which conducted investigations that effectively neutralized them without compromising the source.”

Apart from the vagueness of such terms as ‘broken out’ (does that mean complete decryption?), such level of detail is impressive, and authoritative-sounding, and West piled on the authenticity by naming eighty NKVD cryptonyms that provided ‘depth’ to the VENONA cryptanalytical process, including names that would carry import for the Washington and London operations, such as DORA, EDWARD, FROST, GROMOV, and  LEAF. West then listed an even longer array of GRU codenames, nearly all unfamiliar to me. But he did explain that, in August 1942, Lennart Katz ‘a source run by a contact working under diplomatic cover named Scheptkov, was arrested’, and provided further leads. It sounds as if West had access to insider information (Venona provides an Acknowledgement to ‘Stefan Burgland and some others who prefer to remain anonymous’), and that those arrested may have been able to provide insights on the ciphers and codes used. Moscow, however, appeared not to have worked out what was going on, and how so many of its spies had been detected.

[iv] The extraordinary thing about the GRU traffic was the comparison with the KGB traffic four years later. The GRU officers in 1940 and 1941 were clearly of low caliber, demoralized and running around like headless chickens in the wake of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. By 1945 they had given way to a new breed of professional Russian intelligence officers like Krotov. The entire agent-running procedure was clearly highly-skilled and pragmatic. Great care was being taken to protect agents for their long-term use. Where there seemed poor discipline in the GRU procedures, by 1945 the traffic showed that control was exerted from Moscow Center, and comparisons between KGB and Ambassadorial channels demonstrated quite clearly the importance the KGB had inside the Russian State. This, in a sense, was the most enduring legacy of the VENONA break – the glimpse it gave us of the vast KGB machine, with networks all across the West, ready for the Cold War as the West prepared for peace.”

This section is mostly irrelevant to the quest. It is difficult to discern what Wright is talking about when he does not provide samples of the messages. The KGB’s operation in London was (we have been told by several experts) suspended for nearly all of 1940, so the GRU was the only game in town. And these ‘headless chickens’ did manage to recruit Klaus Fuchs, and manage a ring of useful scientists, such as Haldane. What he may have been alluding to was the somewhat casual way that information was supplied in telegrams, but that would have been more a case of insufficiently well trained officers, cipher clerks, and wireless operators – which were evidently in short supply at the beginning of the war –  rather than the quality of those who recruited and handled British agents. Kremer’s struggles with setting up the alternative wireless link may be an example of what Wright was thinking of.

Pp 238-239      “Lastly there was the VENONA material – by far the most reliable intelligence of all on past penetration of Western security. After Arthur [Martin] left I took over the VENONA program, and commissioned yet another full-scale review of the material to see if new leads could be gathered. This was to lead to the first D-3 generated case, ironically a French rather than a British one. The HASP GRU material, dating from 1940 and 1941, contained a lot of information about Soviet penetration of the various émigré and nationalist movements who made their headquarters in London during the first years of the war. The Russians, for instance, had a prime source in the heart of the Free Czechoslovakian Intelligence Service, which ran its own networks in German-occupied Eastern Europe via couriers. The Soviet source had the cryptonym Baron, and was probably the Czech politician Sedlecek [sic], who later played a prominent role in the Lucy Ring in Switzerland.”

Wright’s restricting of the ‘HASP GRU material’ to 1940 and 1941 is provocative, not solely because he now seems to be classifying HASP material as GRU messages collected locally. Is the temporal phrase ‘dating from 1940 and 1941’ merely adding chronology for the full scope of the material, or is it a qualifying phrase that subdefines a portion of it? The parenthesis, separated by commas, suggests to me the former, namely ‘the only GRU material that can properly be classified as HASP is that of 1940 and 1941’. Yet we have no way of knowing what GRU material had been attacked, and partially decrypted, before 1960, apart from various clues provided by the ‘experts’.

The rubric around the published VENONA messages is disappointingly vague. Yet there appears to be some discernible order behind the numbering scheme. In my analysis of the traffic between March 1940 and August 1941 (the last date in that year for which a message from London to Moscow has been published), I counted 137 L-to-M messages, with the first numbered (by the GRU) as No. 120, and the last as No. 2311. Yet a countback to zero seemed to occur at the beginning of each year. The last listed in December 1940 is No. 1424, while the first listed for 1941, on January 16, is No. 83. Thus one might assume that well over 4,000 messages were sent by the London station in those two years.

The Moscow to London traffic is sparser, with only 18 messages listed. The last calendar entry present for 1940 is from September 21, numbered as 482, so it would appear that Moscow was not so active sending messages to London, although the record would suggest that the combination of RSS (Radio Security Service) and GC&CS was picking up far fewer inbound messages, both in aggregate and proportionately, than it was outbound. But that could also be explained by a far smaller proportion of inbound messages being (partially) decrypted, or even a larger amount being for some reason concealed.

These numbers correspond closely with what Andrew has written (see above), where he refers to 178 messages between the period March 1940 and March 1942. Yet the autumn/winter of 1941/42 was clearly a period where activity of some sort (number of transmissions, number of interceptions, number of partial decryptions, number of released decryptions!) declined rapidly, and this is such a controversial aspect of the whole business that I shall return to it after completing my analysis of Wright’s text.

As for the remainder of this passage, the information, again, is not breathtaking, but Wright, alongside his rather laid-back commentary on Sedlacek [sic], does suggest by his comments that GCHQ had decrypted nothing on the Czechoslovak agent before the HASP project came along. Sedlacek [BARON] was a familiar figure in the VENONA traffic (see West, pp 67-69), and he played a dangerous game spying for the Swiss, the Czechs, the Russians – and the British, who later supplied him with a passport under the name of Simpson so that he could enter Switzerland and contribute to the Lucy Ring. Again, Andrew differs in his analysis of BARON, quoting (page 926, Note 82) an unnamed MI5 officer as saying, in 1997, that no serious attempts had been made to identify him. Why anyone would expect an MI5 (or MI6) officer to be open and straightforward about such a controversial figure as Sedlacek (if indeed that was who he was) is puzzling. Andrew attempts to reinforce his argument by noting that the NSA regards BARON as unidentified, but interest in these local European matters is unsurprisingly muted on that side of the Atlantic.

BARON indeed figures prominently in these messages: he was potentially very useful to Moscow as he was clearly passing on, in the run-up to Barbarossa, information about German troop movements in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, gained via his contacts around Prague who were transmitting information to him via Woldingham. I write ‘potentially’ because, of course, Stalin ignored all intelligence about the German invasion as ‘provocation’.

P 374-375 [i] “There had recently been a small breakthrough in the existing traffic which had given cause for hope. Geoffrey Sudbury was working on part of the HASP material which had never been broken out. Advanced computer analysis revealed that this particular traffic was not genuine VENONA. It did not appear to have been enciphered using a one-time pad, and from the nonrandom distribution of the groups, Sudbury hazarded a guess that it had been enciphered using some kind of directory.

This, again, is distressingly vague. By alluding to ‘HASP material that had never been broken out’, Wright again gives the impression that HASP was a collection of London-to-Moscow (or Moscow-to-London) communications. Why would Sudbury work on native Swedish transmissions? Presumably, ‘genuine VENONA’ to Wright was traffic that had become decipherable because the Soviets, under pressure, disastrously re-used one of their one-time pads. Distributing fresh pads was an enormous task in war-time, so the London-Moscow GRU link may have resorted to a different system whereby page-numbers and word-numbers in a shared book were used for encipherment schemes. Such a mechanism was essential for any transmission activity by clandestine agents, where the problems of distribution and security with one-time pads would have been insuperable. Leo Marks composed easily memorable verses for use in the field by SOE agents: the GRU used statistical almanacs for in-house use.

On the surface, Wright’s description of Sudbury’s analysis would appear, however, to be reinforced by the few accounts of GRU espionage that we have. A classical description of the use of one-time pads has the original cleartext (the passage in native language) immediately processed by a portion of the one-time pad, normally the next page, which would then be destroyed. In many accounts of the Soviet system (e.g. James Gannon’s Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies), that was the only method. Yet some accounts indicate that the GRU used a different process of encipherment. Benson’s in-house history of the NSA informs us that Igor Gouzenko described the method during his interview by Frank Rowlett in October 1945, when he revealed the back-up system of using a shared reference book in place of classical one-time pads. (Oddly, in his CIA report, Cecil Phillips, who assisted Nigel West in his researches, elides over this aspect of Gouzenko’s contribution.) In Appendix A to his 1949 book, Handbook for Spies, Alexander Foote (the Briton who was trained by SONIA as a wireless operator for the GRU in Switzerland) explains how a keyword of six letters, ‘changed at intervals by the Centre’ (and thus presumably communicated in later messages) was first used to translate the letters of the alphabet into a set of apparently meaningless numbers. Further manipulation transformed the text into five-figure groups – not yet a very secure encipherment.

Then came the ‘one-time’ aspect of the GRU’s process – but it was not through the use of a ‘pad’. Messages were then further processed by a function known as ‘closing’. Foote explained that, after the first stage of encipherment, he had to ‘close’ the message ‘by re-enciphering it against the selected portion of the “code book”’. (This ‘code-book, or ‘dictionary’ is a different entity from the ‘codebook’ that contained numeric representations of common terms.) This was a mechanism whereby a passage in a book owned by both parties was referred to by page and line number in order to identify a sequence of characters to be used to encipher a text one stage further. Max Clausen used a similar technique when enciphering for Richard Sorge, another GRU agent, in Japan. Foote said that he used ‘a Swiss book of trade statistics’:  David Kahn writes that Clausen used the 1935 edition of the Statistiches Jahrbuch für das deutsche Reich. Thus, for the GRU, the one-time pad was not a miniature printed guide that could be easily destroyed, but an accessible but otherwise anonymous volume that could be used by both ends of the communication. (Christopher Andrew’s claim that the Stockholm residency and the London residency employed the same one-time pads is thus probably not true: they almost certainly used the same – or a similar – reference work, however.) Sudbury had indeed hit upon the truth, and a directory was at work. This is what must be meant by ‘not genuine VENONA’.

What should also be recorded on this topic is the claim that Richard V. Hall makes in his ineptly titled but engrossing study of Wright and the Spycatcher trial, A Spy’s Revenge, that Wright acted as a ghost writer on Handbook for Spies. Since Wright was still working at the Admiralty Research Station in 1949, and did not join MI5 until 1955, this claim should be viewed circumspectly. If true, Wright’s apparent unawareness, in 1970, of GRU enciphering techniques is even more inexcusable.

[ii] We began the search in the British Library, and eventually found a book of trade statistics from the 1930s which fitted.

At first glance, this represents an enormous leap of faith. From ‘some kind of directory’ to stumbling on a book of trade statistics, with the implication that many others had been tested and found wanting first? Can it really be believed? That that is how the process worked, and that cryptologists would stumble on the right book? They must surely have been able to exploit a message that described the volume to be used, or gained a tip from someone. Suddenly, Alexander Foote’s hint of a ‘Swiss book of trade statistics’ takes on new significance. Wright echoes Foote’s words almost completely. Foote had died in 1956 (somewhat mysteriously: I am sure that Moscow’s ‘Special Tasks’ team was after him), but was surely interviewed on these matters at length by MI5 and GCHQ before he died.

Thus the dominant reaction should be: why on earth were Sudbury and Wright not familiar with Foote’s publication? It seems quite possible that they arrived at this conclusion by other means – namely what the Petrovs told them, and how Vladimir’s overall cryptological skills and knowledge, and particularly Yevdokia’s experiences as a NKVD cipher-clerk in Stockholm, benefitted the FRA, and in turn helped GCHQ. Yevdokia had worked for the GRU in her first eighteen months with OGPU, so she may have had some insight into its coding techniques.

After their post-war assignment in Stockholm, Vladimir Petrov and his wife had arrived in Australia in 1951, and decided to defect in 1954. Nigel West writes that Evdokia ‘was debriefed by western intelligence personnel, among them MI5’s George Leggett, who travelled to Australia after the couple had been resettled on their chicken-farm . . .’ Yet what Evdokia told them has not been disclosed. Was she responsible for GRU coding and encipherment, as well as that of the NKVD/MGB/KGB? Almost certainly not, but if so, she might have been able to inform the Swedes of such items as the name of the code-book (dictionary) used, and they thus were able to make some progress on the texts they had stored before the British did anything. If she had no involvement with the GRU, she might have been able to indicate the type of research volume that was used, and repeated efforts by Sudbury on the few relevant books of trade statistics in the British Library must have eventually borne fruit. Wright’s claim becomes clearer. It looks, however, as if the Swedes kept their project to themselves until 1959, when, for some reason, an informal link must have been elevated to an official communication.

[iii]  Overnight a huge chunk of HASP traffic was broken. The GRU traffic was similar to much that we had already broken. But there was one set of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow Center, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner, Sonia, alias Ruth Kuzchinski [sic].

This is very dramatic – ‘overnight’, but, again, Wright dissembles and confuses. If the traffic was suddenly ‘broken’, he suggests that ‘HASP’ was in the hands of GCHQ already, but in a poor state of decryption.  Now, HASP appears to mean ‘GRU traffic derived from both Stockholm and London’. But why next characterise it as ‘the GRU traffic’ – what else could it be? And what does ‘similar to’ mean? Were they the same messages, enciphered differently? Was there really nothing new in them worth recording? And his reference to ‘one set of messages’ is also ambiguous. He gives the impression that this was a new trove of London-Moscow traffic supplied by the Swedes, when we now know that that cannot be true.

Certainly, one meeting between Sonia and her handler is recorded in the VENONA transcripts, dated July 31, 1941. The full item appears as follows:

“From London to Moscow: No.2043, 31 July 1941

IRIS had meeting with SONIA on July 30. Sonia reported (15 groups unrecovered):

Salary for 7 months: 406

John:  195

?? from abroad:  116

Expenditure on apparatus (radio and microdots):  105

?? Expenditure:  55

She played [broadcast] on 26, 27, 28 and 29 July at 2400, 0100, 0200 hours  . . . but did not receive you. BRION

(Comments by translator: IRIS probably a woman, IRIS means either the flower, or a kind of toffee. Unlikely choice for covername. JOHN probably Leon BUERTON [sic] BRION probably SHVETSOV, Assistant Military Attaché.)”

Yet the handler here is not Kremer: IRIS is probably Leo Aptekar, a GRU officer registered as a chauffeur at the Embassy. The annotation here about BRION is wrong: BRION has been confidently identified in the Vassiliev Notebooks as Colonel Sklyarov, for whom Kremer worked. Wright (and the VENONA website) identify Kremer as the rezident, i.e. senior GRU officer in London, but that does not appear to be the case. In Venona (1999), Nigel West described Kremer as being Sklyarov’s secretary, but in his 2014 Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, West declares that the position was a cover for his ‘residency’, citing Krivitsky’s warning about him from 1940. Gary Kern (the biographer of Krivitsky) reflects, however, on the fact that others claim that Sklyarov was the boss. My analysis suggest that Sklyarov may have been brought in because Kremer was struggling, and Kremer then probably reported to Sklyarov after the latter arrived in October 1940. After all, Kremer turned out to be an unsuccessful cut-out for Fuchs, a role he would have hardly attempted had he been head-of-station. This is Pincher’s conclusion, too.

Sandor Rado (DORA) & I. A. Sklyarov (BRION)

One of the irritating aspects of the Venona archive, as published, is that identification of codenames switches from page to page, and the identification of BRION is one such casualty, with the annotators not being able to make up their minds between Sklyarov and Shvetsov. Vladimir Lota, in his ‘Sekretny Front General’novo Shtaba’ (Moscow 2005), confirms that BRION was Sklyarov, and offers a photograph of the officer (see above). West selects one VENONA annotator’s analysis that the reporting officer was Shvetsov, but informs us that Shvetsov died in an air accident in 1942. (The source of this is not clear. The Petrovs record that the family of an unnamed London military attaché died in transit from Aberdeen to Stockholm in 1943, when the plane was shot down over Swedish territory by German aircraft, but suggest that the attaché himself was not on board. See Yuri and Evdokia Petrov’s Empire of Fear, p 165).

As for Kremer, Mike Rossiter, the author of a biography of Klaus Fuchs, writes that he returned to Moscow in 1941, while West indicates that he remained in London throughout the war. Thus it is quite possible that Kremer composed reports on Sklyarov’s behalf, although his role had hitherto been as a courier. It was he who met Fuchs in August 1941, and he was Fuchs’s courier until the latter found he could not work with him, whereupon Fuchs was handed over to Sonia in the late summer of 1942. Kremer was also handling members of the X Group, so it seems unlikely that, at the same time that Kremer was regularly meeting Fuchs, he would also be meeting Sonia frequently, and then writing up the reports for Moscow.

The VENONA London GRU Traffic archive informs us that Kremer [BARCh]  ‘was appointed in 1937 and is thought to have left sometime in 1946. The covername BARCh occurs as a LONDON addressee and signatory between 3rd March 1940 and XXth October 1940, after which it is superseded by the covername BRION.’ (This analysis relies on the surviving VENONA traffic only, of course.) BRION first appears as a signatory or addressee on October 11, 1940. Thus the HASP traffic might provide evidence that Kremer was still active, as courier or signatory, or both, or, alternatively, the VENONA records might throw doubt on Wright’s claims about HASP. All three officers (Kremer, Sklyarov, Shvetsov) were active in London on June 7, 1941, as they are all cited as donating part of their salaries to the Soviet government.

The bottom line on Wright’s observations is that we are faced with another paradox. Apart from the fact that no trace of the ‘set of messages’ exists (why not, if they were solved overnight?), the association of Kremer with Sonia is very flimsy. The instance above is the sole surviving message in the VENONA archive that mentions SONIA. Wright’s account would imply the following: Apparently out of frustration with the fact that her transmissions received no response from Moscow, Sonia managed to contact the Embassy, and to meet her handler within a day or so. Sklyarov reported this event. At some stage afterwards, she was transferred to Kremer, who, apart from handling Fuchs, now had occasion to meet Sonia several times, and to make reports that he signed and sent himself. Yet the official archive informs us that Kremer stopped signing messages himself before Sonia even arrived in the United Kingdom.

What is also noteworthy is that Wright makes no comment about Sonia’s ability to escape radio detection-finding at this stage. If Sonia, as Kremer had recorded, had been transmitting for four successive nights, and had not been detected by RSS, one might have expected him, as a senior MI5 officer, to have reflected, at least, on her success in remaining undetected. He appears, at this stage, not to subscribe to the Chapman Pincher theory that Roger Hollis was able to interfere in the process; neither does he show any awareness that the proximity of Sonia’s home near Kidlington Airport might have masked her transmissions – which would admittedly have been a remarkable insight for that time.

[iv] The Sonia connection had been dismissed throughout the 1960s as too tenuous to be relied upon. MI5 tended to believe the story that she came to Britain to escape Nazism and the war, and that she did not become active for Russian Intelligence until Klaus Fuchs volunteered his services in 1944.

Apart from an evasive non sequitur (the connection was held to be tenuous, but MI5 accepted that Sonia became active with Fuchs in 1944, a very solid interrelation), Wright enters dangerous territory here, with a vague and undated summary of what ‘MI5 tended to believe’. Fuchs, of course, volunteered his services in 1941, not 1944, and was in the United States throughout all of 1944. Yet Wright’s lapsus calami may reveal a deeper discomfort, in that he utterly misrepresents the pattern of events. According to the archives, after Alexander Foote had spilled the beans on Sonia’s activities in 1947, MI5 strongly suspected that Sonia had been working for the GRU in the UK. They were ready (or pretended to be so) to haul her in for questioning on the Fuchs case as early as February, 1950, before his trial was even over, apparently unaware that she had already fled the country! (The service probably connived at her speedy escape.) The Fuchs archive at Kew shows that in November 1950, and again in December, Fuchs, from prison, viewed photographs and recognized Sonia as his second contact. Wright was either hopelessly uninformed, or acting completely disingenuously.

[v] In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could have been broadcasting her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between 1941 and 1943.

            But Kremer’s messages utterly destroyed the established beliefs. They showed that Sonia had indeed been sent to the Oxford area by Russian Intelligence, and that during 1941 she was already running a string of agents. The traffic even contained the details of the payments she was making to these agents, as well as the time and durations of her own radio broadcasts. I thought bitterly of the way this new information might have influenced Hollis’ interrogation had we had the material in 1969.

The statement attributed to GCHQ, if it indeed was made – and Wright provides no reference – needs parsing very carefully. We should bear in mind that no GCHQ spokesperson may have uttered these words, or that, if someone did state something approximating their meaning, Wright may have misremembered them. He provides no reference, no date, no name for the speaker.

First of all, Sonia’s home. She had, in fact at least four residences during this period, but, if we restrict her domiciles to those where she lived after she became active, probably in June 1941, we have Kidlington (from that June) and Summertown (from August 1942). Summertown was in Oxford, not near it. Thus a reference to ‘her home’ expresses lack of familiarity with the facts. ‘Only radio messages’ is perplexing. Does it mean ‘only those radio messages sent from her home?’, thus suggesting she could have sent messages from elsewhere? Maybe, but perhaps it was just a clumsy insertion by Wright. The omniscience that lies behind the denial, however, expresses a confidence that cannot be borne out by the facts.

It would have been less controversial for GCHQ simply to make the claim that no unidentifiable illicit broadcasts had been detected, and that Sonia must therefore have been inactive. But it did not. It introduced a level of specificity that undermined its case. It suggested that Sonia might have been broadcasting, but not from her home. If Sonia had been using her set, and followed the practices of the most astute SOE agents in Europe (who never transmitted from the same location twice – quite a considerable feat when porting a heavy apparatus, and re-setting up the antenna), she would likewise have moved around.

For GCHQ to be able to deny that Sonia had been able to broadcast would mean that it had 100% confidence that RSS had been able to detect all illicit traffic originating in the area, and that, furthermore, they knew the co-ordinates of Sonia’s residence at that time. Thus the following steps would have had to be taken:

  1. All illicit or suspicious wireless broadcasts had been detected by RSS;
  2. All those that could not have been accounted for were investigated;
  3. Successful triangulation (direction-finding) of all such signals had taken place to localise the source;
  4. Mobile location-finding units had been sent out to investigate all transgressions;
  5. Such units found that all the illicit stations were still broadcasting (on the same wave-length and with the identical callsign, presumably);
  6. All the offending transmitters were detected, and none was found to be Sonia’s.

Apart from the fact that transmissions from Kidlington were masked by proximity to the airport, and Sonia’s traffic concealed to resemble military messages, GCHQ’s assertion requires an impossible set of circumstances: that, if and when Sonia had broadcast, the location of the transmitter would have been known immediately, and the RSS would have been able to conclude  that the signals could not be coming from Sonia’s residence. That was not possible. No country’s technology at that time allowed instant identification of the precise location of a transmission. Not even groundwave detection was reliable enough to ‘pin-point’ the source of a signal to the geography of a city, even. Reports and transcriptions of suspicious messages were mailed by Voluntary Interceptors to the RSS HQ at Arkley View, in Barnet! Sonia would have had to broadcast for over twenty-four hours in one session to be detected by a mobile unit operating at peak efficiency, supported by rapid decisions (which was never the case). GCHQ might have claimed to Wright that no illicit transmissions originated from the Oxford area, and therefore they could discount Sonia’s apparatus (if they knew she had one.) Yet, again, that would require RSS to have deployed radio direction-finding technology in order to locate the transmitter, and Sonia would surely have stopped broadcasting by then.

Thus GCHQ’s claim is logically null and void. If Sonia made only one transmission, from her home or anywhere else, she would never have been detected. If she made more than one, from the same location, she would (according to the RSS’s reported procedures) inevitably have been detected, interdicted, and prosecuted. And GCHQ’s claim that she made no transmissions is clearly false, as she did transmit from the semi-concealed site at Kidlington, which was apparently never picked up. (After the war, she broadcast from her next home, The Firs at Great Rollright, as Bob King of RSS has confirmed, but these events are strictly outside the scope of GCHQ’s claim here.)

Moreover, GCHQ (actually named Government Code & Cypher School, or GC&CS, during the war) was not responsible for intercepting illicit transmissions in 1941-1943: that was the responsibility of RSS, which reported to SIS. GCHQ took over RSS after the war. Institutional memory may be at fault.

Ironically, Wright then undermines the GCHQ statement as an unfounded ‘belief’, as if it were a vague hope rather than a matter of strict execution of policy. Thus, either Wright drills a large hole in the track-record of GCHQ’s inviolability, or his claims about Kremer’s reporting of ‘the times and durations’ of Sonia’s own broadcasts lack any substance – or a mixture of both, since, irrespective of Sonia, RSS may not have been perfect in its mission of pursuing all illicit broadcasts, as we know from its own files. And we also know from the VENONA transcripts that Sonia tried to contact Moscow on successive nights in July 1941, from Kidlington. Since RSS apparently did not detect any of these transmissions, GCHQ’s boasts of omniscience are flawed. Wright’s lack of expressed astonishment at the inefficiency of RSS is again a remarkable reaction. Moreover, why would Kremer report on such details of her transmissions, if she was successfully in touch with Moscow already? It was one thing to report her failure to get through, but these claims appear superfluous, even absurd.

How we treat this claim about Kremer’s reports on Sonia’s broadcasts depends very much on how reliable a witness one views Wright by now. As Denis Lenihan has pointed out to me, what Wright asserts contains so much fresh information that his claims should be taken seriously. On the other hand, I would say that the Kremer telegrams are simply too implausible to be considered as valuable evidence. That Sonia would have had a ‘string of agents’ by 1941, that they would need to be paid, that Kremer would consider it necessary to report to Moscow the details of recent successful transmissions she had made to Moscow, even the role of Kremer himself in meetings and handling Sonia, fail to pass the authenticity test with this particular analyst. West and Pincher apparently agree with me. West relegates the item to an endnote on page 70. Pincher ignores the whole matter: there is no mention of HASP in his Index to Treachery.

Lastly, we have to deal with the final claims. It would be very unlikely for a wireless message, sent to Moscow in 1941, to provide the information that Russian intelligence had specifically sent Sonia to the Oxford area, although that might be a reasonable conclusion for Wright to make. In addition, the claim that Sonia had rapidly acquired a ‘string’ of agents, and was seeking expenses for payments that she was making to these mercenaries, is very improbable. Where and how she acquired them is not stated, but any contact who might have been providing information to Sonia informally would have probably jumped with alarm if Sonia had suggested that he or she should be paid for such indiscretions. Even Sonia herself, in her memoir, stated that the informants she nurtured provided her with confidential information out of principle, not for payment.

Yet the most awkward part of this testimony is the declaration that MI5 did not have this evidence in 1969, when (so Wright claims) it might have helped with a more successful interrogation of Hollis. Wright explicitly indicates that the discovery occurred in 1970, or later. The critical discoveries that were made in the decryption of reference book-based random numbers for the process of ‘closing’ were revealed, however, in the 1960s. The VENONA records show that GCHQ tried to censor a series of the Moscow-Stockholm GRU traffic for the Version 5 release of the decrypts, and that the Swedes had to restore the excised passages in Version 6. I have studied all these messages: a few appear to have no relevance to British affairs at all, but several do specifically relate to the use of commonly owned books (knigi), and even identify the titles of the volumes. All these messages have an issue date in the mid-1960s.

We thus come to the conclusion that GCHQ and MI5 had four opportunities to learn of the use of a common book to be used by agents and clandestine embassy wireless when it was too dangerous to try to deploy conventional one-time pads: Gouzenko’s revelations in 1945; Foote’s disclosures in his memoir of 1949; the descriptions gained from questioning the Petrovs in 1954/55; and the experiences of the Swedish FRA when they handed over their decrypts in 1960. Practically all the final decryption work on GRU London-Moscow messages that was possible was completed during the 1960s, yet Wright tries to pass off the breakthrough by Sudbury, and the serendipity location of the directory in the British Library, as occurring in the 1970s.

[vi] Once this was known I felt more sure than ever that Elli did exist, and that he was run by Sonia from Oxford, and that the secret of his identity lay in her transmissions, which inexplicably had been lost all those years before. The only hope was to travel the world and search for any sign that her traffic had been taken elsewhere.

Over the four years from 1972 to 1976 I traveled 370,000 kilometers searching for new VENONA and Sonia’s transmissions. In France, SDECE told me they had no material, even though Marcel told me he was sure they had taken it. Presumably one of the Sapphire agents had long since destroyed it. In Germany they professed total ignorance. It was the same in Italy. Spain refused to entertain the request until we handed back Gibraltar. I spent months toiling around telegraph offices in Canada searching for traces of the telex links out there. But there was nothing. In Washington, extensive searches also drew a blank. It was heart-breaking to know that what I wanted had once existed, had once been filed and stored, but had somehow slipped through our fingers.”

This, again, is a very controversial statement. Wright refers to ‘Sonia’s transmissions, which inexplicably had been lost all those years before’. Yet mentions of Sonia’s transmissions have never surfaced until now: the HASP exercise concerned the GRU’s alluding to such messages. Wright has given no indication that any of Sonia’s transmissions had been intercepted, and he even cites GCHQ as saying she could not have operated her wireless set undetected. So, if they never existed, they never could have been lost. Moreover, the records of Kremer’s supposed transmission(s) have also been lost. Wright may have wished that he had them in time to interrogate Hollis, but he cannot even present them after 1970, when it was too late!

Thus an astounding aspect of Wright’s testimony is his apparent lack of curiosity in determining what happened to the missing messages. He does not investigate what policy might have led to these last sets of decrypted traffic to be buried or destroyed. Surely his named colleague Sudbury and his fellow-cryptologists must have kept some copies of these vital messages, or at least have some recall as to what happened to them? Yet Wright does not undertake a search domestically first, or invoke his associates’ help in establishing the truth, and hunting the transcripts down. He ventures no opinion on the fact of their possibly being destroyed, but simply looks overseas.

Maybe there was a glimpse of hope that other countries might provide further VENONA nuggets, but, since we now know that the Stockholm operation concerned local traffic only, the quest seems very futile. And why ‘telex offices’? Why Wright expected further evidence of Sonia’s transmissions to come to light in telegraph offices around the world is astonishing. In the United Kingdom, Sonia’s messages were illicit, and subject to surveillance, with Voluntary Interceptors dispersed around the country to pick up the ground-wave from suspicious transmissions. If, by any chance, her messages were noticed anywhere else, amongst all the other radio noise, it would have been remarkable for any institution, public or private, to have dwelled upon them long enough to transcribe and store them. And if GCHQ (RSS) was never able to detect them, why on earth would Wright expect some foreign entity to be able to do so?

In addition, the question was not whether ELLI existed or not, but who ELLI was, and how significant a player he or she had been, and when he or she had been active. If this is the piece that clinches the argument for the case that Hollis was ELLI, it stands on very unsolid ground. Exactly what the link was between Sonia’s ability to maintain a string of agents and the existence of ELLI is not made clear by Wright. Did Wright really believe that he would have been able successfully to confront Hollis with the transcripts of Sonia’s messages to Moscow, and challenge him on the grounds that he had been able to prevent superior officers in MI5, RSS and GCHQ from performing their jobs?

It all echoes the laborious claims made by Chapman Pincher that the only way that Sonia could have hoodwinked MI5, RSS and GCHQ so that they all turned a blind eye to her shenanigans was through the existence of an intriguer in the middle ranks of MI5 who was so devious that he could entice his colleagues to ignore the basic tenets of their mission. Presumably it was ELLI who, instead of warning Sonia that it might be dangerous for her to persist in her illicit transmissions from one single geographic location, somehow convinced RSS that its procedures could be put in abeyance, and the signals ignored, and, moreover, that corporate memory allowed this oversight to become enshrined in official statements of policy within GCHQ after the war.

The Remaining Questions

Two crucial questions arise out of all this analysis:

  1. What happened to the missing messages?
  • Why did Wright mangle the story so much?

So much evidence conspires to inform us that what has been released to the archive of London-Moscow GRU traffic is only a small fraction of what was actually transmitted. The period of intensity is July 1940 to August 1941, followed by scattered fragments into early 1942, and a vast gulf until the end of the war, in 1945. The sequential telegram numbers tell us that less than 2% of the messages in 1940 and 1941 have been published. We have no idea how busy the communication link was during the next three years. We must therefore consider two separate sub-questions: i) given the ‘overnight breakthrough’ described by Wright, why were more messages in the 1940-1941 period not decrypted?, and ii) why was there a drought from the winter of 1941-1942 onwards?

The first sub-question cannot be answered by external analysis, as we do not know whether all messages were intercepted, which of these succumbed to even partial decryption, and which then remained classified because of issues of sensitivity or confidentiality. I do point out, however, that the official US VENONA website informs us that GCHQ did not hand over to the USA 159 of the GRU messages (i.e. close to the number I highlighted earlier) until 1996 – after the general disclosure of the VENONA project, indicating a high measure of discomfort about the disclosures (such as the Group X information).

What is also significant is that, having been passed decrypts from the Swedish authorities, GCHQ actually removed sections of the translated text before passing them on (in Version 5) to the Americans, with the result that the Swedes had to restore (in Version 6) the excisions GCHQ had made. Thus many messages in the VENONA archive include the puzzling rubric in their headings: “A more complete version of British Government-excised messages previously released in fifth VENONA release on 1 Oct 1996.” These revelations would seem to prove the case that the Swedes had made partial decryptions of their local GRU traffic, that they send these translations alongside the original messages, to GCHQ. It does not explain why GCHQ thought it was its business to edit them before passing them on to the NSA, especially if they also passed back their treatments to the Swedes at the same time.  A close analysis of all the relevant changes in Version 5 and Version 6 would be desirable. As I have indicated earlier, many of them have to do with the disclosures about shared reference volumes.

The Drought of 1942-1944

The second sub-question lays itself open to deeper inspection, because of the availability of other sources. On the matter of the missing messages, we need to judge:

  1. Did they not exist?
  2. Did they exist, but were never intercepted?
  3. Were they intercepted, but never stored?
  4. Were they stored, but subsequently lost?
  5. Were they discovered, but not decrypted (even partially)?
  6. Were they decrypted, but then not released?

The first issue is especially fascinating, partly because of Alexander Foote’s experience (or, at least, how he reported it). In October 1941, the Germans were at the gates of Moscow, and the vast majority of Moscow’s government apparatus was moved to Kuibyshev (now Samara), over a thousand kilometres to the east. In his testimony to MI5 in 1947, Foote told his interviewers that, working out of Switzerland, he lost contact with his controllers in Moscow in the middle of October, and, a few days later, even cabled Brigitte (Sonia’s sister) in London to determine what had happened. He then claimed that contact was not restored until March 1942, when he resumed his broadcasts. (This is all in Handbook for Spies, as well.)

Yet the existence of this forced hiatus is belied on at least two fronts. The TICOM (Target Intelligence Committee) archive indicates that Foote reported regularly during those winter months. Moreover, his boss, Alexander Radó (DORA) was using either Foote or another operator to communicate regularly with Moscow, as his memoir Codename Dora describes, with frequent messages about German troop movements. Radó echoes Foote’s story about the interruption, but states that it was on October 29 that he sent a desperate message to Moscow Centre. Contact was resumed at the end of November or the beginning of December, and all dated messages from October (the texts of which appear in Radó’s book) were re-transmitted. A telling detail indicates that Foote indeed was the chief wireless operator at this time: a TICOM interception shows that he reported on the source LOUISE from Berlin on December 3, and a related message listed by Radó of December 9 similarly reported on LUISE’s intelligence from Berlin. It could well be that Foote’s claim about radio silence was inserted by his ghost-writer at MI5, Courtenay Young – but why?

Radó’s telegrams are confirmed by Lota, who transcribes several of Radó’s messages from this period, and even includes photographs of a few from 1942. A satisfying match can be made between a telegram received on November 27, 1941 (Lota’s Document No. 37, on page 353), and Radó’s original message created on October 27 (p 76 of Codename Dora), confirming the delay before ‘Moscow’ returned to the air, and, incidentally, discrediting Foote’s account. Thus one might have expected a similar interruption to have occurred in London. Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador, tells us otherwise, however. Molotov remained in Moscow, and informed Maisky by telegram on October 17th that ‘most of the government departments and the diplomatic corps’ had left for Kuibyshev. This date, and the fact of the almost total evacuation of the Soviet government, are confirmed by other memoirs, such as Tokaev’s and those of the Petrovs. Maisky does not tell exactly when communications were re-established, but hints it was after only a few days, and he was then able to resume full contact. Thus he would have been able to pass on to the GRU officers inside his embassy what was happening, and they would not have made futile attempts to contact their bosses. Maybe, after a month, however, the watchers got tired of waiting for something to happen, and dropped their guard?

Then there is the ‘government policy’ theory. In Defending the Realm (p 376), Christopher Andrew, following up his comments about British government approval of Soviet use on ‘set frequencies’ (see above), writes: ”These radio messages were initially intercepted and recorded in the hope that they could eventually be decrypted, but interception (save for that of GRU traffic, which continued until April 1942) ceased in August 1941 because of the need to concentrate resources on the production of ULTRA intelligence based on the decryption of Enigma and other high-grade enemy ciphers. Interception of Soviet traffic did not resume until June 1945.”

This must be partially true. Yet Andrew shows a remarkable disdain for the facts in his endnote to this section, where he adds: “Since the intermittent Soviet reuse of one-time pads, the basis of the VENONA breakthrough, did not begin until several months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the messages intercepted and recorded up to August 1941 proved of little post-war value to GCHQ.” Au contraire, maestro! There was practically nothing that was useful that occurred after August 1941, as Andrew himself records a few pages later, when he describes the disclosure of Haldane and the X Group, from July 1940. Moreover, Andrew does not explain why interception of GRU traffic continued for so long, or what happened to the messages stored. The VENONA GRU files show only two messages from 1942, both fragments, from January 19 (London to Moscow) and April 25 (Moscow to London).

Whether resources had to deployed elsewhere is a dubious assertion, too. Much has been made of the famous Footnote supplied by Professor Hinsley, on page 199 of Volume 1 of British Intelligence in the Second World War, where he wrote that ‘all work on Russian codes and cyphers was stopped from 22 June 1941’, variously attributed to Churchill himself or the Y Board.  The Foreign Office had promptly followed up the Y Board’s edict by forbidding MI5 to bug the Soviet Embassy, or to attempt to plant spies inside the premises, but was apparently more relaxed about the activities of MI6 and GC&CS, which nominally reported to the Foreign Office. While it may have taken a while for the policy statement to seep through, we should note that the edict said nothing about stopping the interception and storing of messages.

Robert Benson’s in-house history of the NSA (of which a key chapter is available on the Web) contains far more direct quotations from British authorities, such as Tiltman, Dill, Marychurch and Menzies, than can be found (as far as I know) from British histories. It reinforces the message that interception of Soviet traffic fairly rapidly tailed off towards the end of 1942, and that, during 1943 and 1944 any messages that had been stored were actually destroyed, to the later chagrin of intelligence officers. But that was what the alliance with the Soviet Union meant: a severe diminution in attempts to exploit Soviet intelligence, and that pattern was echoed in the USA. Since, at that time, no progress had been made on deciphering Russian traffic, it may have made little difference. One might also point out that, unless RSS intercepted all traffic, and inspected it, they would not know which was GRU and which was not, which makes Andrew’s already puzzling claim about the extension for GRU until April 1942 even more problematic, unless RSS knew that the secondary clandestine line was for GRU traffic only. Moreover, Andrew does not present Hinsley’s argument as a reason for the cessation.

‘HASP’ Annotation to Soviet Messages Detected in 1942

Certainly the Soviet Embassy was watched, and traffic was being monitored closely in March and April 1942. As I write, I have in front of me (see photograph above) the page from the RSS file HW 34/23, which shows a set of daily messages intercepted from March 16 to April 16, with callsigns, that changed each day, also listed. Very provocatively, the word ‘HASP’ has been written in opposite the April 7 entry, in what appears to be an annotation of May 1, 1973, and on the following page appears ‘from Maisky to Cadogan April 1942’, as if Maisky had perhaps had to explain himself to the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. (One cannot be certain that the annotation ‘HASP’ refers exclusively to the April 7 entry, or whether its serves as a general descriptor. If the latter, it would appear that, in 1973, the observer recognized this set of traffic, coming from the back-up GRU transmitter, as generic HASP material, but it does not explain how he or she reached that conclusion.) Other sheets suggest the surveillance went on into 1943. Yet all the evidence seems to point to the fact that, because of the signals being received from the Y Board and the Foreign Office, and the volumes of Nazi traffic to inspect, traffic from the clandestine line was either ignored, or simply piled up unused, and was discarded. Moreover, it was remarkably late for Wright (or whoever was the annotator) to be making, in 1973, a link between the HASP material of 1959 and the RSS files of 1943.

Nevertheless, a completely new project to monitor Soviet traffic was started at the beginning of 1943. After Commander Denniston had been replaced by Travis as the head of GC&CS in January 1942, he moved to London to set up a team that would begin to inspect and attempt to decipher Soviet diplomatic messages. This became known as the ISCOT project, after its key contributor Bernard Scott (né Schultz), and it led to the discovery of a rich set of ‘Comintern’ messages between the Soviet Union and its satellite guerrilla operations, after Stalin had supposedly closed down that organisation. Denniston was also involved in direction-finding the illicit traffic of 1942 to the Soviet Embassy. Thus, even if GRU/NKVD messages classified later as VENONA were ignored, it could hardly have been because of scarcity of resources. In addition, Andrew never explains why interception suddenly picked up successfully again in June 1945, and why RSS/GCHQ had no trouble finding the frequencies and call-signs used by the GRU.

A tantalising aspect of this whole investigation is the lack of overlap between published records of the GRU, and interceptions stored as part of the VENONA program. Verifiable records taken from Soviet archives are very thin on the ground, and we should be very wary of claims that are made of privileged access. Lota’s book (mentioned above) is a valuable source, containing multiple texts, and even photographs. It concentrates very much on military matters, especially concerning the movements of Nazi forces in the Soviet Union, and thus does not touch the early aspirations of the ENORMOZ (atomic weapons research) project. The familiar name of Sklyarov (BRION) appears quite frequently, but the first example of his telegrams is dated September 23, 1941 (Document No. 25). The VENONA sample of intercepted GRU messages from London (visible at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/Venona-London-GRU.pdf ) shows regular communications from BRION up to August 28, 1941, followed by a sprinkling of fragments up to March 1942, and then a long hiatus until 1945. Lota’s coverage thus overlaps in time, but I can see no messages that appear in both accounts.

Lastly, I must include the maybe very significant possibility that the rival channel set up in the London Embassy was not taken seriously enough. The official VENONA USA website offers (in ‘The Venona Story’) a very provocative paragraph, which runs as follows:

“Hundreds of GRU New York messages remain unsolved. The loss to history in the record of the GRU in Washington is particularly noticed. Of the several thousand Washington messages from 1941 to 1945, only about fifty were decrypted, in spite of the best efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom. Unlike the New York GRU messages, where translations concern espionage, these few Washington translations deal with routine military attaché matters (such as overt visits to U.S. defense factories). However, a separate Washington GRU cryptographic system, which was never read, presumably carried GRU espionage traffic.”

One might ask: ‘How did they know about this “separate Washington GRU cryptographic system’”?’ And what does ‘never read’ mean? That it was not intercepted? How did they know it was GRU if they never ‘read’ it? If it had been sent via cable, it would have been accessible, like all the other messages. Are the USA authorities referring to a clandestine wireless system, perhaps? And, if so, why did they not close it down? The reason these questions are relevant is that we have ample evidence that the GRU in London did attempt to set up a clandestine wireless system, and, after considerable teething problems, were apparently successful. (Vladimir Petrov confirms that such an arrangement happened in Stockholm, as well.) As I suggested earlier, it is possible that the RSS had worked out that the clandestine channel was for the GRU only. The intense USA focus of the VENONA website, and the various books that have been published in the US, mean that this project has not received the attention it deserves.

A closer inspection of the London-Moscow GRU traffic reveals the evolution of the project. The documents in this file are unfortunately not in chronological order, but a careful review suggests that the first reference is in a report dated July 17, 1940, from London to Moscow, where it is evident that a transmitter/receiver had been received in the diplomatic bag, but that the instructions for its assembly and deployment were deficient. London has to ask Moscow for the measurements for the aerial for MUSE’s apparatus. BARCh (Kremer) had decided to install the set in the lodgings of the military attaché, as he considered it was not safe in the Embassy, where the NKVD was ever-watchful. (“The only ones to fear are the NEIGBOURS’ people, who are in so many places here that it is hard to escape their notice.” This remark would tend to contradict the well-publicised notion that the NKVD staff had all been recalled to Moscow during 1940.) A few days later, however, it appears that Kremer has been ordered to change his mind, and install the radio-set in the Embassy, and is making rather feeble excuses about the lack of progress. On July 26, Kremer complains that the receiver works on 100 volts, which means it would be burned out by the 200-volt current in the embassy, and a transformer did not work. On August 13, they are back in the attaché’s house, where alternating current is available, and MUSE plans to try again, as a telegram of August 27shows. Kremer requests a schedule for the following months.

On August 30, 1940, reference is overtly made to the ‘London GRU emergency system’. The operator MUSE had been heard clearly, on schedule.   Yet problems in communication begin to occur in September, and the Director begins to show impatience, reporting again on September 18 that MUSE’s message was not received in full. Maybe it was Kremer’s struggles that prompted the transfer of Sklyarov from New York. Kremer tries to get his act together. In a message of October 3, he remarks that Sklyarov’s arrival is impending. In the same message he reports that MUSE has had a successful communication with Moscow at last, and that she will be trying again on October 7. Yet it was not a proper two-way conversation. On October 10, 1940, one of the few messages from Moscow shows the Director informing Kremer of further problems receiving messages on the illicit line, with nothing received since September 18. The Director has to remind him of the correct wavelength, crystal, callsign, and time.

It takes Sklyarov himself to report on November 25 that MUSE is now ready to begin regular communication, and that is the last we hear of the link for a while. Presumably it worked satisfactorily. Yet a very significant message on July 31, 1941 indicates a hitch, and that MUSE has had to test communications again. Sklyarov asked Moscow how well they had received her. The reason that this could be so important is the fact that the only report on SONIA that appears in the extracts was transmitted the very same day, suggesting perhaps that the back-up system (for highly confidential espionage traffic) was not working. Similarly, the only message from this period referencing Klaus Fuchs is of a short time later, on August 10. It would seem, therefore, that Sklyarov had to resort to the diplomatic channel to pass on critical information. Nearly all of the messages in the intervening period (November 1940-July 1941) concern more routine military matters (as Wright reported), so the absence of any other information on SONIA, both beforehand and afterwards, could mean either that there were no reports, or that they were sent on the clandestine channel.

It was probably this traffic which excited RSS so much in the spring of 1942, when they tracked unauthorised wireless signals emanating daily from the Soviet Embassy, signals that displayed an unusual pattern of call signs. As I described above, Alexander Cadogan in the Foreign Office seems to have approached Ambassador Maisky about them, but may have received a brush-off. Yet why only one of these messages was annotated with ‘HASP’ is puzzling. It is as if the messages had been intercepted and stored, and one of them had been (partially) decrypted through the assistance of the HASP code-book. But, in that case, why only one? And where is it? Was it the missing message from Kremer claimed by Peter Wright to show SONIA’s recruitment of her nest of spies?

Moreover, one final crucial paradox remains, concerning the two rare messages I identified a few paragraphs earlier. In the 1940-1941 GRU traffic can be found only one message referring to SONIA (3/NBF/T1764 of July 31, 1941: transcribed above), and only one to Klaus Fuchs (3/PPDT/101 of August 10, 1941). The singularity is startling. In their book, Venona; Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr offer (on p 439) a footnote on the Fuchs message, which describes Fuchs’s meeting with Kremer. Part of the note runs as follows: “This message is from a period antedating the Soviet duplication of one-time pads. Its decryption was made possible because the London GRU station in 1941 ran out of one-time pads and used its emergency back-up cipher system based on a standard statistical table to generate the additive key. British cryptanalysts working with the Venona Project recognized it as a nonstandard and vulnerable cipher and solved it, but not until well after Fuchs’s arrest.”

I found this analysis disappointingly vague. Apart from the unlikelihood of the GRU’s suddenly running out of one-time pads, the note did not indicate for how long the back-up system had to run, and how the problem of distributing new pads was resolved. I took a look at West again. On page 26, he writes: “The clerk [Gouzenko] also described the GRU’s emergency cipher system, and although this was considered at the time to have potential, it was never found to have been used apart from the 1940-41 London traffic, when the GRU apparently ran out of OTPs.” This was even more opaque. It threw the traffic for two whole years into the ‘back-up system’ bin, when a cursory inspection of the files indicates that the primary system was working well until Moscow and London started discussing the problem. Yet it rather wearily echoed the text that appears in The Venona Story, namely that ‘  . . . several messages deal with cipher matters — in 1940 to 1941, the London GRU used a so-called Emergency System, a variation of the basic VENONA cryptosystems. London GRU messages merit very close attention.’  Indeed.

I managed to contact Dr. Haynes by email, and asked him whether he could shed any light on the source of the footnote. He promptly responded, reminding me that two messages in the GRU trove from this period referred to the OTP problem, citing telegrams No. 410, of August 30, 1940, and No. 1036, of September 19, 1940. Yet Haynes and Klehr had cited 1941 in their note! These two messages were transmitted about a year before the phenomenon of the Fuchs and Sonia messages! How could an OTP problem remain unaddressed that long? Was the implication that the back-up system (using the reference book OTP on the diplomatic channel, as the new GRU wireless link was not yet working) was used for the next twelve months? How should this information be interpreted? I tactfully raised these questions with Dr. Haynes, but, even after conferring with Louis Benson, he has not been able to shed any light on the confusion over the expiration of the one-time pads, and the use of the back-up system, although Benson did offer the important information that he thought the British had ‘identified the standard statistical  manual used to generate the additive keys’. But no date was given.

The sequence of events between April 1940 and March 1942, the period that encapsulates the most frequent of the London GRU traffic, is so confused that a proper assessment must be deferred for another time. The primary problem is that both London and Moscow refer, in messages presumably transmitted using the standard diplomatic channel, exploiting conventional one-time pads, of the imminent exhaustion of such tools. In that process, they ask or encourage the immediate use of the back-up system. Yet it is not clear that all successive messages use that back-up system, as later messages make the same appeal. It might be that the pads were in fact re-used as early as 1940. One enticing message (1036, of September 19, 1940) talks about ‘the pad used having been finally destroyed’, as if it should have been properly destroyed earlier, but was in desperation, perhaps, employed again, against all the rules.

In any case, a possible scenario could run as follows. Coincident with the GRU’s plan to move Sonia to Britain, to create a new espionage network, it decided to establish a clandestine wireless channel to handle her potential traffic. The task was entrusted to Kremer, but he struggled with getting the apparatus to work, and Sklyarov was transferred from New York to take charge. The conventional connection was used until November 1940, when the clandestine line was made to work, at about the time Sonia prepared to leave Switzerland. It was thereafter used successfully, until an interruption at the end of July 1941 caused Sklyarov to use the standard diplomatic channel for a critical message about Sonia – the only one to have survived in VENONA. RSS appears to have noticed messages on the clandestine link, but, if it did indeed intercept them and store them, no trace has survived. It is probable that no messages on that line were ever decrypted (apart from fragments at the end of 1941, and the two 1942 messages identified earlier). If other messages concerning Sonia were picked up and analysed from the standard link, GCHQ and MI5 must have decided to conceal them. (I have outlined this hypothesis to Dr. Haynes.)

Why did Wright mangle the story so much?

This close inspection of Wright’s account in Spycatcher shows a glorious muddle of misunderstood technology and implausible explanations. So why did he publish such an incoherent account of what happened? I present three alternative explanations:

  1. Wright simply did not understand what had been going on.
  2. Wright understood perfectly what had been going on, but wished to distort the facts.
  3. Wright had forgotten exactly what had been going on.

Number 1 is highly unlikely. He had been recruited as an expert with scientific training, and had showed knowledge of audio-electronic techniques to the extent that he uncovered Soviet bugs on embassy premises. He must have understood the principles of wireless communication, and the practical implications of intercepting both cable and wireless traffic. Number 2 does not make sense, as the mistakes that appear in his narrative tend to undermine any case he wanted to make about the identity of ELLI and the pointers towards SONIA. The sentence I cited above (in Cable or Wireless) is so manifestly absurd that it should immediately have alerted any knowledgeable critic to the fact that something was awry. If Wright had wanted to place a false trail, or was on a mission, he would have ensured that he appeared as a reliable expert on the main issues, but inserted subtle twists in the subordinate texts – in the manner in which Chapman Pincher operated. Wright definitely wanted to incriminate Hollis, but overall did not think he was distorting the truth, even if he was part of the ‘conspiracy’ to obfuscate what happened in the VENONA project. If he did embroider his account with the inclusion of an improbable and unverifiable message, he surely did not think it would be considered important, or that he would be found out.

Regrettably, one must conclude that, by the time Wright came to put his memoir together, he was approaching his dotage. Even though he was only seventy-one years old in 1987, his health was not good: he had high blood-pressure, shingles, and diabetes. In his account of the events, The Spycatcher Trial, Malcom Turnbull repeatedly draws attention to Wright’s failing health and faulty memory, pointing out that, as early as 1980 (when Wright was only sixty-four) he was too frail to travel from Australia to the United Kingdom by himself. Wright did not remember clearly how everything happened, how the intelligence services were organized, what the processes behind VENONA were, or exactly what HASP consisted of. His book was effectively ghost-written by Paul Greengrass, who clearly did not understand exactly what he was told by Wright, and, by the time it came for Wright to check the text, he was probably simply too impatient in wanting to see the book published, and consequently did not go over carefully everything that Greengrass had written. He was not concerned about the details: he wanted to get back at MI5 over its mistreatment of him on the pension business, he needed the royalties, and he was focused on getting the message on Hollis out.

I believe that it is entirely possible that, in his summoning up the telegram from Kremer that reported on Sonia’s network and payments, Wright was recalling the July 31, 1941 message that I reproduced in full above. It does mention agents and payments, but was sent not by Kremer, but by Sklyarov (BRION), mistakenly identified as Shvetsov in the annotations. We should not accept Wright’s account simply because, at one time, he had been an expert and a reliable witness. In addition, later reports suggest that there was an untrustworthy, almost devious, dimension to Wright’s behaviour. In his book on the trial, Malcom Turnbull expressed surprise at Wright’s ‘too uncritical worship’ of his mentor, Lord Rothschild. In his 2014 memoir, Dangerous to Know, Chapman Pincher asserted that Rothschild and his wife Tess loathed Wright, and he implied that Wright had exerted some kind of blackmail over the pair by threatening to include a chapter in Spycatcher that described Tess’s ‘long relationship with Anthony Blunt’.

As I indicated earlier, Chapman Pincher does not use his sometime accomplice Wright’s ‘evidence’ in his comprehensive presentation of the case against Hollis. Given that Pincher clutched at every straw he could find, and was always willing to present testimony from anonymous but ‘authoritative’ sources, this omission is somewhat startling. All Pincher states on Sonia’s recruitment of agents (beyond Fuchs and Norwood) runs as follows: “There is also new evidence that she and Len may have recruited and serviced a further fellow German communist – an atomic scientist working at the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford, whose wife Sonia had met socially.” (p 198 of Treachery) Pincher also acknowledges that members of her family were informants for her, but dismisses Sonia’s claims about finding and recruiting ‘minor agents’ as possibly being a ‘GRU legendary cover’ (p 259). What this ‘new evidence’ consisted of is not explained, and the first statement has a very hypothetical ring about it. The conclusion, however, must be that Pincher did not trust Wright’s account of the breakthrough telegram.

Conclusions

Apart from the fact that ‘Spycatcher’ caught no spies, Wright was an unreliable witness. As D. Cameron Watt observed about the case: “A moderately careful reading of Wright’s book, let alone any checking of such statements he makes that can be checked, reveals, as most serious reviews of the book in the American press have shown, that Mr. Wright’s command of the facts, let alone his claims to universal knowledge, are such as to cast the gravest doubts on his credibility where his assertions cannot be cross-checked.”  He completely misrepresented the structure of the VENONA project, and the material it used. He was likewise confused about the elements of the HASP program, and what the Swedes brought to the game. He magnified an illusory message, unlikely in its authorship, improbable in its content, and dubious in its objective, in order to promulgate a claim about Sonia that has no basis in any other facts, and to provide ammunition for a flimsy case that ELLI was Roger Hollis, the incrimination of whom he blatantly stated was his goal in publishing the book. In his muddled argument, he committed much damage to the other aspects of his case. At the time of the Spycatcher trial, even though he was only 71 years old, he was portrayed by Richard Hall and Malcolm Turnbull as an old, sick man, with a reputation for mendacity. He received the news of the outcome of the trial while in hospital.

The VENONA files, which should provide the archival evidence for his investigation, are in a mess. The USA website is very US-centric, it is scattered with spelling mistakes, chronologically misplaced items, contradictory and incorrect annotations about identities, misrepresentations of English place-names, and wayward references that could be cleaned up by recent scholarship. The British GRU traffic has been broken out, but it is out of sequence. An intense analysis of the pan-European communications could shed some strong light on a host of new relationships. A comprehensive index needs to be built, so that scholars could be more productive in bringing their expertise to bear.

HASP was a project that exploited GRU traffic between Stockholm and Moscow, which had been partially decrypted by the Swedes. It succeeded because of the policy that the GRU deployed, for the operations of clandestine and emergency services, and those of agents under their control, of using a common reference-book as a one-time pad. The Petrovs’ experience in Moscow and Stockholm contributed substantially to identifying the volume used. Thus dramatic improvements in decrypting certain London-Moscow traffic were made. Yet fresh work can be undertaken. The considerations of HASP, and other published material (e.g. Vassiliev), need to be incorporated into the British VENONA story (of which there is no ‘authorised’ publication at all, and nothing fresh since Nigel West’s book of 2009) and cross-referenced. An analysis of the excisions that the British Government is stated to have made between the Version 5 and Version 6 releases should be undertaken. In other words, it constitutes a major opportunity for GCHQ in the year that its authorised history appears. It needs a professional cryptanalyst to work on the source messages, and the evolution of the decipherment.

As I have written before, an authorised history of wartime and post-war interception services remains to be written. To begin with, the function crossed multiple organisations – not just all the intelligence services, but the War Office, the armed forces, the Post Office, even the Metropolitan Police. The Radio Security Service (RSS), of interest primarily to MI5, was never owned by the Security Service (despite Nigel West’s continued claims to the contrary), and was managed by a section of SIS from May 1941 until the end of the war, when GCHQ took control of it. Yet Keith Jeffery, in his authorised history of SIS, treated RSS (and GCHQ, which also reported to SIS during the war) as step-children. It will be interesting to see whether the coming history of GCHQ (Behind the Enigma, The Authorised History of Britain’s Secret Cyber Intelligence Agency, by John Ferris, due in November of this year), when covering the wartime years, treats RSS as an essential part of GC&CS (as it was then).

I believe that this bulletin provides an accurate account of the phenomenon of HASP, but a similar modern exercise needs to be performed against VENONA itself. After I post this report, I intend to draw the attention of the GCHQ Press Office to it. I ask all readers who would like to see some effort expended on clearing up this significant episode in British Intelligence History to contact the Press Office at pressoffice@gchq.gov.uk themselves, and thus reinforce my message.

(I regret that this research has been conducted without detailed access to the several files on VENONA at the National Archives, which have not been digitized. My previous superficial scans of the information did not indicate to me that the matters I have discussed were covered by the archival material at all. If any reader has found information in them that either clarifies, expands or confounds what I have written, please contact me. I also want to express my gratitude to Professor Glees, and to Denis Lenihan, for comments and suggestions they made concerning an earlier version of this article. Denis has continued to provide, right up to the completion of this report, very useful insights from the material he has analysed. I alone am responsible for the opinions expressed here, and any errors that may appear in the text.)

Major Sources:

Spycatcher, by Peter Wright

Venona, by Nigel West

GCHQ, by Richard Aldrich

The Code Breakers, by David Kahn

Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon

Handbook for Spies, by Alexander Foote

The Code Book, by Simon Singh

Battle of Wits, by Stephen Budiansky

Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon

Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, by Nigel West

Sekretnyi Front General’nogo Shtaba’, by Vladimir Lota

Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response 1939-1957, ed. Robert Louis Benson & Michael Warner

Defend(ing) the Realm, by Christopher Andrew

The Haunted Wood, by Allan Weinstein & Alexander Vassiliev

Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes & Harvey Klehr

The Venona Secrets: The Definitive Exposé of Soviet Espionage in America, by Herbert Romerstein & Eric Breindel

The Secrets of the Service, by Anthony Glees

The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949, by Keith Jeffery

Empire of Fear, by Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov

Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks

Codes, Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communications, by Fred B. Wrixon

British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 1, by F. H. Hinsley and others

The Venona Story, by Robert L. Benson

MI6 and the Machinery of Spying, by Philip H. J. Davies

The Petrov Affair, by Robert Manne

A Spy’s Revenge, by Richard V. Hall

The Spycatcher Affair, by Malcom Turnbull

Treachery, by Chapman Pincher

Dangerous to Know, by Chapman Pincher

Peter Wright and the ‘Spycatcher’ Case, by D. Cameron Watt, in Political Quarterly, Volume 59, Issue 2, April 1988

The National Archives

https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/venona-soviet-espionage-and-the-american-response-1939-1957/preface.htm

https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/Venona-London-GRU.pdf

https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/dated/1945/16jul_cipher_text_seaman.pdf

https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB278/01.PDF

https://vault.fbi.gov/Venona/Venona%20Part%201%20of%201/view

https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks

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

2 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Politics, Technology

Special Bulletin: Sonia and the Mail on Sunday

Dateline: Sunday June 28, 2020

Today the Mail on Sunday has published an article based on research performed by Professor Glees and me, describing the way that MI6 (SIS) carried out a plan to manipulate Ursula Hamburger, nee Kuczynski, as a double-agent, and how the exploit catastrophically rebounded on both MI6 and MI5. It can be seen at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html

Ever since I started exploring the KV 6/41 file at the National Archives in greater depth, and published my findings in a special bulletin at the end of April (see here), Professor Glees and I have been pondering over its implications. We quickly agreed that the letter sent by Victor Farrell to Len Beurton in March 1943 was conclusive proof that MI6 was using Len and his wife, Ursula (agent SONIA), as some kind of asset, and this finding sealed the somewhat speculative story I had outlined in ‘Sonia’s Radio’. Professor Glees was able to use his contacts at the Mail on Sunday to excite their interest, and the story that appears today is the result.

We are very pleased with the outcome. Of course, there are items which we might have expressed differently ourselves (and Professor Glees and I still enjoy differences of opinion on how some of the evidence should be interpreted), but we agree that a compelling account of the story of treachery and self-delusion has been laid out. We think it has shed dramatic light on an intelligence puzzle that has foiled the experts for decades.

The story is unavoidably very complex, and in compressing into a single article an international series of events involving multiple intelligence agencies, it is inevitable that some oversimplifications occur. The details of World War II, and the fact that the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany during the Battle of Britain, may not be familiar to many readers. A new generation will not be aware, necessarily, of who Klaus Fuchs was, and why secrets of atomic weaponry were so critical in the years following the war. Thus some of the nuances of politics in the 1940s have had to be skated over, as have some of the details of the career, movements, and activities of Ursula and Len Beurton.

Those readers who want to pursue in more depth the story of SONIA’s career, her activities in Switzerland, her arranged marriage, and her escape to the United Kingdom, are encouraged to read the full story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, viewable here. And if any reader wishes to send a serious question about the Mail on Sunday piece, or anything that I have written about on coldspur, he or she is encouraged to post a comment after this bulletin, or to send me an email at antonypercy@aol.com. I shall post questions and responses here.

Lastly, look out for a fresh report at this website, an analysis of the description by Peter Wright (‘Spycatcher’) of the wireless messages that convinced him both of Sonia’s activity, and of Roger Hollis’s culpability, on Tuesday, July 1.

Update No. 1 (June 28)

Last night I received my first item of feedback, from a US resident. It ran as follows: “Utter nonsense. Sorry to hear that you bought into a ridiculous idea. Embarrassing for you that it has been published.”

My reactions are many. First of all, I know this correspondent (whom I shall call ‘Horace’) to be a smart fellow, who has contributed originally to intelligence research. But I also know him as a notorious skimmer of my work (like Frank Close, perhaps). After my Round-up last month, Horace wrote to me, enclosing a link to Ben Macintyre’s website, and the reference to the book on Sonia, at which I had to point out to him that I had already cited it in the same report, and pointed out a gross error. And, since, this Mail on Sunday feature is a highly logical extension of all that I have been writing in the saga of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ and since, Horace must have failed to follow the plot. He has occasionally stated that he does not agree with my conclusions, but has never provided a shred of evidence to challenge them. Moreover, Horace must be temperamentally unsuited to this business: so many mysteries exist that it is absurd to dismiss a serious attempt to explain them as ‘nonsense’. Alternatively, Horace must have a theory of his own to explain the multitude of accommodations that MI6 and MI5 made for Sonia – one he has never articulated.

I am far from ’embarrassed’. This feature is excellent publicity for coldspur. As for ‘buying into a ridiculous idea’, I find that amusing. No one ‘sold’ it to Professor Glees and me. We developed it.

Horace is not Ben Macintyre, by the way. I asked Horace whether I could quote his comments on coldspur. He never replied.

Update No. 2 (June 29)

I have now received many responses to the Mail on Sunday piece, for which I thank everyone. They were, with one exception already reported on, overall very positive, but I understand that the appearance of the information in this format did confuse some of you.

Let me recap first. Back in early May, I had been trying to find a media outlet for my latest conclusions about Sonia, in order to forerun the arrival of Ben Macintyre’s book on the Soviet spy. Having failed with the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, I was encouraged by Professor Glees to work with him on approaching the Mail on Sunday, where he had a solid contact. I jumped at the opportunity, but also had some concerns, as I was not sure how I would remain in control of the project. Things went fairly well, a story was put together (based on my material on coldspur, largely by Professor Glees, who was more familiar with the house style), and we in fact expected the story to be placed on May 31.

Then matters became difficult. For four successive weeks, the decision to publish was deferred, since apparently more pressing stories demanded priority. This was an extremely frustrating time for me, as I was obviously embargoed from writing any more on the subject that might weaken the freshness of the Mail on Sunday feature. We had no contract, but our contact implored us to be patient. I was about to pull the plug on the whole project, and either start with a new media outlet (which could have caused a repeat of the whole drawn-out business) or simply reverse to my own publishing model, where I can issue what I want, when I want, in my own voice, and without any editors looming over me, but where the readership and the publicity are indisputably small. I wanted very much a) a story in the national media about Sonia, and b) publicity for coldspur, so that I could continue my writings with the confidence that they were gaining more attention.

We thus extended our offer for one more week, and the Mail on Sunday came through. Unfortunately, it did not refer to coldspur (at least not in the on-line version), which I believed had been part of the agreement. That is a great disappointment to me, but I imagine those readers really interested will track coldspur down. Has it drawn Ben Macintyre out of the undergrowth? Not yet, it seems, but that will probably take a little longer. I must believe that ‘his attention will be drawn’ by experts, agents, editors, and colleagues at the Times to the Mail on Sunday story, and he may start to regret not having responded to my overtures a couple of years ago. I am predictably very keen on learning what his particular angle on Sonia (how Chapman Pincher spelled her) or Sonya (Macintyre’s choice, and the form in her translated memoir) will be.

As for the story itself, some of you were confused, for which I apologise. You found the narrative unconvincing, and looked for more substance – such as that which you normally find on coldspur. Some asked whether I agreed with all the statements ascribed to Professor Glees! I should mention that all the quotations offered to the paper were presented as joint submissions, but in their intensity, and maybe for space reasons, the journalists attributed nearly all to the Professor, and I was left with only a single, somewhat fractured one. Never mind. I am very grateful to Professor Glees for the academic and professional authority he brought to the project, and the proof of the pudding will remain in my researches on coldspur.

Thus I acknowledge that a slightly less ‘melodramatic’ version of the analysis would be useful – nay, essential – to many of my readers. You have submitted questions that demand scholarly and cool answers. Nevertheless, rather than address them during the month one by one here, I have decided to devote next month’s bulletin (to be published July 31) to an exposition of the full case of the MI6/MI5 collusion regarding Sonia, list all the evidence that led the Professor and me to our conclusions, and also describe the conundrums and unanswered questions that remain.

In the meantime, keep those comments coming, and do not forget to look out for new analysis on Peter Wright and Spycatcher tomorrow.

Update No. 3 (July 7)

The dust has settled a bit. I have received some further very positive feedback. Unfortunately the Google News feature that Professor Glees uses, which provides alerts on activities of his like the publication of this article, appears to have been de-activated. Many of his contacts may therefore not have noticed the feature. The editors at the Mail on Sunday are similarly perplexed. It looks as if some undefinable body, upset by the revelations, has the power to interfere with such mechanisms. How can that be?

Professor Glees and I have both been in cordial contact with Ben Macintyre. He claimed, in his message to Professor Glees, that his book would obviously be making references to coldspur. I await the arrival of his book (which he promised to send me via the US publisher) with great eagerness, so that I may verify that assertion. He apologised to me for the fact that my 2018 message to him via his publisher had gone astray, and told me that he had corrected the errors on his websites. Yet, as I look at them again today, they all appear to be unchanged.

Meanwhile, I have started working on a fuller and less hectic version of the Sonia/MI6 story for publication here on July 31. I also sent an email to the GCHQ Press Office, alerting it to my post on Spycatcher and HASP, and providing the link, on July 1. I have yet to receive any acknowledgment. I am sure my report has been the cause of much merriment in Cheltenham.

4 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Personal, Politics

Late Spring Round-Up

‘Dave’ Springhall’s Headstone

Dum spiro, conspiro

I was intending to publish this month the final chapter in the series The Mystery of the Undetected Radios, but was inhibited from doing so by the closure of the National Archives at Kew. I had performed 90% of the research, but needed to inspect one critical file to complete my story. Since my doughty researcher, Dr. Kevin Jones, will not be able to photograph it until we get the ‘All Clear’, the story will have to remain on hold. Instead, I use this month’s bulletin to sum up progress on a number of other projects.

Contents:

  • Sonia and Len Beurton
  • Ben Macintyre
  • Prodding Comrade Stalin
  • The National Archives and Freedom of Information
  • Professor Frank Close at the Bodleian
  • The BBC and Professor Andrew
  • Nigel West’s new publications, and a look at ELLI
  • The Survival of Gösta Caroli
  • Dave Springhall and the GRU
  • ‘Superspy Daughter in Holiday-camp Tycoon Romance Drama!’ (exclusive)
  • China and the Rhineland Moment

Sonia and Len Beurton

I published the recent bulletin, The Letter from Geneva, because I believed it was important to get this story out before Ben MacIntyre’s book on Sonia appears. The fact that Len Beurton, Sonia’s bigamous husband, had acted as an agent-cum-informant for SIS in Switzerland seemed to me to be of immense importance for Sonia’s story, and the way that she was treated in the United Kingdom. Sonia herself wrote in her memoir that, when Skardon and Serpell came to interview her in 1947, they treated Len as if he were opposed to communism, rather than being an agent for it, abetting his wife as a recognized but possibly reformed spy or courier for Moscow, and the contents of the letter helped to explain why.

I wanted to have my conclusions published in a respectable medium, so as to have a more serious stake placed in the ground. I could not afford to wait for the more obscure journals on intelligence matters (and then perhaps get a rejection), and instead considered that the London Review of Books might be suitable. The editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, could conceivably have a personal interest in the story (she is an Eitingon, and has written about her grandfather’s cousin Leon, who managed the project to kill Trotsky). The LRB frequently runs long articles on off-beat subjects (in fact, it runs so many earnest leftish political pieces that one sometimes forgets what its mission is supposed to be), and it could presumably turn round my piece quickly. I thus sent my bulletin, as an exclusive, to Ms. Wilmers, with a covering letter explaining the appeal it could have to her readers, the opportunity for a scoop, and describing how I would re-work my article to make it a suitable contribution for her periodical.

After a week, I had heard nothing – not even an acknowledgment. (Coldspur 0 : The Establishment 1) So I made a similar approach to the Times Literary Supplement, with obviously different wording in the cover letter. The Editor, Stig Abell (who had, after all, commissioned a review of Misdefending the Realm a couple of years ago), responded very promptly, and informed me he was passing my piece to a sub-editor to review. A couple of days later, I received a very polite and appreciative email from the sub-editor, who offered me his regrets that he did not think it was suitable for the periodical. That was it. I thus decided to self-publish, on coldspur. (Coldspur 1 : The Establishment 1)

I have since been in contact with a few experts on this aspect of Sonia’s and Len’s case, and have discussed the puzzling circumstances of the letter, why Farrell chose that method of communication, and how he must have expected its passage to be intercepted. Why did he choose private mail instead of the diplomatic bag? Would the diplomatic bag have taken the same route as airmail, and would the German have opened that, too? Why did he not send an encrypted message over cable (although the consulate had probably run out of one-time pads by then), or wireless to SIS in London? Presumably because he did not want Head Office to see it: yet this method was just as risky. And what kind of relationship did he possibly think he could nurture with Len in those circumstances? No convincing explanation has yet appeared.

Ben Macintyre

Meanwhile, what about Ben Macintyre’s forthcoming book on Sonia, Agent Sonya, subtitled variously as Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy, or as Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy? The publisher indicates that it is ‘expected on September 15, 2020’, yet Mr. Macintyre himself seems to be lagging a bit. His US website (to which I was directed at http://benmacintyre.com/US/ ) shouts at us in the following terms: ‘The Spy and the Traitor Arriving September 2018’, but even his UK website needs some refreshment, as it informs us that the paperback edition of his book on Gordievsky will be published on May 30, 2019 (http://benmacintyre.com/about-the-author/ ), and lists events in 2019 where the author will be signing copies of the same book. Wake up, Benny boy! This is 2020.

So, back to the publisher of Agent Sonya, where we can find information at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/612487/agent-sonya-by-ben-macintyre/ . The promotional material includes the following passage: “In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent.” This is all rather disturbing, however. Sonia’s husband, Len, returned from Switzerland only in July 1942, and they lived in Kidlington for a short time before moving to Summertown, in Oxford. Her third child, Peter, was not born until 1943. Len did not work as a machinist at that time, since he was unemployed until called up by the R.A.F. in November 1943. And their name was not ‘Burton’ but ‘Beurton’. Still, ‘thin’ and ‘elegant’ might, with a little imagination, conceivably be accurate, and she surely spoke English with a foreign accent. Not a promising start, however.

Macintyre has updated his blurb, apparently. The Waterstone’s site (https://www.waterstones.com/book/agent-sonya/ben-macintyre/2928377041403?utm_source=wsnfpreorderA230520&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=preorders ) tells a different story. The year has been corrected to 1944, where Sonia is pedalling her bicycle to ‘gather secrets from a nuclear physicist’. The only problem with this scenario is that Klaus Fuchs had left for the United States in December 1943.

So what is ailing our intrepid journalist? I hope things improve from here onwards. I shall place my advance order, and await the book’s arrival, as expectantly as the publisher itself. In fact, I heard from my sources earlier this month that Macintyre has started ‘tweeting’ about his new book. Meanwhile, I believe I have taken the necessary initiative by posting my analysis first. (Coldspur 2 : The Establishment 1)

Prodding Comrade Stalin

Neo-Keynesian Stalin?

It continues to dismay me how Stalin’s pernicious influence casts a depressing and inaccurate shadow over the history of the twentieth century. We can now read how President Putin attempts to resuscitate the days of the Great Patriotic War, emphasising Stalin’s role as a leader, and minimising events such as the Nazi-Soviet pact or the massacres of the Katyn Forest. At the end of last month, the New York Times carried a story that described how the Russian authorities have tried to discredit an amateur historian who discovered mass graves of Stalin’s victims in Sandarmokh in Karelia, near the White Sea. The State Military society is arguing that ‘thousands of people buried at Sandarmokh are not all Stalin’s victims but also include Soviet soldiers executed by the Finnish Army during World War II’, which is palpable nonsense.

Thus my disgust was intense when I read an article by one Lionel Barber in the Spectator of April 4. It included the following passage:

“Covid-19 is indeed the Great Leveller. Conventional wisdoms have been shattered. But crises offer opportunities. Wise heads should be planning ahead. FDR, Churchill, and, yes, Stalin lifted their sights in 1942-43 as the war against Nazi Germany began to turn. Prodded by gifted public servants like Keynes and others, these leaders thought about the future of Europe, the balance of power and the institutions of the post-war world.”

The idea that Stalin could have been ‘prodded’ by ‘gifted public servants’ is a topic to which perhaps only Michael Wharton (Peter Simple of the Daily Telegraph) could have done justice. I can alternatively imagine a canvas by Repin, perhaps, where the wise Stalin strokes his chin as he listens to a deputation from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as if saying: ‘You make a strong point there, Alexey Dimitrovich. Maybe world revolution is no longer necessary. I shall change my plans immediately.’ I was propelled into sending a letter to the Editor of the magazine, which ran (in part) as follows:

“I wonder whether the Stalin Mr. Barber refers to is the same Joseph Stalin who incarcerated and killed millions of his own people, and then, after the war, enslaved eastern Europe, killing many of its democratic leaders and thousands of those who defied him, as he prepared for the inevitable collision with the ‘capitalist’ west? I doubt whether the despot Stalin was ‘prodded’ by anyone, except possibly by a distorted reading of Marx and Lenin, and certainly not by ‘gifted public servants’, whether they were Keynesian or not. The ‘future of Europe’, especially that of Poland, was a topic that, after Yalta, caused a sharp rift between the Allies, and led to the Cold War. Where did Mr. Barber learn his history?”

The Editor did not see fit to publish my letter. I do not know what is the saddest episode of this exercise: 1) The fact that Lionel Barber, who was Editor of the Financial Times from 2005 until January of this year, and is thus presumably an educated person, could be so desperately wrong about the character and objectives of Stalin; 2) The fact that the Editor of the Spectator was not stopped in his tracks when he read this passage, and did not require Mr. Barber to modify it; 3) The fact that no other Spectator reader apparently noticed the distortion, or bothered to write to the Editor about it; or 4) The fact that the Editor, having read my letter, determined that the solecism was so trivial that no attention needed to be drawn to it. (Coldspur 2 : The Establishment 2)

To remind myself of the piercing insights of Michael Wharton, I turned to my treasured copy of The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, and quickly alighted on the following text, from 1968:

                                                            Poor old has-beens

“The Soviet Government,” said a Times leader writer the other day, “has become hopelessly outdated and out of touch with contemporary movements at home and abroad.”

So the Soviet Government is hopelessly outdated, is it? It has just imposed its will on the Czechs and Slovaks by force. And this is supposed to be hopelessly outdated in an age which, thanks to perverted science (a highly contemporary movement if there ever was one), has seen and will see force repeatedly and successfully applied on a scale undreamed of by the conquerors of the past.

So force is outdated. Treachery is outdated. War is outdated. Pain is out dated. Death is outdated. Evil itself is not only outdated but out of touch with contemporary movements at home and abroad.

That a writer, presumably intelligent, certainly literate and possibly able to influence the opinions of others, can believe these things is positively terrifying. If the Russian Communist leaders, as we are told day in day out, are now cowering in the Kremlin in a state of extreme terror here is some little comfort for them.

When Soviet tanks are on the Channel Coast, shall we still be telling ourselves that the Soviet Government is outdated and out of touch? As we are herded into camps for political re-education or worse, shall we still go on saying to each other, with a superior smile: ‘This is really too ridiculously outdated for words. I mean, it’s quite pathetically out of touch with contemporary movements at home and abroad.’?”

There was as much chance of Brezhnev and his cronies paying heed to ‘contemporary movements at home and abroad’ in 1968 as there was of Stalin being prodded ‘by gifted public servants’ in 1946. Pfui!

As a final commentary on this calamity, a few weeks ago I read Norman Naimark’s Stalin and the Fate of Europe, published last year, which explained how duplicitous Stalin was in his dealings with western political entities, and how he restrained European communist parties until the Soviet Union successfully tested the bomb in August 1949. One of the books cited by Naimark was Grigory Tokaev’s Stalin Means War, published in 1951. I acquired a copy, and read how, in 1947, Colonel Tokaev had been commissioned by Stalin to acquire German aeronautical secrets, by any means necessary, including the kidnapping of scientists, to enable the Soviet Union to construct planes that could swiftly carry atomic bombs to New York. Thus would Stalin’s plans for world revolution be enforced.

‘Stalin Means War’

I do not think this book is a hoax. Tokaev managed to escape, with his wife and young daughter, to the United Kingdom at the end of 1947, where he had a distinguished academic career, and managed to avoid Moscow’s assassins. He died in 2003, in Cheam, in leafy Surrey, just a few miles from where I was born and grew up. I wish I had had the honour of shaking his hand. His book provides undeniable evidence that Stalin was not listening to gifted civil servants, and musing about the peaceful organisation of the world’s institutions. He wanted war.

The National Archives and Freedom of Information

In my recent piece on Rudolf Peierls (The Mysterious Affair  . . . Part 2) I drew attention to the increasing trend for archival material that had previously been released to be withdrawn and ‘retained’. Further inspection, prompted by a deeper search by Dr. Kevin Jones, reveals that an enormous amount of material is no longer available, especially in the ‘AB’ (records of the Atomic Energy Authority) category. I have counted 43 files alone in AB 1, 2, 3, & 4, mainly on Rudolf Peierls, including his correspondence, as well as multiple reports on Pontecorvo, and including Fuchs’s interview by Perrin. For instance, if you look up AB 1/572, you will find a tantalising introduction to the papers of Professor Peierls, described as ‘Correspondence with Akers, Arms, Blackman [Honor?], Blok, Bosanquet [Reginald?], Brown . . .’, from the period 1940-1947: yet the rubric informs us that ‘This record is closed while access is under review’.

I suspect some of these files may never have been made available, but it is hard to tell unless one has been keeping a very close watch on things. For example, the file on Perrin’s interviews with Fuchs (AB 1/695) has been well mined by other researchers, and the fact that the statement ‘Opening Date: 16 July 2001’ appears below the standard message would suggest that this file has indeed been withdrawn after a period of availability. But does the lack of any such date indicate that the file was never released, or is the absence merely the inconsistent application of policy? Several months ago, I referred to another provocative file, HO 532/3 (‘Espionage activities by individuals: Klaus Fuchs and Rudolf Peierls’),which has a different status of ‘Closed or Retained Document: Open Description’, where the rubric reads ‘This record is retained by a government department’, and has never been sent to the National Archives. It puzzles me somewhat as to why the Home Office would even acknowledge the existence of such a controversial file, as an open description without delivery just encourages speculation, but I suppose that is how bureaucracy works, sometimes.

Dr. Jones (who has made it his speciality to find his way among prominent archives) offered me his personal interpretation, which may be very useful for other researchers. He wrote to me as follows:

  • “Where a file is stated to be ‘closed while access is under review’, but has ‘Open Document’ in the ‘Closure status’ field (e.g. AB 1/572), then the file has always been available, until its ‘disappearance’.
  • Similarly, as with AB 1/695, if there is a specific ‘Record opening date’ the previously retained file was made available from that date, again until its ‘disappearance’.
  • With the likes of HO 532/3, where it is stated ‘Retained by Department under Section 3.’”, the file has indeed never been available.
  • Many of these ‘Retained’ files do reveal the file’s title (the ‘Open Description’) to tantalise the researcher, but many such files are listed in the catalogue with no title/description.
  • Where a specific government department is named in a retained file entry (e.g. FO, MOD, etc.), it is obliged to process a FoI request, though don’t expect a quick response, especially if they are composing various forms of waffle to justify not releasing the file! When the ‘government department’ is not named (as with HO 532/3), there is good chance it is retained by MI5/MI6, both of which are exempt from the FoI Act (well, certainly the latter, which also holds the retained SOE files; not 100% sure about MI5). In any instance, click the ‘Contact Us’ button and the TNA’s FoI team will inform you of the good/bad news.”

Occasionally, therefore, the researcher is invited to submit an FoI (Freedom of Information) request, as an attempt to challenge the status of the censored file. I performed this over the above Espionage file, on the grounds that no conceivable reason could be justified for withholding it now that the subjects (and their offspring) are all dead, but received just an acknowledgment. My colleague Denis Lenihan had approached GCHQ concerning the HASP file (referred to by Nigel West and Peter Wright), which was claimed to contain transcripts of Soviet wireless messages intercepted in Sweden during WW II. Denis requested its release, as no conceivable aspect of British security could be damaged through its publication, but his request was rejected by the GCHQ Press Office (as if it were simply a matter of PR).

Denis then brought my attention to another statutory body whither appeals could be sent – the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. I had just read an article in the Historical Journal of March 2014, by Christopher J. Murphy and Daniel W. B. Lomas (‘Return to Neverland? Freedom of Information and the History of British Intelligence’), which very quickly explained that ‘the intelligence and security services fall outside its provisions, in marked contrast to the comparable legislation in the United States  . . .’ I thus wondered why we bothered, and under what circumstances any of the security services (MI5, SIS, GCHQ) would feel they should have to even consider such requests. But, after all, Kew does advertise the facility: is it an exercise in futility?

Denis wrote to me as follows: “While they’re right about the FOI legislation, the security agencies react in odd but sometimes helpful ways. I remember Pincher saying somewhere that the Romer Report (re the Houghton/Molody/Kroger case) was obtained from MI5 by someone who applied under FOI. I once sought a document from MI5 and got the classic Sir Humphrey response: ‘while MI5 is not subject to the FOI Act, it has been decided to treat your application under that Act. It has been unsuccessful’.” That was rich – so generous! Then Denis went on to say that the authors of the article appeared not to be aware of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, to which he had turned with the HASP material. (On his recommendation, I made a companion request, referring to the fact that a reference to HASP was evident on some of the RSS records, and that it was thus in the public interest to make the material available. I have since conducted some deep research into the HASP phenomenon: I shall report in full in next month’s coldspur.)

I followed up Denis’s valuable lead to Chapman Pincher’s Dangerous to Know. Pincher’s account of the application, and its rejection, can be seen in the chapter ‘The Elli Riddle’, on pages 318 and 319. An official of the Intelligence and Security Committee suggested that Pincher complain to the Tribunal about MI5’s lack of action on a ‘missing’ report on Gouzenko made by Roger Hollis. The Tribunal had been set up in 2000, under the Human Rights Act, to consider complaints about the public authorities, but Pincher had, surprisingly, never heard of it. It took notice of Pincher’s request (would it have paid heed to submissions by those of lesser standing, without a platform in the media?), and required MI5 to respond on the status of the Hollis report.

MI5 sent two items of correspondence to Pincher, stating that ‘despite an extensive search of the Service’s archives ‘it had to conclude that no record of the important interview was ever made’. And that appeared to be the end of the affair – until William Tyrer, through an astonishing display of terrier-like determination, managed to extract a copy from MI5, having first discovered a reference to a vital telegram in the Cleveland Cram archive. Tyrer wrote up his conclusions in 2016, in an article in The International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08850607.2016.1177404), and Denis Lenihan has analysed Tyrer’s findings in Roger Redux: Why the Roger Hollis Case Won’t Go Away.

As the Tribunal’s website (https://www.ipt-uk.com/ ) explains, the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 did strengthen provisions for the public to make appeals, but it is not clear to me that the withholding of files really fits into what the IPT declares its mission, namely ‘a right of redress for anyone who believes they have been a victim of unlawful action by a public authority using covert investigative techniques’. That sounds more like heavy-handed surveillance techniques, or officers and agents masquerading as person they were not in order to infiltrate possibly dissident groups. And the organisation has a very bureaucratic and legalistic methodology, as the recent decision on an MI5 case shows (see: https://www.ipt-uk.com/judgments.asp, and note that the Tribunal cannot spell ‘Between’). It is difficult to see how the body could sensibly process a slew of failed FoI requests. And what about the Home Office, retaining aged documents? That doesn’t come under the grouping of security services.

Yet all of this fails to grapple with the main question: why has the Government suddenly become so defensive and concerned about records dealing with matters of atomic power and energy, most of them over seventy years old, and many of which have already been dissected in serious books? In the articles to which I provided links beforehand, Michael Holzman and Robert Booth say it all. The lack of a proper explanation is astounding, and the blunderbuss approach just draws even more attention to the fact that the civil service is out of control. Did Peierls’s letters to Blok and others betray some secrets that would be dangerous for the country’s foes to get hold of? I cannot imagine it. Maybe all will be revealed soon, but the furtive and uncommunicative way in which these files are being withheld just induces more distrust of the authorities, and their condescending attitude to the public. (Coldspur 2 : The Establishment 3)

Professor Frank Close at the Bodleian

Professor Frank Close

My status as Friend of the Bodleian entitles me to attend events staged by that institution, and a couple of months ago I received the following invitation: “Our first video by Professor Frank Close, available exclusively to the Friends, can be viewed here. In this talk, ‘Trinity: Klaus Fuchs and the Bodleian Library’, Professor Close uses the Bodleian’s collections to describe an extraordinary tale of Communist spies and atomic bombs.” I viewed the presentation on YouTube, but I don’t believe that it is available solely through subscription, as the above link appears to function properly.

It does not appear that Klaus Fuchs ever visited the Bodleian Library, but Professor Close uses Bodleian resources, such as the correspondence of Rudolf Peierls, and the photographic collection of Tony Skyrme, another Trinity College, Cambridge man, and contributor to the Manhattan Project (see https://archives.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/3424 ) to weave a fascinating story about Fuchs. Skyrme accompanied Fuchs and the Peierls family on a ski-ing holiday in Switzerland in 1947, and produced a riveting set of photographs of that adventure, some of which Close reproduces in Trinity, his biography of Fuchs. Close also makes some fascinating linkages between the dates that Fuchs claimed vacation days from his work at Birmingham, and the timings of wireless messages to Moscow reporting on the communication of his latest secrets. He does, however, avoid any possible hint of controversy over Peierls’s career, ignoring what I have written about him, even though his final message was a very pertinent one about the relationship between Fuchs and those who ‘adopted’ him, and how he eventually betrayed them.

Since I have read Close’s book, and am familiar with the overall story, the pace of his presentation was a little slow for me. Yet I could see that Close is a very gifted lecturer, and must have truly energized his students when he was a working physics don. I accordingly sent an email congratulating him on his performance, at the same time asking a question about the source of some of his data. I never received a reply. Apparently I have fallen out of favour with the learned professor, who was so eager to communicate with me a few years ago. (Coldspur 2: The Establishment 4)

The BBC and Professor Andrew

Readers may recall my last Round-up, in November 2019, where I left with the optimistic projection that, having been able to speak to Mr Brennan’s Personal Assistant, and hearing from her that she would commit to follow up on my letter, I might be able to make some progress on my complaint about Professor Andrew’s high-handed, even contemptuous, behaviour towards the listeners to the ‘Today’ show. (This concerns a letter written by Eric Roberts to a friend which Andrew categorized as ‘the most extraordinary intelligence document’ that he had ever seen, but of which he later claimed to have no memory.)

Well, I heard nothing. So, early in January, I tried to call the lady at Broadcasting House. (I had to explain who I was to get past the switchboard.) And there was no reply. I thus tried asking the switchboard operator if he could give me her email address, telling him, quite truthfully, that I was following up a previous conversation with her. And, believe it or not, in what was probably a gross breach of institutional policy, he gave it to me. I was thus able to write to her, as follows:

Dear Xxxxxxxx,

You may recall that we spoke several weeks ago about my correspondence with the BBC, specifically with Bob Shennan. You were familiar with my letter, and told me that it had been passed to Audience Services. You also said that you would personally ensure that I received follow-up.

Well, I have heard nothing since, and felt it was time to make contact again. Could you please explain to me what is happening, and why I have not yet received a reply to my letters?

Thank you.

Sincerely, Tony Percy.

Six days later, I received the following reply:

Good evening Mr Percy,

I am very sorry I have just picked up this email, which was sitting in my Junk inbox.   I will again try and find out where your original correspondence is and why it hasn’t been responded to, I know you offered to resend me a copy, may I please take you up on this.

Apologies again for the non response and I will come back to you as soon as I can.

Regards,

Xxxxxxxx

EA to Group Managing Director.

‘Be patient now  . . .’  I thus responded:

Thanks for your reply, Xxxxxxxx.

The reason I was not able to send you the letters beforehand was that I never received any email from you giving me your address! Only when the kind switchboard operator offered it to me when I called last week (explaining that I had spoken to you before: otherwise he probably would not have handed it out), was I able to contact you.

Anyway, here are the two letters we discussed. I would really appreciate your tracking down whoever is tasked with giving me a response. You will notice that it is now over three months since my original letter  . . .

Best wishes, Tony.

I didn’t hear from Xxxxxxx again, but on January 21st, I received the following message:

Dear Antony Percy,

Reference CAS-5759257-M8M4X9


Thank you for your letters and we apologise for the time it has taken to respond.

I have discussed your request with Sanchia Berg whose report you refer to on the Today Programme. While we appreciate your frustration, the decision whether or not to release the document rests with the family and not with the BBC. Sanchia has confirmed that this was a private family document which Eric Roberts’ family shared with her and later with Rob Hutton. The family did not want to publish it in full but agreed to certain extracts being made public. It was only with their consent that she shared it with Christopher Andrew. I understand Sanchia did suggest that you look at Rob Hutton’s book, as he’d published more of the letter than Sanchia had made available in her reports. Nor is it the case that Sanchia was being evasive. Rather she was respecting the family’s wishes.

I am afraid too that we can’t really comment on what Christopher Andrew has said. He obviously views an awful lot of documents, so it’s not that surprising he cannot remember in detail a long document he read four years ago. He is not the only historian the BBC talks to about MI5 – but he is their official historian, so it’s logical that we should go to him fairly frequently.

I have asked Sanchia to contact the family on your behalf and will let you know if she is successful. However, we would make it clear there is no guarantee they will be back in touch. I am sorry I am not able to give you any further help and once again I apologise for the time it has taken to respond to your concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Nelson
Editorial Adviser, BBC News


BBC Complaints Team 
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

I tried one last gasp:

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your reply. It was worth waiting for.

I appreciate your asking Sanchia to approach the family on my behalf. Since the family approved her showing the document to Christopher Andrew and Rob Hutton, I assume that they were comfortable with greater publicity. (Rob Hutton did not reply to my inquiry.) I await the outcome with great interest.

But I must admit that I do not find your distancing the BBC from Andrew acceptable. After all, it is on the BBC website that his comments still appear (see https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33414358). Do you not accept some responsibility for this highly provocative opinion, and do you not agree that it would be appropriate for the BBC to contact him, remind him of what he said, point out the information on the website, and request a clarification from him, instead of members of the public (like me) having to chase around for months trying to gain an explanation from the corporation? Why does Andrew’s role as MI5’s ‘official historian’ allow him to use the BBC to promote himself and to provoke public interest, but then to evade his professional responsibilities by concealing facts concerning MI5?

Sincerely,

Tony Percy.

But that was it. I heard no more.  The BBC is in such disarray, and the ‘Today’ editors have now moved on. I am not going to gain anything else. For a moment, I thought I might score a goal, but I suppose it is a draw of some sorts. (Coldspur 2 – The Establishment 4)

Nigel West’s New Publications

As I was flicking through one of the book catalogues that I receive through the mail, I noticed two startling entries, one advertising a new edition of Nigel West’s MI5 (originally published in 1981), the other his MI6 (1983), published by Frontline. Now this was exciting news, as I needed to learn what the “Experts’ Expert” (Observer, 1989) was now writing about the two intelligence services after an interval of over thirty years. I was half-minded to order them immediately at the discounted prices of $37.95 and $26.95, but thought I should check them out on-line first. Thus Casemate Publishers can be seen to promote the books, at https://www.casematepublishers.com/mi5-british-security-service-operations-1909-1945.html#.XrLLhSN_OUk , and the overview for MI5 includes the following: “In this new and revised edition, Nigel West details the organizational charts which show the structure of the wartime security apparatus, in what is regarded as the most accurate and informative account ever written of MI5 before and during the Second World War.”

This was encouraging, and I thought I might get a glimpse of the new Contents by gaining a Google Snippet view, before committing myself. Yet the text, as displayed by that feature, indicated that the Contents of the book had not changed, and the number of pages had not increased. Was that perhaps merely a procedural mistake, where Google had not replaced the former text? I decide that the only way to find out was to ask the author himself. Now, I have not been in touch with Nigel for a few years. I have since tweaked his nose a bit on coldspur, especially over his superficial yet contradictory treatment of Guy Liddell, and I wondered whether he would reply. Maybe he had not seen what I had written, but, if he had, he might not want to communicate with me.

Anyway, I sent a very polite message to him, in which I explained how excited I was at the prospect of reading his new versions, and the very next morning he replied very warmly, and included the following revelation: “The four wartime titles recently republished (MI5; MI6; The Secret War: The Story of SOE and The Secret Wireless War: GCHQ 1900 -1986) are simply corrected new editions of the four books previously published.”

Is this not shocking, even a gross misrepresentation of goods sold? Apart from the fact that, if I were a historian with a chance to revise an earlier book in these circumstances, I would take the opportunity to refresh it with all the research uncovered in the meantime, such as a host of files from the National Archives, and Christopher Andrew’s authorised history, I would be very careful in arranging how the book was presented to the public. But not just one! Four titles? I think this is highly irregular, and I hereby warn anyone who was thinking of acquiring any of these four volumes that the information they get will be very outdated, and that I doubt that all the multiple errors in them have all been addressed. (Coldspur 3 : The Establishment 4)

Meanwhile, I have been scouring other Nigel West books. His latest, Churchill’s Spy Files: MI5’s Top Secret Wartime Reports (2018), exploits the KV 4/83 file at Kew (although the reader is pushed to find the source, since it does not appear until a footnote to the very last sentence of the book). Beginning in April 1943, Director-General Petrie of MI5 sent a regular summary report, delivered to Churchill and for his eyes only (the copy was taken by the emissary), outlining the activities and achievements of MI5. It seems that West produces the reports in full, although I cannot yet verify that, as the files have not been digitized, and he adds some very useful (as well as some very dense and impenetrable) commentary gained from study of the relevant MI5 files at Kew, such as on the Double-Cross System, and on MI5’s major success against Soviet espionage in World War 2, the successful prosecution of Dave Springhall.

Yet it is another weird West concoction, akin to his recent book on Liddell (see http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/ ), on which my colleague Denis Lenihan has recently posted an invigorating article (see https://www.academia.edu/43150722/Another_Look_At_Nigel_West_s_Cold_War_Spymaster_The_Legacy_of_Guy_Liddell_Deputy_Director_of_MI5 ). The author’s sense of chronology is wayward, he copies out sheaves of material from the archives, the relevance of which is not always clear, and he overwhelms the reader with a host of names and schemes that lack any proper exegesis. Moreover, the Index is cluttered, and highly inaccurate. I saw my friend General von Falkenhausen with a single entry, but then discovered that he ranges over several pages. Indeed, West describes, through rather fragmentarily, the SIS scheme to invoke Falkenhausen in 1942-43, which is very relevant to my discoveries about Len Beurton. I immediately downloaded from Kew the relevant files on the very provocative HAMLET, taking advantage of the current free offer. I shall return to comment on this volume when I have completed my reading of it.

West does highlight the role of Anthony Blunt in editing the reports for Churchill, which brings me back, inevitably I suppose, to ELLI, the spy within MI5 (or SIS) called out by the defector Gouzenko in 1945. I have studiously avoided making any statement on ELLI in my reports so far, but Denis Lenihan has been writing some provocative pieces, and I must catch up with him eventually. I had happened to notice, in Chapman Pincher’s Treachery (2012 edition, p 78), that the author quoted the file KV 3/417 as confirming that ELLI was a spy working for the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) in London in 1940. He gave the source as the GRU defector, Ismail Akhmedov, whose work In and Out of Stalin’s GRU, I had quoted in Misdefending the Realm. So I went back to that file, resident on my PC, and found the reference, in paragraph 104. The writer indeed states that Akhmedov was indeed the source, but that the defector claimed that ELLI was a woman! Why did Pincher not include that in his account – was that not rather dumb? And how come nobody else has referred to this anomaly? Professor Glees has pointed out to me that no male given a cryptonym by Soviet Intelligence ever received a female name. Apart from Roessler (LUCY, after Lucerne, which is a special case) and DORA (an anagram of Alexander RADÓ), I think he is overall correct, although I have to add the somewhat ambiguous IRIS, who was Leo Aptekar, a ‘chauffeur’, Sonia’s handler at the Soviet Embassy.

I have thus started a fresh project on digging out the various sources on ELLI. First of all, I re-read Molehunt, Nigel West’s account of the hunt for Soviet spies in MI5. This is a very confusing world, what with Pincher staking his reputation and career on Hollis’s culpability, based on what Peter Wright told him, John Costello pointing the finger at Guy Liddell (before succumbing to a mysterious and untimely death himself), Nigel West, using the substance of Arthur Martin’s convictions behind the scenes, making the case that Graham Mitchell was the offender, and Christopher Andrew pooh-poohing the lot of them as a crew of conspiracy theorists while allowing himself to be swayed by Gordievsky’s assertion that ELLI was, improbably, Leo Long. West’s book is very appealingly written, but his approach to chronology is utterly haphazard, he is very arch in concealing his whole involvement in the process, and he makes so many unverifiable assertions that one has to be very careful not to be caught up in the sweep of his narrative. For instance, he identifies the failure of British double-agent manoeuvres with Soviet spies as a major item of evidence for stating that MI5 had been infiltrated. But he never explores this, or explains what these projects were. Apart from the attempt to manipulate Sonia (and Len) I know of no documented case of such activity, and, as I have repeatedly written, such projects are doomed to fail as, in order to be successful, they rely both on discipline by a very small and secure team as well as exclusive control of the double agent’s communications.

Ismail Akhmedov

I also went back to Akhmedov, to re-acquaint myself with how he described his lengthy interviews with Philby in Ankara in 1948. His conclusion was that, even though a stenographer was present, and he suspected the safe-house had been bugged, Philby reported only a small amount of the material that he passed on, which certainly included a description of the GRU’s set-up in London. (He does not mention ELLI here.) But he also wrote that he knew this because of his contacts with American intelligence afterwards.  “Many years later I learned that Philby had submitted only a small part of the reams of material obtained from me to the British and American intelligence services”.  That indicated to me that a fuller record exists somewhere, and that Akhmedov was shown Philby’s report. Akhmedov also said that, a year later (in 1949) he was thoroughly debriefed by the FBI, CIA and Pentagon officials in Istanbul. So I assumed that CIA records were a good place to look.

And, indeed, the CIA archives display quite a lot of information that Akhmedov supplied them about GRU techniques and organisation, but in secondary reports. (I have not yet found transcripts of the original interviews.) Moreover, literature produced more recently points to a critical role that Akhmedov played in unmasking Philby. One account (Tales from Langley by Peter Kross) even states that Akhmedov informed the CIA in 1949 that Philby was a Soviet spy (how Akhmedov discovered that is not clear, since he obviously did not know that for a fact in 1948, although he claimed he partly saw through Philby’s charade at the time), and that Philby was presented with Akhmedov’s testimony when he was recalled from Washington immediately after the Burgess-Maclean escapade. Unfortunately, Kross provides no reference for this assertion, but Akhmedov’s informing the CIA at that stage would be an astonishing revelation: it would put Philby’s presence in Washington under a harsh new light, frame White’s ‘devilish plot’ in a dramatic new context, and even explain why Eric Roberts was faced with an astonishing new reality when he spoke to Liddell in 1949. Is that what Andrew was hinting at? I am going to claim an early goal, before VAR gets in. (Coldspur 4 : The Establishment 4)

Another anomaly I have noticed is the famed reference to ELLI (actually ‘ELLY’) in the Vassiliev papers. (These were transcripts of files created by Alexander Vassiliev from the KGB archives, containing information on the GRU as well, and available on the Internet at https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks .) Chapman Pincher presented the assertion that Gouzenko had betrayed the existence of ELLI in British intelligence as appearing in a report from Merkulov to Stalin in November 1945, and William Tyrer has echoed Pincher’s claim in his article about ELLI.

Yet the published archive states no such thing. The comment that “Gouzenko reported on the GRU source in British intel. ‘ELLY’” is not in the selected highlights of Merkulov’s report, but appears as an introduction in a separate pair of parentheses, looking as if it had been added by Vassiliev as editorial commentary, after the statement that informs us that what follows is a summarization of what Philby has given them. If it is intended to also reflect the information received from ‘S’ [STANLEY = Philby] that immediately precedes it, it is worth noting that Philby’s report likewise includes nothing about ELLI.

Pincher cites the comment as coming from Merkulov’s report, but uses the on-line version as his source. He is wrong. Tyrer reproduces the whole introduction in his article, but removes the parentheses. He is careless. Of course, it is very possible that Merkulov did write to Stalin about Gouzenko and ELLI, and that needs to be verified. Merkulov was, however, in the NKVD/KGB, not the GRU, and it seems implausible that he would want to lay any bad news concerning the GRU on Stalin’s plate. I cannot quickly see any other reference to the GRU in Merkulov’s communications, and Allen Weinstein and Vassiliev himself, in The Haunted Wood, suggest (note, p 105) that any reference to the GRU by Merkulov was an attempt to pass off some of the responsibility for Elizabeth Bentley’s defection to the GRU, who recruited her originally in 1936, and for whom she worked until 1938, when she was transferred to the NKVD.

Thus one might ask: if Vassiliev thought that the reference to ELLI was important enough to be highlighted, why did he not publish the original text that contained it? (I have checked the original Russian manuscript on the Wilson Center website: the texts are the same. Yet some pages are missing in all versions: original scan of manuscript, Russian transcription, and English translation). We should recall, also, that Vassiliev was not transcribing the texts surreptitiously: he had been given permission from the Association of Retired Intelligence Officers (KGB alumni) to inspect them, was well-briefed in western intelligence interests, and under no pressure. So I decided to try to ask him what the import of his commentary was. I know he is hiding somewhere in England (maybe holed up with Oleg Gordievsky in an especially leafy part of foliate Surrey), so on May 18 I sent a message to his publisher to inquire whether they could pass on a question to him. I was brushed off with a message saying I should look on Vassiliev’s social media, or write a letter to the publisher. I doubt whether Vassiliev is seeking any attention, or wanting to give clues to his whereabouts, so I shall take the latter course.

There is no doubt ELLI existed. But ELLI was almost certainly a woman, and the information on her is so sparse that she was probably a minor player, and was not an informant for long. Thus the quest for identifying ELLI has to be separated from the generic search for traitors within MI5. If there was evidence of leakage on certain projects, MI5 should have investigated it, traced it back to those officers who were privy to the information, and then tried to discern how they might have passed it to a member of Soviet intelligence. Instead, they listened to the emotional appeals of Angleton and Golitsyn, and started examining (and sometime interrogating) Mitchell, Hollis, Liddell, Hanley, even White.

In Spycatcher, Peter Wright tried to list the strongest reasons for suspecting a major source of treachery within MI5, narrowing his search for ELLI to Hollis and Mitchell.  I noticed that, after the Gouzenko revelations broke out, he even consulted Akhmedov to discuss the arrival of ‘ELLI’s telegrams’ [sic] in Moscow. But the two of them apparently did not discuss ELLI’s gender! It is all very mystifying. And if there was an endemic failure to protect against communist subversion (as L’Affaire Sonia shows), it makes even less sense to pretend that the rather dim Roger Hollis had the power and influence to stop all his smarter colleagues from performing their jobs properly. Every time I go back to Pincher, I am stunned by the ham-handed way he overstates his case against Hollis. Any decent defence-lawyer would submerge his case within minutes. Nevertheless, I am not yet ready to claim the winning goal.

The Survival of Gösta Caroli

Gosta Caroli

When I wrote about Jan Willem ter Braak, the German agent who apparently escaped undetected for several months in Cambridge in the winter of 1940-1941 (see http://www.coldspur.com/the-mystery-of-the-undetected-radios-part-3/  and http://www.coldspur.com/two-cambridge-spies-dutch-connections-2/ ), I referred to the claim that Nicholas Mosley had made about another agent parachuted in, Gösta Caroli, in his book The Druid. Mosley reported that Caroli had in fact been hanged in Birmingham prison, contrary to Nigel West’s reports that he had been repatriated to Sweden after the war.

Now, if that were true, it would have been an alarming course of events, with the Security Service arranging an extra-judicial killing, given that there was no account of a trial, even in camera, to be found. The biography of Caroli’s colleague Wolf Schmidt (TATE) was written by two Swedes, and mentioned Caroli, but it apparently gave no details about his incarceration and subsequent return to Sweden. So I left the issue hanging.

Now I can report that the intrepid Giselle Jakobs (the grand-daughter of Josef Jakobs, who was indeed executed as a spy) has tracked down the biography of Caroli, written by the same two authors, in Swedish, which they self-published in 2015. She has arranged for enough portions of it translated to prove that Caroli, while his health had been damaged by the fall on his landing in England, did recuperate enough to live for thirty more years. It includes a photograph of Caroli after his marriage. Giselle’s extraordinary account of his life, and of her admirable efforts to present the information for posterity, can be found at https://www.josefjakobs.info/2020/04/the-apres-espionage-career-of-gosta.html and at http://www.josefjakobs.info/.

While this is good news, removing one black mark against the occasionally dubious application of the law by the British authorities when under stress in 1940 and 1941, it does not materially change anything of my suggestion that the death of ter Braak was not a suicide. I expect this matter to be resuscitated before long. My on-line colleague Jan-Willem van den Braak (actually no relation, as Ter Braak’s real name was Fukken) has written a biography of Ter Braak, in Dutch. It is now being translated into English for publication next year, and Mr. van den Braak has invited me to offer an Afterword to present my research and theories.

Dave Springhall and the GRU

In April last year, I was investigating hints provided by Andrew Boyle about the possible recruitment of Kim Philby by the Communist Douglas (‘Dave’) Springhall, and wrote as follows:

“Springhall is problematical. On my desktop computer, I have twenty-seven bulky PDFs from his files at the National Archives, which I have not yet inspected properly. They provide a fairly exhaustive account of his movements, but Special Branch did not appear to track him having a meeting with members of the Soviet Embassy in 1933. (Springhall did make a request to visit Cambridge in March of that year, however.) I suppose it is possible that Liddell had an interview with the communist activist at the time of his conviction in 1943, but it is improbable that a record of such a conversation has lain undiscovered. Somewhere in that archive (according to Springhall’s Wikipedia entry) is a suggestion that Springhall was working for the GRU from 1932 onwards, but locating that record is a task that will have to wait – unless any alert reader is already familiar with the whole of KV 2/2063-2065 & KV 2/1594-1598 . . .”

Douglas ('Dave') Springhall
Douglas (‘Dave’) Springhall

Well, I have at last had enough time on my hands to go through the whole of that archive, and take notes. The evidence of a strong connection between ‘Springy’ (the comrades referred to each other thus, with Len Beurton responding to his MI5 interviewers about ‘Footie’ – Alexander Foote – as if they were members of the England cricket team) and Soviet military intelligence is thin. It derives from an SIS report concerning a translation of a Russian request for information on Indian Army capabilities from the Intelligence Directorate of the Staff R.K.K.A. to the Military Attaché in Berlin, in which Springhall’s name is brought up (KV 2/1594-2, p 40, August 20, 1931).

Yet Springhall was very much a naval/military figure. Even though he missed the Invergordon Mutiny (he was occupied in Moscow at the time), he was a regular commentator on military affairs. He was head of anti-military propaganda in England, he gave eulogistic descriptions of life in the Red Army, and busied himself with secret work at Woolwich Arsenal. And his eventual arrest, in 1943, for extracting secrets on radar defensive measures (WINDOW) from Olive Sheehan, was obviously for trying to transfer facts to Soviet military experts. MI5 never determined, however, who his courier was, despite the close watch that was kept on him. I noticed in his MI5 that Nigel West suggested that Gorsky of the KGB was his contact at the Soviet Embassy, but in the same author’s recent Churchill’s Spy Files, he indicates that it was a GRU officer, and that the courier was someone called Peppin. (Somewhere in the Springhall archive, I got the impression that the courier might have been Andrew Rothstein.) So I wrote to West about it, and he confirmed that it must have been a GRU contact, but he could no more about the courier.

This is a vast archive: I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is writing a book about Springhall at the moment. West’s book provides a good introduction, but there is so much more to be explored, and I shall certainly return to the archive when I come to write about Slater and Wintringham. I shall thus say little more here, but merely make a few important observations on three aspects: 1) The role of Anthony Blunt (as introduced above); 2) The immensity of the surveillance of Springhall; and 3) Springhall’s trial.

One of the remarkable features of the monthly reports to Churchill on MI5’s activities, starting in March 1943, was that Guy Liddell, to whom the task was delegated by Petrie, in turn brought in Anthony Blunt to perform much of the editorial work. Thus here was additional proof that most of the service’s ‘secrets’ were being passed on to Moscow before you could say ‘Andrew Rothstein’. Thus one has to interpret the prosecution and sentencing of Springhall (conducted in camera) in a completely new light. The CPGB (the head office of which, in King Street, had been bugged comprehensively by Special Branch) was shocked and disgusted at the fact that Comrade Springhall had been involved in espionage, and thus was guilty of bringing the Communist Party into disrepute. Moscow was, of course ‘appalled’, and denied anything untoward had taken place.

Yet, if Moscow had known what was going on throughout the Springhall investigation because of Blunt, they would not have been surprised at the outcome. They would have to make the necessary melodramatic denials, but were perhaps not completely unhappy that all the attention was being paid on an expendable, somewhat irresponsible, open member of the Communist Party, while their unmasked agents were gathering information on the atomic bomb. In that way, MI5 would continue to imagine that the Party was the major source for subversive activity (with Ray Milne in MI6, and Desmond Uren in SOE being minor casualties dragged in by Springhall), and their moles in the intelligence services would be able to carry on unhindered. ‘Springy’ was not sprung.

The second noteworthy aspect is the sheer volume of material that was collected about Springhall, hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes on his career in the Navy, his visits to the Soviet Union, his published articles in the Daily Worker, his girl-friends, his associates and friends, his meetings at Communist Party headquarters, his speeches exhorting revolution at rallies – and of course on his espionage, his arrest, his trial, his sentencing, his time in prison, and his release before dying in Moscow of cancer in 1953. MI5 and Special Branch must have an expended an enormous amount of time trailing and surveilling him, yet the service was mostly powerless in doing anything at all – until Springhall so clumsily tried to extract the secrets from the communist flatmate of a loyal citizen, Norah Bond, who shared what she overheard with her RAF boyfriend, Wing-Commander Norman Blackie.

In a way, I suppose, Springhall’s being caught red-handed justified all the effort, and it enabled MI5 to move the traitor Ray Milne quietly out of SIS, and Raymond Uren out of SOE. Yet so much other surveillance was going on that one has to conclude that it was all rather wasted energy. ‘Keeping an eye’ on suspicious characters became a literal watchword, in the vain hope that such an activity would lead to larger networks of subversive ne’er-do-wells. But what next? So long as the Communist Party was a licit institution, its members could make calls for revolution, even during wartime, without any fear of prosecution, and the Home Office seemed far too timid as to how the factories might be adversely affected if too energetic moves were made against the comrades of our gallant ally, the Russians. Meanwhile, most government institutions were infected with Communist moles, agents of influence, and fellow-travellers who separated themselves from links with the Communist Party itself.

Lastly, the Trial itself. Files KV 2/1598-2 & -3 from Kew contain a full record of ‘Rex v Douglas Frank Springhall, at the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, 20th July Sessions, 1943’, before Mr Justice Oliver. It represents a transcript of the shorthand notes of George Walpole & Co. (Shorthand Writers to the Court). The Solicitor-General, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, K.C. and Mr L. A. Byrne appeared on behalf of the Prosecution, with Mr J. F. F. Platts-Mills appearing on behalf of the Defence. I think it is an extraordinary document.

From the first lines of the transcript, where the portentous Justice Oliver rather patronisingly puts the Rumpolean Maxwell-Fyfe in his place, and the Solicitor-General deferentially responds ‘If your Lordship pleases’, we can see a classical court-room drama take place. Oliver then treats Platts-Mills in the same peremptory manner, and, when the prosecuting council start their questioning of Olive Sheehan (who had passed on to Springhall secrets about ‘WINDOW’), Oliver interrupts them freely, as I am sure he was entitled to. He rebukes Platts-Mills, rather pettily, for referring to the Air Ministry as Sheehan’s ‘employers’: “Now, Mr Platts-Mills, this court has not become a theatre of politics.”  Platts-Mills has to adapt to his Lordship’s pleasure.

I shall comment no more now than to remark how different this court was from those administered by Roland Freisler or Andrey Vyshinsky. Yes, it was in camera, but this was not a show-trial where the defendants knew they were already guilty and were facing inevitable execution. Britain was at war, and had caught a spy declaring allegiance to a foreign power, stealing secrets that could have seriously harmed the war effort if they had passed into the wrong hands, and calling for revolution, but Springhall received a fair trial. It concludes with Springhall making a rather eloquent but disingenuous speech about wanting ‘to arouse the country behind the government headed by Mr Winston Churchill’. The jury took fifteen minutes to consider the evidence before returning a verdict of ‘Guilty’ on almost all counts, and Springhall was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude.  A very British trial.

‘Superspy Daughter in Holiday-camp Tycoon Romance Drama!’

(“I wanted to marry him”, confesses distraught schoolgirl)

‘I am the Daughter’

A while back, I acquired a slim volume titled ‘Die Tochter bin ich’ (‘I am the Daughter’), by one Janina Blankenfeld. It was published in Berlin in 1985, and is a brief memoir by a schoolteacher who was the daughter of someone who will be familiar to all readers of this website – Ursula née Kuczynski, aka SONIA. Janina was actually Sonia’s daughter by her lover, Johannes Patra (cryptonym ERNST), conceived in China, born in Warsaw in 1936, and spending much of her childhood years in Switzerland and England. Janina did not learn who her real father was until 1955, when Sonia’s first husband, Rolf, returned to Berlin, and Sonia felt she ought to break the news to her. I bought the book because I thought it might shed some light on Sonia’s movements in the UK, and even explain how Janina was able to attend an expensive boarding-school in Epping.

Unfortunately, it gives little away, sheltering under her mother’s memoir, published a few years beforehand. Janina gives the impression that money was very tight, and she says nothing about the private school. For a while, the idea of a holiday was impossible, but Janina wrote that, six months after her grandmother’s death (which occurred in June 1947), Sonia found an inexpensive room on the Welsh coast, in Criccieth, which was a revelation for Janina, as she enjoyed the coastline and the ruined castles. (Criccieth is a bit too close to the University of Aberystwyth, to my liking.) But “Das schönste Erlebnis für mich war unser Bummel durch Butlins Holiday Camp.” (‘The best experience for me was our stroll through Butlin’s Holiday Camp’.) She revelled in the string of bungalows, and the loudspeakers playing all day, and the dances and merry-go-rounds in the evenings. “Der Glanzpunkt war die Wahl der schönsten Urlauberin. Schöne Beine and ein hübsches Gesicht – mehr war nicht gefragt.“  (“The climax was the election of the most beautiful holidaymaker. Fine legs and a pretty face – nothing more was asked for.”)

I am not sure what the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation leaders would have thought of all this frivolity, with no time spent on propaganda lessons and correct ideological thinking, and far too much attention paid to superficial bourgeois pastimes like beauty contests, but Janina’s memoir managed to get through the censors. And it all made a strong impression on the twelve-year-old girl. “Seit diesem Besuch hatte ich neue Träume – ich wollte so gern Herrn Butlin heiraten, ganz reich sein and jedes Jahr meinen Urlaub in solch einem Feriencamp verbringen. ” (Ever since this visit I had fresh dreams – I wanted to marry Mr Butlin so much, to become quite rich, and to spend my holiday every year in such a Holiday Camp.”) Instead, eighteen months later, she had to leave for good her idyllic life in the Cotswolds and Wales, exchanging it for Walter Ulbricht’s holiday-camp of East Germany.

China and the Rhineland Moment

I have been thinking recently of China’s gradual expansion, and reactions to threats to its growing power (e.g. concerning Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Uighurs, industrial espionage, Hong Kong), and reminded myself that, if the first response to a bully is to refrain from challenging him, and biffing him on the nose, he will continue in the knowledge that his adversaries are really too cowardly, afraid of ‘provoking’ him more, and that he can thus continue unimpeded with his aggressive moves. I thought of the piece I wrote on Appeasement a few months ago, and how I judged that Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland in 1936 was the incident marking the opportunity for the dictator to have been stopped.

Then, on May 30, Bret Stevens wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times titled ‘China and the Rhineland Moment’ (at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/opinion/china-hong-kong.html, inside the paywall). His piece started off as follows: “Great struggles between great powers tend to have a tipping point. It’s the moment when the irreconcilability of differences becomes obvious to nearly everyone. In 1911 Germany sparked an international crisis when it sent a gunboat into the Moroccan port of Agadir and, as Winston Churchill wrote in his history of the First World War, ‘all the alarm bells throughout Europe began immediately to quiver.’ In 1936 Germany provoked another crisis when it marched troops into the Rhineland, in flagrant breach of its treaty obligations. In 1946, the Soviet Union made it obvious it had no intention of honoring democratic principles in Central Europe, and Churchill was left to warn that ‘an iron curtain has descended across the Continent’.”  After making some recommendations as to what the USA and Great Britain should do, Stevens concluded: “If all this and more were announced now, it might persuade Beijing to pull back from the brink. In the meantime, think of this as our Rhineland moment with China — and remember what happened the last time the free world looked aggression in the eye, and blinked.”

This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.

3 Comments

Filed under Economics/Business, Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography, Literature/Academia, Politics

On ‘Wilmington’s Lie’

‘Wilmington’s Lie’ by David Zucchino

I interrupt this bulletin to note the deaths of two significant persons related to the world of intelligence that have been recorded in NYT obituaries in the past ten days, reminders of the feverish days of World War II.

On April 2, Walentyna Janta-Polczynska died in Queens, New York. She was appointed personal secretary to General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the prime minister of the Polish government-in-exile, in 1939. She translated and prepared reports by Jan Karski, who brought the first eyewitness accounts of atrocities against the Jews in Warsaw. In 1943 she assisted in Sikorski’s funeral arrangements after his plane crashed after takeoff from Gibraltar. She was born in Lemberg (Lvov, now Lviv): her father ‘hailed from an English family that had initiated oil exploration in eastern Poland’. Ms. Janta-Polcynska was 107.

On April 7, Henry Graff, historian, died in Greenwich, Connecticut, aged 98. In November 1943 [date probably wrong], he translated part of a message sent by Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador in Berlin who had regular discussions with Hitler, and passed on encrypted summaries of what he learned. In this case, Oshima described German plans for countering the expected D-Day invasion. Nine months later [sic], shortly after Hiroshima, Graff translated a message from Japan to the Soviet Union, for some reason directed at Bern in Switzerland, asking for help extricating Japan from the war. [I informed the ‘New York Times’ of these anomalies, but have not received a reply, and, as yet, the publisher has not issued a Correction.].

Wilmington, NC and the Beautiful Blue Danube . . . I mean the Cape Fear River

Next, four anecdotes . . .

  1. Soon after we retired to Southport, North Carolina, at the beginning of August 2001, I made a trip into Wilmington, a town about thirty-five miles away, a port city on the Cape Fear River. I wanted to explore it, to familiarize myself with its layout, find out where the libraries and bookshops were, and, while I was about it, to get a haircut. I found a barber’s shop in a quiet street, went in, and sat down, waiting for my turn. I was then horrified when I heard the man I believed to be the owner, snipping away at a customer’s hair, say: “Of course the blacks were much happier when they were slaves.”

I had come across some casual racism in my time in the United States, mainly in the South, but not exclusively there, and had even experienced some ‘ethnic’ hatred directed at me, but I had never heard such a blatant example of stupid, ugly, patronizing, disgusting, ignorant speech before. How dare this redneck put himself in the minds of his fellow citizens, and make a facile conclusion about them and their ancestors of almost two centuries ago? I would not call it ‘prejudice’, because this insect had clearly thought about the matter before coming up with his well-exercised opinion. And the fact that he was ready to speak up openly about it, in the presence of a stranger, made the expression of his opinion even more frightful and alarming than it would otherwise have been.  Was this a common feeling among ‘white’ Wilmingtonians?

I felt like standing up and biffing the perpetrator on the nose, but thought that causing an affray so soon after my arrival in South-Eastern North Carolina might not be a good idea. The barber might claim that I had misheard him, after all, or that it was a joke taken out of context. But I knew it was not. I simply stood up and walked out of his establishment, and found a proper hairdresser in the centre of town. Maybe that was a shabby exit, not confronting evil when it pushes its voice into your face, but it was all a bit overwhelming at the time.

I have since discovered that sentiments like the barber’s are not that uncommon, and that even though Wilmington has overall become more civilized by the arrival of Yankees and others in its population, and joining its media outlets, etc. (much of it resented by some locals, I should add), a combination of resentment that the Civil War was lost, and regret over the decline of ‘white’ supremacy, can still be found in many pockets of New Hanover County and its surrounding rural areas.

2. Early in 2000, about eighteen months before we left Connecticut for good (we have not been back in almost twenty years), I read in the New York Times about a photographic exhibition being held at a small gallery in New York City. It concerned records of lynchings that has been carried out in the United States in the twentieth century, with some of the photographs taken after I was born (in 1946). These had apparently not been shown before. I had reason to make a business trip to New York – about an hour away by train – so I decided to make time to visit this gallery. I am not somebody who chases down the grisly out of some perverse pleasure, but I believed that this might be a once-only opportunity to become educated about a horrific aspect of American history about which I had only vague understandings.

It was an experience both moving and horrifying. I had read about the British soldiers who discovered Belsen, and were so shocked by what they found that it made them physically sick. I had a similar reaction – not quite so physical, but creating that roiling in the stomach. To see a ‘black’ man strung up on a tree, and ‘white’ families celebrating as if it were a public holiday (which is how they probably treated it), was nauseating. What made it even worse –  although this is a specious argument – was that it had taken place in my lifetime. One thinks of ‘medieval’ practices, but all this happened frequently in the first part of the twentieth century, in a country that made all manner of claims about human liberty, and ‘making the world safe for democracy’.

‘Kolyma Stories’ by Varlam Shalamov (no photograph of Kolyma does justice to the horrors)

After all, this was not Stalin’s Gulag, where in fact the horrors were far worse in number. I have just read Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, covering a largely contemporaneous period (1937-51) when Shalamov spent most of his incarceration working as a slave in or around the notorious goldmines of Kolyma. The death rate there was truly monstrous, and dwarfed the assaults on humanity represented by the lynchings. Yet the photographic record of Kolyma is scanty: the world knows little about the broken bodies, the mutilations and executions. Shalamov’s vignettes provoke similar feelings of disgust, but the Gulag reflected a different kind of cruelty – the abomination of State-run terror run amok. Prisoners were sentenced to ten years in Kolyma for being members of the Esperanto Society, for expressing a hope for the return of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for praising the exiled poet Ivan Bunin, for complaining about the length of the queue for soap, or on the false denunciation of a neighbour, and few would survive. The lynchings were private vigilante operations, and took place in a supposedly democratic society run by the rule of law. How can one compare them? A few hundred lynchings in twentieth-century America, six million dead in the Holocaust, over a million in Kolyma alone? Every brutal death was an individual calamity.

Notes taken after seeing the ‘Witness’ Exhibition

(Amazingly, I was able to dig out, on the afternoon after I wrote the above two paragraphs, my clippings file on the exhibition, and related topics. I had forgotten that I had composed a brief memorandum immediately afterwards, which I present here, in its unimproved form. As is evident, one or two of the references are incomplete, but I believe it sums up well my immediate disgust. I recall now that the main reference I left unfinished was the final passage of Emanuel Litvinoff’s searing Faces of Terror trilogy, where Peter Pyatkov is taken down to the cellars of the Lubianka:

            ‘Cold metal against the nape of his neck. His moment.

            “Who am – ? . . .’

I also reproduce in this page some clippings from The New York Times of that time. A warning: they are discomforting to look at.)

It was at that time that I understood there was something much darker and more pervasive going on. I had rather naively imagined that the absurd colour barriers and divisiveness had broken down in the ‘Great Society’ of the 1960s. I knew that it had been illegal in North Carolina, up until 1965, for a marriage between a ‘white ‘ person and a ‘black’ one to take place (which would have meant that Sylvia and I could not have wed), but thought that these absurd racial categories were gradually being eroded. Other political trends, however, were in fact re-emphasising this false science.

3. A few years after we moved down her, Sylvia, Julia and I made a visit to the Orton Plantation. This was one of the few private estates that are open to visitors in this neck of the woods – or even across the whole of the country. It is attached to the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site, half-way between Southport and Wilmington, on the west side of the Cape Fear River. Brunswick Town was a port that was destroyed by the British in 1776, but never rebuilt, while Fort Anderson was constructed on the ruins, as a fort in the Civil War. There is not much to see there, especially for those familiar with the variety of castles that can be inspected in Great Britain, but it is of great historic interest, and a compulsory target for any tourist or resident of the area.

The Orton Plantation

Near the historical site lies the Orton Planation, of which the jewel is the antebellum country house, considered to be one of the best of its kind. It has apparently been used in many movies and TV shows (none of which I profess to have seen: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood somehow escaped my attention), as the following link explains (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orton_Plantation) . We were able to walk around the park, and survey what had been the rice plantations, worked by hundreds of slaves, that led down to the Cape Fear River. We were reminded of how many of England’s fine country houses were constructed with the wealth derived from the exploitation of slaves, only in their case not in their back yard, but mostly thousands of miles overseas, such as in St. Vincent, where Sylvia was born.

The house itself was not open to the public, but as we walked near it, an elderly gentleman saw us, and approached us, and, perhaps after learning where we were from, invited us to take a look round. I don’t recall much of the details (there was a billiard-table in good condition), but it was charming house, and we considered ourselves very fortunate. The gentleman gave his name as ‘Sprunt’: I worked out later that he was probably Kenneth Murchison Sprunt, whose name appears in the Wikipedia entry. In 2010, the Sprunts sold the whole property to Louis Moore Bacon, a hedge fund manager, and descendant of the house’s original owner and builder, Roger Moore. The grounds have not yet been re-opened.

4. Earlier this month, Sylvia and I filled out the US 2020 Census forms, on-line this time. It was quite a simple operation: we were asked for birthdate information for the three of us, and whether we rented or owned the house, and whether we had any mortgage. What business was it of theirs, we asked ourselves? And then we came to the bulk of the form, which was about ‘ethnicity’. The first part required us to state whether we were ‘Hispanic’ or not – and did not allow this binary question to be ignored! At the same time, it reminded us that ‘Hispanics’ or ‘Latinos’ could be of any race.

How in heaven’s name were they going to use this information? Deciding what federal aid should be given to each State, I suppose, but how could they verify whether anybody really understood the question, or could even be relied upon to tell the truth on the form? And how would such information affect the government’s decisions? I thought of a root of my maternal-grandfather’s family, the Robinis, who were Huguenots escaping via Guernsey, and suddenly felt a surge of Italianate fervour. And then there was my unexplained partiality to Neapolitan ice-cream and pizza margherita. Were such features part of my ‘identity’? H’mm. But there was no way out. We decided to say ‘No’, and move on.

The last section concerned ‘race’, and in this area the Census Bureau believed they were on firmer ground. The first option was ‘White’, but if you rejected that, it offered a whole host of exotic categories to choose from, including ‘Pacific Islander’ (about which I have written before here). Why it believed that, in 2020, American citizens would universally want to define themselves in such terms is absolutely beyond me, but it keeps many Census Bureau people in employment, and helps to foment those minor distinctions that can breed resentment, and feelings of entitlement, and which accompany the notions of ‘identity’ which the sociological professors get so excited about. Fortunately, the very last option was to tick off ‘Other’, and Sylvia and I happily entered ‘Human’ in the box, and were gratified that our submission was not rejected. But should we expect a visit from the Census Police, to verify that we are indeed so?

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

I shall get round to ‘Wilmington’s Lie’ soon, but I need to digress over some science, and some definitions. As readers may have noticed, in this text I have used ‘black’ and ‘white’ in quotation marks. Since all reputable scientists have concluded that ‘race’ is a sociological construct, and that the genetic differences between human beings of different pigmentation are smaller than those found within any one particular ‘ethnic group’, I struggle with what language to use in this discussion. American institutions have for a long time advised us that anyone born with a drop of ‘black’ blood should be defined as ‘black’, which is obviously nonsense. Yet using some term is inescapable in this discussion. Selecting the term ‘Negro’ is disdained these days; ‘colo(u)red’ is a ridiculous hangover from South African categorisations, although it endures in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; ‘African-American’ is simply inaccurate (what about Egyptians?), and some famous Americans, such as Colin Powell, have objected to it (his parents came from Jamaica), since they do not regard themselves as having ‘roots’ in the African continent.

To remind readers of the stubbornness of some sectors of government and the academic world to recognize the facts about race, I present the following paragraphs. I picked them out of a book review from the Listener of 13 November, 1935. For some reason, I had acquired a few years ago a bound copy of the issues of that magazine from September to December 1935: they present a fascinating perspective of the world seen from a variety of educated viewpoints as the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia started to exert an eerie hold over the democracies’ attentions. The review is titled Racial Problems in Europe, and it comprises a critique of We Europeans, by Julian Huxley, A. C. Haddon, and A. M. Carr-Saunders, written by A. S. Russell.

“‘In a scientific age’, say the authors, ‘prejudice and passions seek to clothe themselves in a garb of scientific respectability; and when they cannot find support from true science, they invent a pseudo-science to justify themselves’. There is today a pseudo-science of ‘racial biology’ which has been erected to justify political ambitions, economic ends, social grudges, and class prejudices. ‘Race’ and ‘racialism’ are regarded by the authors as almost blasphemous terms, and it is against the fallacies associated with these vague and mischievous ideas that the principal part of the book is directed.

People who talk about pure races nowadays do not know what they are talking of. You cannot judge a man’s race accurately from externals. You can be certain of a man’s racial purity only when you know his ‘genetical constitution’. The discovery of the gene, thousands of which go to the physical make-up of an individual, has revealed how immensely more complex inheritance in the physical sense is than was thought of in old days, when the characteristics of a child were considered to be a mere blending of those of the parents.  It was convenient at one time to make a rough classification of Europeans into the Nordic, the Alpine and the Mediterranean ‘races’; the first exemplified in the tall, ‘long-headed’, fair-haired Swede; the second in the ‘round-headed’ Russian peasant of medium height; the third in the dark, ‘long-headed’, small inhabitant of southern Italy. Actually these types, like every other in Europe, are just different mixtures; they aren’t in any sense pure races. Everybody in Europe is of mixed race as evidenced by his or her ‘genetical constitution’. And the reason for this is plain.  For tens of thousands of years man has been on the move in every part of the world inter-breeding and inter-breeding. There might have been pure races at one time; sections of mankind might have got isolated geographically from the rest for thousands and thousands of years and evolved so as to become adapted to their climactic environment; but those days are long past and it is in the highest degree unlikely they will ever recur.”

One might observe that even Wallace didn’t quite get it, what with his references to ‘racial purity’ and ‘inter-breeding’. Yet the challenge to the monstrous racial theories of Hitler is clear. Nevertheless, in what could be considered a provocative commentary on Hitler’s dogma, later in the review, Wallace questions the authors’ application of their research into the identity of the Jews (“  . . . the authors assert the Jews are of mixed origin and no more different from the mass of Europeans than ourselves or the Germans” – a judgment that would anticipate what Schlomo Sand wrote recently in his engrossing and controversial Invention of the Jewish People). Wallace concludes by accepting that nations of ‘inter-marriage’ are based purely on sentiment and tradition. I could point to dozens of articles that I have read over the years that would reinforce the assertions of Huxley and co.  They got it right eight-five years ago, but too many people still resist those notions. For example, I marvel at the unscientific way that certain liberal arts critics misrepresent how genetics works. My latest offering: “Whether they have been hard-wired into a Jewish genetic make-up after centuries of the singular Jewish experience it’s impossible to prove, but Lebrecht’s passion is persuasive”, from Mark Glanville’s review of Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety, in the TLS of February 28.

And now to Wilmington’s Lie. I had been vaguely aware of the murky secret that the city of Wilmington had tried to hide. I have another clipping, from the New York Times of December 19, 2005, showing a report by John DeSantis headed ‘North Carolina City Confronts Its Past in Report on White Vigilantes’. His second paragraph sums up the event very succinctly: “Only scant mention is made, however, of the bloody rioting more than a century ago during which black residents were killed and survivors banished by white supremacists, who seized control of the city government in what historians say is the only successful overthrow of a local government in United States history.”

What prompted the attention then to the happenings of November 10, 1898 was the release of a draft of a 500-page report ordered by the state legislature. In what may come as a surprise to many European readers, after the Civil War, the government of Wilmington, which had been ruled by the Democratic Party, was replaced by a coalition that was dominated by Republicans, and contained many ‘blacks’. (It was the Republican Abraham Lincoln who had resisted the Southern States’ rights to continue slavery, and the switch of party allegiances around civil rights and white supremacism would come much later.) The growing power and influence of those persons whom reactionary Democrats considered as inferior to them, and responsible for diminishing their prosperity, caused a mass of resentment that broke out murderously before Election Day of November 9, 1898. A mob of white vigilantes invaded ‘black’ businesses, most notably the printing-press of The Daily Record, and shot ‘black’ men in the streets of Wilmington. The report estimated that up to a hundred ‘black’ deaths were recorded, and hundreds fled from the city.

The Wilmington 1898 Memorial

I regret not getting hold of the full report, which, according to de Santis, was to be delivered the following year. There was some controversy over its release, as many felt that the ‘mistakes’ of over a hundred years ago should be buried. In 2008, however, a Memorial Park was opened in Wilmington, although the City still seems very ambivalent about promoting and describing it. A link on the City’s webpage, indicating the website of the memorial, leads to a Facebook Page: a full description can be seen at https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/842/. I have visited the memorial, and was moved by it, but was sorry it had been placed somewhat off the beaten track, and found the symbology puzzling. The monument itself consists of six 16-feet tall paddles, which, according to a plaque nearby, refer to the role of water in ‘the spiritual belief system of people from the African continent’. Why the memorialists would want to generalise all the religions of the African continent in that stereotypical way, especially when almost universally those who suffered at the time of the events (and those who come to honour them today) were and are devout Christians is one of those weird dimensions of ‘identity’ and ‘heritage’ that dominate discussions of such topics today.

And then, earlier this year, David Zucchino’s account of the incidents, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, was published. Zucchino gained his Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989: he has also published Thunder Run and The Myth of the Welfare Queen. His book provides a very thorough history of the events that led up to what he characterises as the 1898 ‘coup’: the action was, however, not so much the directing ousting of a governing body as the terroristic oppression of those citizens who would democratically elect that group, but the result was the same. Zucchino uses the official report (available at https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p249901coll22/id/5842, released on May 31, 2006, which I have not read), as well as an account by LeRae Umfleet, the principal researcher on the project, A Day of Blood, which I have also not looked at. So I regret I cannot compare Zucchino’s account with Umfleet’s. Zucchino has also trawled through an impressive list of books, unpublished memoirs and diaries, articles, theses, dissertations, and government publications and documents.

The Wilmington Coup, 1898

Zucchino takes his readers painstakingly through the background that led to the vigilantism of 1898. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Wilmington became the largest city in North Carolina, and freed slaves flocked to it for the opportunities in trade and exports that it provided. In the author’s words, ‘it was a bustling port city with a burgeoning African American middle class and a Fusionist government of Republicans and Populists that included black aldermen, policemen and magistrates.’ The Ku Klux Klan had made an attempt to roll back Reconstruction in 1868, but had been driven out of town. Abraham Galloway (of ‘mixed race’) had been the vigorous senator who had encouraged the locals to defend their right, and when he died in 1870, the cause was taken up by Alexander Manly, the publisher of the Daily Record. “Manly”, Zucchino writes, “could easily have passed as white, the preferred option of so many so-called mulattoes.”  Manly spoke up for Negro rights, and pointed out the hypocrisy that occurred when ‘white’ supremacists spoke up for the virtue of their women intermingling with ‘black’ males, while they themselves had affairs with ‘black’ women. He thus became the prime target of the frustrated Democrats.

In 1897, several lynchings occurred in Georgia. ‘White’ leaders could not imagine that a sexual act between a ‘white’ woman and a ’black’ man could be consensual, and vigilante justice was frequently the outcome. After a Mrs. Felton defended the practice of lynching, Manly wrote an editorial that pointed out the hypocrisy, and ridiculed the insecurity and self-delusion that lay at the heart of the hatred of Southern ‘white’ men. Thus the office of the Daily Record became the prime target of the rebels. Two days after voting took place for the state legislature on November 8, 1898, over two thousand Red Shirts (as they were called), heavily armed, piled into Wilmington looking for victims. Buildings were burned, and at least sixty ‘black’ men were killed in the streets.

Zucchino reports how the Wilmington Messenger published the lyrics to ‘Rise Ye Sons of Carolina’ on November 8, 1898.

“Proud Caucasians one and all . . .

Hear your wives and daughters call  . . .

Rise, defend their spotless virtue

With your strong and manly arms  . . .

Rise and drive this Black despoiler from your state.”

It is a message that anticipates Hitler. A shocking and nauseating refrain, blatantly ignoring the fact that the forbears of these ‘black despoilers’ had been brought to those shores against their will, in utterly cruel conditions, when, if they had survived, they were forced into slavery. What demagogues, preachers or teachers had embedded this sort of thinking? How could anyone today not denounce such ugliness?

I shall not relay all the details of the coup. Readers can pick up the book. Zucchino has performed an absolutely vital task of chronicling the details of this ghastly event, one that remained buried for so long. Yet Wilmington’s Lie is not very easy reading: not because of the grisly subject-matter, but because the author lacks a good narrative sweep, and moves around without a clear chronology. Events outside Wilmington are sketched very thinly, so we do not gain a good understanding of, for example, why federal or state officials were so reluctant to intervene. He leaves the meatier issues for the Epilogue, almost as an afterthought, such as the way that Wilmington became an example for ‘white’ supremacists in other states to pick up on voter suppression, and vicious attacks on ‘blacks’. He has nothing to say about the culture and political battles that encouraged such cruelty, or how the fundamentalist Josiah Nott, who had Gobineau’s dangerous writings on the Aryan race translated, exerted such a swift and penetrative effect on the Southern states and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Where did they learn about ‘Caucasians’? This, for me, was an extraordinary omission.

The Dawes Severalty Act

Moreover, Zucchino makes no references to the expulsion of indigenous Americans of a couple of generations before, which these horrors echoed, or even the infamous Dawes Act of 1887, which applied different racial principles to the treatment of indigenous American tribes.  The author makes a link between the events of 1898 and current attempts to implement voter ID laws: such initiatives may or may not be stirred by similar impulses, but Zucchino does not examine the case. He skims over in one paragraph the bouleversement in Party allegiances (when minority rights became a Democratic plank of policy) that was caused by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, noting that in 1972 North Carolina elected its first Republican US senator for seventy-four years – the notorious Jesse Helms. And lastly, he appears to be a prisoner of his own cultural milieu – talking about ‘white blood’ and ‘black blood’ as if they were realities, and never analysing seriously the pseudo-science behind these notions. (As I was completing this piece, I encountered the following quotation from the NYT obituary of Abigail Thernstrom, a stolid opponent of affirmative action, a woman who had grown up in a communist household: “Race is the American dilemma. It is race that, you know, keeps this country in agony. It is our most serious domestic problem. And therefore, we want to think specially hard about anything that involves sorting people out on the basis of one drop of blood of this or that.”)

I noticed one poignant aspect. The captain general of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in 1868 was a Colonel Moore, who led the attempt to terrorize ‘blacks’ in April 1868, was then repulsed, and was left licking his wounds inside Thalian Hall. Thirty years later, no longer Klan leader, he was still active in Wilmington, and had been elected to the County Board of Commissioners in the corrupt elections of 1898. Yet he was outsmarted by another political rival, Colonel Alfred Waddell, who led the attack on Manly’s newspaper offices. After the killings of November 10, one of the businessmen who tried to persuade Waddell to allow the ‘blacks’ who had been chased out of town, since he needed them for loading the seven steamships backed up at the port, was a James Sprunt. Sprunt ‘told a reporter he was confident that the city’s blacks would be reassured by Mayor Waddell’s public declarations of equal treatment for both races’. He had been born in Glasgow, was British vice-consul, and later became renowned for his philanthropic work in Wilmington, and his dedication to local history.

Colonel Roger Moore was a descendant of Roger Moore, a brother of Maurice. Maurice Moore sold the Orton Planation to Roger when the latter moved into the area from South Carolina, in 1725, and together they founded Brunswick Town. Roger Moore had to deal with unfriendly native Americans, who destroyed his first house, but then set up the rice plantation with slave labour. The gentleman whom we met at the Orton Plantation, Murchison Sprunt, was a grandson of James Laurence Sprunt, who, with his wife, Luola, purchased the property in 1904, on the death of his father-in-law, Colonel Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison, a Confederate military officer. In May 2010, as I described earlier, the Sprunt family sold the Plantation to Louis Moore Bacon, who informs us that he is a direct descendant of the first Roger Moore. (How he might be related to the notorious Klansman Roger Moore, I do not know.)

Thus are the fortunes and careers of North Carolinians – like those of everyone, I suppose –intertwined. Allowing for about ten generations since 1725, Louis Moore Bacon could also claim that he was the direct descendant of about one thousand other people. Yet, like many others, he favours a single lineage with a name that endured, and a known family history. Likewise, there are probably thousands of other persons who could claim ‘direct descendancy’ from Roger Moore, but who did not have the money, the genealogical insights, or the personal interest, to want to bid for the Orton Plantation, and invest in it. That is the way the world works.

Back to today’s Wilmington. It is easy for someone like me to sit back, and proclaim that all these racial categories are absurd, when such loftiness in fact could show an insensitivity to the realities of the stories of humiliation passed down, and the daily insults that continue. Whenever I walk around in Wilmington, I am especially careful, say, to open the door for any ‘black’ person coming into the Post Office, and offer them a friendly ‘Take your time, sir!’, or ‘Have a good day, madam!’, perhaps to balance the affronts or rudenesses they may have encountered from persons who share my skin pigmentation, and I deliver such politesses a little more enthusiastically than I might do to anyone else. Maybe it is condescending behaviour, but I trust it helps. Because I can hope for the day when these categories will be meaningless (and I think of our beautiful Anglo-Irish-Italian-French-German-West Indian-Vietnamese grand-daughters – ignoring, for now, the Persky branch from Minsk), but have to accept that reality is different. So long as census-takers, white supremacists, affirmative action lawyers, ethnic studies professors, fundamentalist preachers, racial activists, identity politicians, Dixie whistlers, sociologists, psephologists, pseudo-historians, eugenicist neo-confederates, Marxist academics, cultural appropriation specialists, self-appointed ‘community’ spokespersons, and general grudge-grinding journalists have a job to hold on to, the distinctions will continue. And, after all, if the New York Times says that a ‘Latinx’ community exists, it must be so, right?

My gestures are a kind of reparation, I suppose. And thereby lies one final dilemma, as the irrepressible and overexposed Ta-Nehisi Coates has promoted, urging that ‘blacks’ should receive money for the injustices performed against them (or their forebears). Yet not all those who would have to pay are guilty, nor are all those who would be remunerated necessarily victims. None of us automatically inherits the sins or the virtues of our forebears, and each us should be free to reject the indoctrination of parents, school or religious institution.

I made light of this at my seventieth birthday party a few years ago, attended by a few dozen of my closest friends, at which I made a speech (see Taking the Cake). At one point, I took out a piece of paper from my jacket pocket, and told the assembled diners that it was a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice. I proceeded to read it: “Dear Mr. Percy . . . blah, blah, blah,  .  .  . We have to inform you that, according to recent legislation, you, as a descendant of colonialist oppressors, are hereby ordered to make the following reparations payments to victims of such injustices. (Pause.) Mr. Tiger Woods: $5,000. Mrs. Sylvia Percy: $10,000. And to Mr. Douglas Hamilton (not his real name, but a prosperous ‘black’ friend of mine sitting at Table 4): $50,000!”

Yet so long as that barber, and persons like him, are around, it is no laughing matter.

(Recent Commonplace entries can be found here. This month’s collection includes a special not-to-be-missed feature on Gavin Ewart and light verse.)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography, Personal, Philosophy

Special Bulletin: The Letter from Geneva

This segment really belongs as an appendix to ‘Sonia’s Radio’, but I deemed it to be of such startling importance that I decided to devote a Special Bulletin to it. It concerns a letter sent from Geneva to Len Beurton, the husband of Ursula, agent Sonia, in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, in March 1943, one that provokes an entire re-evaluation of the Beurtons’ relationship with the authorities. The letter was intercepted by the U.K. censorship before being mailed to the address to which Beurton had moved in August 1942, to be reunited with his wife, and it appears in one of the Kuczynski files at the National Archives, KV 6/41.

KV 6/41 must be one of the richest and most provocative files at Kew. Its activity record shows that it was a very frequently inspected folder during the 1980s and early 1990s. A book could be written on it alone, as it offers tantalising glimpses of other worlds, other discussions, other communications, and other meetings, the proceedings or records of which have been withheld or destroyed. Thus this analysis is highly exploratory, and reflects more my thinking as it has evolved rather than a tidy and complete item of research. I do not have clear answers to many of the riddles it offers, and am seeking help from my readers.

A recap may be useful for the occasional coldspur reader. Len Beurton was a veteran of the International Brigades in Spain, and had been recruited by his friend Alexander Foote to join the Soviet espionage team in Switzerland in early 1939, and train as a wireless operator under Ursula Hamburger (as she then was), née Kuczynski. With her Swiss visa soon to expire, Sonia was ordered, early in 1940, to travel to the UK, but needed a British spouse in order to gain a UK passport. Foote initially responded to the call, but then evaded it, on the grounds that he had a pregnant girl-friend in Spain, and recommended Beurton instead, who accepted the role with enthusiasm. Foote then provided perjurious evidence of Sonia’s husband’s infidelity in order for the pair to be married. Thereafter, SIS in Switzerland helped to arrange Sonia’s passage, via France, Spain, and Portugal, to England, where she installed herself and two children in Oxford at the end of January 1941. Len had not been able to join her at first, since his enlistment in Spain disqualified him from being given a visa to pass through France, Spain, and Portugal. After pleas from Sonia to the MP Eleanor Rathbone, and with the intervention of the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, SIS’s representatives in Geneva supported the project to bring him home. They provided him with a false identity, and Len was eventually able to leave the country, arriving back in the UK in late July 1942. Almost immediately, he and Sonia moved from their rented bungalow in Kidlington to a cottage attached to the house of Neville and Cissie Laski, in Summertown, Oxford, where Sonia rather flamboyantly installed her wireless set. Len, meanwhile, was thought to be spending time at the old address, and MI5’s F Division requested that mail sent to Len (but not Sonia) at Kidlington be intercepted. This letter is one of only two addressed to Beurton on file.

The Geneva Letter

An image of the document appears here:

The Letter from Geneva

[Do not be concerned about the readability of the document. I present it here to show that it exists, and to reveal one or two important aspects of it.]

First of all, the text:

“My dear Burton,

I have heard nothing from you since your arrival in the United Kingdom. I hope this only means that you are absorbed in work which so interests you that you have little time for private correspondence. Communication with U.K. has steadily deteriorated since your departure and I have no doubt that the day is not far off when only the air will be available!

            W. is as friendly and inscrutable as ever. Recently he became the proud father of a second daughter whom we expect to meet next week. He asks frequently of you and wonders where you have gone to earth.

            The general aspect of life here has changed very little since you left except that prices have steadily risen to ruinous heights.

            [ ‘paragraph missing’ *  ]

            Let us hear from you some time,

                        Your sincerely, V. C. Farrell”

* British Postal Censorship

“The British Examiner is not responsible for the mutilation of this letter.”

An inspection of the envelope indicates that the latter passed through German territory: several stamps with the swastika appear on the left side, with the slogan ‘Geöffnet’ [opened] between them. (The challenges of delivering airmail from Switzerland when the country was surrounded by Axis forces had not occurred to me. I found a link to the potentially very useful following article: “Zeigler, Robert (2008): “The Impact of World War II on Airmail Routes from Switzerland to Foreign Countries, 1939-1945” in the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian, but the item has disappeared.) What is not clear is whether the letter was automatically forwarded to Summertown (if instructions for forwarding mail were still extant and valid), or whether it was simply delivered to the address at Kidlington, under the assumption that Len Beurton still lived there. An earlier item on file (at 47B) offers a list of intercepted mail from September 19 to October 10, 1942, including an item redirected from Kidlington, sent from Epping, in Essex, but there is no other record of interception details.

The story of the interception requests is a puzzle in its own right. The record is predictably incomplete, but the first request, for all correspondence sent to Avenue Cottage, Summertown, is made by JHM of F2A on September 15, for a period of two weeks. [This ‘JHM’ is probably the renowned punctilious solicitor, J. H. Marriott. Marriott was reportedly working in B1A as Secretary of the XX Committee by this time, but he was probably performing double-duty. His name appears in the Beurton file after the war, when he returned to F Division for a while.]  F2A was responsible for ‘Policy activities of C.P.G.B. in UK’, under John Curry’s ‘Communism and Left-Wing Movements’ Division. D. I. Vesey (B4A), working for ‘Suspected Cases of Espionage in UK’, under Major Whyte in Dick White’s ‘Espionage’ B Division, had referred to Beurton’s residence in Kidlington up until September 9, at which time he was seeking an interview with Beurton, which occurred on September 18. (His belated report was not submitted until October 20: the delay seems unnatural and indolent.) JHM’s analysis of the mail received from September 19 until October 10 is on file. It is a fascinating document, but there is no indication that any of the correspondents were followed up.

One entry, concerning the letter from Epping, Essex, introduced above, has been redirected from 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington, strongly indicating that the Beurtons had cleared out and informed the Post Office of their move. Another, astonishingly, is from Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, a very important figure in the war, accustomed to accompanying Eden and Churchill around the globe, addressed to ‘L. C. Beurton, Esq.’. Cadogan had also been instrumental in authorizing Beurton’s liberation from Switzerland. Was he perhaps asking whether his protégé had settled in satisfactorily? It seems very provocative for Cadogan to be writing, in his own hand, but JHM’s entry incontrovertibly records ‘envelope signed – A. CADOGAN’. A few letters are described as having been sent from Kidlington, but only one is identified – Dr. Duncan, at Exeter House. Is that a clue? It would have been highly negligent for these correspondents not to be followed up. The lead from Epping might have been very fruitful: Alexander Foote was later to tell his interrogators in MI5 that Sonia visited her contact in Epping once a month.

And then, on November 30, Hugh Shillito, F2B/C, ‘Comintern Activities General and Communist Refugees’ & ‘Russian Intelligence’, inquires of the G.P.O whether there is a telephone at 145 Oxford Road, stating that Beurton has ‘gone to live there’, as if Beurton had left the new family nook in Summertown to return to the premises north of Oxford. The following day, Shillito makes a request to Colonel Allan of the G.P.O. for a Home Office Warrant to check all of Len Beurton’s mail (but not his wife’s). Nothing had been submitted by December 19 (‘unremunerative’, in Shillito’s words), and the first item is the Geneva letter. But Shillito presumably sat next to JHM, and exchanged ideas and insights with him and with Vesey. How could Shillito have possibly been mistaken in thinking that Len was spending time at the address in Kidlington?

The Sender of the Letter

Who was the sender of this remarkable letter? The signature is somewhat inscrutable, but a helpful note visible at the side states: ‘V. C. Farrell. P.C.O., Geneva’, an annotation that was surely made much later. And there lies the real drama of the correspondence. For ‘P.C.O’ stands for ‘Passport Control Officer’, and that role was adopted by SIS as the (supposedly) undercover job title for SIS representatives in consulates and embassies abroad. Yet Victor Farrell was more than that. While his name does not appear in Keith Jeffery’s authorised history of SIS, Jeffery merely stating that ‘in September 1939, SIS had a station in Geneva, headed by a Passport Control Officer, with an assistant and a wireless operator’, Nigel West, in MI6, describes him in the following terms:

“One important figure already in Geneva at this time [June 1940] was Victor Farrell, an experienced SIS officer who had previously served in Budapest and had then replaced Kenneth Benton in Vienna in 1938. Farrell had been appointed to head the Geneva Station in place of Pearson, and had succeed in recruiting an extremely valuable local source of German intelligence. Farrell’s agent was Rachel Dübendorfer, a middle-aged Polish Jewess who was then working in the League of Nations’ International Labour Office as a secretary and translator.” (p 202). West also writes (p 152) that Menzies had appointed Farrell as PCO in Geneva in February 1940.

In Colonel Z, their biography of Claude Dansey, the head of the shadow Z network within SIS, (which work needs to be considered somewhat circumspectly), Anthony Read and David Fisher supply the information that Farrell had been Professor of English at the St Cyr military academy in France, and inform us that Farrell had been promoted to consul at the beginning of 1941, taking over from Frederick Vanden Heuvel. The authors also describe how the officers in Switzerland felt marooned from the outside world:

“The only way out for couriers, escapers or anyone else was the hazardous land route through southern France to Spain, using all the cloak-and-dagger paraphernalia of disguises, false names and forged papers. Radio sets were still in short supply, and in any case the Swiss, ever fearful for their precious neutrality, did not welcome the transmission of secret information which might be intercepted by the Germans and used as an excuse for invasion. The SIS therefore had only one available radio transmitter, located in Victor Farrell’s office in Geneva. This was used for urgent communications; anything less vital was sent as telegrams through the Swiss Post Office over the normal telegraph lines, enciphered by the one-time pad method  . . .” (p 239)

“Sissy [Dübendorfer] was a communist, and merged her network with Radó’s, and her communications were channelled through Allan [Alexander] Foote. Yet all the time, she was being paid by Victor Farrell.” (p 247) [This refers to the famous communist Rote Drei network in Switzerland. Alexander Radó was its leader, Alexander Foote its main wireless operator. The network was also called the Lucy Ring, after its reputed main informant, Rudolf Rössler, who was based in Lucerne.]

“All that was required of her [Sissy Dübendorfer] was that she should send the material given her by Farrell to Rössler via Schneider for evaluation, and then pass Rössler’s reports to Radó. But in order to maintain the camouflage, Dansey also used the various other routes to Rössler and Radó: Sedlacek, Foote, Pünter, and the official Swiss and British intelligence organizations all played their parts in his master plan.” (p 253)

In their companion book, Operation Lucy, Read and Fisher further describe Farrell’s valuable role: “He dealt with escaping prisoners, organising routes through southern France and across the Pyrenees into Spain, then Portugal and so to Britain, besides liaising with the French and with other agents working in the ILO and similar institutions in Geneva, on behalf of the SIS. He also looked after the smuggling of arms and strategic materials such as industrial diamonds. Farrell had his own radio transmitter/receiver, through which he could contact both Berne and London.” (p 111) M. R. D. Foote’s and J. M. Langley’s book titled MI9: Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 confirms that ‘Victor’ was the (unimaginative) cryptonym of the contact officer in Geneva for escaping prisoners-of-war and SOE agents.

SIS in Switzerland

It is very difficult trying to establish a clear chronology of the movements of the SIS officers in Switzerland during World War II. The chief was apparently Frederick Vanden Heuvel, who, according to West, was flown out to Berne by Menzies (or Dansey) at the beginning of 1940 to become the case officer of the valuable informant Madame Symanska. Yet, continues West, Vanden Heuvel had to decamp to Geneva in June 1940 in the face of a possible German invasion (p 202), before returning to Berne a month or two later. Jeffery, on the other hand, writes (p 507): “For most of the Second World War the main representative in Switzerland was Frederick ‘Fanny’ Vanden Heuvel, based in Geneva”. On page 381, Jeffery refers to some twenty-five reports that were sent from Geneva between August 1940 and December 1942, channeled through Symanska, with commentary apparently supplied by Vanden Heuvel. (How these reports were sent is not indicated, but the implication is by cable or by courier. If anything was sent by wireless, it would have had to go via Geneva, but that did not mean that Vanden Heuvel worked there.)

Yet Read and Fisher have Vanden Heuvel sent out by Claude Dansey to Zürich (i.e. not Berne) in February 1940, working out of offices at 16 Bahnhofstrasse, and being appointed vice-consul in March 1940, and then consul on May 31 (p 231 & p 238). Soon afterwards, he moved his base to French-speaking Geneva, leaving Eric Grant Cable in charge, and became Consul in Geneva until the beginning of 1941. At that time he passed on the title to Farrell, and moved, nominally to take on the ‘unlikely role of assistant press attaché in Berne’, but actually to deal with Symanska in that city. That makes more sense, in view of the absence of Farrell’s name in the correspondence concerning Sonia’s passport application in early 1940. In November 1940, when negotiations were undertaken over adding Sonia’s children to her passport, a single unencrypted cable from Geneva (‘PRODROME’) can be found in the archive, but no official’s name appears on it. In the Kuczynski archive at Kew, Len Beurton attests to Farrell’s being the consular officer (‘Geneva Consulate-general’) who helped him acquire a passport under a false name in early 1942. Beurton claimed that ‘after becoming friendly with a member of the British Passport Office in Geneva, to whom he claims he gave useful information’, he was given a passport under a false name. (Document 47A in KV 6/41 confirms that Farrell, as PCO in Geneva, enabled Beurton to get his passport.)

A clue to the ‘useful information’ that Beurton had provided to Farrell appears in another (anonymous) document on file, which reports that, when in Switzerland, Beurton had been in touch with a Chinese journalist accredited to the League of Nations, one L. T. Wang. A contact with a mysterious General Kwei is posited, but the contact appears to have more relevant implications. For Sonia herself, in Sonya’s Report, describes Wang in exactly the same terms, but adds the following: “He was married to a Dutch woman. General von Falkenhausen, a former military adviser of Chiang Kai-Shek who became High Commander in Belgium during the Nazi occupation, often stayed in Switzerland and was well acquainted with Wang and his wife. Through Wang, Len occasionally learnt something of the General’s opinions and comments.”

This is highly significant, for von Falkenhausen was later known to be a fierce critic of Hitler, and was lucky to escape execution after the failed assassination attempt of 1944. Allen Dulles was sent to Switzerland in November 1942 precisely to assess the level of opposition to Hitler, and Stalin would remain highly suspicious of any peace initiatives between the western Allies and the Nazis that took place behind his back. The fact that Beurton had first-hand information about a potential anti-Hitler movement (which, of course, he continued vigorously to pass on to Moscow) would mean that he had been an extremely valuable asset for SIS, who would have wanted to keep him in place. The fact that von Falkenhausen was known to be a realistic anti-Hitler conspirator at this time has been revealed by Dennis Wheatley, who, in his memoir of his work at the London Controlling Section (The Deception Planners) recalls how the Political Warfare Executive in April 1943 floated an idea for propaganda centred on an anti-Hitler figure for whom von Falkenhausen would be a prominent supporter.

The claim that Vanden Heuvel, and then Farrell, acted as consuls in Geneva, does raise some questions, however. What is certain is that the official working on behalf of His Majesty’s Consul at the time of Sonia’s passport application, in March 1940, was one H. B. Livingston. His stamped name, with ‘SGD’ [‘signed’] appearing next to it, appears above the rubric ‘His Majesty’s Consul’. If, as the authors mentioned above claim, Vanden Heuvel and Farrell occupied that office, Livingston must have been a junior member of staff, and the narratives would suggest that both Vanden Heuvel and Farrell distanced themselves from the details of the process. Thus it is impossible to confirm confidently either Read’s and Fisher’s claim of Farrell’s appointment in early 1941 or West’s assertion that Farrell was the immediate successor to the disgraced Pearson in February 1940. A synthesis of the various accounts would suggest that Farrell was an assistant to Vanden Heuvel, maybe with vice-consular status, in Geneva in 1940, before being promoted in early 1941. (This fact has significance when assessing Farrell’s exposure to Sonia’s various arrangements.)

Moreover, Livingston was a permanent fixture. On June 3, 1942, after the intervention of Sir Alexander Cadogan, he submitted a memorandum to Sir Anthony Eden, Foreign Office Minister, explaining his failure in being unable to help Mr Beurton. Yet, on July 20, Livingston is able to inform Sir Anthony that Beurton left Geneva on July 11, rather surprisingly informing his boss only now that Beurton had been issued a new passport under the name of John William Miller on March 9. It doesn’t sound like a civil servant completely in charge of the case: the message lacks authority, and his tone is very subservient. (What is extraordinary is the fact that Livingston sent the message as a package, enclosing Beurton’s old passport, and it was received at the Foreign Office as early as August 5. ‘John Miller’, moreover, was a cryptonym used by the circle of Alexander Foote (‘Jim’) to refer to Beurton.)

The Implications of the Letter

Len Beurton

In any case, the event of the letter is pretty remarkable. A high-up in the Secret Intelligence Service is sending a plaintext letter to a recognised communist who has married a wireless operator known to be a Soviet agent, in the knowledge that the letter will be opened and inspected by a) the Swiss authorities, b) the German censors, c) British Censorship, and d) (probably) MI5, before the recipient reads it. For some reason, the writer gets his addressee’s name wrong, calling him ‘Charles Burton’ on the envelope, when his name is really ‘Leonard Charles Beurton’. But the introduction is ‘My dear Burton’, an astonishingly intimate parlance for an exchange between a consul and a lowly peon. One would expect ‘Dear Mr Burton’ in a formal letter, and ‘Dear Charles’ if the two were close friends, even ‘Dear Burton’, if they had been at school together, but not bosom buddies *. ‘My dear Burton’ suggests a close colleagueship in the same organisation, or a professional acquaintance of some duration. (One can track the degrees of acquaintance and intimacy between British civil servants through their correspondence, ranging from, for example, ‘Dear Vivian’, through ‘My dear Vivian’, and ‘Dear Valentine’, to ‘My Dear Valentine’, in the case of the SIS officer Valentine Vivian.) But the two were not social equals, by any stretch. Readers will recall that Beurton stated that he had become ‘on friendly terms’ with the consular official, but what is going on here?

[* Back in the nineteen-fifties, my father recited to me a jingle from his schooldays:

“He had no proper sense of shame.

He told his friends his Christian name.”

This tradition at independent schools certainly endured into the 1960s.]

Moreover, the text surely has some coded messages. “I have no doubt that the day is not far off when only the air will be available!” certainly does not look forward to the time when airline passenger service will be restored between the two countries: it must refer to the use of wireless. “Recently he became the proud father of a second daughter . . .” is probably not referring to a real birth, but is some kind of pre-arranged text to indicate that something has happened, perhaps the recruitment of a new sub-agent. (Rössler had been recruited in November 1942.) Such a formulation was a common practice for coded messages in WWII. The statement that Farrell expects to meet W’s new daughter is very revealing, however, since it suggests that Farrell has taken over Beurton’s role in associating with Wang and his links to Falkenhausen.

The second part of the sentence might otherwise have indicated that ‘W’ could be Foote, but, now that L. T. Wang has been identified, and Beurton’s friendship with him revealed, the Chinse journalist must be the prime suspect. The statement that ‘communication has deteriorated since you left’ could refer to the fact that the German entry into Vichy France in November 1942 had made the escape/route (by which couriers could carry messages to London) even more perilous and unreliable. Yet ‘W’ is a very odd way of identifying a common acquaintance in a personal letter, and the usage draws attention to the secrecy. Why would Farrell not use the person’s real name, unless it was a foreigner with dubious connections? Moreover, Farrell signs off by requesting Beurton to ‘let us know’, not ‘let me know’, thus suggesting his membership of a larger organisation.

But, again, why was Farrell communicating by letter with Beurton rather than going through Head Office? Farrell expresses disappointment that he has not heard from Beurton, and regrets that Beurton has no time for ‘private correspondence’. Yet it is a strange set of circumstances where a consular official and a communist agent would try to establish a ‘private’ exchange of letters. And the implicit references to do not suggest that these are purely personal matters.

At face value, the letter makes an appeal to Beurton to contact the Geneva station by wireless. Now, although Jeffery’s History of SIS does not mention Farrell by name, it does reveal some useful facts about wireless communication at that location: “There was a SIS wireless set at Geneva, but it could be used only for receiving messages as the Swiss authorities did not permit foreign missions in the country to send enciphered messages except through the Post Office” [apparently describing the situation in 1940], adding that “These communication difficulties meant that only messages of the highest importance could be sent by cable, and that much intelligence collected in Switzerland reached London only after a considerable delay. Because of the lack of continuous secure communications, moreover, London was unable to send out any signals intelligence material, which was another handicap for the Swiss station [undated, but implicitly suggesting the period after Vichy had been closed off in November 1942].” (p 380)

Analysis

In this context, we have to take some logical steps about the context of Farrell’s letter:

First of all, irrespective of the text enclosed, it would on the surface have been extraordinarily foolish for a senior diplomatic officer, having acted as a presumably objective arbiter in a repatriation case, to enter communication with the subject in any form. Yet Farrell not only bypassed the official channels: he wrote privately, from an undisclosed address, to a distorted and hence not immediately familiar name, using an unnaturally intimate form of address, and concluding with a near-undecipherable signature. He was indisputably trying to contact Beurton about business they had discussed, but in his effort made a clumsy attempt to conceal the fact.

Second, Farrell must have known that his letter would be intercepted by both Swiss and British –  and even Nazi –  censors, and that the message would reach the eyes of MI5, SIS and other government organisations. Yet he did not expect the Swiss censor to be able to identify him or Beurton, or the British censor to recognize his name. Beurton was known as ‘John Miller’ to the Swiss authorities. (Beurton appeared as ‘Fenton’, the name of his adoptive parents, in MI5 files, but his identity was known to MI5 before he arrived in Britain.) The fact that German intelligence could have discovered messages that pointed to Switzerland’s possibly weakening neutrality by allowing British wireless communications could have had a very serious consequence. Yet Farrell, an experienced SIS officer, was apparently not concerned about this exposure.

Third, given what is known about Farrell’s close involvement with, and recruitment and maintenance of, Sissy Dübendorfer, and her association with the ‘Lucy’ Ring, and his presence as Passport Control Officer in Geneva at the time Sonia departed for the UK (and probably when her marriage and passport application took place), one’s first instinct is to assume that he was familiar with the SIS exercise of enabling Sonia’s marriage, and her passage to the United Kingdom. He most certainly knew about the shenanigans involved in giving Len a false identity, and oversaw the whole project. Yet he might not have known about the details of the arrangement of Sonia’s affairs, if they were arranged before he was installed in Geneva, or were handled by other officers. (Sonia describes the passport officer as being somewhat remote, as if he were unfamiliar with her recent marriage, but, again, he may have been acting so.)

Fourth, the message indicates that Farrell had received information from a third party that Beurton had arrived safely in England, and rejoined Sonia, but had clearly not been given his Summertown address. In that case, however, unless he was confident that Beurton was living alone at Kidlington, a highly unlikely supposition, he must have realised that Sonia could have picked up the letter, and opened it, or that Len would have to explain to her what the letter was about. Thus he must have believed that referring elliptically to wireless transmission was not a statement that incurred undue risk in the management of Sonia.

Fifth, if one accepts that Farrell was an experienced and respected member of Dansey’s Z organisation, and that he performed his job of consul/PCO professionally, and one finds the superficial meaning of the text absurd, one can only assume that he had an ulterior motive beyond that outlined in the letter, and was consciously drawing Len out into the open. Alternatively, because he believed the import of his message was concealed, he did not believe that anyone not part of the conspiracy would be able to detect what was going on. He surely must have gained approval from Vanden Heuvel for what he was doing.

Sixth, if receiving messages on his apparatus in Geneva was not a problem (although without confirmation of receipt, or an ability to discuss them, their value would have been diminished), trying to acquire another sender in the United Kingdom would appear to be pointless. Thus Farrell’s request only makes sense if it implies a tacit agreement that Beurton’s wireless would communicate not with the Geneva station, but with a wireless apparatus outside the consulate – presumably Alexander Foote’s, and that, in addition, Beurton would have useful information to impart. He would have been of no value as a freelancer. Thus a clandestine but official link, not so easily detectable by the Swiss authorities, but monitorable by Dansey (presumably) at one end, and Farrell at the other, would allow a two-way exchange to take place. His invitation is undeniable: the content of any such exchange deriving from it still enigmatic.

Seventh, Farrell must have considered Beurton a loyal servant to the cause, committed to helping SIS, and he must also have imagined that Beurton’s International Brigade past had been some kind of cover, or that he had changed his views, or that his Communist past was irrelevant for the current project. This was an understandable attitude to take after June 1941, but would not have been when Sonia left Geneva at the end of 1940, when the Nazi-Soviet pact was still in effect. He and Beurton shared the desire to acquire information about opposition to the Nazis: they were both interested in helping escaped POWs get to Lisbon. Farrell has apparently taken over Beurton’s role as intermediary with Wang. Thus all evidence seems to suggest that Farrell trusted Beurton. (When Skardon and Serpell questioned Beurton in the infamous 1947 encounter at ‘The Firs’, they assumed Beurton was anti-communist, according to Sonia.)

Eighth, Beurton could thus, with the Soviet Union and Great Britain as allies, presumably feel at ease with working for SIS, expressing enthusiasm for his role in returning to the UK, and managed to convince Farrell and his team that he could put his wireless operations skills to good use in a shared cause. Beurton claimed, after his return, that he had been able to help Farrell on some matters of intelligence (surely the Wang-von Falkenhausen business), something that may have facilitated the granting of his false identity. As a quid pro quo for gaining Farrell’s help on his passport, he probably made some sort of agreement with Farrell for trying to communicate with Farrell (or the surrogate) by wireless when he reached the UK – perhaps on the status of Soviet POWs –  but probably did not plan to take it seriously. Farrell’s hint that he knows what Beurton is focused on (‘you are absorbed in work that so interests you’) indicates that Beurton might have confided in him some aspect of his plans with Sonia. Yet why, if Farrell had taken over Beurton’s role as intermediary to Wang, he would be expecting useful information from Beurton at a personal level now that Beurton was in England, is very puzzling.

Thus the primary enigma over Farrell’s approach stands out: was it authorised, unauthorised, or clandestine? If it was authorised, it would seem unnecessarily hazardous, as Beurton could much more easily have been contacted and influenced from London. If it was unauthorised, it would seem pointless, as Beurton would have nothing of value to offer to Farrell in Geneva, or any associate wireless operator in Switzerland, and raises all manner of questions of responsibility and secrecy. The third option is that it was clandestine, and that Farrell was also a Soviet agent or, at least, a sympathiser. Yet the foolishness of exposing his relationship with Beurton to Swiss, German and British intelligence is simply beyond belief, and Farrell’s stature as a senior SIS officer – even with what we know about Kim Philby – almost certainly would seem to exclude him from that category. Thus a more plausible conclusion is that the communication was ‘semi-authorised’: Farrell had received tacit approval for an exercise that would be denied on high if the details ever surfaced.

In this scenario, therefore, Farrell would have been treating Beurton as a potentially valuable communicant, with wireless skills, who would be able to facilitate secret, less obvious, exchange of information with Dansey in London and the Swiss outpost through its extended network, namely Foote. There was risk involved, but he must have considered that Sonia would not be perturbed by disclosure of the agreement. What information, and from what source, Beurton would have provided his contact in Switzerland is not clear. It may be coincidental that ‘Lucy’ (Rudolf Rössler) was recruited by the Swiss network in November 1942, shortly after Beurton’s arrival in Britain. Yet the case for Beurton’s being the conduit for Ultra-derived messages would appear to be weakened by the following:

  1. Foote had been transmitting such intelligence messages before Len’s arrival in the UK;
  2. Beurton, unlike Foote, would have explained to Moscow (via Sonia) the source of his intelligence, but Moscow continuously pressed for more information about ‘Lucy’;
  3. Even if he did not see the Ultra-based messages himself, Farrell would presumably have been aware of Beurton’s role, and thus would not have had to remind him of his obligations;
  4. If SIS had nurtured Beurton as an official messenger for such traffic, and trusted him, it would surely have kept him out of national service, so that he could continue his role;
  5. Foote would not have complained so much, after his return to the UK in 1947, about Sonia’s receiving warnings by an officer within MI5 about Fuchs’s imminent arrest.

Farrell’s Intentions: A Closer Study

If a more detailed look is taken at Farrell’s situation, enhanced by the (admittedly unreliable) memoirs of Foote and Sonia herself, one might conclude that Farrell was indeed acting in a semi-official capacity, probably with Vanden Heuvel’s knowledge, but without any formal approval from SIS in London. Consider the following reasoning:

Because of the multi-month delay since Beurton’s arrival in the UK, Farrell’s letter of March 1943 must have been prompted by some event. The likeliest candidates must be i) Beurton’s failure to do something, or ii) an unexpected happening with the Soviet network in Switzerland. Yet it is difficult to see how any of the events concerning the Rote Kapelle after July 1942 (such as Rössler’s recruitment) could have prompted the approach. The cryptic references to ‘W’, and W’s new child, would not appear to have anything to do with wireless communications. On the other hand, the progress of hostilities might have provided a stimulus: the Wehrmacht’s first major defeat of the war at Stalingrad, in February 1943, could conceivably have re-energised interest in the anti-Hitler movement. Farrell might have then tried to resuscitate a contact.

What was Farrell’s probable relationship with Beurton? His familiar mode of address shows that he had grown to know him well in the time between Sonia’s leaving (December 1940) and Beurton’s departure (July 1942). Beurton confirmed that he had provided Farrell with information and that the two had become friendly, but Sonia’s own account suggests that it was only very late in the cycle, after Cadogan’s involvement in February 1942. In Sonya’s Report, the author describes how Len’s applications to the British Consulate were brushed off since they had more urgent cases to deal with. Only after Cadogan’s letter (written February 29) did Farrell ask Beurton to come and see him, and then ‘smoothed the way for his journey’.

What was Beurton’s status? To SIS, it would probably have been safer, and more productive, for Beurton to remain in Switzerland, where he was effectively neutralized, but could provide useful information via his Chinese acquaintance, Wang.  It is significant that SIS apparently made no move to accelerate his reunion with his wife. After all, they (in London) did not really know whether he was an unideological agent (like Foote), or a committed communist (like Sonia). If he was an unreconstituted International Brigader, and had enthusiastically married Sonia, SIS would conclude that he was certainly the latter. But he shared SIS’s anti-fascist mission. Moreover, Sonia relates how Len and ‘Jim’ (Foote) grew apart in 1940, as Foote became more egoistic and pleasure-loving. She notes that Foote did not become a communist until he returned from Spain. Foote writes, in Handbook for Spies, that Beurton had no further contact with the group after March 1941. He also told MI5, in 1947, that Beurton had been very critical of Radó, whom Beurton ‘hated’, and that Moscow had asked Foote to get Beurton to stop sending embarrassing telegrams to Sonia that were unencrypted.

Did the request from the UK to do whatever it could to gain Beurton’s egress come as an unpleasant surprise, or simply a bureaucratic chore? Cadogan and Eden, after pressure from Sonia and Eleanor Rathbone, had become involved. There is no evidence of SIS applying pressure, and a note from SIS to Vesey on file reinforces the fact that the PCO in Geneva knew nothing of Beurton’s shady past beforehand. (It would say that, of course. It would not have been wise for SIS to admit to Cadogan and Eden that they had been employing known Communists for clandestine work.) So why would such high-ups agree to support the case of one single dubious citizen? It seems an inordinate amount of effort to gain the repatriation (and airplane flight home from Lisbon) of a highly dubious and subversive character, who was, moreover, on the C. S. W. (‘Central Security War’) Black List, and thus considered officially an undesirable. Sonia had also been placed on that list before her arrival.

One suggestion, put to me by Professor Glees, is that Beurton may have been recruited as an SIS agent before his marriage to Sonia, in a fashion similar to the method Foote indeed had been (according to my theory), and was instructed to marry her to facilitate her passage to the UK. In this role, his task would have been to keep an eye on Sonia, and he thus would have been sent to the UK to fulfil this mission, but reporting to Farrell via personal letter, and then wireless, rather than to London. This is a very dramatic hypothesis that must not be excluded, but it does raise questions about Beurton’s true commitment, and whether he never really switched allegiances, but acted along with SIS as far as he could. While Alexander Foote was an adventurer, of pliable political convictions, Beurton had been a dedicated communist for years, having joined the CP in Spain, and openly transferred to the CPGB on his return. Moreover, we have to face the fact that Beurton showed intense loyalty to Sonia, and followed her to East Germany in 1950, soon after she and their three children escaped, where they apparently lived happily together. According to Sonia, Beurton worked in a dedicated fashion for the German Democratic Republic for twenty years.

However, after Len’s departure, Farrell (and Heuvel, presumably) did nothing for eight months. If they had divulged anything confidential to Beurton, they must have known that, as soon as Beurton arrived in Oxford, he would tell Sonia about the set-up in Geneva, and what discussions he had had with Farrell. Did Farrell let Beurton know about the infiltration of the Rote Kapelle network (by Foote and Dübendorfer)? Surely not, otherwise Foote would have been blown. (Although Radó knew that Foote had friends in the British Embassy.) Foote underwent strenuous interrogation in Moscow after the war, and was absolved. Sonia admits she did not mistrust Foote in 1940, even when the breach with Beurton occurred. Again, that may have been an insertion required by the GRU, but the latter allowed Sonia to describe Foote’s innate humanity in warning her to leave the country well before Fuchs’s arrest.

Ursula Beurton (Sonia)

What did Sonia do in the weeks/months following Beurton’s return? The most significant is being set up, with Moscow’s approval, to meet Fuchs (although some accounts suggest she met him earlier). Did she get the all-clear because Beurton returned from Geneva? Thus Moscow could not have been alarmed by anything Beurton reported. Maybe she received the go-ahead on the basis that her husband was in place to transmit her messages. Meanwhile, Dansey and Menzies must have breathed a sigh of relief that nothing outwardly changed after Beurton’s arrival. There were no alterations in behaviour, and Sonia clearly believed she could transmit undisturbed.

Farrell’s informal approach to Beurton therefore only makes sense if either a) Farrell had not been personally involved with Dansey in the scheme to manipulate Sonia, and had been delegated with merely formal tasks to facilitate her passage only, or b) Beurton was now a recognized SIS agent, and Farrell was his controller. Sonia presents the request for a passport as a surprise to the British Consul in Geneva, as if he had no knowledge of the marriage itself. (“His response was distinctly cool.”) Farrell’s primary focus was on escape lines – as was that of Beurton, who was tasked by Moscow with trying to get escaped Soviet prisoners-of-war out of Switzerland. Farrell knew Beurton and Foote were (or had been) friends. Farrell must have had broad sympathies with anti-fascist activities, and believed Sonia’s story that she had abandoned any Soviet espionage because of her disgust with the Nazi-Soviet pact (a claim Sonia makes in her book, and one that is conveniently echoed in Foote’s Handbook for Spies, where it suited MI5 to indicate that Sonia’s disillusionment meant that she had given up spying).

A plausible explanation is that Beurton thus made some deal with Farrell concerning liaison with his (former) friend Foote, but did not take it seriously, as he considered he had duped Farrell, and thus did nothing about it on his return to the UK. If he had been recruited to keep a watch on Sonia, he would surely have passed on some worthless details to keep his legend alive, rather than do nothing at all. Beurton turned out to be a highly mendacious character, inventing all manner of stories to mislead the authorities about his travels, and his source of funds, but suddenly expressed a sense of entitlement when SIS aided his return to the United Kingdom

The conclusion must be that Farrell made an unofficial approach to Beurton, reckless in its poorly veiled language, but that all the authorities astonishingly failed to note its import, with the result that no strategies were derailed. Yet the existence of the Geneva letter shows a degree of connivance with the Beurton/Sonia axis that has been ignored by those who claim that SIS had no part in masterminding Sonia’s escape.

Conclusions

Farrell: On the most probable assumption that Farrell was acting without overt higher authority, the implication of his action is that a high degree of naivety must be ascribed to him and Vanden Heuvel, because, irrespective of their degree of trust in Beurton, and his exact mission, they must have realised that Beurton would immediately inform Sonia of what was happening. I am of the opinion that Sonia probably guessed in 1940 that SIS was trying to manipulate her, because of the chain of events that led to her arrival as a free Englishwoman in war-struck Britain in January 1941, but Len’s arrival eighteen months later, if he divulged any secret agreement with Farrell, would have immediately confirmed that everything they did was presumably under surveillance. And that fact has enormous implications for Sonia’s career in espionage after that date. Moreover, Farrell appears to disappear from the picture after this episode

Beurton: And how was Beurton to handle this fresh requirement made on him? Farrell expects him to have made contact with him since his departure, although perhaps not immediately by ‘air’. Is that an evasion, a subtly coded wish that he should have communicated by wireless by now? Beurton apparently did not hear from Farrell for eight months. Maybe he thought that, without a firm agreement on schedules, frequencies, callsigns, etc., or even knowledge of the capabilities of any wireless transmitter he might acquire or construct, he could safely avoid trying to make wireless contact with Farrell. But what about Dansey and SIS? If Farrell’s approach to Beurton had been authorized by Vanden Heuvel, but not by Dansey, it would explain why Dansey and his minions did not discreetly try to ensure that Beurton was following up. But Beurton’s status in the whole drama is now elevated: Soviet wireless operator, confidant with connections to the opposition to Hitler, clandestine communicant with – or even agent of –  SIS, and decoy for an important Soviet spy.

Sonia: One of the most significant conclusions must be that, if Farrell had tried to open a communication channel with Beurton, Sonia would have known about it as well. And, even if she knew nothing of the programme to manipulate her, the realisation that SIS was aware of Len’s capability for using wireless in the UK would make any attempt by her to perform clandestine transmissions pointless. The only other explanation would be that Sonia had left for the UK as a compliant accomplice in some disinformation exercise towards the Soviet Union, and went along with it, while all the time planning to pursue courier activities of which SIS was unaware (i.e. meeting with Fuchs). That hypothesis is unlikely, but not outrageous. I would not discard it immediately, and offer a possible scenario as to how it might have rolled out.

It is quite possible that SIS, having abetted Sonia’s marriage, then threatened her, when she applied for a passport, that they would reveal her subterfuge and return her to a probable death in Germany unless she agreed to work for them. The motive here would be to learn more about Sonia’s contacts, feed her disinformation, and, by using her transmissions as a crib, acquire clues to Soviet ciphers and codes. Sonia would have gone along with this scheme, of course, and, once she was in the UK, would have had to cooperate for a while. Yet, a ‘double agent’ (which, strictly speaking, she would not have been) cannot be relied upon unless his or her handler has exclusive control of the subject agent’s communications. Sonia would have alerted her true bosses of the situation via her brother and his conduit to the Soviet Embassy, and Military Intelligence would have adjusted plans and expectations accordingly.

Sonia & Len: In that temporary twilight world, the outcome would be that Sonia would have had to stifle her own transmissions (or deliver completely harmless messages, to fool her surveillers), and that Len would have managed to deceive or shake off his would-be SIS controllers, and transmit to the Soviet Union (or the Soviet Embassy) until he was called up for national service. While Len’s actual role with SIS remains very murky, Sonia may then have turned to couriers and the Soviet Embassy for delivering her intelligence from Fuchs.

The exploits of Sonia and Len in going to Switzerland, later escaping from there to the United Kingdom, and then surviving in Britain undetected, are so packed with incidents of unmerited good fortune, complemented by a massive series of untruths declared to immigration officers and others by the married pair, that one can come to only one reasonable conclusion: they were remarkably stupid, or they were abetted by an extraordinarily naïve British intelligence organisation. And, if they were allowed to get away with such obviously refutable false claims, they must have themselves concluded that the opposition was either simply incompetent, or believed that it could manipulate them without it’s being suspected. I shall cover the whole farrago of lies in a future piece.

SIS: The inescapable fact is that the existence of the letter proves that SIS was trying to manipulate Sonia (and Len), in a futile effort to control her broadcasts, and learn more about Soviet tradecraft and codes. What the letter and the surrounding information on file show is that, contrary to earlier analyses, which have focused on MI5’s negligence in not detecting what Sonia was up to, and thus allowing her to operate as a courier scot-free, is that MI5’s senior officers were colluding with SIS and allowing her to operate without hindrance. Beurton’s arrival caused a worrying flurry of unwanted interest from an eager junior in F Division (Shillito) at a time when B Division had studiously been ignoring her activity and movements. Ironically, Beurton was at this time, in 1942 and 1943, the probable real wireless operator transmitting Sonia’s messages, while Sonia was able to roam around with MI5 casually ‘keeping an eye on her’. All the time, however, she was able to distract her surveillers from the main illicit activity. Sonia outwitted both MI5 and SIS.

The pattern in KV 6/41 reinforces the major theme of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ –  that SIS developed a scheme to place Sonia in a  position where she would be encouraged to spy for the Soviets, but where her every move would be known to the Secret Intelligence Service. In order to execute this plan, SIS had to gain the co-operation of senior MI5 officers, who were responsible for the surveillance of possible threats, whether German or communist, on home soil, so that Sonia’s life would not be interfered with. Every time a junior officer pointed out Sonia’s background and communist ideology, or her connections with strident rabble-rousers like her brother, that officer was quashed, and instructed to lay off. Yet the corporate discomfort was obvious: in one very telling detail from after the war, the same John Marriott who worked for the Double-Cross operation in B1A, and then returned to communist counter-espionage in F Division as F2C (Shillito’s old job), wrote to Kim Philby of SIS on April 15, 1946. The FBI had contacted MI5 wanting information about Sonia in relation to her husband Rudolf Hamburger, who had been captured in Tehran, and the FBI wanted MI5 to question Sonia. Marriott wrote to Philby: “For a variety of reasons I do not feel able to comply with this request . . .”  Indeed.

Postscript

I wonder whether any readers can help with the following questions:

  • What was the staff organisation in the Geneva consulate from 1939-1943?
  • Who were the owners of the bungalow in Kidlington, and did they really eject the Beurtons and move in?
  • What route did mail from Switzerland to the UK take in 1943?
  • What other interpretations might one place on the message in the letter?
  • What was Beurton’s exact role supposed to be in making wireless contact with Switzerland?
  • Can anyone point me to details of Falkenhausen’s activities in the first years of the war?

As with all these intelligence mysteries, one has to believe there exists a logical explanation – unless, of course, the archival record itself is fallacious. One has to assume that each agent in the story was acting in the belief that what he or she did was in furtherance of his or her own interests, or those of their employer. The Geneva Letter is in the same category as the memorandum on Guy Burgess’s going to Moscow to negotiate with the Comintern, or the report from the Harwich customs officer querying Rudolf Peierls’s passport, or Dick White’s instructions to Arthur Martin to brief Lamphere on Philby. A convincing explanation will eventually be winkled out.

[I thank Professor Anthony Glees, Emeritus Professor of Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, and Denis Lenihan, distinguished analyst of intelligence matters, for their comments on earlier versions of this report. Professor Glees came to Roger Hollis’s defence in ‘The Secrets of the Service’, and can safely be described as a supporter of my theory that SIS manipulated Sonia: Mr Lenihan is overall a supporter of Chapman Pincher’s claims in ‘Treachery’ that Hollis was the Soviet mole ELLI, and is sceptical of the SIS-Sonia conspiracy theory. Neither gentleman has endorsed my argument, and any errors or misconceptions that appear in it are my responsibility alone.]

3 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography, Science

The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 2)

[In Part 1 of this segment, I analysed the way in which Rudolf Peierls tried to frame his life and career. He almost managed to conceal a murky connection with the  Soviet authorities, but a study of archives, letters and memoirs strongly suggested a hold that Moscow exerted over him and his wife. In Part 2, I investigate how the network of physicists in Britain in the 1930s helped to enable Peierls’s close friend and protégé Klaus Fuchs to thrive, and explore how Peierls tried to explain away Fuchs’s ability to spy under his watch.]

Rudolf Peierls

When those UK public servants who aided or abetted the espionage of Klaus Fuchs were judged, whether they were in academia, government, or intelligence, the investigation essentially boiled down to four questions: 1) Were they incompetent? (‘I never knew he was a Communist’); 2) Were they negligent? (‘I knew he was a Communist, but didn’t think it mattered’); 3) Were they timid? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and was concerned, but didn’t want to rock the boat’); or 4) Were they culpable? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and that is why I recruited/approved him’). The actions of each were highly dependent upon roles and timing: supporting a communist scientist in the 1930s would have been almost de rigueur in physicist circles; in 1941 the Ministry of Aircraft Production was so desperate to beat Hitler that it admitted it had no qualms about recruiting a communist; after Gouzenko’s defection in 1945, and Nunn May’s sentencing, any communist links began to be treated as dangerous; in 1951 Sillitoe and White of MI5 lied to Prime Minster Attlee about Fuchs’s communism in order to save the institution’s skin. In comparison, in 1944 the OSS recruited Jürgen Kuczynski (Sonia’s brother, who introduced Fuchs to a member of Soviet military intelligence) because he was a communist. But the post mortems of the Cold War suggested that warning signals should have been made at every stage of the spy’s advancement to positions where he had access to highly confidential information.

Moreover, Fuchs is often presented in contrasting styles. On the one hand appears the superb master of tradecraft, who effortlessly insinuated himself into Britain’s academic elite, convinced the authorities of his skills and commitment, took up UK nationality, and then, with his keen knowledge of counter-surveillance techniques was able to pass on atomic secrets to his handler, Sonia, and later, in 1949, to give away no clues when he was being watched, being betrayed solely because of the VENONA decrypts, and the tenacity of those who followed the leads. On the other hand we see the clumsy communist, who made no effort to conceal his true affiliations, escaped undetected only because of the incompetence of MI5, but carelessly provided possible clues by visiting his sister in Boston, and contacting a known Communist (Johanna Klopstech) on his return to the UK in 1946. Moreover, he drank ‘like a fish’, according to Genia Peierls. When questioned, he was foolish enough to confess to espionage when anyone else would have brazened it out, with the result that his Soviet spymasters were disgusted with him.

Would it not have made more sense for Fuchs to soften his communist stance, thus avoiding a complete volte-face and loss of credibility with his leftist peers in England, but suggesting he was more of a vague theoretician than a firm believer in the Stalinist paradise? In this respect the relationship to Fuchs of Rudolph Peierls, as his mentor and recruiter, is especially poignant. In this article, I examine what is known about Peierls’s and other scientists’ awareness of Fuchs’s true political commitment, and how Peierls danced around the issue in the years after Fuchs’s prison sentencing, and later, when Fuchs was released, and left the UK for the German Democratic Republic. I expand my analysis by using the statements and testimony of other scientists who dealt with the pair.

I wrote about Peierls in Misdefending the Realm, and it might be useful to re-present here a few sections from my book that focused on my assessment of Peierls’s role in recruiting Fuchs to the Tube Alloys project, from Chapter 8:

Peierls’s account of what happened next is deceptive. In his autobiography he claimed that, several months after Fuchs’s release, when thinking about technical help he himself needed in the spring of 1941, he thought of Fuchs. “I knew and liked his papers, and I had met him”, he wrote, dismissing the relationship as fairly remote. Yet he had never written about Fuchs beforehand, and he does not describe the circumstances in which he had met him. His autobiographical contribution is undermined, however, by what he had told MI5. When he was interviewed by Commander Burt in February, 1950, shortly before Fuchs’s trial, he said that he had first met Fuchs “in about 1934, probably at some scientific conference”, but also stated that “he did not know him very well until Born recommended him”. Fuchs was later to confirm that he had met Peierls at a scientific conference “immediately before the war”. An MI5 report of November 23, 1949, states that “Peierls had met Fuchs at a Physics Conference in Bristol, when Peierls had first suggested that Fuchs should work under him at Birmingham”. That occasion was clearly before the war: Peierls and Fuchs had achieved more than merely discuss issues of joint interest, and Peierls clearly misrepresented the closeness of their relationship when speaking to Burt.

Without explaining how he had learned that Fuchs had been released from internment, and had returned to Edinburgh, Peierls stated that he wrote to Fuchs asking him whether he wanted to work with him, even before he (Peierls) had gained permission to do so. He next asked for official clearance, but was instructed “to tell him as little as possible”. “In due course he [Fuchs] got a full clearance, and he started work in May 1941.” One might conclude that the impression Peierls wanted to give is that it was a fortuitous accident that Fuchs’s availability, and his own need, coincided: he conveniently forgot the previous job offer. Moreover, the “and” in Peierls’s account is troublesome, suggesting a sequence of events that did not in fact happen that way. Fuchs had not received ‘full clearance’ by that time: in another item of correspondence, Peierls admitted that he had to wait. The process was to drag on for several months, and some MI5 personnel were later to express horror that the relevant government ministries had proceeded so carelessly in advancing Fuchs’s career without concluding the formal checks. For example, in June 1940, Peierls had taken Fuchs with him to Cambridge to meet the Austrian expert in heavy water, Dr. Hans Halban, who was a member of the exclusive five-man Tube Alloys Technical Committee: Fuchs’s training was assuredly not being held back.

Moreover, Peierls’s account does not correspond with other records. It is clear from his file at the National Archives that Fuchs was recommended for release from internment in Canada as early as October 14, 1940 (i.e. shortly after the meeting of the Maud Technical Sub-Committee), and that the termination of his internment (to return to Edinburgh) was officially approved a few weeks later. This followed an inquiry by the Royal Society as early as July 1940, since an MI5 memorandum states that “the Royal Society included Fuchs on list of scientists they wanted urgently released soon after Fuchs sailed on Ettrick on July 3, 1940.” An ‘exceptional case’ was made on October 17, and the Home Office gave Fuchs’s name to the High Commissioner for Canada. These requests would later appear very provocative, as a defined role for Fuchs appeared to have been described very early in the cycle. Yet, after his arrival in Liverpool in January 1941, the Immigration Officer specified very clearly to the Superintendent of the Register of Aliens that Fuchs would not be able to “engage in any kind of employment without the consent of the Ministry of Labour”.

It would at first glance be quite reasonable to suppose that Peierls had initiated this action, especially given the curious testimony of Fuchs’s supervisor at Edinburgh, Max Born. In a letter dated May 29, 1940, Born had written (to whom is not clear) that, despite Fuchs’s being “in the small top group of theoretical physicists in this country”, he and the others should not be freed from internment. Furthermore, Born wrote that “there are strict regulations that prohibit any liberated internees to return to the ‘protected area’ where they live”. “Even if they would be released they could not join my department again”, he added. Either this was a deliberate deception by Born, to provide a cover-story, or he had a quick change of heart, or he was sincere, but was overruled, the British government wishing to maintain the fiction that everything happened later than supposed. The third alternative can probably be discounted, as Born soon after began writing to influential persons, trying to gain Fuchs’s release, immediately after his arrest, and himself vigorously tried to find Fuchs remunerative employment as soon as he learned about Fuchs’s release from internment. In any case, the earlier statement represented an unnecessarily severe judgment, made just over two weeks after Fuchs’s interrogation and arrest, and its only purpose can have been to smooth the path of Fuchs’s employment elsewhere after his eventual release.  [pp 217-218]

And:

In fact, correspondence between Peierls and the pacifist-minded Born suggests that the two collaborated to find Fuchs employment very soon after his release from internment was approved. It appears the two scientists knew each other well. In the summer of 1936, Born (whose position at Cambridge had come to an end) had received an invitation from Kapitza to work for him in Moscow. The fact that Kapitza appeared then to be an unreformed Stalinist, writing in his letter of invitation: “Now, Born, is the time to make your decision whether you will be on the right or the wrong side in the coming political struggle”, did not deter Born.  He considered it so seriously that he started taking Russian lessons from Peierls’s wife, Eugenia, but instead assumed the chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University in October 1936. Laucht’s study of Frisch and Peierls refers to letters exchanged between Peierls and Born in November, 1940, where they explored opportunities for placing Fuchs successfully. This correspondence continued during the spring of 1941, with Peierls expressing extreme dedication towards bringing Fuchs into his camp. “Although it looked initially as if Fuchs would not make the move to the University of Birmingham, Peierls remained tireless in his effort to find a job for the talented physicist at his university. In the end, he succeeded and offered Fuchs a temporary position,” wrote Laucht. Thus Peierls’s version of the recruitment process can be interpreted as another self-serving memoir attempting to distance the author from a traitor. All this was known by MI5: they had gained Home Office Warrants to read the correspondence.

Max Born, moreover, was far from innocent in helping Fuchs on his mission. In his two items of autobiography, he relentlessly reminds his readers that he had no competence in nuclear physics, a convenient pretence for his attitude of non-participation and pacifism. Yet in his later, more comprehensive volume he related the episode of a visit to Cambridge in the summer of 1939, where he met the nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, and how, on his return, he shared with Fuchs Szilard’s conviction that an atom bomb could be made. He was then unequivocal that Fuchs knew that the nature of the work he would have to be engaged in was nuclear weapons research, with the goal of defeating Hitler, as he claimed he tried to talk Fuchs out of it. Just as Peierls did in his own memoir, Born concealed the fact of the correspondence between the two exiled scientists at the end of 1940, supporting the lie that it was Peierls’s sudden request for Fuchs in May of 1941 that occasioned the latter’s transfer from Edinburgh to Birmingham. [pp 220-21]

What new material can shed further light on this story? In some ways, the sources have become sparser. In recent years, previously available files concerning atomic weapons and energy research, including vital files on Klaus Fuchs, have been ‘retained’ by UK government departments for unspecified reasons. (see, for example:
https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/research-brought-halt-national-archives/
and

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/23/british-nuclear-archive-files-withdrawn-without-explanation ) Very recently, some of the files on Sonia’s family have been inexplicably withdrawn (’closed while access is under review’). In his 1997 biography of Professor Chadwick (the head of the British mission to assist in the Manhattan Project), Andrew Brown wrote: “Some of the wartime letters between Chadwick and Peierls that have never been released in England were available at the National Archives, but possibly as a result of the Gulf War, they were recently recensored by the US authorities”  –  an extraordinary admission of foreign interference. The Cleveland Cram archive of CIA material at Georgetown University has been withdrawn, at the CIA’s request (see: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/25/how-the-cia-writes-history/). Sabine Lee’s publication of the Letters of Rudolf Peierls has usefully extracted a number of communications between the scientist and his colleagues and contacts, but the emphasis is very much on technical matters, most of the letters appear in the original German, and the volume is very expensive.

On the other hand, a careful examination of the archival material of fringe figures (such as the enigmatic Herbert Skinner), and the articles, book reviews, memoirs and biographies of scientists who engaged with Peierls and Fuchs in the 1930s, 40s and 50s can reveal a host of subsidiary detail that helps to shed light on the process by which Fuchs was allowed to be adopted by Peierls, and approved for work on Tube Alloys.

The Physicists

The Physics Department at Bristol

The saga started at the University of Bristol, where a fascinating group of future luminaries was assembled in the 1930s. Klaus Fuchs arrived there, in October 1933, and was introduced to Professor Nevill Mott by Ronald Gunn, who was a director of Imperial Tobacco, was described by many as a Quaker, but was also a strong communist sympathiser. Gunn had visited the Soviet Union in 1932, had met Fuchs in Paris in 1933, and had sponsored his move to Bristol. The university admissions board accepted Fuchs as a doctoral student of Mott, who held the Melville Wills Chair of Theoretical Physics. Mott and Gunn were both alumni of Clifton College, as, indeed, was Roger Hollis, the controversial future chief of MI5. Mott had taken up his new position only in the autumn of 1933, at the young age of twenty-six, and one of his new colleagues was Herbert Skinner, to whom he was indebted for helping focus his research. Professor Tyndall’s history of the Physics Department also credits Skinner with endorsing the selection of Mott.

Skinner was later to become Fuchs’s boss at AERE Harwell, where Fuchs was to conduct an affair with Skinner’s ‘Austrian-born’ wife, Erna, described as ’glamorous’ in one memoir. Skinner had been appointed a Henry Herbert Will Research Fellow at Bristol in 1927, and was given a more permanent position as Lecturer in Spectroscopy in June 1931, which he held until 1946. In October 1934, Rudolph Peierls’s long-time friend, colleague and correspondent Hans Bethe arrived, but he stayed only four months before leaving for the United States to take up a chair at Cornell University. Soon after that, however, Herbert Fröhlich was added to the faculty. (I wrote about his miraculous escape from the Soviet Union in Part 1 of this analysis.) Fröhlich was appointed Lecturer in 1944, and Reader in 1946. He stayed until 1948, when he was appointed as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Liverpool University. Ronald Gurney was another Soviet sympathiser, a member of the local Communist Party, working as a George Wills research associate from 1933 to 1939, and contributing, alongside Fröhlich, to Mott’s research on semiconductors and crystals. (Ironically, Fuchs would later tell the FBI that Gurney was ‘a security risk’ because he and his wife had at Bristol both been members of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR.) Alan Nunn May, the other famed ‘atom spy’ was one of those scientists from King’s College, London, evacuated to Bristol at the start of the war.

Other German-speaking physicists were recruited, and were later, like Fuchs, to undergo internment during the ‘fifth column’ scare of 1940. Christopher Laucht writes, in Elemental Germans: “Other German-speaking émigré physicists who were interned included Walter Kohn and Hans Kronberger, as well as eight members of the physics department at Bristol University: Walter Heitler and his brother Hans, Herbert Fröhlich, Kurt Hoselitz, Phillip Gross and Heinz London, and two of their students Robert Arno Sack and G. Eichholz.” (p 27) Yet it is primarily the exposures of Mott, Born, Skinner, Gurney and Fröhlich to Klaus Fuchs, supplemented by the careers of two other important figures, Rotblat and Plazcek, that concern me here.

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott was ambivalent in his assessment of Fuchs. Mott was some kind of fellow-traveller himself: in his memoir, A Life in Science, he describes how in 1934 he enthusiastically paid a visit to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to attend a conference celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mendeleyev. The scientist who invited him, Yakov Frenkel, was the same person who had invited Peierls to Odessa in 1931. Mott had the good (or bad) fortune to be accompanied on the Soviet boat by Sidney Webb. He recorded part of his experiences as follows: “To me, from England at the height of the depression, Russia appeared as a country without unemployment. At any rate, I wanted to believe in it. It was after the ‘dekulakization’ but before Stalin’s purges. ‘What about the Kulaks?’, I asked a Russian physicist. ‘Well, we had to get rid of the half million rich peasants in the interests of the masses, but now that this has been done there will be nothing more like it, and the future is rosy.’ I believed him.”

Mott could be described as the perfect embodiment of Lenin’s ‘useful idiot’. Admittedly, far greater persons posed the same question. Winston Churchill also asked Stalin about the kulaks, in 1942, although it was a foolish impulse, as the Prime Minister must have known full well by then what the nature and scale of the massacres, deportations and enforced famine had been, and, if he was not prepared to challenge the Soviet dictator on the matter, his question would turn out to be a political victory for Stalin. Mott was naive enough to admit his gullibility, at least: Peierls remained silent after his more tortured visit.

Yet Mott was a little evasive about Fuchs. In a memoir Bristol Physics in the 1930s, he wrote that Fuchs’s ‘views, as we all knew, were very left wing, and at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, so were those of many of the young physicists’. In A Life in Science, however, Mott’s awkwardness shines through. First he introduces Fuchs as ‘a political refugee, with communist sympathies’, not explaining how he knew that. He next writes that Fuchs was ‘was shy and reserved and I do not remember discussing politics with him’. But then he relates the famous incident of the meeting of the local branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, which he and Fuchs – and maybe others – attended. The description ironically does not comment on those aspects of ‘cultural relations’ that Mott judged worthy of nurturing.

“In Bristol in the 1930s, we had a branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. It met from time to time in a studio in Park Street, which disappeared in 1940 in the first big raid on Bristol, (during which I remember walking home from a meeting, with incendiaries falling in the street). We used to dramatize translations of the Soviet treason trials, but which Stalin appears to have got rid of most of his possible rivals. They were accused of sabotage in the interests of the Germans. But my most vivid recollection is of Fuchs in the role of Vishinsky, the prosecutor, accusing the defendents [sic] with a cold venom that I would never have suspected from so quiet and unassuming a young man.” The mystery is a) why Fuchs would go out of his way to express his political sympathies, and b) why Bristol academia would not consider his behaviour outrageous.

Eventually, Fuchs moved on – to Edinburgh University, under Professor Max Born. The record here is again ambiguous. Mott described the action as follows: “After four years I arranged for him to go to the former leader of the Göttingen theorists, Max Born, by then Professor in Edinburgh. Born, in his autobiography, writes that I wanted to get rid of him because he was a communist, but that was not so; we had many refugees in Bristol and needed to think about permanent posts for some of them, and we hadn’t the resources to provide for all.”

Max Born

Max Born

Max Born had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1933, and after taking a position at St. John’s College, Cambridge, was in 1936 appointed to the Tait chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. In an essay in his My Life and Views, Born wrote: “Next, Klaus Fuchs, a highly gifted man who never concealed the fact that he was a communist; after the outbreak of the war and a short internment as an enemy alien, he joined the British team investigating nuclear fission. I think he became a spy not from ulterior motives but from honest conviction.” Apart from the disingenuous claim that ‘ulterior motives’ and ‘honest conviction’ are opposite motivators in the field of espionage, Born makes it quite clear that he knew about Fuchs’s loyalties, writing in My Life about recently arrived scientists at Edinburgh: “One of the first of these was Klaus Fuchs, later so well known through the spy affair in which he was involved,’ as if The Spy Who Changed the World (Michael Rossiter’s clumsy title for his first-class biography, flawed only by its lack of specific references) had been a bit-player in some distasteful society scandal.

This controversy was intensified, however, when the first biography of Fuchs, by Norman Moss, titled Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb, was reviewed by M. F. Perutz in the 25 June, 1987 issue of the London Review of Books. Fuchs had taught Perutz the principles of theoretical physics when both were interned in Canada in the summer of 1940. In his review, Perutz referred to the claim made by Prime Minister Attlee in the House of Commons that there had been no evidence that Fuchs had ever been a Communist, and commented: “When I mentioned this to a veteran physicist friend of mine recently, he interjected: ‘But Fuchs and I were in the same Communist cell when we were students at Bristol.’ Max Born, Fuchs’s former chief at Edinburgh, wrote about Fuchs: ‘He never concealed that he was a convinced communist. During the Russo-Finnish war everyone’s sympathies in our department were with the Finns, while Fuchs was passionately pro-Russian.’ On the other hand, Peierls had no idea that Fuchs was a Communist.”

Norman Moss explained more, in a response published by the LRB: “In his autobiography My Life, Max Born, who took on Fuchs as a young researcher, said Sir Nevill Mott told him he sent him away from Bristol University because ‘he spread Communist propaganda among the undergraduates.’ But there is a footnote containing a comment by Sir Nevill to the effect that Born must have misunderstood something he said, because he does not remember his doing any such thing. “In fact, none of Fuchs’s close friends knew he had been an active Communist in Germany. Fuchs did once defend Russia’s attack on Finland in 1939 in an argument with Born, as Professor Perutz says in his review and as I said in my book.”

While this sheds light on the Born-Mott misunderstanding, the final sentences would seem to be a non sequitur. It is worth examining Born’s text more closely. In fact he admitted surprise at the written reasons Mott gave for passing Fuchs on to him, which stressed Mott’s desire to learn more about Born’s ‘special methods’. Born felt that Mott understood such methods very well, and could have thus passed them on to Fuchs himself. The message that Mott later denied was delivered orally at a meeting in London. According to Born: “I enjoyed working with Fuchs so much that I wondered why Mott had sent him away. This was explained when I encountered Mott at a meeting in London. He asked me how I was getting on with Fuchs, and when I answered ‘splendidly’, and praised his talent, Mott said ‘What a pity I had to get rid of him. He spread communist propaganda among the undergraduates’. Mott told me that he had arranged for his own contribution to the general refugee fund to be directed to Fuchs, a generous gesture which possibly also showed how much he was afraid of communist propaganda.”

Does that last statement indicate that Mott was trying to buy Fuchs off? What did it mean that Mott (or Bristol) could not afford to pay Fuchs, but could cover his expenses at Edinburgh? It does not appear to make much sense. In any case, Mott apparently had a chance to review Born’s script before publication, as he was allowed to comment, in the footnote cited by Moss, as follows: “I must have made a remark which Born misunderstood or took more seriously than I intended. I do not remember believing that Fuchs spread communist propaganda among the students, and at a time when Hitler was the enemy I could not have worried unduly if he had. What happened was this. In Bristol we had research funds from the generous gifts of the Wills family, and with these and help from the Academic Assistance Council we built up a very strong group of physicists who had left Germany in 1933. Some we wished to keep; but established positions then as now were few and far between and for others we helped as we could to find jobs elsewhere. This is how we acted about Fuchs.”

A strong measure of truth may have accompanied that last claim, but how come Born could not have been apprised of it from the outset? Why did Mott beat about the bush? And why did he so carelessly misrepresent Nazi Germany’s status as of 1937, when Fuchs moved to Edinburgh? At that time, Hitler may have been a grossly unpleasant threat to leftist scientists like Mott, but he was no more ‘the enemy’ than Stalin was. It was a typically disingenuous footnote by Mott.

Many witnesses seem to be behaving economically with the truth here, including, of course, Clement Attlee, who had been lied to outrageously by Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5. Yet the most startling item of evidence is the statement by Perutz’s ‘veteran physicist friend’, who talks about membership of communist cells as casually as a British diplomat might refer to his house at Marlborough or Wellington. Who was this friend? And why would Perutz treat his friend’s confession so lightly?

Herbert Fröhlich

Herbert Froehlich

The friend cannot have been Skinner, as Skinner had died while attending a conference in Geneva in 1960.  Ronald Gurney had been a member of the CPGB, but he had left for the United States, where he died in 1953. If we are looking for a prominent physicist, of suspected communist affiliation, present at Bristol between 1934 and 1937, still alive in 1987, and a probable friend of Max Perutz, it would be Herbert Fröhlich. And the communist cell may not have been a unit of the Communist Party of Great Britain: it was much more likely to have been the German branch (the KPD). Fuchs regarded himself still as a member of the KPD when in the United Kingdom, and he had made contact with Jürgen Kuczynski, Sonia’s brother, who had arrived in London in 1933, and re-energised the KPD through the front of the Free German League of Culture. Jürgen became head of the KPD in Britain, and was in contact with the GRU representative in London, Simon Kremer.

You will not find a reference to Fröhlich in the biographies of Fuchs by Moss, Edwards, Rossiter or Close. Christopher Laucht, in Elemental Germans, records the contribution to the Maud Committee that Fröhlich made with Walter Heitner, in the field of spontaneous fission in uranium. Yet he glides smoothly over Fröhlich’s time in the Soviet Union, remarking solely that he experienced problems in getting his visa renewed. Laucht does note, however, that Fröhlich also lodged with the Peierlses, and that Peierls managed to gain funding for Fröhlich from the Academic Assistance Council.

G.J. Hyland’s biography of Fröhlich (A Physicist Ahead of His Time, published in 2015) provides the details on Frohlich’s experiences in the Soviet Union, whither he had also been invited by the ever-present Frenkel. Yet Hyland is comparatively bland on the physicist’s career after that, providing a text that is very much directed at the specialist. He does not mention any Maud work, although he does record that Fröhlich, after being released from internment in September 1940, returned to Bristol, but was prohibited from working on nuclear fission – an intriguing contrast to how Fuchs was sought out and approved. During the remainder of the war, Fröhlich ‘was occupied in part-time research for the Ministry of Supply, working initially on an image converter instrument for use on tanks to extend night vision’. Fröhlich was not naturalised until August 1946, but was then offered the position of Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell. “He declined this offer, however, not wanting to be involved with any work that might further nuclear warfare,” writes Hyland, adding: “Klaus Fuchs was appointed in his place!”

(I welcome any other suggestions as to who Perutz’s communist friend might have been.)

Herbert Skinner

Herbert Skinner

The most mysterious figure in this whole farrago is Herbert Skinner, since he owned an unmatched intimacy and longevity in his relationship with Klaus Fuchs, but his career is the least well documented of all. While his presence at Bristol University in the 1930s has been clearly described, his period in the war years has been sparsely addressed. His biographical memoir as a Fellow of the Royal Society indicates that, from 1939, he performed very valuable work on the detection of submarines by microwave radar, and after experiments in the Shetlands pursued the deployment of the technology at the Telecommunication Research Establishment at Malvern. (Ironically, this type of work was so secret, and so critical to the defence of the nation, that Skinner’s German-born colleagues were prohibited from working on it.) Skinner was then recruited, in 1943, to work as Oliphant’s deputy in California. Mike Rossiter simply notes that Skinner had contributed to the Manhattan Project at Berkeley ‘on electromagnetic separation with Lawrence’, and Frank Close similarly – but not strictly correctly – writes that ‘Herbert Skinner had also spent the war in the Berkeley team, which had studied separation of isotopes and investigated the physics of plutonium’. Skinner merits only one mention in Volume 1, 1939-1945) of Margaret Gowing’s history of Britain and Atomic Energy, when she refers to a Harwell planning meeting he attended in Washington in November 1944. Skinner does not appear in Graham Farmelow’s Churchill’s Bomb.

Skinner came to life again on his appointment at Harwell after the war as head of the General Physics Department. He was also John Cockcroft’s deputy, and in the first half of 1946 selected staff and guided the construction, while Cockcroft was still in Canada. Fuchs was one of those appointments, arriving at Harwell in June 1946. Before the sordid business in the late forties, however, when Fuchs conducted his affair with Erna Skinner, a liaison closely surveilled by MI5 and Special Branch, Skinner appeared with Fuchs in a very strange episode in New York. I introduced this event in my Letter to Frank Close, but it merits deeper coverage here.

The two of them had travelled to Washington in November 1947, in order to attend a declassification conference (November 14-16) where the implications of the McMahon Act on release of information on atomic weaponry and energy were to be discussed. Evidence supplied in 1950 to the FBI is so bizarre that I decided to transcribe here the main section of the report. (I do not believe it has been reproduced anywhere before this. See https://vault.fbi.gov/rosenberg-case/klaus-fuchs/klaus-fuchs-part-05-of/view  .) On February 4, 1950, Dr. Samuel Goudsmit * informed the FBI that Dr. Karl Cohen, who was head of the Theoretical Physics Division, and thus Fuchs’s counterpart in the Atomic Energy Program, had described to him how Fuchs, after meeting Cohen at a restaurant, had later called his counterpart, asking him to pick up a hat he had left at the restaurant and return it to the person from whom he had borrowed it on West 111th Street.

[* Goudsmit had been the head of the Alsos project, which set out to determine how close the Nazis were getting to the creation of an atomic bomb. After the war, he appears to have been a regular contributor to the FBI, the CIA and SIS. His name comes up as an informant in the Pontecorvo archive.]

The FBI interviewed Cohen on February 9, 1950.  He described his encounters with Fuchs at Columbia University and in Los Alamos, and then went on to explain that he had no further meeting with Fuchs until the declassification conference. His testimony is presented as follows:

“Cohen was told by Dr. Willard Libby of the Atomic Energy Commission that he should discuss with Fuchs the declassification of a certain document and make his recommendations to the conference. Cohen received a phone call from a woman who explained that she was a good friend of Fuchs, that Fuchs was staying either at the Henry Hudson Hotel or Park Central Hotel, and that Fuchs wanted to see Cohen. Thereafter Cohen called Fuchs and invited him to his home, which invitation Fuchs declined. He and Fuchs, however, had dinner at a restaurant of Cohen’s choosing, during which time they discussed the declassification of the document, Cohen recommending that it be declassified and Fuchs opposing. Cohen stated that some time after leaving the restaurant, Fuchs realized he had left a hat in the restaurant, which had belonged to the person with whom he had been staying. He asked Cohen to pick it up and return it since he, Fuchs, was leaving town. Cohen said that he regarded this request out of line, but agreed to call the people and tell them where they could obtain the hat. He did this, but the woman declined to retrieve the hat and consequently, a few days later, Cohen obtained it and returned it. It was Cohen’s recollection that Fuchs’ contact was a Dr. Cooper or Dr. Skinner, attached to the British Delegation that was in the United States for the Declassification Conference and who was staying with his wife and her father on West 111th Street. He said that when he returned the hat he met the scientist’s wife and her father. He described the wife as being typically English, but stated that her father was of European extraction and spoke with an accent. He said that on the bell to the apartment house there was the name Cooper or Skinner, as well as the name of the father-in-law. He commented that he would have forgotten this incident had it not been for the recent publicity on Fuchs.” The FBI later confirmed that the names on the bell of 536 West 111th Street appeared as Skinner, Hoffman and Kirsch, and that the apartment was owned by Mrs. Skinner ‘who is presently living in Connecticut’. The report added that ‘she had rented out this apartment to various roomers for the past six years’.

What is one to make of this extraordinary tale? Why was there such a performance around a simple hat? Was there any significance in Erna’s accompanying her husband to New York at that time? What was the role of her father, named Wurmbrand? (Her father was Moishe Michael Wurmbrand, who was born in Sadhora, a suburb of Czernowitz, in 1883 and died in New York in 1952. The claim that Erna was ‘Austrian’, as represented at the National Archives, may have been a convenient fiction, but Bukovina was governed by the Austrian Empire until 1918, after which it lay under Romanian rule until 1940. Skinner’s Wikipedia entry gives her maiden name as ‘Abrahamson’.) Why did Fuchs have to borrow a hat, and why could the Skinners not have picked it up themselves?

A former intelligence officer tells me that he regards the whole episode as an example of complex tradecraft, but, given Cohen’s sure innocence (else he would not have alerted the authorities), it seems a very clumsy effort by Fuchs that risked exposing contacts to the FBI. As I pointed out earlier, when speaking to the FBI, Fuchs identified the property as belonging to Mrs. Skinner, overlooking her husband’s presence. (I believe I misjudged the knowledge of the FBI about Cohen, and his role, in my earlier piece. And the FBI surely was aware of the joint mission of Fuchs and Skinner, although the report, rather dimly, states that ‘it would appear probable that Mrs. Skinner is the wife of Dr. W. H. B. Skinner . . . who was one of the members attending the Declassification Conference  . . .’) Perhaps Cohen was used, as an unwitting and innocent accomplice, to send a message about a completed project from the restaurant to the Skinners – or Erna’s father. Fuchs may have left a message at the restaurant chosen by Cohen, but wanted confirmation of its receipt to be delivered to Erna and her father by an unimpeachable medium. In any case, the incident shows that all the biographers of Fuchs have failed to exploit the considerable information about him in the FBI Vault.

How much did Herbert Skinner himself know what was going on? Why would he not have mentioned this incident to MI5 himself, given the suspicions he later claimed to have had about Fuchs? And why would the FBI not have made some connection? I have found no evidence of it in the obvious places. The FBI’s Robert Lamphere came to London with Hugh Clegg in May 1950, after Fuchs’s conviction, to interview the spy, and extracted from him the photographic recognition of his contact Harry Gold. Lamphere reports that Clegg, who was not familiar with the case, brought a copy of the whole Fuchs file with him, and read it on the plane. But Lamphere does not even mention Skinner in his book, The FBI-KGB Wars.

Skinner comes across as a very complex character. Rudolf Peierls has this to say about him, in Bird of Passage: “His [Cockcroft’s] second-in-command was Herbert Skinner, a well-known experimental physicist, whom we had known since the thirties. He was more forceful in conversation than Cockcroft; he tended to hold strong opinions, often more conservative than those of most physicists, and was never reluctant to make them known. His lively personal contacts with the staff at Harwell made up for Cockcroft’s detachment.” Cockcroft presented him as somewhat self-important, with a tendency to regard himself and his family as specially entitled. Others have described the Skinners’ boisterous parties at Harwell, which were less inhibited than those of the Cockcrofts.  Close describes him as follows: “A lean man with tousled hair, he and his wife Erna shared a bohemian outlook. She had grown up in Berlin between the wars. Both were socialists, like many of the scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb programme, but they also had a cosmopolitan circle of friends in London, all of which interested MI5.”

‘Bohemian’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ – dangerous epithets in the world of security. Yet how are the contrary ideas of ‘conservative’ and ‘socialist’ explained? Was Skinner a dissembler, working perhaps for some other organisation himself, and playing Philbyesque roles of communist one day, fascist sympathiser the next? Rossiter describes the two occasions, in December 1947 and February 1949, where Skinner confided to Fuchs that he had seen two separate reports from MI6 that indicated that German nuclear scientists had been detected working on a Soviet nuclear bomb at Sukhumi on the Black Sea coast, immediately putting Fuchs on his guard. Why and how would MI6 (SIS) have introduced such reports to a socialist like Skinner? Why would they not have gone to Cockcroft, and why did Skinner think it was suitable to show them to Fuchs, given the suspicions he admittedly harboured about him? Is there another narrative, with Skinner involved as some secret channel by SIS, to be uncovered here? So many questions, still.

It is true that MI5 did maintain a file on Herbert and Erna (see KV 2/2080, 2/2081 & 2/2082 at The National Archives). Yet it was not opened until the end of 1949, when the Fuchs affair was brewing, and MI5 noticed that Erna was associating ‘with a proven Soviet spy’ as well as ‘with persons who are potential spies’. (It was not unknown for MI5 to maintain files on MI6 operatives about whom they were not told anything.) Input from the FBI would have been very appropriate at that time, and it was careless of MI5 not to have recalled the 1947 visit to New York. It would also have been odd if Robert Lamphere did not mention the incident while he was in England. (Maybe he did, of course, but nothing was recorded.) One would think that any possible link that had an aspect of subterfuge should have been followed up. That was what ‘intelligence-sharing’ was about.

In any case, MI5 had by then demanded that Commander Henry Arnold, the Security Officer at Harwell, warn Skinner about such undesirable contacts. The Skinners admitted that they had communist friends, and MI5 considered that it would be safer to move Skinner to Liverpool, thus indicating that MI5’s discomfort over him anteceded Cohen’s revelations. (I shall investigate the whole story about the role of Liverpool University as a rest-home for distressed spies, and how MI5 misrepresented the project to Prime Minister Attlee, in a future article.)

On June 28, 1950, William Skardon interviewed Skinner at Liverpool, and elicited an extraordinary statement from him: “Dr. Skinner was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946.” One might ask what Skinner had done about this, in the fraught post-war world of 1946, with the Cold War under way, and Nunn May having been sentenced a few months before. Skinner was surely responsible for making the key appointments at Harwell. Skardon did in fact ask him, as his report shows: “Of course I asked Skinner whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this rebuff.”

Skinner echoed this opinion in a review of Alan Moorehead’s Traitors in The Atomic Scientists’ News : “We should not take on another Pontecorvo, who had never lived in England, or another Fuchs, whom we knew to have been a communist in Germany and who all through the 8 years of his stay in Britain until his employment on the project, had continually consorted with extreme left-wing groups without any attempt to disguise the fact.”  This was a remarkably naïve position for Skinner to take, given his prominence in atomic affairs, and his leading role at Harwell. More alarming, perhaps, was a Liverpool police report from May 10, 1951, sent to Sir Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, that the Chief Constable had received information, from ‘a hitherto most reliable and trustworthy source’, that the Skinners were attending Communist Party meetings. Were they working under cover?

Skinner died in 1960, at the relatively young age of fifty-nine, at a conference in Geneva. Was there anything suspicious about his death? None appears to have been raised. But he was a very paradoxical character, and I do not believe the last word has been uttered on exactly what his role in atomic espionage – either abetting it, or trying to prevent it – had been.

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat never served on the faculty at Bristol, but his career is so interwoven with that of Peierls and the other émigré scientists that he merits a section here. His life was scarred by an unspeakable tragedy, but he came under suspicion by the FBI when he was posted to Los Alamos.

Rotblat was born in 1908 in Poland. He left Warsaw for Great Britain in 1939, travelling to Liverpool to learn more about the cyclotron being constructed there under James Chadwick’s direction. Chadwick soon awarded Rotblat a fellowship, which now meant that he could afford to bring Ewa, his wife, to the U.K. With the prospect of war looming, he returned to Poland in order to pick up Ewa. She was ill with appendicitis, however, so he reluctantly returned without her. Strenuous efforts to bring her out after the outbreak of war failed. She was killed at Belzec concentration camp, although Rotblat was not to learn this for several years.

Rotblat worked on the Tube Alloys project, although he had never became naturalised. He was nevertheless still allowed to join the Manhattan project at Los Alamos in January 1944, after a waiver had been granted. Committed to the project out of fear that the Germans would acquire the atomic bomb, Rotblat asked to be released when it seemed that the Germans would fail: he reputedly heard from General Groves that the Soviets were now the potential enemy, and his pro-Soviet sympathies rebelled at this prospect.

By this time he had come under suspicion. When he told Chadwick of his desire to return to the UK, Chadwick contacted General Groves, who showed him the contents of the FBI file on him, now available on-line. Exactly what happened cannot be determined from the file, as so many retractions and denials concerning its content occurred later. But Rotblat’s name was later found in Fuchs’s address book, which led to renewed investigations. Rotblat had met in the course of his year at Los Alamos a lady friend from England, in love with Rotblat, who at first indicated to the FBI that Rotblat had had communist sympathies, and wanted to train with the RAF so that he could parachute into Soviet-occupied Poland. That would have been unthinkable, given what he knew. The lady later retracted some of her testimony, and Rotblat apparently managed to convince the authorities that the accusations were baseless.

One final twist on the story is that Rotblat, leaving Los Alamos on Christmas Eve 1944 on a train to Washington and New York, packed a large box with all his personal records in it. After staying with Chadwick in Washington, he discovered in New York that the box was missing. Yet Martin Underwood, in an article for Science and Engineering Ethics in 2013 (‘Joseph Rotblat, the Bomb, and Anomalies for his Archive’) points out that highly confidential papers concerning critical developments at Los Alamos turned up in Rotblat’s archive at Churchill College in Cambridge, showing that Rotblat probably did engage in important work (despite his claim that he was bored and underutilised), and that thus not all his papers were in that mysterious lost box.

Rotblat was a complex character, and his work for the Pugwash Conference led him to a Nobel Prize. He worked closely with Peierls, who had been instrumental in setting up the Soviet-friendly British Association of Atomic Scientists in the early postwar years. Moreover, he was one of those scientists involved in the musical chairs at Liverpool. In 1946 he took up British citizenship, and was appointed acting director of nuclear physics at Liverpool. After Chadwick moved on to become Master of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1949, and Skinner was appointed his replacement, Rotblat, against Chadwick’s stern advice, left Liverpool to become Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. By then he had learned that Ewa was dead. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of eighty-seven, in 1995.

George Placzek

George Plazcek

George Placzek deserves a mention because he was a close collaborator with Peierls. As a resident scientist in Kharkov, working with Landau, he also attended the fateful 1937 conference in Moscow [but see below: the evidence is contradictory]. Yet he is distinctive mainly because he retained a fiercely critical opinion of the Stalinist oppression of scientists, and was outspoken about it when he returned to the West. Placzek was born in 1902 in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after working in Prague and Vienna, joined Lev Landau’s circle in Kharkov in 1937. There he witnessed some of the persecutions of scientists by Stalin, such as Houtermans, Ruhemann, Weisskopf, and Landau himself. Blessed with a sardonic wit, and a sense of humour, Placzek got himself into trouble. (As a fascinating but irrelevant sidenote in this whole saga of intelligence, Plazcek was to marry Els, the first wife of Hans Halban, the Austrian physicist: Isaiah Berlin married Halban’s second wife. For details, please read Isaiah in Love. Placzek was also involved in performing a security check on Pontecorvo at the time the latter was recruited, on Halban’s recommendation, in Montreal: correspondence from British Security Coordination in Washington was sent to him in March 1943.)

In the book he edited about the travails of scientists in the Soviet Union, Physics in a Mad World, Mikhail Shifman relates an anecdote about Placzek where his subject, having been offered a permanent chair in Kharkov, named five conditions that would have to be fulfilled for him to accept it. The last was that ‘the Khozyain must go’, with a scarcely veiled reference to the Boss, Stalin himself. While most of the small gathering that heard his playful speech were amused, the incident was reported by Ruhemann’s wife, Barbara, to the local Communist Party chief. It thus got back to Stalin, who immediately dubbed him as a Trotskyist. Plazcek managed to get away, unlike some of his colleagues, but he was a marked man.

The difference was that, when Placzek returned to the West, he ruthlessly warned his colleague of the dangers of Stalinism, unlike, for example, Ruhemann, who immediately joined the Communist Party, or Peierls, who maintained an undignified silence. As Shifman writes in Love and Physics: “In England, Fuchs could have discussed the situation with David Shoenberg, professor at the Mond Laboratory at Cambridge, who spent a year in Moscow (from September 1937 to September 1938) and had witnessed the arrest of Landau and hundreds of other innocent scientists and the onset of the Great Terror. Also, he could have spoken with George Placzek, who returned from Kharkov in early 1937; before his departure for the US in 1938 he stayed some time in Copenhagen, London, and Paris to explain the consequences of the communist ideology to the left-leaning colleagues he was in contact with.”

What is especially poignant is the fact that Placzek made several appeals to Peierls to intervene in the cases of incarcerated scientists in the Soviet Union. On September 4, 1938, he wrote to him from Pasadena: “Zunächst möchte ich Sie fragen, was mich der seelige Bucharin fragte, als ich ihn einmal sozusagen im Namen der internationalen Wissenschaft bat, sich dafür einzusetzen, dass Landau ab und zu ins Ausland gelassen werde, nämlich: Ist Ihre Demarche offiziell, offiziös, oder inoffiziell?” (My translation: “I would next like to ask you the question that the late Bukharin asked me, when once, in the name of international science I begged him to stand up for Landau’s being allowed to travel abroad occasionally, namely: Is your initiative official, semi-official, or unofficial?” In his biography of Plazcek, Shifman translates the passage as follows: “First of all, may I ask you, as blessed Bukharin asked me (when once I, so to say, personally represented international science and solicited for Landau, trying to convince Bukharin that they should now and then let him travel abroad), namely: is your démarche official, officious, or unofficial?”)  And, with a little more desperation, from Paris on October 17, 1938: “Ich höre dass der Schönberg jetzt in Cambridge sein soll, wissen Sie etwas authentisches über Dau???” (“I hear that Shoenberg is supposed to be in Cambridge by now, do you know anything authoritative about Landau???”)

Peierls’s response from Birmingham on October 22 was lapidary and vague. “Shoenberg habe ich gesprochen. Ueber Dau hatte er nicht mehr zu berichten, als wir schon wussten (oder jedenfalls befürcheteten). In dieselbe Gruppe gehören auch Rumer und Hellman. Hier in England läuft der Zehden herum, der via Berlin hierher vorgedrungen ist, aber seine russische Frau mit Kind in M. zurücklassen musste, und seit Monaten nicht mehr mit ihr korrespondiert. Es ist eine schöne Welt.” (In Shifman’s translation, from his biography of Placzek: “I spoke to Shoenberg. On Landau, he had nothing more to report than we already knew (or feared). Rumer and Hellman belong to the same group. [Walter] Zehden is running around here in England; he got here via Berlin, but had to leave his Russian wife and child in M[oscow], and hasn’t corresponded with her for months. What a world we live in.” Indeed, Sir Rudolf. [Shifman notes that Hellman, a German-born quantum scientist, had worked at the Karpov Institute in Moscow, was arrested on charges of espionage in March 1938, and shot in May 1938.] Later in the same letter, Peierls says: “I’d rather not write about the political situation. It’s just too annoying. [‘ . . .man ärgert sich doch zu sehr.’]”  That was an understatement, but a revealing one. Hitler’s persecutions and Stalin’s purges – a very tiresome business.

Plazcek also worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project. Later, in 1947, he tried to inject a dose of reality into the attempts to gain agreement with the Soviets over mutual inspection of installations working on nuclear weaponry, pouring cold water on the statement, expressed by Gromyko, that foreign inspectors would be allowed to pry around on Soviet territory. It appears he trusted Peierls to the end. And what was his end? He met a premature death in a hotel in Zürich in 1955, at the comparatively young age of fifty. His biographers Gottwald and Shifman ascribe his death to suicide, but was the long arm of Soviet intelligence behind his demise? Did they recall his heretical comments from 1937, and were waiting to pounce? Like Skinner, an unexplained death, far from home, in a Swiss hotel.

Rudolf Peierls

Rudolf Peierls

It thus seems inconceivable that Peierls could have not been aware of Fuchs’s communist allegiance. He worked with him closely, Fuchs lodged with him, they were friends. Frank Close describes Fuchs as ‘like a son’ to Peierls. So how did Peierls explain the situation? I analyse a few of his statements:

  1. “I can believe now that he may have had so much self control as to deceive all those who believed to be his friends. I asked him whether he really believed in the superiority of the Soviet system. His reply was, ‘You must remember what I went through under the Nazis’. I said I quite understood this but I was surprised he still believed in all this at the time we were in America.” (from letter to Commander Burt, received February 6, 1950)
  • “If one takes these statements as genuine, and it is very hard to believe anything else, he has lived all these years hiding his real allegiance, yet at the same time acquiring a genuine and almost passionate interest for his job and building up personal relationships and friendships which were kept quite separate from his secret contacts. One can believe that a man should hold political views of such strong, almost religious, conviction that he should let them override all other considerations, but it is incredible that, at the same time, a man who had never thought for himself and was always ready to go to enormous lengths in the interest of others, should allow himself to become so attached to the people and to allow other people to become so attached to him without seeing what he was doing for them.” (from letter to Niels Bohr, February 14, 1950)
  • “I knew he had left Germany because of his opposition to the Nazis and I respected him for this. I knew of his connection with left-wing student organizations in Germany since at that time the communist controlled organizations were the only ones putting up any active opposition . . .

During all these years we saw much of him. Shy and retiring at first he made many friends and in many conversations politics was, of course, a frequent topic. His views seemed perhaps a little to the left of ours, but he seemed to share the attitude to Communism – and to any kind of dictatorship – of most of his friends. I remember an occasion when he talked to a young man who was in sympathy with communism and in the argument Fuchs was very scornful of the other’s dogmatic views.

When I heard of his arrest I regarded it as quite incredible that anyone should have hidden his real beliefs so well. Looking back it seems that at first he shared in the life of his colleagues and pretended to share their views and attitude only in order to hide his own convictions. But gradually he must have come to believe what was at first only pretence. There must have been a time when he shared one attitude with his colleagues and friends and another with the agents to whom he then still transmitted information, and when he was himself in doubt which of the two was conviction and which was pretence. I do not want to enter into speculations about the state of his mind during all this time. Some have described it as a superb piece of acting, but either way it was certainly quite exceptional.

In the case of Fuchs, they would have had to probe very deeply to disclose his continued adherence to the communist cause and that would have required a depth of human insight that is very hard to achieve.” (from memorandum ‘The Lesson of the Fuchs Case’, March 1950)

  • “The main point was Fuchs had then, although he had changed his mind and allegedly or at least claimed not to be pro-Communist anymore, he still out of a sense of chivalry was refusing to name his contacts and so on, and they thought this was foolish and they expected I would think it foolish too, and they wanted me to urge him to do that – which I tried. I don’t know whether this was a success. Anyway, in the course of this conversation, Commander Burt of Scotland Yard, asked me what sort of man Fuchs had appeared to be and whether we realized what his views were. I said, ‘No, he didn’t say much on political things, but he gave the impression of agreeing with everybody else, being perhaps a little to the left of most of us but not drastically.’ Of course, I knew that as a young man he had been mixed up with a Communist student organization in Germany, but that was understandable and this was very common with young people.” (from interview with Charles Weiner, 1969)
  • “But I needed regular help – someone with whom I would be able to discuss the theoretical technicalities. I looked around for a suitable person, and thought of Klaus Fuchs. He was a German, who as a student had been politically active as a member of a socialist student group (which was essentially communist) and had to flee for his life from the Nazis. He came to England, where he worked with Neville Mott in Bristol, completed his Ph. D., and did some excellent work in the electron theory of metals and other aspects of the theory of solids. I knew and liked his papers, and had met him.

He also asked me whether Fuchs’s pro-communist views had been evident. ‘No’, I said, ‘he never talked much about his political views, but gave the impression he shared our general views. I knew, of course, that he had been strongly left-wing as a student, but that is very common with young people.

I formed the impression that his conversion from communism was genuine. His communist friends in Germany must have instilled in him a rather unfavourable picture of Britain, which life in Bristol and Edinburgh, where he perhaps still associated with left-wing friends, did not dispel.

Perhaps the process of understanding took so long because in our intellectual circles we are curiously shy about saying what we believe. Our style is not to use any words with capital letters. We don’t mind talking about what is wrong and what we want to fight, but we find it much harder to talk about moral principles and about what is right. Our behavior follows quite firm rules, but somehow we feel it is bad taste to spell them out, and they have to be discovered by observing how we act.” (from Bird of Passage, 1985)

It is instructive to examine the probable evolution of Peierls’s thoughts.

At the time of A) he knows that he is under suspicion as well (telephone taps have revealed Genia’s fears). He deems it appropriate to show some initiative with Commander Burt of Special Branch, knowing that the policeman will probably not be familiar with the background of Nazi and Soviet oppression of opposition elements. Peierls no doubt believes that Fuchs’s blatant demonstrations of pro-Soviet views may be forever concealed, so he confidently ascribes Fuchs’s deception of his friends to superlative self-control, thus absolving Peierls (who after all, is a very bright man) of any responsibility for not seeing through his subterfuge. In expressing sympathy for what Fuchs went through Peierls conveniently overlooks what his wife’s family, and the physicists who were murdered by Stalin, underwent, which dwarfed the actual sufferings of Klaus Fuchs.

A little later, in B), he is more reflective. Fuchs’s confession of January 27 made a claim that the spy was subject to a ‘controlling schizophrenia’ which allowed his life to be strictly compartmentalized. This is Fuchs’s excuse for letting down his friends. So Peierls can jump on this self-assessment to his own advantage, while at the same time expressing some sympathy for Fuchs’s commitment and earnestness. Yet the suggestion, to a fellow ‘peace-loving’ scientist, Bohr, that Fuchs possessed some kind of saintly altruism and selflessness is disturbing and irresponsible. It is not surprising that Peierls apparently did not share this confidence with anyone else.

A few weeks later, a more measured statement is required, in C). As an astute political watcher, Peierls has to show a greater awareness of the facts of life, and a slippery equivalence of ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’ is even admitted. He has to admit that he and Fuchs talked politics: after all, the Peierls household saw such lodgers as Bethe, Fröhlich, Frisch, G. E. Brown, even the recently deceased Freeman Dyson, as well as Fuchs, so it would have been difficult to steer the conversation away from politics. Now he indulges in some very fine distinctions: Fuchs’s views are ‘a little left’ from those of the Peierlses, but, in an unlikely aside, Peierls indicates that Fuchs was ‘very scornful’ of a dogmatic communist. In this, he directly contradicts Born’s evidence. Significantly, the episode is undated: in the thirties, through the Spanish Civil War, right up until the Nazi-Soviet pact, it would have been very appropriate in intellectual circles for enthusiasm for Communism as the ‘bulwark against Fascism’ to be expressed.

So what were Fuchs’s ‘real beliefs’ that he hid so well from Peierls? A loyalty to Stalin instead of an honest commitment to principles of the Bolshevik revolution? This reflection allows Peierls to make an artificial distinction between ‘his colleagues and friends’ and ‘the agents to whom he still transmitted information’, when Peierls must have known that there would not have been much time for idle political chit-chat during the encounters when Fuchs passed on his secrets, and was aware that he still mingled with  communist sympathisers, and had promoted his views unrestrainedly, such as at Bristol and Edinburgh universities, and in the internment camp in Canada. Thus he creates a cover for himself, suggesting that the authorities would have had to be very tenacious to detect Fuchs’s adherence to the communist cause when a relatively simple investigation would have revealed his political cause.

By the time of D), the crisis has blown over.  The complete text of the interview shows that Weiner was a very persistent interrogator, but he was not well-prepared on the Fuchs case. Peierls can dispose of Fuchs’s communism as a student entanglement, and represents the state of being ‘strongly left-wing’ as an affectation of young people, predominantly, calmly overlooking the fact that, in the 1930s, it was almost a required disposition of the intellectually ‘progressive’ academic body. In contrast to his statement of almost twenty years before (when politics was a ‘frequent topic of conversation’) Peierls now minimizes the time he and Fuchs talked politics, since Fuchs ‘didn’t say much on political things’. Moreover, he can diminish Fuchs’s involvement with the communist organisation in Germany, describing Fuchs’s role as being ‘mixed up’ with it, as if he were a respectable youth who had, ‘fallen in with the wrong crowd’, and become a delinquent, as one occasionally reads in the words of regretful parents. Yet such persons are part of the crowd, and are thus responsible.

This strain continues in Peierls’s autobiography in E), written sixteen years later. Moreover, Peierls can now afford to be cavalier with the chronology. His comment about looking around for ‘a suitable person’ overlooks the fact that Fuchs had been identified for early deportation from Canada in the summer of 1940, that Peierls and Born had discussed his recruitment, and that Fuchs knew, as early as January 1941, when he first met Simon Kremer, that he would have access to important information on nuclear physics. On the other hand, it is true that Peierls met Fuchs at Bristol, and collaborated with him. A letter from Nevill Mott to Peierls, dated December 4, 1936, invites Peierls to add his name to a paper produced primarily by Fuchs. Peierls declines.

And Peierls reinforces the illusion of political discussions, let alone articulation of extreme views. He echoes the notion that strong left-wing views are primarily the province of young people, and gives the impression that the young firebrand had mellowed, and shared the opinions of Peierls’s circle –  ‘our general views’. But again, he provides no date, and Peierls had gained a reputation for encouraging and harbouring communists at Birmingham University. He continues the lazy distinction between ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’, but then indulges in some very complacent pipe-dreaming. Peierls is by now part of the establishment, the academic elite: he is an English gentleman. Thus he romantically starts to refer to ‘our intellectual circles’ –  the senior common-room at New College, Oxford, in the 1970s, presumably –  as if it were indistinguishable from the 1930s hothouses of Bristol, Cambridge, or Birmingham. That delicate English sensitivity in refraining from hard ideologies now provides cover for his group’s not quickly winkling out Fuchs’s traitorous impulses.  Peierls is now safe.

Thus Peierls, in the multiple roles of his public, private and secret lives, experienced all four of the traits I listed above. He had to present to the outside world the notion that he was not aware that Fuchs was a Communist. He had to convince the authorities selecting the Tube Alloys team that any suspicions of Fuchs’s ultra left-wing views did not present a danger, or reason for disqualification. He had to recoil from any exposure of Fuchs’s activities because of the threats that the Soviet regime made on Genia’s family. He had to conceal his own very real preferences for recruiting communist sympathisers to his team.

Peierls’s Naturalization

The last, highly important item, in the case against Peierls is his failure to tell the truth in his application for British citizenship. I pointed out, in Chapter 1 of this report, how a 1989 letter of his, to L. I. Volodarskaya, admitted that he had travelled to the Soviet Union several times in the 1930s. These visits had probably been concealed by dint of their being inserted into extended journeys to Copenhagen, to see Bohr and Placzek. In his statement (undated, viewable at KV 2/1658-1, but certainly accompanying his May 17, 1938 application for naturalisation), Peierls records the visits he made abroad between 1933 and 1938. The list includes a ‘holiday trip to the Caucases’ [sic] in 1934, and attendance at a Conference on Nuclear Physics in Moscow in 1937. He had much to hide.

It is worthwhile trying to define the sequence of events that led to his naturalization. For some reason, in Bird of Passage, Peierls does not describe the application. He writes of it only: “Our position improved further, quiet unexpectedly, when in February 1940 my naturalisation papers came through.” Yet in a letter to Professor Appleton, dated September 13, 1939 (written thus by a German subject after the outbreak of war), he explains that he first made his application in May 1938. We should recall that that date was immediately after his return from a holiday in Copenhagen, where an observant customs officer noticed the 1937 Soviet stamp in his German passport, and Peierls had been very evasive over the reason for his visit. He had got away with it, but perhaps that was an alarm call. Maybe Moscow had told him to acquire UK citizenship. Peierls never explained why or when he made the decision.

One might imagine that the idea of reprisals governed the timing. While Genia’s family was evidently undergoing threats in the Soviet Union, Rudolf’s father, Heinrich, and second wife, Else, were still resident in Nazi Germany in 1938. A too precipitous rejection of German citizenship might have caused repercussions for Heinrich and Else. Yet, according to Sabine Lee, Rudolf’s father and step-mother did not get permission to leave Germany, and be admitted to the UK, until early 1939. Peierls wrote that his father had been reluctant to leave Germany, because of his age, health, and lack of other languages, but that ‘in 1938, he finally decided to leave’. It does not seem as if it was as simple as that, but Heinrich and Else were able to join Heinrich’s brother, Siegfried, in New York in 1940.

The processing of the application took an inordinately long time. Peierls clearly believed that he would have to record the 1937 visit in his outline of foreign travel, and thus more boldly described the conference in Moscow about which he had been so sheepish a month before. He would have had, at some stage, to submit his German passport (which was to expire on May 17, 1939) to the UK authorities, but that apparently did not happen for some while, as the record from the Letters indicates he paid at least two more visits to Copenhagen that year. Peierls himself twice states, in his memoir, that he paid ‘several visits to Copenhagen’ in 1938). Yet, if his own admission elsewhere is correct about other undocumented visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, they must have been undertaken with a forged Soviet passport in order to leave and return to Copenhagen. (One wonders, also, whether an alien in the process of applying for citizenship would have been allowed to leave the country at all.)

The archive is very sketchy about what happened next, and some of the few documents that have survived have been redacted. One letter of December 8, 1938, reporting to the Chief Constable of Cambridge, lays out the positive outcome of an inquiry into Peierls’s credentials. Page 2 of a chronology laying out the processing of the request appears, and runs as follows (enigmatically, Page 1 is missing):

19.12.38 Confirms residence at Stockport

13.5.39 Positive interviews with Peierls’s referees

31.8.39 Application from Peierls for permit to join in A. R. P. (Air Raid Precaution) work

10.10.39 Peierls and wife exempted from internment

21.2.40 Fee of £9 paid for Certification of Naturalization

23.3.40 Oath of Allegiance received from Peierls

2.4.40 Naturalization granted

On July 18, 1939, Peierls wrote to the German Embassy, asking whether he could renounce his German citizenship before his naturalization papers came through, but received a dampening reply that he could only do that if he submitted birth certificates, which were, of course, already in the hands of the British authorities. And then, a remarkable revelation appears: on August 31, Peierls wrote to the Home Office, with some obvious – but subdued – frustration, trying to determine where his application stood. (This is presumably what the item above refers to.) “I am therefore writing now to ask whether there is any way of obtaining a statement to the effect that my application for naturalization is being considered, or some other statement which might make it possible for me to enroll [in any ARP service]”, he wrote. Was it really possible that, after fifteen months, Peierls had received no acknowledgment that his application was even being considered? Peierls does not record these events, either.

Perhaps the only conclusions that can be drawn from this saga is that there existed a strong reluctance to naturalize German scientists until war was imminent, or even under way. Yet a period between May 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939 for sitting on an application, with neither a rejection nor an approval, seems very odd. Were there some witnesses who made objections, aware perhaps of his connections and sympathies – even of his unadmitted travel to the Soviet Union? After all, someone decided to place the customs officer’s report on file –  a highly selective but broad hint from the authorities to us researchers, perhaps. Peierls again is very coy: he does not comment on the long period of waiting, or even suggest to Appleton that the delay is unreasonable. He must have been anxious not to appear peevish or querulous, as any more detailed inquiry might have upset the applecart. As it was, his collaboration with Frisch, and Appleton’s important role as Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and awareness of what he and Frisch were doing, saved him.

In their book A Matter of Intelligence, MI5 and the Surveillance of anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-1950, Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove sum up the episode as follows: “Peierls’ perceived importance in British atomic research can be measured by his successful application for British naturalisation. His work was considered so valuable to the war effort that he was granted British citizenship as early as [sic!] March 1940: a rare distinction, since naturalisation had been formally suspended for the duration of the war and was permitted only in exceptional circumstances.” Given what we know now (but which Peierls himself did not reveal), we might ask instead: ‘What took them so long?’

Conclusions

What was it that drew so many scientists to the communist cause? Winston Churchill spoke of the Nazis’ use of ‘perverted science’ in his ‘Finest Hour’ speech, but at that time the observation could more appropriately have been directed at Joseph Stalin. It was as if the slogan ‘the communist experiment’, in which millions of human beings were treated like laboratory rats in the quest to build Soviet man took on a respectability that merited the endorsement of the western scientific world. Yet an initiative to exploit their naivety was surely undertaken.

If I were an avid conspiracy theorist, I would be tempted to point out some alarming coincidences in the events that led to Fuchs’s betrayal of his naturalised allegiance, and his passing on of atomic secrets to the Soviets. I would refer to Ronald Gunn’s predecessor visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, and his sponsorship of Fuchs’s establishment in the UK. I would allude to the fact that Yakov Frenkel invited Peierls, Mott and Fröhlich to the conference in Odessa in 1934. I would point out that some unusual circumstances allowed all three to be installed in influential academic positions that they might otherwise not have achieved. Peierls was able to use the funding released by Kapitza’s forced detention in the Soviet Union to gain his position at the Cavendish Laboratory. Mott was appointed professor, at a very young age, for a position for which he had to receive technical guidance from Skinner at Bristol, because of the influence of his schoolfriend, Ronald Gunn, and the encouragement of Skinner himself. Peierls helped locate funding for Fröhlich to work under Mott after Fröhlich’s extraordinary escape from the Soviet Union. And then Gunn introduced Fuchs to Mott, who protected him, and then arranged his transfer to Edinburgh, again using special funding.

Rudolf Peierls was thus caught up in this maelstrom. True, he made some personal questionable decisions (as well as some good ones), but he was also inveigled into a conspiracy not of his direct choosing. This resulted, I believe, in his living a lie, and I know that he wrote a very dishonest memoir. I suspect the internal pressure on him may have been even greater than that on Fuchs, who, despite some superficial softening in his exposure to a liberal democracy, remained a hardened communist. Yet Peierls’s career, for all its achievement, was essentially dishonourable.

I received several notes of appreciation after I published Part 1 of this report on Peierls. I did not receive – even confidentially – any complaints over, or criticisms of, my conclusions about the probable explanation for the strange behavior of Rudolf and Genia. That may have been, of course, because no one who might challenge my thesis actually read the piece. Or it might mean that they read it, but did not want to draw any undesirable attention to it. (I suspect that Frank Close and Sabine Lee have read it, and even introduced it to the Peierls offspring. But maybe not.) My intention has not been to single Peierls out, and malign him, for the sake of rabble-rousing, and I have expressed a measure of sympathy for his probable plight. My goal, however, has been to stir up the complacent and lazy official and authorised historians, and the fawning biographers, and the custodians of MI5’s official memory. I want to encourage them to reach beyond the obvious, and question the very misleading memoirs, autobiographies and testimonies to their biographers made by such as Peierls, Berlin, White, Jebb, Philby, Foote, Sillitoe, Wright, etc. etc., instead of treating them as reliable archival material. I want them to amend their incomplete and erroneous accounts of how the realm was let down by a very shoddy security and counter-espionage system, and that continuing to try to conceal the facts performs a gross disservice to the historiography of British Intelligence. But not just that – to the history of the United Kingdom itself.


New Commonplace entries to be found here.

2 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Management/Leadership, Philosophy, Politics, Science

Special Bulletin: Response to Denis Lenihan

I thank Denis Lenihan for his kind words, and for his thorough and perceptive investigation into the stories about Hugh Shillito, Len Beurton and Sonia. I sincerely welcome such challenges, as that is the only way that knowledge will evolve. I would be the first to jettison any of my pet theories should new evidence to undermine it arrive [Is this right? You don’t need to go overboard! Ed.], and I am always prepared to modify my conclusions in the light of new facts.

But I wonder whether it would still be a bit premature to do so. Denis’s counter essentially boils down to Shillito’s slowness on the uptake, in pursuing, in September 1942, a request for telephone taps, and inspection of correspondence at 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington, when Len Beurton and Sonia had evidently both moved into new accommodation at Avenue Road, George Street, in Summertown, Oxford. That would (Denis claims) invalidate any suggestion that Len was using the Kidlington address for serious wireless work, while Sonia’s establishment of a wireless apparatus (receiver/sender) at the Laskis’ cottage was intended as a decoy. (I have since studied the file on the Loefflers at KV 2/2927: in fact my analysis simply required a close re-examination of KV 6/41.) Yet we need to ponder over a few questions.

  • Was Shillito ‘dim’? In general, I would say ‘definitely not’. Pincher described him as ‘terrier-like’. He engaged in a very serious study of the Oliver Green case, and his analysis of it brought him to the attention of Director-General of MI5, David Petrie, for whom he wrote a special report in August 1942. Yet we must recall his career history, and the reorganization of MI5 in July 1941. His initial treatment of Sonia is admittedly casual. Soon after her arrival, in March 1941, Shillito was informing Ryde, of Special Branch in Reading, that he considered that no further action be taken over her, but that ‘an eye should be kept on her’. We can also read that Shillito at that time passes the file on to B4, ‘as her father, Professor Kuczynski, holds Communist views’. This judgment, and the transfer of paperwork, are not surprising, since Shillito was at that time representing B10E, which, according to Curry, was responsible for ‘Preliminary Investigation of Cases of German Espionage in the U.K.’. I do not understand why a specialized section was required for this task, but the implication is clear: suspected spies were considered in terms of their being Nazi agents, and B4 presumably took care of those with communist links. In any case, B10 was disbanded in July 1941, and Shillito became a member of the new F Division. Shillito thus became detached from the Sonia investigation, which was handled by the not very determined Vesey, and Shillito  correctly focused on the Oliver Green network until Len arrived from Switzerland in July 1942. (Pincher makes no mention of Vesey, so far as I can gather.) Shillito then started to pick up the pieces.  He soon came to the conclusion that Sonia and Len Beurton were probably agents of the Comintern, yet the Beurton files are conspicuously lacking in any coverage from Vesey, or any other B4A officer from this point, as if Shillito, Vesey and others were all being discouraged from peering any further. For what it is worth, Roger Hollis, having earlier expressed enthusiasm for Shillito’s work, complained to Guy Liddell on December 9, 1944, that Shillito was ‘lazy’ – a palpable untruth, but, since that judgment was prompted by a request for Shillito’s assistance from Anthony Blunt, the motivation behind the characterisation must be questionable. In any case, Shillito became very frustrated, and left MI5 before October 1945.
  • Why would Shillito want to pursue Beurton in Kidlington, when it was apparent that the Beurtons had moved to Summertown? There is no doubt that Sonia was living at Kidlington in July 1942, when Len arrived at Poole Airport from Lisbon (on the 29th). Len knew of the address: he and Sonia had exchanged letters (although, rather strangely, Sonia could reproduce in her memoir only hers, not his). But note that Shillito, in the report of November 30, 1942, indicates that ‘Beurton has gone to live there (Kidlington)’, as if he had intelligence that Len had made the move to set up there alone since arriving in the United Kingdom. He does not say that ‘the Beurtons live there’: he talks about ‘this man’s number’, not ‘the Beurtons’ number’. He must surely have known about the move to Summertown by then. His report of December 19, 1942, shows that he is familiar with the claims that Sonia had been making about Len’s detention in Switzerland. If, as Denis  claims, he was misled by a previous paper on file, an intercepted letter from Lisbon to Beurton, he would have seen the other information concerning Avenue Cottage. In July 1943, Shillito even states to Curry that the Beurtons ‘have been living together since their return to this country’, which is wrong in two aspects. Was that simply careless? Or was he covering up an earlier mistake for Curry’s sake? Whatever the explanation, it does show that he was aware of their shared address in Summertown.
  • Why would Shillito duplicate and overlap the surveillance work of Vesey? Vesey was in B4A, under Major Whyte (head of B4A), and Major Dick White (chief of B4, responsible for ‘Espionage’). Shillito was F2B, responsible for Comintern agents, under Roger Hollis, head of F2, at that time reporting to John Curry, who in May 1943 was seconded to SIS, allowing for Hollis’s promotion. Thus Shillito was undertaking a completely separate investigation. By December 1942, he was advertising himself as F2B/C, thus incorporating ‘Russian Intelligence’ as well. (On June 23, Anthony Blunt had informed his Soviet masters that Shillito was responsible for counter-intelligence against the Soviets.) One might well ask, however, why the task of counter-espionage was so dramatically split: it was because Petrie, in 1941, had wanted B Division to focus solely on enemy (i.e. Nazi) spies, and have other subversive threats handled by a different group – hence the creation of F Division. Yet the fragmentation of the attention to Soviet agents clearly turned out to be a dreadful mistake.
  • Would Petrie and Liddell not have been aware of the possibly duplicated effort? Almost certainly. There is evidence in the archive of Shillito’s working closely with Petrie, who admired Shillito’s investigation into Green. Roger Hollis was indeed away on convalescence for several months in the summer of 1942, and his stand-in was the not totally impressive Roger Fulford. It seems as if F Division was working closely with B Division – or, at least, some effort was being made. During the war, Liddell and Hollis met regularly. Hollis returned from his illness just before October 7, 1942, on which date  he dined with Liddell: they discussed continued Comintern activity. On November 29, Shillito passed to both Liddell and Hollis his suspicions of Sonia and Len, and Hollis enthusiastically received Shillito’s report on Green a few days later. On December 20, Shillito made his first definitive assertion that he thought Len was a spy. Yet we then have to deal with the a very provocative series of events: the inquiry into Sonia within B4A is cooled, but as soon as Shillito becomes involved, writes a very well received report on Oliver Green, and is then led to the Sonia case through Len, his energies also appear to be quashed.
  • What evidence is there that Len ‘moved back’ to Kidlington? Admittedly little. But a close inspection points to a minor paradox. In her memoir, Sonia informs us that the owners of the bungalow gave her and Len notice, as they required it for their own use, and that she and her husband consequently found ‘Avenue Cottage’. Since JM (John Marriott?) of B2A (under Maxwell Knight’s ‘Agents’ – another group with a finger in the pie) made a request for correspondence to be intercepted at Avenue Cottage from September 15, the Beurtons must have found new premises quite easily. That was an achievement in those days: Sonia had described how difficult it was finding the Kidlington bungalow. Thus the example of letters arriving between September 19 and October 3 proves that Len and Sonia were installed in Summertown at least by mid-September. [You weaken your own case, Denis, by indicating that the surveillance occurred between August 19 and September 3, when it in fact took place a month later.] On September 9, when Vesey asks Michael Ryde, of Special Branch in Reading, to contact Beurton so that he and an officer from SIS may interview him, Vesey gives him the Kidlington address. We must bear in mind that Shillito was not the prime Sonia-watcher: when Pincher lists his claims that Sonia was a probable spy, I believe he should have been identifying Shillito’s suspicions about her husband. Yet Shillito kept track of their movements, as his forwarding a copy of the notorious March 3, 1943 letter from the Oxford constabulary shows. He was informed about the discovery of the wireless set by Major Phipps. Why would Shillito, if he was mistaken about the Beurtons’ move, assume that only Len had moved back to Kidlington, and specifically mention the need to intercept Len Beurton’s communications alone, instead of those of the pair of them?
  • Why did the GPO not respond sensibly to the conflicting requests? We note that both Vesey’s and Shillito‘s requests were sent to Colonel Allan of the G.P.O. One might have expected Allan to have noticed the anomaly, and pointed it out to Shillito. But he apparently did not. Allan would also, had new owners moved in (as Sonia claimed) have informed MI5 that their subject of surveillance was no longer at that address. But he did not. It is not surprising that Shillito’s searches were ‘unremunerative’, as Beurton would not have been expecting any mail at the Kidlington address, but it is surprising that the GPO kept open a watch on the address without any mail at all being recorded. Nevertheless (contrary to your claim, Denis), a letter to Beurton from Geneva was registered and opened on March 9, 1943, in which the sender laments lack of any communication from Beurton. So the search was not entirely fruitless.
  • Why did the Beurtons move to Summertown? In her memoir, Sonia writes that ‘the owners of the bungalow gave us notice as they required it for their own use’. This message is intensified in John Green’s A Political Family, where he writes that ‘on top of it all, and before he even had time to unpack his bags, the owners of the cottage decided to give them notice as they required it themselves’. That suggests a speedy departure, perhaps in a matter of days. Chapman Pincher judges that it is all a fraud: “Sonia was to explain that she moved into Oxford because the owner of her Kidlington bungalow wished to return there, but that may have been another part of her legend.” Pincher suggests that moving to Oxford made it easier for Sonia to meet Fuchs in Birmingham. Yet he overlooks the fact that Kidlington had a train station that lay directly on the line between Birmingham and Oxford. There may have been another reason, as I outlined. Moreover, Len Beurton received a hefty tax demand from the Inland Revenue days after he arrived. If SIS had truly been managing the premises as a safe house, they would have wanted to divert attraction from it.
  • Why would Shillito behave so obstinately over the Summertown address? I accept there are some puzzling aspects to Shillito’s behavior. It carries on until December 1943, when Shillito requests that the Home Office Warrant for Kidlington be cancelled. Moreover, Shillito’s wording is often so obscure and unusual that one wonders what was going through his mind. For example, he writes to Denniston of E5 on August 16, 1943 (after another MI5 reorganisation: E5 is Alien Control, under Colonel Brooke-Booth), seeking opinions on the Beurtons from any contact the group has ‘in their circle’. He continues to maintain, however, that Len lives at 134 Oxford Road, while adding that the Kuczynskis live next door to Neville Laski. Maybe he did not want to give anything away, but his assertion that Len had gone to ‘live’ in Kidlington, while maintain a residence with his wife, without any evidence of his following up to see what was happening in Kidlington, is very problematic. Len Beurton, if he did spend time at Kidlington, had to abandon it by late 1943, as he was enlisted in the RAF as a trainee wireless operator, and thus the trail went cold.

One lesson from all of this is the need to keep in mind a clear understanding of the organisation of MI5 when trawling through the archives. There is a crisper story to be told about the shared responsibilities of B and F Divisions in the surveillance of the Beurtons, and how Sonia appeared to be protected by some agency at a level higher than Hollis.

In the meantime, I believe that part of the key to unlocking the Riddle of Kidlington must be determining the identity of the owners of 134 Oxford Road, and who lived there immediately before and after Sonia took up the lease. If, as I suspect, the domicile was an SIS safe house (like that of the Skripals in Salisbury), it may have been registered as being owned by a friendly name. (We should recall that two of Sonia’s residences were owned by Neville Laski, and the MP for Oxford University, Arthur Salter.) Two-and-a-half years ago, I pursued this line of inquiry, and sent a letter to HM Land Registry Citizen Centre in Gloucester, as an on-line search had indicated that the records did not go back very far, and offered to pay for a professional search. I never received a reply.

And then, about a year later, I received an out-of-the-blue email from a coldspur-watcher, Mr Alan Anderton, after which (for one day) we held an intense discussion. I reproduce it in full here (with minor edits):

The 1939 Register of 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington

Hello Mr Percy

I have been reading your Misdefending the Realm and also Sonia’s Radio. An impressive amount of work has gone into them.

There was a comment in Sonia’s Radio about finding the owners of 134 Oxford Road, well I can’t quite do that but the 1939 Register of England and Wales is now available online. I took a look and in Enumeration District DJZA and there is 134 Oxford Road in Kidlington.

The 1939 Register is a bit weird, they used it to keep tabs on people , my parents married in 1950 and her new surname has been pencilled in on my mum’s entry.

So there is a Sidney and Violet Haynes, rather getting on in years and presumably their granddaughter Diana Haynes who was 21. The black line usually means it was a child. The Heineken and Carne are the names of Diana’s first and second husbands , I found a marriage to a Cyril Carne in 1958 but no idea who Heininen was. There is also a reference to “RADIO SHOP” written in, I guess at some point after 1939 she started working at a radio shop , bit convenient perhaps.

Anyhow, as usual in your line of investigation , this probably poses more questions than it answers. If I could be of any further use you are welcome to ask , I have a subscription to Ancestry which is the reason I can find this

Best wishes , Alan Anderton

(Percy to Anderton, 8/8)

Dear Alan (if I may),

How kind of you to get in touch with me! I hope you are enjoying the slog through MTR. Yes, there was an enormous number of sources to go through, and the process continues . . .

It is a fascinating entry you sent me. I must confess, when I first looked at it, I assumed that the items ’88’, ’94’ and ’21’ must be years-of-birth, especially as one would expect the wife in those days to be younger than the husband, and which would make the arrangement more credible. But I am sure you are right, familiar with the column headings. Yet what does the ‘July’ indicate, overwriting a numerical ’11’?

And the black line means what? That someone was living there who had subsequently died? And is it not amazing that officials would use the Register to record facts about persons who had subsequently moved on elsewhere? Did they do this for everybody, I wonder, or only those who ‘needed to be kept an eye on’? Heininen appears to be a Finnish name.

The radio shop connection is odd, is it not? So it all does come back to whoever the owner of the property was, who next leased it to the Beurtons. I never heard back from the Land Registry  . . . It will probably have to wait until my next trip to England.

Please let me know of any fresh information you turn up on ancestry.com or elsewhere. Do you have a professional interest in all this spy stuff? It amazes me how many unexplained riddles still exist after all these years.

Best wishes, Tony.

(Anderton to Percy, 8/8)

Hello Tony

You may of course call me Alan , the 1939 Register is entirely weird. It was used until at least the 1950s and was updated. My mum’s entry was annotated with the date 12.10.56 which means nothing to me (I was 5 at the time). She certainly was nobody the powers would need to keep tabs on. The original entries were quite heavily modified after the Register was compiled so the JULY has been added sometime afterwards as has the RADIO SHOP entry. The 88 , 94 and 21 are the years of birth – where JULY has been added I think the 11 is actually a crossing out , it is usually the birth day and month and. The black line is usually children under a certain age , something to do with not being released for 100 years , or as it seems 90 now. Why all three birthdates would be changed to JULY is a mystery.

There is also a CR283 and 5.9.83 OX plus MIC where the address goes. They only wrote the address once , all others at the same address had a blank entry there. Diana May H Carne died in Q3 1986 aged 65 in Cheltenham , maybe she moved there in 1983 ? It is suspicious that this list was apparently updated for several decades after it was produced. I have to say that it seems that Diana was still living there until 1958 at least. My mum’s entry has her new surname (acquired in 1950) and we lived there until 1957. I would hazard a guess that Mr & Mrs Beurton stayed there along with Diana and possibly Mr Heininen though I don’t know when Diana became Mrs Heininen. This is only conjecture based on what my mother’s entry looks like.

Sorry I can’t help with the name of the owner , the Land Registry moves in mysterious ways. I have no professional interest but have always been intrigued by the bland statement that there were no Nazi spies transmitting from the UK during the war other than the double cross ones. It seems the Germans had more than one source of intelligence here though they may have been sending less than accurate data. Having read your research it is hard to see how they can justify such statements since it seems all and sundry could transmit with almost impunity.

It may be that Diana moved out for a while , it may be that the Beurtons lived with her , maybe the other Haynes had passed on or moved away but I feel certain that Diana was there in 1958 but I have been known to be wrong before. Having had another quick look it seems that Diana and Cyril Carne were living in Western Road Cheltenham in 1962 and 1968 (from the electoral roll). As usual, every answer generates more questions 

It is a national scandal that the commies were able to penetrate our supposed security services to such a level, if you wrote a thriller with that story you would be laughed out the door.

I will try and dig out something about the uses the 1939 Register was put to 

Best wishes , Alan

(Percy to Anderton, 8/8)

Thanks, Alan.

I just read up the explanation of the National Registry at TNA. I had never realized how it was undertaken and then modified later. I understand better now why they kept tabs on everybody.

So Diane was certainly a daughter of Sydney and Violet, if those numbers are birth-years, not ages? Obviously more useful to maintain an absolute. You seem confident that Diane was still at that address: do you think her parents were, too? If not, why not? The fact that there were other residents there would rather scotch my theory that it was a safe-house for Len Beurton – unless, of course, they were complicit somehow. I shall have to return to this topic when I have finished my research into the radio-detection of the Abwehr agents – which is all related, as you know!

I am now delving into the very mysterious cases of Bjornson/Hans Schmidt and ter Braak (Fukken) who, according to some sources, were for a while able to transmit undetected from English soil in 1940/41. I believe MI5 was being rather devious in the records on ter Braak that were eventually released. Look out for the September Coldspur for an update.

Best wishes, Tony.

(Anderton to Percy,8/8)

Hi Tony 

Yes , they are birth years and Diana was born in 1921. I suspect they were somehow involved , she presumably went to work in a radio shop after September 1939 and then ends up in Cheltenham in perhaps the 1950s. I can’t say for sure if they were still there when the Beurtons moved in but somebody somewhere was keeping tabs on just about everyone , probably the local councils. I can’t find any trace of her marrying Mr Heininen , maybe she went to Finland.

MI5 being devious, I’m shocked

Have a good evening , Alan

(Anderton to Percy, 8/8)

Hi Tony

Just found something on lostcousins dot com

When the National Health Service was founded in 1948 the National Register was used as the basis of the NHS Central Register, and this continued in to the early 1990s. As a result many name changes were recorded as the result of marriages (and divorces) that took place in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

I can’t believe they were still updating that register in 1970 , that is extremely weird – still , I suppose they couldn’t use the normal census data so were stuck with this National Register.

It’s a strange old world, Alan

(Percy to Anderton, 8/8)

Now when did computers come in, Alan? You’d think the NHS would have digitized all this at some stage. I wonder what they kept and what they dropped . . . I suspect the answer must be out there somewhere.

I enjoyed our exchanges today, Tony.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Diana Haynes? Heininen? Carne? Can anyone shed any light on her?

And then, a few weeks ago, I also received the name of a sleuth who might be able to track down the owners, this person having performed similar work. He expressed great interest, but was completing another project. And I suspect the virus pandemic will close down any research for a while.

The investigation continues  . . .

(I shall respond to Denis’s other points later.)

1 Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography

Special Bulletin: Denis Lenihan, with More on Sonia

When I posted Denis’s commentary recently, I said that there was more to come. Thus I now present some further analysis by him, focussed primarily on Len Beurton’s presence in Kidlington, and the efforts by MI5 officer Hugh Shillito to track him down. I have not yet studied the Kew file on Sonia’s sister Sabine Loeffler, which Lenihan mentions, so I shall delay my response until I have done that. Again, readers are encouraged to offer their views on the matter.

Aspects of Sonia

Antony Percy’s ‘Sonia’s Radio’ at coldspur.com is a tour de force, beginning and ending with Sonia’s activities in Oxford, but in between encompassing such apparently diverse but in fact related matters as the bureaucracy dealing (or not) with wireless interception in the UK during World War II, written accounts of that subject, how Sonia and her husband got to the UK and ‘the claim that British authorities [MI6/SIS] had no involvement in exploiting the Soviet spyring in Switzerland to pass disguised ULTRA traffic to Stalin’s government’.

His conclusion, expressed as an hypothesis, is that MI6 were involved in exploiting the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland via that strange man Alexander Foote; that MI6 also ‘helped to engineer Sonia’s transfer to the UK, where SIS could extend its infiltration in, and surveillance of, communist espionage rings’; that ‘Senior Officers of MI5 had to be brought into the loop, since Sonia was operating on UK territory’; that ‘Sonia – with the help of Blunt’s revelations, and her bosses’ guidance ̶ had exploited this confusion, and hoodwinked both intelligence services. Her radio was found, and, in the belief of the security services that, with the help of RSS and the GPO, they had identified the sole danger, they no doubt eavesdropped on her transmissions’; and that her husband Len had another radio at a separate address at Kidlington in Oxford, and it was from there that the radio messages were really sent.

There are several difficulties with this hypothesis. I am not qualified to discuss the exploitation or otherwise of the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland, but it may be worth observing that if there was such exploitation, it is a matter of wonder that the bragging rights have not thus far been exercised by official sources. Percy identifies a number of hints and glances in an extraordinary range of publications, as well as a number of denials of such exploitation, at least some of which he shows to be without much foundation. In total they do not carry conviction that such exploitation occurred.

Unfortunately the hypothesis really comes unstuck at the very last hurdle: Sonia and Len’s living arrangements in Oxford. Percy and Pincher both praise the MI5 officer Hugh Shillito for his work with the Beurtons. On their accounts he did good work on the case of the GRU spy Oliver Green, but the record shows that so far as investigating the Beurtons was concerned, he was rather dim.

Len’s Addresses

Working from Sonia and Len Beurton’s MI5 file (KV6/41), Percy notes that in November 1942 Shillito asked that mail going to 134 Oxford Rd Kidlingon be intercepted, as Len had gone to live there alone (there being no mention of Sonia). Percy takes this to be accurate, as he does memoranda in 1943 from Shillito to others which repeat this address. Percy suggests that ‘One possible explanation is that Sonia’s residencies were all arranged by the authorities, and that Beurton was ‘encouraged’ to stay in Kidlington after his arrival in order to keep the attention off Sonia’. Further, he asks: ‘Was Kidlington an area for secret meetings, and was Beurton acting as a courier for an unidentified third party, perhaps? Or perhaps he operated a radio there, and the device at Summertown was a ruse to distract the authorities?’

A close examination of the file shows that there is no evidence that Len ever lived at Kidlington on his own.

The file shows that when Len landed at Poole Airport on 29 July 1942 he gave his address in the UK as 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington. On Pincher’s account at Treachery 138, Sonia and the children had moved there in the previous April from The Rectory, Glympton, near Woodstock. Judging from the file, one of Beurtons’ case officers at that time was D I Vesey, who with an unidentified MI6 officer interviewed Len on 18 September 1942. Vesey recorded that ‘on the whole Beurton made a good impression.’ The arrangements for the interview had been made via the Oxford police, who had been provided with the Kidlington address.

There had however been a very interesting development in the meantime. Early in August Sonia had written to one of her sisters in London, Mrs Sabine Loeffler. MI5 had a file on her and her husband Francis (KV2/2927) and in fact were intercepting their mail as well as their telephone. Sonia’s letter showed a return address of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford and referred to both her and Len coming to London the following month. There is no record of the letter on the Loefflers’ file, as it was placed on the Beurtons’ file. Another MI5 officer, shown only by his initials JBM, promptly put a two-week return of correspondence check on that address. (This required the Post Office to record all mail going to that address, the postmarks, and the sender where recorded; the next step was a Home Office Warrant enabling items of mail to be opened). Pincher has Sonia and Len moving to Summertown ‘in the autumn of 1942’.

The return over the period 19 August to 3 September showed that no fewer than 26 items of mail were received for both the Beurtons at that address. One addressed to Mrs Hamburger (Sonia’s name from her previous marriage, still used by the child of that marriage) had been redirected from Kidlington. Some had apparently been sent from Kidlington and others from Oxford or London, sent by Len or Sonia or in one case by Sonia’s father. Given the volume and origins of the mail, it might have been a reasonable step to upgrade the check to a warrant, but JBM simply wrote on the return P A (put away).

While other mail checks – of both kinds – were put on the Beurtons later, they showed no such volume or origins of mail; in fact they received hardly any mail. Pincher would have noted at this point, had he been aware of this conjunction, that Hollis was absent from work ill from March to September 1942; and he would have drawn the inference that because of that absence the Beurtons were unaware that their mail was being intercepted in August-September, but they were aware at the other times. It is a point worth contemplating.

At least the exercise established that both Beurtons were living at Summertown, or so it seemed; but this escaped the notice of Shillito. When he took over the file again in November, he asked the Post Office whether the Kidlington address had a telephone, as he was interested in Beurton ‘who has gone to live there’. (There is no reply to this query on the file). Shillito may have been misled by the previous paper on the file, a letter from the British Vice-Consul in Lisbon to Beurton at the Kidlington address which had been intercepted and opened by the Post Office. Shortly thereafter Shillito obtained a Home Office Warrant for Beurton at the Kidlington address.

Nearly three weeks later, Shillito asked that the police make further inquiries about Beurton, noting that the Warrant had (unsurprisingly) been ‘unremunerative’, by which he presumably meant unproductive. This having been the case, it might have been prudent to check that Beurton was in fact living at the Kidlington address.

In January 1943 the Oxford City Police reported that ‘the Beurtons’ were living at George St Summertown and that they had interviewed two neighbours, Mrs Laski and Mrs Best. The information obtained suggested that the Beurtons had lived there for some time and there was no indication that Len did not live there in the normal way. On 6 July 1943, Shillito wrote to a colleague in MI6 saying among other things that ‘since their return to this country the Beurtons have been living together at Oxford…’ The following month however he wrote to a colleague in MI5 and said that Len ‘lives at 134 Oxford Rd Kidlington’, while in the same month he received a letter from the War Office giving Len’s address at Summertown. The penny appeared to have dropped at last with Shillito as he wrote to the Post Office saying that ‘Beurton has now moved’ and asking that the Home Office Warrant be changed accordingly.

Shillito was notified in December that Len had been called up by the RAF and had the Home Office Warrant at Summertown suspended. Inexplicably he then had another issued, applying both to Kidlington and to the RAF Station at Cardington where Len was based, explaining that it was ‘desired to cover both his home and service address’, despite official letters on the file all showing that Len lived at Summertown.

A year later, in December 1944, the Post Office wrote to Shillito about the check on Len, noting that it had been suspended in February last ‘as there seemed to be some doubt as to Beurton’s address’. Shillito cancelled the check, and thereafter had nothing to do with the case.

Tellingly, except in two cases (the Lisbon letter noted above, and a letter from Geneva, both writers evidently having used an address given to them some time previously, when it was accurate), there is no record on the file of any mail addressed to Len at Kidlington having been intercepted.

In summary, the totally confused or essentially dim Shillito:

– late in 1942 obtained a warrant for Len at the Kidlington address, notwithstanding that the file showed that he was living at Summertown;

– in August 1943 told a colleague that Len lived at Kidlington, despite having had a further report showing that he was living at Summertown;

– in December 1943 caused a warrant to be issued covering Len’s ‘home address’ at Kidlington, despite having received further official correspondence showing his address as being Summertown.

In the absence of others, the more mundane hypothesis that Sonia was able to conduct her business through a combination of MI5’s corruption and incompetence, as proposed by Pincher, survives.

The HASP Material

Drawing on Nigel West’s description in the Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, Percy writes of this material that it ‘derived from partially successful attempts by the [Swedish signals interception organisation] FRA to decipher the Soviet Embassy’s traffic between Stockholm and Moscow in the period December 1940 to April 1946’, and that ‘Nigel West reports that 390 such messages were passed by the FRA to GCHQ in 1959’. He adds that some of the messages according to Wright in Spycatcher were from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow describing his meetings with Sonia.

Percy assumes that this is Venona material and says that ‘There is no reason why Sonia should appear in Stockholm-based cables, or why Kremer’s messages should have been routed there’. He adds that Wright does not divulge what is in the messages and that he can find no reference to Sonia in the Venona transcripts, other than the one mentioned above.

There may be some confusion here. In Spycatcher (375), Wright describes part of the HASP material as ‘not genuine Venona’ and which was broken using a 1930s book of trade statistics.
While the GRU traffic was similar to that already broken ‘…there was one series of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident [in London] Simon Kremer to Moscow Centre, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner Sonia, alias Ruth Kuzchinski.’ The messages showed ‘that Sonia had indeed been sent to the Oxford area by Russian Intelligence, and that during 1941 she was already running a string of agents. The traffic even contained the details of the payments she was making to these agents, as well as the times and durations of her own broadcasts’.

Wright records that he spent much time and effort over the next four years, without success, ‘searching for new VENONA and Sonia’s transmissions’.

Has anybody ever asked GCHQ for this material?

‘The String of Agents’

Are there any clues about agents other than Fuchs and perhaps Elli being run by Sonia, especially after the end of the war? If Hollis was Elli, MI5 were by then back in London and his Oxford connection was no more. One clue is the well-referenced entry on Sonia on Wikipedia where this appears:
‘In addition to the (retrospectively) high-profile spies Fuchs and Norwood, Sonya was the GRU handler for (among others) an officer of the British Royal Air Force and a British specialist in submarine radar. She was also able to pass to her Soviet employers information from her brother, her father, and other exiled Germans in England. It was, indeed, her brother Jürgen Kuczynski, an internationally respected economist, who originally recruited Klaus Fuchs to spy for the Soviets at the end of 1942.[5]’

The reference [5] is Thomas Karny (11 May 2007). “”Sonja” – Stalins beste Spionin”. Wiener Zeitung (online). It is beyond my linguistic or technical abilities to retrieve this item, although it is not clear if it extends beyond Jurgen.

The Wikipedia piece also says about Sonia (without references):
‘In Oxfordshire, together with Erich Henschke, she worked on infiltrating German Communist exiles into the US Intelligence Agency. By Autumn 1944 she and Henschke had succeeded in penetrating UK activities of the US Intelligence Service (OSS). The Americans were at this time preparing an effort called “Operation Hammer” for parachuting UK-based German exiles into Germany. Ursula Beurton was able to ensure that a substantial number of the parachuted OSS agents would be reliable communists, able and willing to make inside intelligence from the “Third Reich” available not merely to the US military in Washington, but also to Moscow.’

This gets support from the following CIA piece on-line: Gould, Jonathan S., “The OSS and the London ‘Free Germans'”, Stud. Intel. V46:1-11-29 (2002) PDF [1.0MB*]


Sonia’s Radio

Percy writes in the introduction to chapter 9: ‘[Len] and Sonia are watched, and in January 1943 an illicit radio transmitter is discovered in their rented accommodation’.

They were hardly being watched. The police called at the request of MI5, which happened twice in the period 1941-5. What was discovered in their rented accommodation in January 1943 appears to have been a radio receiver – a wireless – which could hardly have been illicit. One of Percy’s options for it elsewhere in his piece is that it was used only for reception (could it have been used for anything else?). Further, it was hardly ‘discovered’. It had been seen by a least one neighbour. The police who visited he house did not think it unusual enough to remark on it in their report, although the MI5 man to whom the report was sent did comment on it.

For what it’s worth, my memory of the 1940s in New Zealand is that wirelesses were often so large as to be items of furniture, and that aerials strung up on poles were often necessary for good reception. Sonia might easily have passed off the wireless and aerial as being needed for good reception from London or even Switzerland.


Obiter dicta

Percy records that ‘Nigel West has written to me the following: “I have two explanations for SONIA’s traffic. Firstly, it was probably very low power, and was only intended to communicate with the embassy in London, and not Russia. Secondly, the Abwehr taught GARBO how to emulate authentic British Army radio traffic. These signals were ignored by RSS. It may be that the GRU adopted the same tactics.”

The first explanation is contradicted by the sole Venona message mentioning Sonia – no 2943 of 31 July 1941 – which shows that she had tried and failed to make contact with Moscow via the radio on the four nights 26-29 July; by the GRU records which show that she notified Moscow on 4 September 1943 of the Quebec Agreement; and by the HASP material, which on Wright’s account (Spycatcher 375) showed in messages from the Soviet Embassy in London to Moscow ‘the times and durations of her [Sonia’s] own radio broadcasts’. As to the second, the information given to Pincher by the former RSS officer James Johnston confirms that Sonia’s transmissions were detected, but the reports were ignored. (Treachery 141, 260)


Other parts of the message concerning Sonia are not without interest. It shows her salary for seven months as being £406, so £59 a month; her husband £195; (?) from abroad £116; expenditure on radio and microdots £105; and expenditure on an item not identified £55, giving a total of £877. Assuming this is all expenditure for seven months, in 2020 terms the equivalent of £877 is £44,600, or say £75,600 for 12 months, just for one agent; so spying in 1941 was quite an expensive business.

Denis Lenihan, London, January 2020

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Response by coldspur

The HASP Material

Thank you for this clarification, Denis.  I should have kept the distinction between VENONA and HASP material clear. As you point out, part of this misconception is encouraged by Wright’s misleading characterization of HASP as ‘not genuine VENONA’. Moreover, his text (see p 186) appears to attribute to HASP lessons learned about J. B. S. Haldane (INTELLIGENTSIA) and Owen [sic: actually ‘Ivor’] Montagu (NOBILITY) that can be detected from VENONA transcripts, as Nigel West’s book confirms.

And I agree with you that the intelligence claimed for these messages is tantalising. Why have they not been revealed by GCHQ? I wonder whether it has anything to do with what Wright himself says about ‘the Sonia connection’ (p 375):

“The Sonia connection had been dismissed throughout the 1960s as too tenuous to be relied upon. MI5 tended to believe the story that she came to Britain to escape Nazism and the war, and that she did not become active for Russian intelligence until Klaus Fuchs volunteered his services in 1944 [sic!]. In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could ever have been broadcasting her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between 1941 and 1943.”

I wonder whether you agree with me that this is pure hokum. What is behind that passive voice of ‘had been dismissed’? ‘Tended to believe’ suggests contrary opinions were voiced – and suppressed? And why would Wright get the chronology so wrong? After all, he, like Alexander Foote, believed that Sonia had been tipped off by an insider within MI5, and told Lord Trend that he believed that Hollis was ELLI. The whole point of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, and my subsequent research, is to show that MI5 and SIS colluded desperately to keep Sonia from being investigated properly. Of course GCHQ would ‘vehemently deny’ that she could have operated under their noses! Was Wright simply being loyal to MI5 here, and contributing to the project to blame everything on Hollis? (Answers on a postcard, please.)

‘The String of Agents’

I would be surprised to be able to verify that Sonia was running a ‘string of agents’ by 1941. (I likewise have been unable to locate the Wiener Zeitung article.) Sonia’s memoir is very vague about dates, and of course cannot be relied upon too much, but she was very occupied in 1941 in finding accommodation, meeting with her brother and Hans Kahle, and with ‘Sergei’ from the Embassy. “After I had succeeded in making some military contacts . . .”, she writes (p 243), with no explanation as to how or where or when the acquaintances were made, but it would have been foolhardy to have offered such persons money. On page 249, she describes how, in 1942, before Len came to England ‘I had taken up an important contact with an RAF officer whose wife and child had been evacuated to Oxford’ (James), and she eventually persuaded him, with Moscow Centre’s approval, to ‘cooperate’. James provided details of aircraft construction, but refused to take any money from the organisation. On page 250, she introduces ‘Tom’, a fitter in a car plant, who was recruited as a back-up wireless operator. He refused to take any money, either. In the English version of the book, she mentions Klaus Fuchs as coming into her life only at the end of 1942. I don’t know where ‘the specialist in submarine radar’ comes from.

Have I answered the point about her brother Jürgen, Henschke and the OSS adequately? On page 260 of ‘Sonya’s Report’, she writes in some detail about the Strategic Bombing Survey, and confirms that Jürgen contacted her about it, so that she could ‘consult Centre’. After that, she took over from Jürgen, who had introduced Joe Gould, responsible for recruiting German emigrants for the espionage missions in Germany, to Erich Henschke. She thus worked with Henschke to identify ‘anti-fascists’ who could help. She says she never met Joe Gould. So the activity was hardly ‘penetration’, or ‘infiltration’: their help had been sought out. At least, that’s what Sonia writes. I don’t think the CIA article you identify contradicts that story, even though it fails to mention Sonia’s contribution.

Sonia’s Radio

Thank you. Yes, it is more accurate to say that the first discovery was made after a request from Hugh Shillito. I don’t recall where I implied that Sonia’s radio might have been only a receiver – which was characteristic of the apparatus of most of the ‘Lena’ spies – as Sonia would have been powerless without a transmitter, and knew how to construct one. I am not technically adept enough to know about the vagaries of wireless reception in wartime New Zealand (did the sheep interfere?), but I suspect outsize aerials would have been very conspicuous (and unnecessary) in wartime Oxfordshire. And why would anyone need to listen into broadcasts from Switzerland? Admittedly, Sonia gained permission from Mrs Laski to erect an aerial from Sonia’s roof to one of Mrs Laski’s stables, and wrote that ‘the aerial looked rather like a normal one for any radio receiver’.

Yet she acknowledged that, since amateur radio transmissions were forbidden, ‘we had to count on my transmitter being discovered at some point’, which is why she trained Tom. (How Tom was going to access secret material when Sonia had been arrested is not made clear.) I continue to maintain that it was extremely flamboyant for Sonia to parade her unusual aerial so boldly, and it should have merited attention. This was a woman who was known to derive from a Communist family and background, and was suspected by many junior officers in MI5. Moreover, the Oliver Green case was active in MI5’s portfolio, and had gained the urgent attention of Director-General Petrie! Why no action?

I don’t claim that Sonia transmitted exclusively by the methods Nigel West outlined: that came later. Certainly, she tried to communicate by conventional means in July 1941, as VENONA confirms. On page 243 of ‘Sonya’s Report’, she declares that she made some contact with the Soviet Union, and then Sergei gave her a miniature transmitter, ‘about eight by six inches’, which contained a new transmitter. She thereupon dismantled her old transmitter, ‘which was six times the size, and hid the parts for emergency use’. The event is undated. But the story suggests that it was late in 1941, before Len returned.

As for the GRU records for the Quebec Agreement, the HASP material, and James Johnston’s evidence to Pincher, I have to be very distrustful of all three, as none can be inspected! (Although I am sure that the RSS ignored Sonia’s transmissions.)

Keep on keeping on,

Tony  (March 26, 2020)

10 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, Politics

War in 1944: Howard’s Folly

I was reading, in the Times Literary Supplement of January 17, a review of a book titled The French Revolutionary Tradition in Russian and Soviet Politics, Political Thought, and Culture. The author of the book was one Jay Bergman, the writer of the review Daniel Beer, described as Reader in Modern European History at Royal Holloway, University of London. I came across the following sentences: “The Bolsheviks could never admit that Marxism was a failed ideology or that they had actually seized power in defiance of it. Their difficulties, they argued, were rather the work of enemies arrayed against the Party and traitors in their midst.”

This seemed to me an impossibly quaint way of describing the purges of Stalin’s Russia. Whom were these Bolsheviks trying to convince in their ‘arguments’, and where did they make them? Were they perhaps published on the Letters page of the Pravda Literary Supplement or as articles in The Moscow Review of Books? Or were they presented at conferences held at the elegant Romanov House, famed for its stately rooms and its careful rules of debate? I was so taken aback by the suggestion that the (unidentified) Bolsheviks had engaged in some kind of serious discussions on policy, as if they were an Eastern variant of the British Tory Party, working through items on the agenda at some seaside resort like Scarborough, and perhaps coming up with a resolution on the lines of tightening up on immigration, that I was minded to write a letter to the Editor. It was short, and ran as follows:

“So who were these Bolsheviks who argued that ‘their difficulties were rather the work of enemies arrayed against the Party and traitors in its midst’? Were they perhaps those ‘hardliners in the Politburo’ whom Roosevelt, Churchill and Eden imagined were exerting a malign influence on the genial Uncle Joe Stalin, but whose existence turned out to be illusory? Or were they such as Trotsky, Kirov, Radek, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, etc. etc., most of whom Stalin had murdered simply because they were ‘old Bolsheviks’, and knew too much? I think we should be told.”

Now the Editor did not see fit to publish my offering. Perhaps he felt that, since he had used a letter of mine about the highly confused Professor Paul Collier in the December 2019 issue, my quota was up for the season. I can think of no other conceivable reason why my submission was considered of less interest than those which he did select.

Regular readers of coldspur will be familiar with my observations about the asymmetry of Allied relationships with the Soviet Union in World War II. See, for instance, http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/, where I analysed such disequilibrium by the categories of Moral Equivalency, Pluralism vs. Totalitarianism, Espionage, Culture, and Warfare. The misunderstanding about the nature of Stalin’s autocracy can be viewed in two dimensions: the role of the Russian people, and that of Stalin himself.

During the war, much genuine and well-deserved sympathy was shown in Britain towards the long-suffering Russian people, but the cause was often distorted by Soviet propaganda, either directly from such as ambassador Maisky and his cronies, or by agents installed in institutions such as the Ministry of Information. The misconceptions arose from thinking that the Russians were really similar to British citizens, with some control over their lives, where they worked, the selection of those who governed them, what they could choose to read, how they were allowed to congregate and discuss politics, and the manner in which they thus influenced their leaders, but had unfortunately allowed themselves to sign a pact with the Nazis and then been treacherously invaded by them. Their bravery in defending their country against the assault, with losses in the millions, was much admired.

Yet the catastrophe of Barbarossa was entirely Stalin’s fault: as he once said to his Politburo, using a vulgar epithet, ‘we’ had screwed up everything that Lenin had founded and passed on. And he was ruthless in using the citizenry as cannon fodder, just as he had been ruthless in sending innocent victims to execution, famine, exile, or the Gulag. For example, in the Battle of Stalingrad, 10,000 Soviet soldiers were executed by Beria’s NKVD for desertion or cowardice in the face of battle. 10,000! It is difficult to imagine that number, but I think of the total number of pupils at my secondary school, just over 800, filling Big School, and multiplying it by 12. If anything along those lines had occurred with British forces, Churchill would have been thrown out in minutes. Yet morale was not universally sound with the Allies, either. Antony Beevor reports that in May 1944 ‘nearly 30,000 men had deserted or were absent without leave from British units in Italy’ – an astonishing statistic. The British Army had even had a mutiny on its hands at Salerno in 1943, but the few death sentences passed were quickly commuted. (Stalin’s opinions on such a lily-livered approach to discipline appear not to have been recorded.) As a reminder of the relative casualties, the total number of British deaths in the military (including POWs) in World War II was 326,000, with 62,000 civilians lost. The numbers for the Soviet Union were 13,600,000 and 7,000,000, respectively.

As my letter suggested, Western leaders were often perplexed by how Stalin’s occasionally genial personality, and his expressed desire for ‘co-operation’, were frequently darkened by influences that they could not discern. They spoke (as The Kremlin Letters reminds us) of Stalin’s need to listen to public opinion, or deal with the unions, or heed those hard-liners on the Politburo, who were all holding him back from making more peaceful overtures over Poland, or Italy, or the Baltic States. During negotiations, Molotov was frequently presented as the ‘hard man’, with Stalin then countering with a less demanding offer, thus causing the Western powers to think they had gained something. This was all nonsense, of course, but Stalin played along, and manipulated Churchill and Roosevelt, pretending that he was not the despot making all the decisions himself.

Thus Daniel Beer’s portrayal of those Bolsheviks ‘arguing’ about the subversive threat holds a tragi-comic aspect in my book. Because those selfsame Bolsheviks who had rallied under Lenin to forge the Revolution were the very same persons whom Stalin himself identified as a threat to him, and he had them shot, almost every one. The few that survived did so because they were absolutely loyal to Stalin, and not to the principles (if they can be called that) of the Bolshevik Revolution.

I was reminded of this distortion of history when reading Professor Sir Michael Howard’s memoir, Captain Professor. I had read Howard’s obituary in December 2019, and noted from it that he had apparently encountered Guy Burgess when at Oxford. The only work of Howard’s that I had read was his Volume 5 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, where he covered Strategic Deception. (The publication of this book had been delayed by Margaret Thatcher, and its impact had thus been diminished by the time it was issued in 1999. I analysed it in my piece ‘Officially Unreliable’. It is a very competent but inevitably flawed analysis of some complex material.) With my interest in Burgess’s movements, and his possible involvement in setting up the ‘Oxford Ring’ of spies, I wanted to learn more about the timing of this meeting, and what Burgess was up to, so I acquired a copy of Howard’s memoir.

Captain Professor

The paragraph on Burgess was not very informative, but I obviously came to learn more about Howard, this acknowledged expert in the history of warfare. He has received several plaudits since his death. In the January issue of History Today, the editor Paul Lay wrote an encomium to him, which included a quotation from the historian’s essay ‘Military Experience in European Literature’. It ran as follows: “In European literature the military experience has, when it has been properly understood and interpreted, immeasurably enriched that understanding of mankind, of its powers and limitations, of its splendours and its miseries, and not least of its relationship to God, which must lie at the root of all societies that can lay any claim to civilization.”

Now what on earth does that mean? I was not impressed by such metaphysical waffle. If I had submitted a sentence like that in an undergraduate essay, I would not have been surprised to see it returned with a circle of red ink. Yet its tone echoed a remark by Howard, in Captain Professor, that I had included in my December 2019 Commonplace file: “I had written a little about this in a small book The Invention of Peace, a year earlier, where I tried to describe how the Enlightenment, and the secularization and industrialization it brought in its wake, had destroyed the beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years and evoked a backlash of tribal nationalism that had torn apart and reached climax with the two world wars.” (p 218) Hallo, Professor! ‘Beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years’? What about all those wars? Revolutions? Religious persecution? Specifically, what about the Inquisition and the Thirty Years War? What was this ‘European society’ that cohered so closely, and which the Professor held in such regard? I wondered whether the expression of these somewhat eccentric ideas was a reason why the sometime Regius Professor of History at Oxford University had not been invited to contribute to the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War, or the Oxford Illustrated History of World War II.

Apparently, all this has to do with the concept of ‘War and Society’, with which Howard is associated. Another quote from Captain Professor: “The history of war, I came to realize, was more than the operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies. Only by studying their cultures could one come to understand what it was they fought about and why they fought in the way they did. Further, the fact that they did so fight had a reciprocal impact on their social structure. I had to learn not only to think about war in a different way, but also to think about history itself in a different way. I would certainly not claim to have invented the concept of ‘War and Society’, but I think I did something to popularize it.” Note the contradiction that, if these ‘societies and cultures’ were fighting each other, they could hardly be said to have ‘held together for a thousand years’. I am also not sure that the Soviet soldiers in WII, conscripted and harassed by the NKVD, shot at the first blink of cowardice or retreat, thought much about how the way they fought had a reciprocal impact on Soviet culture (whatever that was), but maybe Howard was not thinking of the Red Army. In some sense I could see what he was getting at (e.g. the lowering of some social barriers after World War II in the United Kingdom, because of the absurd ‘officers’ and ‘men’ distinctions: no one told me at the time why the Officers’ Training Corps had morphed into the Combined Cadet Force). Nevertheless, it seemed a bizarre agenda.

And then I came on the following passage, describing Howard’s experiences in Italy: “In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had issued orders for the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German communications throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on and around Monte Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The Allied armies did not come to their help, and the partisan movement in North Italy was largely destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna, where the communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had been deliberately planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist movement, much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts that this was an outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we could have done, they smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered about poor Terry, was there really nothing that we could have done to help? Were there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines might have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”

My initial reaction was of astonishment, rather like Howard’s first expression of outrage, I imagine. How could the betrayal of the Poles by the halted Soviet forces on the banks of the Vistula, in the process of ‘liberating’ a country that they had raped in 1939, now an ally, be compared with the advance of the Allied Armies in Italy, trying to expel the Germans, while liberating a country that had been an enemy during the war? What had the one to do with the other? And why would it have been controversial for the Allies to have wanted to weaken the Communist movement? But perhaps I was missing something. What had caused Howard to change his mind? I needed to look into it.

Her Majesty & Professor Sir Michael Howard

The poignant aspect of this anecdote was that Howard had been wounded at Monte Sole, only in December 1944, some two months after the Monte Sole massacre. Howard had been commanding a platoon, and had been sent on a reconnaissance mission with ‘poor Terry’ (an alias). Returning from the front line, they had become disoriented, and stumbled into an ambush, where Terry was mortally wounded by a mine, and Howard, having been shot in the leg, managed to escape. He was mortified by the fact that he had chosen to leave Terry to die, and felt his Military Cross was not really deserved. He had fought courageously for the cause of ridding Italy of fascism, yet the fact that he had not known at the time of the Massacre of Monte Sole (sometimes known as the Marzobotto Massacre) was perplexing to me.

These two closely contemporaneous events – the Warsaw Uprising, and the Monte Sole Massacre – were linked in a way that Howard does not describe, as I shall show later. They could be summarised as follows:

The Warsaw Uprising

As the Red Army approached Warsaw at the end of July of 1944, the Polish government-in-exile in London decided that it needed to install its own administration before the Communist Committee of National Liberation, established by the Soviets as the Lublin Committee on July 22, could take over leadership. Using its wireless communications, it encouraged the illegal Polish military government in Warsaw to call on the citizenry to build fortifications. On July 29, the London leader, Mikolajczyk, went to Moscow, whereupon Moscow Radio urged the Polish Resistance to rise up against the invader. A few days later, Stalin promised Mikołajczyk that he would assist the Warsaw Uprising with arms and ammunition. On August 1, Bor-Komorowski, the Warsaw leader, issued the proclamation for the uprising. In a few days, the Poles were in control of most of Warsaw, but the introduction of the ruthless SS, under the leadership of von dem Bach-Zelewski, crushed the rebellion with brutal force. Meanwhile, the Soviets waited on the other side of the Vistula. Stalin told Churchill that the uprising was a stupid adventure, and refused to allow British and American planes dropping supplies from as far away as Italy to land on Soviet territory to refuel. The resistance forces capitulated on October 2, with about 200,000 Polish dead.

The Monte Sole Massacre

In the summer of 1944, British and American forces were making slow progress against the ‘Gothic Line’, the German defensive wall that ran along the Apennines. Italy was at that time practically in a stage of civil war: Mussolini had been ousted in the summer of 1943, and Marshall Badoglio, having signed an armistice with the Allies, was appointed Prime Minister on September 3. Mussolini’s RSI (the Italian Social Republic) governed the North, as a puppet for the Germans, while Badoglio led the south. Apart from the general goal of pushing the Germans out of Italy, the strategic objective had been to keep enough Nazi troops held up to allow the D-Day invasion of Normandy to take place successfully. In late June, General Alexander appealed to the Italian partisans to intensify a policy of sabotage and murder against the German forces. The Germans already had a track-record of fierce reprisals, such as the Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome in March 1944, when 320 civilians had been killed following the murder of 32 German soldiers. The worst of these atrocities occurred at Monte Sole on September 29-30, where the SS killed 1830 local villagers at Marzabotto. Shortly after that, Alexander called upon the partisans to hold back their assaults because of the approach of winter.

Site of the Monte Sole Massacre

Now, there are some obvious common threads woven into these narratives (‘partisans’, ‘reprisals’, ‘invasions’, ‘encouragement’, ‘SS brutality’, ‘betrayal’), but was there more than met the eye, and was Howard pointing at something more sinister on the part of the Western Allies, and something more pardonable in the actions of the Soviets? I needed some structure in which to shape my research, if I were to understand Howard’s weakly presented case. Thus I drew up five categories by which I could analyse the events:

  1. Military Operation: What was the nature of the overall military strategy, and how was it evolving across different fronts?
  2. Political Goals: What were the occupier’s (‘liberator’s’) goals for political infrastructure in the territories controlled, and by what means did they plan to achieve them?
  3. Make-up, role and goals of partisans: How were the partisan forces constituted, and what drove their activities? How did the respective Allied forces communicate with, and behave towards, the partisan forces?
  4. Offensive strategy: What was the offensive strategy of the armed forces in approaching their target?  How successful was the local operation in contributing to overall military goals?
  5. The Aftermath, political outcomes and historical assessment: What was the long-term result of the operation on the country’s political architecture? How are the events assessed seventy-five years later?

The Red Army and Warsaw

  1. Military Operation:

The most important resolution from the Tehran Conference, signed by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin on December 1, 1943, was a co-ordinated approach to ensuring that the planned D-Day operation (‘Overlord’) would be complemented by assaults elsewhere. Such cooperation would prevent German forces being withdrawn to defend the Allies in eastern France. Thus an operation in the South of France (‘Anvil’) was to take place at the same time that Stalin would launch a major offensive in the East (‘Bagration’). At that time Overlord was planned to occur in late May; operational problems, and poor weather meant that it did not take place until June 6, 1944.

Stalin’s goal was to reach Berlin, and conquer as much territory as he could before the Western Allies reached it. Ever since his strategy of creating ‘buffer states’ in the shape of eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and western Ukraine after the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 had been shown to be an embarrassing calamity (although not recognized by Churchill at the time), he realised that more vigorously extending the Soviet Empire was a necessity for spreading the cause of Bolshevism, and protecting the Soviet Union against another assault from Germany. When a strong defensive border (the ‘Stalin Line’) had been partially dismantled to create a weaker set of fortifications along the new borders with Nazi Germany’s extended territories (the ‘Molotov Line’), it had fearfully exposed the weaknesses of the Soviet armed forces, and Hitler had invaded with appalling loss of life and material for the Soviet Union.

In 1944, therefore, the imperative was to move forward ruthlessly, capturing the key capital cities that Hitler prized so highly, and pile in a seemingly inexhaustible supply of troops. When the Red Army encountered German forces, it almost always outnumbered them, but the quality of its leadership and personnel were inferior, with conscripts often picked up from the territories gained, poorly trained, but used as cannon fodder. Casualties as a percentage of personnel were considerably higher than that which the Germans underwent. The Soviet Union had produced superior tanks, but repair facilities, communications, and supply lines were constantly being stretched too far.

On June 22, Operation ‘Bagration’ began. Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front crossed the River Bug, which was significantly on the Polish side of the ‘Curzon Line’, the border defined (and then modified by Lewis Namier) in 1919, but well inside the expanded territories of Poland that the latter had occupied and owned between the two World Wars. On July 7, Soviet troops entered Vilna to the north, a highly symbolic city in Poland’s history. On July 27, they entered Bialystok and Lvov. By July 31, they had approached within twenty-five miles of the Vistula, the river that runs through Warsaw, and four days later, had actually crossed the waterway 120 miles south of Warsaw. At this stage, exhausted and depleted, they met fiercer opposition from German forces. Exactly what happened thereafter is a little murky.

  • Political Goals:

The Soviets’ message was one of ‘liberation’, although exactly from what the strife-worn populations of the countries being ‘liberated’ were escaping from was controversial. The Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) had suffered, particularly, from the Soviet annexation of 1940, which meant persecution and murder of intellectuals and professionals, through the invasion by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941, which meant persecution and murder of Jews and Communists, to the re-invasion of the Soviets in 1944, which meant persecution and murder of anyone suspected of fascist tendencies or sympathies. Yet the British Foreign Office had practically written off the Baltic States as a lost cause: Poland was of far greater concern, since it was on her behalf that Great Britain had declared war on Germany in September 1939.

The institution favoured by the British government to lead Poland after the war was the government-in-exile, led, after the death in a plane crash of General Sikorski in June 1943, by Stanisław Mikałojczyk. It maintained wireless communications with underground forces in Poland, but retained somewhat unreasonable goals for the reconstitution of Poland after the war, attaching high importance to the original pre-war boundaries, and especially to the cities of Vilna and Lvov. The London Poles had been infuriated by Stalin’s cover-up of the Katyn massacres, and by Churchill’s apparent compliance, the British prime Minster harbouring a desire to maintain harmonious relations with Stalin. Mikałojczyk continuously applied pressure on Winston Churchill to represent the interests of a free and independent Poland to Stalin, who, like Roosevelt, had outwardly accepted the principles of the Atlantic Charter that gave the right of self-determination to ‘peoples’. Mikałojczyk was adamant on two matters: the recognition of its traditional eastern borders, and its right to form a non-communist government. Stalin was equally obdurate on countering both initiatives, and his language on a ‘free and independent Poland’ started taking on clauses that contained a requirement that any Polish government would have to be ‘friendly’ towards the Soviet Union.

Stanislaw Mikolajcyzk

On July 23, the city of Lublin was liberated by the Russians, and Stalin announced that a Polish Committee of National Liberation (the PCNL, a communist puppet) had been set up in Chelm the day before. Churchill was in a bind: he realised which way the wind was blowing, and how Soviet might would determine the outcomes in Poland. He desperately did not want to let down Mikałojczyk, and preferred, foolishly, to trust in Stalin’s benevolence and reasonableness. Churchill had been pressing for Mikałojczyk to meet with Stalin, as he was beginning to become frustrated by the Poles’ insistence and romantic demands. Stalin told Churchill that Mikałojczyk should confer with the PCNL.

When Stalin made an ominously worded declaration on July 28, where he ‘welcomed unification of Poles friendly disposed to all three Allies’ (which made even Anthony Eden recoil in horror), Churchill convinced Mikałojczyk to visit Moscow, where Stalin agreed to see him. On July 29, Moscow Radio urged the workers of the Polish Resistance to rise up against the German invader. Had Mikałojczyk perhaps been successful in negotiating with Stalin?

  • The Partisans:

On July 31, the Polish underground, encouraged by messages from the Polish Home Army in London, ordered a general uprising in Warsaw. It had also succeeded in letting a delegate escape to the USA and convince the US administration that it could ally with Soviet forces in freeing Warsaw. (It is a possibility that this person, Tatar, was a Soviet agent: something hinted at, but not explicitly claimed, by Norman Davies.) It was, however, not as if there was much to unite the partisans, outside a hatred of the Fascist occupying forces. The Home Army (AK) was threatened by various splinter groups, namely the People’s Army (AL), which professed vague left-wing political opinions (i.e. a removal of the landowning class, and more property rights for small farmers and peasants), the PAL, which was communist-dominated, and thus highly sympathetic to the Soviet advance, and the Nationalist Armed Forces (NSZ), which Alan Clark described as ‘an extreme right-wing force, against any compromise with Russian power’. Like any partisan group in Europe at the time, it was thus driven by a mixture of motivations.

Yet for a few short weeks they unified in working on fortifications and attacking the Nazis. They mostly took their orders from London, but for a short while it seemed that Moscow was supporting them. According to Alexander Werth (who was in Warsaw at the time), there was talk in Moscow that Rokossovsky would shortly be capturing Warsaw, and Churchill was even spurred to remind the House of Commons on August 2 of the pledge to Polish independence. On August 3, Stalin was reported by Mikałojczyk to have promised to assist the Uprising by providing arms and ammunition – although the transcripts of their discussions do not really indicate this. By August 6, the Poles were said (by Alan Clark) to be in control of most of Warsaw.

The Home Army was also considerably assisted by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which had succeeded in landing hundreds of agents in Warsaw and surrounding districts, with RAF flights bringing food, medical supplies and wireless equipment. This was an exercise that had started in February 1941, with flights originating both from Britain and, latterly, from southern Italy. By the summer of 1944, a majority of the military and civilian leadership in Warsaw had been brought in by SOE. Colonel Gubbins, who had been appointed SOE chief in September 1943, was an eager champion of the Polish cause, but the group’s energies may have pointed to a difference in policy between SOE’s sabotage programme, and Britain’s diplomatic initiatives, a subject that has probably not received the attention it merits.

Yet the Rising all very quickly turned sour. The Nazis, recognizing the symbolic value of losing an important capital city like Warsaw, responded with power. The Hermann Goering division was rushed from Italy to Warsaw on August 3. Five days later the SS, led by von dem Bach-Zelewski, was introduced to bring in a campaign of terror against the citizenry. After a desperate appeal for help by the beleaguered Poles to the Allies, thirteen British aircraft were despatched from southern Italy to drop supplies: five failed to return. The Chiefs of Staff called off the missions, but a few Polish planes carried on the effort. Further desperate calls for help arrived, and on August 14 Stalin was asked to allow British and American planes, based in the UK, to refuel behind the Soviet lines to allow them more time to focus on airdrops. He refused.

By now, however, Stalin was openly dismissing the foolish adventurism of the Warsaw Uprising, lecturing Churchill so on August 16, and, despite Churchill’s continuing implorations, upgraded his accusations, on August 23, to a claim that the partisans were ‘criminals’. On August 19, the NKVD had shot several dozen members of the Home Army near the Byelorussian border, carrying out an order from Stalin that they should be killed if they did not cooperate. Antony Beevor states that the Warsaw Poles heard about that outrage, but, in any case, by now the Poles in London were incensed to the degree that they considered Mikałojczyk not ‘anti-Soviet’ enough. Roosevelt began to tire of Churchill’s persistence, since he was much more interested in building the new world order with Uncle Joe than he was in sorting out irritating rebel movements. By September 5, the Germans were in total control of Warsaw again, and several thousand Poles were shot. On September 9, the War Cabinet had reluctantly concluded that any further airdrops could not be justified. The Uprising was essentially over: more than 300,000 Poles lost their lives.

  • Offensive Strategy:

Accounts differ as to how close the Soviet forces were to Warsaw, and how much they were repulsed by fresh German attacks. Alexander Werth interviewed General Rokossovsky on August 26, 1944, the latter claiming that his forces were driven back after August 1 by about 65 miles. Stalin told Churchill in October, when they met in Moscow, of Rokossovsky’s tribulations with fresh German attacks. Yet that does not appear to tally with Moscow’s expectations for the capture of Warsaw, and it was a surprising acknowledgement of weakness on Rokossovsky’s part if it were true. Soviet histories inform us that the thrust was exhausted by August 1, but, in fact, the First Belorussian Front was close to the suburb of Praga by then, approaching from the south-east. (The Vistula was narrower than the Thames in London. I was about to draw an analogy of the geography when I discovered that Norman Davies had beaten me to it, using almost the exact wording that I had thought suitable: “Londoners would have grasped what was happening if told that everyone was being systematically deported from districts north of the Thames, whilst across the river to Battersea, Lambeth, and Southwark nothing moved, no one intervened,”  from Rising ’44, page 433).  Rokossovsky told Werth that the Rising was a bad mistake, and that it should have waited until the Soviets were close. On the other hand, the Polish General Anders, very familiar with Stalin’s ways, and then operating under Alexander in Italy, thought the Uprising was a dangerous mistake.

General Rokossovsky

Yet all that really misses the point. It was far easier for Stalin to have the Germans exterminate the opposition, even if it contained some communist sympathisers. (Norman Davies hypothesizes that the radio message inciting the partisans to rebel may have been directed at the Communists only, but it is hard to see how an AL-only uprising would have been able to succeed: such a claim sounds like retrospective disinformation.) Stalin’s forces would eventually have taken over Warsaw, and he would have conducted any purge he felt was suitable. He had shamelessly manipulated Home Army partisans when capturing Polish cities to the east of Warsaw (such as Lvov), and disposed of them when they had delivered for him. Thus sitting back and waiting was a cynical, but reasonable, strategy for Stalin, who by now was confident enough of his ability to execute – and was also being informed by his spies of the strategies of his democratic Allies in their plans for Europe. Donald Maclean’s first despatch from the Washington Embassy, betraying communications between Churchill and Roosevelt, was dated August 2/3, as revealed in the VENONA decrypts.

One last aspect of the Soviet attack concerns the role of the Poles in the Red Army. When the captured Polish officers who avoided the Katyn massacres were freed in 1942, they had a choice: to join Allied forces overseas, or to join the Red Army. General Zygmunt Berling had agreed to cooperate after his release from prison, and had recommended the creation of a Polish People’s Army in May 1943. He became commander of the first unit, and eventually was promoted to General of the Polish Army under Rokossovsky. But it was not until August 14 that he was entrusted to support the Warsaw Uprising, crossing the Vistula and entering Praga the following day – which suggests that the river was not quite the natural barrier others have made it out to be. He was repulsed, however, and had to withdraw eight days later. The failed attempt, with many casualties, resulted in his dismissal soon afterwards. Perhaps Stalin felt that Polish communists, because they were Poles, could be sacrificed: Berling may not have received approval for his venture.

  • The Aftermath:

With Warsaw untaken, the National Council of Poland declared Lublin as the national capital, on August 18, and on September 9, a formal agreement was signed between the Polish communists and the Kremlin. In Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski, perhaps now concluding that war crimes trials might be hanging over him, relented the pressure somewhat, and even parleyed with the survivors. He tried to convince them that the threat from Bolshevism was far more dangerous than the continuance of Fascism, even suggesting that the menace from the East ‘‘might very well bring about the downfall of Western culture’ (Clark). It was not certain what aspects of Western culture he believed the Nazi regime had enhanced. (Maybe Professor Howard could have provided some insights.)

The Lublin administration had to wait a while as the ‘government-in-waiting’, as Warsaw was not captured by the Red Army until January 17, 1945. By that time, imaginative voices in the Foreign Office had begun to point out the ruthlessness and menace of the tide of Soviet communism in eastern Europe, and Churchill’s – and even more, Roosevelt’s – beliefs that they could cooperate with the man in the Kremlin were looking very weary. By the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, any hopes that a democratically elected government would take power in Poland had been abandoned.  Stalin had masterfully manipulated his allies, and claimed, through the blood spent by the millions who pushed back the Nazi forces, that he merited control of the territories that became part of the Soviet Empire. There was nothing that Churchill (or then Attlee), or Roosevelt, rapidly fading (and then Truman) could do.

The historical assessment is one of a Great Betrayal – which it surely was, in the sense that the Poles were misled by the promises of Churchill and Roosevelt, and in the self-delusion that the two leaders had that, because Stalin was fighting Hitler alongside them, he was actually one of the team, a man they could cooperate with, and someone who had tamed his oppressive and murderous instincts that were so evident from before the war. But whether the ‘Soviet armies’ deserved sympathy for their halt on the Vistula is quite another question. It was probable that most of the Ivans in the Soviet armed forces were heartily sick of Communism, and the havoc it had brought to their homes and families, but were instead conscripted and forced to fight out of fear for what might happen if they resisted. By then, fighting for Mother Russia, and out of hatred for the Germans because of the devastation the latter had wrought on their homeland, they were brought to a halt before Warsaw to avoid a clash that may have been premature. But they were Communists by identification, not by conviction. Stalin was the sole man in charge. He was ruthless: he was going to eliminate the Home Army anyway: why not let the Germans do the job?

Alan Clark’s summing-up ran as follows: “The story of the Warsaw uprising illustrates many features of the later history of World War II. The alternating perfidy and impotence of the western Allies; the alternating brutality and sail-trimming of the SS; the constancy of Soviet power and ambition. Above all, perhaps, it shows the quality of the people for whom nominally, and originally, the war had been fought and how the two dictatorships could still find common ground in the need to suppress them.”

The Allies in Italy

  1. Military Operations

The invasion of Italy (starting with Operation ‘Husky’, the invasion of Sicily) had always been Churchill’s favoured project, since he regarded it as an easier way to repel the Germans and occupy central Europe before Stalin reached it. It was the western Allies’ first foray into Axis-controlled territory, and had been endorsed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca in January 1943. Under General Alexander, British and American troops had landed in Sicily in July 1943, and on the mainland, at Salerno, two months later. Yet it was always something of a maverick operation: the Teheran Agreement made no mention of it as a diversionary initiative, and thereafter the assault was regularly liable to having troops withdrawn for the more official invasion of Southern France (Operation Anvil, modified to Dragoon). This strategy rebounded in a perhaps predictable way: Hitler maintained troops in Italy to ward off the offensive, thus contributing to Overlord’s success, but the resistance that Alexander’s Army encountered meant that the progress in liberating Italy occurred much more slowly than its architects had forecast.

Operation ANVIL

Enthusiasm for the Italian venture had initially been shared by the Americans and the British, and was confirmed at the TRIDENT conference in Washington in May 1943. At this stage, the British Chiefs of Staff hoped to conclude the war in a year’s time, believing that a march up Italy would be achieved practically unopposed, with the goal of reaching the ‘Ljubljana Gap’ (which was probably a more durable obstacle than the ‘Watford’, or even the ‘Cumberland’ Gap) and striking at the southern portions of Hitler’s Empire before the Soviets arrived there. Yet, as plans advanced, the British brio was tempered by American scepticism. After the Sicilian campaign, the Allied forces were thwarted by issues of terrain, a surprising German resurgence, and a lack of coordination of American and British divisions. In essence, clear strategic goals had not been set, nor processes by which they might be achieved.

Matters were complicated in September 1943 by the ouster of Mussolini, the escape of King Emanuel and General Badoglio to Brindisi, to lead a non-fascist government in the south, and the rescue of Mussolini by Nazi paratroopers so that he could be installed as head of a puppet government in Salò in the North. An armistice between the southern Italians and the Allies was announced (September 3) the day before troops landed at Salerno. The invading forces were now faced with an uncertain ally in the south, not fully trusted because of its past associations with Mussolini’s government, and a revitalized foe in the north. Hitler was determined to defend the territory, had moved sixteen divisions into Italy, and started a reign of terror against both the civilian population and the remnants of the Italian army, thousands of whom were extracted to Germany to work as slaves or be incarcerated.

The period between the armistice and D-Day was thus a perpetual struggle. As the demands for landing-craft and troops to support Overlord increased, morale in Alexander’s Army declined, and progress was tortuously slow, as evidenced by the highly controversial capture of Monte Cassino between January and May 1944, where the Polish Army sustained 6,000 casualties. The British Chiefs of Staff continually challenged the agreement made in Quebec that the Anvil attack was of the highest priority (and even received support from Eisenhower for a while). Moreover, the Allies did not handle the civilian populace very shrewdly, with widescale bombing undermining the suggestion that they had arrived as ’liberators’. With a valiant push, Rome was captured on June 4, by American forces, but a rivalry between the vain and glory-seeking General Clark and the sometimes timid General Alexander meant that the advantage was not hammered home. The dispute over Anvil had to be settled by Roosevelt himself in June. In the summer of 1944, the Allies faced another major defensive obstacle, the Gothic Line, which ran along the Apennines from Spezia to Pesari. Bologna, the city at the center of this discussion, lay about forty miles north of this redoubt. And there the Allied forces stalled.

  • Political Goals

The Allies were unanimous that they wanted to install a democratic, non-fascist government in Italy at the conclusion of the war, but did not really define what shape it should take, or understand who among the various factions claiming ideological leadership might contribute. Certainly, the British feared an infusion of Communism into the mix. ‘Anti-fascism’ had a durable odour of ‘communism’ about it, and there was no doubt that strong communist organisations existed both in the industrial towns and in the resistance groups that had escaped to the mountains or the countryside. (After the armistice, a multi-party political committee had been formed with the name of the ‘Committee of National Liberation’, a name that was exactly echoed a few months later by the Soviets’ puppets in Chelm, Poland.) Moreover, while the Foreign Office, epitomised by the vain and ineffectual Anthony Eden, who still harboured a grudge with Mussolini over the Ethiopian wars, expressed a general disdain about the Italians, the Americans were less interested in the fate of individual European nations. Roosevelt’s main focus was on ‘getting his boys home’, and then concentrating on building World Peace with Stalin through the United Nations. The OSS, however, modelled on Britain’s SOE, had more overt communist sympathies.

Yet there existed also rivalry between the USA and Great Britain about post-war goals. The British were looking to control the Mediterranean to protect its colonial routes: the Americans generally tried to undermine such imperial pretensions, and were looking out for their own commercial advantages when hostilities ceased. At this time, Roosevelt and Churchill were starting to disagree more about tactics, and the fate of individual nations, as the debate over Poland, and Roosevelt’s secret parleys with Stalin, showed. Churchill was much more suspicious of Soviet intrigues at this time, although it did not stop him groveling to Stalin, or singing his praises in more sentimental moments.

The result was a high degree of mutual distrust between the Allies and its new partners, the southern Italians, and those resisting Nazi oppression in the north. As Caroline Moorehead aptly puts it, in her very recent House in the Mountains: “Now the cold wariness of the British liberating troops puzzled them. It was, noted Harold Macmillan, ‘one vast headache, with all give and no take’. How much money would have to be spent in order to prevent ‘disease and unrest’? How much aid was going to be necessary to make the Italians militarily useful in the campaign for liberation? And what was the right approach to take towards a country which was at once a defeated enemy and a co-belligerent which expected to be treated as an ally?”

  • The Partisans

The partisans in northern Italy, like almost all such groups in occupied Europe, were of very mixed origins, holding multitudinous objectives. But here they were especially motley, containing absconders from the domestic Italian Army, resisting deportation by the Nazis, escaped prisoners-of-war, trying to find a way back to Allied lines, non-Germans conscripted by the Wehrmacht, who had escaped but were uncertain where to turn next, refugees from armies that had fought in the east, earnest civilians distraught over missing loved ones, Jews suddenly threatened by Mussolini’s support of Hitler’s anti-Semitic persecution, the ideologically dedicated, as well as young adventurists, bandits, thieves and terrorists. As a report from Alexander’s staff said: “Bands exist of every degree, down to gangs of thugs who don a partisan cloak of respectability to conceal the nakedness of their brigandage, and bands who bury their arms in their back gardens and only dig them up and festoon themselves in comic opera uniforms when the first Allied troops arrive.”  It was thus challenging to find a way to deal consistently with such groups, scattered broadly around the mountainous terrain.

The British generally disapproved of irregular armies, and preferred the partisans to continue the important work of helping POWs escape to Switzerland, where they were able to pass on valuable information to the SIS and OSS offices there. As Richard Lamb wrote: “However, the Allies wanted the partisan activities to be confined to sabotage, facilitating the escape of POWs, and gathering intelligence about the Germans.”  Sabotage was encouraged, because its perpetrators could not easily be identified, and it helped the war effort, while direct attacks on German forces could result in fearful reprisals – a phenomenon that took on increasing significance. Hitler had given instructions to the highly experienced General Kesselring that any such assaults should be responded to with ruthless killing of hostages.

Yet the political agitators in the partisans were dominated by communists – who continuously quarreled with the non-communists. The British did not want a repeat of what had happened in Yugoslavia and Greece, where irredentists had established separate control. The CLN had set up a Northern Italian section (the CLNAI) in January 1944, and had made overt claims for political control of some remote areas, seeing itself as the third leg of government. Thus the British were suspicious, and held off infiltrating SOE liaison officers, and parachuting in weapons and supplies, with the first delivery not occurring until December 1943. This encouraged the partisans to think that the Allies were not interested in widespread resistance, and were fearful of communism – which was largely (but not absolutely) true. Tellingly, on July 27, 1944, in the light of Soviet’s expansive colonial intentions, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke first voiced the opinion that Britain might need to view Germany as a future ally against the Soviets.

Churchill expressed outwardly hostile opinions on the partisans in a speech to the House of Commons on February 22, 1944, and his support for Badoglio (and, indirectly, the monarchy) laid him open to the same criticisms of anti-democratic spirit that would bedevil his attitude towards Greece. Ironically, it was the arrival of the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti from Moscow in March 1944, and his subsequent decision to join Badoglio’s government, that helped to repair some of the discord. In May, many more OSS and SOE officers were flown in, and acts of sabotage increased. This interrupted the German war effort considerably, as Kesselring admitted a few years later. Thus, as summer drew on, the partisans had expectations of a big push to defeat and expel the Germans. By June, all Italian partisan forces were co-ordinated into a collective command structure. They were told by their SOE liaison officers that a break through the Gothic Line would take place in September.

Meanwhile, the confusion in the British camp had become intense. Churchill dithered with his Chiefs of Staff about the competing demands of Italy and France. General Maitland Wilson, who had replaced Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean in January 1944, was in June forecasting the entry into Trieste and Ljubljana by September, apparently unaware of the Anvil plans. He was brought back to earth by Eisenhower. At the beginning of August 1944, Alexander’s forces were reduced from 250,000 to 153,000 men, because of the needs in France. Yet Churchill continued to place demands on Alexander, and privately railed over the Anvil decision. Badoglio was replaced by Bonomi, to Churchill’s disappointment. Alexander said his troops were demoralized. There was discord between SOE and the OSS, as well as between SOE and the Foreign Office. It was at this juncture that the controversy started.

  • Offensive Strategy

On June 7, Alexander had made a radio appeal to the partisans, encouraging sabotage. As Iris Origo reported it in, in War in Val D’orcia (written soon after the events, in 1947): “General Alexander issues a broadcast to the Italian patriots, telling them that the hour of their rising has come at last. They are to cut the German Army communications wherever possible, by destroying roads, bridges, railways, telegraph-wires. They are to form ambushes and cut off retreating Germans – and to give shelter to Volksdeutsche who have deserted from the German Army. Workmen are urged to sabotage, soldiers and police to desert, ‘collaborators of fascism’ to take this last chance of showing their patriotism and helping the cause of their country’s deliverance. United, we shall attain victory.”

General Alexander of Tunis

This was an enormously significant proclamation, given what Alexander must have known about the proposed reduction in forces, and what his intelligence sources must have told him about Nazi reprisals. They were surely not words Alexander had crafted himself. One can conclude that it was perhaps part of the general propaganda campaign, current with the D-Day landings, to focus the attention of Nazi forces around Europe on the local threats. Indeed the Political Warfare Executive made a proposal to Eisenhower intended to ‘stimulate . . . strikes, guerilla action and armed uprisings behind the enemy lines’. Historians have accepted that such an initiative would have endangered many civilian lives. The exact follow-up to this recommendation, and how it was manifested in BBC broadcasts in different languages, is outside my current scope, but Origo’s diary entry shows how eagerly the broadcasts from London were followed.

What is highly significant is that General Alexander, in the summer of 1944, was involved in an auxiliary deception operation codenamed ‘Otrington’, which was designed to lead the Germans to think that an attack was going to take place on the Nazi flanks in Genoa and Rimini, as opposed to the south of France, and also as a feint for Alexander’s planned attack through the central Apennines north of Florence. (This was all part of the grander ‘Bodyguard’ deception plan for Overlord.) Yet in August 1944, such plans were changed when General Sir Oliver Leese, now commanding the Eighth Army, persuaded Alexander to move his forces away from the central Apennines over to the Adriatic sector, for an attack on August 25. The Germans were misled to the extent that they had moved forces to the Adriatic, thus confusing Leese’s initiative. Moreover, the historian on whom we rely for this exposition was Professor Sir Michael Howard himself – in his Chapter 7 of Volume 5 of the British Intelligence history. Yet the author makes no reference here to Alexander’s communications to the partisans, or how such signals related to the deception exercise, merely laconically noting: “The attack, after its initial success, was gradually brought to a halt [by Kesselring], and Allied operations in Italy bogged down for another winter.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the message provoked even further animosity from the Germans when Alexander made three separate broadcasts through the BBC, on June 19, 20 and 27, where he encouraged Italian partisans to ‘shoot Germans in the back’. The response from Kesselring, who of course heard the open declaration, was instantaneous. He issued an order on June 20 that read, partially, as follows: “Whenever there is evidence of considerable numbers of partisan groups a proportion of the male population of the area will be arrested, and in the event of an act of violence these men will be shot. The population must be informed of this. Should troops etc. be fired at from any village, the village will be burnt down. Perpetrators or ringleaders will be hanged in public.”

The outcome of this was that a horrible series of massacres occurred during August and September, leading to the worst of all, that at Marzabotto, on September 29 and 30. A more specific order by the German 5 Corps was issued on August 9, with instructions as to how local populations would be assembled to witness the shootings. Yet this was not a new phenomenon: fascist troops had been killing partisan bands and their abettors for the past year in the North. The requirement for Mussolini’s neo-fascist government to recruit young men for its military and police forces prompted thousands to run for the mountains and join the partisans. Italy was now engaged in a civil war, and in the north Italians had been killing other Italians. One of the most infamous of the massacres had occurred in Rome, in March 1944, at the Ardeatine Caves. A Communist Patriotic Action Group had killed 33 German soldiers in the Via Rasella, and ten times that many hostages were killed the next day as a form of reprisal. The summer of 1944 was the bitterest time for executions of Italians: 7500 civilians were killed between March 1944 and April 1945, and 5000 of these met their deaths in the summer months of 1944.

The records show that support for the partisans had been consistent up until September, although demands had sharply risen. “In July 1944 SOE was operating 16 radio stations behind enemy lines, and its missions rose from 23 in August to 33 in September; meanwhile the OSS had 12 in place, plus another 6 ready to leave. Contacts between Allied teams and partisan formations made large-scale airdrops of supplies possible. In May 1944, 152 tons were dropped; 361 tons were delivered in June, 446 tons in July, 227 tons in August, and 252 tons in September.” (Battistelli and Crociani) Yet those authors offer up another explanation: Operation ‘Olive’ which began on August 25, at the Adriatic end of the Gothic Line, provoked a severe response against partisans in the north-west. The fierce German reprisals that then took place (on partisans and civilians, including the Marzobotto massacre) by the SS Panzer Green Division Reichsführer contributed to the demoralization of the partisan forces, and 47,000 handed themselves in after an amnesty offer by the RSI on October 28.

What is not clear is why the partisans continued to engage in such desperate actions. Had they become desperadoes? As Battistelli and Crociani write, a period of crisis had arrived: “In mid-September 1944 the partisans’ war was, for all practical purposes, at a standstill. The influx of would-be recruits made it impossible for the Allies to arm them all; many of the premature ‘free zones’ were being retaken by the Germans; true insurgency was not possible without direct Allied support; and, despite attacks by the US Fifth and British Eighth Armies against the Gothic Line from 12 September, progress would be slow and mainly up the Adriatic flank. Against the advice of Allied liaison officers, the partisan reaction was, inexplicably, to declare more ‘free zones’.” Things appeared to be out of control. Battistelli and Crociani further analyse it as follows: “The summer of 1944 thus represented a turning-point in partisan activity, after which sabotage and attacks against communications decreased in favour of first looting and then attacks against Axis troops, both being necessary to obtain food and weapons to enable large formations to carry on their war.” And it thus led to the deadliest massacre at Marzabotto, south of Bologna, where the SS, under Sturmbannführer Walter Reder, shot about 770 men, women, and children.

The wholesale deaths even provoked Mussolini to beg the SS to back off. On November 13 Alexander issued a belated communiqué encouraging the partisans to disarm for the winter, as the campaign was effectively coming to a halt. Alexander’s advice was largely ignored: the partisans viewed it a political move executed out of disdain for communism. The Germans viewed it as a sign of weakness, and it deterred any thoughts of immediate surrender. Thus the activity of the partisans continued, but less vigorously, as air support in the way of supplies had already begun to dwindle. And another significant factor was at work. Before he left Moscow, Togliatti, the newly arrived Communist leader, had made an appeal to the Italian resistance movement to take up arms against the Fascists. Yet when he arrived in Italy in March 1944, Togliatti had submerged the militant aspects of his PCI (Communist Party of Italy) in the cause of unity and democracy, and had the Garibaldi (Communist) brigades disarmed. Moorehead points out that the Northern partisans were effectively stunned and weakened by Togliatti’s strategic move to make the Communists appear less harmful as the country prepared for postwar government.

In addition, roles changed. Not just the arrival of General Leese, and his disruption of careful deception plans. General George Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, took the view that Italy was ‘an expensive sideshow’ (Brian Holden Reid). In December, Alexander had to tried to breathe fresh life into the plan to assault the Ljubljana Gap,  but after the Yalta Conference of February 1945, Alexander, now Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, was instructed simply to ensure that the maximum number of German divisions were held down, thus allowing the progress by Allied troops in France and Germany to be maintained. Bologna was not taken until April 1945, after which the reprisals against fascists began. Perhaps three thousand were killed there by the partisans.

  • The Aftermath

The massacres of September and October 1944 have not been forgotten, but their circumstances have tended to be overlooked in the histories. It is difficult to find a sharp and incisive analysis of British strategy and communications at this time. Norman Davies writes about the parallel activities in Poland and Italy in the summer of 1944 in No Simple Victory, but I would suggest that he does not do justice to the situation. He blames General Alexander for ‘opening the floodgates for a second wave of German revenge’ when he publicly announced that there would be no winter offensive in 1944-45, but it was highly unlikely that that ‘unoriginal thinker’ (Oxford Companion to Word War II) would have been allowed to come up with such a message without guidance and approval. Davies points to ‘differences of opinion between British and American strategists’, which allowed German commanders to be given a free hand to take ruthless action against the partisans’. So why were the differences not resolved by Eisenhower? Moreover, while oppression against the partisans did intensify, the worst reprisals against civilians that Davies refers to were over by then.

Had Alexander severely misled the partisans in his encouragement that their ‘hour of rising’ had come at last? What was intended by his open bloodthirsty call to kill Nazis in the back? Did the partisans really pursue such aggressive attacks because of Alexander’s provocative words, or, did they engage in them in full knowledge of the carnage it would cause, trying to prove, perhaps, that a fierce and autocratic form of government was the only method of eliminating fascism? Were the local SOE officers responsible for encouraging attacks on German troops in order to secure weapons and food? Why could Togliatti not maintain any control over the communists? And what was Alexander’s intention in calling the forces to hold up for the winter, knowing that the Germans would pick up that message? Whatever the reality, it was not a very honourable episode in the British war effort. Too many organisations arguing amongst themselves, no doubt. Churchill had many things on his mind, but it was another example of where he wavered on strategy, then became too involved in details, or followed his buccaneering instincts, and afterwards turned sentimental at inappropriate times. Yet Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander, and clearly had problems in enforcing a disciplined approach to strategy.

At least the horrendous reprisals ceased. Maybe, as in Warsaw, the SS realised that the war was going to be lost, and that war crimes tribunals would investigate the legality of the massacre of innocent civilians. Yet a few grisly murders continued. Internecine feuds continued among the partisans during the winter of 1944-45, with fears of collaborators and spies in the midst, and frequently individuals who opposed communism were persecuted and killed. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the events of this winter in the north (see Moorehead for more details), but a few statements need to be made. The number of partisans did decline sharply to begin with, but then ascended in the spring. More supplies were dropped by SOE, but the latter’s anti-communist message intensified, and the organisation tried to direct weaponry to non-communist units. Savage reprisals by the fascists did take place, but not on the scale of the September massacres. In the end, the communists managed to emerge from World War II with a large amount of prestige, because they ensured that they were present to liberate finally the cities of Turin, Milan, and Bologna in concert with the Allied forces that eventually broke through, even though they were merciless with fascists who had remained loyal to Mussolini and the Nazis. As with Spain, the memories of civil war and different allegiances stayed and festered for a long time.

And the communists actually survived and thrived, as Howard’s encounter forty years later proved –  a dramatic difference from the possibility of independent democratic organisations in Warsaw enduring after the war, for example. Moreover, they obviously held a grudge. Yet history continues to be distorted. Views contrary to the betrayal of such ‘liberating’ communists have been expressed. In his book The Pursuit of Italy David Gilmour writes: “At the entrance of the town hall of Bologna photographs are still displayed of partisans liberating the city without giving a hint that Allied forces had helped them to do so.” He goes on to point out that, after the massacre of the Ardeatine Caves, many Italians were of the opinion that those responsible (Communists) should have given them up for execution instead. Others claim that the murders of the German soldiers were not actually communists: Moorhead claims they were mainly ‘students’. It all gets very murky. I leave the epitaph to Nicola Bianca: “The fact is that brutalization was a much part of the Italian wars as of any other, even if it was these same wars which made possible the birth of the first true democracy the country had known.”

Reassessment of Howard’s Judgment

Professor Howard seemed to be drawing an equivalence between, on the one hand, the desire for the Red Army to have the Nazis perform their dirty work for them by eliminating a nominal ally but a social enemy (the Home Army), and thus disengage from an attack on Warsaw, and, on the other, a strained Allied Army, with its resources strategically depleted, reneging on commitments to provide material support to a scattered force of anti-fascist sympathisers, some of whom it regarded as dangerous for the long-term health of the invading country, as well as that of the nation it was attempting to liberate. This is highly unbalanced, as the Home Army had few choices, whereas the Italian partisans had time and territory on their side. They did not have to engage in bloody attacks that would provoke reprisals of innocents. The Allies in Italy were trying to liberate a country that had waged warfare against them: the Soviet Army refused to assist insurgents who were supposedly fighting the same enemy. The British, certainly, were determined to weaken the Communists: why was Howard surprised by this? And, if he had a case to make, he could have criticised the British Army and its propagandists back in London for obvious lapses in communications rather than switching his attention to expressing sympathy for the communists outside Warsaw. Was he loath to analyse what Alexander had done simply because he had served under him?

It is informative to parse carefully the phrases Howard uses in his outburst. I present the text again here, for ease of reference:

“In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had issued orders for the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German communications throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on and around Monte Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The Allied armies did not come to their help, and the partisan movement in North Italy was largely destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna, where the communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had been deliberately planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist movement, much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts that this was an outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we could have done, they smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered about poor Terry, was there really nothing that we could have done to help? Were there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines might have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”

‘In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command . . ’

Did the incitement actually happen in September, as opposed to June? What was the source, and who actually issued the order? What did that ‘in sight’ mean? It is a woolly, evasive term. Who actually believed that the war would end shortly? Were these orders issued over public radio (for the Germans to hear), or privately, to SOE and OSS representatives?

‘ . . had issued orders to unmask themselves’.

What does that mean? Take off their camouflage and engage in open warfare? The Allied High Command could in fact not ‘order’ the partisans to do anything, but why would an ‘order’ be issued to do that? I can find no evidence for it in the transcripts.

‘ . . .and attack German communications’.

An incitement to sabotage was fine, and consistent, but the communication specifically did not encourage murder of fascist forces, whether Italian or German. Alexander admittedly did so in June, but Howard does not cite those broadcasts.

‘The Germans reacted with predictable savagery.’

The Germans engaged in savage reprisals primarily in August, before the supposed order that Howard quotes. The reprisals took place because of partisan murders of soldiers, and in response to Operation ‘Olive’, not simply because of attacks on communications, as Howard suggests here. Moreover, the massacre at Marzabotto occurred at the end of September, when Kesselring had mollified his instructions, after Mussolini’s intervention.

‘Allied armies did not come to their help’.

But was anything more than parachuting in supplies expected? Over an area of more than 30,000 square miles, behind enemy lines? Bologna only? Where is the evidence – beyond the June message quoted by Origo? What did the SOE officers say? (I have not yet read Joe Maioli’s Mission Accomplished: SOE in Italy 1943-45, although its title suggests success, not failure.)

‘The partisan movement in northern Italy was largely destroyed’.

This was not true, as numerous memoirs and histories indicate. Admittedly, activity sharply decreased after September, because of the Nazi attacks, and the reduction in supplies. It thus suffered in the short term, but the movement became highly active again in the spring of 1945. On what did Howard base his conclusion? And why did he not mention that it was the Communist Togliatti who had been as much responsible for any weakening in the autumn of 1944? Or that Italian neo-fascists had been determinedly hunting down partisans all year?

‘It was still believed . .  .’

Why the passive voice? Who? When? Why? Of course the communists in Bologna would say that.

‘ . . .deliberately planned to weaken the communist movement’.

Richard Lamb wrote that Field Marshal Harding, Alexander’s Chief of Staff, had told him that the controversial Proclama Alexander, interpreted by some Italian historians as an anti-communist move, had been designed to protect the partisans. But that proclamation was made in November, and it encouraged partisans to suspend hostilities. In any case, weakening the communist movement was not a dishonourable goal, considering what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

‘. . . much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them’.

Did the Bologna communists really make this analogy, condemning the actions of communists in Poland as if they were akin to the actions of the Allies? Expressing sympathy for the class enemies of the Polish Home Army would have been heresy. Why could Howard not refute it at the time, or point out the contradictions in this passage?

‘ . . .was there really nothing that we could have done to help?

Aren’t you the one supposed to be answering the questions, Professor, not asking them?

‘. . . huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines’

Why had Howard forgotten about the depletion of resources in Italy, the decision to hold ground, and what he wrote about in Strategic Deception? Did he really think that Alexander would have been able to ignore Eisenhower’s directives? And why ’cumbrous’ – unwieldy? inflexible?

‘Someone must have known what was going on’.

 Indeed. And shouldn’t it have been Howard’s responsibility to find out?

‘Ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies’

Where? In print? In conversations? What has one got to do with the other? Why should an implicit criticism of the Allied Command be converted into sympathy for Stalin?

The irony is that the Allied Command, perhaps guided by the Political Warfare Executive, did probably woefully mismanage expectations, and encourage attacks on German troops that resulted in the murder of innocent civilians. But Howard does not make this case. Those events happened primarily in the June through August period, while Howard bases his argument on a September proclamation. He was very quick to accept the Bologna communists’ claim that the alleged ‘destruction’ of the partisans was all the Allies’ fault, when the partisans themselves, northern Italian fascists, the SS troops, Togliatti, and even the Pope, held some responsibility. If Howard had other evidence, he should have presented it.

Why was Howard not aware of the Monte Sole massacre at the time? Why did he not perform research before walking into the meeting in Bologna? What did the communists there tell him that convinced him that they had been hard done by? Did they blame the British for the SS reprisals? Why was he taken in by the relentless propagandizing of the Communists? Why did he not explain what he thought the parallels were between Alexander’s actions and those of Rokossovsky? The episode offered an intriguing opportunity to investigate Allied strategy in Italy and Poland in the approach to D-Day and afterwards, but Howard fumbled it, and an enormous amount is thus missing from his casual observations. He could have illustrated how the attempts by the Western Allies to protect the incursions into Europe had unintended consequences, and shown the result of the competition between western intelligence and Togliatti for the allegiance of the Italian partisans. Instead the illustrious historian never did his homework. He obfuscated rather than illuminated, indulging in vague speculation, shaky chronology, ineffectual hand-wringing, and unsupported conclusions.

Perhaps a pertinent epitaph is what Howard himself wrote, in his volume of Strategic Deception, about the campaign in India (p 221): “The real problem which confronted the British deception staff in India, however, was that created by its own side; the continuing uncertainty as to what Allied strategic intentions really were. In default of any actual plans the best that the deceivers could do as one of them ruefully put it, was to ensure that the enemy remained as confused as they were themselves.” He had an excellent opportunity to inspect the Italian campaign as a case study for the same phenomenon, but for some reason avoided it.

This has been a fascinating and educational, though ultimately sterile, exercise for me. It certainly did not help me understand why Howard is held in such regard as a historian. ‘Why are eminent figures allowed to get away with such feeble analysis?’, I asked myself. Is it because they are distinguished, and an aura of authority has descended upon them? Or am I completely out to lunch? No doubt I should read more of Howard’s works. But ars longa, vita brevis  . . .

Sources:

War in Italy 1943-1945, A Brutal Story by Richard Lamb

Russia at War 1941-1945 by Nicholas Werth

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

War in Val D’Orcia by Iris Origo

Captain Professor by Michael Howard

The House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead

World War II Partisan Warfare in Italy by Pier Paola Battistelli & Piero Crociani

The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

Between Giants by Prit Buttar

Winston Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945 by Martin Gilbert

Rising ’47 by Norman Davies

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

The Oxford Companion to World War II edited by Ian Dear and M. R. E. Foot

The Oxford Illustrated History of World War II edited by Paul Overy

British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, Strategic Deception by Michael Howard

(New Commonplace entries may be viewed here.)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography, Personal, Philosophy, Politics

Special Bulletin: Denis Lenihan on Sonia & Quebec

I am experimenting here by posting a fascinating piece by an Internet colleague, Denis Lenihan. I have long been looking for a forum in which discussions on outstanding intelligence conundrums could take place. My idea of an ‘Officially Unreliable’ conference never took off, and I have not found any other medium where serious, non-polemic, debates on such subjects could be undertaken. I am not certain that WordPress is the optimum home for such discussions, as I have to assume the role of editor, moderator, and host, but I want to try it out.

Denis (whom I have never met) is a dedicated analyst of intelligence matters. He describes himself as follows: “Denis Lenihan was born in New Zealand and has degrees from the University of New Zealand and the University of Sydney. Having spent his working life in Australia as a civil servant, he now lives in London. He also writes about spies on the websites kiwispies.com and academia.edu .”

I am delighted that Denis has taken the trouble to respond in depth to my piece on Sonia and the Quebec Agreement. (Readers may want to refresh their memory of it first.) I have prepared a reply to Denis, which I have sent him at the same time that this bulletin is being posted. In that way, I can deliver an unvarnished response, uninfluenced by any comments posted here, and readers who want to make any observations will likewise not be swayed by any of my pontifications. I plan to post my response here after a week or so, and Denis will of course have an opportunity to address any of my arguments.

You can respond in several ways. You can leave a short post at the end of this piece. I have to approve such postings before they are released, so, if I do not know who you are, and the message is questionable, I may not ‘Approve it’. An email address attached will allow me to contact you, if necessary. It is also possible that some messages may be trapped by the ‘Stop Spammers’ filter. Since I installed this feature last summer, I have apparently had 1,189,918 messages blocked. If you suspect I may have overlooked your message, please contact me by email at antonypercy@aol.com. (Since many readers are accustomed to my schedule of monthly postings, they may well overlook the arrival of this Special Bulletin.)

Alternatively, you may wish to send me an email with a longer message. Again, I may want to check you out if I have not heard of you before, but, after I have done that, if you want your posting to appear anonymously, I am happy to oblige. I hope to receive some comments, but, if none arrive, Denis and I can simply air our exchange. (And he has more to come.)

A colleague has informed me that Maik Hamburger, Sonia’s first-born, but last-surviving child, translator and Shakespearean scholar, died in Berlin on January 16.

SONIA AND THE QUEBEC AGREEMENT  by ANTONY PERCY (coldspur.com) : A COMMENT

Antony Percy begins by noting the claim made by Pincher in the (first) 2009 edition of Treachery that the GRU spy Sonia (aka Ursula Beurton, nee Hamburger, born Kuczynski) transmitted to Moscow ‘the details of the Quebec Agreement’ 16 days after it had been signed on 24 August 1943. Percy concludes his introductory paragraph with the words:

This article shows that the contradictions and anomalies in the accounts of the leakage of this secret leave the published claims about Sonia’s activity open to a great deal of scepticism.’

Having done his analysis, Percy concludes his article by saying that ‘a proper resolution of this affair can therefore only come from the following steps’; and he goes on to list five, ranging from verifying the existence and authenticity of a real document in the GRU archive dated September 1943 concerning the Quebec Agreement, to investigating whether the intelligence might have been gained elsewhere.

These five steps resemble counsels of perfection. It is a nice question whether if they were applied to other questions which arise in espionage/intelligence activity we would be able to reach any certainty or indeed to make any progress at all. Certainty may be beyond us at the moment so far as Sonia and the Quebec Agreement are concerned, but that does not prevent us from harvesting and studying the scraps of information which we have and developing one or more hypotheses from them.  These can be extended or modified as more information emerges. The hypothesis advanced here is that on this occasion Pincher was right about Hollis being Sonia’s source for her information about the Quebec Agreement.

A useful starting point is a close examination of the allegations about what is contained in the GRU archive in Moscow, of which there are four, in the following date order: by Bochkarev and Kolpakidi in 2002 in a book about Sonia (described as Ruth Werner) called Superfrau iz GRU (Superfrau in the GRU); by Bance (aka Dan) in a 2003 book Ultimate Deception; in the 2012 (final) edition of Treachery, in which Pincher quotes the Russian historian Dr Svetlana Chervonnaya; and in a 2016 journal article by William A Tyrer, which again quotes Chervonnaya but with one crucial addition to Pincher’s report.

Bochkarev is described by Pincher, without sources quoted, at 598 as ‘a former GRU officer’, and Kolpakidi as someone ‘who had been given some, but strictly limited, access to secret GRU records’. A Google search shows that Kolpakidi is the author of a number of books on the GRU. Pincher has the duo at 187 simply stating that ‘on 4 September, Sonia reported data on the results of the conference’. Pincher adds ‘suggesting that she sent all that she had learnt from her source’, which is clearly a non sequitur.

Bance is variously referred to by Pincher as a researcher with Moscow intelligence sources (53), having access to KGB and other USSR archival documents (202 and 207), obtaining information from former KGB officers (344-5, 386, 425, 431 and 630) and with access to GRU sources also (208 and 459).  On the other hand, Percy warns that Bance/Dan’s work ‘is a curious melange of fact and fiction that needs to be parsed very carefully’. What category the following fell into is not disclosed.  Percy quotes Bance/Dan’s ‘critical sentences about Sonia and the scientists’ thus:

‘General Groves, the newly installed head of the Manhattan Engineering District, the US codename for their atomic bomb project, agreed to the British request that a number of its scientists should work in America. Lord Cherwell, Wallace Akers and Michael Perrin, his deputy, met to decide what names to put forward to Groves, who reserved the right of refusal. Advised by two of his scientists, Mark Oliphant and James Chadwick, a list was finally agreed . . .  Word quickly spread in the scientific community as to who was on the list. Fuchs provided the names to Ruth [=Sonia], who then transmitted them to a grateful Moscow on September 4.’

As Percy notes, there was no mention of the Quebec agreement itself.  This may be the reason why this extract is not, so far as I can see, quoted by Pincher. In any event he thought that Hollis rather than Fuchs was responsible for providing the scientists’ names.

Chervonnaya is quoted by Pincher at 19 as ‘having discovered a Soviet document confirming that Sonia had sent the information about the Quebec Agreement on 4 September 1943 and that, after translation into Russian, it was taken straight to Stalin’.

Finally, Tyrer’s article in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence in 2016 (Vol 29, no 4) quotes ‘a Russian military writer Vladimir  Lota, with access to some of the GRU files, which are off limits to other researchers’ thus:

On 4 September 1943, U Kuzcynski [Sonia] reported to the Centre information on the outcomes of the conference in Quebec. She had also learned that English scientists Pierls, Chadwick, Simon and Olifant had departed for Washington. U Kuzcynski had received this information from Klaus Fuchs…’ ‘

Tyrer gives the reference to Lota’s article, published in 2010, in a footnote and then adds: ‘Courtesy of Dr Svetlana Chervonnaya’.

So there is agreement from the supposed GRU sources that information (unspecified) was sent by Sonia on 4 September about the Quebec Agreement. Note however that the claim about the names of the scientists who had gone to the US being sent on the same day is made only by Bance/Dan, but without mention of the Conference. Bance/Dan may thus have been confused.  One gets the impression that the GRU gradually disclosed more and more about Sonia’s message: initially in Bochkarev and Kolpakidi, only ‘data on the results of the conference’; then information just about the agreement; and then – finally in Lota – information on both the outcomes of the conference and the scientists, and again with Fuchs as a source.

The great anomaly in the material is that Chervonnaya was evidently aware in 2010 or shortly thereafter that Fuchs had been named by Lota as Sonia’s informant (at least so far as the names of the scientists were concerned), but she evidently failed to tell Pincher. He recorded in the 2012 edition of Treachery at 629-30 that he was ‘indebted’ to Chervonnaya for many reasons, one being that she provided information about ‘extracts from the continuing works of Vladimir Lota, who appears to be the only person granted any access to GRU records’ (but see his descriptions of Bochkarev and Kolpakidi above). This seems inexplicable.

Percy suggests that, in the Lota extract quoted above, the force of ‘also’ and ‘this information’ concerns only the departure of the scientists and not the Agreement, and I think this is right – although some confirmation about the accuracy of the translation would be helpful.  He goes on to suggest that Fuchs was indeed the source of the information about the scientists and that he passed this information on to Sonia in mid-August. This too seems right: why would Sonia wait until September 4 to pass this on to Moscow?  Quoting GRU archives, Pincher has Fuchs meeting Sonia in mid-August and not again until November, so this fits with the suggestion that the information about the scientists was sent in mid-August, shortly after she received it.

There is another argument against Fuchs being the source of the leak about the Agreement, and that is that nobody on the Soviet side has ever given him the credit for it. Both Fuchs and Sonia eventually admitted their roles in getting and transmitting atomic secrets. If Fuchs had been responsible for the leak about the Agreement, why not go beyond merely admitting it and boast about it, especially Sonia?

Percy proposes a number of other candidates as the source of the leak about the Agreement and while they have some plausibility they all suffer from the same defect: there is no or no apparent Oxford connection. Unless the GRU is running and has run some disinformation campaign, the material about the Quebec conference was sent by Sonia from Oxford. This argues overwhelmingly for an Oxford connection for the source. London candidates would surely have used the more secure services of Colonel Simon Kremer, a GRU officer at the Soviet Embassy, as others did. Hollis was based in Oxford at the relevant time.

The list of alternative candidates proposed by Percy might need to be expanded in the light of admission made by Churchill in the House of Commons on 13 April 1954, when the subject of the Quebec Agreement came up. A Google search of the Agreement shows that he said that

‘My telegram [from the context, about the Agreement] was addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and the War Cabinet, but it may well be that, owing to the great respect with which the words “Tube Alloys” were treated, it slipped out at some point or other.’

Having been the Deputy Prime Minister in 1943, Attlee came to Churchill’s aid:

‘May I ask the Prime Minister, was it not a fact that it was thought best to keep knowledge of this matter in the hands of a very few people and that the War Cabinet was informed that there had been talks and agreements with the United States Government on this matter, but that they were not, as a matter of fact, informed of the details at all, or what the agreement was, but simply that some agreement had been come to, and the matter rested there? ‘

Churchill did not disagree. So members of the War Cabinet, who might have inferred from what little they were told what the agreement was about, need to be added to the list of possible sources – if they have an Oxford connection. Churchill plunged on in the exchange in the House of Commons, getting deeper into the mire, so that Attlee was moved to ask plaintively:

‘Would not the right hon. Gentleman think, on reflection, that it would have been better not to have referred to the matter, but to have left it where it was?’

Another gap in the Percy analysis is the role of Michael Perrin, whose role as described by Pincher is dismissed thus:

‘Pincher made some imaginative jumps in promoting the thesis that Hollis would have gained access to the information [about the Agreement] through his colleague at Tube Alloys, Roger [sic] Perrin.’ [Thank you, Denis. I meant Michael. I have corrected my text. Coldspur.]

Perrin gets no fewer than 32 mentions under his name in the index to Treachery, and Pincher establishes a strong personal and professional relationship between Perrin and Hollis. Both were sons of bishops, both had been at Oxford, they were the same age and Perrin had a country cottage at Henley, conveniently close to Oxford. He was originally an industrial scientist at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), and became an assistant to the ICI Director of Research, Wallace Akers; both became involved in a project to build an atomic bomb, known in the UK by the cover name of Tube Alloys. On Pincher’s account at 131, ‘Perrin had overall responsibility inside Tube Alloys for security and intelligence, being cleared for access at all levels’; and his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that he ‘was made secretary to the main Tube Alloys committees’.  He and Hollis seem to have become first involved professionally in 1941, when they cleared Fuchs for access to secret information in Tube Alloys. They went on to clear other scientists, some of whom were also spies, in a partnership which on Pincher’s account lasted at least until 1951. Hollis became ‘the natural liaison man with Tube Alloys’ and ‘was to become recognised as MI5’s atomic expert’, being appointed in 1945 as consultant and adviser to the Official Committee on Atomic Energy (Perrin was a member) which reported directly to the Prime Minister. (Treachery 203, 341).

On Pincher’s account at 186-7, Perrin was ‘a most important figure in the talks leading to the Quebec Agreement’; and he was also heavily involved in the preliminary negotiations with US representatives in London. Although Pincher gets muddled about the chronology, I think he is right to suggest that Perrin would have kept Hollis informed of progress with the Agreement, as more scientists – who needed vetting by MI5 – were to be sent to the US after it had been signed. There is also the highly relevant point, made by Pincher at 203, that Hollis had form for being pushy when it came to demanding information to which strictly speaking he was not entitled. Pincher recounts at 405 what the GCHQ officer Teddy Poulden told him about Hollis’ behaviour after the Petrov defection. Hollis repeatedly pressed for details which Poulden declined to provide, as Hollis had no need to know. Hollis then went to Poulden’s superior ‘who upheld the decision and congratulated Poulden’. Thus had it been necessary, Hollis might well have heavied Perrin about the Quebec Agreement.  There are no imaginative jumps here, only reasonable inferences.

The other factor pointing to Hollis comes from Percy’s own writings on Sonia’s Radio, a ninepart epic (plus envoi) also on coldspur.com, during which (at Part VII) the author felt compelled to issue health warnings to his readers. At heading 4 in the envoi -‘Exploiting the National Archives: “Traffic Analysis”’ – Percy makes the very useful observation that while the focus on fresh material in the Archives has been on drilling down, a more arduous but rewarding approach is ‘scouring the archives horizontally’ so that one may find links among disparate cases. What follows is an attempt to adopt this approach with Hollis to detect patterns of behaviour. It looks at his other activities as they bear on atomic spies and on Sonia during the war, when the Soviet priority was discovering what the West was up to with atomic research so that it could develop its own bomb, as of course it did; thus putting into perspective the Quebec Agreement. 

1. Atomic Spies

  • Fuchs

May 1941: Cleared by Hollis for secret work for the first time (Treachery, 130)

August 1941: MI5 received information that Fuchs ‘was well-known in Communist circles’; this was passed on by MI5 with the observation by Hollis that ‘while it was impossible to assess the risk of leakage of information, any leakage would be more likely to lead to Russia rather than to Germany’ (132)

October 1941: An officer on Hollis’ staff suggests that the Ministry of Atomic Production be warned of Fuchs’ communist connections; no action taken (136)

June 1942: MI5 told the Home Office that it had no security objection to Fuchs becoming a British citizen (159)

Late 1942: MI5 learned that while in Canada Fuchs had become a close friend of Hans Kahle, who was well known to MI5, having been noted by it in 1939 as ‘said to be running the [Russian] espionage system in this country’; rated by Hollis as ‘not significant’ (160)

Late 1943: Cleared by Hollis for secret work for the second time (191); reservations not mentioned

January 1944: Cleared by Hollis for secret work for the third time (192)

February 1946: Fuchs’ name discovered by Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the diary of Israel Halperin, a communist who had befriended Fuchs; information passed to Hollis, but not conveyed to MI5 in London (231-2)

Late 1946: Fuchs appointed to Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment: member of Hollis’ staff suggested that Fuchs should be re-examined; Hollis decided ‘Present action should be confined to warning [Harwell] about the background of Fuchs’; cleared for the fourth time (263)

October-November 1946: two MI5 officers express the view that Fuchs may have been a Soviet agent; Hollis notes ‘I, myself, can see nothing on this file which persuades me that Fuchs is in any way likely to be engaged in espionage or that he is anything more than anti-Nazi’; cleared for the fifth time (264)

Early 1947: Hollis was over-ruled and Fuchs investigated for three months; there was no suspicious behaviour and the investigation ceased; shortly thereafter, as turned out later, Fuchs resumed his spying activities, one inference being that he had been warned of the investigation (265)

November 1947: after a review involving Hollis, decision made to notify the Supply Ministry if it approached MI5 that ‘We consider that the records indicate only that Fuchs held anti-Nazi views and associated with Germans of similar views and we think the security risk is very slight’; cleared for the sixth time (266)

1950: Fuchs arrested and charged; false statements supplied by MI5 made to court by the Attorney-General; ‘can be little doubt that Hollis had been involved’ in preparing the statements (chapter 42)

False statements made by MI5 to the Prime Minister, who repeated them in the Parliament; ‘can be little doubt that Hollis, as a prime source, was involved…’ (chapter 43); see also Percy Misdefending the Realm, chapter 9;

June 1950: Hollis attends a conference in Washington with US and Canadian officials to discuss security standards; Fuchs case discussed and Hollis’ performance described by Pincher as ‘a virtuoso display of brass nerve, cool dissimulation and power of persuasion without a whisper of apology’, but he failed to convince the FBI (chapter 47)

It is only fair to note that in Misdefending the Realm, chapter 9, Percy argued that Hollis was too junior to have made many of these decisions alone and that his superiors must also have been involved. Perhaps; but a copy of letter composed and signed by Hollis on the Beurtons’ MI5 file (KV6/41) displays his authority as far back as 1944. It is written to the US Embassy in response to an inquiry about the activities and identity of Rudolf Albert Hamburger’s wife and two children, then residing in the UK. (Hamburger had been Sonia’s first husband, and he had recently been arrested for spying.) While Hollis said that Sonia’s brother Jurgen ‘was a Communist of some importance’ and her four sisters ‘have all come to notice in a Communist connection’; she herself ‘appears to devote her time to her children and domestic affairs. She has not come to notice in any political connection, nor is there anything to show that she has maintained contact with her first husband. There is no doubt that she herself has some Communist sympathies…’

  • the same pattern was repeated with other atomic spies such as Engelbert Broda (94, 187, 305, 344, 613, 626), who got little attention from Percy.

2. Sonia

1942: MI5 interrogated a veteran communist, Oliver Green, who confessed to working for the GRU and ‘disclosed that several agents in Britain were transmitting directly to Moscow by radio…’; he added that ‘he had been told that the Moscow Centre had a spy inside MI5’; no action was taken on either allegation (Treachery 178-181)

January 1943: as the result of a request made by MI5 London (H Shillito) via the MI5 officer in Reading, the Oxford City Police made some local inquiries about the Beurtons at George St Summertown Oxford, where they were then residing. In forwarding the police report to MI5 London, the MI5 officer in Reading noted that ‘the most interesting point appears to be their possession of a large wireless set, and you may think this is worthy of further inquiry’; no further action was taken, and there is no indication of the reason for the inaction; Shillito worked in Hollis’ section; Hollis’ initials appear on the file as late as 1947; the Beurtons’ MI5 file KV6/41

1944: Hollis wrote his notorious letter to the US Embassy – see above.

‘For most of the war’ (Treachery 141) messages of Soviet interest intercepted by the Radio Security Service (RSS) were sent initially to an MI5 officer and an MI6 officer; Kenneth Morton Evans, who worked for the RSS and then MI5, told Pincher that the full details were given to Hollis in MI5 and Philby in MI6 and there was ‘no great enthusiasm over them’; James Johnston of the RSS told Pincher that ‘he and his colleagues had intercepted messages from an illegal transmitter in the Oxford area, which he later believed to be Sonia’s, and had submitted them to MI6 or MI5…they were returned with the reference NFA (No Further Action) or NFU (No Further Use)’ the decisions being made by Hollis and Philby; ‘…[Sonia’s] station continued to work, off and on…It must be a mystery as to why she was not arrested’.

In July 1947 MI5 obtained a warrant to intercept the telephone of Sonia’s sister, Barbara Taylor and her husband Duncan, who were ‘suspected of receiving communications from agents of a Foreign Power’. A postal and cable check was also instituted, and some physical surveillance undertaken.  The original number intercepted turned out to be incorrect, but the second number – at the Lawn Rd flats in Hampstead, where Barbara’s father lived – was correct. (It may be that Barbara and her husband moved in with her father after her mother died). The first part of the MI5 file on the Taylors (KV2/2935) records summaries of telephone calls made and received over the next three months, all the checks being removed in mid-September after the interview with Sonia mentioned below.  One striking feature of the summaries is the apparent total absence of any compromising telephone calls, while another is the lack of contact among some of the family members. Despite it being the father’s telephone, he rarely used it. There are no calls to or from Sonia in Oxford. By coincidence, the girls’ father was visiting Sonia in Oxford in September when she and her husband were interviewed by Skardon and another MI5 officer, Serpell.  Tellingly, he made no contact with Barbara in London by telephone after the interview occurred.  On his return to London late on September 15th he got Barbara to ring her sister Bridget and ask her to come and see him the following day.

All this suggests that the family were aware that Barbara’s telephone was ‘off,’ as the expression has it – that is, they knew it was being intercepted.

On Pincher’s account at 277-8, the letters etc of Sonia and Bridget were also intercepted at this time, as was Bridget’s telephone (but not Sonia’s). Pincher read all the intercepted information but it ‘yielded nothing whatever of intelligence value’.  Funny, that.

All this put together shows that Hollis:

– through his connection with Perrin, was well-placed to know the details of the Quebec Agreement;

– was in Oxford at the relevant time;

– via horizontal analysis, was contemporaneously engaged in other activities protecting atomic spies and protecting Sonia and other members of the Kuczynski family.

In the present state of knowledge, Hollis is the prime suspect for Sonia’s source of information about the Quebec Agreement.

Obiter dicta

There is a remarkable entry on ‘Tube Alloys directorate’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: it mentions the contributions of Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May but omits the fact that both were spies.

In discussing Tyrer’s suggestion that the GRU was waiting for the death of Hollis’ widow before naming him, Percy says that ‘I have not been able to track the birth or death of Edith Valentine Hollis, nee Hammond..’, Hollis’ second wife.  A Google search shows that the University of Oxford Gazette of 27 September 2018 recorded the death on 5 July 2018 of Edith Valentine Hollis (née Hammond), aged 98, in the St Hilda’s College obituary list. This clears one obstacle so to speak to naming Hollis (if he be Elli); another, his son and only child by his first wife, died in 2013; but the son had children and it may be that the GRU reluctance to name names extends to Hollis’ grandchildren.

Percy writes that ‘One of the objections to the claim that Roger Hollis was ELLI has been the fact that Soviet intelligence experts have reportedly expressed bewilderment at the proposition, and no evidence has appeared in Russian archives equating Hollis’s name with that cryptonym.’  Of the ‘Soviet intelligence experts’, how many have been GRU people, Hollis having been claimed to be GRU rather than KGB? 

Denis Lenihan

London

January 2020

Coldspur’s Response to Denis

I thank you for this comprehensive commentary. I have learned much. I shall address your points in the sequence you presented them.

Despite what I would describe as our shared inquisitive devotion to discovering the truth behind some perplexing intelligence conundrums, I believe we might have a slightly different approach on methodology. Your commentary leads up to the conclusion ‘Hollis is the prime suspect for Sonia’s source of information about the Quebec Agreement’. Yet I would counter that we have no reliable evidence that Sonia ever provided details of the Quebec Agreement to Moscow, whether by direct transmission (as Pincher claims), or by any other medium (such as via the Soviet Embassy in London). And the claims that are made are riddled with inconsistencies.

You suggest that the absence of any documentary evidence should not obstruct our search, questioning whether, in such circumstances, ‘we would be able to reach any certainty or indeed make any progress at all’. But I would rejoin that it does not constitute ‘progress’ to build further hypotheses on such a shaky foundation, however compelling the circumstantial evidence – which itself is constructed on known friendships and alliances, with no unambiguous evidence. For there exists no external phenomenon indicating Stalin’s awareness of secret agreements made at the Quebec Conference beyond what he was told by Churchill and Roosevelt. The event is not like, say, the acknowledged distribution of Ultra secrets through the Rote Drei in Switzerland, or the long concealed Burgess-Berlin mission to Moscow in 1940.

To recap the official major communications between the war leaders in those months in 1943:

August 7: Churchill delivers a telegram to Clark Kerr, informing Stalin of the ‘Quadrant’ conference, which Clark Kerr passes on to Stalin the next day.

August 8: Stalin writes to Roosevelt, apologizing that his time at ‘the front’ (an habitual excuse) has prevented his replying to Roosevelt’s invitation to hold a Summit.

August 9: Stalin replies to Churchill, with similar excuses, expressing his desire to delay the Summit meeting.

August 18: Churchill and Roosevelt write a joint message to Stalin, saying they expect to be in conference for about ten days, and stress the importance of a Summit meeting soon.

August 22: Stalin writes to Roosevelt and Churchill, expressing irritation over the armistice negotiations with the Italians.

August 24: Churchill and Roosevelt are taken aback by Stalin’s sharp tone.

August 24: Stalin sends a more conciliatory message.

August 25: Churchill and Roosevelt send Stalin a summary of the Quebec conference, outlining the various European initiatives (but obviously excluding anything about atomic weaponry, ‘the Quebec Agreement’).

September 2: Churchill and Roosevelt send Stalin a preview of events in Italy.

September 4: Roosevelt writes to Stalin, endorsing idea of politico-military discussions at State Department level.

September 5: Churchill writes to Stalin, stating he wants to restrict discussions to military matters.

September 8: Stalin writes to Roosevelt, saying he would prefer the military-political Commission to be held in Moscow.

September 9: Churchill and Roosevelt write to Stalin, informing him that Eisenhower has accepted the unconditional surrender of Italy.

September 12: Stalin writes to Churchill and Roosevelt, looking forward to the meeting of the Commission on October 4.

What is remarkable about this is that Stalin appears to have offered no opinions on the ‘open’ aspects of the Quebec conference, either of approval or disapproval, being more concerned about the situation in Italy. Yet the suggestion is made that he received details of FDR’s and WSC’s other plans, as the GRU archive cited by Pincher (p 17) claims to indicate. As I have stated before, however, the statement in the archive that ‘there was no word about the fact that they had made an additional secret agreement about the use of nuclear weapons’ does not make sense. It must have been added as some commentary or report later.

Pincher then goes on to say that Stalin was in a ‘prickly, suspicious mood’ when he met Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran on November 28. Apart from suggesting that Stalin learned about the Agreement from Sonia, Pincher also suggests that the dictator may have been upset about the delay of the invasion until the spring of 1944 (probably leaked by MacGibbon). Stalin, however, knew in June 1943 about the delay of the Second Front until spring 1944, since he complained about it in a message to Roosevelt on June 11. Stalin’s annoyance may have been provoked by information on the Quebec Agreement that he received recently from another source. We simply do not know. Pincher is not a reliable source, and he sometimes piles on his arguments unnecessarily.

What this points to is that no exterior behaviour of Stalin can be attributed to the fact that he learned of the Quebec Agreement from Sonia in early September. All we have are the claims of various GRU/KGB officers or hangers-on, all with privileged but restricted access to secret records, who make assertions about Sonia’s revelations, while none of them can reproduce a document that confirms the event, its timing, its origin, or its precise contents.

I think your analysis of the anomalies in Pincher’s account of the contributions from Chervonnaya and Lota is very sound. I might wonder whether your statement: “Unless the GRU is running and has run some disinformation campaign, . . .” was made with tongue in cheek, as I can hardly imagine the GRU (or KGB) doing anything else – just like MI5, in fact. That is what secret intelligence services do. Your additional evidence about the 1954 exchange between Attlee and Churchill is extremely useful, and I am very grateful to you for your coverage of Michael Perrin. I admit to having taken the Hollis-Perrin connection a bit too casually, and I think the 32 mentions in Treachery which you cite are worthy of deeper analysis. If there were any stronger evidence that Hollis was ELLI (or a mole with another cryptonym), the Perrin link would be absolutely vital.

I recall that Perrin, who was deputy to Lord Portal when the latter was appointed Controller of Production (Atomic Energy) at the Ministry of Supply, was the individual to whom Fuchs made his full confession, an experience that distressed Perrin. And Perrin also came strongly to Peierls’s defence later in 1950 (see Frank Close’s Trinity, p 395) after the FBI and MI5 had begin to cast doubts on Peierls’s loyalties. Early in 1951, Peierls had the ominous conversation with Portal, followed up by the letter to him that I discussed on coldspur a couple of months back, where Peierls admitted his connection with the assassin Leonid Kannegiesser. Shortly after this, both Lord Portal and Michael Perrin left their posts. I wonder whether those events had anything to do with the Peierls ‘confession’? Perrin must have been devastated, and he did not die until 1988, so must have witnessed the attacks on Hollis.  Another trail to pursue.

Your ‘horizontal analysis’ of Hollis is also very welcome, although I would prefer that it be based on the original National Archives records rather than Pincher’s unsourced references to them! I have been through your citations, and checked them against my Chronology, and believe that they are all sound, although one must point out those occasions where Hollis took a more positive line in trying to counteract Soviet espionage or subversion. Pincher does not dwell on these. Again, a topic for further study, especially when it comes to the matter of whether his arguments were countered or condoned by other MI5 officers.

I am glad you drew attention to Engelbert Broda, as well. I had not spent much time on him, but I have recently read Paul Broda’s Scientist Spies, and it is evident that he was one of the key contributors to Soviet Russia’s access to atomic secrets. I have now acquired the Kew files on him and his wife.

When it comes to surveilling Sonia and Green, as you now, I am of the opinion that senior officers in MI5 and SIS were complicit in a scheme to allow the spies to carry on their undercover work, and that Hollis was thus not a lone wolf trying to protect Sonia. And yes, I did notice the obituary of Hollis’s widow last year. If the GRU were sensitive enough to want to spare their agents’ widows, that time has now passed. As you point out, Roger Hollis’s son, Adrian, died in 2013.

You echo Pincher’s account that Morton Evans of RSS informed him that ‘messages of Soviet interest’ were passed on by him to Hollis and Philby. But this cannot be true. Morton Evans could not have detected that undeciphered messages were in Russian, or from a Soviet spy. His procedures did not involve sending such messages to Hollis or Philby, who would have had no idea what to do with them. He may well have invoked Liddell and Robertson to determine, if the locations had been triangulated by direction-finding apparatus, whether the transmissions originated from Double-Cross agents. If the location could not be pinpointed accurately, he would have sent out mobile direction-finding teams, but an officer from MI5 B1 section would have had to accompany them.

Your fascinating observations on the September 1947 telephone intercepts of Sonia’s sister Barbara, where you draw attention to the fact that the Kuczynski family appeared to be aware that their telephone calls may have been listened to, made me go back to Sonia’s Radio, Chapter 6. I relate there Sonia’s own story that Alexander Foote warned her that she was in danger by contacting Ullman, the Austrian who had introduced them, and was now living in London. Of course, the GRU might have insisted that she present that anecdote in Sonyas Rapport, to conceal the real source of the leak in MI5 . . .  

Having returned to my original text of Sonia and the Quebec Agreement, I also wanted to add a few comments. I may have given the impression that the Nazi spy JOSEFINE (representing the attachés in the Swedish Embassy) had passed on to her masters the details of the Quebec Agreement. As David Kahn indicates, in Hitler’s Spies, the information passed on was the basic military stuff  – still very useful to the Germans, and evidence that many lips were talking too loosely.

And MI5 was given the same information – though six days later than when JOSEFINE passed it on. Liddell had, however, known about a ‘Quebec decision’ as early as August 27. He later records that he (and others) were briefed on the outcome of the Quebec Conference by (Gilbert) Lennox, on September 7. Lennox is a figure who crops up regularly in Liddell’s Diaries, although Nigel West declines to provide any details for him (apart from listing him as ‘Operations’), and sometimes confuses him with Gordon-Lennox. We owe it to Christopher Andrew who, while omitting to provide an entry in the Index for Lennox, informs us (on p 235 of Defence of the Realm) that Lennox was MI5’s liaison officer with military intelligence, and had joined the service at the outbreak of war, on the recommendation of Jane Archer and Dick White. Why Lennox should be the first recipient of the news, rather than Petrie, is not clear, although the emphasis on military (rather than political) matters would point to his involvement. Liddell understandably says nothing about the Quebec Agreement, and there may later have been another more restricted chain of communication via Petrie to him and others officers (such as Hollis), given the requirements to vet the list of scientists who would shortly be selected.

Yet I remain unconvinced that Perrin would have received a copy of the approved Agreement that early. Graham Farmelow, in Churchill’s Bomb, writes that Lord Cherwell did not see it until mid-September, and then complained about the terms. It would have been quite reckless, and unnecessary, for Perrin to tell Hollis anything before the first informal meeting of the Combined Policy Committee (September 8), before Churchill had returned (September 19) and before the UK scientists (led by Chadwick) returned to London (late September) to lay the proposals before Sir John Anderson’s council. There may, however, have been a leak before the parties left for Canada, since the draft of the agreement was prepared by Sir John Anderson and Churchill while Stimson and Bush were in London, and Perrin contributed to the proceedings by having private talks with Stimson at the time (Gowing, pp 167-168). Did Perrin perhaps inform Hollis of what was then being called the ‘Tube Alloys Agreement’ before Churchill and his party left for Canada, and then one of them took the imaginative step of calling it the ‘Quebec Agreement’? Or did Peierls give a hint to Fuchs when he received the call (see below)? Until we see the precise text of the supposed message passed on to Stalin, this is all very speculative.

One vital aspect of all this that does not appear to have been covered: why did Pincher not inyerview Perrin, and ask him about the Quebec Agreement? I can find no indication in Treachery of any correspondence or meeting between the two, which is utterly incredible. And yet, on page 130, Pincher writes that the American biographer of Fuchs, Robert Williams, had a meeting with Perrin on November 12 1985, and immediately afterwards ‘lunched with me at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford and told me about it [the clearing of Fuchs’s file by Hollis and Perrin]’. In Klaus Fuchs, Atom Spy, Williams refers to correspondence from Perrin of May 10 and August 14, 1984, and the interview with him on November 12. Why could Pincher not be there himself? Why did he need an American intermediary to communicate with Perrin? Why was Perrin willing to speak to Williams, but not apparently to Pincher? Did Pincher perhaps suppress any contact, as it did not help his cause?

Lastly, I want to inspect a number of Pincher’s claims in his chapters in Treachery about the Quebec Agreement (1 and 23), in light of our recent discussions. (Some of this analysis has already appeared in my coldspur segment.)

Chapter 1:

P 16: “Churchill therefore kept the Quebec Agreement and its details secret to himself, a few trusted aides, and the chiefs of staff of the British Armed Forces. . . .  Several documents now in the British National Archives testify to the extraordinary extent of the measures taken to prevent any unauthorized persons having any knowledge of its details.”  I do not know to which papers Pincher refers. He lists only three files on the Quebec Agreement in his list of Archival Sources, FO 800/540 (a copy of the Agreement), FO 115/4527 (from 1951), and PREM 8/1104 (from 1949). It is unlikely, anyway, that a procedure to keep something secret would itself be registered. And for Perrin to act in contravention of such a procedure would therefore be highly irregular. (I should add that the text of the Agreement itself still refers to ‘the Tube Alloys Project’. I don’t know when it was first called ‘the Quebec Agreement’.)

Pp 16-17: “Yet the Russian archives have now shown that on Saturday, 4, September – only 16 days after the signing – Sonia, sitting in Oxford, supplied the Red Army intelligence Centre with an account of all the essential aspects of the Quebec Agreement, along with ancillary details, sending them directly to Moscow by radio.” There is no evidence of this. There were no ‘ancillary’ details outside the text of the Agreement itself.

P 17: “The GRU archives record: ‘On 19 August 1943, in a secret personal message to Marshal Stalin, Roosevelt reported about their agreed plans for the surrender of Italy and other matters but there was no word about the fact that they had also made an additional secret agreement about the use of nuclear weapons.’” This commentary, if it does indeed exist, is an historical observation, made later, and not an original archival entry.

P 17: “What Stalin regarded as his allies’ perfidy inevitably affected his attitude when, on 28 November, he met Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran to discuss both the war and the postwar situation.” This is pure speculation. Stalin would have had a chance to react earlier; there were many other reasons for him to express annoyance; alternatively, he may have heard about the Quebec Agreement from other sources in October or November.

P 18: “In 2006, the release of the private papers of Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s most trusted deputy, revealed that, on 15 October 1943, another British spy had supplied details of the early plans for Operation Overlord, the Anglo-American assault on Normandy. . . . They included the estimate that the ‘second front’, which should reduce pressure on the German forces, was unlikely to be attempted before the spring of 1944. Small wonder that Stalin was ’prickly and suspicious’ at Tehran.” Stalin knew about the timing of Overlord in June 1943, as The Kremlin Letters show.

P 18: “Whether Sonia appreciated the scale of her achievements is unknown because she never mentioned it to anyone and, probably on Soviet orders, withheld it from her memoirs.” Why?

P 18: “Her [Sonia’s] Quebec coup was extraordinary for another reason: she was so heavily pregnant that she gave birth only four days later.” Indeed.

Pp 18-19: “The GRU archives show that Sonia also included the fact that some senior Americans, both military and scientific, had reservations about any atomic partnership with Britain. So, she had clearly been given a summary of all the atomic aspects of the Quebec Agreement, which had been circulated in secrecy in some British government department and abstracted by some high-level traitor.” This is pure speculation. It is highly unlikely that any such analysis would have been attached to the Agreement. The Agreement was exclusively about the Tube Alloys project, and hence there were no non-atomic aspects to it. The implication here, moreover, is that Perrin was a ‘high-level traitor’.

P 19: “In July 2011, the Moscow-based historian Dr Svetlana Chervonnaya reported having discovered a Soviet document confirming that Sonia had sent the information about the Quebec Agreement on 4 September 1943 and that, after translation into Russian, it was taken straight to Stalin.” We have no evidence of this serendipitous discovery.

P 19: “It seems certain that the information was delivered to her in documentary form rather than verbally [sic: ‘orally’], because on 4 September she also transmitted a complete list of the 15 British scientists who had already been selected to move to America.” This is nonsense. The scientists were not selected until two months later. If any such document is produced, it must undeniably be a forgery.

P 19: “When her coup was made public in 2002, in a GRU-sponsored book, Lota’s The GRU and the Atomic Bomb, the GRU’s Colonel General Alexander Pavlov, who vouched for its authenticity in a foreword, was at pains to point out that ‘the time has not yet arrived when still unsuspected or unproven wartime sources can safely be named.’.” I have not seen this book, but would mistrust any ‘GRU-sponsored’ publication, just as I would mistrust any ‘MI5-sponsored publication’, such as Alan Moorehead’s Traitors, or Alexander Foote’s Handbook for Spies. And, if the evidence existed, why did Chervonnaya have to stumble upon it? Since Sonia had already been named, and her (GRU-sponsored) memoir published, why was there reticence in naming names? And the ‘source’ who ‘abstracted the document’ must have been (according to Pincher) not Hollis, but Perrin.

Chapter 23:

P 185: “The culprit could not have been Klaus Fuchs. He knew about the British determination to send scientists, including himself, to America, if concord could be reached, but he would not have had access to such a particularly secret political document at Birmingham University.” This is a red herring: in his enthusiasm to indict Hollis, Pincher misses the point. Fuchs could not have passed on details of the Quebec Agreement, but, as Tyrer suggests, citing Lota via Chervonnaya, Fuchs had met Sonia and passed on details of the departure of Chadwick, Peierls, Simon and Oliphant for Washington. This is quite plausible to me. Tyrer muddies the waters by indicating that Sonia also learned from Fuchs the outcomes of the conference in Quebec. As you point out, Chervonnaya inexplicably omitted to tell Pincher about this. You do state, however, that ‘there is agreement from the supposed GRU sources that information (unspecified) was sent by Sonia on 4 September about the Quebec Agreement’, but that is not strictly true. Tyrer’s passage does not mention ‘the Quebec Agreement’, only ‘outcomes from the conference’.

P 185: “Further, the GRU archives show that after seeing Fuchs in mid-August Sonia did not meet him again until November.” So what do these archives have to say to us about the mid-August meeting? If Fuchs did indeed meet Sonia in mid-August, why would she wait until her childbirth was imminent to inform her bosses of his message about Chadwick and co.?

P 185: “Nor could the traitor have been any of the minor agents Sonia claimed to have recruited. He had to be a spy with exceptional high-level and rapid access to top-secret political information and who could safely visit Oxford and deposit a document near Sonia’s house.” But this does not describe Hollis’s role and access. He would have been totally reliant on Perrin.

P 185: “The GRU had no known spy in the Foreign Office at that time anyway . . .”  Unknown – by whom?

P 185 “  . . .according to Gouzenko, information from ELLI was so highly prized that it went straight to Stalin, as the Quebec information certainly did.”  I have not been able to verify this claim yet, though it may well be true.

P 186 “Elli was in MI5, where the director general, Sir David Petrie, would have received a copy of the Quebec Agreement because of his responsibility for its security. . . . . who then decided which divisional heads needed to receive it.” Well, maybe. If it were that sensitive, it would have been much more likely that information was passed down orally. There was nothing in the Agreement, moreover, that addressed security aspects, such as vetting of scientists. That all came later.

P 186: “Because of his close connection with Michael Perrin when clearing scientists like Fuchs to work on it, he had known about the project for more than two years. He was also one of the few people who knew the names of all the scientists chosen to move to America, because he had been involved in clearing them for work on the bomb there.” The first part may well be true. But Pincher does not claim he had exclusive knowledge, and the record backs that up. The Fuchs archive (KV 2/1245-1) shows that Michael Serpell and Milicent Bagot were shocked when the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research contacted MI5 on November 17 to determine whether it had any objections to Fuchs’s departure.  (Bagot was outraged.) Major Garrett of D2, the security liaison officer with the DSIR, is involved, and states that “FUCHS’ name was not on the original list of workers going to the U.S., sent me by D.S.I.R., but I imagine his name was added at the last minute.” (This may suggest a plot to get Fuchs in under the radar, since Peierls had recommended him back in August.) Hollis does not seem to have been involved, and his F Division was not even the first to hear about DSIR requests. The documents were flying around everywhere: Otto Frisch had to be granted naturalization papers in two days.

P 187: “Clearly, Perrin knew the nature of the Quebec Agreement in advance. He also knew that the agreement had been signed because he had been given the ‘all-clear’ to dispatch the first batch of scientists He is also likely to have confided in Hollis to explain the reasons for the haste.” The first sentence is partially true, although the fact that something called ‘The Quebec Agreement’ might be signed, or even the understanding of what issues Roosevelt and Churchill would agree on, is not. The second is ridiculous, as the experts arrived in Quebec just before the signing, and they were not ‘the first batch of scientists’. It is extremely unlikely that Hollis would have had to be informed of their departure: they were all British citizens.

P 187: “The text of Superfrau states: ‘On 4 September, Sonia reported data on results of the conference.’” Note that this says nothing about the Quebec Agreement.

P 187: “On 4 September, Sonia also transmitted a list of the atomic scientists chosen to work in America. Where did she get it? The fact that the first batch of scientists had all been cleared in advance is shown by the haste with which they arrived in America. Hollis was involved with their clearance.” This is nonsense. The four who left in August had all been to the USA before. They were citizens of the UK (including Peierls), and did not need any clearance. Their visit was temporary. As Gowing reports, Wallace Akers, confident that an agreement would be signed, on August 10 cabled to London, with Anderson’s approval, that Chadwick, Simon, Oliphant and Peierls should leave immediately, for purposes of imparting information. Yet Peierls would have had an opportunity to pass on to Fuchs the reason for his journey.

P 188: “Early September was also the time when Hollis and Perrin were actively engaged together as a matter of urgency in going through the motions of vetting more of the scientists for despatch to America.” Again, this is pure fantasy. No names had yet been submitted. Where does Pincher get this information from? (But was Pincher suggesting that Perrin was a co-conspirator?)

P 188: “As the leak was of such massive proportions, the supplier of the information is also likely to have been someone who could be confident that neither Sonia nor her transmissions were under surveillance. That factor reduces the candidates to a small number, of whom Hollis was certainly one, as the evidence of the reliable officer Kenneth Morton Evans has confirmed.” We have discussed this off-line. Morton Evans was by no means a reliable witness, and fed some absurd stories about RSS passing the transcripts of encrypted wireless messages to Hollis and Philby. Something to be investigated and analysed separately.

P 188: “Sonia’s receipt of super-secret information of such consequence supports the contention that the GRU had posted her to Oxford specifically to service a source who had high-level access and operated in that area.” It is true that the decision to send Sonia to the UK occurred in the same month that most of MI5 was posted to Blenheim (October 1940), but Sonia did not know where in England she should go until she arrived in Lisbon. Milicent Bagot reported, however, that Sonia’s father, who was lecturing in the city, took up temporary residence in Oxford on December 13, 1940. An area for further investigation!

What this boils down to, for me, is that Pincher was a fantasist, and a highly unreliable chronicler. That may be attributable to his obsession over Hollis, but he may also have been fed false information that would bolster the case against Hollis, as a diversionary tactic. None of this is to deny that Hollis showed a pattern of highly irregular behavior, but it may have been due to incompetence rather than malignance. And he was not alone in MI5 in his (selective) indulgence towards Communism.

Tony Percy, January 2020

Response by Denis Lenihan, February 20, 2020

It was not necessary for Perrin, much less Hollis, to have received a copy of the Quebec Agreement at an early stage. As you say when commenting on Pincher p 185, ‘If it were that sensitive, it would have been much more likely that information was passed down orally’. Further, Perrin at least would have known what was being proposed, and in all likelihood would in the first instance have been told of the outcome orally (as an aside, like you, I deplore ‘verbally’ being used in this context); so that he could go ahead with making arrangements – which would have extended beyond arranging for scientists’ travel. The ‘Quebec decision’ that Liddell learned about on August 27 from Lennox presumably came by the same means?

You ask whether Perrin informed Hollis of what was then being called the ‘Tube Alloys Agreement’ before Churchill and his party left for Canada? I suspect the answer is yes, and nothing wrong with that from Perrin’s point of view, since after it was signed he needed Hollis to get cracking on clearing the next batch of scientists (and he may have been pushed by Hollis to let him know the outcome). Somebody at some early point, if the GRU is to be believed, told Sonia – after it was signed.

Also on the Quebec Agreement, you say that ‘Tyrer’s passage does not mention ‘the Quebec Agreement’, only ‘outcomes from the conference’; true, but Lota referred specifically to ‘the conference in Quebec’. If these are not references to the Quebec Agreement, as it came to be called, then to what do they refer?

Under Pincher p 187 you say that ‘It is extremely unlikely that Hollis would have had to be informed of their [the first batch of scientists] departure: they were all British citizens’. While I can’t lay my hand immediately on any evidence, I’d be surprised if British-born scientists were not also checked (or supposed to be checked) if they were going to the US for this sort of work. (Oliphant was Australian-born but in those days – until 1949 – would have had a British passport). As you point out, however, the four had all been to the US previously, so there would have been no need for any additional check on this occasion if they had been checked previously. Nunn May went to Canada, where the word of the mother country in those days would have been sufficient. Clearly Pincher got his two lots of scientists muddled, however.

You’re right about it being incredible that Pincher did not interview Perrin. He may have tried and Perrin refused. Perrin may have been willing to talk to Williams about Fuchs, but not to Pincher about Hollis. Another straw in the wind? We really do need that Pincher archive in Kings College.

You ask: ‘If Fuchs did indeed meet Sonia in mid-August, why would she wait until her childbirth was imminent to inform her bosses of his message about Chadwick and co.?’ The answer to this might be as you suggest in Sonia’s Radio that Sonia sent two separate messages: one about the scientists (perhaps in mid-August after meeting Fuchs) and another in early September having received a message from Hollis/Elli/Whoever about the conference outcome.

I note that you do not address what I think is one of my strongest points: the message about the conference went from Sonia in Oxford, not from the Embassy in London, thus pointing to an Oxford source – and a high-level one at that, not many people being in the know about Quebec.

While many of your comments about particular passages of Pincher in Treachery are right, it is with respect a bit over the top to describe him as ‘a fantasist and a highly unreliable chronicler’. He was a superb reporter with a genius for getting people to talk to him. More often than not he was right during his career; otherwise he would not have flourished in the way that he did. He may have got it wrong or got out of his depth here and there in Treachery but some of this may as you say be down to being fed false information. Like an historian, a reporter is only as good as his sources.

February 2020

Contribution by Richard Learie, February 26

Richard is another electronic colleague, living in Brussels, whom I have regrettably not yet met. He is an eager and well-read student of the tribulations of MI5, and of the efforts to unmask ELLI, and I think it is safe to describe him as a coldspur enthusiast. Here follows his contribution, for which I heartily thank him.

                                                                                                                                                Brussels 17 February 2020

Dear Tony

I offer my comments to your intriguing proposal after reading Denis Lenihan’s post. I read your comments in reply but that hasn’t changed my views which remain in summary:

  • I believe Hollis was ELLI
  • It is likely he passed the Quebec Agreement directly to Sonia

I’m not sure if most of my comments are within your scope because Sonia and the Quebec Agreement is but one of many strands to the “Who was Elli?” debate. I will start with the general debate and then add my small contribution to the detailed matter at hand.

The ELLI Debate

I have written to you before on the ELLI debate and I still consider that the weight of evidence on Hollis (despite it all being circumstantial) means that it was probably him. Clearly we know that ELLI existed so to debunk Chapman Pincher entirely is problematic for 2 reasons: if it wasn’t Hollis then who was it? – there cannot be too many possibilities/candidates!! And debunking Pincher is a long and arduous task since Treachery is over 600 pages of the case for the prosecution containing his many so called “anomalies” (50 or so from memory).

If I may say, Tony, that here we have a classic difference in styles. It is clear to me that, as stated in the Introduction to your book, you are a serious researcher, analyst, writer and historian who uses a very scientific methodology to ensure that your output is always of a high quality. In my opinion your book and website prove that this Introduction is no bluff and the detail in your work is prodigious and well thought-through. In contrast, Pincher was a journalist who did not always quote his sources and “Treachery” is a kind of character assassination rather than a piece of work “keeping all options open”. However, Pincher certainly found a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing to Hollis, although I admit that in Treachery he always seems to be trying to use evidence to prove Hollis’ guilt. That is consistent with what journalists do to provoke interest in their stories.

Nevertheless, I see the ELLI debate as a bit like solving a murder. We know the crime has been committed and we need to investigate the prime suspects. Graham Mitchell was also investigated within MI5 by his own junior officers but they quickly realised that Hollis was a much better fit and his background was ideal and similar in many respects to the Cambridge 5. There were not many candidates to investigate at all because ELLI obviously had high level access to material. Hollis’ background and inaction/incompetence would be well explained if he were ELLI. I am particularly persuaded by the University drop-out in Shanghai element to his background where he admitted to meeting Agnes Smedley who knew Richard Sorge and Sonia. It seems obvious that there would have been attempts to recruit him. He had left wing views and was at a low point in his life. Also on his return to UK he applied for jobs at the Times and the Intelligence Services – classic GRU/KGB advice!!

So I personally (for what its worth as solely an avid reader) remain in the “Hollis was ELLI” camp. As I read a lot of the espionage material from this period, I am continuously frustrated by authors who claim that the spy in MI5 story is a conspiracy theory. Clearly it is not and it’s the greatest intelligence mystery out there. Let’s hope there is a breakthrough one day.

I have not noticed that you have nailed your colours to the mast either way. Denis Lenihan’s papers on Paddy Costello presents another “anomaly”. I hope that this is “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” for you personally.

Sonia and the Quebec Agreement

Coming back to the matter at hand. I will follow the Sonia/Quebec Agreement issue with great interest.

If it was Fuchs who supplied the Agreement to Sonia, then it was under Hollis’ nose because both Fuchs and Sonia were on his radar. That would be consistent with Hollis’ inaction/incompetence strategy as an agent of influence that was to become so damaging to UK/US relations.

It could have been Hollis himself of course because he was in the Oxford area. Also Hollis appears to have had an excuse for visiting the area where Sonia lived because I seem to remember reading she was renting a Laski property.

Hollis was clearly a very cautious man in his MI5 career. I believe this character trait served him well and explains why he got away with it for so long.

Tony, you have contributed enormously to the debate with your epic series of posts about Radio Security matters and the Sonia mystery. I really look forward to any progress you make with the theory that MI5 aided Sonia’s arrival in the UK in order to keep an eye on her and use her for mis-information and to trap Russian spies in the UK. Have any other writers written to provide support? Your theory makes sense but it seems that it was spectacularly bungled? The interesting part would be then “was that due to incompetence or was it due to the work of ELLI (or both)”? Whichever it was a massive cover up has been carried out ever since. I believe part of this cover up was the Skardon/Serpell visit to Sonia in Oxfordshire. MI5 seemed to fear that their bungling could be exposed and clumsily tried to practice some damage limitation. Frank Close (and others) seem to think they were outwitted by Sonia. But they had so few cards to play and so little to gain at that stage except to limit further damage on UK/US relations. I don’t think they even wanted to outwit or trap her. Certainly by that stage there was no way MI5 could ever let her be prosecuted.

Finally, if Hollis was Elli (and also if Elli is revealed to be someone else) then clearly the espionage history of this period needs to be reassessed from top to bottom. But at least it would resolve a few mysteries whilst leaving MI5 to sort out the exposure of their biggest ever cover up.

Good luck with this experiment, Tony.

Best regards

Richard LEARIE

Response to Denis and Richard by Tony, February 26

Thank you, gentlemen! I wonder whether your eagerness to seal the case on ELLI means that you have been a bit too forgiving of the evidence  . . .

The questions that Denis poses about aspects of the ‘Quebec Agreement’ prompt me to suggest something else. First, we must remember that there were two parts to the decisions that were made at Quebec. There were the decisions about opening the so-called ‘Second Front’ in 1944, which were secret, but widely dispersed among military and government departments. (It was on those decisions that Liddell was briefed by Lennox: Liddell does not refer to any ‘Quebec Agreement’.) And then there was the highly confidential Tube Alloys Agreement, which concerned sharing of skills and technology in the realm of atomic weaponry and energy, between the USA and the UK (and Canada), which was so secret that neither Roosevelt’s nor Churchill’s cabinet ever knew about it.

Thus, whenever a writer refers to the ‘Quebec Agreement’, one needs to ascertain to which part of the overall decisions he or she is referring (such as when Tyrer talks about ‘outcomes from the conference’). I should like someone to point out when the phrase ‘Quebec Agreement’ first came into existence, and whether it was then used to replace the term ‘Tube Alloys Agreement’. It appears as the header in the transcript at Appendix 4 of Margaret Gowing’s history, but, on p 171, she writes that Anderson handed to Churchill and Roosevelt the ‘Tube Alloys Agreement’ for signature, and then she simply slips into calling it the ‘Quebec Agreement’. When Roosevelt and Churchill signed an aide-mémoire at Hyde Park on August 18, 1944, confirming the ‘utmost secrecy’ of the project, it contained no mention of a ‘Quebec Agreement’, but continued to refer to ‘Tube Alloys’. Furthermore, the official US Army copy of the Tube Alloys agreement (see https://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/q003.asp ) introduces the Articles as ‘The Quebec Conference – Agreement Relating to Atomic Energy’. The document was created from a photocopy of the British original.

It thus seems to me that, because of the ambiguities, and the need for compartmentalization, it would have been highly unlikely for any of those in the know at the time to have referred to the overall conclusions, or the separate Tube Alloys Agreement, as the ‘Quebec Agreement’. When Lota refers to ‘the conference in Quebec’, he may accurately not be referring to what has become to be known as the ‘Quebec Agreement’. When you claim, Richard, that Hollis passed ‘the Quebec Agreement’ directly to Sonia, I think you need to explain what document you believe that was, and why a highly secret subset of all the written outcomes was identified that way. Any claim for the existence of a ‘copy’ of a comprehensive ‘Quebec Agreement’ must be treated very sceptically, as no document containing all the decisions signed in Quebec exists (so far as I know). And any archival material in Moscow that actually referred to the combination ‘Quebec Agreement’ in September 1943 would reflect some tantalising ingenuity.

I repeat my assertion that, even if Perrin had divulged to Hollis the terms of the upcoming Tube Alloys Agreement, it would have been very premature to refer to it as the ‘Quebec Agreement’ before the participants had even congregated there. Moreover, it makes no sense to talk about ‘the next batch of scientists’. The four whom Akers had shipped out before the Conference were not ‘the first batch’: Vannevar Bush told Akers that his move was premature, and that the role of any British scientists on the project would have to await the meeting of the Combined Policy Committee. There was no time for any further check on the four, even if it had somehow been required. As I think we all agree, the four had already visited the United States in their scientific capacity. It was weeks before the other scientists were chosen. Hollis never had to ‘get cracking’, and was not even in the picture, as I showed in my last response.

The reason I did not address what Denis describes as ‘one of my [his] strongest points’, namely the claim that, since the message about the conference went ‘from Sonia in Oxford’, it thus pointed to an Oxford source, is that I have still to see any solid evidence that a message from Sonia about the conference was received in Moscow. Offering the inescapable conclusion that ‘Pincher got his two lots of scientists muddled’ does not bolster the case.

I concede that my characterization of Pincher as a ‘fantasist’ was a little extreme. But it was intended to be provocative. Since he embellishes what could be a very workmanlike argument with so many absurdities, his worth as a reliable witness diminishes. Denis says he had ‘a genius for getting people to talk to him’, but Pincher may never have imagined that he was being used as a conduit for any number of damaging stories about Hollis that may have been designed to distract attention from another suspect, or simply to muddy the waters while other groups maintained his innocence.

As Richard indicates, I cannot yet come off the fence on ELLI. I agree that Pincher has presented an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence that could point to Hollis’s guilt, but in a Scottish court the verdict would be ‘not proven’. The apparent failure of Pincher to engage with Perrin is, to me, a vitally important example of ‘a dog that did not bark in the night-time’. If a clincher for Hollis’s being ELLI exists, it is definitely not the anecdote about Sonia and the Quebec Agreement.

P.S. I notice that the Wikipedia entry for the Agreement still boasts Tyrer’s claim that Fuchs supplied Sonia with the details. Does anybody know who the author is? Should he or she be introduced to this discussion?

4 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History