Category Archives: Espionage/Intelligence

Prosper’s Flit

A Westland Lysander in 1943

[A word of caution: this is a meticulous analysis of a few days in June 1943, and may present quite a challenge to the casual reader. Yet I consider it a vital contribution – and an essential legacy for posterity – to the establishment of a more accurate account of several aspects of World War II: the collapse of the PROSPER circuit; the leadership of SOE; the management of, and instructions to, potential ‘secret armies’ in France; the directives of the Chiefs of Staff in planning deception campaigns; and the behaviour of Winston Churchill in trying to appease Stalin. Above all, it highlights the deficiencies of authorized histories, the unreliability of personal ‘memory’, and the naivety of any historian, biographer or journalist who lays too much trust in what such sources say.]

I return to the vexed problem of the movements of Major Francis Suttill (‘PROSPER’) in June 1943. I have earlier presented the hypothesis that PROSPER made two visits to the UK from France in the summer of 1943, an idea that neatly accommodates all the conflicting accounts, from various sources, of his movements in that fateful period. Having spent considerable time inspecting most of the relevant archival material, in November I attempted a renewal of my aborted email discussion with Suttill’s son, Francis Suttill Jr. This gentleman had published a revised version of his 2014 work Shadows in the Fog as PROSPER: Major Suttill’s French Resistance Network in 2018, but I found much of what he wrote confusing. Gratifyingly, Suttill then responded to my outstanding queries, and we exchanged some further emails on the subject in early December 2022, after which I sent him a comprehensive challenge to the chronology he presents in his book. In this piece I examine closely the various explanations of PROSPER’s whereabouts in the middle of June 1943.

Contents:

Introduction: Who, When, Where, Why, What and How

The Essential Problem

M. R. D. Foot’s ‘SOE in France’

E. H. Cookridge’s ‘Inside SOE’

Stella King’s ‘Jacqueline’

Patrick Marnham’s ‘War in the Shadows’

Francis Suttill’s ‘PROSPER: Major Suttill’s French Resistance Network’

My Letter to Suttill

The Relevant Documents

  • i) Boxshall’s Chronology
  • ii) The Interrogations of Gaston Cohen
  • iii) The Evidence of Pierre Culioli

The Flit

Francis Suttill’s Article

Conclusions

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Introduction: Who, When, Where, Why, What and How

The events concern SOE’s F Section, consisting mainly of British agents in France (as opposed to the Free French RF Section), led by the mustard-keen but incompetent Maurice Buckmaster. Managing the networks around Paris is PROSPER, who was parachuted into France in October 1942. His close colleagues are Gilbert Norman (ARCHAMBAUD), his wireless operator, and Andrée Borrel (DENISE), his courier. They are based in Paris, and meet socially too frequently for their own good. PROSPER is trying to rebuild circuits after the previous CARTE organization was found to have been infiltrated by traitors, and to prepare secret armies for the invasion he expects later that summer.

The period under study runs from June 10 to June 16, 1943. PROSPER harbours suspicions about the reliability of his landing officer, Henri Déricourt (GILBERT), who actually features minimally in this episode, but who fatally exposed the network through his contacts with the Sicherheitsdienst (see http://www.coldspur.com/the-demise-of-prosper/ ). PROSPER is also concerned that his second wireless officer, Jack Agazarian (MARCEL) has been transmitting across networks on behalf of too many agents, and thus represents a security risk. PROSPER also has to deal with Pierre Culioli (ADOLPHE), who runs an eponymous network in the Sologne under PROSPER’s control, Culioli being a sometimes difficult but energetic character who – perhaps with some justification – bears some resentment against the English. Another wireless operator, Gaston Cohen (WATCHMAKER) is scheduled to be flown in to assist the JUGGLER circuit. Arnel Guerne, a member of PROSPER’s circuit, is a vital witness, even though he was a proven liar.

June 10 is a significant date since it defines the beginning of the monthly ‘moon period’, during which flights bringing in agents and supplies (arms, equipment and luxuries) are possible. Since navigation has to be undertaken by sight, moonlight is necessary: several operations have to be abandoned because of bad weather. Two squadrons, based in Tempsford, Bedfordshire, are involved: 138 Squadron, using primarily Halifaxes, is deployed mostly for parachuting operations, while 161 Squadron, using Lysanders and Whitleys (and one Hudson), is mainly involved in landing on French territory, thus being able to pick up passengers as well as drop them off. (It occasionally runs parachute operations as well.) Thus the requirement arises for experts to select suitable landing-grounds and prepare flares and signals to direct and welcome the arriving aircraft.

The territory covered is extensive. Rather mysteriously – and provocatively –  the first two maps provided with Foot’s SOE in France (as endpapers in my 1966 edition) describe the state of the circuits in August 1942 (i.e. two months before PROSPER arrived in France) and in August 1943 (i.e. two months after he was arrested). Thus the precise areas of coverage, and the key drop areas, in June 1943, are not marked on either map. (I have inserted some important locations on the copy shown here.) Travel is somewhat hazardous: motor traffic is not practical for long journeys, so the rail network – which requires passing through the minor hub of Orléans, and the major hub of Paris in order to move from the Sologne to northern sectors of the PROSPER network –  becomes an indispensable factor in the travels of Suttill and other agents.

PROSPER’s movements (according to Francis Suttill Jr.)

Legend:

A         Chaunont-sur-Tharonne (May 20)

B         Lille (May 21)

C         Neuvy (June 10-11)

D         Paris (June 11)

I (1,2,3) possible reception sites: Trie-Château, Neaufles, Lyons-le-Forêt (June 11-12)

E          Paris (June 12)

F          Bazemont (June 12-13)

G         Romorantin (June 13)

H         Avaray (June 13)

For an analysis of the activities of this critical month, several archival sources are invaluable, although practically all are flawed in some way. Several reports of Operations at Tempsford, including a Daily Summary, and individual pilots’ reports for both squadrons have been released to the National Archives, but Pilots’ Reports for 138 Squadron for June and July 1943 are unaccountably missing, as are 161 Squadron’s Operational Instructions for May and June. Francis Suttill’s Personal File is woefully thin. Gaston Cohen’s is non-existent, and a critical fragment reputedly passed on to M. R. D. Foot by the SOE Advisor, Edwin Boxshall, exists only in bootleg form. Some other reports and transcriptions appear as if they have been edited or redacted before publication. Patrick Marnham has reported on some important items in French archives. The official histories of F Section overlook this troublesome period. The memoirs published by Maurice Buckmaster are scandalously duplicitous and self-contradictory: parts of his diary were inspected by Francis Suttill, Jr., but are not generally available. Much of the contribution from Cookridge and Marshall comes from interviews with participants, but no transcripts of what they said are available, and their testimonies cannot automatically be trusted, as they are frequently contradictory.

The Essential Problem

Why are the activities of PROSPER at this time important? In explaining their significance, and the events leading up his arrest on June 24, 1943, I shall first re-present analysis that I have published here before, but give it a slightly different emphasis. The fact is that multiple histories of SOE have stated that PROSPER, having left for the UK on May 14 for consultations, did not return until some time between June 10 and June 14, and their accounts include the fact that he had meetings with Winston Churchill during the period he was away. Such discussions reputedly encouraged PROSPER to believe that an invasion of Northern France was imminent, and that his underground armies should get ready to assist it. An initiative of that kind, however, would have been entirely contrary to what the Chiefs of Staff were planning at that time. The re-entry to Europe (the so-called ‘Second Front’) had been deferred until the first half of 1944, and premature deployment of ‘secret armies’ had been forbidden.

Francis Suttill Jr. has correctly pointed out that his father returned to France on May 20 (although the detailed Appendix in his book fails to list him as one of the persons parachuted in on the corresponding CHESTNUT 4/BRICKLAYER operation), and that, since Churchill was out of the country during that period, no encounter with PROSPER could have taken place. The problem is, however, that he uses this datum to argue that the British authorities must have been innocent of any deception concerning F Section and its resistance forces in France, and that the collapse of PROSPER and his network was due entirely to some careless practices in tradecraft, and to the ingenuity of the Abwehr and the Sicherheitsdienst. This argument has been enthusiastically endorsed by British officialdom, in the person of Mark Seaman, the so-called ‘SOE historian’, and thus risks becoming the default statement on the record of SOE and the Chiefs of Staff in those hectic months of 1943.

Thus, while ignoring most of the evidence that suggests that F Section was badly misused, Mr Suttill, in a lengthy concluding chapter in his book, rubbishes all other histories and biographies that question the integrity of the British authorities. He thereby accuses the authors of these works of perpetuating a shabby ‘conspiracy theory’. Yet for several decades, the alternative version of PROSPER’s itinerary has persisted, and was even, in outline, a staple element of M. R. D. Foot’s authorized history. The SOE – and, after its dismantlement, the Foreign Office –  promoted and supported the story that PROSPER returned to France on June 12, and then, when Francis Suttill Jr. showed that his father had dropped back in on May 20, immediately forgot their traditional position and, like the worst Communist apparat, boosted the new version of the ‘facts’.

Thus every new entrant to the field has to deal with the fact that PROSPER was for some reason energized to try to ramp up the volume of arms shipments, and exhort the secret armies to prepare themselves, while accepting the impossibility that he could have received an individualized order from the Prime Minister. Patrick Marnham, for instance, in War in the Shadows, attributes PROSPER’s actions to what he heard from his boss Maurice Buckmaster, while he was in London.

So why would so many authors adopt such a controversial story? On what evidence were they basing their narratives? What could the substance behind such claims be? It starts with M. R. D. Foot, and his SOE in France, which first appeared in 1966.

M. R. D. Foot’s ‘SOE in France’

In the first edition, having described how Déricourt had arranged PROSPER’s pick-up, on May 13-14, ‘by Lysander from a ground in the Cher valley a few miles east of Tours’, Foot then presented his return as follows: “Suttill, in any event, was sent back to Paris from London about 12 June ‘with an “alert” signal’, warning the whole circuit to stand by’.” His source for this datum was an interrogation of Gaston Cohen dated October 11, 1943. Rather mysteriously, the record of this interrogation (or any remnant of Cohen’s Personal File) has not been made available to the National Archives. Cohen, whose codename was WATCHMAKER, was a wireless-operator who had been flown out in the middle of June 1943, and subsequently escaped back to the UK. I shall inspect his story later in this piece.

Remarkably, as a feature of the ‘authorized’ history, this account remained unchallenged for thirty-eight years. When the new edition of SOE in France was published in 2004, the passage above remained unchanged, except that ‘about 12 June’ was replaced with ‘in late May’. No other explanation was offered. The same reference to the Cohen interrogation was given. The Cohen file is still not available. Quite extraordinarily, Francis Suttill has explained to me that he himself convinced Foot to make the change, based on the records of his father’s return in late May (from personal items, and Maurice Buckmaster’s diary). The ‘authorized historian’ caved in without explaining why the material he had used forty years beforehand was no longer valid.

One highly important aspect of this scenario is the fact that the Foreign Office, having advised Foot of Suttill’s return to France on June 12, tried to be careful to maintain that fiction as he carried out his researches. In other words, no trace of Suttill’s presence in France between May 20 and that date should have been allowed to escape. Unhappily for them – in an aside that no one appeared to notice in forty years – was Foot’s observation, on p 314 of the 1966 edition, that ‘E. M. Wilkinson (ALEXANDRE) for example was picked up by the Germans in Paris on 6 June, in a police trap Suttill and Antelme had vainly begged him not to enter’. How and why this paradox evaded Foot and the censors is inexplicable. To reinforce the story of PROSPER’s return in May, both Henri Déricourt and Jack Agazarian, in their separate reports to their SOE bosses (in HS 9/421 & HS 9/11-1, respectively) refer to ‘PROSPER’s return’ in the context of late May, when the recently arrived agents ELIE (Sidney Jones) and SIMONE (Vera Leigh) are instructed to wait for his arrival to receive instructions as to what they should do next.

A further indication of a return by Prosper in June (thus echoing the long-standing ‘official’ story, but now reinforcing the hypothesis that Prosper undertook two journeys) was the contribution by the Tempsford pilot Frank (‘Bunny’) Rymills, who actually flew the Lysander that brought in ELIE and SIMONE. Rymills wrote, in Henri Déricourt; Double or Triple Agent (a publish-on-demand book edited by Bernard O’Connor, which was first available ca. 2015): “Prosper parachuted back into France to Culioli’s reception on the night 14/15 and warned him on landing to expect two Canadians within a day or two. He also arranged for Culioli to bring them to Paris around the 22 June. Déricourt had been on holiday in the Loire valley during the first two weeks of the month but had returned in time to receive a double Lysander operation (Teacher) on the night 15/16 June.”

Another significant implication was that the details of Cohen’s movements had to be concealed –except that his drop could not be avoided completely. When the fragments were shown to Foot, the emendations that ‘corrected’ Cohen’s arrival date from June 10 to June 13 (which I also analyze below) were clear, and thus were able to confirm the official story. Yet the changes were made at the time, in October 1943, as the typed English-language translation of Cohen’s interrogation shows. That proves that the deception was conceived and executed soon after the events. SOE leaders must have recognized, after the massive rebuke that they received from the Chiefs of Staff that summer, with Hambro’s subsequent dismissal, what an embarrassment it would be if Suttill’s sudden June visit to the UK were disclosed. The conspiracy ran deep – even to the extent of doctoring the operational records of Squadron 138 with a late annotation. Therefore, if he had been alert and professional, Foot should have had a serious re-think when he received Francis Suttill Jr.’s insights about the May 20 return. He did not re-assess anything: by then he was probably totally fed up with the whole business, and with the way in which he had been deceived.

Patrick Marnham has reminded me that Foot himself, in SOE: The Special Operations Executive: 1940-46 (published in 1999), wrote that Churchill may have ‘seen individual agents on their way into the field, and mis-briefed them to suit a deception plan of which only he and Colonel Bevan held the key’.

Some other historians, having access to some of the participants in the events, told a story that was largely consistent with Foot’s original narrative.

E. H. Cookridge’s ‘Inside SOE’

Cookridge’s book was published the same year in which Foot’s authorized history appeared – 1966. Yet he wrote it without any help (guidance) from the Foreign Office, and had no direct access to SOE archives in the UK. (Foot believed that he may have been given surreptitious access to source material by Colonel Sammy Lohan.) He was helped by hundreds of interviewees, and was able to inspect SOE records that had been imported into some foreign archives. Cookridge claimed that he was able to ‘check, corroborate, and, if need be, reject eye-witness accounts obtained from surviving SOE agents and Resistance leaders and members’, but, since the first name he singles out for special mention is the mendacious and manipulated Maurice Buckmaster, the reader needs to be on his or her guard.

His coverage of the events under inspection is uneven. He is under the impression that Suttill stayed in London from May 14 until June 12, during which time he expressed his fears that the PROSPER network had been infiltrated by the Germans. As an example, Cookridge cites the (undated) arrest of Captain Wilkinson, the head of the network in Angers. Yet Wilkinson was not arrested until June 6: if still receiving consultations in London, Suttill would thus have not known the details. Buckmaster, moreover, must have encouraged Foot and Cookridge to accept that Suttill did not return to France until June 12/13, the details in Buckmaster’s Diary (which are not available to the public, and seemed to confirm to Suttill’s son that his father returned on May 20) being conveniently forgotten or overlooked by him.

Cookridge reinforces his chronology by mentioning that Suttill was still in London when Gaston Cohen (JUSTIN) was flown in, thus consolidating Cohen’s claim that he arrived on June 10/11 – but contradicting the facts about his reception by PROSPER, the archival evidence to which Cookridge obviously did not have access. He then goes on to describe the first drop resulting from Suttill’s ‘stepping-up’ of the pace of arms and explosives while he was in London – the notorious operation to Neuvy, south-west of Orléans. He describes the large group of resistance members gathered to receive a large drop of containers – over a dozen. After twelve were dropped, one of them flared and exploded, and others were ignited. Despite the known presence of German field police at Fontaine-en-Sologne, only three kilometres away, no Germans arrived, and the group was able to salvage a few containers. The next day, however, the German police was aroused by calls with information, and the Gestapo from Blois became involved. This resulted in punitive operations in which many persons were arrested.

Culioli, in whose territory the drop occurred, was horrified. In Cookridge’s words, he ‘sent an urgent message to Déricourt asking him to tell the French section to cancel all air operations in the area for the time being’, and added: “It is an unsolved mystery whether this message was ever sent to London.” But it is also puzzling why Culioli would have thought to contact Déricourt, who was simply an officer responsible for arranging landing-areas for Lysanders, not involved with parachuting supplies in through the use of Halifaxes, and who supported Squadron 161, not 138. Culioli would more naturally have used his courier channel to contact ARCHAMBAULD (Gilbert Norman) and PROSPER himself. After all, by the revised accounts delivered by Francis Suttill, Jr, PROSPER had been in the country since May 20, and was busy in Paris at the time.

Cookridge then stumbles over the next events. He goes on to describe how Culioli received Major Suttill on June 13. His arrival had been announced ‘by radio signals and in a “personal message” on the BBC’. Cookridge goes on to write: “Culioli expressed surprise that Suttill was dropped in the Sologne, despite his warnings.” But this does not make sense. If Suttill had parachuted in on the same night as the explosions occurred, it would have been impossible for Culioli to have forestalled PROSPER’s arrival, and presumably impracticable for him to act as reception for two different drops on the same night. Cookridge was being sold a false bill of goods by someone, and did not show enough perspicacity to detect the illogicalities. “Suttill did not offer any explanation”: indeed. Apparently, the pair of them had an opportunity to talk, only a short one, at the home of Guy Dutems, Culioli’s brother-in-law, where Suttill explained to Culioli that he had wanted to be received by him, implicitly suggesting that he had not wanted to entrust his passage to Déricourt. After dinner, Suttill was reportedly driven to Amboise (a town on the Loire, about 100 kilometres from Orléans) and caught a train to Orléans, where he changed for Paris. This might have seemed a dangerous manœuvre, what with all the Gestapo activity around. Yet the journeys apparently completed without a hitch.

Robert Marshall’s ‘All the King’s Men’

‘All The King’s Men’ by Robert Marshall

Robert Marshall’s account (published in 1988) provides further evidence that the imprecise identification of night operations covering two dates can lead to confusion. He relies largely on interviews he had with leading participants (e.g. Culioli, Harry Sporborg – Gubbins’s deputy at this time), as well as familiarity with Paul Guillaume’s La Sologne. Marshall draws attention to the unreliability of witnesses such as the Abwehr agent Richard Christmann, but one must also wonder how reliable Sporborg was, and whether he (in 1983) stubbornly supported the line that Foot had been given about Suttill’s extended presence in the UK until mid-June. Certainly, Marshall gives no indication that PROSPER was around when the Abwehr tried to set a trap for Déricourt at the Restaurant Capucines on June 9. (Marshall tells a vibrant and dramatic story about PROSPER’s meeting with Churchill, but it is unfortunately coloured by some imaginative detail about car-rides shared by Lord Selbourne and Suttill on their way to the Cabinet War Room in Whitehall. Marshall provides no source for this encounter, and, since the period in question was over the Whitsun weekend, the details are highly unlikely.)

His narrative concerning the explosions and PROSPER’s arrival differs slightly from that of Cookridge. While he claims that his story is based on the same Guillaume account that largely influences Marnham and Suttill, the Neuvy incident (although the location is not specified) is reported as taking place on June 11/12, with roughly the same outcome. Yet Marshall in 1986 also interviewed Culioli, who told him that he ‘sent a message to London’ the next day (presumably June 12), requesting they cancel all air operations for a while. By courier to ARCHAMBAUD, for further transmission? To Déricourt, as Cookridge was told? Marshall does not say. The very next night, however (presumably that of 12/13), Culioli was informed that Suttill was arriving by parachute on June 14 (June 13/14 or June 14/15?), and wanted a reception. It does not seem possible that this could have been a pre-arranged BBC message, since that would have required a negotiated activity to be confirmed though a coded meaningless sentence. “For some reason, Culioli’s message had not reached London,” wrote Marshall. But why Culioli imagined that a message could have been passed through the normal channels and transmission schedules, and then processed and acted upon in that short period of time is never examined.

PROSPER duly arrived, and the discussions at the house of Culioli’s brother-in-law are confirmed. PROSPER explained to Culioli his concerns about being received by anyone else, and expressed his disappointment about the coming invasion – not that it had been called off altogether for 1943, but that it had been delayed until the autumn. He then made arrangements for the arrival of the Canadians Pickersgill and Macalister, who were due to arrive on June 15/16, suggesting perhaps that this was fresh news that he had brought with him directly from the UK.

Stella King’s ‘Jacqueline’

Stella King’s ‘Jacqueline’

In 1989, Stella King published her biography of Yvonne Rudellat, sub-titled ‘Pioneer Heroine of the Resistance’. Rudellat became the co-leader of Culioli’s ADOLPHE circuit, as well as Culioli’s lover. Ms. King unfortunately does not provide any itemized references for her account of the events of mid-June, but she admits that she relied largely on the testimony of Pierre Culioli (as well as the assistance from the usual suspects in SOE and from the Foreign Office Advisors). Her chronology is, however, somewhat hazy. She has PROSPER, for some inexplicable reason, returning to France after his consultations at the beginning of May. When such gross errors are made, one has doubts about the organization of her material.

Yet King is very clear about the dating of the Neuvy incident, stating that it occurred on the night of June 13/14. She identifies the BBC message that heralded it; she names the captain of the Polish crew that controlled the Halifax Number Z179; she states that it arrived in the Neuvy area at 1:30 in the morning; she declares that the crew had no idea that any containers had exploded; she records that the plane returned to Tempsford at five past four ‘in the early hours of Whit Monday’. “Like onlookers at any accident, descriptions vary in small details as to what happened next,” she wrote, “although Pierre Culioli had no doubt at all.”

In fact, Culioli and Rudellat were present only as observers. Albert Le Meur was in charge, and the event was being used as a training exercise. After the work to tidy up and reclaim the undamaged containers, Culioli and Rudellat apparently bicycled back to their retreat at Nanteuil. And then the divergent accounts begin. According to Le Meur, a stormy meeting took place at the ADOLPHE headquarters ‘a day or so later’, attended by him, Culioli, Rudellat – and Suttill. Le Meur tried to convince PROSPER to suspend any more drops until matters had quietened down. But Suttill was adamant, and assured Le Meur that he would receive the order to continue – a somewhat strange construction, as the issuance of written orders would have been highly irregular and dangerous, and Suttill presumably had the authority to issue an oral one then and there. Le Meur told King that Culioli disappointed him by not participating in the argument, an assertion that is astonishing in its own right.

Yet, according to King, Culioli denied that the meeting ever occurred. She wrote: “He told me that the day after the Neuvy incident he sent, by courier Gaston Morand, a very detailed account of the events to the PROSPER chief, including the phrase ‘The Royal Air Force bestowed on us the gift of fireworks over and above the material they dropped’, and asking what action Reseau Adolphe should take.” (Such flowery, wordy messages would have been discouraged, and certainly not committed to incriminating paper.) Note that this testimony includes no inherent appeal to suspend operations: it is submissive. Culioli then (no date given) showed Le Meur PROSPER’s reply, which stressed that the explosions should not be exaggerated and that the drops should continue ‘without further anxiety’. He told King that Le Meur must have ‘with the passage of years’ fancifully converted the text of the letter into an imaginary meeting. Lastly, King has Suttill reputedly making even more strenuously his demands that preparations continue, since he was convinced that the invasion was imminent, as was the arrival of ‘at least one parachute regiment’.

At least one person is lying in this drama. Culioli apparently gave sharply differing testimonies to Marshall and King, all over a close period of time. In one account, he requests guidance; in the other he protests and wants operations suspended. According to King, he sends a written message by courier to PROSPER, who responds promptly by the same medium, and maybe follows up with a visit to reinforce the message. When speaking to Marshall, Culioli claims that he sent a message to London, and affects surprise when PROSPER parachutes in a day later. And Culioli apparently told Cookridge that he sent a message to Déricourt, of all people. “He had no doubt at all” – a ridiculous supposition concerning an obviously mendacious character.

Patrick Marnham’s ‘War in the Shadows’

‘War in the Shadows’

War in the Shadows appeared in 2020, after Francis Suttill’s publication [see below], so the first major change in the historiography is that it explicitly accepts Suttill’s account of his father’s (final) return to France as occurring on May 20. Thus Marnham spends no time exploring any possible activity on French soil by PROSPER at the beginning of June. He explains that PROSPER voiced his concerns about Déricourt’s reliability to his bosses in London, and expressed a desire to drop by parachute and be received by Culioli when he returned, even though he had damaged a leg when parachuting in in October 1942. Marnham declares that there is no evidence of PROSPER’s briefings while in London, but asserts that ‘we do know that when he returned to France it was with a new conviction in mind – that the long-awaited allied landings were imminent’. Yet that message differs in substance from how Marshall had represented PROSPER’s stance at the time.

Marnham then swiftly turns to the night of June 12/13, when, after hearing the BBC message ‘Les mousquetaires sont assis par terre’, an experienced group, including Culioli and Rudellat (JACQUELINE) gathered to receive a large parachute delivery outside the village of Neuvy. (The names of the attendees come from French departmental archives.) Then, using de Bayac’s 1969 account, Marnham reports that nine containers had been released when the explosions occurred. He includes vivid details of the damage caused, derived from statements of those present, and describes, although minimally, the increased activity by the Germans that was engendered by the commotion.

Rather bizarrely, Marnham quotes Suttill when describing that there was ‘a blinding glare as though from a phosphorous bomb’. This is doubly odd, since Suttill gives the date of the event as June 10/11, choosing to use the testimony of a Dr Paul Segelle, who was merely the nephew of one of the participants, rather than any of those who actually attended. This is in direct contradiction of Marnham’s chronology, and Suttill presents it as being heralded by the BBC message of ‘Le chien eternu dans les drapes’ (itself a misrepresentation of the signal as it is recorded in the National Archives at HS 8/444). The description, moreover, in fact comes from Guillaume’s ‘La Republique du Centre’ article, of 13/14 September 1947, Guillaume being a witness whom Suttill had elsewhere disparaged for getting the date wrong!

The emphasis thereafter shifts, with memories becoming a little vague. The character called Le Meur [see King, above] claimed that he was the prime mover behind the request to suspend operations; in any case, the members of the Sologne resistance pressed their leader, Culioli, to negotiate the pause. Le Meur said that ‘he had been present at a meeting at the “Le Cercle” hideout (a cottage in the woods near the village of Vielleins, a few kilometres north-west of Romorantin) with Pierre and “Jacqueline”, and that “Prosper” also attended’. But PROSPER refused to call a halt. This sudden and apparently incidental appearance of PROSPER is enigmatic, and not commented on by Marnham. Was he present at the reception? Apparently not. Then what brought him to Neuvy so soon after the explosions? (Marnham’s account appears to rely largely on Stella King’s ‘Jacqueline’, but ignores the fact that Culioli denied that the meeting ever happened.)

Marnham’s narrative closes by describing PROSPER as being ‘very tense’, the leader having returned from London with the conviction that the landings were imminent. If indeed he had just arrived with fresh instructions, however insincere or manipulative, he surely might have been tense. In the timeline that lies behind Marnham’s current assumptions, however, PROSPER had received his guidance over three weeks beforehand, should probably have calmed his nerves by then, and probably would have had discussions with Culioli already. Marnham concludes with the assessment: “ . . . he seems to have regarded Culioli’s sensible request as a near mutiny by the Reseau ADOLPHE; accordingly he sent Culioli a written order to continue organizing receptions.” This last datum also appears to have been derived from Stella King’s book. The written order has not survived (if it ever existed), but it is a very telling exchange.

Francis Suttill’s ‘PROSPER: Major Suttill’s French Resistance Network’

‘Prosper’ by Francis J. Suttill

Suttill’s book was first published as Shadows in the Fog in 2014. I refer exclusively to its re-appearance in 2018 under the title given above. It is driven by the firm belief that the author’s father returned to France on May 20, and stayed there until his eventual arrest on June 24 (although it is difficult to discern the exact date from Suttill’s rather tangled narrative). A critical part of the author’s argument is that PROSPER could never have met Churchill, since the latter was out of the country during the period of PROSPER’s visit, and he thus diminishes the whole betrayal aspect of the collapse of the network, ascribing it more to carelessness and to German schemes and infiltration. He does, however, point out that F Section had not been informed of the deferment of re-entry plans to France to 1944, thus highlighting the fact that the Chiefs of Staff and SOE leaders were guilty of either gross negligence or blatant duplicity.

Where Suttill differs, therefore, in his exposition is the presentation for a series of activities for PROSPER to cover the first two weeks in June, and especially after June 10, when the moon period began. These episodes must necessarily consist of meetings and receptions that evaded the notice of the other commentators, and their provenance must therefore be inspected closely. If it turns out that Suttill discovered items in the official archives that point to PROSPER’s presence in early June, one has to ask i) how SOE overlooked such pieces, and ii) why other historians were not able to view them (the Personal Files were not released until 2003).

The following events represent PROSPER’s movements and meetings, as understood by Suttill:

A) June 2: PROSPER meets Braun in Paris (source: Jean Overton Fuller in Déricourt: the Chequered Spy)

B) June 5: Meets Edward Wilkinson in Paris. Wilkinson is arrested the next day (source: Armel Guerne’s Personal File)

C) June 11/12: Out of town at reception (source: Jack Agazarian interrogation on July 5)

D) June 12: Meets Agazarian in Paris, where he informs Agazarian of above

E) June 12/13: Attends reception for Gaston Cohen (WATCHMAKER) (sources: emended fragment of October 1943 interrogation, possibly released to Foot, and subsequently to Suttill; Boxshall’s Chronology of JUGGLER circuit; Squadron 138 records)

F) June 13: Meets Culioli, and stays night at Avaray (source: Bossard family records)

G) June 14: Returns to Paris (source: Bossard)

Source A (not actually listed in Suttill’s bibliography) was not issued until 1989, and, given that Fuller had written other books on Déricourt, it was easy to overlook. Source B, Armel Guerne’s Personal File, was not released until 2003. (It incidentally also makes the dramatically revealing statement that Suttill made two return trips to the UK, another incisive supporting item for my thesis.) Likewise, Source C (and D) – the Jack Agazarian Personal File –  was not released until 2003: this is very much hearsay evidence, and PROSPER’s claim that he attended a reception cannot be verified. No Personal File for Cohen was ever released, and the fragments described above (Source E, part 1) have never been made available to the public. The original text (in French) shows that Cohen asserted that his arrival took place on June 10/11, namely before PROSPER had ‘officially’ returned to French soil, and that is echoed in a later interrogation in 1945. (I shall discuss Source E, part 3, later.) The Source for F & G clashes with other oral records in its details, but Suttill depends on this for his claim that PROSPER travelled to the Sologne because he ‘must have received’ Culioli’s post-mortem request for suspension of operations after ‘the explosions of June 10-11’.

My Letter to Suttill

At this stage, having followed up Mr Suttill’s careful observations, and checked some items with Patrick Marnham, I sent Mr Suttill (on December 30, 2022) a detailed letter, in which I challenged his version of events, and his apparent lack of methodology. (I had not read Stella King’s Jacqueline, her biography of Yvonne Rudellat, at this time, which explains why I do not cite in my message further evidence that Suttill has his dates wrong.) The text ran as follows:

Dear Mr Suttill,

I have been contemplating your account of the events of June 1943, and have come to the conclusion that I really cannot follow your line of reasoning. Your thorough researches, which constituted a stellar job in uncovering many of the activities of the PROSPER network, and in confirming your father’s movements in May, incidentally exposed the clumsy efforts of the Foreign Office to obfuscate the details of your father’s return to France. Yet you have stepped back from investigating why they bothered to do so.

I say this with utmost seriousness, as I learned while working on my doctoral thesis in Security and Intelligence Studies that a careful methodology is essential for analyzing the highly deceptive world of intelligence, espionage and subversion. At that time, and in my subsequent research activities, I developed a process for distinguishing between the Genuine (that which is evidently issued by its authorized source), the Fake (which is evidently not), the Authentic (which is an accurate account of events, irrespective of its source), and the Inauthentic (the object of which is to deceive). This broadly follows the classifications of Barzun and Graff in The Modern Researcher.

This applies both to recognized archival sources as well as to records of interviews, and to memoirs. Testimony collected may be Information (which is accurate and true), Misinformation (which may be based on ignorance, misunderstanding, hearsay, or faulty memory), or Disinformation (which is erroneous, and designed to mislead). In analyzing such testimony, one has to perform rigorous cross-checking, as well as apply the rules of chronology and geography, and try to establish a clear understanding of the subject’s role and probable motivations.

For example, in research that I have recently published on coldspur, I have shown that an officer in MI6 (probably Dick White) leaked inaccurate anecdotes (disinformation) to Chapman Pincher, reinforced by Peter Wright. Pincher subsequently published it unwarily (misinformation), following which it was picked up and accepted by more independent historians/journalists and irresponsibly presented as reliable facts (information).

I do not understand what you mean when you say that you ignore any evidence that requires ‘speculation’. On the one hand, you become involved in speculation yourself, for example when you write that your father ‘must have been reassured’ (p 126), and that he ‘must have heard from Culioli’ before his visit to him on June 13 (p 191). Yet you appear to discard any evidence that might challenge your core thesis (that your father returned to France on May 20, and stayed there until his arrest) on the grounds that any investigation would be ‘speculative’. This is despite the overwhelmingly strong assertions made by Foot, Cookridge, Marshall and others, echoing the careful propaganda of the Foreign Office, that he did fly in about June 12. My opinion is that such evidence has to be closely inspected to determine the reasons it exists: ‘speculation’ is an essential part of the process of creating hypotheses. If the claims can easily be disproved, they should be discarded. If not, new hypotheses have to be developed. Mark Seaman, in his Foreword to your book, writes of your ‘clear-headed, forensic manner’, but a truly forensic approach would not ignore any evidence that happened to be inconvenient.

I can identify several major conundrums in the accounts of these events:

  • The overridingly significant one is the failure of F Section to be informed of the cancellation of any plan to return to France until after your father’s arrest, as you point out. This is an enormous subject, and I have written about it at length on my website. (I assume that you have read my postings, but, if not, they can be seen at http://www.coldspur.com/the-demise-of-prosper/ and in preceding reports.) The problem is that the Chiefs of Staff (or the SOE chiefs) were either negligent, or duplicitous, and in either case their behaviour was inexcusable, and needs to be called out officially.
  • The second enigma that I detect is the dating of the flight to Neuvy that resulted in explosions, where your record differs sharply from most other testimonies.
  • The third puzzle is the dating of Cohen’s (WATCHMAKER’s) arrival in France, since his two accounts differ markedly from the manner in which SOE interrogators saw it, and from the record that you outline in your book.
  • The last conundrum is the integration of these two pieces, namely the conflicting claims about your father’s return to French soil, where you are adamant that his sole return was on May 20, while several other historians indicate that he returned some time between June 12 and June 14 (admittedly in the belief that that was the return of his outgoing flight from May 14). This necessarily requires a close inspection of your father’s movements between June 10 and June 14.

I believe that an attempt to develop a chronology concerning the events covered in the last three items is essential.

The Neuvy Explosions

As I understand your timeline (confirmed by you in your recent email), you have your father receiving Cohen on June 12/13, and then responding to Culioli’s plea to stop drops after the explosions at Neuvy on June 10/11, travelling by train to Mer, near Orléans, on June 13 to meet with Culioli. Your primary evidence for this is the testimony of Dr Segelle (a nephew of one of the reception team) of September 1947, declaring that some containers exploded on an arriving flight on June 10/11. You have concluded that the operation must have been [sic] PHYSICIAN 54, since the monthly summary for June in HS 8/143 lists the Neuvy operation as having undergone such an accident. Yet that reference in the monthly summary is undated: your conclusion is ‘speculation’. You correctly point out that there are contradictions in the way that the PHYSICIAN 54 operation (and the PHYSICIAN 42/60 operation) are registered in the Squadron 138 records.

Multiple witness reports, however, counter this narrative, including your own. On page 191, you state that ‘Guillaume and others’ [who?] give the date of 13 June for the drop here [i.e. Neuvy], while your only testimony comes from the nephew of one of the reception committee. Marshall offers another date June 11/12  and then indicates that Culioli was informed on the night of 12/13 that PROSPER was arriving by parachute on June 14. Yet other sources confirm that the explosions occurred on the night of June 12/13. In ‘Inside S.O.E.’ Cookridge offers a vivid description of the events, derived from persons assembled there on that very night. Patrick Marnham has informed me that in the Musée de Resistance in Blois there is a wall-chart recording RAF parachute drops in the area between 1941 and 1943, including the legend that ‘two containers exploded at Neuvy’ on June 12. (That could, admittedly, be the night of June 11/12 or that of June 12/13. I notice that, on page 163 of your book, you record your visit to this museum, but declare that you found there ‘less evidence to support the dates that I already possessed’.) Furthermore, in ‘War in the Shadows’, Marnham names several of the twelve members of the reception committee, including Culioli and Rudellat. That testimony is based on information from the Archives départmentales de Loir-et-Cher, Blois (AD55J3).

I notice that you refer to Paul Guillaume’s book several times in your account, yet you fail to reflect his contribution properly. Guillaume cites four independent accounts three of them from resistance veterans for the date of June 12/13, including the Dr Segelle whom you mention. The title of the reference is ‘Dr Segelle’s response concerning the parachute drop of 13 June’. Dr Segelle was not actually present to witness the explosions, but those who informed him were indeed there, and appear to be unanimous about the date.

Returning to the AIR records, I find they are confusing. In your Appendix you describe PHYSICIAN 54 as completing successfully, but then identify it as the Neuvy operation, where containers exploded. You choose to cite the Monthly Summaries in HS 8/143 as your source, but the brief mention of PHYSICIAN 54 as one of the two examples where ‘Containers blew up’ looks as if it is a late addendum. Furthermore, the details indicate that PHYSICIAN 54 was a successful operation. This judgment is confirmed by AIR20/8252 (Daily Summary of Special Operations for 138 Squadron) and AIR20/8459 (138 Squadron Diary). The former tells us that PHYSICIAN 54 was a success, dropping five containers, while its companion mission ROACH 47/48 (a RF endeavour) had to jettison ten containers because of engine failure. The latter source confirms that information, with no indication of problems with the PHYSICIAN 54 operation. Even if the author of the diary at the time had not been aware of the explosions, the monthly summary informs us that nothing was amiss no explosions recorded.

It is surprising that the two operations highlighted as having containers exploding (SCIENTIST 35 & PHYSICIAN 54) are both recorded as being successful in this monthly summary. Neither is listed in Appendix C (unsuccessful operations) of HS 8/143. Moreover, neither AIR20/8459 nor AIR20/8252 lists any operation on June 12/13 (or June 13/14) that might correspond to the Neuvy incident. In both archives, the only PHYSICIAN sortie for June 12/13 is the PHYSICIAN 42/60 (WATCHMAKER) operation. The records for the sister Squadron 161 are missing substantial sections, and we have to rely largely on pilots’ reports at AIR 20/8498. You list from those PHYSICIAN 32 on June 11/12 recorded as ‘missing’, and CHESTNUT 5 on June 12/13, but the latter’s co-ordinates indicate that it performed a drop near Chartres, not at Neuvy. Likewise, AIR 20/8461, Squadron 161’s Operational Reports, does not list any other operation that can reliably traced to the Neuvy incidents. Records from both squadrons are included in the monthly summary at HS 8/143.

Thus, despite the strong evidence that the incident of the exploding containers was witnessed by several local observers, in SOE and AIR archives there is no dated confirmation of the episode, and no recognition of it, outside the vague June Summary Report. Patrick Marnham has suggested that PHYSICIAN 42 carried on after dropping WATCHMAKER, and its dropping zone could well have been Neuvy. The crew may not have reported exploding containers, and reported the operation as ‘successful’, as they would have been several miles away before the containers hit the ground. This theory, however, would confirm the dating of WATCHMAKER’s arrival in contradiction of what Cohen himself said.

The arrival of WATCHMAKER

Thus the arrival by parachute of Gaston Cohen (WATCHMAKER) is likewise beset with controversy. You record this as occurring on June 12/13, as part of the combined PHYSICIAN 42/60 operation, and indeed ‘WATCHMAKER’ has been inserted into the operational details maintained by Squadron 138. Yet you point out a bizarre phenomenon: Cohen reported that the bomb door jammed after he jumped, thus preventing the release of the PHYSICIAN 60 containers. (Elsewhere, you have written to me that the containers would have been released before the passenger jumped, so I do not know how you explain this contradiction.) The record at AIR 20/8252 states, however, that the PHYSICIAN 60 segment of the operation released only one passenger and one packet: no containers were destined for this drop, and PHYSICIAN 42 successfully dropped five containers and two packages at its intended destination. AIR 20/8459 confirms that the total operation dropped one passenger, five containers and two packages, and was judged ‘successful’. So where does Cohen’s testimony come in?

I find it extraordinary that M. R. D. Foot has very little to say about Cohen’s arrival. His commentary is limited to recording that he arrived ‘ten days before the troubles, to a PROSPER reception’. I can imagine that the authorized historian was so confused by the material shown to him by Boxshall that he steered clear of it. Cookridge, who had been told that PROSPER returned from London on June 12/13, states that Suttill was still in the UK when Cohen was parachuted in, thus showing that he (Cookridge) was unaware of Cohen’s testimony about his expansive reception committee, but thereby reinforced the accuracy of the earlier date.

For, as we know, Cohen asserted, under interrogation, that he arrived on the night of June 10/11. In the first statement, transcribed first in French from his interview of October 11, 1943, he is quite clear that he arrived on June 11, was received by PROSPER, ARCHAMBAUD and DENISE, and was taken to a safe house where he had to wait for four days before DENISE took him to Paris. This record has been emended by an SOE office to show that he arrived on June 13, and the translated version reflects this ‘correction’, not using Cohen’s original words. Here Cohen also talks about the containers that should have been dropped at the same time becoming jammed in the aeroplane. Yet there were no containers directed at this location solely Cohen’s personal package. Why would Cohen invent such a story?

Remarkably, Cohen was interrogated a second time, a year later, and you provide a reference to the file at HS 6/568. (The file, unusually, does not have a release date in the National Archives Directory.) The interrogation took place on December 8, 1944. His arrival is presented as follows:

“Informant jumped on the night of June 10th 1943 to a Reception Committee, organised by PROSPER, near VERSAILLES, and it was successful, Informant dropping about a yard from the first light.” (I notice that you cite some of these words in your account, although you do not acknowledge the details of the date given.) It goes on to report that Cohen was received by PROSPER and ARCHAMBAUD (DENISE is not mentioned), both of whom he knew personally, and was then taken to a safe house, where he stayed for four days before DENISE picked him up and took him to Paris. There is no mention of obstructed containers, or doors jamming: the operation is presented as being completely successful. Moreover, no one sees fit to correct the dates that Cohen has presented. Was that ‘correction’ no longer considered necessary, had the authorities recognized that the date Cohen gave was in fact correct, or had they simply grown careless after the course of time?

I notice that the SOE editor of Cohen’s interrogation, while changing the date of his landing, did not alter the interval between Cohen’s arrival at the safe-house and his being picked up by DENISE and taken to Paris. The safe-house was in Versailles, just outside Paris. DENISE was present at the reception. What, we have to ask, was she doing in the intervening three days?

We need to consider the possibility that the Foreign Office, and the SOE Advisor, in their efforts to maintain the fiction of PROSPER’s presence in the UK until June 12, for Foot’s benefit, tried to conceal any reference to PROSPER in operations that occurred at the beginning of the June moon period, or any activities involving him in France between May 20 and June 12. This, I believe, has enormous implications for the stories of Wilkinson and Cohen, at least.

Thus another pivotal incident in the events of mid-June is covered in confusion, with the testimony of participants clashing with the official record, while the record itself does not reflect the realities of the operation as it took place above and on French soil. And, if Cohen was not telling the truth, why was he dissimulating?

The Implications for PROSPER

Resolving these contradictions is a difficult task, but it appears that the leadership of SOE was exceedingly embarrassed by the events of June 10-14. They withheld much of the evidence: they inserted other false items into the archive. Even some of the operational records at Tempsford seem to have been purged or emended. The Foreign Office channeled some very dubious records to Foot. The Chronology supplied by Boxshall for the PROSPER circuit specifically declared that, for the period June 12-21: ‘No details as to recipients, dropping-grounds or contents of containers available’. The testimony submitted by Pierre Culioli was cut back to avoid the events before June 16, and also to ensure that no mention of PROSPER before June 12 appeared in his statement. (I point out, however, that, in Culioli’s report, he claims that, in May 1943 ‘quand Prosper est revenu de Londres’, i.e. on his return, not before his departure, PROSPER promised him that he, Culioli, would have control of his own circuit. Such minutiae were obviously correct, but would immediately have undermined the story had Foot had access to them.) The interrogation report in Guerne’s Personal File very clearly explains that Wilkinson, PROSPER and ARCHAMBAUD met with him on June 5, the day before Wilkinson’s arrest. Agazarian reports rather blandly (and ambiguously) that he saw PROSPER on the afternoon of June 12, and assumed that he had just arrived from the countryside since he had just returned from a reception. Cohen may have been encouraged to distort his experiences.

The apparent transposition of the events involving the arrival of Cohen and the incident at Neuvy is probably key to the whole deception. When the authorities came across the facts about Cohen’s arrival, they concluded that that information would be a major obstacle in their project to set your father’s sole return as occurring on June 12. So they set about changing the facts. The deferring of Cohen’s reception by PROSPER and his team gave an alibi for their presence at Versailles at a later date, and tried to draw attention away from an unlikely grouping on June 11. It avoided focusing analysis on an ‘impossible’ presence of PROSPER before his ‘official’ return to France. The bringing forward of the weird Neuvy explosions, so oddly not reflected in any detailed operational report, might have been designed to give cause for PROSPER to respond to Culioli’s call for intervention, however difficult it is to imagine the message getting to him that easily. It may simply have been a necessary corollary to changing the date of Cohen’s arrival. (Cookridge has him arriving that same night.)

As you know, I regard your account of PROSPER’s movements between June 10 and 14 as unlikely very demanding, and largely uncorroborated. I cannot discard the multiple accounts that have your father returning from England during this time, and suspect that SOE and the Foreign Office tried to muddy the waters in order to conceal what would have been a very embarrassing revelation for them. (For instance, Agazarian’s claim that PROSPER was at a reception on June 11/12 is the first official negation of the story of PROSPER’s movements as ‘revealed’ to Foot.) The crux of the issue is that the authorities had at first to withhold any evidence that PROSPER was in France before June 12, in order to maintain the fiction for Foot, but then had to create evidence that he was busy around Paris at the time of his short return after June 10. Yet their strong emphasis on a June 12 return date, as forced upon Foot, and defended for so long, proves that they were aware that your father did indeed make a return flight at that time. These two strategies clashed, the Foreign Office could not purge all the relevant archival material that was released over the years, and could not control what was published overseas.

The irony is that the Foreign Office, initially aware that PROSPER’s return occurred on June 12, and that it was ‘common knowledge’, managed to maintain that fiction for sixty years, forty of them during the period of the authorized history’s first life. They achieved that since archival evidence for PROSPER’s second flight was even more elusive than what you retrieved about his May itinerary. Amazingly, when your book appeared, there had been no discovery of the scattered evidence of your father’s presence in France in early June, and no one until now has bothered to question why the authorities would so determinedly have abetted the alternative narrative. Thus the SOE ‘historian’ has grabbed on to your story with great relief and enthusiasm.

Mark Seaman asserts that your book ‘will surely be the definitive account of Francis Suttill and the tragic story of his PROSPER circuit’. That is a foolish and premature judgment, in my opinion. The contradictions that I have highlighted here demonstrate incontrovertibly that a fuller and more accurate story remains to be told. It may sadly not be enabled by the release of any fresh archival material: after all, for sixty years, the SOE/Foreign Office promoted and supported the notion that your father returned to France on June 12 without offering any documentary evidence, so it is unlikely that any details of his second pick-up will appear. The historians among us must continue nevertheless to refine our hypotheses.

Lastly, a few miscellaneous observations:

  1. CHESTNUT 4 drop zone: you wrote that you did not list your father’s arrival here, because it ‘went to a completely different DZ’. I assume you implied that it was the BRICKLAYER Operation (part of the same flight) that technically carried the two ‘men’ involved, your father and Antelme (neither identified), while the CHESTNUT 4 segment dropped off containers elsewhere.
  2. Your claims under PHYSICIAN 42, and what Cohen wrote about the containers jamming after he jumped, are in contradiction with your earlier reply to me that ‘containers were released first to avoid a wayward container hitting an agent’.
  3. The correct text of the BBC message for Neuvy is ‘Le chien eternue sur les draps’ (from HS 8/444)
  4. Was the nephew of Dr Segelle a doctor, too? I am surprised that you rely on hm so much as a ‘witness’.
  5. The testimony from Alain Bossard is at variance with that given to Cookridge, who wrote that PROSPER dined with Culioli’s brother-in-law, Guy Dutems, and was then driven to Amboise to catch a train to Orléans. (I note that you record both Dutems brothers as having been killed by the Germans.)
  6. Guillaume (p.70) explicitly queries the reliability of Ben Bossard as a witness. He describes Bossard sarcastically as a person ‘with a fertile imagination… who gave a fictional account of the arrest of Culioli on 21 June in a letter he sent to La Republique du Centre that was published on 8 September 1947 under the heading ‘a titre documentaire’.
  7. The Bossard entries in the Index need to be corrected, as most of them refer to Ben (the father).
  8. Stalin did not attended CASABLANCA (p 273).

Sincerely,

Tony.

I did not expect to convince Mr. Suttill of my argument, but I felt that it was important to give him a chance to comment on my objections, and fresh hypotheses. When he replied, a week later, he did not engage in any debate, merely suggesting that I had not interpreted the squadron records correctly, and stuck to his guns, being unpersuaded by any of my arguments. I responded my pointing out in detail how contradictory and unreliable the surviving air records are.

The Relevant Documents

I now turn to examining some important documents that have been cited as evidence (or completely ignored!), in order to highlight the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in these early June movements.

i) Boxshall’s Chronology

M. R. D. Foot was very reliant on a document prepared for him in 1960 by Colonel Edwin Boxshall, the first ‘SOE Advisor’ in the Foreign Office, titled Chronology of SOE Operations with the Resistance in France During World War II. A copy is held at the Imperial War Museum (see https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030015651 ): the Catalogue indicates that the papers were filed between 2005 and 2007, i.e. not until after the revised edition of Foot’s History had been published. (An Introduction titled ‘Technical Corrections’, by Thomas L. Ensminger, is dated November 2006.) The document claims to provide a comprehensive history for Foot to work on, but, through its omissions, betrays the fact that the first two weeks of June were an uncomfortable period for SOE to accept or discuss.

The screed is broken down by ‘network’ (‘réseau’), and the evolution of the PROSPER network, initiated in October 1942 to replace the broken CARTE circuit, is explained. The chronology is somewhat sparse: Major Suttill is listed as returning to London for consultations on May 14/15, and the next entry indicates that he returned to France on May 20. A hand-written question-mark appears against this statement: presumably Foot, having learned from informal (but reliable) sources that Suttill did not return until June 12, thought that Boxshall had made an error. He passed it by. Yet the evidence (which Suttill’s son would pursue fifty years later) is clear.

Boxshall then lays out the organization of the PHYSICIANPROSPER network, with the leaders of its sub-circuits identified, including Pierre Culioli of ADOLPHE, described as covering the Indre et Loire area, out of Mer. Yet, for this critical period a large gap exists. A laconic note states that, for the period June 12-21, “No details as to recipients, dropping-grounds or containers available.” This is an obvious prevarication, since subsequently revealed archives have shown that the beginning of the June 1943 moon period was a very active – though controversial – stage of PROSPER’s story. William McKenzie’s internal history of SOE (written in 1947, but not published until 2002) runs (on pp 574-575) as follows: “Up to June 1943 the whole Suttill circuit had received 254 containers of stores, and in ten days in June it beat all records by receiving 190 more containers.” Why such coyness from Boxshall? And why did Foot, who had access to Mackenzie’s text, although he was not allowed to interview him, not challenge this evasion by the SOE Advisor?

Boxshall’s account specifically ignores the fact that the moon period actually started on June 10/11, and, in his account of the PROSPER circuit elides over the dropping-off of Cohen (WATCHMAKER – whether it occurred on June 10/11, as Cohen claimed, or a few days later, as SOE management preferred). While he describes Cohen’s arrival under his section on the JUGGLER circuit, he avoids any mention of Suttill’s return on June 12, the misadventure with the exploding containers at Neuvy, and several other operations that the AIR records have revealed. His Chronology then moves to list the parachuting in of Pickersgill and McAlister, received by Culioli, on June 15/16, and the Lysander landing on June 16/17, from which Noor Inayat Khan deplaned, and which Jack Agazarian and his wife boarded. It then picks up the story with the arrest of Culioli, Rudellat, Pickersgill and McAlister on June 21.

ii) The Interrogations of Gaston Cohen

Two interrogations of Gaston Cohen (WATCHMAKER) are known to have taken place. His arrival in mid-June is significant since he was received by a large group including PROSPER, ARCHAMBAUD (Gilbert Norman) and DENISE (Andrée Borrel) – at least the presence of the latter trio does not seem to be disputed by anybody, and it thus gives confirmation of PROSPER’s presence in the region. The date of his parachuting in is, however, more controversial.

Interrogation of Gaston Cohen (page 1)

The first interrogation of Cohen took place on October 11, 1943 – in French. The transcription (see Figure) is fascinating since Cohen confidently provides the details of his arrival and reception near Versailles. He arrived on June 10 (presumably shortly before midnight), was met by PROSPER, ARCHAMBAUD and DENISE, and then taken to a safe house where he had to stay for four days until DENISE picked him up to take him to Paris. He adds that ten containers that were supposed to be dropped at the same time jammed in the plane, and his interrogator observes that Cohen believed that they had been safely dropped the following night.

Yet the handwritten ‘corrections’ can be clearly seen on the document, emending the date of his arrival to June 13 – and, rather mysteriously, pushing back the date that Cohen gave for the arrest of PROSPER, from June 20 to June 24 (the latter being the correct date). Whether this was a mechanical process by the editor, or whether it just happened that Cohen was vague about the latter event, is not clear. One would expect him, so soon after his parachutage, to be able to recall the day of the week, and hence the date, of his arrival in France both easily and accurately.

The emendations become more formal in the English translation, since the date originally supplied by Cohen is not visible. June 13 appears to be now inscribed officially as the date of his arrival – although whether his parachuting in occurred late at night that day, or in the early morning, is not clear. And the story about the jammed containers endures, even though the records at AIR 20/8252 record that no containers were being dropped for that segment of the journey. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the operation was re-tried the following night. Suttill himself claims that the PHYSICIAN 60 operation was re-attempted on June 16/17.

The mystery is made murkier by the evidence from Cohen’s second interrogation, on December 8, 1944, available at HS 6/568, and I refer readers to my letter to Suttill for details. Cohen reiterates his narrative about arriving on June 10, and at this stage his account is not challenged. The operation was successful: Cohen landed about a yard from the first light, a quite remarkable achievement, especially considering that this was his first live parachute drop. On this occasion, Cohen also made no mention of jammed containers. Why would he continue to claim that the date was accurate? Had he not been informed of the ‘correction’ that had to be made the previous year? At the end of this report (i.e. not from Cohen’s own words), the author, very oddly, comments: “The only Reception Committee about which Informant has no information [sic], is the one to which he jumped. At this there was a minimum of twelve men, including PROSPER, ARCHAMBAUD and DENISE. Arrangements had been made for the transport of material which was supposed to be dropped with Informant, namely that it was to have been taken to the farm, near the ground, that night, and collected the following day by a lorry and taken to Paris, in fact, the material never left the plane. On that occasion he came two or three days later.” This is a very enigmatic observation, but is perhaps an elliptical re-statement of the ‘jamming’ problem, and could explain why a large reception party needed to be at hand – at least in the narrative outlined by the interrogator.

The assertion that Cohen arrived later is made in Boxshall’s Chronology under his coverage of the JUGGLER circuit, since the latter, under Jean Worms, was WATCHMAKER’s destination. Boxshall’s text runs as follows: “June 12: Parachute – 1st mission. Lieut. Gaston Armand COHEN (Justin) was dropped to act as W/T operator to this CHALONS-sur-MARNE Circuit. He landed at La MAULE, near Verseilles [sic] and was met by Major Suttill, Major Norman and Miss Borrell.” (There is, significantly, no mention of the extended reception party.) “The ten containers which were to be dropped simultaneously jammed in the bomb-bays, but were delivered the following night.” Boxshall follows up by indicating that Borrel (DENISE) took Cohen to Paris on June 16.

Of course the very selective and cautious disclosure of the first two documents is very shady. No Personal File on Cohen has been released, and yet these pieces are clearly marked as ‘Appendices’. And did Foot even see them? One claim that Foot made (in his very sketchy account of Cohen’s arrival) is that it was Cohen who told the authorities that Suttill brought with him ‘an alert signal’ for the expectant secret armies, and Foot names the source for this as the interrogation described here. Yet the fragments extant contain no such affirmation, a conundrum that again raises questions about Foot’s methods. One might postulate that he either: i) had access to other Cohen-related documents that have not seen the light of day; or ii) was told about that important signal by someone who ascribed it to the Cohen interrogation, and solemnly repeated what he was told; or iii) never actually saw the Cohen fragments, and simply guessed that the intelligence was revealed there; or iv) got his notes confused, or was told by his source that he could not reveal where he derived the insight, and thus bluffed his way through.

But why would Cohen be established as the source of that very controversial ‘Alert’ signal? If it had been official, why would it have not been recognized and confirmed by someone like Buckmaster? Yet admitting to the fact that the guerrilla armies were being prepared for imminent action would have been a disastrous admission of political irresponsibility. One thus has to conclude what an unreliable datum this message is, for the following reasons:

i) No document has been shown to confirm the event;

ii) Foot used it indiscriminately to support two conflicting theories separated by almost forty years; that PROSPER returned on May 20, and that he parachuted back in on June 12;

iii) Cohen’s surviving testimony is in any case notoriously flawed, as if words had been fed to him;

iv) It would be very unlikely that Cohen alone would be the carrier of that message, if indeed PROSPER had brought it back with him;

v) Any authorized history of SOE in France would want to minimize any suggestion that PROSPER had been charged with energizing secret armies for an imminent revolt in support of an invasion.

It therefore seems more likely that Foot was fed this allegation by a disgruntled SOE officer or employee who wanted the truth to be told, and that, when Foot’s text was submitted, the implications of this vital observation were overlooked.

On the other hand, senior SOE officers may not have known about a secret instruction from Churchill to Suttill, something that Cohen may indeed have learned when he interacted with PROSPER after his arrival, and the hidden account of his interrogation confirmed that an ‘Alert’ signal had indeed been communicated to the networks. Finally, it astonishes me that no one thought to try to interview Cohen (who changed his name to Collin, and lived until 2007) to ascertain whether he was willing to explain what really happened in 1943.

iii) The Evidence of Pierre Culioli

The third significant document is the report made by Pierre Culioli (ADOLPHE), the leader of the eponymous sub-network in the Sologne, under PROSPER. After Culioli, who had been arrested on June 21, 1943, had escaped while being transported from one prison camp in Germany to another, he came to the attention of SOE. A memorandum in his file, dated 21 April, 1945, informs F Division of SOE that Culioli has just been picked up in Frankfurt, and notes that ‘in our view Adolf [sic] Culioli is a most important witness in the PROSPER case’, and that he should therefore be brought to Paris for interrogation.

Culioli had a controversial career with SOE, one that is bedevilled by minor contradictions. Having been recruited by Raymond Flower, he came under suspicion as a traitor, to the extent that Flower requested that a poison pill be delivered to kill him, and it was Gilbert Norman who actually carried the pill with him into France. When he found out about this, Culioli and his partner Yvonne Rudellat, agent JACQUELINE, were naturally furious. Flower was recalled, and Culioli set up his network in the Sologne. He knew PROSPER well, having received him when Suttill was first parachuted in in October 1942, but doubts about Culioli’s commitment to the cause, and beliefs about his desire for power, continued to hang around in Baker Street. Francis Suttill has asserted that Culioli’s statements about the autonomy of his so-called ADOLPHE circuit were simply pretentious, but Suttill gave a positive assessment of Culioli’s contribution when he was in London in May.

My discussions earlier of Culioli’s unreliability as a witness show how impossible it is to determine an accurate account of what happened after the Neuvy incident. And yet historians and biographers continue to harvest indiscriminately from these faulty memories and deliberately distorted reconstructions. Francis Suttill, for instance, casually observes that many chronicles record a date different from the one he selected for Neuvy: he has clearly read ‘Jacqueline’, since he cites it in his narrative. The story there, however, is very specific about the timing of the launch of the operation, and the return on Whit Monday. Nevertheless, Suttill prefers to rely on the testimony of a young man who was not present indicating that the events took place on the Thursday before Pentecost. One way to interpret the advancement of the date of the Neuvy explosions a few days to June 11 is that, in the light of PROSPER’s documented return on June 12, the arrival of substantial explosives could not be attributed to any new incendiary campaign arranged by PROSPER during his absence, an attempt, perhaps, to negate the point that Cookridge made – that the Neuvy operation was the first in the ‘stepping-up’ campaign. Yet it is all very clumsy.

Thus the curious researcher might well be encouraged to think that an official report from Culioli, who, while many of his colleagues had been murdered or had died in German prisons (including his partner Rudellat in Belsen), had managed a miraculous escape, would be able to shine some much-needed light on the affair PROSPER, as the SOE chiefs hoped. Yet gross disappointment ensues. In the report that resides in his Personal File, Culioli writes of no events that occurred between a meeting with Suttill after the latter’s arrival from London in May (that second vital datum that confirms PROSPER’s first return) and the dropping-off of Pickersgill and McAlister on June 16/17. There is not even a redacted section that might have described the critical events of June 10 to June 15. Culioli must have been instructed to keep his mouth shut.

One strange insight has leaked into Suttill’s story, the account so enthusiastically adopted and promoted by Mark Seaman as ‘the last word’ on the downfall of PROSPER. On pages 191-192 of his book, Suttill writes that, at the meeting he had with Culioli on (probably) June 13, PROSPER ‘refused Culioli’s request [to suspend drops] as he had already told him that he did not want to waste time, feeling that the invasion was imminent, and he was so serious about this that he gave Culioli the order to continue with receptions in writing’. Suttill offers Culioli’s report at HS 9/379-8 as the source of this claim, the very same described here. But no such statement appears in the report: Suttill agrees with me on this, and can now not recall whence he gained this rumour. Thus we have the strange phenomenon of both Foot and Suttill echoing a story that undermines their chief argument (that PROSPER was not betrayed by British duplicity), while neither of them can offer a verifiable source for the allegation. It would have been highly irresponsible, in any case, to commit any orders in writing, as the evidence would have been incriminating, if found, and useless, if destroyed.

The Flit

Since the events of June 10-15 are clouded in almost impenetrable confusion, it is impossible to determine exactly when and how PROSPER made his express return to the United Kingdom. No flight records indicate a plausible pick-up and drop-off, whether by parachute or landing. Yet perhaps the regular rules of historical verifiability do not apply here: after all, for forty years the fact of PROSPER’s arrival on June 12 was recognized via the authorized history as being correct, when neither archival evidence, nor any witness statement, was presented. Affirming the accuracy of that event, while making a corollary assertion that he had not been out of the country since May 14, is hardly revolutionary, and coexists well with the other known details of PROSPER’s activities.

The records of Squadrons 138 and 161 are frustratingly opaque and inconsistent – and many of the vital registers for this period have not been made available, maybe lost, maybe destroyed, maybe simply withheld. If PROSPER was picked up by a Lysander, and made a return by parachute or landing, it is entirely probable that the relevant records were kept secret. Yet the much-quoted date of a June 12 return falls between some conflicting accounts of a noted arrival – that of Gaston Cohen.

Consider the following features of the notorious PHYSICIAN 60 operation that was combined with WATCHMAKER:

i) On two occasions, under interrogation, Cohen claimed that he was dropped on June 10/11.

ii) On the first of these interrogations, the transcript was emended to read June 13/14.

iii) The official Air Ministry reports indicate that WATCHMAKER completed on June 14.

iv) In his first interrogation, Cohen indicated that ten containers had become jammed, and failed to drop. (It is uncertain how he knew this: in his book, Suttill says he would have dropped before any containers; in a private email to me, he wrote that he would have dropped after them; Boxshall in his notes writes that the drops were simultaneous.)

v) Cohen also claimed that the shipments were successfully made the next night. It is not clear how he knew this. The records do not reveal a follow-up the next day/night.

vi) In his second interrogation, Cohen fails to mention the jamming episode.

vii) The Air Ministry reports do not indicate that any containers were dropped, nor do they record that the operation was a failure.

viii) The transcript of Cohen’s interrogation has never been officially released, and is listed as an Appendix to an unknown and unavailable report.

ix) Cohen’s Personal File has never been released.

x) Ernest Boxshall, the SOE Advisor, in the Chronology he provided for M. R. D. Foot, guided him to Cohen’s testimony rather than any other official source.

xi) Cohen, on his very first parachute drop, was reported to have landed a yard from his target.

xii) Cohen listed only three members of a reception squad, but by other accounts was reputedly met by a reception team of twelve, including Balachovsky. That would appear to be an unnecessarily large contingent to welcome a new wireless-operator, but would be required if a large set of containers were due to arrive at the same time.

xiii) Cohen was taken to a safe-house, where he had to stay for three or four days before Borrel was free to take him to Paris.

xiv) M. R. D. Foot studiously ignored the details of Cohen’s arrival.

Now even the most cautious investigator might question the authenticity of this assembly of contradictory factoids, and struggle to determine exactly what happened. One might conclude that Cohen had been trained to develop a story-line that bolstered the particulars of his arrival, but by adding improbable details in the cause of imagined verisimilitude, actually undermined the whole charade. The overwhelming conclusion for me out of all this is that the Foreign Office had to maintain and support a narrative that placed the undeniable presence of PROSPER at Cohen’s reception after his established arrival on June 12, that date having been precisely chronicled by the authorized historian. If the records showed that the events occurred on June 10/11, highly embarrassing questions would be asked. I thus posit a very tentative hypothesis: that Cohen arrived on June 10/11, landing by Lysander rather than being parachuted in, and that Suttill was picked up by the same airplane. It is possible that Norman and Borrel accompanied Suttill, which would explain why Borrel was not able to shepherd Cohen to Paris until she returned a day or two later.

Another scenario comes to mind: that the special flight of His Majesty King George VI was used instead. The commander of Tempsford station was Group Captain E.H. Fielden, known as ‘Mouse’. As Hugh Verity (author of We Landed by Moonlight) wrote: “He had been the Prince of Wales’ personal pilot and the Captain of the King’s Flight, and had formed 161 Squadron”. A single Hudson aircraft was maintained in operational readiness at Tempsford in the event that King George VI had to be evacuated in an emergency. Since that possibility diminished after 1941, the plane was actually deployed for other purposes – ‘vaguely unauthorized flights’, in the words of Stella King. These included the rescue of important Polish and French generals. Winston Churchill was recorded as making special requests through SIS, and, when he asked for a flight to be arranged to bring back General Georges and his party from the Massif Central in May 1942, the Group Captain himself took the controls. Fielden also piloted the Hudson on which Yvonne Rudellat flew to Gibraltar on her way to being put to shore by felucca in southern France in the summer of 1942.

Thus it would not seem a surprise if Churchill had made a similar request, when he returned from his travels abroad in early June, and learned of PROSPER’s recent visit, that he be brought over for further ‘consultations’, and that the royal Hudson was again seconded for duty. Patrick Marnham has studied the Prime Minister’s movements after he flew in from Gibraltar on June 5, based on Volume VII of Martin Gilbert’s biography of Churchill. Churchill left London for Chequers in Buckinghamshire, north-west of London, on Friday June 11, but spent part of the weekend at Chartwell, his private house in Kent, before returning to London on June 14. Chartwell would have been more convenient for RAF Tangmere in West Sussex (which was also used by the Tempsford squadrons), and thus his presence there could have coincided with PROSPER’s arrival on June 11, and with his departure the following day, the date that has been cited by so many as that of his return to France.

Francis Suttill’s Article

As I was working on this piece in early January, I happened to notice that the Journal of Intelligence and National Security had published on-line, on December 27, 2022, an article by Mr. Suttill. It was titled ‘Was the Prosper French resistance circuit betrayed by the British in 1943?’. My interest was immediately piqued. Now, I am not a subscriber to the Journal: as I have explained before, the Taylor and Francis organization makes it punitively expensive for the private historian or researcher to acquire its publications, or individual articles. Had Mr. Suttill been reading my research, perhaps, and changed his opinions? Regrettably, no. The abstract made it quite clear that he did not believe that British Intelligence had been responsible for the demise of his father’s network –  at least not via ‘betrayal’, though perhaps incompetence had been a factor. Yet the author suggested that ‘newly released information’ had consolidated his judgment of their innocence. I accordingly wrote to Mr. Suttilll, asking him for one of the free access rights that he is entitled to distribute, and saying that I was keen to read what fresh arguments he was offering.

After a couple of days I heard back from Mr. Suttill, and he indeed granted me access. But it was only via the SOE forum that I learned soon after that he had not been aware that his article had been posted on-line! I was in fact the bearer of the news. In advertising its publication to the group, he explained that the Journal had agreed to publish his article in the June 2023 issue, to coincide with the eightieth anniversary of the events, and introduced his comments by writing that his article shows ‘that not only did no one in Britain orchestrate it [the arrest of his father] but they could not have done so even if they had wished to’. That seemed to me a rather tortuous and misguided line to take.

I shall make no further comments here, except to say that Mr Suttill’s argument contains no new information, and he continues to miss the point. Patrick Marnham and I have prepared a riposte that will be sent to the Editor very soon after the day on which this report is being posted, and I shall defer publishing the letter on coldspur lest the Editor want to use it in the Journal.

Conclusions

This is not an open-and-shut case, and much of the evidence is circumstantial. Yet the current record of events, represented by the authorized history and a number of independent studies, is so paradoxical, implausible and contradictory that it cannot be allowed to stand as a statement of fact, no matter what the unqualified and irresponsible SOE ‘historian’ claims. I submit this text as an initiative to try to advance the debate, in the perhaps vain hope that the Foreign Office will see the hopelessness of its current pretence, and discover and release some further files (such as the Gaston Cohen collection) that will allow a more accurate story to be told. If this could occur before June 2023, it would allow, by the time of the octogennial remembrance of the events, a more honest appraisal of the activities that led so many courageous men and women to lose their lives.

(This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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2022: Year-End Round-up

[from an original cut paper collage by Amanda White]

Seasonal Greetings to all coldspur readers! Thank you for all your comments, hints, corrections, praise, criticisms, messages of support, and challenges throughout 2022! Stay in touch.

The SOE On-Line Forum

‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’

Gibson & Gubbins: Further Myths?

Geoffrey Elliott: An Obituary

Coldspur and the archive

Notes and Queries

Dr Austin and ‘Agent Sonya’s Wireless’

John le Carré: Letters & TSWCIFTC

The National Archives

Documents No Longer Talk

Hilary Mantel, Fiction and History

Envoi: Philip Larkin’s Nightwear & Homo Sapiens and Us

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The SOE On-Line Forum

The Special Operations Executive appears to have settled into a sedate maturity. Now over eighty years old, its authorized histories have been written (partially); the plaques and memorials of its most brave and intrepid agents have been set up: several biographies – all very flattering – of its most celebrated leader, Colin Gubbins, have been written; the ceremonies of remembrance take place with appropriate dignity and respect; the obituaries of its members are diminishing in number; occasional items on the radio and in the press about the exploits of SOE include a mix of romantic embellishment with more solid facts. Overall, its reputation is good: new histories of the war regularly emphasize the contribution it made to the conclusion of the hostilities, frequently citing the somewhat overstated opinion of General Eisenhower. No academic historian appears to want to rock the boat and present a re-assessment of the practices and achievements of the organization.

I am rather uncomfortable about this state of affairs. I have performed enough research this year, on the incidents involving PROSPER and the Cockade deception scheme, and in a detailed analysis of the contribution of Colonel Gubbins, to convince myself that the current story is inadequate and misleading. Part of this conclusion emanates from the fact that the authorized histories of SOE are so defective. The only substantial volume covers France, but the original 1960s edition was severely censored, and, when the author, M. R. D. Foot, came to revise it in 2004, he neglected to analyze subsequent research, and failed to reconcile conflicts in his story. Meanwhile, the air has been cluttered with a host of memoirs and biographies that casually mix archival records with highly dubious assertions about events.

Thus, earlier this year, I was energized to discover an SOE forum/chat-group on the Web, and joined it. I thought that a colloquium of serious students of SOE would lead to a more profound assessment of all the new evidence about the strategies of SOE, and its relationship with the Chiefs of Staff, with MI6, and with the London Controlling Station. The members of the group whose postings I have read are almost exclusively dedicated and estimable persons who are sincere about establishing the facts about a number of SOE actions and projects. They include some distinguished authors of books on military history and intelligence. They share their findings, and encourage others (many of whom are performing family-based research) in their aspirations, and guide them in their inquiries. They are led by a member of the Special Forces Club, which was created to perpetuate the heroics of members of SOE.

Yet I rapidly became disenchanted. The group is very absorbed with (and efficient at) resolving questions such as: At which country house did the Poles get their training? What airport was used for launching Operation X? What medals were awarded to the members of Mission Y? Exactly what firearms did they carry? What was the background of Agent Z? Whenever a matter of more controversial substance arises, however, I have noticed that a sepulchral silence takes over. I have been prompted a few times, by the raising of a topic close to my research on SOE (such as my coverage of PROSPER, or the career of Colin Gubbins, or the troublesome history of the Russian Section), gently to draw attention to my researches on coldspur by providing a link. While I have received some private messages of encouragement arising from such introductions, the only public statements from the forum have almost exclusively been intemperate and dismissive lectures from one of the senior members.

It seems to me that the group is somewhat in awe of Francis Suttill, and he has a cabal of supporters who rally round him. Now, I happen to think that Mr. Suttill deserves a lot of sympathy and respect: sympathy, because his father was cruelly murdered by the Nazis in March 1945, and respect, because he has performed some painstaking (but flawed) research into the exploits of F Section of SOE in WWII. But that does not entitle him to maintain a closed mind on the tribulations of 1943, which standpoint he has unmistakably adopted. He is in the thrall of M. R. D. Foot, the late historian of SOE, and of Mark Seaman, the successor to the advisors from the Foreign Office, and it appears to me that he is not really willing to engage in calm and constructive debate about the surviving anomalies of SOE’s French adventures in 1942 and 1943.

When in early November I drew attention to my research on coldspur, and my theory that Francis Suttill Sr. probably made two journeys back to the UK in May and June 1943, Suttill Jr. responded on the SOE forum with an ill-mannered attack on my scholarship. I ignored it, as previous direct exchanges with him had proved fruitless, and he had abandoned me mid-stream in April after we had started an email dialogue about the events of summer 1943. And then, a few days later, a person identified as ‘Emma’ submitted his complete tirade to me on coldspur, and I decided to approve the whole message, while pointing out that neither she nor Mr Suttill had apparently read what I had written. I said I would welcome any serious response, and would be delighted to engage in debate. Emma then replied, expressing her surprise at what I had written, while erroneously suggesting there was evidence that Suttill had never made a second visit to the UK (an almost impossible task to prove, incidentally).

All those postings can be seen at http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/, following the text of the article. At this stage I decide that Emma needed to come out into the open, and I accordingly sent an email message to the address supplied with her WordPress posting, where I explained that she needed to divulge to me (confidentially) details about her real name, her residence, and her qualifications and connections before we moved forward. I then discovered that the email address she gave me was a non-existent one, and I alerted her (via coldspur) that she was henceforward disqualified from posting any comments on my site until she came clean with her name and affiliations. (The original email, and the subsequent posting, can also be inspected on coldspur.)

That was not the last I heard from ‘Emma’: a few days later she explained that she had mis-spelled her email address, and did not want to divulge her full name. That was enough for me: my policy is not to allow anyone to enter serious debate (as opposed to offering incidental comments) on coldspur who is unwilling to confide to me his or her name and qualifications. ‘Emma’ may not have been a woman; she may have been one of Suttill’s acolytes put up to goad me. I have no idea. In fact, since she has not offered one single argument of any merit, but simply shown herself as a shill for Suttill, it doesn’t really matter. But the whole farrago seems to be exceedingly sad: that a group established to investigate SOE (and promote the memory of its gallant agents, of course) should so smoothly slide into such incurious and obstinate behaviour, and that one of its members should so naively dissemble in an effort to discredit my own careful and professional researches, reflect poorly on the state of serious historical inquiry.

And then, out of the blue, at the end of November, I received a conciliatory email from Mr. Suttill, apologizing for taking so long to respond to my questions from last April. I thanked him for his insights, promised to follow his advice and delve carefully into the records, and on December 11 sent him a long and careful email listing a number of questions I had concerning his conclusions. A week later, I received a detailed reply, for which I was very grateful. It communicated a very useful message, although the text confirmed to me that Mr. Suttill really has no methodology behind his researches. Shortly after Christmas I consequently sent a long screed to Mr Suttill, in which I explained my methodological approach, and outlined in detail the flaws that I believe exist in his account of the events. I shall report on the outcome next month.

The Airmen Who Died Twice

Operation PARAVANE

Several correspondents have asked me where this project stands. I presented a teaser article back in early June of this year, where I described the crash of a Lancaster aircraft in Norway in September 1944, on a return from a bombing raid on the Tirpitz using a temporary airbase in Yagodnik, in northern Russia. I suggested that the records of the anomalous casualties had been covered up, as two of the fatalities initially reported survived only to be killed by the Germans on the Swiss border a month later, and I committed that a full explanation would be forthcoming.

It has proved to be a fascinating exercise. Nigel Austin (with whom I am collaborating) and I have now completed seven chapters of ten, and plan to complete the project by early 2023. What will happen with our story is uncertain: we hope to find a reputable outlet that will issue the story, although its length may be challenging. As a back-up, we have coldspur, and, if we decide to use that medium, shall probably release a chapter a week in order to make it a more manageable serial.

The ramifications of the accident have been wide-ranging. Our researches have taken us into such fields as: the strange, late decisions that were made on the logistics of the Tirpitz raid; Stalin’s SMERSH organization, and its relationship with the NKVD; the Warsaw Uprising; the use of bases in Poltava by the USAAF; SOE’s relationships with Norway’s resistance organization, MILORG; Communist factionalism in Norway; the Soviet Union’s plans for regaining territory in Finland and acquiring some in northern Norway; Stalin’s desire to acquire Allied technology clandestinely; the controversies surrounding the British Military Mission in Moscow; disagreements over policy between the War Office and the Foreign Office; and SOE’s relationship with the NKVD representative in London, Colonel Chichaev. The investigation is thus multi-faceted, and the conclusions are shocking. Watch this space for more information.

One of the most fascinating parts of the project has been studying the records of the communications between the Foreign Office, the Chiefs of Staff, the Air Ministry, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Embassy in Moscow, and the 30 Military Mission (which was strictly independent of the Embassy and its own attachés representing the armed forces). A continual battle took place in 1943 and 1944 between the appeasers of the Foreign Office (rather surprisingly supported by Cavendish-Bentinck, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee) and the Chiefs of Staff, who demanded a more rigorous approach by the Head of Mission in order to overcome Soviet intransigence and lack of co-operation. The Foreign Office managed to have General Martel recalled, presumably because of his arrogance and obstinacy, and arranged for the more conciliatory General Burrows to replace him. Yet Burrows quickly encountered the same difficulties as Martell had experienced, and started to echo Martell’s tune, much to the embarrassment of the Foreign Office mandarins.

One anecdote in this business I found very amusing. Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Minister, believed that he had established a strong personal relationship with Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, and wrote a personal note to him introducing General Burrows, assuring Molotov that he would take to Burrows ‘because he is a close personal friend of mine’. How Old Stonearse responded privately to this message is not recorded, but the allusion might have been lost on him. In the Soviet Union, ‘friends’ were people you informed upon and betrayed, lest they do the dirty on you first. Molotov himself failed to come to the rescue of his own wife, who was arrested and incarcerated by Stalin as an obvious member of the Great Jewish Conspiracy, and he subsequently divorced her. It just shows how little the Foreign Office understood the nature of the Soviet system.

Coincidentally, as I was concluding this section, I found an observation by George Kennan (at the time deputy to US Ambassador in Moscow Averell Harriman) made during the Yalta conference in February 1945. When asked to comment on personal relationships (Roosevelt had boasted of the ‘friendship’ he enjoyed with Stalin), Kennan said:

            For a Soviet official to do anything or say anything in deference to a personal relationship which one would not have done or said in a straight performance of official duties would be considered equivalent to acting in the interests of a foreign state.

Verb. sap.

Gibson & Gubbins: Further Myths?

When I wrote recently about Harold Gibson, and his imaginary spy in the Kremlin, I drew attention to the fact that an eager crew of writers was ready to promulgate the myth on the shakiest of evidence. As I delved more deeply into the stories surrounding Gibson, I discovered that Colin Gubbins, the SOE chief from September 1943 onwards, about whom I had somewhat disparagingly written earlier in the year, had also been infiltrated into some historical narratives, and such tales now appear as facts in many serious-looking article on the Web.

It all started with Frederick Winterbotham, who, in 1974, in his book The Ultra Secret, broke the silence on Bletchley Park and the decryption of ENIGMA (and other) signals that became known as ULTRA. Unfortunately, Winterbotham had only a vague idea of exactly what was going on, and he was assuredly ignorant of how the expertise in the internals of the ENIGMA machine had been developed. Someone must have fed him a line, since he described how, in 1938, a Polish mechanic working in Eastern Germany on ENIGMA got himself sacked and was sent back to Poland. In Warsaw, he reputedly contacted British Intelligence in Warsaw. The head of MI6, Hugh Sinclair, delegated the project to his deputy, Stewart Menzies. The Pole was smuggled out to Paris with the help of the Polish Secret Service, where the Deuxième Bureau gave him a workshop in which he constructed a model of ENIGMA.

Unfortunately, none of this was verifiable, but it did not prevent Anthony Cave-Brown from enthusiastically picking up (and embellishing) the story in his 1975 publication Bodyguard of Lies. He described how, in June 1938, Gibson issued a report on a visit he made to Warsaw, where he had met a Polish Jew named ‘Lewinsky’ (not his real name), who had worked at a factory in Berlin where the ENIGMA was produced. He had been expelled because of his religion, but felt he had valuable information to sell, and requested ₤10,000, a British passport, and a resident’s permit in France for him and his wife. He claimed that he knew enough to build a replica. Menzies was suspicious, but when the technical data were examined, the judgment emerged that his information was genuine. In August 1938, he sent two experts to meet Lewinsky in person, Dillwyn Knox and Alan Turing. If that distinguished twosome were satisfied that Lewinsky was genuine, they were to arrange with Gibson to take the Pole and his wife to Paris.

Now the careful student might at this stage raise some questions. Turing was not recruited by GC&CS until September 1939, so it would be unlikely that Knox would have selected him for such a sensitive project at that time. In any event, as Cave-Brown reported, they went to Warsaw and met Lewinsky, ‘a dark man in his early 40s’, as Wilfred Dunderdale, resident MI6 officer in Paris, described him. Knox and Turing returned and advised Menzies that the bargain should be accepted. Lewinsky and his wife were taken by Gibson through Gdynia and Stockholm to Paris, where Dunderdale took them under his wing. Lewinsky created the replica of the Enigma machine from his apartment.

Now this whole adventure is probably a complete hoax – and Dunderdale might have been complicit in it rather than responsible for providing an authentic-sounding testimony. In August 1939, a successful visit was made by GC&CS personnel to Polish Intelligence to gain information on, and a replica of, the Enigma machine. In several stories that can be found on the Web (at least one by a published author), Gubbins’ arrival in Poland just after the war broke out, on a military intelligence mission, has been presented as part of this successful exploit, but the claim does not hold any water. I shall explore and explain the whole shifty and contradictory story of how the Poles actually contributed to the success of the Enigma project in a posting early next year, but simply make the point here that the British, the French, and even the Poles, all out of reasons of national pride, or to cover up their own inadequacies or exaggerate their own creativity, all contributed to the haze that has surrounded the transfer of cryptologic skills to Bletchley Park, and their subsequent development.

The particular poignancy that this story has for me concerns Alastair Denniston, and the cruel way that his contributions between the wars were diminished when he was removed from his leadership in 1942, becoming the only head of GC&CS/GCHQ not to receive a knighthood. (I wrote about this puzzle in http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-iv/ ) Now I believe I may understand why. I suspect that he made a fateful blunder in the early 1930s, when he rejected an approach from the French about gaining a copy of the specifications of the ENIGMA machine from Polish sources. That must have caused enormous frustration to Knox when he learned about it, and the British campaign to provide mechanisms to decrypt Enigma messages was set back several years. I shall pick up this story in my coming account, and also inspect the occasional claim made that the Gibson aspect of the adventure may have some truth to it.

Geoffrey Elliott: An Obituary

Geoffrey Elliott

Earlier this year I was invited to contribute an obituary on Geoffrey Elliott for the on-line newsletter published by the Whitgift Association, under the auspices of Whitgift School, which establishment we both attended (although Elliott left a year before I arrived). My father, who attended Whitgift from 1922-1930, was a master there for over thirty years, acted as honorary archivist, and wrote the History of Whitgift School, had also taught Elliott. The following duly appeared in October:

Geoffrey Elliott (1949-1955) was born in April 1939 to Kavan Elliott, a bohemian character who worked for the Special Operations Executive during World War II, and Sonia Redstone, the daughter of emigrés from Siberia. With his father engaged in both forced and unforced absences from the family home, Geoffrey’s mother had moved Geoffrey and his sister Jennifer to Purley, probably because Dick White, then a senior officer in MI5 (who had taught at the School in the early 1930s) had recommended Whitgift as an institution suitable for her son.

His career at Whitgift was unremarkable (described with wit in Geoffrey’s memoir about his father, I Spy), but in 1957 Sonia Elliott was killed by a drunk driver in Purley High Street. In Elliott’s words ‘life span out of control for a while’. Yet, with the support of his grandfather, he managed to find a position working as an articled clerk for the illustrious lawyer Lord Goodman, one of the two major influences in his life. Goodman had been the solicitor for the Balkan Sobranie tobacco business run by Geoffrey’s grandfather and great-uncle.

National Service then called, and Elliott entered the Intelligence Corps. Having applied to learn Arabic, he was then sent on the last of the courses for interpreters in Russian, and spent an enjoyable couple of years journeying between Cambridge and London. He starred at this assignment (despite never having learned any Russian from his grandparents). The rewards, however, were unexciting. As he wrote: “Not for me the clandestine delights of supposedly chance encounters on that well-worn Regent’s Park bench with some charismatic unfrocked Hungarian priest coyly sounding me out for membership of the Whitgift Twelve.”

Instead, his training led him to a productive spell of translating, where his main customer was ‘that bow-tied bullshit artist’ Robert Maxwell. He married Fay (who predeceased him by two years), and moved to Reuters, where he very successfully monitored Soviet radio broadcasts. It was at this time that he worked in some capacity for ‘the Firm’ (MI6), following his father, who had undergone painful experiences in Hungary after being arrested there in 1948 with the cover of an executive for Unilever. Elliott became a senior associate member at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and his friends and colleagues there became an important part of his research activities in later life. He was elected to an Honorary Fellowship there in 1997.

The second major influence on Elliott was the banker Siegmund Warburg, the head of an ‘arriviste’ but very successful banking-house, who had refreshing ideas about recruitment and training. Elliott prospered there before being tempted to move to the USA, where he became Managing Director for Morgan Stanley. In 1990 the Elliotts retired to Bermuda, where they embarked on a generous and culturally rich course of philanthropy. Geoffrey became Chairman of the Bermuda National Gallery, and was awarded the OBE in 2004 for his contribution to Bermuda’s cultural heritage. In 2002, Geoffrey and Fay also donated an exceptional assortment of rare books and manuscripts to the Special Collections Library of Leeds University.

Geoffrey Elliott was a widely-read individual, with a broad interest in many matters of history and culture, and he devoted much of his retirement in a quest to learn more about his errant father’s life and exploits, as well as the exotic background of his maternal grandparents. He left two outstanding memoirs, I Spy (primarily about his father), and From Siberia, With Love, which is an extraordinary account of how the Redstones met in prison, married, and made their way to London before returning to Siberia and escaping a second time. His books are percipient, witty, and allusive, a combination of the content, style and anecdotage of John le Carré, Fitzroy Maclean and Alan Furst.

Yet one unique achievement occurred in a more covert way. Elliott contributed to other books, such as Secret Classrooms, with Harold Shukman, which tells the story of the Joint Services School for Linguists, and with Igor Damaskin to a biography of Kitty Harris, Donald Maclean’s lover, The Spy With Seventeen Names. He was also in demand as a translator, applying his skills to Rufina Philby’s memoir, and more exquisitely, translating documents from the KGB archive for Nigel West’s book on government secrets purloined by the Cambridge Five (Triplex), which the Soviets had translated into Russian. Since many of these original papers have not been released by the British Government, Elliott’s re-translations of these back into English are the only available versions.

This obituarist had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Elliott (by email and telephone) while researching his doctorate in Security and Intelligence Studies a few years ago. Geoffrey was modest, insightful, patient, amusing – and sometimes very waspish. The character and wisdom of the man came through immediately, and I was very grateful for his guidance on some problematic matters of intelligence.

Geoffrey Elliott’s heritage was surely more exotic than most. Yet in some way it perhaps mirrored that of many Whitgiftians. Mysterious backgrounds tend to be subdued in the uniforms and conventionality of suburban schooling, and the subjects probably believe their lives are just as normal or abnormal as that of every other boy. And then they take their experiences to make some sort of mark in the wider world. In Geoffrey’s case, he underwent a few apparently mundane years in Surrey suburbia, plagued by teenage worries and bizarre schoolmasters. A full life then followed, an outstanding career in several fields of endeavour, all carried out with aplomb but little trumpeting. He concluded in his retirement that he had become a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, but, despite his lack of sense of belonging, Elliott left a deep and positive impression everywhere he worked and lived. He died in Bermuda on May 1, 2021.

(Soon after this piece was published, I heard from my friend Nigel Platts, who edits the newsletter in which it appeared, that he had recently encountered a close schooltime friend of Geoffrey Elliott’s on a social occasion. This colleague mentioned that, when he and Elliott took O-Level Latin, Elliott left Big School after 20 minutes or thereabouts, not because he was stumped by the paper but because he had completed it. His friend said that Elliott was a most remarkable linguist – it was no surprise that he went through the JSSL or that he prospered in investment banking.)

Coldspur and the archive

Since I wrote about the challenges of preserving my library of books and papers, and making it available for a future generation of researchers, a few correspondents have expressed sympathy with my efforts to find a suitable home, and have offered some suggestions. I am grateful to them all, and am happy to report – rather cautiously, as nothing has been signed yet – that I am engaged in very positive discussions with an institution that is very enlightened about ‘special collections’, appreciates the unique substance of my collection of books and archival material, and is also imaginative as to how some of my research aids, such as the very detailed Chronology of Events supported by hundreds of sources, could be deployed electronically to empower students of twentieth-century history. I shall report further as the project evolves.

Two other aspects of the archive occupy my mind occasionally. I am frequently stressed to recall in which posting an important reference occurs. The internal search capability provides some introductory information, but is not adequate for detailed inspection, and I have to switch to my Word versions to obtain highlighted incidences. A comprehensive Index would be very desirable, but, owing to the density of the texts, would be a mammoth exercise that I am not prepared to undertake. Perhaps an undergraduate project at some stage.

The other exercise would be to create PDF versions of major pieces, a feature that a few correspondents have asked about. (Some find the on-line version unwieldy to read, and I do provide Word versions of each piece on request.) PDFs would presumably give the articles greater substance and identity, and maybe increase their utility and availability. I do not have a full license for Postscript, so have not been able to experiment with such a process, but, if any reader has insights and advice on this topic, I should be happy to receive them.

What about the short term? Over the holidays I was reading about the new ‘chatbot’ (dreadful word!) ChatGPT, and how it was amazingly producing elegant responses to routine inquiries. So I decided to try it out, to see how it would respond to the question ‘Who was ELLI?’, and thereby advance the cause of human knowledge. I thus went to the OpenAI site, requested a download for the free trial, entered my email address, and then responded to the verification message by entering my telephone number. I then received the message: “SMS Verification is not supported by landline phones”.

Ha! I wasn’t falling for that! The oldest trick in the book! My cellphone sits in my drawer, turned off, for 98% of the time, and is only powered on when I go out. (Though I expect that, before too long, I shall need to reveal it in order to access my own bank account . . .) I don’t give the number out to anyone: the only two persons who know it are our son and my wife. So OpenAI isn’t that smart, is it? On the other hand, perhaps someone else who is more liberal in passing out his or her mobile phone number could try out ChatGPT, and let me know the answer to the ‘ELLI’ question.

So what about coldspur in 2023? On the docket: PROSPER’s secret return to the UK; the truth behind Alistair Denniston and ENIGMA; the resolution of The Airmen Who Died Twice; the structure of Soviet counter-espionage in MI5 at the end of the war; John Tiltman’s mysterious exploits in Finland; a study of wireless traffic probably betrayed by George Graham; an inspection of the recently release MI5 files from Kew; perhaps more on ELLI and Archie Gibson  . . . . (although, at some stage during 2023, I might hand over the writing of the blog to ChatGPT. I doubt anyone will notice). Don’t touch that dial!

Notes and Queries

I frequently receive from correspondents tips on matters of intelligence, some of which seem particularly fruity, and need to be followed up. Yet I always ask the following questions:

  • Who is the source?
  • Is there any documentary evidence?
  • May I quote you?

And if any of the answers are negative, I tread very carefully, lest I appear like Chapman Pincher, fed spurious information by ‘good authorities who have to remain anonymous’.

One recent item sounded plausible. I was told that MI5 applied a lot of pressure on Leo Marks (and his publishers) when he wrote Between Silk and Cyanide, as he had included some very critical remarks about SOE’s performance in WWII, and the service had successfully managed to keep such comments out of the book. Now that would not surprise me, as Marks made some fairly scathing observations about Colin Gubbins, and what he had originally written might ‘help me with my inquiries’ into the deceptions of F Section. My informant said that Marks’s original manuscript existed somewhere, waiting to be inspected, but could not tell me any more. Can anyone out there help?

My second query relates to Genrikh Borovik’s Philby Files. Keith Ellison and I have been working closely on this very chaotic book recently, trying to resolve its many errors, paradoxes and contradictions. For instance, Borovik’s claim that Ivan Chichaev handled Philby during the war turns out to be almost certainly false, since Borovik equates VADIM with Chichaev, and has him handling Philby in early 1941. But Chichaev did not arrive in London until December 1941, and VADIM was Anatoly Gorsky.

A passage that has particularly engrossed us is the transcription of a report made by Gorsky (then named ‘KAP’) from London, to Moscow Centre, on July 10, 1939. It runs as follows:

            Very soon, ‘S’ will come here to resolve the question of future work. While here, ‘Mary’ met one of her intimate friends, a certain ‘Stuart’, whom, she says, we knew nothing about. She has written a detailed report on him. This ‘Stuart’ is now working on some top-secret project, probably for the illegal ministry of information and, in his words, has already recommended ‘Söhnchen’ for this work to his bosses. The question will be decided while ‘Söhnchen’ is here.

(‘S’ and ‘SÖHNCHEN’ are Philby. ‘MARY’ is Litzi Philby, domiciled primarily in Paris, where Donald Maclean is currently stationed. Maclean’s cryptonym is now STUART, it having been changed since Kathy Harris, his courier and lover, revealed his previous cryptonym, LYRIK, to him, against all the rules.)

Keith and I disagree about the probable identity of ‘Stuart’. He thinks that it refers to Maclean, and that Maclean was probably involved with Guy Burgess’s project at the Joint Broadcasting Company (the ‘illegal ministry of information’). He deems it unlikely that two agents would have been given the name of STUART. My thought is that ‘Stuart’ is the person’s real name. Litzi Philby strongly suggests that the person is working in London, and that she had a meeting with him there. Maclean, moreover, would hardly have been spending time on any such surreptitious projects from Paris.

There is ambiguity in the phrase ‘we knew nothing about’ him. Is ‘we’ the London residency, or the NKVD overall? The London station was being rebuilt, and trying to discover who its agents were. Yet, if Litzi knew that her ‘Stuart’ was actually Maclean, why would she have to write a detailed report on him, since she could have referred Gorsky to Moscow Centre, which was receiving Maclean’s reports from the Paris residency? It sounds to me as if ‘Stuart’ is a potential new contact working in the government (and probably not Stuart Hampshire, who, while having a slightly dubious reputation in this business, was a fellow at All Souls’ College at this time). ‘Stuart’ knows Philby well enough to want to recommend him for a job, and is surely working on the wrong side of the blanket if he is an ‘intimate friend’ of Litzi’s.

Ironically, this may not be the only occasion where confusion over cryptonyms has reigned. In SOE’s F Section in 1943, Henri Déricourt was known as ‘GILBERT’. In some communications, GILBERT was taken as referring to Gilbert Norman (ARCHAMBAUD), PROSPER’s chief wireless operator, with unhappy outcomes. For instance, in May 1943, the Abwehr agent Richard Christmann, posing as a Belgian resistance worker called ‘Arnaud’, asked the proprietor of a Paris restaurant where members of PROSPER’s group frequently met if he could put him in touch with GILBERT, and the owner naively led him to Gilbert Norman.

Borovik uses this incident to show the confusion at the Lubyanka over the identity of their sources, but perhaps it has a simpler explanation. Can anyone help? How would you interpret this passage? And can you shed light on who ‘Stuart’ might be? Answers on a postcard, please.

Dr Austin and ‘Agent Sonya’s Wireless’

Dr. Brian Austin

Coldspur readers may recall Dr Brian Austin, now retired, who was a distinguished academic in the Department of Engineering and Electronics at Liverpool University, and is a noted historian and biographer (of Sir Basil Schonland). Over the years, he has been very helpful in guiding me on wireless matters, and he contributed a vital column on coldspur in December 2020, where he explained the difference between wavelengths and frequencies. He is also a keen follower of intelligence matters, and has tracked with great interest the erratic accounts of Sonya’s adventures with wireless. He even wrote to Ben Macintyre to challenge the popular author’s claims, but his appeals went unanswered.

That interest was recently converted into a fascinating and comprehensive analysis of the unlikely exploits that Sonya must have undertaken to achieve the results attributed to her in Macintyre’s largely fanciful account of her enterprises in espionage, or, more accurately, couriership. Dr Austin’s article, ‘Sonya’s Wireless: fact, fiction, fantasy and fable’ was published by Signal magazine in August of this year. Unfortunately, the publishers of Signal do not offer an on-line version, but Dr Austin has generously allowed me to post the PDF of his article on coldspur, and it can be viewed at Sonya’s Wireless.

[I regret that I have experienced a few problems installing and using the Plug-In for importing PDFs to WordPress, which may not have been tested with the release of the product that I use. The result is not as clean as I hoped: the PDF can appear only as a ‘Post’, not a separate ‘Page’, and I cannot correct the text, or its erratic disruption of paragraphs. I may try scanning the individual pages into a separate document. My apologies.]

I am sure all coldspur readers will be impressed by Dr Austin’s scholarship and insights. He brings to what could easily have become a dry-as-dust study a wonderfully entertaining analysis, laced with wit and wisdom. His article deserves wider distribution. One item to which I want to draw attention, however, is Dr Austin’s link to my review of Ben Macintyre’s book on the website of the Journal of Intelligence and National Security. Since the review will be blocked from non-subscribers, I remind readers that they can access it on coldspur, at http://www.coldspur.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Courier-traitor-bigamist-fabulist-behind-the-mythology-of-a-superspy.pdf.  Now, if only we could persuade Ben Macintyre to study our articles seriously. . . .

John le Carré: Letters & TSWCIFTC

John le Carre

My copy of John le Carré’s Letters, A Perfect Spy, arrived earlier this month, and I have been reading it with mixed reactions. Overall, it is rather a bland and routine collection, where the letter-writer rarely gives much away of the secret self that he protected for so long. Le Carré carefully selected which of his letters should be preserved, although the editor, his son, Tim, was able to supplement the trove with items from various addressees, and their archives. I had to turn back to Adam Sisman’s unsatisfactory biography (he appeared to lose interest as his subject aged) to fill in some of the pieces. A few extracts appear, but no letters written to le Carré are included, a phenomenon that always gives a one-dimensional aspect to the dialogues that must have gone on. Only occasionally does the wit, drive and magnetism that made le Carré such an attractive partner come through – as in a very impassioned letter that he wrote to his lover, Susan Kennaway, who was, with her husband, close friends of le Carré and his first wife, Ann. Here he essentially breaks off the relationship, but the inclusion is surely made to remind readers of his essential decency. While I should have liked to read the letter le Carré claimed he sent to Stalin, expressing his support for opening the ‘Second Front’, and complaining about his boarding-school,  I was distressed to read his letter to Ben Macintyre of August 31, 2020, complimenting him on Agent Sonya: ‘ . . . it’s absolutely terrific; an elegantly assembled, scrupulously researched, beautifully told compulsive read, and an extraordinary slice of history’, and ‘But best of all you made us over time love and admire Sonya herself’. ‘Love and admire’? ‘Us’? Pass the sick bag, Alice.

TSWCIFTC

Over the holiday I also watched the DVD of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I had acquired a few months ago. I had imagined that I must have seen this film back in 1966, soon after it came out (when I had already read the book), but I could recall only one scene –  the event in the grocery-shop where Leamas attacks the proprietor for not granting him credit –  and the bulk of it seemed entirely fresh, so maybe I just saw a trailer. I know I did not understand all the twists when I read the book as an eighteen-year-old, so I brought a more seasoned perspective to the story in 2022.

It was an engrossing experience in many ways. The views of 1960s London were fascinating, and it was good to see again some familiar faces (e.g. Robert Hardy, Michael Hordern, Rupert Davies, and the delightful Claire Bloom, still with us, I happily notice, at age ninety-one). The sets were suitably damp and noirish, and the acting was generally excellent. But the scenes in cars looked very phony (why did drivers think they had to twist childishly the steering-wheel left and right all the time to suggest they were really manipulating a vehicle?), and the proceedings of the DDR tribunal, all being carried out in impeccable English, were jarring. If those scenes were re-done, I imagine they would take place in a mixture of English and German, but with sub-titles.

The actions of the East German traitor, Mundt, troubled me, and I wondered whether le Carré had got in a bit above his head. Mundt has inveigled Leamas’s lover, Nan Perry (Liz Gold in the book) into the country, in order for her to show the tribunal that she knew George Smiley, and that MI6 was paying her rent. Leamas himself is shown to be a false defector, under control of MI6, and would face a hefty sentence. (In the book, he kills an East German guard: I did not notice that in the movie.) Mundt is in a quandary: he knows that he is expendable to the British, and that he must be being watched carefully by the DDR government. Nan is a British citizen (though a member of the Communist Party), and would be expected to be able to make an open return to the UK. But she knows too much, and could betray him. Mundt would have little ideological sympathy for Leamas, since he himself is a mercenary, not an ideological, traitor, but he presumably feels he has to send Leamas back somehow to please his controllers in London.

So why the ruse to have Leamas and Perry make a dangerously arranged flight over the Berlin Wall (although the murder of Perry was always planned that way)? Why did Perry go along with it? And why didn’t Mundt simply arrange for them to have been unfortunately killed in a car accident, disposing of them relatively quietly, and washing his hands of them, instead of organizing a highly unlikely escape from their place of incarceration? No doubt I am missing something. The recruitment of Mundt, and the matter of his psychology and motivations, must present challenges that are not easily side-stepped. I shall have to go back and re-read the book. (I note that le Carré, in a 1994 letter to a German reader who spotted inconsistencies in the novel, wrote: “The book was always a rough instrument and underwent none of the fine editorial tuning to which I and my publishers have subjected my more recent work.”)

The National Archives

On October 11 a considerable number of MI5 files was released to the public. They contained files ‘on people with links to the Cambridge spy ring, including Fred Warner, Jack Hewit, Victor and Tess Rothschild, and Goronwy Rees’. I am sure that Victor Rothschild would have objected violently to being described in those terms, as it suggests that he was in some way associated with the ring itself, as opposed to just being on friendly terms with its members, but the categorization is just. What is regrettable that the files on the spies themselves have not been released, and the supposed reasons (such as members of a family having to be protected) are obviously spurious in the case of Guy Burgess, who had no offspring.

I have not inspected carefully any of these files yet, but plan to do so in 2023. One of my correspondents, Edward M, has beaten me to the punch, and he has posted a comment against my November 2019 Round-up concerning Rothschild’s attempts to alert Peter Wright to the true identity of ‘PETERS’ (the MI5 investigation into the reliability of Graham Mitchell). William Tyrer has alerted me to a 1961 investigation into Jenifer Hart as a possible ‘ELLI’ suspect. Keith Ellison has also dug into the file on Harold Philby (actually released in 2002), and discovered some references to vetting procedures being explored with Litzi Philby (Kim’s first, Communist, wife) and Kim himself at the end of 1939 and early 1940, before Philby’s official interview with Valentine Vivian of MI6 in July 1940. Keith has written these up in his e-book (page 22), for which a link appears in my recent report ‘Gibby’s Spy’.

Young Stalin

My interest was piqued by the fact that the files recently released included records of the notorious rabble-rouser Joseph Stalin, as if he were one of those dubious characters that MI5’s watchers should ‘keep an eye on’ if he managed to gain entry to the country via Harwich or some other port, perhaps in some disguise. In fact the Personal File on Stalin was created only on December 13th, 1920, when he was recognized as a ‘revolutionary propagandist’, and most of the file concerns reactions after his death in 1953, and various rumours about his death, and his possibly having been a spy for the Okhrana in his younger days.

Yet Stalin had visited the United Kingdom in 1907, and was watched by the Special Branch. As Stephen Kotkin wrote in the first volume of his biography, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928:

. . . Jughashvili [Stalin] stole across the border to attend the 5th Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party Congress held between April 30 and May 19, 1907, in north London’s Brotherhood Church. Congress luminaries were lodged in Bloomsbury, but Jughashvili stayed with the mass of delegates in the East End. One night, utterly drunk, he got into a pub scrape with a drunken Brit [serious historians should never refer to subjects of HRH as ‘Brits’. Ed.] , and the owner summoned the police. Only the intercession of the quick-witted, English-speaking Bolshevik Meir Henoch Mojszewicz Wallach, known as Maxim Litvinov, saved Jughashvili from arrest.

Who was that heroic citizen who, with a better-guided punch, might perhaps have caused a career-stopping injury to the future dictator? He should have been given an OBE on the spot. And if Stalin had been arrested, could not an unfortunate accident have been arranged that would have taken him permanently out of commission? What worldwide pain and suffering might have been averted had he come to a sticky end in Stepney! In any case, the Special Branch appeared not to start a tab on him. And maybe the survival of Litvinov (who married an English girl, Ivy Low, in 1916) owed something to the fact that he had intervened to save his room-mate and pal back in 1907. Anastas Mikoyan, however, suggested that Stalin had had Litvinov murdered in a motor accident in 1951.

One significant item in the file is a somewhat portentous obituary written by Sir Alvary Trench-Gascoigne, the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time of Stalin’s death. He composed a tribute to Stalin for the attention of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden, rather understating the Marshall’s cruelties while exaggerating his leadership qualities. It is titled ’Some of the Main Facts in Stalin’s Life’. Thus we learn that, when Stalin became supreme ruler of Russia [sic: actually the U.S.S.R.] in 1924:

            He ruthlessly disposed of his enemies, replaced the ‘old’ intelligentsia with his own bureaucratic henchman [sic], and finally purged the party of most of the remnants of the old guard Bolsheviks, sending many thousands of guilty and innocent alike to death or concentration camps.

Thousands? Maybe that was the best assessment the Foreign Office had at the time, but the summary ignores all the horrors of the Holodomor, the Purges, and the immensity of the Gulags. Gascoigne (as he signs himself here) goes on to praise Stalin’s personality:

            He has played an outstanding part on the world scene for almost thirty years of this century. His position was due to his extraordinary tenacity and strength of character, his salty realism, shrewdness and common sense. In company he knew how to relieve his normal dourness of manner with striking flashes of humour and undoubted reserves of personal charm. His personality had the quality of greatness, the proof of which is the way in which he transformed Russia from a backward semi-agrarian economy into a military-industrial State of first importance.

What a mensch! About the only thing Gascoigne left out was that Stalin ‘was a man you would want to go tiger-shooting with’. It is all rather gruesome and feeble. Here was a man who had recently extended his prison-camp over the whole of eastern Europe, and had designs on bringing the western countries under his orbit, by force if necessary. And Gascoigne appears to be oblivious to the threat. Still, that had been the dominant Foreign Office view of the man, and of the Soviet Union, for a while.

Documents No Longer Talk

Documentstalk was a website that I occasionally used to visit. It was managed by someone called Svetlana Chervonnaya, and she introduced it with the following text:

            I live in Moscow, Russia, and by education and professional experience I am what we call here an ‘Amerikanist’ – a scholar whose occupation is the study of the United States of America.

Chervonnaya’s mission was to shed light on fresh revelations from Soviet archives on the exploits of Soviet espionage in the United States. It appeared that she had access to files that were not available to other researchers, although I questioned that assertion, as her explanations were not convincing. William Tyrer, who performed some valuable original research on Igor Gouzenko, and also had some challenging experiences with the Cleveland Cram archive, was in regular touch with her.

Yet www.documentstalk.com  is no more. At least, the substance has disappeared. President Putin must have decided that such open discussions acted counter to Russian interests, and closed it down. The website is now just a shell. However, by clicking on it, one can discover a replica of its final status maintained elsewhere, at http://deadlypass.com/wp/highlights/.

An intelligence insider told me the following: “Chervonnaya’s site was taken down. Its mission to spread historical defamation was unpopular as she tended to complicate rather than correct. She was a collector of suggested anomalies in US cases. There was fear of leakage too from other official historians. Agentura.RU was useful for the contemporary scene.  But it has also been closed down by Putin although the SVR director is a ‘keen historian’. He was assigned by Putin to rewrite the school history curriculum.”

For better or worse, such a fate probably does not await coldspur. An inferior destiny than having too much attention paid, however, is not having any attention at all. What I would give to gain the notoriety of having coldspur suppressed by the authorities! I have illusions that Calder Walton is feverishly emending his Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence, because of disclosures that he has read on coldspur; that tense meetings are being held at Vauxhall Cross, owing to my revelations about the ‘legendary’ MI6 officer, Harold Gibson, and for fear of publicity about George Graham’s betrayal of secret codes and cyphers in the wartime Soviet Union; and that Mark Seaman, ‘historian’ at the Cabinet Office, is nervously polishing his MBE medal under the supposition that the colossal mis-steps of SOE in 1943 are about to be made public. When I next travel to the United Kingdom, I shall be ready for that ‘tap on the shoulder’ as I attempt to pass through Customs.

Hilary Mantel, Fiction and History

Hilary Mantel

During my researches, I continually come across the challenge of deciding what archival material is authentic, and what is spurious – that is, issued as a means of disinformation. In the world of intelligence, fiction masquerading as history is a common occurrence, whether it is Ben Macintyre regurgitating Sonya’s ‘memoir’, MI6 officers passing on stories to Chapman Pincher, or the SOE adviser guiding M. R. D. Foot through selected massaged reports and memoranda. Thus, when a colleague a few weeks ago introduced me to statements made by Hilary Mantel in her First 2017 Reith lecture, comments that described how she viewed the roles of historical fiction and history-writing, my interest was piqued. I am a fan of Hilary Mantel, have enjoyed her Cromwell books immensely, and support most of her ideas about writing historical fiction. I responded very positively to some of the statements she made, such as: “To retrieve history we need rigour, integrity, unsparing devotion and an impulse to scepticism”, but I had to disagree with many of her comments, which I found sentimental – even mystical – and lacking in that intellectual rigour she admitted to admiring. I hereby comment on some excerpts:

We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. . . . . My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims. . . . . . I have no names beyond my maternal great-grandmother – but let me introduce her, as an example, because she reached through time from the end of the nineteenth century to form my sense of who I am. . . .

The first assertion is both a truism, and untrue. Of course we carry the genes of our ancestors, but to select a partial ancestor (as Mantel does) to create some kind of mystical linkage is simplistic. She has eight great-grandparents: why does she single out her maternal great-grandmother, just because she is the only great-grandparent she knows anything about? What did the other seven contribute to her sense of who she was? (What does that mean, anyway? Is this a 21st-century fetish about ‘identity’?) And what does this whimsical notion of her great-grandmother’s ‘reaching through time’ mean? (It was Mantel who performed the ‘reaching’.) If you go back six centuries to the Tudors, one’s potential ancestors could maximally number about sixteen million, at a time when the population of England was about three million. The conclusions are obvious. Duplication compresses the number, so why and how can anyone reduce one’s lineage to a known few? Moreover, we do not ‘carry the culture of our ancestors’: that is absurd. ‘Culture’ is not magically imprinted into DNA, but transferred through teaching and practice. And again, why single out the ‘culture’ (whatever that means) of a few whose behaviour and beliefs are known to us? This is just sloppy thinking.

There is no such entity as ‘collective memory’, or ‘living memory’. It resembles that other fashionable trope – ‘the lived experience’, as if there were any other kind. If facts about previous times are passed on, that is a version of history, or possibly folk history. (Later in the lecture, Mantel writes: “When we remember – as psychologists so often tell us – we don’t reproduce the past, we create it”, thus openly admitting that ‘memory’ is a flaky construct.) The notion that the ‘restless dead’ assert their claims is mystical nonsense. Her concern as a writer is more about ‘imagination’, how to attribute, based on facts about an era and possibly imperfect knowledge about the lives of her subjects, how they might well have thought and acted, given some universal insights into ‘human nature’ (again a very dubious concept – as Mantel herself conceded in answering a question at the time).

We remember as a society, with a political agenda – we reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe, our nation, and found them on glory, or found them on grievance, but we seldom found them on cold facts.

I do not know who this ‘we’ is. Does Mantel claim to speak for all of ‘society’, or does she grant that quality to historians or other historical novelists? Which are our ‘tribes’ in twenty-first century Britain – the Freemasons? the MCC? The Iceni? I agree that ‘foundation myths’ are frequently perpetrated erroneously (as I was taught about the British Empire as a boy), but to unify everybody into a ‘political agenda’ whereby history is used supposedly to achieve political ends is simply absurd. What about those scholars who step outside the ‘tribe’ and try to deal with ‘cold facts’? What are the ‘cold facts’ that Mantel recognizes? Which historians established them? What method does she use to distinguish cold facts from lukewarm ones?

Nations are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our forefathers were giants, of one kind or another. This is how we live in the world: romancing.

Again, some truth in the legend-making of much historiography – see Putin or Arthur Marshall – even Churchill. But to universalize the notion by suggesting that ‘we’ all live in a world this way is patronizing and incorrect.

Historians are sometimes scrupulous and self-aware, sometimes careless or biased. Yet in either case, and hardly knowing which is which, we cede them moral authority. They do not consciously fictionalize, and we believe they are trying to tell the truth. But historical novelists face – as they should – questions about whether their work is legitimate. No other sort of writer has to explain their trade so often. The reader asks, is this story true?

Again, who is this ‘we’, and why generalize all historians this way? Who ‘cedes them moral authority’? Of course, some are careless or biased, but, if they are, other historians should point that out, and refine the story – which is precisely what happens. Mantel indicates this when she writes: “Any worthwhile history is a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is”, although the comparison with the tasks of historical fiction is irrelevant. As someone dealing with the challenge of highly dubious archival records I try to do this all the time, especially with the ‘authorized’ historians of intelligence. But the response should be – better history, not more historical fiction.

The problem is that when ‘public intellectuals’ advance in the public eye, are invited on to Any Questions, and then rise to the status of being a ‘national treasure’, which is what Mantel became, persons who should know better treat their utterances with a respect that is undeserved, and consider their opinions on any subject under the sun as coming from authority. (The transcripts of Mantel’s lectures can be viewed at https://bluebook.life/2021/07/19/hilary-mantels-lectures-on-historical-fiction/ .) She was thrown mostly softball questions, and was showered with applause.

Envoi: Philip Larkin’s Nightwear & Homo Sapiens and Us

Virginia Stride, Alan Bennett & John Sergeant

My attention was recently drawn to an article in the Times Literary Supplement that described how the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage had ended up examining the pyjamas of the poet Philip Larkin. I immediately recalled an analogous sketch on the 1960s BBC2 comedy program On The Margin, written by, and starring, Alan Bennett, and it occurred to me that the only two persons on the planet who might remember it were my brother and Alan Bennett himself. My brother, true to form, knew instantly to what I was referring, and I decided to write a letter to the Editor of the TLS. It ran as follows:

            Kyra Piperides’ report on the poet laureate’s ‘bemusement and indignity of excavating Larkin’s pyjamas’ (TLS, November 25) was a poignant example of life imitating art. I recall a sketch from Alan Bennett’s BBC2 series On the Margin (scandalously destroyed by a BBC functionary) where the authenticity of Kafka’s Underpants was discussed by Bennett. Moreover, with the knowledge of Larkin’s enthusiasm for jazz, we now have a reliable explanation for the source of the phrase ‘the cat’s pyjamas’.

Sadly, the Editor declined to publish my letter. Perhaps it was not serious enough for him. I can still today hear the voice of my Russian teacher, Martin Clay, booming to me: ‘Don’t be frivolous, Percy!’

On the other hand, the Editor must have been more impressed with a letter I sent him a week later, where I twitted the faulty logic of Charles A. Foster, a fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, and visiting professor at the Oxford Law Faculty. The Editor, Martin Ivens, published the following in the issue of December 16th, my seventy-sixty birthday:

            In his somewhat excitable review of Paul Pettitt’s Homo Sapiens Rediscovered (TLS, December 2), Charles Foster comes to the provocative conclusion that ‘we’ are all ‘Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers’. While that might come as a surprise to many of your readers, Foster undermines his logic by stating that ‘when we arrived in Eurasia it was already occupied by other humans – Neanderthals and Denisovans’, whose DNA nevertheless, because of sexual interaction, endures in ‘us’. Thus to exclude Neanderthals and Denisovans from ‘us’ appear a very unscholarly – one might say ‘speciesist’ – analysis of humanoid history.

I wish a very productive and prosperous 2023 to all my fellow Upper (and Lower) Paleolithic hunter-gatherers! As the anthropologist Domenica Lordie said in Alexander McCall Smith’s A Time of Love and Tartan: “I have lived with hunter-gatherers before, you know, and they tend to be utterly charming people, with lots to say.” Of course, there are some ‘climate’ activists who would have us return to those innocent times of hunting/gathering. Though I suspect that fox-hunting would be banned under their régime, a long list of species would be protected from any venery, and the much-maligned ovine community would be shut down as an inefficient protein-conversion agency . . .

Lastly, a bit of animal nonsense for the New Year, from Christian Morgenstern:

Wie sich das Galgenkind die Monatsname merkt [How the gallows-child remembers the names of the months]

Jaguar

Zebra

Nerz

Mandrill

Maikäfer

Pony

Muli

Auerochs

Wesenbär

Lochtauber

Robbenbär

Zehenbär

(This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)

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Filed under Economics/Business, Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography, Literature/Academia, Management/Leadership, Media, Personal, Philosophy, Politics

SIGNAL: Sonya’s Wireless

Article Heading

Signal Issue 64

Agent Sonya’s wireless: fact, fiction, fantasy and fable

Brian Austin G0GSF

Two recent articles [1,2] in Signal tell some of the story of the remarkable Soviet agent who plied her trade for almost twenty years, beginning in Shanghai and culminating in her sudden departure from England in 1950. In between, she operated under various names, familial as determined by her various marriages and her codename dictated by the secret nature of her work. For all of what follows, I shall refer to her by that nom de guerre. She was simply Sonya; though Sonia or even Sonja appear too, depending on which source you choose to cite. 

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Born Ursula Kuczynski in 1907 in Berlin to a wealthy left- wing  intellectual  family,  she  espoused  the  communist cause at an early age. Her older brother Jürgen became an economist of some repute and a prolific author in his field.  He  was  also  an  active  promoter  of  communist philosophy which he pursued, with vigour, after following his parents to London and a post at the LSE following Hitler’s rise to power. In late 1929, Ursula married Rudolf “Rudi” Hamburger, an architect. Work had dried up owing to the worldwide Depression but Rudi was offered a post designing office buildings in Shanghai. The young couple arrived  there  in  July  the  following  year  and,  not  long afterwards, Ursula joined the Chinese Communist Party. Her active promotion of the revolutionary cause in Berlin soon found an immediate outlet in Shanghai, the home of Chinese communism in a country ripe for revolution. Her career as a spy began when she met Richard Sorge, a German, dubbed by some as the most formidable spy in history [3]. And through Sorge she became aware of the part  played  by  radio  communications  in  the  spying business. 

If any aspect of espionage has been misunderstood and misrepresented, sometimes egregiously so, it is probably the  use  of  radio  or  wireless  communications  to  pass messages  between  spies  and  their  headquarters  or, equally, in the opposite direction.  Why this should be so is not hard to fathom. To most people, including most professional  historians,  the  transmission  of  messages ‘through the air’ without the intervention of wires is, at best, mysterious and, at worst, is something of a black art. Its technicalities are not understood at all and the technology to accomplish it requires, apparently, nothing more than a transmitter. That the author should have such a cynical view is, perhaps, best illustrated by the recent book written by Ben Macintyre [4]. The fact that it was a best-seller is certainly testament to Macintyre’s skill as a story-teller with his proven ability to write for a mass audience seeking titillation  as  well  as  a  good  yarn.  This  book  certainly contains both. But it falls down badly when it comes to the technology  of  wireless  communications.  And  it  is  this aspect that I intend to concentrate on here. All the other intriguing details, and there are many, of the ‘spying game’ will be left to the ever-expanding literature on the subject.

“On  the  nights  she  transmitted  to Moscow …”

Clandestine communication is a science as well as an art [5].  Sonya  herself  was  trained  in  Moscow.  At  the instigation  of  Sorge,  she  attended  the  Radio  Training


Laboratory  there  in  1933  where  she  learnt  the  art  of espionage and some of the technicalities of wireless. She was bright and was an excellent student because her heart was  undoubtedly  in  it.  She  also  displayed  an  above- average ability as a Morse code operator. Loyalty to her Soviet masters, and to their cause, had to be absolute and she signed up to it all with fervour. But it wasn’t a solitary activity; Sonya had assistance and assistants: all men. Her husband ”Rudi” Hamburger, though, was never more than a lukewarm communist and so she kept him in the dark. Sorge was the dominant figure and his radio expert was Max Clausen and Sonya absorbed much from him. There were  others  too  and  among  them  was  a  man  called Johann Patra who was to have a significant influence on her clandestine life and it’s at this point that the fantasy begins. Patra was highly intelligent but wholly uneducated, according  to  Sonya.  He  also  struggled  to  read  in  any language, though Macintyre informs us a while later that he  was  struggling  to  read  Hegel’s  Science  of  Logic. Remarkable, to say the least. More mundanely, he soon went “shopping for valves, rectifiers and wiring” with which to build a transmitter. How he went about selecting these components and their very important specific types, given his apparent lack of familiarity with the written word (except Hegelian),  is  not  explained.  One  has  to  assume  that Macintyre was quoting Sonya herself, now writing under the nom de plume of Ruth Werner, since he clearly makes liberal use of her memoir published as Sonjas Rapport, in German, in 1977 and then, as Sonya’s Report in 1991 [6]. And she published more too, in German, on this unfolding saga as listed among the references in [1].

Sonya  and  Patra  went  to  Mukden  in  Manchuria,  as instructed by the ‘Centre’, their headquarters in the Soviet capital. Mukden was occupied by the Japanese and their function  was  to  be  the  point  of  contact  between  the Chinese communist partisans and Moscow. It was Patra’s job to assemble the radio equipment from the components he had recently acquired. From [1] we learnt what the strange  “Hartley  transmitter  three-point  switch”,  as described  by  Sonya  in  her  1977  book,  actually  was. However,  Macintyre,  without  providing  such  technical niceties, called it a transmitter-receiver whereas the circuit diagram in [1] shows nothing more than a simple one- valve Hartley oscillator which would have functioned quite adequately as a QRP transmitter but it was certainly not a receiver. Of course, any transmitter without an antenna is useless and so Sonya climbed onto the roof of the house she’d found in Mukden to erect what she called a Fuchs aerial. This was a half wavelength of wire which was end-


fed, hence presenting a high impedance at that point and thus  necessitating  some  form  of  impedance transformation to a lower impedance transmission line, assuming such were used. Macintyre, needless to say, went into no such detail. But what is particularly important is that this is the only time in his book when any detail at all  is  provided  about  an  antenna.  Where  he  (and presumably she) mentioned it again it was simply a length of wire suspended from the roof of a house to a pole in the garden or secreted behind the panelling of a wooden wall. The assumption clearly being made is that an antenna is simply  a  length  of  wire  whose  dimensions  are  of  no consequence. 

While in Mukden, Sonya only transmitted at night to the GRU (Russian  Military Intelligence) receiving  station in Vladivostok, a distance of around 700 km. Both those facts are important because they involved the ionosphere, a subject  never  aired  by  Macintyre  (and  perhaps  not  by Sonya herself in her multi-volume tomes). None of her radio  activities  was  every  arbitrary:  she  will  only  have acted on instructions. But how they were conveyed to her wasn’t  revealed  anywhere.  As  we  know,  such  long- distance transmissions depend entirely on the ionosphere and particularly on its critical frequency and height at a given  time  and  geographical  location.  Those  features change diurnally, with the seasons and particularly over the approximate 11-year period of the sunspot cycle. We are  informed  that  she  used  one  of  two  agreed wavelengths, though it is far more useful, as we will see, to define them by their appropriate frequencies. Again, this underscores the need for detailed operating instructions in order to “keep her skeds”, as they are referred to in the radio operating trade. Such trivia are not mentioned in Macintyre’s best-seller.

We are led to believe that Sonya was busy at her radio at least  twice  a  week  and  always  in  the  early  hours. Messages consisted of information about partisan morale, Japanese  counter-insurgency  measures  as  well  as political and military intelligence. What never emerges is what radio receiver she used to make all this possible. Brief,  almost  glib,  comments  about  constructing transmitters  –  as  simple  as  they  were  –  were  never accompanied by any details of the receiver. Once again, the impression is gained that Macintyre never appreciated the significance of the receiver even though he frequently mentions her taking down “the fastest incoming signals without making a mistake”. Again, as with the antenna, such things were apparently mundane since every home had a radio receiver and, in those days, they required the inevitable piece of wire to a pole outside. Need anything more be said?  Well, yes. The receiver is by far the more complex  piece  of  apparatus  when  compared  with  the simple transmitters she and Patra constructed. Even had it been as simple as a regenerative detector followed by a single stage of audio amplification, the circuitry to achieve that and the method of yielding optimum performance, were far from trivial yet such details are simply ignored.  And then there’s the matter of operating both transmitter and receiver on the correct frequency.

 “She established a good connection on a frequency of 6.1182 MHz …”

This intriguing gem of information pops up almost in the middle of Macintyre’s account when Sonya was sitting up in bed and just about to press her transmitter into service


to  communicate  with  Moscow.  What  could  be  more convivial?  But  we  need  to  get  there  first  because  this happened when she was in Poland and with yet a few more transmitter-construction projects behind her.

The mission in Mukden ended suddenly. The Japanese had penetrated Sonya’s network. Centre ordered her to pack up and leave as soon as possible for Peking. So, they dug a hole and buried the radio. No more no less. On reaching Peking, Patra, as is the pattern in this racy saga, “gathered  parts  to  build  another  radio”  and  the  first message from Moscow told them to hide the transmitter and take four weeks leave. One can only presume that any technical details are but background noise to the average reader of these fast-paced works of fact-based fiction. But to  those  of  us  who  actually  have  an  interest  in  the technology  they  are  frustrating  and  infuriating  because what is really important is reduced to the level of the almost banal. After this period of holiday bliss “they reassembled the radio” and, again, the first message from the Centre ordered Sonya to make for Shanghai while Patra was to remain where he was. The fact that she was pregnant with his child (though she never told him) was of no interest to Moscow but it added much flesh to the evolving life story of Macintyre’s heroine.

Reunited with Rudi Hamburger, Sonya was informed by her masters in Moscow that she and Rudi, now evidently a committed communist himself, were soon to leave for Poland. Their role there would be to provide the radio communications  links  between  the  Polish  Communist Party, now driven underground, and Centre. The journey to Poland involved a detour to England to be reunited with the Kuczynski family whom she’d not seen for years. They were now well-established in London’s communist circles. MI5 were aware of Sonya’s arrival in England, though to them she was merely Ursula Hamburger neé Kuczynski of interest because of those family connections. Her skill as a radio constructor-cum-operator had not reached them. In view of her German passport, her length of stay was to be brief.

In January 1936 the Hamburgers reached Warsaw but were then sent on to Danzig. There she built a transmitter- receiver, no less. A revelation indeed but details about its electronic  components  and  such  trivia  were  clearly immaterial. This time the transmitter was hidden inside a gramophone  but  the  companion  receiver  escaped mention. And, needless to say, the bothersome piece of wire  going  somewhere  did  too.  An  element  of  reality, however, did crop up when one of her neighbours asked Sonya if she received interference on her radio – the one that  everyone  possessed.  That  sent  a  chill  down  the Hamburger spine because, according to the neighbour, it happened at night and her husband thought it may have been caused by someone transmitting nearby. Sonya had been  in  contact  with  Moscow  the  night  before.  A  new location  was  urgently  needed  and,  once  found,  the transmitter came back to life. Inevitably, after many nights of transmitting and receiving, Moscow’s next instruction was to tell her to move back to Poland (the reader will be aware of the changeable geography in that part of the world occasioned by Nazi and Soviet machinations). At this point, Sonya confessed to her Soviet controller that she felt inexperienced and did not know enough about advanced techniques in radio construction. She requested further  training.  In  the  same  technical  compound  in Moscow where she’d been trained previously, she began


Signal Issue 64

her course during which she operated a “sophisticated push-pull transmitter” as described in [1]. On completion she  was  informed  that  her  next  destination  would  be Switzerland.

Switzerland and further fables

Neutral  Switzerland,  with  its  long  common  border  with Germany, was the ideal place to gather intelligence on Hitler’s military build-up. Sonya’s task was to set herself up near Geneva, then make contact with the existing Soviet- sponsored  intelligence  network  in  the  country  and,  of course, construct another transmitter. She was also on her own: none of those ultra-masculine companions from her days  in  China  or  her  recent  convert-to-communism husband, who joined her in Poland, would be with her. Switzerland  was  to  be  Sonya’s  solo  performance. Following yet another brief detour via England, Sonya left Dover in September 1938 for Switzerland via France. 

She set herself up in a village overlooking Lake Geneva. Macintyre then informs us that “[A]t night, when everyone was asleep, Ursula constructed her transmitter-receiver from parts bought at hardware shops in Geneva, Vevey and Lausanne”. The parts he mentions are indeed curious: a keypad (he surely means a Morse key since keypads are of our modern age on laptops), an antenna with banana plugs(!)  plus  two  heavy  batteries  “each  the  size  of  a dictionary”. No mention at all of all the components that go to  make  up  transmitters  and  receivers  or,  indeed, transmitter-receivers. How did she obtain the resistors, the capacitors, the valves, the RF chokes, the switches and the  myriad  other  bits  and  pieces  needed  for  even  the simplest  transmitter  and  its  companion,  though  clearly much compromised, receiver? And, most importantly of all

–  a component never mentioned by Macintyre – where or how did she acquire the quartz crystals which determined the frequency on which her transmitter operated? Surely not in a hardware shop no matter how sophisticated such places may have been in pre-war Switzerland. Credibility is  put  under  some  strain  here.  Macintyre  only  ever mentioned the frequency on which she operated, a very precise value of 6.1182 MHz, in a single sentence in his book. Such significant detail was clearly not of concern to him whereas it would have been vital to her and to the Centre.  As  is  well  known,  achieving  such  frequency precision would have been impossible with a variable LC- oscillator  unless  Sonya  had  available  to  her  accurate means of measuring frequency and unless she had also taken considerable care in constructing such an oscillator in order to render it ultra-stable. At this point I should mention that we learnt previously, but only in passing, that she  had  constructed  frequency  meters  on  one  of  her courses in Moscow but we were not enlightened as to how she  went  about  calibrating  such  a  thing.  And,  finally, electronic hardware has to be housed in some suitable box or other container. That requires metalwork, or at least woodwork, both of which need tools – a workshop even – and, of course, connecting all those components together means soldering. There’s ne’er a mention of any such oddities  by  Macintyre  and,  presumably,  not  by  Sonya herself when she came to write her life story many years later.

On the woodworking front we learn that Sonya hid her assembled  equipment  in  a  built-in  wardrobe  behind  a wooden panel held in place by screws. She drilled two small holes in the panel through which she passed the


leads (to and from what is not revealed). This, we are informed,  enabled  her  to  use  the  transmitter  without removing  it  from  the  cupboard.  Surely  the  mysterious receiver  must  also  have  been  nearby  with  its  vitally important headphones since having a loudspeaker blaring out Morse code was probably not a good idea. But she did conceal  those  two  drilled  holes  with  plugs  made  to resemble  knots  in  the  wood.  So,  all  bases  were  well covered and, as noted above, she could sit up in bed while communicating with Moscow. Following the necessary call signs, the messages consisted of groups of five numbers each of which she had encyphered earlier. 

Then we have to contend with a fascinating flight of fancy. Remember  all  this is taking  place  in  September 1938. Sonya  was  “flooded  with  relief”  at  having  successfully passed  the  information  to  the  Centre  and,  being  “too pumped with adrenaline to sleep” she reached out and turned on her transistor (my italics) radio in order to listen to the BBC news bulletin. Since the transistor was only invented at the Bell Telephone Laboratory in New Jersey in 1947 one can only assume that our heroine, or her 21st century biographer, were blissfully unaware of that fact but it made for a good story, particularly as the news bulletin focused entirely on the signing by Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, of the Munich Agreement. Peace with Germany was in the air. This was a horrifying prospect for all right-thinking communists. But, as we know, it wasn’t to last.

The International Brigade and Sonya

Yet another man of much interest, especially to the British security  services,  entered  Sonya’s  world  of  wireless, espionage and much else early in 1939. He was a former member of the International Brigade of volunteers who had enlisted to fight against General Franco’s forces in Spain. Len Beurton had been instructed to make contact with her by  “Mrs  Lewis”  of  Hampstead  in  London.  Mrs  Lewis happened  to  be  Sonya’s  younger  sister  who  was  an avowed  apologist  for  and  active  supporter  of  the communist  movement  wherever  it  happened  to  be. Beurton’s  background  was  mysterious  but  should  not detain us here. It would, however, perplex both MI5 and MI6  as  the  years  unfolded.  His  function,  as  Sonya explained it to him, was to undertake dangerous work in Germany. Beurton’s face evidently lit up at this. He was also smitten by Sonya.

The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in August 1939 detonated a bomb under Sonya’s spying operation against Germany: Allies don’t spy on each other; well, not usually. But she still had a useful role to play in the interim while her future was being planned for her in Moscow. She should train Beurton  and  another  former  fighter  in  Spain,  one Alexander  Allan  Foote,  codenamed  Jim,  as  radio operators. Foote, also an Englishman, followed a similar route to Beurton’s, though a short while before, in order to reach  Sonya.  It  was  the  same  Mrs  Lewis  who  had interviewed him and then instructed him on what he was to do. Quite simply, he was to attend a designated meeting place in Geneva, at a very specific time, while holding the correct  object  in  his  hand  and  then  responding  to  a particular question, asked by a mysterious woman, with a very specific answer. All good spycraft, of course. Foote was also told to “read up about wireless technology”. He clearly read well for, in no time, we’re informed that he was

August 2022


building  transmitters.  And  he  took  over  all  Sonya’s clandestine duties in Geneva, becoming the Centre’s chief radio operator when the time came for her to leave for her new destination: England.

Readers must excuse the detour here in order to expose some of Sonya’s private life. She and Hamburger were divorced  late  in  1939  based  on  perjurious  evidence provided willingly by Foote. In February 1940, she married Beurton  but  not  before  she’d  proposed  to  Foote.  She needed a British passport if she was to be able to live in England – as was Centre’s intention – and to get one she needed a British husband, however contrived. But Foote backed out for reasons we won’t go into, so she turned to Beurton. He agreed. And soon thereafter he excavated a hole  in  the  garden  into  which  they  buried  Sonya’s transmitter  as  the  attention  of  the  Swiss  authorities became ever closer. 

The saga of her passport caused consternation in England 

–  well, in MI5 at least. Beurton had already attracted their attention  and  was  on  a  black  list  of  communist sympathisers where his name appeared as Fenton. Now, his actual name was to be linked to a former Kuczynski and her world of London’s communists. However, MI5’s bureaucratic bungling failed to stop Sonya acquiring the prized document and she duly arrived, in Liverpool, with her two children (but without her new husband) in February 1941. Her immediate destination was Oxford because her parents had recently moved there from London. But it’s at this point that the conspiracy theorists begin to have a field day and none more so than another well-known writer of the spy genre, the late Chapman Pincher. In his sizeable 1984  book  Too  Secret  Too  Long  Pincher  asserts categorically that MI5’s Director General between 1956 and 1965, Sir Roger Hollis, was a Soviet agent. During the war it so happened that Hollis was based close to Oxford at Blenheim Palace and lived within half a mile of Sonya’s father. Pincher went into overdrive and concocted what to some was a very believable story that Hollis was not only a  Soviet  mole  but  that  his  collaborator  was  Sonya. Needless to say, when such accusations were made many years later, they (and Hollis himself) were subjected to intensive investigation. The finding was that there was no evidence  to  support  the  allegation  against  Hollis  but individuals  such  as  the  notorious  Peter  Wright  of Spycatcher fame dined out on it.

Oxford, Fuchs, Sonya and wireless

Sonya  and  her  two  children  moved  four  times  in  four months  after  reaching  Oxford.  Her  radio  operating activities came to a halt, but not permanently. In April 1941 she moved into a furnished house in Kidlington, five miles from the city. MI5 was watching her and intercepting her post. She made regular trips to London and waited on a particular street corner for her expected contact with her Soviet masters. Eventually, after a number of false starts one appeared. His name was Aptekar, whose cover was to act as chauffeur for an attaché at the Soviet Embassy. But to Sonya he was simply Sergei. He asked when she could bring her transmitter back to life. She said in twenty- four hours. Despite her life having seemingly turned upside down over the previous few months, she was apparently able to make contact with Moscow quite effortlessly by the very next  day.  Such remarkable insouciance,  technical


and otherwise, is staggering but it was happily accepted by Macintyre.

With the Soviets now fighting for survival against Hitler, Sonya’s  “intelligence”,  gleaned  from  among  the communist community in London, proved to be important and  it  soon  took  on  quite  earth-shattering  significance when she was introduced to Klaus Fuchs by her brother Jürgen. 

I shall not recount the Fuchs life story here. It resides among the literature and, indeed, the folk-lore of the atom bomb and its consequences for the world. Where Fuchs is important in this saga is that Sonya became his courier and go-between with Moscow. They first met in the centre of Birmingham in the late summer of 1942.  As they parted Fuchs handed her a file of some 85 pages of documents: the secrets of the development of the atom bomb. Her task was to get them to Moscow. Since they contained pages of mathematical equations and diagrams, as well as reams of text, there was no way such information could be sent by Morse code irrespective of the skill of the operator. Sonya used Sergei as the link man to the Soviet Embassy and from there the regular diplomatic pouch service did the rest. She and Fuchs continued to meet in rather more secluded  surroundings  in  the  fields  and  forests  near Banbury. There, while maintaining their anonymity, one to another, for reasons of ultra-security, they walked hand-in- hand to add an element of normality to their country stroll and along the way Fuchs would hand Sonya yet more information. She then used a ‘dead drop’ among the roots of a tree some way off the road to get them to Sergei. Much mythology seems to have been attached to this story and again I shall leave it to others to tell. On one of their regular encounters,  Sergei  handed  Sonya  a  miniature  camera with which to make microdot photographs. He also gave her “a small but powerful transmitter measuring just 6 by 8 inches”, so she told us. This borders on the ridiculous. Small and powerful are simply contradictory in this context. And, yet again, the vitally important radio receiver, as well as the means of powering them both, escaped a mention.  Between them Sonya and Macintyre, her trusting scribe, take most of their readers for granted, at the very least, because such technical details can so easily be ignored but those of us with an interest in such things do bridle!

However, we must assume that Sonya didn’t invent this story,  she  just  attenuated  it.  The  Soviets  did  have  a miniature transmitter and it had its companion receiver and they were both powered by a third unit containing the necessary transformer, rectifier and smoothing circuitry. It went by the name of Tensor or Tenzor (Figure 1) and came into service in 1942, so Sonya may well have been one of its first satisfied customers. The Tensor Mk1 was actually  designed  in  the  USA  (hence  its  collection  of readily identifiable valves) but it was also manufactured near Moscow, no doubt an example of early American lend-lease? Judging by the available photographs, each of those three separate units was of the size mentioned by Sonya  so  yes,  she  may  well  have  had  a  miniature transmitter but it was not powerful since it used a single 6L6 as its class C amplifier and, as we all know, that would have produced an output of 10 watts or so across the lower HF frequencies. According to the Tensor specification, it operated between 3.7 and 14.3 MHz, under either VFO or crystal-control.  The  magical  quartz  crystal  eventually makes its appearance but no thanks to our scribes.


Signal Issue 64

Figure 1. The Mk1 Tensor. Left to right:  receiver-PSU-transmitter    

August 2022


The Tensor receiver used three 6J7 valves with the first two  functioning  as  the  RF  amplifier  and  regenerative detector  and  the  third  as  the  AF  amplifier  driving headphones. Whereas constructing such units was well within the capabilities of a competently-trained technician, which Sonya claimed to be, the nonchalance with which she mentions the production of her transmitter-receivers, almost at will, raises all the issues I referred to above. And shopping for the necessary components, by a woman with a  German  accent,  would  surely  have  raised  the  odd eyebrow in the hardware shops she said she patronised for that purpose.

Between 1941 and his departure for the USA in order to join  the  Manhattan  Project  in  August  1943,  Fuchs  is reported  by  Macintyre  to  have  transferred  “some 570 pages  of  copied  reports,  calculations,  drawings, formulae and diagrams …”, and much more, to the Soviet Union. All would have gone via Sonya’s courier to the embassy. Late in 1942 she, Len Beurton, who was now in England, and their children had moved once again. Their new accommodation was in Summertown near Oxford. It was a cottage in the luxurious property belonging to one of the pillars of society by the name of Laski. His brother was a friend of Sonya’s father. Soon after moving in, Sonya asked permission to erect an aerial between the roof of the building  and  one  of  the  stables.  The  Laskis  never suspected that it was anything other than for improving the medium  wave  reception.  Besides  Fuchs  and  his  more incidental messages, she also had many other sources of intelligence of interest to Moscow. According to Macintyre, they numbered at least a dozen spies and so, by the end of the year, Sonya was said to be transmitting to Moscow two or three times a week. This amount of radio activity, of the non-atomic variety, could not have gone unnoticed and it wasn’t. The Radio Security Service (RSS), a specialist branch  within  MI6,  was  well  aware  of  all  those transmissions  originating  from  the  vicinity  of  Oxford (Figure 2). As was their procedure, all the intercepted five- digit code groups were passed to the RSS Discrimination


Section for assessment and then onward to Bletchley Park for its attention. Macintyre affords the RSS just a single paragraph and concludes that the Soviet’s use of the “one- time  pad”  system  would  have  rendered  its  messages unbreakable. This is probably true but there is no doubt that radio direction-finding techniques would have been capable of obtaining an accurate ‘fix’ on the location of Sonya’s transmitter. If this was done (and it must surely have been) we do not know the outcome. If there is an explanation, it lies in some vault or archive somewhere and is yet to be revealed. For a very detailed and forensic examination  of  MI5  and  its  dilatory  performance, particularly in relation to wartime Soviet activity in England, the interested reader is referred to the book by Antony Percy [7].

Fuchs returned to England from the USA in June 1946. By then he had effectively given the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. Sonya had been the conduit until his 1943 departure for Los Alamos where an equally effective US-based team of spies had taken over that role.

Sonya and MI5

Soon after VE Day, Sonya moved to the village of Great Rollright (Figure 3) in the Cotswolds, north Oxfordshire. Her new home was called The Firs. It was conventionally fitted out for its time but, according to Macintyre, it lacked an electricity supply. From the point of view of wireless communications this fact it highly significant. It seems, though, not to have struck Macintyre at all since he only mentioned it in passing. Of its many attractions The Firs had a large locked cellar which was ideal for concealing illegal radio equipment and, so we are informed, Sonya’s transmitter was in constant use. 

One  can  only  ask  how  this  was  possible.  The  Tensor equipment, if indeed that’s what it was, required at least a couple of hundred volts (DC) on the anodes of the various valves  hence  a  suitable  mains  supply,  such  as  that supplied with the very Tensor equipment, was a key part


Signal Issue 64

And the mere fact that she seemed to be able to hide everything in a matter of minutes, whether in holes in the ground or behind a fern-covered rock in  a fence  post,  surely makes that extremely unlikely and therefore was worthy of comment from Macintyre. But there was none. And, needless to say,  the  antenna  never  merited  a mention. 

Sonya wasn’t naïve; she appreciated that  the  more  she  used  her

transmitter the more likely it was that she would be detected. It seemed,

therefore,  only  a  matter  of  time before British security arrived. As we

know, MI5 was indeed aware of her presence and should have been well

aware that an illegal transmitter was being operated in the Oxford area.

But they apparently never made the connection. This was made blindingly

clear when, in September 1947, she was interviewed at The Firs by two

MI5 investigators, one of whom was Jim Skardon, its famed (at least in his

eyes) interrogator. The two men used aliases, as was the way in this world

of  secrets,  and  despite  their  most determined  efforts  Sonya  outwitted

them  by  simply  refusing  to  answer questions.  Since  MI5  had  no

evidence  that  she  was  an  enemy agent,  Skardon’s  case  evaporated.

All  he  had  to  go  on  was  the confession made to MI6 in Berlin by

Alexander Foote when, just as month before,  he  had  defected  from  the

Soviets and presented himself at the legation in the British sector of Berlin.

There he told MI6 almost everything. He explained how Sonya had trained

him and Beurton as radio operators and went on to reveal, in great detail,

the activities of the Soviet-sponsored espionage  network  in  Switzerland.

But he insisted that Ursula Kuczynski was  no  longer  engaged  in  spying

Figure 2. This page (provided to the author by Antony Percy [7] &  wherever she happened to be. MI6 seemingly  swallowed  it  all  and

[10]) comes from the RSS file in the National Archives HW 34/23 and  relayed  their  findings  and shows a listing of daily RSS intercepts made between 16 March and  conclusions to their security service 16 April 1942. Though somewhat cryptic, it is clear that these are the  counterparts  in  England.  Sonya call signs of the stations transmitting and/or receiving. Note the  didn’t know this and naturally feared heading “RUSSIANS”so there’s no doubt RSS knew who they were  that MI5 and the police could arrive at

listening to – at both ends of those links. This is concrete evidence,  any minute. But they didn’t.

if ever any was needed, that RSS were aware of the transmitter  For Sonya, 1947 was consumed with “somewhere in Oxford”.  family tragedy. First her mother died

of the set-up.  At no time is there the merest mention of  and then, not long after so did her some form of DC to AC converter which may have allowed  beloved father. Sonya was now at her most vulnerable but Sonya to overcome this rather unfortunate shortcoming at  Britain’s  security  service  was  either  inept  or  simply  so The Firs. By that, admittedly rather cumbersome means,  hidebound in its procedures that the person best equipped she may have been able to use more batteries than the  to confront her, the highly astute Millicent Bagot, was side-

couple  –  “the  size  of  dictionaries”  –  that  she  had,  lined in favour of the much overrated Jim Skardon. And, apparently, to cart around from residence to residence.  as we have seen, Skardon failed spectacularly. 

Figure 3. A recent view of Great Rollright

August 2022


In August 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atom bomb, at least four years before the CIA believed they might achieve that exceptionally complicated scientific and technological feat. The reason they were able to surpass all Western expectations was because of Klaus Fuchs, the most dangerous spy in history [8]. And Sonya too.

The flight of Sonya and the fantasy of her radio activity

In February 1950, Klaus Fuchs was arrested and made a full confession that he had passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The next day, the story was all over the newspapers which reported that he had transferred them to “a foreign woman with black hair in Banbury”. Sonya was  gripped  by  fear  but  nothing  happened.  She immediately planned her escape by booking three tickets on a flight to Berlin. She and her two younger children would go, Beurton, who was recovering from a broken leg following  a  motor-cycle  accident,  would  dispose  of  the contents of the house while her elder son would remain at university in Scotland. The final resting place of Sonya’s transmitter was, unsurprisingly a hole in the ground. No doubt,  though  she  never  mentioned  them,  the  other paraphernalia of her spying trade – the receiver and the power supply – also went to earth in an Oxfordshire field. On 28 February 1950, the aircraft carrying Sonya and her children  left  London’s  airport  for  Germany.  She  had escaped. The following day Klaus Fuchs was sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

MI5’s failure to make the connection between Fuchs and Sonya,  despite the  seemingly glaring  evidence against


her, remains one of the catastrophes of Britain’s Security Service history. However, this is not the place to delve into whether it was due simply to incompetence or to some deeper, darker machinations at the very highest levels. Others more competent than I have been there and their opinions are all in print. Remarkably the official history of MI5 ignores Sonya completely never even mentioning her name or, indeed, any of her names [9].

Of more immediate concern to us here is the mythology that  surrounds  Sonya’s  seeming  invincible  ability  to communicate, apparently at will, by radio, with the Centre in Moscow from any number of locations with far from sophisticated  equipment  and  even  in  the  absence  of electrical power. There is no need to go into great detail regarding the propagation of HF signals via the ionosphere but some aspects are so fundamental that they should be mentioned. A knowledge of the so-called maximum usable frequency  (MUF)  is  vital  to  those  planning  a communication  link  between  any  two  points  beyond ground wave range (Figure 4). The fact that the MUF is so variable between day and night, with the seasons and within the period of the sunspot cycle poses issues which have  to  be  addressed  by  those  planning  the  link.  In Sonya’s case, such details were not her responsibility but they were undoubtedly those of the Centre. Since she was alleged to have used her radio equipment from the mid- 1930s until at least the end of the war – a period spanning more  than  one  sunspot  cycle  –  there  will  have  been significant changes in the MUF over the various paths she said she worked. In fact, the sunspot number reached its minimum in February 1944, which means that the optimum communication  frequencies  will  have  been  decreasing


when  she  was  acting  as  Fuchs’s  wireless  link  with Moscow. In addition to the choice of operating frequency, this also has significant implications in terms of antenna length and also atmospheric noise. She will, therefore, have to had made changes to her operating frequencies to accommodate  these  natural  phenomena.  Her  account, and Macintyre’s parroted version, do not enlighten us as to  how  this  was  achieved.  Without  suitable  crystals, supplied to her by her masters in Moscow and not by the local hardware shop, Sonya’s communications activities will have been sorely compromised. And even had she had those crystals, the reliability of such low-power links will have  been  extremely  variable  as  every  QRP  operator knows.

During her long sojourn in East Germany, after fleeing from England so precipitately in 1950, Sonya changed her name to Ruth Werner and became a successful author of children’s  stories.  She  also  wrote  her  memoir,  as mentioned  previously.  The  version  in  English  has embellished  her  reputation  as  a  prodigiously  effective Soviet spy and wireless operator. It also served the cause of her communist masters, most particularly the Stasi, the East German secret police who, we can be sure, played a significant  part  in  carefully  scrutinising  every  word  of Sonya’s Report before it was released to the world.

I  end  with  one  final  reference  to  the  literature  on  this fascinating  woman  and  her  achievements,  but  more particularly  to  the  way  she  was  portrayed  in  Ben Macintyre’s recent best-seller. His book was reviewed in great depth and detail and the published review appeared, in 2021, in an international journal devoted to intelligence matters [10]. As book reviews go, this one is well-worth reading! 

References    

  1. A Thomas.  A  tale  of  two  triodes.  Signal  2022,  62 (February), 46–51.
  2. I Underwood. Red Army GRU Colonel Ursula Maria Kuczynski. Signal 2022, 63 (May),14–16.
  3. O Matthews.  An  Impeccable  Spy-  Richard  Sorge Stalin’s  Master  Agent.  Bloomsbury  Publishing, London, 2019.
  4. B Macintyre. Agent Sonya – Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy. Penguin Random House, London, 2020.
  5. B Austin.  HF  Propagation  and  Clandestine Communications  during  the  Second  World  War. Journal of The Royal Signals Institution 2009, 28 (1), 35–42.
  6. R Werner.  Sonya’s  Report.  Chatto  and  Windus, London, 1991.
  7. A Percy.  Misdefending  the  Realm  –  How  MI5’s Incompetence  enabled  Communist  Subversion  of British  Institutions  during  the  Nazi-Soviet  Pact. University of Buckingham Press, 2017.
  8. F Close. Trinity – The Treachery and Pursuit of the Most Dangerous Spy in History. Allen Lane, London, 2019.
  9. C Andrew. The Defence of the Realm – the Authorized History of MI5. Allen Lane, 2009.
  10. A Percy. Courier, Traitor, Bigamist, Fabulist: Behind the Mythology of a Superspy. Intelligence and National Security 2021, 36 (7), 1065–1075.


Acknowledgement

Figure 1. The author is grateful to …… for permission to use the featured photograph of Tensor Mk1. 

(a)

(b)

Figure 4. Graphs of the reliability of propagation over the 2560 km Oxford to Moscow path in     June 1942. They show the reliability for a given signal-to-noise ratio over a 24 hour period.      Marked on the graphs are the propagation      modes that would exist at various times for two frequencies of (a) 7 MHz and (b) 10 MHz. They also show the propagation modes of single and double ‘hops’ off the F1 and F2 layers, as 1F1, 2F2, etc. Clearly the 1F2 mode at 10 MHz yields

the highest reliability which peaks at just about

70% at 02:00 UT and falls rapidly after that. The lower frequency is always less reliable. Severe D-layer absorption is evident throughout the    daylight hours, being far worse, again, on the lower frequency. The complexity of the         propagation process should be obvious. In both cases the transmitter power was 20 W and the antenna was a dipole at a height of 6m

~ ~ ~

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An Armful of History Books

Family Betrayal: Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network by David Burke (History Press, 2021; 292 pp.)

Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor (Viking, 2022; 576 pp.)

In the Wake of Empire: Anti-Bolshevik Russia in International Affairs, 1917-1920 by Anatol Shmelev (Hoover Institution Press, 2020; 555 pp.)

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him by Donald Rayfield (Random House, 2004; 541 pp.)

Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945 by Halik Kochanski (Liveright, 2022; 936 pp.)

Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth by Jane Rogoyska (Oneworld, 2022; 370 pp.)

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *        

Family Betrayal by David Burke

The title of David Burke’s latest book, Family Betrayal, raises some pertinent questions about who was betraying whom. Was a family betrayed? Or did a whole family betray some other agency? With a sub-title of Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network, and a hammer and sickle boldly displayed against a red flag on the cover, the suggestion would appear to be that Burke is delving into the world of Soviet espionage and treason. The subjects of his tale, the Kuczynskis, as agents of Stalinism are presumably to be given a bad rap for betraying the United Kingdom, the country that gave them asylum and employment. Such expectations will be rapidly demolished, however. The Kuczynskis, a ‘comfortable German bourgeois family of Jewish origin’ are further described as ‘a remarkable family of Communist refugees from Nazism’, and ‘not only a family who spied but also one of the chief channels of leakage of information to the Soviets from a variety of sources’. This is the language of adulation.

Burke may be familiar to readers of intelligence literature as the author of The Spy Who Came In From The Co-op (2008), about Melita Norwood,and The Lawn Road Flats (2014), which explored the nest of leftist subversion located in the modernist Hampstead address in the 1930s and early 1940s. In both books, the author complemented someremarkable sleuthing with what can only be called padding, where extraneous and much repeated lore about espionage and counter-espionage was trotted out to give the books more substance. Quite simply, there was not enough known about Melita Norwood to form a book, and Burke resorted to writing about such figures as Percy Glading, Klaus Fuchs, Kim Philby and Igor Gouzenko, all of whom had little to do directly with Norwood and the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association where she worked.

A similar pattern emerges with Family Betrayal. Apart from boosting the size and vigour of ‘The Kuczynski Network’, an entity to which the author devoted a whole chapter in the Lawn Road Flats, Burke chooses to enrich his rather thin gruel with a number of profiles of related hangers-on and associates within the broader ‘anti-fascist’ movement, the assorted societies and factions to which they belonged, and the requisite pamphlets and lectures with which they harangued the public at large. Political activities are introduced rather haphazardly, so we learn about the Indian Communist Party and the Greek Civil War, even though such phenomena have only a very vague connection with the shenanigans of the Kuczynskis.

In 2017, John Green published his study of the Kuczynskis (A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War), and last year Ben Macintyre released his rather fanciful profile of the family’s most notable scion in Agent Sonya. So what new information has Burke to offer? He cites Green only once, and the arrival of Macintyre’s book assuredly occurred too late for him to assimilate it. Yet Burke has dug around the archives pertinaciously enough to reveal some useful new (or overlooked) facts about the Kuczynskis (such as the employment at Bletchley Park of Barbara Kuczynski’s husband Duncan Taylor, a tidbit that had eluded this writer). He provides a wealth of detail on the backgrounds of the various lovers and spouses that the six Kuczynski offspring maintained, and their contributions to the cause of Stalinism. It is perhaps no surprise that MI5 failed to decompose this complex web of subversives.

Yet Burke also completely misconstrues some important aspects of their lives, for instance collapsing Ursula’s miraculous escape from Switzerland in a single sentence, and attributing its success to the wiles of a Kuczynski uncle, Hermann Deutsch, who ‘finalized the arrangements to bring Ursula to Britain’. This assertion is in complete contradiction to what Burke described in The Lawn Road Flats (her transfer was ordered by Stalin), and moreover completely ignores how MI6 colluded in her pursuit of a divorce, naturalization, and an exit visa. On Ursula’s ‘spying’, or more accurately, acting as a courier for Klaus Fuchs, Burke repeats the now tired myth that she transmitted Fuchs’s secrets from a wireless concealed at Great Rollright. He has been misled by many mendacious memoirs.

Above all, however, Burke displays a lack of intellectual curiosity that might have given his book some snap. To begin with, it is as if he feels a little guilty about spending so much ink on such a disreputable clan. In his Introduction, he writes:

            How legitimate is spying in defence of a cause? Is it possible to confer the honourable title of anti-Nazi resistance on the Kuczynski family, and have done with it? Or should we condemn the family for its espionage activities on behalf of the Soviet Union that, in the main, targeted Great Britain and the British Empire?

Burke never resolves this question. One of his conclusions is that, from 1920 to 1999 ‘the Kuczynskis never faltered in their unswerving support for the Soviet Union’, and he rewards such Stalinist fervour with the following judgment:

            Anyone writing about the skills of the Kuczynskis as spies confronts a thorny issue: their abilities might be manifest but their Stalinism cannot be glanced over lightly. What makes this a difficult activity is the fact that Stalinism, unless attacked with a moral vocabulary that misrepresents the true nature of the phenomenon, was a system that attracted many good people, the Kuczynskis among them.

Here lies the traditional apology for Stalin’s useful idiots and fellow-travellers –  their sincerity. Some might say that an ability to be duped by Stalin’s monstrous regime, and to try to reproduce it elsewhere, was a sign of moral deficiency, not goodness. Yet the process of ‘glancing over lightly’ is exactly what Burke exercises.

For example:

* In 1938 the paterfamilias, Robert Kuczynski, was appointed Reader in Demography at the London School of Economics, where he concentrated on ‘methodological questions and the study of non-European populations’. What insights he brought to this position is not explained, but he assuredly did not comment on the fact that, when the 1937 census showed that Soviet Union’s population had decreased during the Great Terror, Stalin had the chief officers in the Census Bureau executed, nor, when Robert was offered the post of Democratic Adviser to the Colonial Office in 1943, did he discuss Stalin’s wholesale deportations of nations (e.g. Germans, Kalmyks, Tatars) from their homelands to regions east, as a punishment exercise.

* Jürgen was a consistent critic of labour conditions in the West. In 1938, his book Hunger and Work was published, and Burke informs us that it described ‘seven lean years at the height of the depression from 1931 to 1937’. Yet he makes no comparison with real labour conditions in the Soviet Union (of which Jürgen presented a ‘roseate picture’ the following year), where the economy functioned largely on slave labour, and where prisoners in the Gulag were driven to exhaustion and death, to be replaced by innocent victims in their thousands. Burke presents the work as a defence against such charges, and posts that opinion without comment.

* In 1939, the Left Book Club published Jürgen’s The Condition of the Workers in Gt. Britain, Germany and The Soviet Union. A main theme of the book, Burke informs us, was ‘its damning indictment of the role played by finance capitalism’, and the young firebrand compared Great Britain’s version of ‘finance capitalism’ with Germany’s, concluding ‘Fascism rules’. Burke never inspects what ‘finance capitalism’ meant in the environment of the late 1930s, in what way it made sense to present capitalist enterprises as being driven by non-financial interests, or how the inferred monopolistic tendencies compared to the totalitarian control of industry in the Soviet Union.

Those are just a few of the occasions when a more imaginative writer might have introduced some refreshing context and educational perspective to the questions he himself introduced. Yet Burke’s evasiveness appears to be derived from the fact that he actually admires this family of delusional, mischievous, ungrateful, hypocritical, gossipy busybodies. ‘Good agents need to be more than effective conspirators’, he states in his Conclusion. “They have to be capable of getting their bearings fast in ever-changing political situations and for this reason intelligence work is primarily political work”. And his final judgment is that the Kuczynzkis were undoubtedly suited to this activity. “Norwood and the Kuczynskis were successful not simply because they were adept in the field of their intelligence, but because they had a belief in the certitude of their ideology.”

In summary, this is a weak book, misguided in its conception, and evasive in its execution. The author could have converted his fascinating researches on archival material, newspapers, memoirs, etc. into a valuable analysis of the ferment of ideas that seethed in the totalitarian-dominated 1930s. He could perhaps have explained where fervor ended and knowledge began, and why it was that so many ‘good people’ chose to ignore the realities of Stalin’s massive prison-camp, and instead tried to bring about the Communist utopia to the western world. For those interested in the petty squabbles of the leftist intelligentsia of those times, and the multitude of factions, societies, and pressure-groups that were formed, Family Betrayal may be a useful addition to their library, but even for them, the book’s multiple errors, a style that is frequently clumsy, and the author’s amoral lack of intellectual guidance, will probably leave them disappointed.

Russia by Antony Beevor

“Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” (A. J. P. Taylor)

This is not the first occasion where I have used the above quotation by the historian A. J. P. Taylor in a coldspur piece, nor will it probably be the last. It shocked me when I first read it in 1965, and it astounds me still. To think that Lenin, whose ideas for revolution were ridden with hatred and cruelty from the first, could be considered by any educated person as some semi-saintly figure, is simply perverse. For an influential historian to promulgate such an agenda (in the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century) was strikingly irresponsible and absurd, and yet Taylor exerted a strong influence on British popular imagination.

If testimony were required to reinforce the notion that the Russian Revolution was steeped from the outset in extreme and barbarous killing, Antony Beevor’s Russia should fulfill that role. It is in fact a catalogue of horrors. After the August 1918 killing of the Petrograd Cheka leader Moisey Uritsky, and the assassination attempt on Lenin (both exploits being the work of single subversives), Felix Dzerzhinsky ordered that ‘that all those listed as Kadet party members, police officers, officials of the monarchy, and all sorts of princes and counts imprisoned in Moscow jails and concentration camps were to be executed’. Thus did the Red Terror start – with the slaughter of the innocent, except that, in Lenin’s mind, anyone who opposed the Revolution was guilty.

Not that the Reds had exclusive ownership of excruciating methods of torturing and killing their enemies (e.g. burying alive; tying up in barbed wire, or loaded with stones, and drowning; throwing alive into furnaces; disembowelling by rats; hacking to death with sabres; slow burning; smothered naked by freezing water): the Whites, conscious of the deeds of the Bolsheviks, and the initiation of the ‘Red Terror’, exacted their own revenge in retributions of similar fashion. The strategy of executing anyone who showed resistance to the Revolution, as ‘class enemies’, does not fit easily into current notions of ‘genocide’, which focus unduly on supposed ‘ethnic’ traits as being a reason for extermination, and that is probably why the monstrous massacres of the Reds have not received the attention and scorn that they in fact merit.

I find it difficult to sort out Antony Beevor, if indeed he has to be sorted. He does not have a conventional historian’s background. He was born two days before me, so I can understand his general arc of experience. After Winchester School, and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, he received a commission in the 11th Hussars in July 1967, but then resigned it in August 1970. The next event in his life appears to be the publication of The Spanish Civil War in 1982. So what had he been up to in the intervening years? It is unusual for any young man with spark – even if independently wealthy – not to pursue some life-expanding profession in his formative twenties, but Beevor appears to keep this dark. Was he perhaps ‘attached to the War Office’, as they use to write of spooks in World War II? Or did he seclude himself away, reading prodigiously and taking copious notes for a decade or more as preparation for writing his first book?

I had read Beevor’s D-Day, and was impressed with its narrative drive, and rich detail. It admittedly takes an especial sense of geography to keep track of all the fronts, salients, flanks, redoubts, bottlenecks, pincer movements, etc. that characterized these battles – or any other, for that matter, and my spatial understanding frequently failed to keep up with the action. Beevor used a broad array of sources to highlight the myriad small disasters that occurred as the often ill-conceived plans of the Allied assault forces were executed on the beaches and in the difficult bocages of Normandy. For example, he was excellent on comparing the tactics of the Germans, fresh with lessons from the Eastern Front, with those of the Americans and British, who had been practicing in the lanes and fields of southern England. But this was a terrain he was familiar with: the geography was localized, the combatants and causes were clear, the archival sources were generally reliable, and he understood well the social backgrounds of the main combatants. He was able to complement the official records with a wealth of personal memoirs. As one review stated: “His account of atrocities on both sides, of errors committed and of surpassing bravery makes for excellent – though often blood-soaked – reading.”

Russia is even more blood-soaked. Yet Beevor faces a vastly different landscape in trying to bring the same technique to the horrors of the Revolution and the Civil War. The territory covered is the Eurasian continental landmass, from Warsaw to Vladivostok. The agents are a mixed lot of nationals, tribes, factions and groups. The historical record is fragmented, and may not be very reliable. Any sense of strategy or historical direction is undermined by the chaos of the punches and counterpunches of the conflict. In some ways, Russia is a magnificent scrap-book, a compilation of hundreds of facts and observations scrupulously arranged by date and location. Yet it frequently comes across as exactly that, with a bewildering collage of names and places that strain even the most patient reader. Without constant recourse to detailed maps (as with D-Day), one is lost.

For example, one can read such passages as:

There was no guarantee that the Baltic States could defend themselves, yet at the same time the White Russian forces planned to attack Petrograd. But neither the Finns nor the Estonians welcomed these anti-Bolshevik Russian supremacists who refused to acknowledge their independence. A White venture to invade Soviet territory was likely to fail and provoke a Red counter-attack. And to complicate the Baltic imbroglio further, while Yudenich applied to the British and French for military support, there was another White Russian force under Colonel Pavel Bermondt-Avalov financed from Berlin, and

Denikin, increasingly angered by separatist tendencies in the Kuban, was outraged to discover that a delegation of the Kuban Rada had signed a treaty of friendship with the Chechen and Ingush who, with Georgian encouragement, had been attacking the Volunteer Army in the Caucasus

only a few times before one’s eyes start to glaze over. This was not a simple civil war.

It is also not clear to me what knowledge Beevor expects his readership to have already. For instance, he lists the factions in the 1917 Provisional Government (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Kadets, Socialist Revolutionaries, Progressives) without any explanation as to how they evolved, or what their different agendas were. Of the three likely reasons for eliding this matter, i) he is not interested, or is unaware; ii) he assumes his readers all know this already; or iii) he regards such details as irrelevant to the main story; I must assume that the third is the likeliest. Yet he snows his text with such a cavalcade of names that it is easy to become lost in the torrent. And his rather cavalier and incomplete Index does not help matters. I had a particular interest in three names: Paul Dukes, who played a significant role in intelligence-gathering for MI6; Leonid Kannegiser, who assassinated the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Uritsky (and was related to Rudolf Peierls’s wife, about whom I have written); and General Evgeny Miller, the leader of the Northern Russian Government, who was later abducted in Paris and killed by Stalin’s goons in Moscow. Each individual receives one brief mention in Beevor’s text: none of the names appears in the Index. That seems to me to be irresponsible: Beevor does not declare the rationale for including some key figures in the Index, but not others.

Beevor is stronger, and more forthright, on the actions and mistakes of the Whites than he is on the Reds. The White armies were dispersed, over thousands of miles, with Yudenich leading in the North, Kolchak in the East, and Denikin (constantly at loggerheads with Wrangel, and criticized by many as being too liberal) in the South. Their communications had to be routed via Paris, and consequently took weeks to arrive: if they had enjoyed access to Zoom, matters might have turned out differently. But they were corrupt: many of them drank to excess, or took drugs. They mistreated their ranks, and looted for the benefits of their families, mistresses, and clans. They alienated what peasant allies they might have had by insisting on a return to the old system of land-ownership, and they lost any possible loyalty from populations of outlying territories (e.g. Finland, Estonia, Latvia) by insisting that their goals included restoration of the old imperial boundaries. All that those fighting the Bolsheviks had in common was a hatred of communism.

The Reds, on the other hand, were single-minded. Yet Beevor spends less time on their energies and activities. Lenin is a very shadowy figure during this period. Admittedly, he did not interfere in military affairs in the way that Hitler, Stalin or Churchill did, and other sources inform us that he spent most of his time ordering that anyone disobedient or timid should be shot. Trotsky (also not an expert in warfare) zipped around on his special train, printing pamphlets and broadsides, and exhorting the troops. After intense discussion, Trotsky and Lenin had decided, over Stalin’s objections, that the Red Army needed professional soldiers to develop a proper fighting army, and thus members of the tsarist officer corps were recruited, on pain of death to their families if they showed signs of cowardice, or betraying the revolution, to train the men and lead them into battle. In July 1919, the tsarist General Sergei Kamenev (not Lev, the Bolshevik) was appointed commander-in-chief of the Red Army over Trotsky’s strenuous objections, but makes few appearances on the scene after that, until Stalin berates him and Trotsky for the disastrous Warsaw campaign.

But how were all these armies, and the secret police, recruited? Was the Cheka staffed with criminals and psychopaths, or were the common people convinced of the need for mass terror, and signed up? How did they learn such bloodlust? In a paradoxical aside, Beevor claims that the head of the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky, was something of a softie, leaving the killing to others, but then, a page later, writes that he murdered a member of the left Socialist Revolutionaries, Aleksandrovich , ‘of whom he became rather fond’, with his own hand. Were the organs and soldiers press-ganged? How were the armies populated, trained, supplied, and kept motivated? Beevor failed to engage in such pressing questions, an oversight that leaves his story incomplete. (These were issues he covered well in D-Day.) He spends much more time on Churchill, the British secretary of state for war, who displayed his most picaresque tendencies in his hatred of Bolshevism, and brought Prime Minister Lloyd George to distraction, than he does on the Red Army leaders, and their conduct of the war. He is flimsy on the claims, now apparently confirmed, that the Bolsheviks were very reliant on German gold to finance the war.

Beevor provides some crisp description and analysis. He is sound on the dithering of Kerensky with the Provisional Government; he is incisive in telling the story of Kolchak’s eventual betrayal, trial, and execution; he describes the horrific exodus from Odessa, with the thousands left behind to be murdered, with chilling detail. His prose is mainly elegant, although he shows the occasional lack of language sense, such as with the clumsy lack of agreement in “Yet the presence of British armored cars in Kiev were thought to have prevented a Bolshevik uprising”. I note here some errata to be fixed in the paperback edition: ‘Xenephon’ (Xenophon) on page 126; ‘sunk’ (sank) on page 136; ‘Phyrric’ (Pyrrhic) in note on page 350; ‘kaleidescope’ (kaleidoscope) on page 469. The Index is inadequate.

In summary, a rich, encyclopedic compilation, but rather indigestible. Apart from reinforcing the horrors and widespread brutality of a wrenching Civil War by including a wide section of details from memoirs, Russia does not provide much fresh insight into the motivations and objectives of its combatants.

In the Wake of Empire by Anatol Shmelev

In Russia, Antony Beevor summed up the failure of the Whites as follows: “The different armies of Kolchak in Siberia, Denikin in the south, and Yudenich in the Baltics had never been able to coordinate their operations. The very few communications between them, which went via Paris, took weeks to arrive. The great handicap of the Whites was their dispersion around the central core of Soviet territory, while the Red Army benefitted enormously from interior lines or communication and a more centralized command structure.”

That, in a nutshell, is the subject of Dr. Anatol Shmelev’s In the Wake of Empire, which is a very different compilation. I must declare an interest: I have met Dr. Shmelev, and found his company very rewarding, as I wrote a few months ago, when I gave a thumbnail sketch of his book. But I have unrestrained and objective admiration for the depth of his scholarship in tracking down the minutiae of the Whites’ negotiations with foreign governments during the Russian Civil War. And I wanted to wait until Beevor’s book came out before giving it the full critical appreciation. In his bibliography, Beevor credits Shmelev with three earlier references (including a preliminary and much narrower version of this book, published in Russian in 2017, The Foreign Policy of Admiral Kolchak’s Government, 1918-1919), but clearly has not studied the ‘substantially reworked and broadened volume’ (in Shmelev’s words) that was issued in 2021.

Shmelev is one of those scholars who have been able to take advantage of the considerable number of archives that were opened up in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s before Putin retightened the screws. He received his PhD from the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1996, and thereafter, apart from being able to use familiar archival resources, including the substantial material at the Hoover Institution, he was able to draw on the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire (AVPRI), the Russian State Naval Archive (RGAVMF), and the Russian State and Russian National Libraries, as well as the Library of the Academy of Sciences and the Russian State Historical Library.

The outcome is that an enormous amount of material has had to be sifted through, and Shmelev carries the task out with aplomb. The overall story is perhaps familiar: how the various White factions, dispersed around the fringes of the old Russian Empire, tried to prevail on the western powers to help them oust the hated Reds, but that those countries, exhausted by the travails of the Great War, were reluctant to assist an entity that presented fresh imperial ambitions and might be a threat to them if successful. The Communists were an unknown quantity, and their terrors not yet known: the public citizenry was overall against intervention, and it was left to energetic politicians like Churchill to try to raise money and troops for what would turn out to be a lost cause. The Whites’ insistence on restoring the old Russian imperial boundaries disaffected many potential allies who also detested Bolshevism, in, for example, the former Duchy of Finland, who had more independent aspirations.

Baron Roman Ungern-Shternberg

The author brings fresh depth and insights to the debate, and his judgment over much controversial material is authoritative but not pedantic. His sketches of some of the players who contributed – some well-known, others less familiar – are frequently incisive and innovative. I was captivated, for example, by the name of Ungern-Shternberg, almost as arresting as that of Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, who led the British overseas mission to Moscow in 1939. I was familiar with Roman Ungern-Shternberg, known as the ‘Mad Baron’, a White Russian psychopath (b. 1886) who terrorized Siberia and was executed by the Reds in 1921, and wondered how he was related to the Baron Rolf Ungern-Shternberg, the Russian chargé d’affaires in Lisbon, who gains a couple of paragraphs from Shmelev for rather dangerously supporting Trotsky’s plans for peace proposals. Some searches on the Web led me to multiple branches of the Ungern-Shternberg family tree, but I could not find any connections going a couple of generations back. Estonia must have been riddled with offshoots of the clan.

I also learned much about the tortured attempts by Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, to gain recognition and support from the western democracies, even while he tried to steer a problematic path between Lenin and Kolchak, represented by the group of leftist activists known endearingly as the ‘ninisty’ (‘neither-nor’; ‘neither Lenin nor Kolchak’). (Were they perhaps the models for ‘the knights who say “Ni!”’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?) Even though the initiative might have impressed President Wilson, appealing to the harsh Kolchak, maybe the strongest White officer, that he should become more democratic was a hopeless cause. As Shmelev writes: “For the mainstream Whites, the ninisty remained a symbol of the despised Kerenschina of 1917, hollow and rotten.”

Shmelev’s account is liberally sprinkled with many such illuminating insights and observations. I might challenge, however, one or two perspectives. For instance, he describes how the White ‘appeals for Allied aid and pressure on Finland and the Baltic States show that White foreign policy was being conducted in a vacuum – their representatives not only had no influence over foreign policy, but more often that had no conception of Allied policy.’ I would add that was mainly because the pluralist democracies did not possess a single-minded coherent policy – not just amongst themselves, several different countries with unique histories and territorial outlooks, but internally, within their governments (as the clashes between Lloyd George and Churchill prove), and even within their individual offices of administration, as inside the British Foreign Office itself. So perhaps it was not surprising that the Whites could not discern the intentions of their potential saviours. I also questioned (in a private email) Shmelev’s characterization of Churchill’s attitude to Bolshevism: “Long after the civil war, he continued to inveigh against the dangers of Bolshevism, and it was only the Second World War that brought about an alliance that must have amazed Churchill himself, although the end of the war resulted in the return of the natural order of things.” ‘The natural order of things’, with Stalin’s prison-camp extended over all eastern Europe? That is a bizarre assessment, and one of the very few where I judge Shmelev puts a foot wrong.

One highly illuminating event for me was the issuance of the document known as ‘the Colby Note’. After the Whites had been ousted in Siberia in early 1920, Bainbridge Colby, who had been appointed by USA President Polk as Secretary of State, sent a note to the Italian ambassador describing the attitudes of the United States towards the ongoing Polish-Soviet war. In what could be interpreted as a repudiation of Wilsonian self-determination, it savagely criticized the morals and policies of the Bolshevik government and hinted at official recognition of the previous boundaries of the Russian Empire – except for Finland, ‘ethnic Poland’ [an amorphous entity!], and part of the state of Armenia. in fact, Wilson thought that Bolshevik Russia would self-destruct as it was ‘wrong’ – a woefully feeble assessment. As Shmelev points out, it did collapse – but not until seventy years later. Yet the articulations of an ill-prepared Secretary of State gave hope to many, especially General Wrangel, who stated that the Colby Note represented his own political program. The initiative was unauthorized, too weak, too late, and too muddled, and fizzled out.

What fascinates me is how the White movement tried to persevere after the war, and how determined the Bolsheviks were to eradicate it, partly out of political principle, but also out of vengeance. The memoirs of exiled tsarist officers, trying to maintain a life of dignity in the West (particularly in Paris), but frequently having to work as cab-drivers or kitchen-hands, are exquisitely sad, but also rather pathetic are the aspirations they maintained about the chances of overturning the revolution, and perhaps of regaining their position and prestige. Stalin manipulated such persons most cruelly, infiltrated ROVS (the Russian émigré military veterans’ organization) with OGPU agents, and carefully killed such prominent persons as Generals Miller and Kutepov. Shmelev provides an Epilogue where he summarizes the fates of many of the diplomats who managed to escape (although for some reason overlooks Vrangel [sometimes Wrangel], who was probably poisoned by Stalin’s thugs in 1928), and highlights the role that the treacherous Sergey Tret’iakov played. Tret’iakov had been appointed foreign minister under Kolchak in 1919, but made an ingenious escape to Harbin and Japan before settling In Japan, and then moving to Paris. He was later recruited by the NKVD, and betrayed Kutepov (in 1930) and Miller (in 1937). Tret’iakov was arrested by the Germans in June 1942, and taken to Germany to be shot.

In the Wake of Empire is not the definitive story of the collapse of the White resistance to the Bolsheviks. There probably can be no such volume: neither is Beevor’s. But it should be read as a necessary complement to the blood and thunder of the tales of the Revolution and Civil War. Very little blood is spilled in Shmelev’s book, but a host of fascinating details of what went on behind the scenes is provided instead. Clausewitz said that war was a continuation of politics by other means, but the Whites were forced into war without having a chance to negotiate, to practice their politics. And then they were too fragmented, too dispersed geographically, and lacked authority. Diplomacy is also an aspect of bringing war to a close, but they were outgunned, outmanœuvred and outwitted by the ruthlessness of the Reds.

Stalin and His Hangmen by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield is another historian who has been able to exploit the availability of new Russian archival material, in his case in order to shed fresh light on Stalin’s murderous schemes. He cites the State Archive of Social-Political History and the State Archive of the Russian Federation as his richest sources, while lamenting that the FSB has recently restricted its access to families of the oppressed and former employees, and that the Presidential Archive has become much more conservative in what it releases. Rayfield, who speaks Russian and Georgian, extended his search to the Georgian Central State Archive and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art as well as several private collections. “There is enough material for seven maids with seven mops for seven thousand years”, he writes in his Preface, ”and much remains unexplored, particularly since archival catalogues give only the vaguest indication of what anything may hold.” Thus we may hope to expect further revelations – so long as historians with the calibre and style of Professor Rayfield are around to inspect them.

For a comprehensive and insightful account of the machinations of the various secret police organizations in Russia (including those of tsarist times), I would recommend Ronald Hingley’s excellent Russian Secret Police (1970), although he was able to use only a much more restricted set of sources. Rayfield is able to go into much more detail on the personalities of the chiefs involved, and their habits and character, as well as expand coverage to a broad set of players.  The author, Professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, is a proper man of letters, and I referred to his impressive biography of Anton Chekhov in my September post. Since then, I have also read his book Understanding Chekhov, which sheds penetrating light on the influences on the writer’s works, and skillfully explains how he achieves his effects in the stories and plays. Not unexpectedly, then, Stalin and His Hangmen expresses a flair for language and idiom: moreover, Rayfield displays some of the same stylistic traits of understatement and irony that Hingley used to such great effect.

But why ‘Hangmen’? It was not until April, 1943 that Stalin introduced public hanging as a method of execution, borrowing from the Germans, because he concluded that shooting was ‘too lenient’. Lenin had in fact recommended that method back in 1918, as it would have the educational value of being visible to the public. (In 1943, it also led to spectators stealing clothes from the bodies of the corpses.) The title of the book would better be Stalin and His Executioners, but maybe Rayfield thought that that nomenclature would echo too closely Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and thus selected the more figurative term. Then again, his subject is actually the chiefs of his Stalin’s terror apparatus – the Cheka, OGPU, NKVD and the various manifestations of the KGB – those who prepared the lists and sent them to Stalin to sign, who issued the quotas and ordered the extralegal executions. They were not Albert Pierrepoints: Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka in Moscow, shot someone himself on only one occasion. The victim was a drunken sailor, according to Rayfield (testimony that thus collides with Beevor’s), and it provoked a convulsive fit. Poor sensitive soul. Still, it makes poetic sense to call Dzerzhinsky and his successors all ‘murderers’.

I was pleased to see that Rayfield takes an outspoken stance on the horrors of Stalinism in the 1930s. When I described, in my doctoral thesis (and repeated in Misdefending the Realm, p 282) how Stalin’s massacres of his citizens had vastly outnumbered the murders that Hitler perpetrated against his victims (communists, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, etc.) in that decade, I received some pushback from Professor Glees, as if I were diminishing the evils of the Holocaust. Yet the facts of Stalin’s own funeral pyre were undeniable – even though Stalin nurtured a set of western ‘useful idiots’ at the time who did indeed deny them, as Rayfield records. I stoutly defended my statements. Moreover, Rayfield points out that not only does the Putin regime not deny the Stalinist evils, it actually celebrates its ‘heroes’. He writes in his Preface:

In 2002, without comment abroad or at home, the Russian post office issued a set of stamps, ‘The 80th Anniversary of Soviet Counterintelligence’: the stamps show Artur Artuzov né Frautschi, one of the most dreaded OGPU leaders in the early 1920s; Sergei Puzitsky, who organized the killing of half a million Cossacks in 1931; Vladmir Styrne, who slaughtered thousands of Uzbeks in the 1920s; Vsevolod Balitsky, who purged the Ukraine and enslaved the Soviet peasantry. Imagine the uproar if Germany issued stamps commemorating Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann. Nobody in Germany smokes ‘Auschwitz’ cigarettes but Belomorkanal cigarettes, commemorating a camp where 100,000 were exterminated, are still sold in Russia.

State-sponsored terrorism began as soon as the Revolution started, and was aggressively promoted by Lenin. After the assassination attempt on Lenin by Fanny Kaplan, and the successful killing of the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Leon Uritsky, in 1918, the Red Terror started. Anybody who expressed – or even symbolized – counter-revolutionary impulses was in danger. Dzerzhinksy took out his lists, and started killing indiscriminately. As Rayfield informs us: “In 1919 all Moscow’s Boy Scouts, and in 1920 all members of its lawn tennis club were shot.” Thus the slaughter began, complemented by the campaigns of targeted persecution, such as the liquidation of so-called ‘kulaks’, whose only crime might have been to have owned a cow or two, or kept some grain for themselves, which resulted in the frightful famines in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the creation of the Gulags, which few survived, followed by the Great Terror. As late as 1938, 328,618 executions (yes, each death was recorded) for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ took place. (Robert Conquest estimated that the NKVD killed two million directly, i.e. discounting deaths in the Gulag, in 1937 and 1938.) As if the total population of Nottingham were taken out and shot over the course of twelve months.

Felix Dzherzhinsky

Rayfield describes a grisly series of murderers with panache and energy. To begin with they were mostly non-Russians. Dzerzhinsky was a Pole, and the bulk of his crew were initially Poles and Latvians who had been oppressed in their native countries. Then native Russians joined the slaughter: ‘convicted criminals and certified psychopaths appointed themselves officers of the Cheka’. What is extraordinary is the degree to which cultured individuals, too, such as artists and doctors, could banish any inhibitions and cruelly torture and kill innocent human beings simply because they had been told that they were ‘enemies of the people’. Dzerzhinsky died of ill-health, as did his successor, Menzhinksy, another Pole, whom Rayfield portrays as relatively human. Many of these sadists eventually became victims themselves, including Yagoda (the head of the NKVD from 1934 to 1936), and his successor Yezhov, who, like Kamenev, went to the dungeons of execution bawling for mercy. Yezhov, having been responsible for the horrifying purges in his régime known as the Yezhovschina, was dismissed for not showing enough chekist vigilance, but then condemned to death for his over-exuberance.

The last of Stalin’s hangmen, Lavrenty Beria, comes under some provocative treatment by Rayfield, who bizarrely expresses some kind of admiration for him (p 343). 

Unlike Ezhov, Beria knew when to hold back, when to step back. Beria was not just a vindictive sadist, he was an intelligent pragmatist, capable of mastering a complex brief, and one of the best personnel managers in the history of the USSR. With very slight adaptations, he could have made himself a leading politician in any country of the world.

But he then he goes on to write about Beria’s libertine behaviour (p 459):

As for Beria’s legendary sexual proclivities, he was certainly guilty of many rapes – usually by blackmail rather than force – and of violating young girls. On the other hand, some of his mistresses were fond, or at least respectful, of him. By the standards of some Soviet leaders, who used the Bolshoi Ballet as a brothel, or even compared to J. F. Kennedy or David Lloyd George, Beria was not beyond the pale, even if at intervals during meetings he ordered women to be delivered to his house, as modern politicians order pizzas.

On a pervert like Beria, this judgment appears to me to fall on the wrong side of good taste.

Lavrenty Beria

The crux of the matter was that Stalin harbored fatal grudges against anyone who had ever opposed him, had challenged the righteousness of any Politburo decisions engineered by him, or weaknesses in the Soviet infrastructure (such as fallible aircraft), anyone who had ever voiced sympathy for Trotsky, or assisted in his attempts at propaganda, anyone who had recommended more lenient policies (such as Bukharin), or who had shown him up as flawed in military action (like Tukhachevsky, from the Polish campaign of 1920-1921). He had his spies and surveillance mechanisms, and knew exactly what his detractors said about him. They all had to go, eventually, just like the millions of utterly innocent victims whose neighbours or co-workers may have got their defamation in first, or who were banished to the Gulag on utterly spurious charges.

On Stalin, Rayfield expresses more sceptical opinions on some of the allegations that have populated other biographies of the dictator. When the head of the NKVD in Spain, Alexander Orlov, defected in 1937, it was later rumoured that he had knowledge that Stalin had been an agent of the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, and had thus bargained his protection out of it. Rayfield appears to dismiss this. The assassination of Sergey Kirov, the party secretary in Leningrad, in 1934, has been broadly stated to have been engineered by Stalin himself, as a way of eliminating a dangerous rival. (Kirov could be seen in relation to Stalin as DeSantis is to Trump.) Rayfield pours cold water on this theory, too, while agreeing that the killing gave Stalin an excuse to purge others in the rival urban centre who threatened him. Here, he goes against the grain of what others – including Hingley – have concluded, with Hingley citing the hints that Khrushchev supplied in his 1956 speech denunciating Stalin. On the Tukhachevsky affair (where the Red Army general was accused of plotting against Stalin, which may well have been true, and was executed with seven other outstanding commanders in June 1937), Rayfield laconically writes: “Stalin’s ingratitude toward the Red Army, without whose brilliance and energy he could have died on the gallows in 1919 or 1920, is attributed by some to a German sting.” The inquisitive reader would be justified in desiring a more forthright and authoritative opinion than that. Likewise, Rayfield classifies Pavel Sudoplatov’s memoirs (Special Tasks) as ‘mendacious’ without explaining where they can be trusted, and where they should be treated with scepticism. It is an uneven performance.

The OKHRANA Badge

Rayfield’s stances are usually bold and vividly expressed, if a little idiosyncratically. I was puzzled as to why he insisted on spelling out Dzierzynski, Ezhov, Iagoda, and Khruschiov, when anyone who has been exposed to only a little Soviet history would be familiar with Dzerzhinsky, Yezhov, Yagoda, and Khrushchev. He whimsically refers to the tsarist secret police as the Okhranka, instead of the Okhrana. His prose is mainly very elegant, although I noticed some clumsy repetitions and flow of logic (for example, consecutive sentences starting with ‘But’), and some incorrect use of pronouns in appositional clauses. He uses the term ‘legendary’ inappropriately, in a journalistic voice. On the other hand, his sometimes waspish observations are almost universally sound and entertaining, as when, in true Hingleyesque style, he describes the atmosphere in 1937: “The streets of Moscow and Leningrad were still dangerous at night, but now that banditry was as severely punished as telling anti-Soviet jokes, some of the public regained confidence.”

Occasionally, his judgment falters, and he indulges in some donnish sermonizing. For example: “As Georgians, Stalin, Beria and Kobulov detested the Ingush and Chechens with that antipathy of lowland townsmen to highland warriors that goes back to the dawn of history and is still felt in Georgia.” This is dubious scholarship: I doubt whether such divisions existed ‘at the dawn of history’, whenever that was, and to characterize the peasant Stalin as a ‘lowland townsman’, as if he were an Edinburgh grocer, is erratic. And the final sentence of his book likewise displays a lack of academic rigour: “Until the story is told in full, and until the world community insists that the legacy of Stalin is fully accounted for and expiated, Russia will remain spiritually sick, haunted by the ghosts of Stalin and his hangmen, and, worse, by the nightmares of their resurrection.” ‘World community’? Who are those persons? There is an important message within this Thunbergian waffle, but Rayfield missed an important opportunity to explain to us how this transformation, and international pressure on Putin, could come about.

Lastly, I want to comment on some of Rayfield’s choice of poetry to amplify his messages. (My editor has generously granted me some extra space to digress on a matter of great personal interest to me.) On page 213, to introduce a section titled ‘The Trophy Writer’, where he discusses the writer Maxim Gorky, Rayfield introduces a fragment by the German poet Christian Morgenstern, which he has translated into English himself. He does not identify the title of the piece, but I can reveal that it is Der Werwolf (The Werewolf).

Christian Morgenstern’s ‘Galgenlieder’ & ‘Der Gingganz’

Dedicated coldspur readers may recall that Morgenstern is an enthusiasm of mine. As a teenager, I was introduced to him by the Cohens’ Penguin Books of Comic and Curious Verse, and I still have those volumes, as well as my dtv copies of Morgenstern’s Palmström and Galgenlieder in my poetry bookcase. He was a writer of nonsense verse, greatly influenced by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and died of tuberculosis shortly before the outbreak of World War 1. Consisting largely of plays on words, his verses are notoriously difficult to translate. The translations in the Penguin series were delivered by R. F. C. Hull (1913-1974), who worked at Bletchley Park in World War II on the Ultra transcripts.

The paradox behind Der Werwolf is the fact that ‘Wer’ means ‘Who’ in German, but has no plural form, and the Werewolf seeks out a dead grammarian who might explain how his family of multiple werewolves can exist. Hull tries to finesse the issue by using the ‘Were’ of ‘Werewolf’ to suggest a problem of conjugating a verb rather than declining a pronoun. He does a decent job of making the poem accessible to readers, but is challenged by the fact that ‘were’ is regularly a plural form already.

What this has to do with Gorky and Stalin is a mystery. Moreover, Rayfield’s attempt at translation is doggerel. He displays no metrical sense, and cuts off the verses before the crux appears. It is all rather pointless. Maybe he is simply a fan of Morgenstern, and wanted to promote him, but it is very bizarre. (My hunch concerning a personal enthusiasm was reinforced when I read Understanding Chekhov: Rayfield rather incongruously introduces Morgenstern by referring to his imitation of Chekhov’s ‘theatre of smell’.) This digression is a rare false note in what is a compelling story. Let those maids with their mops pick up the gauntlet, and insist that Putin recognize the errors of his ways.

Yet there is more of Morgenstern. Rayfield also, rather enigmatically, presents a standalone verse of Morgenstern’s, Allen Knechtschaffenen, translated as To All the Enslaved, as a frontispiece to the book. The verse runs as follows:

An alle Himmel schreib ich’s an,

die diesen Ball unspannen:

Nicht der Tyrann ist ein schimpflicher Mann,

aber der Knecht des Tyrannen.

Rayfield’s translation runs:

            I write it all over the heavens

That encompass our earthly sphere;  

It’s not the tyrant we should abuse,

But the serf who works for the tyrant.

This is very odd. First of all, what was Morgenstern, who wrote these lines in 1906, suggesting? That those suffering under tyranny were responsible for letting it happen? He could not have anticipated the Liquidation of the Kulaks, or the quiescence of the German citizenry under Hitler. While ‘Knecht’ itself has a more moderate meaning (‘servant’ or ‘menial’), the word ‘Knechtschaft’ has a more intense signification of ‘servitude’ or ‘slavery’, and Morgenstern’s title, Allen Knechtschaffenen, would therefore suggest all victims in that miserable state, as Rayfield’s translation endorses. In that case, Morgenstern would appear to be describing those properly enslaved – not those who simply worked for the tyrant, carrying out his bidding. Yet Rayfield is writing about Stalin’s Hangmen, and one would assume that the ‘Knecht’ he alludes to was not a true slave, but represented any one of the despot’s secret police chiefs. (I would have used ‘lackey’, not ‘serf’, to suggest any of the minions who carried out the dictator’s orders.) It is Rayfield, moreover, not Morgenstern, who introduces the notion of ‘working for the tyrant’ rather than just ‘being the tyrant’s slave’. Thus why Rayfield would condemn Morgenstern’s slaves, or why, if he truly meant those who worked for the tyrant directly, Stalin’s hirelings should be considered more ‘disgraceful’, or worthy of abuse, than Stalin himself is not clear. It is all an eccentric and perplexing muddle to me.

Resistance by Halik Kochanski

I detect a competition between the epic new history of an era or event and the minimalist approach. Thus the phenomenon of Mark Galeotti’s A Short History of Russia, limiting an analysis of an enormous entity in space and time to 194 pages (which I have not yet read), competes for media coverage with Halik Kochanski’s monumental account of the underground movements against Hitler, Resistance, running at 960 pages, which I did complete a few weeks ago. In attempting to gain the attention of the critics and the reading public, one would imagine that the former would have a distinct advantage. Yet how could such an abbreviated work, if bringing a fresh revisionist message, deliver the argument convincingly if it lacked a host of supporting detail, and a wealth of references? On the other hand, can any single academic do justice to the scope of such a multifarious and international cause as that of anti-fascist resistance, which would surely merit an encyclopedia?

My preference these days is for neither option. The amount of material that is available to write a comprehensive history of some select subject, performing justice to the social, political, military and intelligence aspects, using archival material, authorized histories, and memoirs and biographies, demands that the period and geography covered be highly localized. Thus John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940 has more appeal than, say, Antony Beevor’s Second World War (which is sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read). That is the approach I have taken in writing my analyses of SOE and the Prosper disaster, or the complications of Gouzenko’s defection and revelations. Any encyclopedic approach is bound to leave several stones unturned, and the creatures that hide beneath them unexamined.

Kochanski’s work is an extraordinary achievement, yet the nature of her sources is both a strength and a weakness. This book appears to have arisen from nowhere, with Kochanski’s 2012 account of the Poles at war, The Eagle Unbowed, hardly indicative of the massive scope of the research that propelled this volume. Her bibliography lists almost eight hundred items (I assume that she read them all herself), but the works are almost exclusively publications in English (with a few Polish and French volumes and articles thrown in), and many of them are memoirs and biographies of dubious reliability. For example, I counted at least three bearing the sub-title of ‘The True Story of. . . .’, when they are manifestly not such. There is no original primary archival material listed, and nothing from the German – where one might expect some useful insights on the Nazi approach to handling resistance to be found. Thus, without a directional methodology explaining why some sources should be trusted, the reliability of Kochanski’s narrative and judgments must remain an open question.

The scope of Kochanski’s study is the nature of resistance in all the European countries occupied by the Germans, and thus excludes Germany itself, and Austria. The subtitle of the book is The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945, which would tend to suggest that native resistance should very much have been in its focus. In commenting on this choice, Kochanski makes the surprising observation that there was nothing in those countries to resist, as ‘much of the German opposition to Hitler was not anti-German and did not want Germany to lose the war’. This seems to me an oversimplification, and an error of judgment, since it ignores multiple aspects of German resistance, including the broad plots inside the Wehrmacht and the Abwehr, the White Rose faction, and the Communist opposition that included the Rote Kapelle.

In 1994, Anton Gill published a very respectable book titled An Honourable Defeat: Resistance Against Hitler, 1939-1945, which covered civil and military opposition to the Führer. The appearance of that book would tend to confirm that there is an important tale to be told. True, the nature of such resistance was for the most part different, as it involved minimal sabotage, and hardly any guerrilla warfare. The story is nevertheless important since, if the military conspirators had spent less time plotting, and acted more decisively, they could have caused the whole ghastly edifice to come crashing down, and nullified the need for resistance elsewhere. Moreover, the Allies did try to infiltrate agents into German/Austrian territory with the goal of fomenting and exploiting local antagonisms, and such exploits constitute an important part of the overall history.

In fact the whole role of Communists in the Resistance across all of Europe, especially in France and Italy, and especially the way that Stalin insisted on controlling their activities, merits far more attention than Kochanski is prepared to allocate to this vexing subject. Communists were generally much more committed, and unconcerned about reprisals. Their activities, strangely enough, embarrassed both the Britain and the USA, as well as Stalin himself, who did not want premature uprisings in countries that he was not going to control, lest the Lend-Lease programs be jeopardized. The Foreign Office misjudged Stalin completely, and was manipulated by him. Britain’s role in appeasing its autocratic ally, and the misguided way in which it found itself arming Stalin’s servants in contravention of the desires of the relevant governments-in-exile, is almost completely overlooked by Kochanski.

As an encyclopedic survey of the resistance movements, Resistance will act as a splendid (but somewhat heavy) vade-mecum. It gathers a host of fascinating accounts of the efforts in each country for the general populace to come to grips with the presence of Nazi occupation forces. Circumstances in each territory were different, because of German attitudes, the culture of the country, and the nature of its terrain. I learned a multitude of new facts about the mistakes, tragedies and ironies of the conflict. For instance, in 1953, when twenty-one members of the SS Das Reich regiment were put on trial for the massacre at Oradour, it was discovered that fourteen of them were Frenchmen from Alsace, conscripted and fighting to protect their families back home. In 1942 the native Rinnan gang in Norway successfully infiltrated intelligence and resistance groups in the Trondheim region, leading to the execution of about a hundred resisters and SOE agents. As late as November 1944 (when the Warsaw Uprising was essentially over), Stalin still refused to allow the RAF to conduct operations to Warsaw over Soviet territory, even though he had recently encouraged the British to use Soviet bases in northern Russia to launch bombing-attacks on the battleship Tirpitz.

Yet in trying to provide an integrative account of how resistance unfolded, and how the Nazis reacted to it, Kochanski makes too many errors, and fails to follow up her individual observations with a series of patterns. It is a work of painstaking analysis, but of little imaginative synthesis. She does not understand the organization of SOE, MI5 and MI6, and how they interacted. Similarly, she does not distinguish between the Gestapo and the Abwehr in their rival domain and missions in France, or delineate the rivalries and squabbles that characterized their relationship. She similarly does not collect her multiple accounts of SOE’s exploitation of local resistance groups in France, Italy and Greece as a ploy to please Stalin, and to distract German attention from the Normandy landings, often with fatal results, into a coherent narrative. She likewise does not explore fully the way that resistance groups often exploited SOE with their relentless demands for weapons and money: SOE was an organization encouraging sabotage, not armed revolt. She hints at betrayal, but fails to grasp the bull by the horns. In the areas where I have studied the archival material (and the often deceptive memoirs) with some diligence, I found her history seriously wanting, and thus had doubts about the events with which I am not so familiar. On the other hand, I found her re-appraisal of the abuse of Mihailović, and the shady transfer of British support to Tito, a fine piece of revisionist writing.

Her overall assessment of SOE is very weak, merely reflecting some misty-eyed reminiscences of those who would like to see it in an exclusively positive light, and highlighting the opinion of its internal historian, William Mackenzie. The fact was that most European citizens living under the Nazi yoke did not want to see their country ‘set ablaze’, and the cruel reprisals that frequently followed were often indiscriminate and utterly demoralising. The assassination of Heydrich in Prague, and the horrendous reprisals that occurred thereafter, effectively quashed Czech resistance for good. The acquiescence and acceptance of subjugation that many pursued was not a sign of appeasement and treachery, but simply reflected a desire to survive, and no one who did not live through such times can comfortably judge behaviour that may have seemed dishonorable in retrospect. Kochanski several times observes how partisan groups spent more of their energies fighting each other rather than the Germans, but does not elevate these phenomena into any fresh conclusions. It is all very well to justify SOE retroactively on its delivery of intelligence instead of causing mayhem, but there existed other mechanisms  – more discreet – for gathering such information.

One whole aspect of resistance that Kochanski overlooks is the strategy of the occupiers. What did the Germans expect when they invaded a country, and did they adapt their tactics to the circumstances and reactions of the local populace? How did the character and stature of the respective Governor, and his policies, affect the dynamics of resistance? What effect did a royal family in place (as in Denmark and Belgium) have on the conflicts between the occupier and the occupied? It is poignant that, in Ukraine, and in the Baltic states, the Nazis were initially welcomed by many as liberators from the hated Communists, but the monstrosities of the execution squads against the Jews, and the attitudes of the Germans to ‘sub-human’ Slavs, soon showed that the invaders were as odious as the Bolsheviks. In Norway, on the other hand, where the Germans considered the natives as part of the favoured Nordic race, the attitude was far more indulgent, and positive, until the Gestapo concluded that they were generally hated as they were elsewhere. Even if fierce reprisals – demanded by Hitler – partially discouraged further subversion for a while (and that was a bitter source of controversy in Norway), at some stage the SS (Schutzstaffel) should have realized that more intensive terror would be self-defeating. Yet the brutalities of the Wehrmacht and the SS continued – sometimes out of sheer anger and frustration – in France, Italy and Greece, even when the outcome of the war was certain, and individual barbarities could be traced and be punished.

Like most books I read these days, Kochanski’s work could have benefitted from some tighter editing. Far too many statements are made in the passive voice, so that the source of claims is unverifiable, or the reader is uncertain who is making the judgment. She has an irritating habit of misplacing ‘only’, with the result that it does not correctly qualify the intended phrase. Her deployment of terms to describe the various resistance groups is imprecise: for instance, youths fearing conscription by the Germans who run to the woods do not suddenly become ‘maquis’. Thus, in summary, a noble and impressive work, but by no means definitive, with many opportunities missed. Maybe Kochanski did not feel up to the task of taking on what could turn out to be a controversial re-assessment of the contributions to the victory over the Axis powers of SOE and the resistance movements it tried to abet.

Surviving Katyn by Jane Rogoyska

If you read only one of the books I have reviewed this month, it should be Jane Rogoyska’s Surviving Katyn. It is a brilliantly researched and beautifully written account of one of the major examples of the Soviet Union’s brutality and mendacity –  the murder of thousands of Polish officers and professional men at Katyn Forest in 1940, and the subsequent cover-up and denial after the Germans discovered the scene of the butchery in 1943. The deceit, and the hunting down and elimination of many of the witnesses, carried on until the fall of the Soviet Union, when in 1990 Gorbachev faced the inevitable truth. The shameless refusal by the British and American authorities to accept the evidence, because Stalin was an ally, and his ‘good will’ was necessary to secure the defeat of the Nazis, continued through the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, and throughout the Cold War, even after Stalin’s death, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes.

The Katyn Massacre

It is difficult to determine what qualified and equipped Ms. Rogoyska to execute this project in such a polished fashion. Her Wikipedia entry indicates that her grandfather escaped from Poland to England at the start of World War II, and that his son married an Englishwoman – who bizarrely remains anonymous, even on the author’s own website. Rogoyska is described as a British writer ‘of Polish origin’, although why the matrilineal side of her ancestry should be diminished in favour of the surname she carries is not clear. Moreover, while she studied Modern Languages at Cambridge, we learn that she did not learn Polish until adulthood, which fact makes her close analysis of so much Polish and Russian archival material even more remarkable. Her career has been in film, with no evident experience or training in writing history therefore evident.

Yet her account is utterly painstaking, methodical and carefully dispassionate. She lets the facts speak for themselves, and is sure of judgment when the obvious speculations have to be made. For the lesson of Katyn are still having to be re-learned. Despite the acknowledgment of the responsibility for the massacres, and subsequent cover-up, made by Putin himself, when he attended a memorial event for the victims in 2010, he has been clamping down on the Pamyat (‘Memory’) organization that tries to keep the records of Soviet atrocities alive and available, and has been promoting a twisted image of Stalin as a symbol of a Russia of greater days.

I wrote about Katyn in my post from this summer (http://www.coldspur.com/summer-2022-round-up/), when I reviewed Jozef Czapski’s Inhuman Land, and thus refer readers to it for a brief synopsis of what happened. Rogoyska weaves Czapski’s story into her account, focusing very sharply on the few reminiscences of those who were exempted, or allowed to escape, from the three camps where the Poles were incarcerated. While the outcome is clear, the struggles of the survivors to discover how thousands of their comrades could have disappeared without trace is poignant and wrenching. Yet Beria, the head of the NKVD, himself gave a colossal hint when he admitted in October 1940 to General Sygmunt Berlinger, a Polish communist sympathizer, and others, who had been invited to discuss the possible organization of a Polish division to fight the Germans, that ‘we made a big mistake’.

The reason for that characterization of the massacre is not clear, and perhaps never will be so. After all, the deaths of a few thousand Poles were not remarkable numerically, given that Stalin’s security organizations had been killing ‘enemies of the people’, and anyone who even potentially opposed Communist orthodoxy, in their millions. Prisoners of war received abominable treatment – both by the Soviets and the Germans, but these Poles were sequestered in more comfortable conditions than regular captives. Thus Beria’s brief admission could have meant several things: 1) we should never have killed so many Polish intelligentsia and officers, as we were bound to be found out eventually; 2) we should not have killed persons who might have been useful in the fight against Hitler when the inevitable invasion of the Soviet Union occurred (remember, Germany and the Soviet Union were allies when the massacres took place): 3) we should have performed a much better job of concealing the graves, so that they would never be discovered by any invading army. Astoundingly, when the Poles were held at the three camps of Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov, two of these contingents were moved in a westward direction to their places of execution – towards Poland and Germany – rather than being transported to the depths of Siberia where the evidence of their demise might have been better concealed.

The fact that Beria was ruthless, and may have recommended the decision to execute the Poles to Stalin, rather than being encouraged or instructed by the dictator to pursue it, and that he made this statement to a Pole, suggests to me that explanation number 2 is the most likely. Yet the evolution of the cover-up indicates that he and his associates believed that it was absolutely essential to blame the Germans for the killings, to falsify the evidence in the graves to suggest the misdeeds were performed later, and to exploit the known reputation of the Nazis for mass executions to present themselves as innocent. (I would point out that, over the course of two days in September, 1941, the Germans, assisted by Ukrainian collaborators, murdered 33,771 Jews at the ravine of Babi Yar, outside Kyiv.) And it worked. The German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, had to admit that he had been outwitted. And the Soviet propaganda machine single-mindedly continued to promote the lie for decades afterwards.

What fascinates and appalls me is the craven response of Churchill, Eden, and other politicians, and the way that the Polish government-in-exile was treated with disdain while Stalin was appeased. One can perhaps understand a certain caution and reticence to push the point home in 1943, when the war still had to be won, and Stalin’s full support to turn the Germans back was essential. The subsequent avoidance of the issue, however, symptomatic of the policy of appeasement of Stalin that the Foreign Office pursued, in the belief that if he were treated like an English gentleman he would start to behave like one, is utterly reprehensible. One notable member of the Foreign Office, Sir Owen O’Malley, who was British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile, was critical of such subservience and neglect of the truth, but his voice was suppressed and overruled.

All this (or most of this) Rogoyska covers with clarity and style. I do not believe she has any spectacular new revelations in her story, but it is important that the whole saga is encapsulated in one book. Moreover, I learned much in a domain close to my interests – namely the vicious retribution that the Soviet machine exacted on those who might embarrass it. Several of the Poles who escaped changed their names, and went into hiding. One Soviet witness of the executions, Ivan Krivovertsov, who had cooperated with the German investigation, feared for his life, and managed to escape to England, assuming the pseudonym Mikhail Loboda. (A photograph of him being interviewed by the Red Cross representatives in 1943 appears in the book.) He was found hanged in Somerset in 1947. As Rogoyska cautiously writes: “It is possible, although not verifiable, that the ‘suicide’ was the work of the KGB.”

In the past decade, President Putin has severely regressed from his earlier dignified stance. Rogoyska could have referred to incidents in the forest of Sandarmokh, in Karelia, near the Finnish border, where a local citizen, Yuri Dmitrev, has been persecuted for discovering burial mounds of political prisoners executed by Stalin’s secret police. A group sponsored by the Military Historical Society, ‘a state-funded organization notorious for its nationalist take on Russian history’ (as the New York Times characterized it in an article dated April 27, 2020) interfered with the excavations to make it seem that some of the victims were Soviet soldiers executed by the Finns in World War II. Anatoli Razumov, director of the Center for Recovered Names in St. Petersburg, was quoted as saying: “The same tactics are being used to muddle the history of Russia’s most infamous killing-ground. Katyn Forest. . . .”. Dmitrev was convicted of a false paedophilia charge, and resides in jail: the curator of the local museum, who had supported Dmitrev, was arrested on a similar charge, and soon after died in prison hospital ‘from an unspecified illness’. Stalinism lives.

In conclusion, I have just read an article in the December issue of The Atlantic, ‘How Germany Remembers the Holocaust’, by Clint Smith. It is a thoughtful and moving account of how modern Germans come to terms with the atrocities, and Smith makes analogies with the persecution of Native Americans, with the enslavement of Africans, and with the German genocide in Namibia. Not once, however, does he make any reference to the mass murders of Communism, of the tyrannies of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Maybe he regards the category of victim, or the level of complicity by the people, or the factor of geography, differently; maybe he has simply ‘forgotten’ the Liquidation of the Kulaks, the Holodomor, the Great Terror and the Gulags: one cannot discern. His article concludes: “It is the very act of attempting to remember that becomes the most powerful memorial of all.” Indeed: it is Pamyat, ‘Memory’, that Putin is attempting to destroy.

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Gibby’s Spy

Harold Gibson in his Office

[This report examines a hoax perpetrated on Chapman Pincher, one that was soon afterwards foolishly picked up by Peter Wright, and later irresponsibly echoed by John Costello and Nigel West. It concerns a deception exercise, named Operation TARANTELLA, probably managed by Joseph Stalin himself, in which a celebrated MI6 officer, Harold Gibson, was sadly misused.]

Contents:

Introduction

  1. Gibby’s Spy
  2. Harold Gibson
  3. Gibson’s Curriculum Vitae
  4. The NKVD Dossier
  5. The Nigel West Theory
  6. The Mis-Education of Chapman Pincher
  7. Count Nelidov
  8. A Spy in the Kremlin?
  9. Hints of Disinformation
  10. Operation TARANTELLA
  11. Sotskov’ s ‘Operation Code – TARANTELLA’
  12. The Gibson-Bogomolets Letters

Overall Conclusions

Introduction

In recent weeks I have been involved in energetic email discussions with Keith Ellison, an intelligence sleuth like me. Mr Ellison is, however, a genuine intelligence expert, having served in Britain’s Intelligence Corps. He has written a very penetrating study of MI6’s Section V during WWII (see https://www.academia.edu/63976327/Special_Counter_Intelligence_in_WW2_Europe_Revised_2021_ ), and discovered coldspur while he was researching wireless usage by the ‘double agents’ of MI5. Keith is engrossed with the identity of ELLI, and challenged me on one or two points of my recent analysis of Gouzenko’s testimony. (He assures me that, despite his name, he is not ‘the son of ELLI’.) Regular coldspur readers will recall that my current supposition is that ELLI was Stephen Alley, identified because of a misunderstanding by Colonel Chichaev over a former agent of George Hill’s, but my analysis is in one aspect flawed in that it does not take into account Gouzenko’s claims about ELLI’s moving ‘to the dubok method’. Such tradecraft would not have been necessary with Alley, since he enjoyed authorized contacts with Chichaev.

Naturally, there is nothing I welcome more than a spirited, well-argued exchange of ideas (unlike some of the unsupported bluster that I do receive from some quarters), and Keith and I entered the debate in a constructive and serious manner. Our discussion kicked off on the question of whether ELLI had been a GRU or an NKVD asset. Since Gouzenko worked as a cipher clerk for the GRU in Toronto, the general assumption has been that he would have had access to GRU traffic only, as the two departments were supposed to have maintained tight compartmentalization. Yet Colonel Chichaev, who reported the fact that George Hill was supposed to be running an agent inside the Kremlin, was an NKVD appointee, and reported to Lieutenant-General Pavel Fitin, head of Foreign Intelligence. The events suggested that encryption and decryption services may have been shared in Moscow by the NKGB (as the foreign sections of NKVD became in 1943) and military intelligence, the GRU. Indeed, the evidence supplied by Walter Krivitsky to MI5 reinforced the notion that sharing of intelligence took place back in Moscow, since Yezhov had been focused on combining the offices of the NKVD and the GRU’s Fourth Department. In Deadly Illusions (p 202) Costello and Tsarev echo the fact that the NKVD’s signals department collaborated with the Fourth Department.

Yet some of these contributions to the record are not precisely dated, and have to be treated cautiously. For example, did Yezhov’s integrative impulses survive his execution? The answer might appear to be ’yes’. Donald Rayfield wrote, in Stalin and His Hangmen, that Beria by 1940 ‘had completed Ezhov’s [Yezhov’s] work destroying Red Army intelligence: everyone of the rank of colonel or above had been shot’. Under those circumstances, how could an independent GRU staff have processed encrypted signals from abroad? Moreover, while Gouzenko appears to suggest that there was a strict division of responsibilities between the cipher departments of the GRU and the NKVD (a chart that he drew for his interrogators in Toronto is ambiguous), one has to question whether the Soviet authorities could afford such dispersal of their cipher teams in times of stress – especially when the units were moved from Moscow to Kuibyshev as the Germans advanced in December 1941. We continue to explore this issue.

As Keith and I delved again into the archival material, and discussed for whom ELLI worked, we agreed that it was indeed probably SOE, but could have been MI6. Guy Liddell had quickly concluded that he (or she) was in SOE, but dismissed the possibility that it could have been the known SOE employee and traitor Ormond Uren, who had been arrested, convicted, and jailed in 1943. We agreed that, as every month and then year passed, the evidential material emanating from Gouzenko for identifying ELLI sharpy deteriorated, and our focus thus turned sharply to the role of Colonel Chichaev. We decided that it was important to verify whether Chichaev did indeed handle any of the Cambridge spies (or their affiliates), to help out Gorsky and Krotov, as Genrikh Borovik claimed in The Philby Files.

And then we changed course. During our email conversations, as we discussed possible moles, Keith incidentally drew my attention to an anecdote reported by Peter Wright in Spycatcher, where the retired MI5 officer described how Anthony Blunt had responded to Wright’s accusation that deaths had occurred because of Blunt’s betrayals, and Blunt appeared to have acknowledged his responsibility in the execution of an MI6 asset behind Soviet lines. I had obviously read this passage when I first encountered Spycatcher, but its implications had not registered very deeply. I decided to investigate.

  1. Gibby’s Spy

The section runs as follows, where Wright describes his attempts to extract further information from Blunt in 1964 (p 220):

I switched tack, and began to press his conscience.

“Have you ever thought about the people who died?”

Blunt feigned ignorance.

“There were no deaths,” he said smoothly, “I never had access to that type of thing . . .”

“What about Gibby’s spy”? I flashed, referring to an agent run inside the Kremlin by an MI6 officer named Harold Gibson. ‘Gibby’s spy’ provided MI6 with Politburo documents before the war, until he was betrayed by Blunt and subsequently executed.

“He was a spy,” said Blunt harshly, momentarily dropping his guard to reveal the KGB professional. ‘He knew the game; he knew the risks.”

Blunt knew that he had been caught in a lie, and the tic started up with a vengeance.

What to make of this? The impression that Wright gives is that the knowledge of ‘Gibby’s spy’, and of his elimination, was common across MI5 and MI6, and that Blunt’s speedy acknowledgment was tantamount to the fact that he had been responsible. The anecdote also suggested a possible source for the asset in the Kremlin who had provided information that appeared in the famous ‘Imperial Council’ report that Walter Krivitsky discussed with his MI5 interrogators in 1940. But can one trust what Wright wrote as an accurate account of what happened? Certainly, he seems to be aware of a person known as ‘Gibby’s spy’, but can we accept that the challenge, and Blunt’s riposte, actually took place? For example, how did Wright know that Gibby’s spy had been executed? Did Blunt tell him??

I decided to dig around a bit. Quite extraordinarily, Nigel West’s 2009 work Triplex, which covers a broad array of documents passed on to Moscow by the Cambridge spies (many of which appeared for the first time in English, since they were translations back from the Russian transcripts of documents that have never been released by the British government) appeared to provide some strong insights and conclusions. [The translations were performed by Dina Goebbel and by a figure familiar to readers of coldspur, Geoffrey Elliott.] After introducing his readers to Blunt’s recruitment by MI5 in the summer of 1940, after Dunkirk, and his ability to gain access to the ‘famed Security Service Registry’, West lays out Blunt’s probable culpability: “Thereafter he seems to have copied whatever files he was requested to, and there can be little doubt that he had a direct hand in copying the four documents contained in the pages that follow.”

Again, it is worth quoting West’s full text of explanation here:

The first among these documents is a summary of the NKVD’s October 1940 interrogation of Aleksandr S. Nelidov, a long-term SIS source who was probably betrayed by Anthony Blunt. When the art historian joined MI5 in May 1940, transferring from the Field Security Police after the Dunkirk debacle, he lost no time in pillaging the Registry for information that would prove his bona-fides to his NKVD controllers. One of the first items he passed on was information about a highly successful agent recruited years earlier by the legendary SIS professional Harold Gibson. Although in the Registry documents a weak attempt was made to protect the source with a code name, there was sufficient collateral data for the ruthless NKVD investigators to narrow the field of suspects, and according to the file released for publication in this volume, it was at this time that they extracted a confession from Nelidov.

West then explains that SIS had ignored the implications of Nelidov’s unexpected arrest, and that Wright’s accusation of Blunt, to his face, was the first occasion on which the connection had been made. (This, in itself, is quite extraordinary. Would MI6/SIS not have undertaken an investigation when their source dried up?) Furthermore, West interprets the passage as indicating that Blunt admitted his guilt, and concludes by observing that ‘In reality, unknown to either Wright or Blunt, Nelidov committed suicide in 1942, having confessed to two decades of collaboration with SIS’. Where West derived this information is not clear. A biography of the Soviet intelligence officer Vasily Zarubin revealed it – but that was in 2015. If West learned of it from his collaborator on Triplex, Oleg Tsarev, one might have expected Tsarev to have attempted to dissuade West from his theory that Nelidov was ‘Gibby’s Spy’.

Yet West is adamant. He next introduces three long confessional statements by the hapless Nelidov. The implication from West is that Nelidov might have been the Kremlin source at the time of the ‘Imperial Council’ affair. The identity of this person – whose existence Krivitsky confirmed from a discussion with his boss, Avram Slutsky, during his last period in Moscow in April or May 1937 – has never been determined. Much analysis has focused on the identity of the mole inside the Foreign Office or MI6 who gave the information to the Soviets (as I wrote about, back in February 2019: see http://www.coldspur.com/two-cambridge-spies-dutch-connections-1/ ),  but no investigation into the remarkable ability of an MI6 agent to survive in the Kremlin, and pass on intelligence to the British service, has been undertaken, so far as I know. ‘Was ‘Gibby’s Spy’ the person in question?

Yet my reaction to this farrago of nonsense in West’s prelude was utter disbelief (which I shall soon explain). Firstly, however, I set out to explore who this Harold Gibson fellow – ‘legendary’ (mythical) or real-life – was, as part of my methodology of creating a time-line, an understanding of geography and logistics, and developing an analysis of roles and motivations.

  • Harold Gibson

Not much has been written about Gibson in the places where you might expect an officer of ‘legendary’ status to be chronicled. A Wikitree entry gives the following on his early life:

            Harold Charles Lehr Gibson was born in Moscow in 1897 (other sources claim he was born in either in 1885 or 1887 which is probably incorrect). He attended primary school in Moscow from 1909 to 1913 and then completed his education at Tonbridge School. He also studied at the technical faculty of Moscow University. In March 1917 he was recruited into MI6 for his knowledge of Russian, was attached to the British Consulate General in Moscow as a clerk, was transferred to the Military Permit Office of the British Embassy in Petrograd and in March 1918 returned to the Consulate General in Moscow. He left Russia for London in October 1918 with the remnants of the British and French Missions – and probably the rest of his family.

(see also: https://elenawatson.weebly.com/gibson.html )

The primary serious source at hand was Keith Jeffery’s authorized history of MI6, so I set out to determine what feats had transformed Mr Gibson into this figure of renown. Here follows a précis of what Jeffery wrote:

Gibson was a ‘Petrograd veteran’, like Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Maclaren, who had arrived in Odessa in early 1919, and was ‘wanted by the Bolsheviks’. Gibson’s father had managed a chemical works in Moscow, and Harold had become bilingual in English and Russian by virtue of spending so much time there, and was also a qualified interpreter in French, German and Czech. He left Russia through the south in 1919, and was posted in October of that year to the SIS station in what is now Istanbul. After three years there, he was moved to Sofia in Bulgaria in October 1922, and to Bucharest in Rumania two months later. In Istanbul Gibson had reportedly recruited networks of Russian anti-Communist agents, including one former Tsarist officer who moved with Gibson to Bucharest, although Jeffery records (without identifying the authority) that ‘it was thought likely that the OGPU had become aware of him’.

In Bucharest, Gibson assembled a sizable network of sources, including a clerk in the Sevastopol naval base, who ran sub-agents himself placed as far apart as the Ukraine and Irkutsk in Central Asia. Gibson’s intelligence was highly regarded back in London by Menzies, and he took his White Russian agent HV/109 (who had also worked for him in Istanbul) with him on his next posting. In 1931, Gibson replaced Rafael Farina as head of station in Riga, Latvia. Yet he did not stay there long, being transferred again, in February 1934, to Prague. This was a critical period, and in early 1938 Gibson was instructed to make contact with Colonel Moravec, the head of Czechoslovak Military Intelligence. From this association Gibson was able to gain valuable intelligence about German military movements in Austria. Gibson was instrumental in extracting Moravec, alongside his senior officers, and a valuable archive, out of Prague to London on March 14, 1939, and he himself escaped on March 30.

Gibson in Turkey; Gibson and friends on holiday

In 1941 Menzies appointed Gibson as head of operations in the Balkans, where, as SIS representatives withdrew in the face of the Axis advance, he turned out to be responsible not only for Turkey, ‘but also for “stations-in-exile” from Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Belgrade and Athens’, operating out of Istanbul. The celebrated SIS officer Frank Foley thought highly of Gibson (and his brother Archie), while commenting on the fact that the station had too many ‘second-raters’. Gibson was dismissive of the expertise and patronizing attitude of the ambassador Knatchbull-Hugessen, who tried to bring SIS under his control, but Gibson’s misgivings were justified when the CICERO spy was uncovered. A brief later experience is regretted by Jeffery, when Gibson was allowed to go into Bulgaria in September 1944 despite the fact that Gibson had apparently been blown to the Soviets as an SIS officer while he was in Istanbul. (I note from FCO 158/193, p 33, that Konstantin Volkov, during his attempted defection there in 1945, disclosed to Reed that the identity and role of Gibson were well-known to the KGB.) Jeffery does not explain the revelation or the misjudgment in any detail, simply referring to the starry-eyed visions of the Foreign Office in aspiring to ‘co-operate’ with the Communists. He also writes nothing about Gibson’s spell in Prague after the war, even though his history is supposed to record events up until 1949. And that is all Jeffery has to say.

What about other histories of MI6? Apart from some fresh insights into Gibson’s handling of the valuable Nazi informer Paul Thümmel, using the contributions of the journalist Eric Gedye (of Philby and Vienna renown), Nigel West’s MI6 has little to add – except for an explosive revelation concerning Gibson’s latter years. It is worth quoting the whole paragraph:

The prospect of long-term penetration of the Secret Intelligence Service led to a review of all the evidence for more extensive wartime and postwar betrayal. Some of the leads had been cold for a long time. Harold Gibson, for example, was one. He had returned to Prague in 1945 and had then been posted to Germany in 1949. After a two-year tour of duty in Berlin, he went back to Broadway and then went to Rome as head of station in 1955. He retired on his sixtieth birthday in 1958 and remained in the Italian capital. On 24 August 1960 he was found shot dead in his apartment at 25 Via Antonio Boso. The British and Italian investigators concluded that he had committed suicide. However, three years later, MI5 re-opened the file following defector reports that the Soviets had indeed planted ‘moles’ in SIS, and that these spies had strong Russian backgrounds or Russian connections. Certainly Harold Gibson had these basic qualifications. He had been born in Russia and had been educated there. English was a second language to him and he had married two Russians. His first wife, Rachel Kalmanoviecz, was the daughter of an engineer from Odessa. She had died in 1947 and the following year he had married Katarina Alfimov. Apart from the suspicious circumstances of his death, there was nothing to suggest that Gibson had been anything other than loyal.

In The Friends (1998), West’s study of MI6 after the war, the author picked up this thread of molehunts, drew attention to Gouzenko’s observation about the ‘Russian connection’, and listed some of the officers who could have been suborned in some way by Soviet Intelligence. “All the SIS White Russians, for different reasons, must have been targeted by the KGB at some time”, he wrote. “Sulakov had worked closely with Philby at the Istanbul Station; Dunderdale had managed Tokaev’s defection in 1948; Steveni had received Boris Bajanov, Stalin’s personal assistant, back in 1928; the Gibson brothers had worked for SIS throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East.” His mentioning of Sulakov is particularly damning since, elsewhere, he writes very casually that, in 1947, Philby left ‘the management of individual agents to Roman Sulakov, the station’s long serving, White Russian assistant who had been recruiting and running spies in the region for at least two decades.’ Some assistant: some spies.

I had three major reactions to this astounding passage in MI6:

  1. It suggests strongly that an MI5 file on Gibson exists (or existed). Enough detail, including the names of his two wives, is presented to indicate that much more information on him was gathered. Yet no one appears to have delved into his post-war activities. Why is this? And why has the file not been released?
  2. The murky circumstances of his death echo the persecution of agents or perceived traitors who may have fallen foul of their KGB oppressors (e.g. Wrangel, Miller, Agabekov, Poynts, Reiss, Krivitsky, Harris?, Foote?, Skinner?, Graham?). The verdict on his death is disturbingly inconclusive. Maybe Gibson had personal demons, but the circumstances of his final hours cry out for further examination.
  3. The nature of his marriages also suggests parallels. To marry a Russian woman once is surely romantic: to repeat the performance perhaps an error of judgment. The Soviet authorities did not allow foreigners to take their brides abroad without suborning them with pressures to spy (e.g. Rudolf Peierls). Moreover, Jeffery stated that Gibson had been exposed as an SIS officer during the war. Where did he meet his second wife, and was she perhaps a loyal servant of the KGB?
Viktor Bogomolets (on left)

Michael Smith, in Six, sheds further light on Gibson and his team when discussing the system of digraphs that identified all MI6 officers and agents, telling us that ‘Victor Bogomoletz [sic] who ran intelligence operations into the Soviet Union for Gibson, was given the designator 31109, indicating that he worked to Gibson’s deputy (31100) as his ninth agent’. This number bears a very close resemblance to the anonymous HV/109 referred to by Jeffery, so it is probably safe to conclude that they are one and the same. Smith goes on to express a very ambivalent judgment about the degree to which Russian émigrés were trusted, suggesting that while some were quite reliable (Bogomolets being included in that category), ‘the Service was extremely wary of Russian émigré sources, largely as a result of the activities of the Trust and the Sidney Reilly affair’. (The Trust was a massive counter-intelligence project by the Cheka and OGPU to suggest to exiled White Russians and the western democracies in general that a vibrant counter-revolutionary organization existed in the Soviet Union.) One MI6 officer is even cited as stating that they treated ‘practically all reports from White Russian circles in the same way, namely on the assumption that they are partly, or wholly inspired by the GPU and we leave them severely alone’.

Smith also gives an account of the career of the defector Boris Bazhanov (West’s ‘Bajanov’), who did indeed work in the Kremlin, and served as secretary to the Politburo and to Stalin, and who might possibly have been a candidate for Harold Gibson’s agent. Yet Bazhanov defected in 1928, and his memoir, Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin, gives no indication that he was recruited by British Intelligence. As it happened, his escape route did take him to India, where, according to Bazhanov, the British misunderstood him, since they assumed that he wanted to reside in Britain. His goal had always been to go to Paris, where the vibrant White Russian community lived, and it was there he made his home. He could not avoid MI6, however. Jeffery describes how Bazhanov was interviewed at length by Dunderdale (who was head of station in Paris). Furthermore, Dunderdale managed to extract ‘140 pages of information from him’, and also reported (in a document that is not generally available) that Bazhanov ‘considerably exaggerated the strength of the anti-Bolsheviks and the results attained by them in their secret anti-Soviet work abroad’. Thus, while he proved to be an effective interpreter of propaganda and misinformation emanating from Soviet sources during the 1930s, he could not have been the ‘Gibby’s spy’ active during the era of the Imperial Council leakage.

‘Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin’

What Bazhanov did record, however, is the fact that he was able to warn the British about fake documents being handed to them. In his memoir he writes (p 203):

            Some time after my arrival in France [1928-1929], a representative of the British Intelligence Service [presumably Dunderdale] came to ask for my advice. Gaiduk (obviously a pseudonym, not his true name), OGPU representative in Riga, was selling Politburo minutes to the British who, thinking them authentic, were paying dearly for then. In actual fact Gaiduk had never seen real Politburo minutes and was fabricating them according to his own concept of them. The British knew even less than he about the subject. I had, however, written so many of them that I was able to establish beyond doubt that the British were buying fakes. They thereupon stopped doing so.

One can scarcely doubt Bazhanov’s integrity, but the actions of Gaiduk are less clear. The date is vague: it could have well been in 1931, when Gibson was installed in Riga. Was Bazhanov sure of Gaiduk’s affiliations with the OGPU? Was Gaiduk acting with full authority of his masters? If, indeed, the OGPU was encouraging the leakage of fake Politburo minutes, it would presumably have taken greater care over their apparent authenticity. Maybe this misbegotten exercise prompted Stalin to ensure that further releases were utterly credible. As for the British, whether they truly heeded Bazhanov’s advice is up for debate. It may have been lost, or not passed onto the appropriate officers. Whether his prime interrogator was Dunderdale, or (as Nigel West reported) one Major Steveni, Bazhanov’s advice should have been assimilated and acted upon. The unavailability of any of the evidence makes objective assessment impossible.

 (Tantalizingly, Bazhanov also writes about a figure called Vladimir Bogovut-Kolomiets, ‘an adventurer on a grand scale, [who] often visited the Soviet Embassies in London and Paris.’ In an Endnote, Bazhanov describes this colourful character as ‘a Russian émigré who lived, as the British put it “by his wits”. He was motivated by greed and worked secretly for the OGPU while professing anti-communism.’ A ‘known GPU agent’ Bogovout-Kolomitziev [sic] is identified on July 28, 1930 by Guy Liddell in the Agabekov archive (KV 2/2398-3, p 41). Could Bogomolets perhaps be a contraction of Bogovut-Kolomiets?)

One last puzzling account of Gibson’s activities refers to his possible involvement with the extraction of Polish ENIGMA expertise in 1939. An authoritative-sounding Web report, at http://www.alternativefinland.com/first-british-volunteer-unit-atholl-highlanders/, has him meeting ‘Lewinski’ in 1938 in Warsaw, reporting to his bosses on the offer of information on decryption, and in June 1939 assisting in his escape after Dilwyn Knox and Alan Turing of the GC&CS went to Poland to meet him and his colleagues. (The source for this story is surely  Anthony Cave-Brown’s Bodyguard of Lies.) Yet such accounts must be treated very cautiously: David Kahn’s Seizing the Enigma does not even recognize that encounter, and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s ENIGMA: The Battle for the Code indicates that it was Knox and Alastair Denniston who met Langer and Cięźki on July 24-25 1939 outside Warsaw. No mention is made of Gibson, who was back in the United Kingdom by then. Alan Turing did not join Bletchley Park full-time until after the start of the war. Other accounts have it that the Poles attending the meeting were Zygalski, Rejewski and Rózicki, who escaped to Bucharest after war broke out, were rebuffed there by the British Embassy, and eventually made their way to Vichy France. After Rózicki was killed the other two made it to England via Portugal. Details of the separate escape to France by Langer and Cieźki in September are murky: they were later betrayed to the Germans in 1943 as they tried to cross into Spain. Another muddle to be cleared up at some stage.

3. Gibson’s Curriculum Vitae

A main part of the puzzle – explaining where West and others had gained their information – was solved when a coldspur correspondent alerted me to a paper written in 2010. The Wikitree extract cited above appears to derive from the family archive held by the widow of Harold’s brother Archibald. The historian Hugh Seton-Watson, who had served with SOE as a translator in Egypt, had in 1983 suggested to his fellow-academic, Dennis Delettant, a historian of Romania, that he contact Archibald’s widow concerning papers she held on the two brothers. Seton-Watson introduced Delettant to Patrick Maitland, who had been a special correspondent for the Times between 1939 and 1941, covering the Balkans. In turn, Maitland, who told Delettant that Gibson’s role as Times correspondent in Romania had been a cover for his position with MI6, introduced him to his widow, Kyra.

Kyra Gibson invited Delettant to use a trunk of papers that she held in her house. Delettant then wrote a monograph in 2010, published in the SEER (Slavonic and East European Review) journal, that exploited a typed curriculum vitae that Harold had written up in October 1958, six months after his retirement from the Foreign Office. This corrects Harold’s date of birth to 1897 (he was seven years older than Archibald), and adds some details about Harold’s time in Russia, also contradicting the suggestion that he left Russia for London in October 1918:

            One month later [i.e. March 1919] he was despatched to the British Military Mission in Odessa as interpreter. In May 1919, he joined the mission of Sir Halford Mackinder to South Russia, to report on the state of the anti-Bolshevist forces led by General Denikin and in July was appointed secretary to a Foreign Office fact-finding commission in Bessarabia. In October 1919, he was sent to the MI6 station in Constantinople under cover of working at the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces of Occupation, to report ’mainly on matters relating to Russian security and refugees’. In December 1922, he was posted to Bucharest as head of station where he worked until March 1931 when he was transferred to Riga.

Delettant’s account also adds some fascinating details about Gibson’s activities in Istanbul as head of station in World War II. He worked with the Czech Military Intelligence representative Lt.-Col. Heliodor Pika, in running the famous German agent A-54 (Thümmel) until Pika’s transfer to Moscow in spring 1941. Gibson then joined the mission in Bulgaria in September 1944, but had to leave the country when all Britons were expelled from Bulgaria by the Russians ‘probably because they were aware of Harold Gibson’s senior position in MI6 and his knowledge of Russian’. Later, in Prague, disaster was to strike Pika. In 1948 Gibson was accused by the Czech authorities of involvement in a plot to undermine the state, and was expelled. But Pika was accused of spying for Britain, tried, convicted, and hanged on June 21, 1949 – in fact the first of hundreds. While he had probably consorted with Gibson, the evidence against him indicating conspiracy was obviously faked. Pika had brought trouble on himself ever since his time in Moscow, when he had openly criticized the Party’s plans for post-war control in Czechoslovakia, and had thus been marked out for punishment.

One last contribution to Gibson’s career comes from a 2015 Finnish source. When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in January 1940, there were calls from the public for intervention, and Gibson was soon appointed director of a committee called the Finnish Aid Bureau, an outwardly private initiative, but in fact an operation sponsored by the British Government. This resulted in a small volunteer force being sent to Finland, but the only way it helped Gibson was to draw the attention of the Soviet régime to Gibson’s involvement with anti-communist activism. The Finnish article also re-presents the bare details of the Bogomolets affair, and echoes the claim that Gibson was exposed only in 1945 – a clear cosmetic treatment of the facts.

In relation to the main story of ‘Gibby’s Spy’, the account of Gibson’s career has other profound implications. Gibson was never posted in Moscow (where SIS apparently had no formal station). If he had recruited his old friend, it must have been on a visit from Riga. For his pal to evade surveillance, and set up a meeting with his old school-friend, would be quite an achievement. For his friend to commit to espionage, and then be able to deliver material to someone other than Gibson, when there was no SIS presence at the Embassy, all through the horrifying period of the Great Purge, is beyond belief – unless, of course, it was a set-up, and his contact was somehow allowed to pass on disinformation that the British Secret Service swallowed. Gibson could not possibly have ‘run’ his agent inside the Kremlin from some other European capital: Wright’s claim must be nonsense.

Tea with the Czechs

Moreover, Gibson’s rather clumsy enterprises in spy-handling (apart from his clever and successful extraction of Moravec and his archives from Prague, endorsed by the General in his memoir Master of Spies) must be questioned. Was it really good tradecraft to take one’s primary asset around with him as he was transferred from capital to capital, and delegate to him the selection of agents? The enemy’s counter-espionage units would presumably track such movements. And that network of sub-agents extending to Irkutsk? Could they really be trusted? Jeffery’s study of the ‘legendary’ career of Harold Gibson is less than thorough.

  • The NKVD Dossier

And yet there exists a much fuller account of Gibson’s career. It astonishingly also appears in Triplex, and consists of a dossier compiled by the KGB in 1949 (although presented by West as the last of the ‘NKVD Reports’). It is clear that the agencies had been maintaining a file on Gibson for some time, and the dossier also intriguingly reflects the contributions of ‘British intelligence agent Vasiliev in 1945’, as well as from source PAVLOV in 1944.

First of all, it makes clear that Gibson was a true ‘enemy of the people’. The report states that he ‘hates the USSR and the People’s Democracies’, and that he even served in the Russian army in the First World War as a soldier and a junior officer. The Czechs, moreover, reported that Gibson had ‘played an active role in a plot against the Soviet regime’ in 1917. The dossier sheds some light on Gibson’s two Russian wives without explaining where they were born, or whether the government considered them Soviet citizens. The first wife is not named, but died in 1947. His second wife, Ekaterina Alfimova, was born in 1920, ‘a dancer, speaks Russian, French, Romanian and a little Turkish’. From 1941 to 1945 she ‘lived in Turkey as the wife [not legally married?] of the British journalist Morton Allen Mackintosh, the correspondent of the Daily Telegraph’, and resided in the UK from 1945 to 1947. Gibson apparently met Alfimova in Turkey in 1941, and married her in 1948.

Ekaterina Alfimova

The structure of Gibson’s Intelligence Group in southeast Europe is then laid out, featuring his brother Archibald as his assistant and secretary, with Victor Bogomolets as his assistant for agent handling. As the various stations are described, it become clear that Gibson relied very heavily on former Russian General Staff officers as his residents in Bucharest, Warsaw, Sofia and Riga. It credits Gibson with being able to infiltrate agents into Soviet territory by recruiting a variety of alienated ex-citizens, defectors, or even Soviet sailors whom the Poles had persuaded to jump ship. Why MI6 believed that such characters would volunteer to return to the Soviet Union as spies, and get away with it, is obviously not explained. One remarkable statement runs as follows:

In 1930 the British station sent to Moscow two agents who were employed in Gosplan, Volodya (a Pole) and Luka (a Ukrainian who sold newspapers in Warsaw). When they returned, they brought with them valuable information on the Soviet Five-Year Plan.

Just like that.

Most of the dossier concentrates on Gibson and his network of contacts in Czechoslovakia from 1945 to 1948. It proceeds with a stunning denouncement of the power and reach of his contacts:

In carrying out his intelligence work in Czechoslovakia, Gibson’s relied on merchants, former plant and factory owners, princes, members of the Czechoslovak diplomatic service, members of the Popular Socialist Party, Social Democrats, Fascists, White émigrés from tsarist Russia, persons owing allegiance to Germany and hostile to the USSR, newspaper correspondents, Czechs and Slovaks who spent the war in England, scientists with reactionary attitudes, heads of national side industries, staff members of the Turkish Embassy and medical workers employed in civilian and military establishments.

Gibson was obviously a very busy man, and approached his intelligence mission with Stakhanovite dedication. Truly a ‘legend’. But what is alarming is the fact that he was being surveilled with utmost Communist diligence: one fears for what happened to this mass of potential dissenters who had unwisely consorted with the MI6 head of station. Heliodor Pika was surely not the only victim who lost his life.

Lastly, a really troubling exposure. The NKVD had access to Gibson’s personal diary for the years of 1927 to 1941 (the year that Gibson met his second wife), which offers, as a possible explanation, that his first wife might have disclosed such confidences to the Soviet counter-intelligence service in a fit of jealousy. The extract shows all the cities, with frequencies, that Gibson visited during the period in question. The fact that Gibson kept such a diary, full of vital meetings, is rather scandalous – unless it were a hoax, which appears extremely unlikely, given the richness of its entries. This exercise constituted appalling tradecraft, and cannot have been encouraged by his bosses at MI6: the revelation that it existed must have come as a great shock to them, whenever it was discovered. If MI6 did indeed gain a suspicion that the OGPU/NKVD had worked out what he was up as far back as Bucharest in 1930, it is not surprising that Jeffery’s History carries a very muted account of his activities.

‘One of the last photographs of Colonel Gibson. For thirty years he had been watched by Soviet Foreign Intelligence’
  • The Nigel West Theory

To return to Nigel West’s theory about ‘Gibby’s Spy’. First of all, the text is a prime example of glib journalese, with the carefully chosen but clichéd epithets and verbs – ‘the famed Security Service Registry’, ‘pillaging the Registry’, ‘the legendary SIS professional Harold Gibson’, ‘the ruthless NKVD investigators’. The assertions are blandly made: ‘there can be little doubt that he had a direct hand in copying the four documents’, ‘Nelidov, a long-term SIS source who was probably betrayed by Anthony Blunt’. Yet West offers no supporting evidence: he does not even explain the origin of the ‘Gibby’s spy’ anecdote, with which, he assumes, his readers are familiar.

Irrespective of the fact that there could had been a spy in the Kremlin, and that his name might have been Nelidov, and Blunt might possibly have revealed details about him in a ‘pillaged’ file (West probably meant to say ‘pilfered’, as Blunt was probably not responsible for the destruction of the records in a fire at Wormwood Scrubs in November 1940), the case, as laid out by West, is absurd:

1) Blunt worked for MI5, not MI6. If there had been records of ‘Gibby’s spy’, they would have been tightly held in the MI6 Registry, famed or not, at Broadway. For a new recruit like Blunt to be able to start poking around in MI6 archives defies belief.

2) Blunt did not join MI5 until June 1940. (In Triplex, West writes that he joined in May: Blunt’s biographer indicates he started in July, but Guy Liddell, in his Diary, points to an early June recruitment.) The first segment of Nelidov’s confession is dated August 1940.  A document of that length, attached as part of the CID paper, would not have been transcribed and transmitted by wireless. It would have gone by diplomatic bag, which was a slow process. That would not have given time for even the ‘ruthless NKVD investigators’ to narrow down their search, arrest the unfortunate Nelidov, and extract a confession from him.

3) The Cambridge Five were in any case without a NKVD handler at this time. Anatoli Gorsky had been withdrawn from London in February 1940 because of concerns about the network’s being compromised, and he did not return until late in the year, meeting Blunt for the first time on December 28. Blunt had no one to pass documents to in the summer of 1940.

West seems slightly aware of the logistical and chronological objections to his account: he even acknowledges and describes the reasons for Gorsky’s absence. Moreover, in The Crown Jewels, co-authored with Oleg Tsarev, he in fact records that Blunt did not pass on his first report until early 1941! Yet while West introduces his collection by writing: ‘The documents reproduced in these pages were translated into Russian in Moscow by the NKVD and now have been translated back into English’, and carelessly highlights Blunt’s contribution by stating that he copied the four NKVD documents that West reproduces, it is clear that this confession is not a stolen document, but simply a Russian original retrieved from the KGB’s archives, a native extended statement written by Nelidov himself.

Then there is the question of whether Nelidov could possibly have been ‘Gibby’s spy’ in the Kremlin – or anyone else’s, for that matter, based on the biography he offered to his interrogators. But, before I analyze the confessions themselves, which appear to be an extraordinary mix of fact and rumour, guaranteed to discombobulate even the sharpest NKVD goon, I want to investigate where West got his ‘Gibby’s spy’ story from.

To begin with, West had first revealed his belief in the ‘Gibby’s Spy’ story in 1989, when he published The Friends. He rather undermined the talents of the ‘legendary’ Harold Gibson by writing: “Apart from all the White Russian émigrés who were of dubious value, there had only been one really good agent run personally by Harold Gibson.” He continued by explaining that, in 1933, in Riga, Gibson had met an old school-friend who happened to be private secretary to Anastas Mikoyan, the Foreign Trade Commissar. While West did not say what the friend committed to do, he did state that Gibson moved to Prague to run his agent, ‘but contact was broken late in 1940 after Gibson had been evacuated to London’. (That escape actually occurred in 1938.). Again, how being resident in Prague helped the process is not explained. And then, to cap it all: “When discreet enquiries were made in Moscow, it was discovered that Gibson’s agent had been arrested and executed.” Discreet enquiries in Moscow? How were such investigations carried out? By careful conversations with the head barman at the Moscow branch of White’s Club? It is all very ridiculous.

  • The Mis-Education of Chapman Pincher

Keith Ellison pointed out to me that John Costello’s Mask of Treachery (1988) constitutes a useful pointer. If you look up ‘Gibson’ in Costello’s index, you will see one entry for ‘Biggy’ Gibson, as if he were a rapper, or possibly an associate of the Kray twins. No matter: he is our man. On page 375, the author reveals more details, and again, for the sake of a complete record, I reproduce the first paragraph in full:

The redoubtable Miss Huggins, however, did not assert her authority over the director [of B Division, Guy Liddell] fast enough to save the life of a Russian mole whom the British had run for seven years on the Politburo staff in Moscow. He was a school friend of an MI6 officer named Harold “Gibby” Gibson, who had been educated in prerevolutionary Russia. While Gibson was in Moscow in 1933 he had been able to persuade his friend, who was then working in the private office of Anastas Mikoyan, that his disenchantment with Stalin could be repaid by espionage. Shortly after Blunt’s arrival in the fall [sic] of 1940, this valuable inside source in Moscow dried up.

Costello then paraphrases what Peter Wright wrote in Spycatcher, in an attempt to seal the deal. His Notes and Sources credit Chapman Pincher for the story: “See Pincher, Treachery, pp. 112-113, for the details, which were subsequently confirmed by Wright, Spycatcher, p 220.” Now I found this a little perplexing. Why was the journalist Pincher, rather than Wright, an MI5 officer, the source of the story? And Treachery was not published until many years later. First I checked out both my editions of that book, to verify that Gibson does not appear in the Index, and that the anecdote had not been re-presented. Costello does not provide a consolidated Bibliography, but I quickly determined that the volume to which he was referring was in fact Pincher’s 1981 work Their Trade Is Treachery.

‘Their Trade is Treachery’

Indeed, on page 112 of that volume can be seen Pincher’s insights. They are a mess. Gibson is described as an MI5 officer, and Pincher reports that his friend, working in Mikoyan’s office, had been working as an MI5 source-in-place for seven years. Blunt apparently admitted that he had passed on one of his reports to ‘Henry’ (Gorsky), and, soon after, Henry told him that the source had been eliminated. It was absurd to present MI5, responsible for domestic security, as having agents in the Soviet Union, let alone the Kremlin. With the knowledge that Gorsky was out of the country all this time, one can swiftly dispense with the story as pure disinformation.

Pincher must have realized that he had been the victim of a scam, a word in his ear, no doubt, by a trusted source in MI6, since, in some embarrassment, he carefully expunged this incident from the greater bulk of his final analytical composition, Treachery. No explanation or apology followed, so far as I can see. John Costello, another student of intelligence, died unexpectedly from apparent food-poisoning on a flight from Miami to London in 1995, and thus did not survive to challenge his colleague, or revise his own work. But what is extraordinary is why Nigel West, in 1989, and then again in 2009, was taken in by the whole rigmarole, and re-presented such loose rumours as fact. He discovered the document on Nelidov, called up the flimsy story about Gibby’s Spy, and put two and two together to make seven, while trying to sound very authoritative about the whole affair. It is a disgrace.

What is astonishing is the fact that John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, in their exploitation of KGB files in Deadly Illusions (1993), echoing Costello’s former opinions, trust completely what Peter Wright wrote about Gibby’s Spy and Anthony Blunt. Having claimed that ‘NKVD records showed that in 1936 Maclean’s reports resulted in an investigation which uncovered one of these traitors in the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs’, they fondly suggest that this person could have been Gibby’s Spy, recruited by Gibson, although they undermine their case by asserting that Gibson ‘was an undercover officer with the British Embassy’ – certainly not true. (In a section below I explore further the manner in which they trip over themselves because of their succumbing to a ‘deadly delusion’.)

I thus see three questions remaining (apart from the riddle that no one has sought to debunk this nonsense, so far as I can judge). Who was Nelidov, and does his profile match up with a possible asset for MI6? Was there a real spy inside the Kremlin who did provide some valuable information to the British in the years immediately before the war? And was Gibson’s network penetrated from the outset by OGPU/NKVD/KGB (which would account for the fact that MI6 has tried to throw a veil over his career)?

  • Count Nelidov

The confessions of Nelidov (in Triplex) are an extraordinary mélange of betrayal, naivety, and disingenuous mendacity. Count Nelidov was an obvious ‘trader’, an acquirer and seller of information without any ideological convictions who at various times served (or claimed to serve) the British, the Germans, and the Soviets. From his account, he was not an ‘agent’ employed by MI6, but actually started off his career as an officer. But we now have to face a troubling dilemma: are Nelidov’s memoirs more, or less, reliable than what the authorized history of MI6 claims? After all, we should not discount the fact that the Secret Intelligence Service might have wanted to put a different spin on its embarrassing experiences with the Russian count.

According to Jeffery, Nelidov was fired by MI6. It was Nelidov himself who claimed that he had ‘obtained a post in the Press Department of the British Secret Service’ in Constantinople as early as 1921. Of course, he may have thought it was the British Secret Service: it may have simply been the Embassy. However, Nelidov’s account of what MI6 was up to is more comprehensive than Jeffery’s, so MI6 may have been guiding their authorized historian down a path that indicated that Nelidov’s ‘offer of service’ was rejected, as they would prefer to suggest that they had washed their hands of him. In any case, Nelidov had a multitude of adventures thereafter, switching allegiances when it suited him, and trying to re-sell information he had given to one intelligence organization to its rival or enemy the next day. There is not the slightest possibility that he could ever have infiltrated his way into any of the departments of the Kremlin. He occasionally indicates that he came across Gibson in his career, but he mentions several other notable MI6 officers, such as Carr and Hill, much more frequently.

Both Walter Krivitsky and Pavel Sudoplatov (in charge of the NKVD’s Administration of Special Tasks from June 1941) had something to say about Nelidov, but, because of the circumstances and timing, admitted contrasting impressions of him. When Krivitsky was debriefed by MI5, he offered his experiences with Nelidov as evidence of the ease with which Soviet intelligence could acquire any information in Berlin in the early 1930s. Nelidov had approached Krivitsky, told him he had worked as a British agent in Constantinople, and offered to bring Krivitsky an enciphered telegram that had been just despatched by the British Legation. Since Krivitsky had access to all telegrams sent by any Embassy or Legation in Berlin, he was able to tell Nelidov, a day later, that the telegram was a forgery. The account of Krivitsky’s statement continued: “The same night he received information through a German intelligence agent that Nelidoff [sic] had offered to work for the Germans, together with Nelidoff’s account of his previous interview with Krivitsky!” The anecdote concludes with an account of how Nelidov sold a document to German Intelligence for $3,000, was confronted by them that it was a forgery, and thereupon repaid the amount – with forged money, consequently being prosecuted by the German police. Nelidov’s behaviour shows all the characteristics of Bazhanov’s ‘OGPU agent’ Gaiduk – but Nelidov surely was not working for the OGPU at this time.

Somehow (the record is not clear) Nelidov ended up working for Admiral Canaris of the Abwehr. As Pavel Sudoplatov, in Special Tasks, reports, Nelidov [actually Neledov in Jerrold Schecter’s translation] was captured by Polish counterintelligence when he was sent to Warsaw on a reconnaissance mission in August 1939. When the Soviets invaded Western Ukraine later that year, they found Nelidov in the Lvov prison, and brought him to Moscow. There he was able to impress Marshal Aleksandr Vasilievsky, later chief of the general staff, and General Filipp Golikov, director of military intelligence, with his knowledge of German war plans, including the critical information that, if the Germans were not able to make deep inroads in the first two or three months of the war, the invasion was doomed to failure.

Nelidov’s own confessions hint vaguely at this change of allegiance. He claims that, on his way to Berlin in 1933, to replace Captain Ellis (the notorious Charles Ellis, who betrayed MI6 secrets to the Abwehr), he stopped in Vienna, where he met the head of Soviet intelligence, and offered him material (which he claimed was accurate and valuable). Having arrived in Berlin, where his mission was to try to penetrate Soviet intelligence, he and Ellis concluded that ‘there was no material at all that might be used to interest Soviet intelligence’. He does not mention his encounter with Krivitsky, but the incident may have provoked that reaction. In a later confession he blandly states: “About two months after my arrival in Berlin, I left the British SIS and went to work for the Third Department of the German General Staff”, which he describes as a cover for the German Intelligence Service since the Versailles Treaty.

One significant outcome from this business was that, at the end of 1933, Nelidov was sent to London to establish a network of agents to report on Foreign Office attitudes to Germany, and claimed that his two leading agents were George Hill (now down on his luck, and short of money, having been dismissed from SIS because he had appropriated funds entrusted to him by Bruce Lockhart), and a Captain Francis, who worked at the Secret Service Registry. Hill was paid a salary of 200 pounds by the Reichswehrministerium, a fact that would no doubt turn out to be of inestimable value to the NKGB when Hill arrived in Moscow as SOE representative in December 1941. Nelidov also tracked Hill down to the consulate in Riga in July 1938, where Hill described how he gained information from the Latvian Police and the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, and laid out details of his Russian Section team for the benefit of his ex-colleague and presumably current Abwehr handler. If all of Nelidov’s account is true, it constituted astonishingly reckless and treacherous behaviour by Hill, and reinforces how stupid the decision was to install Hill as head of the SOE Russian station.

But Nelidov was burned out. He had been seen through by the Russians, and had abandoned the British before they rumbled him, presumably. Canaris must have been really desperate to recruit a rascal such as Nelidov. Once the NKVD had bled him dry, and squeezed out all the information they could from him, he was of no more use to them, and as a ‘former person’ with a noble title, would have been despised and presumably eliminated. It is unlikely that he survived long enough to have committed suicide. (Robert Baker’s biography of Zarubin states that Lt.-General Fitin wanted to use Nelidov as an agent in Turkey, but that, when Zarubin went to brief him, found that he had killed himself. The sources of such a story need to be strictly verified.) And one function Nelidov could never have achieved was to be ‘Gibby’s Spy’ in the Kremlin.

  • A Spy in the Kremlin?

Thus I return to the question: who provided the information from the Politburo meeting that made its way into the MI6 report? To recapitulate the events: Krivitsky recalled that, on two or three occasions when he was in Moscow in 1936 and 1937, he saw printed reports of the proceedings of the Committee of Imperial Defence, as well as other confidential reports, which had been photographed by OGPU agents in London. Moreover, he described how, during his final visit to Moscow in March-April 1937, his boss at INO (the Foreign Department of OGPU), Abram Slutsky, also his friend, had drawn his attention to the latest extracts provided by the ‘Imperial Council’ source, and asked him about a report bound up with it that concerned a special meeting of the Politburo that Litvinov, the Foreign Minister, had attended. Slutsky concluded from the material in the report that British Intelligence must have a source in Narkomindel (the Soviet Foreign Office). His opinion was shared by the man who ran the English section in INO.

Abram Slutsky

Identifying this report was obviously important to MI5 and MI6. Eventually, Jane Archer showed Walter Krivitsky a copy of such a document that included a report from MI6 dated February 25th, 1937. Krivitsky immediately recognized it as the report that he had seen in Moscow in March or April of that year. Furthermore, Krivitsky mentioned that Slutsky was very concerned about identifying the source, since he was uncertain of his own position, and wondered whether Krivitsky had any ideas. One important aspect of the case is that, according to one of the minutes in the record, Krivitsky told Archer that Yezhov himself had asked him about the identity of the spy – a fact that failed to appear in Archer’s final report. But Krivitsky, witnessing the arrests and shootings carrying on at the height of the Purge, had only one thought – get out of Moscow, if he could, before he followed the other victims of Stalin’s desire to exterminate everyone who knew too much, or had been influenced by Trotskyism while abroad. He thus temporized with Slutsky, saying he would look into the matter, but never did.

Slutsky had reasons to be nervous. He had denounced his previous boss, Arthur Artuzov, when Yezhov, the new head of OGPU, started liquidating the men of his predecessor, Yagoda, a group that included Slutsky himself. Slutsky retaliated to save his own skin. Artuzov was sacked on January 11, 1937, arrested on May 13, and shot on August 21. Yet Slutsky gained only a temporary stay of execution. In December 1937, he submitted to his boss, Yezhov, a very creative report on the organization of the agents in Britain, but was killed – probably by poison, or possibly by injection after being subdued by chloroform – on March 17, 1938, in the office of the head of the GUGB, Mikhail Frinovsky. Frinovsky was himself executed the day after the same fate was delivered to his wife and son, in February 1940. Yagoda was shot on March 15, 1938: Yezhov on February 4, 1940. Krivitsky did well to get out of the Soviet Union when he did, but was killed in mysterious circumstances in Washington in January 1941.

It should not be discounted that the leak could have been deliberate, and the snippet of information passed on as something harmless to Soviet interests. If that were true, it is also possible that Slutsky had not been told what was going on. But whom can we trust on the facts behind the events? One of the leading sources is Deadly Illusions by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, the latter being at the time of publication a consultant to the Press Department of the Russian Intelligence Service. In his Acknowledgments, Costello expressed his homage to professional historians: “I am indebted to historians in academia whose rigorous scholarship sets the standard to which we non-academics – who some would dismiss as ‘airport bookstall historians’ aspire.” Yet writers who so naively swallow the whole ‘Gibby’s Spy’ farrago (as they do on page 203) must be treated very circumspectly (as indeed should ‘authorized historians’ from academia).

Their account of the leakages starts off confidently, but then drifts into confusion. Tsarev had access to the KGB Maclean files, and thus the authors write with assurance about the several occasions when Maclean passed on important Foreign Office reports, since they cite the content of such. Yet their narrative is sadly lacking in specific dates, and contains some startling errors. For instance, they write (p 200), ascribing it to an ‘Orlov memorandum, Maclean file, No 83791’:

The Centre had investigated how the Foreign Office knew about ‘mobilization of Soviet industry as recently carried out in 1932 in the Far East’, from his [Maclean’s] previous report, telling Orlov that it pointed to a British spy operating somewhere in the reaches of the Kremlin apparatus.

But Maclean did not start handling material over until January 1936: Orlov left the United Kingdom for the last time in October 1935. It seems as if the archive was being tainted with false material.

The muddle continues. They assert that items in the Foreign Office reports gave the NKVD ‘vital clues in hunting down spies [sic] who were operating undercover in the Soviet Union for the British’. Further, ‘NKVD records show that in 1936 Maclean’s reports resulted in an investigation which uncovered one of these traitors in the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs’. The implications are clear: there was more than one spy (‘Gibby’s Spies?’), and the first detection occurred before the crucial minutes of the Imperial Council that took Slutsky by surprise. One has to question the authenticity of these KGB archives: to discover one spy with the capability to pass secrets to the British was remarkable, to be harbouring several traitors in that capacity is surely ridiculous. The authors show no evidence of other reports that reproduced intelligence gained from the Commissariat. Moreover, as was recounted by the defector Boris Bazhanov, who did occupy an important post in the Kremlin, and was Stalin’s secretary in the 1920s, controls on the use of documents were very strict.

Costello and Tsarev then claim that it was a report passed on by Maclean in March 1937 that helped identify an agent in the Commissariat, but then, awkwardly, they inform us that the spy had already been betrayed by Maclean, and that this Commissariat secretary had been ‘turned’ to feed false information to the British until Blunt ‘inadvertently stumbled across this double deception operation’. An endnote contradicts this statement, indicating that Mally (the NKVD’s illegal rezident at the time) sent a letter in March 1937 pointing to an as yet unidentified spy. That would be more consonant with the timing of Krivitsky’s discussion with Slutsky about an unknown leaker at Narkomindel, but it is another mess. Slutsky and his lieutenants (e.g. Krivitsky, Mally) were clearly kept in the dark about the disinformation exercise, but it would have helped Artuzov and Stalin to know that their messages were being received and taken seriously.

It is evident that Costello and Tsarev disagreed about the proliferation of such spies. In an Endnote, Costello writes: “Turning the MI6 agent was in accord with Soviet practice (this hypothesis rests on the British author’s presumption that there was only one MI6 spy).” Why Costello would say this, having outlined the existence of multiple spies, is not clear, but it appears that he was fixated on the ‘Gibby’s Spy’ story, as valid testimony of a lone operator, while Tsarev was taken in more by the doctored NKVD records. As for ‘turning’, that is of course nonsense. No ideological conversion would have taken place with a real discovered traitor. He would have been eliminated by the NKVD. But the channel to British Intelligence (a conduit that is never explained by either side) would have been supplied with further (dis)information to maintain the pretence.

Keith Ellison pointed out to me an important passage in The Crown Jewels (pp 211-212):

            Another question which interested the Centre was the information received from Cairncross, through Burgess in September 1938, on the presence of an important British agent inside the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs (NKID), who was alleged to be working as ‘head of non-territorial department’ and from whom British intelligence had received three reports, the most recent dated August 1938, concerning correspondence exchanged between Stalin and Edward Benes. The Centre wanted to know what else Cairncross knew about this British source which Moscow named TEMNY(‘Obscure’).

It is difficult to fathom this. The Great Purge was on. Slutsky had been killed in March 1938. If other spies had already been seized, and presumably executed, why would any bureaucrat encourage a bullet in his head by trying to transfer such routine documents to British Intelligence? Cairncross told Gorsky that he was not sure whether the latest supplier of information was the same agent who passed on Litvinov’s report at the Politburo meeting. He was not the only one confused. Moreover, the advice that Bazhanov had given a decade before, namely that the Politburo minutes were fakes, appeared to have been lost, or ignored.

Lastly, the role of time and place is very important. If the Foreign Office documents had to be photographed, and the films smuggled out by courier to Copenhagen, and then taken to Moscow to be developed and interpreted, there must be a time-lag of weeks, probably. (This seemed to be the operating procedure when the Soviet Embassy with its diplomatic bag could not be touched.)  Thus for an MI6 report dated February 25 to have been submitted to the Foreign Office, included in the minutes of a meeting that were then published, ‘borrowed’ by Maclean (or King, or anyone else), and then routed by surface transport via Denmark and Leningrad to Moscow for processing and analysis, it is a strain to suppose that this could all have been accomplished by the end of March, when Krivitsky was in town. Yet that is what Krivitsky reported.

  • Hints of Disinformation

One can detect from some of the autobiographical records of the time an awareness that there may have been ‘special departments’ (as they were called in Stalin’s bureaucracy) that were active in disinformation schemes. After all, as Krivitsky reported, Stalin manipulated the Gestapo to provide culpatory evidence about Marshal Tukhachevsky’s possible traitoriousness. (A few years later, Sudoplatov’s ‘Special Tasks’ group ran the COURIERS operation, which tried to deceive the Germans by claiming the existence of an anti-Soviet faction within the Russian Orthodox Church.) The OGPU, even if it had shut down its TRUST operation against Russian émigrés in 1927 after its kidnaps and murders had been laid bare in Paris, and it had declined to delivery strategic information requested, was still trying to undermine any White Russian cabals that were still struggling along. Thus a common element in Soviet schemes at this time is the exploitation of ex-tsarist officers.

Elisabeth Poretsky

For instance, in Our Own People, Elisabeth K. Poretsky, the widow of Ignace Reiss (who had been killed in Switzerland in 1937 after sending a defiant message to Stalin), wrote that the NKVD carefully selected candidates for tasks that their conventional European agents would never have performed. Such persons were mostly recruited from the GRU, and famous among them was Elisabeth Zarubin. “These were the people in the N.K.V.D. whom Moscow relied upon for burglaries, kidnappings, and murders. They were also the ones who recruited and directed a special section of former White officers about whom nothing was known outside the N.K.V.D.”, Poretsky wrote. Zarubin (then known by her maiden name Gorskaya, until she married another celebrated agent) was feared because of the way she had seduced Jacob Bluymkin and then in 1929 led him to his death (according to Andrew and Gordievsky). Blyumkin had been partly responsible for the death of the German ambassador to Moscow Count Mirbach, and had foolishly tried to relay a message from Trotsky to Radek while he was in Constantinople.

(The activities of the Zarubins merit further investigation. Sudoplatov states that Zarubin had in fact been married to Blyumkin for some years, and betrayed him because he handed over to Trotsky money intended for illegal operations in Turkey, but references to her as ‘Gorskaya’ would tend to undermine that assertion. She was later to be known as ‘Zarubina’, or under her codename ‘Zabilina’, when she worked with her husband in the USA purloining atomic secrets. Robert K. Baker’s biography of Vasily Zarubin, Rezident, indicates that ‘Gorskaya’ had been in a relationship with Blyumkin until November 1929. Baker also records that Zarubina spent some time in London – probably in 1940 – on a mission to track down the elusive agent ATTILA.)

Poretsky added a revealing note:

            Krivitsky hints in his book that he had been told all about these activities, but neither he nor Ludwig [Reiss] nor Maly was ever officially told anything of the kind. Of course they had their suspicions, gleaned from newspaper items and hints dropped by Slutsky. But to be privy to this kind of information one had to be one of ‘theirs’, and Krivitsky, as he often told Ludwig, was not.

What Krivitsky wrote, in Stalin’s Secret Service, after witnessing Tukhachevsky’s trial, was that Stalin used fake ‘evidence’ taken from the Gestapo to frame his generals, that that evidence was fed to the OGPU [in fact the NKVD after 1934] from Czarist organizations abroad, and that he killed General Miller in order to destroy ‘the one uncontrolled source of information, apart from the Gestapo itself’, as the source of his evidence. One might question that last clause, but the implication is clear. Stalin was using disinformation to hoodwink his own counter-intelligence service so that it would persecute his enemies, and it is thus evident that some of his intrigues were kept secret from even the senior officers.

Artur Artuzov

So who knew? The architect of the TRUST, Artur Artuzov, had been in charge of counterespionage (KRO) in the OGPU until 1929, when, after Yagoda decided to get rid of Trilisser, he was appointed deputy head of the Foreign Department (INO). The semi-authoritative history (KGB: The Inside Story, by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky) is strangely silent on Artuzov’s term in office, and ignores both his promotion to INO head in 1931, as well as his move to the GRU in 1935, after he angered Stalin at a Politburo meeting in 1934 (according to Jonathan Haslam). The authors move quickly on to the denunciation of Artuzov by Yezhov in March 1937, but rely exclusively on Krivitsky’s account. What had Artuzov been up to, and did he have Stalin’s confidence during these years? Why did Gordievsky apparently not know about Artuzov’s activities? (My anonymous intelligence colleague informs me that Gordievsky, as a political intelligence officer, would not have known anything about counter-intelligence operations.)

  1. Operation TARANTELLA

In April 2007, a story appeared in the Guardian newspaper (see: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/apr/03/russia.lukeharding) that described how, in 1946, Victor Bogomolets, a long-term spy for the British, recruited initially by Harold Gibson, had decided to betray his masters after being deprived of his British citizenship, and had approached the Soviets. As agent BRITT, he provided his new bosses with crucial information at the height of the Cold War. What is more, the report stated that the network of spies developed by Bogomolets within the Soviet Union were all fake, and that they supplied misinformation to the United Kingdom about the strength of the Soviet Union’s military and economic capabilities. This operation was known as TARANTELLA. Yet the story had a strange twist: Bogomolets had apparently stopped working for MI6 in 1934, when Soviet agents tried to lure him back to Moscow, but he had presumably declined, and escaped retribution, and had even resumed work for MI6 in 1944 in Portugal. That all sounded very odd.

The source for this story was a Soviet intelligence veteran, Major General Lev Sotskov, who had reportedly written a book based on newly accessed material in the Russian intelligence archives. He described Bogomolets as ‘a very big fish’, and was quoted as saying: “The only reason that the Russian émigré had not been identified before was that neither the British nor the Soviets had any incentive to unmask him.” Well, as I have shown, Bogomolets had been identified before, although perhaps not with the clarity that this disclosure claimed. But could it be trusted?

I believe the first English-language description of TARANTELLA came in 2015. That year, Professor Jonathan Haslam published a book titled Near and Distant Neighbours, subtitled A New History of Soviet Intelligence. It is rather a choppy compilation, and strewn with errors. (I had a rather difficult email exchange with Professor Haslam over his conflation of Ignaty Reif and Ignace Reiss into one person: he rather testily directed me to read his book more closely until I pointed out photographs of both illegals in Deadly Illusions, and he rather reluctantly conceded his error.) Yet his book also contains much fresh information, and Haslam displays an impressive familiarity with a host of arcane Soviet sources. Moreover, he has a complete sub-chapter (pp 49-53) on Operation TARANTELLA.

Haslam’s story runs as follows. After his success with the Trust, Artur Artuzov, the head of the OGPU’s International section (INO), in 1930 started a new operation to provide disinformation to British intelligence. OGPU had been tracking Victor Bogomolets, and his attempts to establish spies in the Soviet Union under Harold Gibson’s direction, for some time across Central Europe. Key to Artuzov’s plan was former tsarist general Boris Lago-Kolpakov, who had known Bogomolets since his Constantinople days. The narrative is irritatingly tangled at this point, but it seems that Lago (as I shall call him), after being recruited by the Cheka, was betrayed by Bogomolets when Lago turned up in Bucharest, and was imprisoned for several years. On his release Lago offered his services to MI6, who sent him to Vienna, yet the unprincipled trader reported to the Soviet Embassy for a full debriefing. Despite Lago’s disobeying OGPU’s instructions, and publishing memoirs in an émigré newspaper, Artuzov saw possibilities in exploiting Lago, and reinstated him. On his way to make contact with oppositional elements in Odessa, Lago briefed MI6 – on what, is not stated. On his return, he headed to Riga to brief Bogomolets and meet Gibson.

Boris Lago (A/243)

If this catalogue of hoodwinks and double-dealings fails to convince, there was more to come. In February 1934, Abram Slutsky, Artuzov’s deputy, working in the trade mission in Berlin, suggested recruiting Bogomolets to the cause. A young agent called Steinberg confronted Bogomolets with the fact that OGPU had been familiar with every operation with which Bogomolets had been involved. Game over, apparently. Yet Bogomolets resisted the blackmail, loyally told Gibson everything, and was rewarded for his pains by being sacked. Haslam, however, immediately abandons this aspect of the story, and leaves it hanging. He then switches into an account of the notorious Metro-Vickers trials (where British engineers were accused of sabotage), and abandons the whole TARANTELLA operation, and the reaction of Gibson and his bosses at MI6, as an irrelevance. Neither Gibson not Bogomolets has any later entry in the book.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. Haslam does not appear to have any strict methodology in his approach. His management of dates is haphazard. While the events described in the last paragraph are generally ascribed to West and Tsarev, and to Michael Smith (above), he offers no specific references for the sources for the critical encounters that he describes, while he otherwise appears to rely on two books in Russian by a Vadim Abramov, Evrei v KGB. Palachi i Zhertvy [Jews in the KGB: Executioners and Victims] (2005), and Kontrrazvedka. Shchit i mech protiv Abvera i Tsru. [Counterintelligence: The Shield and the Sword against the Abwehr and the CIA]. (2006) Yet, more bewilderingly, Haslam does not pay any attention to Sutskov’s book, which was published just the year after Abramov’s second title appeared, and would seem to present far more concrete evidence about Gibson’s embarrassing activities. He even failed to notice the press release that provoked the story in the Guardian in 2007. Since none of these books is easily available, or accessible to the common reader, one has to be very cautious before accepting this unlikely account of events as a reliable contribution to the development of solid intelligence historiography.

Moreover, the circumstances cry out for further analysis. If that is truly how Bogomolets reacted, one would have expected that he would have been killed by the Soviets, and that Gibson would have immediately closed down all his networks, and informed his bosses. Jeffery’s weaselly comment (in the passive voice) that Gibson and his networks may have been contaminated hints at this betrayal, but the historian utterly avoids explaining what the outcome was. The alarming possibility endures that MI6 was reluctant to give up Gibson – or his informers – completely, and his bosses may have tried to resuscitate his ‘network’ again when they thought the dust had settled. Yet the whole account clashes dramatically with the story promulgated by Sotskov, and picked up by the Guardian. Why would MI6 have picked up Bogomolets towards the end of WW2, and then deprived him of his UK citizenship?

Then, towards the end of this stage of research, a coldspur correspondent drew my attention to a remarkable article that had been published in Estonia in 1989. It essentially pre-played aspects of Haslam’s and Sotskov’s stories. Bogomolets had been an agent of the Russian rebel armies, but then had been recruited by Gibson in Turkey in 1921, and given large responsibilities for espionage against the Soviets throughout Europe. Boris Lago had a similar background, but in 1922, when in Prague, he applied to the Soviets for a visa to return home. They pressed him into performing espionage first, to prove his seriousness of purpose, but he proved to be too conspicuous in Prague and too inept in Berlin and Bucharest, in which latter city he was arrested and imprisoned in 1925, but released four years later.  Bogomolets then offered him a job with MI6, a transaction that Lago reported to the OGPU. They were not at first interested. Then a critical event occurred. After the kidnapping of General Kutepov in 1930, the General Union of Russian Soldiers (ROVS) in Paris decided they needed a propaganda coup, and set about to assassinate Stalin. Bogomolets was the man chosen for the job, and he engaged his new recruit, Lago, as one of his team. Lago again informed his real bosses, the OGPU.

It was then that Artuzov realized that they could exploit this provocation in a much-needed counter-offensive intelligence operation to convince the British that the Soviets should be taken seriously as a counter to growing Nazi strength. Operation TARANTELLA was conceived as a plan to convince the British of the Soviet Union’s military vigour. Lago travelled to Moscow in the guise of an Austrian businessman, and there was allowed to ‘recruit’ imaginary agents in the Moscow Party Committee, the National Economic Council (the location of Gibby’s Spy?), and other institutions, all of whom gave him valuable information to pass on. The British lapped it up. Stalin himself reportedly managed the whole deceit, and, after the murder of Kirov in 1934, ROVS abandoned the idea of assassinating the dictator, since Lago told the British that Stalin was now too closely guarded.

The same year, however, an NKVD agent called Matus Steinberg approached Bogomolets and suggested that he work for the Soviets. Bogomolets was outraged, told Gibson about the approach, and MI6 decided to end the Lago operation. They had learned enough: apparently Stalin had by now gained what he needed. (Though he may have been infuriated that his scheme was blown prematurely, and punished the guilty.) Lago was slowly withdrawn (so as not to arouse suspicion), and TARANTELLA was wound down. Whether Artuzov’s demise was connected with this event is unclear. Lago was apparently shot in the Purges, alongside Artuzov, The article states that Bogomolets stayed away from intelligence duties until 1945 ‘when he was still [??] recruited into Soviet intelligence’, and that the British turned to him in 1946. What Bogomolets had been up to, and for which agency he had been working, between 1934 and 1945, nevertheless remains a mystery.

Yet the fact that internal ‘secret documents’ were still being leaked in 1936-1937, and that they were being taken seriously by MI6, suggests that TARANTELLA had not in fact been wound down.

  1. Sotskov’ s ‘Operation Code – TARANTELLA’
Soltskov’s ‘Codename of Operation – ‘TARANTELLA”

What to make of all these vague and conflicting stories? I decided to acquire Sotskov’s book, published in 2007. It is a struggle to read – and not just because of my rather rusty familiarity with the language. As with all books in Russian that I have bought, it lacks an index, any endnotes or footnotes, and a bibliography. The squat Cyrillic characters do not lend themselves to rapid skimming. And yet it appears to offer some intriguing leads. It contains several photographs of Gibson and his contemporaries, including Bogomolets, Lago, Artuzov, Steinberg, and even Gibson’s second wife, Katerina Alfimova. It includes a photograph of a letter (partial envelope and handwritten text) from Gibson to Bogomolets, sent from London to Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo on August 1946, and the contents of other letters are reproduced in the text. It also presents authentic-looking memoranda, as well as identity cards and diplomatic passes for some of the characters. It makes a strong claim that the Cheka/OGPU/NKVD/KGB had been keeping tabs on Gibson for thirty years, presumably from 1918 to 1948.

But can this book be trusted any more than those by Abramov which were issued shortly before his? The Introduction states that matters took a sharp turnaround at the end of World War II, when Bogomolets, after many years of impeccable service to his English masters, switched his allegiance to Soviet Intelligence. At that stage Operation TARANTELLA was closed down (i.e. not back in 1934), and Bogomolets assumed a new role as BRITT, a master of disinformation. Thus an immediate clash with the chronology and motivations described by Haslam in his interpretation of Abramov’s work appears. Moreover, among the more genuine-looking reproductions of correspondence and memoranda, the book includes some extended conversations between characters (such as Lago and Bogomolets) that must have been invented.

As I started to work my way through the text, it occurred to me that the narrative here might be just as unreliable as Abramov’s, so trustingly echoed by Haslam, and that engaging in a thorough translation might be an arduous yet futile exercise, as there was no reason why any assertions should be believed. I tried to contact Haslam again, to determine whether he was familiar with this alternative account, and how he interpreted it. Unfortunately, the email address I had was no longer valid, and my inquiries to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (from which he recently retired) have remained unanswered. This project definitely demands an acknowledged expert in intelligence matters with a good command of the Russian language to take control, and Haslam would appear to be the best fit. (I have since written a traditional letter to Professor Haslam at his home address in Princeton, but he has declined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, my communication.)

Pending an eventual response, I set about translating some of the most obvious artifacts in the case – three letters sent by Gibson to Bogomolets in the summer of 1946. Yet, even here, disturbing questions arise. The letter photographed has clearly been sent by airmail from London, dated August 31, 1946, yet the corresponding letter reproduced in the text (which matches the manuscript visible in the photograph) indicates it was written in Prague. Perhaps this was a standard practice, to avoid the censor by putting a letter in the diplomatic bag, and having it re-sent from London. In any case, Bogomolets must have been expecting such a procedure.

As a coda, in June 2022 General Sotskov was found dead in his apartment in Moscow, apparently a suicide by gunshot.

  1. The Gibson-Bogomolets Letters

Here is my translation of the three letters:

No 1: British Embassy, Prague, July 10, 1946.

Dear Victor Vasilevich!

Forgive me for not replying earlier to your letter of June 4th, but I have been away for a whole month, and only found it on my return. I was in London, and asked about you several times. I was told that you were already in Paris, and someone even added that he had seen you in London. I am thus very puzzled over what could have happened with your visa for France, and what led to the rumours about your departure from Egypt. I immediately wrote to London, asking for matters to be accelerated, and hope that my request will be satisfied.

I was very saddened to learn that your health has deteriorated, and offer you hearty wishes for recovery, but the most important thing is that you get out of Egypt soon, as its climate clearly does not suit you.

If, before the arrival of my letter, your question still remains unanswered, then ask me again to make contact, and I shall gain a response for you. I consider it a moral obligation to help you, and therefore please do not apologize for any trouble caused.

My wife is still very ill: that is very distressing for me. But at least she is with me now, which is some consolation after the separation during wartime.

My heartfelt regards to you and yours,

Your Gibson.

No 2: Prague, July 28, 1946

Dear Victor Vasilevich!

I only just received your letter of the 18th. I very much hope that my intervention had the proper effect. Do not thank me prematurely: I just do what friendship and morality require. I understand your situation very well, and very much want to think that you will return to Paris to begin a new life and repair your health. I myself was in Paris a few weeks ago. Judging by my impressions, I fear you will find that much has changed for the worse there. Whatever we do, it is clear that it is our fate to live in a difficult world. Interesting but uneasy times.

Regards to you and your family. I thank you for your good wishes.

Your Harold Gibson.

No 3: Prague, August 27, 1946

Dear Victor Vasilievich!

I received your letter of the 20th yesterday and I am very chagrined by the fact that your affairs have become deadlocked. I shall now apply pressure through my personal connections in Paris. It is truly shocking that you and your family should have to undergo such obstacles. Yet all these things are now sent to try us – for example, I struggled for a year to obtain the freedom of my wife’s mother from one of our officials from a camp in the Soviet zone – an Austrian one. An elderly lady, whose only crime was that she happened to be of Russian origin.

I shall try to achieve all I can for you, because I feel every sympathy for you in your misfortune; indeed, besides that, I feel a moral duty in this matter. Continue to keep me informed.

There have been no special changes with me. My wife is still very sick, which causes me so much heartache.

With warm regards

Your Gibson.

I would draw three major conclusions from these letters, which appear genuine:

  • It is clear that Gibson feels that he has severely let down Bogomolets, and owes him some reparation for previous treatment. Bogomolets has probably been rendered stateless. This is dangerously sentimental behaviour on Gibson’s part, as he should have been on his guard, knowing how the OGPU/NKVD acted. He should have asked himself how Bogomolets had survived.
  • Gibson is not acting alone. He confers with his superiors in London, and uses them as an intermediary to send letters securely to Cairo. Thus it is safe to conclude that bringing Bogomolets back into the fold, and helping him and his family, was approved at higher levels.
  • The Soviet hook of threatening a family member is evident. Gibson’s mother-in-law has been stranded in Austria, and Bogomolets can presumably assist in her extraction. It is poignant that Gibson’s wife, Rachel Kalmanoviecz, is ill: she died the following year, and Gibson married his ballet-dancer friend, whom he had known for several years during the time that he and Rachel were separated, in 1948. Heaven forfend that Gibson assisted in his wife’s demise in any way. (While Keith Ellison has pointed out that, if Gibson’s first wife was separated from him during the war, it is unlikely that she would have had access to his diaries in 1941, I would counter that Gibson wrote ‘during the war’, and that, for the Soviets, the war did not start until 1941, anyway. 1941 was the year in which Gibson met Alfimova, his second wife.)

Might these tribulations have contributed to Gibson’s death in Rome in 1960? Perhaps he discovered how he himself had been betrayed, and realized the suffering he had caused in Prague, especially concerning the execution of his close ally, Heliodor Pika. Or perhaps he had been tracked down by the KGB, and punished for breaking whatever agreement he had with them, or simply because he had been an ardent ‘enemy of the people’.

I shall place these issues on the back-burner for now, hoping to receive a swell of insights from coldspur readers, and perhaps a communication from Professor Haslam.

Overall Conclusions

The anecdote of ‘Gibby’s Spy’ is an example of the saying (often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain) that ‘a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’. A mischievous aside from an MI6 officer (Dick White?) to Chapman Pincher was picked up by John Costello and exploited by Peter Wright before being endorsed by Nigel West. (According to West, Gibby’s agent in Moscow was the officer’s only worthwhile spy, and, if that theory falls apart, it does not leave the legend with much of a track-record.) Neither Tsarev nor Mitrokhin nor Vassiliev nor Gordievsky has ever referred to such a spy in the Kremlin. Christopher Andrew has not yet (so far as I know) brought his authority to the story, but this embarrassing item of disinformation has established itself well into the lore of intelligence. It is, nevertheless, obviously a myth. The British intelligence-reading public has been badly served by the academic historians (Jeffery and Haslam), the airport-bookstall historians (Pincher, Costello and West), and the MI5 fabulist (Wright).

If information was leaked from the Politburo to western eyes, as showed by the Imperial Council report, it was probably performed as an exercise in managed disinformation, and the project was apparently concealed from Slutsky and his underlings until 1937, even though he had reportedly been exposed to Bogomolets a few years earlier. The mechanism by which this information was passed to the recipients is unclear, but the Soviet agencies presumably used the courier system on which Gibson and others were relying on for their sources in the Soviet Union. MI6 believed in the success of their agents, and the NKVD was happy to reinforce the charade. The authorized history of MI6 gives the impression that the network of MI6 agents within the USSR was regarded as completely genuine.

MI6 and MI5 are surely concealing files on Harold Gibson that would reveal far more than they have let be published about this very controversial character. It is scandalous that Keith Jeffery’s authorized history of MI6 should step so awkwardly around the details of his career, in the belief, no doubt, that nothing would surface from inside Russia to embarrass them. There is a darker story to be told, no doubt, about the undermining of democratic tendencies in post-war Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union’s resolve to install, through the agency of the KGB, a sympathetic Communist government in Prague. MI6’s continued deployment of Gibson, even though they knew that his identity and role had been blown, was a classic error of judgment. (It is startling that the caption to one of the photographs of Gibson from Sutskov’s book asserts quite boldly that he had been watched by Soviet Foreign Intelligence for thirty years.) But how do you superannuate a competent senior officer with an apparently solid track-record?

A fresh examination of MI6 and the ‘Russian Connection’ is called for. MI5 opened a file on Gibson, and questioned his loyalties. His brother Archibald was also an MI6 officer. The Bolsheviks had a grievance against Malcolm Maclaren. Paul Dukes behaved very oddly later in life, and tried to cozy up to the Soviets. Harry Carr was born in Archangel in 1899, and returned to Russia in 1919 as an interpreter for General Ironside. Stephen Alley was a pal of Stalin’s, and was considered for a while as being ‘ELLI’. George Graham was a victim of a honey-trap, and went mad. George Hill was clearly rotten through and through, and Len Manderstam thought he was an agent of the NKVD. Manderstam himself had fought for Trotsky, and narrowly escaped execution in the Lubianka. Even Wilfred (‘Biffy’) Dunderdale, who crops up so frequently in histories of MI6 and SOE, had been born in Odessa of a Russian mother, and thus may have been subject to subornment. Charles Ellis had a White Russian wife, mixed with the White Russian community in Paris, and was suspected by MI6 of having been blackmailed by the KGB after the war. Isaiah Berlin held irregular meetings with Gorsky, the handler of the Cambridge Spies. Nigel West has written about Steveni and Sulakov. Anyone who had family in the Soviet Union was prey. This one will run and run.

The official SVR and other stories about TARANTELLA cannot automatically be trusted, given the lack of rigour in publications in the Russian language. It could perhaps be a gigantic hoax, designed by the SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki: Foreign Intelligence Service) to boost its reputation. Several aspects of the case cast doubts: i) the bizarre notion that the discovery of a plot to kill Stalin triggered the counter-intelligence exercise; ii) the claim that the purpose of TARANTELLA was to convince the British of the Soviet Union’s economic power, which goal could have been reached by means of conventional propaganda; iii) the lack of original archival records; and iv) the fact that details about the operation were not revealed by Russian sources until 2005. Yet the overwhelming evidence of the Estonian report of 1989 citing TARANTELLA indicates that it was a genuine Soviet-era operation, probably one managed tightly by Stalin without the knowledge of the Russian Intelligence Services. (Yezhov’s apparent ignorance of a disinformation exercise, as revealed by Krivitsky, would confirm that theory.) The notion that the codename TARANTELLA was deployed as a retroactive flowery way of dressing up some conventional counter-intelligence projects is thus flawed.

Yet the dominant lesson teaches about Soviet professionalism and British amateurishness. The Soviets had a deep, long-term strategy of penetrating British institutions. They sent in ‘illegals’ who blended easily into the refugee/émigré world of western Europe/Britain. They selected agents before they had any stature or access to intelligence, and directed their careers into important institutions. Agents had to be approved by Moscow before being recruited. They were not supposed to mix socially (but of course they did). After the demise of the Great Illegals, they were handed off to professional intelligence officers, but, by then, their cover was so good, that it didn’t matter. Their cause was helped by the useful idiots and agents of influence.

And MI6? It was led in central Europe by the rather naive Harold Gibson, an overt enemy of the revolution, on whom the Soviets kept their sights for thirty years. (Philby informed his masters of MI6’s set-up, but that would not have occurred until 1942.) The notion of ‘illegals’ in Central Europe would have been absurd. Gibson was presumably supposed to handle agents himself, but delegated it to a dubious character whom he trailed round Europe with him, and to the charmer Roman Sulakov. It is doubtful whether either person had proper training. Nelidov thought he was employed by MI6: MI6 then denied that. Bogomolets was probably bogus from the start. How were agents selected? If they volunteered their services to you, that was a warning sign. Gibson and his superiors appeared to have no discipline in the process. Tim Bower (in The Red Web) and Stephen Dorrill (in MI6) have described MI6’s agent recruitment between the wars as ‘amateurish’. During the war, Gibson did not keep a low profile, but mixed socially and visibly with the Czech government-in-exile. Most of the Great Illegals were murdered on Stalin’s orders: Gibby became a ‘legend’.

In any case, enough evidence indeed exists (primarily in the Gibson dossier) to indicate that a concerted effort to exploit the frailties of British intelligence was successful in Eastern Europe from the early 1920s onwards, and continued past the well-documented TRUST operation. The fact that the myth of ‘Gibby’s Spy’ has endured so long suggests that MI6 was well and truly taken in to believe that it had effective spies working from inside the Soviet Union, and even inside the Kremlin. What exactly happened with Bogomolets remains to be determined. This must represent a significant opportunity for further research, with the inherent conflicts in the accounts of Abramov and Sotskov to be resolved. TARANTELLA should come out into the open.

(I thank Keith Ellison, and another coldspur colleague who wishes to remain anonymous, for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. The opinions in it are my own, and any errors in it are my own responsibility.)

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The Quiet Don

A Tribute to Ronald Hingley

Contents:

Peter Davison: In Memoriam

Introduction

The Joint Services School for Linguists

Ronald Hingley

The Tsar of All the Russias

Hingley and Chekhov

Martin Clay

Humour in Chekhov

Hingley and Translation

Comparisons

Tarara-boom-de-ay!

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Peter Davison: In Memoriam

Before I move to the main tribute in this month’s piece, I want to pay homage to a great George Orwell scholar, Peter Davison, who died in late August. (See, for sample obituaries, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/peter-davison-obituary-lcnzwlfh0, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/sep/04/peter-davison-orwell-scholar-obituary, and https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/01/books/peter-davison-poet-literary-editor-and-memoirist-dies-at-76.html.) I had the pleasure of visiting Peter and his wife, Sheila, at their house in Marlborough, Wiltshire, a couple of times during the 2000 decade, and he was one of the most modest and engaging persons I have ever met.

What brought me to him was my own enthusiasm for the writings of George Orwell. When I retired, and before I took up the serious study of intelligence matters, I set about reading the complete four-volume Penguin Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. As I did so, I was fascinated by the various misremembered quotations that Orwell recorded, as an activity of his jackdaw mind, and started delving into their origins, and recording the latter. The exercise also prompted me to suggest a fresh explanation for Orwell’s character and psychology, which eventually resulted in the unpublished article Orwell’s Clock (see http://www.coldspur.com/reviews/orwells-clock/), that itself anticipated a more authoritative analysis by Professor Michael FitzGerald.

I wrote to Mr. Davison, submitting the fruits of my researches, and he replied enthusiastically. He eventually used much of my work in his 2006 publication The Lost Orwell, which was a supplement to the massive twenty-volume Complete Works that appeared under his editorship in 1998. (I have most of the volumes in a special bookcase.) Among other fascinating pieces, The Lost Orwell contains Orwell’s controversial list of Crypto-Communists and Fellow-Travellers that he sent to the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department in May 1949. In his Foreword, Davison wrote:

      Mr Antony Percy sent many pages identifying passages to which Orwell referred. He had worked from the four-volume Collected Journalism, Essays and Letters and had not then seen the twenty-volume edition which did identify many of these passages. However, there were many that were unknown to me and I am grateful to him, as I am to all those who wrote with suggestions.

I am proud of my contribution to Orwell scholarship, and it was an honour and a great pleasure meeting and working with Mr. Davison.

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Introduction

When the first volume of Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel Tikhy Don came out in translation in the 1930s, it bore the title And Quiet Flows the Don. The publishers presumably thought that prospective readers might think that a book given a literally translated title of The Quiet Don would be about a shy Oxford academic, or even a recalcitrant Spanish nobleman, rather than an emblematic Russian river that quietly went about its business as the Cossacks became engaged with the rustic brouhaha of the Russian Revolution beyond its banks. I dedicate this article to Professor Ronald Hingley, an apparently reclusive academic, who taught me so much about Russian history and literature, about good essay-writing, and about the art of translation.

Ronald Hingley

This Quiet Don was my primary Russian tutor at Oxford, and had a stellar career as a student of Russian history and literature, and, in particular of Anton Chekhov. Surprisingly, he died with little recognition in 2010. Only recently has a Wikipedia entry been created for him, and it is remarkably thin. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has no entry for him. Yet his influence and achievements are great, if only for his unreserved opposition to the monstrous Communist regime of the Soviet Union. He fell into great disfavour with the Soviet authorities, because of his merciless descriptions of the horrors they defended, and was thus presumably an exasperating ‘noise’ in their ears.

While his career appears to have been largely ignored, I suspect that those who were taught by him will recall his contributions and presence very acutely. He always appeared as a very intense, but restrained, figure in the tutorials and classes that he led at Oxford when a fellow at St Antony’s. He had a goatee beard, and pince-nez spectacles, I recall, that gave him the mien of his literary hero – an effect surely intended. He stood out as the leading academic in Russian at Oxford. Professor Fennell was a respected name, but I don’t believe he taught undergraduates, and his specialty was early Russia. I recall attending just one of his lectures. I did have tutorials with Mark Everitt, a priest at Merton College, attended lectures by T. J. Binyon, and probably some by Paul Foote. I also underwent some conversational sessions with a Mrs. Willets – who turns out to have been a Pole married to the historian E. T. Willets. She was a lovely lady, but now I understand why she was a bit puzzled about some Russian constructions, since it was not her first language. If there were other Russian dons, they must have avoided me.

The Joint Services School for Linguists

‘Secret Classrooms’

Geoffrey Elliott wrote about Hingley in Secret Classrooms, the brilliant book he co-authored with Harold Shukman about the Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL) that operated from 1951 to 1960, training students to become fluent in Russian, as part of their National Service. The blurb on the back describes it as ‘the enthralling and previously untold story of this one-of-a-kind British accomplishment, a heady mix of a high-powered college and a Chekhov play’. That was perhaps not entirely fortuitous, and a rare photograph of the first JSSL course administrator in London, Ronald Hingley, appears in the book. The list of alumni is an illustrious one, containing names such as Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Gervase Cowell, Ian Harvey-Jones, D. M. Thomas, Paul Foote, and Dennis Potter.

One famous name overlooked in Secret Classrooms, but hinted at obliquely, is that of Tom Springfield (born Dionysius O’Brien), the songwriter and founder of the Springfields, sister of Dusty, who died this last August. He attended the JSSL school in Coulsdon, and was responsible for compiling a volume called The Samovar Songbook, which is mentioned on page 110 of the book. It is worth presenting the commentary of Elliott and Shukman, delivered with true Hingleyesque verve:

First introduced at Coulsdon, and edited by the kursanty with staff help, it ran to two editions and included folk melodies, and melancholy and passionate pre-Revolutionary gypsy cabaret songs of the sort that aroused Rasputin to priapic ecstasy. There were Ukrainian nonsense songs, the Russian equivalents of Christmas carols, songs sung by wagon-drivers on the steppes, boot-stamping Cossack choruses and more doleful chants of prisoners and Tsarist army conscripts, as well as some of the basso-profundo lyrics popularized in the post-war years by the Red Army Choir when they were not busy crushing East European uprisings.

One can almost imagine Chekhov singing along on his trek across Siberia to Sakhalin, and Springfield’s contribution is almost a let-down. He simply based the award-winning song The Carnival Is Over (recorded by the Seekers) on a nineteenth-century Russian tune known as Stenka Razin, after the seventeenth-century Cossack rebel. Some carnival.

Yet Elliott’s first task was to differentiate Chekhovian Cambridge from the more industrious London. The first two schools were set up in Coulsdon, Surrey (the town where I lived until 1956, but the school was way over the other side of the valley, behind ‘The Fox’ public house, near Caterham Barracks), and in Bodmin, Cornwall. When the pupils had passed their tests in these establishments they were sent on to one of two university schools, in Cambridge and in London. Professor Elizabeth Hill led the course at Cambridge, and Ronald Hingley that in London. There was considerable strife between the two, as Hingley believed that he had taught Hill about the best use of pedagogical techniques, while Hill looked down on Hingley because he was merely a lecturer in the School of Slavonic Studies.

‘The Fox’ on Coulsdon Common

Hill had an exotic background: she was the daughter of ‘a once prosperous Scots-Russian merchant family in St. Petersburg’, and was also the niece of General Miller, who had commanded the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Northern Russia, and in 1936 was kidnapped in Paris and killed by the NKVD. The fact that British intelligence officers were learning Russian at the School of Slavonic Studies in London came to the notice of the NKVD illegal rezident Alexander Orlov, who put Guy Burgess on to investigating what was going on. The leak probably issued from Professor Haldane. Elliot and Shukman reveal some fascinating glimpses into the intelligence exploits of Hill’s extended family (although George Hill, of SOE’s Moscow mission, was not one; Guy Burgess mixed him up with George E. Hill).

Elliott and Shukman wrote that ‘learning advanced Russian under Liza and her team at Salisbury Villas was rather like being at a high-intensity crammer run by a distinctly odd extended Chekhovian family’, and they contrasted the atmosphere in Cambridge with that in London as follows:

If Cambridge was Chekhovian, London’s tone, set less by the shadowy George Bolsover than by its first director Ronald Hingley, might best be called ‘Stakhanovite’, if anyone now remembers that persistently overachieving worker who became a propaganda item of the Soviet era. But it was far from grim, and it achieved results.

In his Introduction to Secret Classrooms, the poet, playwright and translator D. M. Thomas echoed this idea, by recalling how his class at Cambridge was told by Liza Hill to ‘rabotat’, rabotat’, rabotat’ – work, work, work’, ‘and if we did, we would fall in love with ourselves’, which echoes Irina in Three Sisters, committing to work as a relief from her suffering, or Voynitsky in Uncle Vanya, encouraging Sonya that they must ‘work, work’, before they both sit down at the table to check some ledgers – certainly not the type of toil extolled by their Communist successors.

Ronald Hingley

While Hingley might not have appreciated his approach being dubbed ‘Stakhanovite’, his own dedication and commitment to excellence were unrivalled. Moreover, it was here that his opposition to Stalinism became more public, thus incurring the wrath of the Soviet Union. He was particularly scathing about the founder of the British Communist Party Andrew Rothstein, who had greatly influenced the culture at the School of Slavonic Studies, and Hingley characterized the School, in recognizable Hingleyesque style *, as ‘a nest of poisonous Kremlin-fanciers’. It was Rothstein who recruited Melita Norwood, the atom spy whose exploits have been publicized in The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op, a book that Hingley would have derided for its obvious ‘padding’ (a feature of essay-writing that, in my tutorials with him, he strongly advised me to eschew.)

Andrew Rothstein

[* In Misdefending the Realm (p 220) I quote Hingley from his book, The Russian Secret Police: “On 19th December 1967 the same newspaper [Izvestia] published an article Hello, Comrade Philby, quoting the veteran master-spy in praise of Dzerzhinsky as a ‘great humanist’ – the formula commonly applied in Soviet parlance to successful sponsors of mass killings.” (p 249)]

The authors add some important facts about Hingley’s career. He had joined the School in 1947 as a lecturer ‘after a war which included service with the 21st Army Group, SOE and a brief spell at Bletchley Park, where, he was told, he was the first to break a Soviet code; he declined an invitation from one of its leading lights, John Tiltman, to work there.’ I knew about the spell in SOE, since I had discovered Hingley’s name in the archives of the Russian Section, but Bletchley Park surprised me. The reference explicitly states Bletchley Park, not the establishment at Berkeley Street in London under Alastair Denniston that processed diplomatic and Comintern traffic after 1942. The sequence of these duties suggests, however, that Hingley moved to Bletchley Park after his time at SOE. The Russian section of SOE was not established until after Barbarossa (June 1941), while the Bletchley Park project on Soviet ciphers was reportedly terminated in December 1941, but in fact secretly handed over to a Polish group (according to what Ralph Erskine and Michael Smith claim in The Bletchley Park Codebreakers). Perhaps that is further evidence that, contrary to what Harry Hinsley claimed about Churchill’s order that no more work on the decrypting of Soviet traffic should continue after Barbarossa, it did indeed carry on with some British contribution.

The Tsar of All the Russias

I thought of Hingley when I was speaking to Anatol Shmelev (of the Hoover Institution) this last June. At some event, whether during a private tutorial or at his class in Soviet prose translation, I recalled clearly when Hingley had declared that the famous phrase ‘tsar of all the Russias’ (which appears in many history-books and encyclopaedias) was a misnomer. The source (he claimed) was not the imagined original Russian wording ‘tsar vsey Rossiy’ (genitive plural of ‘Rossia’) but ‘tsar vsekh Rossii’ (the tsar of everyone of Russia, genitive singular), which perhaps made more sense, as, apart from White Russia and Little Russia, what other Russias were there in the Russian Empire?

This conundrum has occupied my mind occasionally over the years, but I did not know whom to turn to. Yet it endured, like two other linguistic traps that I have encountered from time to time, both in German: ‘The Old Contemptibles’ and ‘Deutschland Über Alles’. Kaiser Wilhelm II was supposed to have referred to General French’s regular British Army in 1914 as ‘a contemptible little army’, but in fact what he wrote was ‘a contemptibly little army’, where the adverb qualifies the adjective. A letter to the Times in July 1974 explained that what the Kaiser wrote was ‘eine verächtlich kleine Armee’, not ‘eine verächtliche kleine Armee’. As for ‘Deutschland Über Alles’, several observers have interpreted the German anthem as expressing a desire that ‘Germany should be over everything’ (thus implying imperial domination), when in fact it means ‘Above all, Germany’, using the accusative case, not the dative, implying the slightly more subtle message that Germany should have precedence over any other loyalty. ‘Germany over everything’ would be ‘Deutschland Über Allem.’

Thus, when I encountered Anatol Shmelev, born of Russian parents in the USA, and a keen student of tsarist history, I decided to ask him. His first response was that he would look up Hingley’s book The Tsars, but he also dug out a fragment about Ivan the Terrible, presumably in Old Russian or Old Church Slavonic, which represents that Ivan was known as the tsar ‘vseia Russii’. Page 29 of Hingley’s book appears to echo that assertion, stating that Ivan the Terrible ‘made a practice of calling himself ruler ‘“of all Russia”’. That surprised me as a third variant: why would any dictator have to describe himself in those terms, as if there were a possibility that his domain did not extend throughout the entirety of Russia, whatever its geographical boundaries? And what happened to Hingley’s lecturette to his pupils about ‘everyone of Russia’?

I have just started reading Antony Beevor’s book on the Russian Revolution (Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921), and I notice that, in describing the Tsar’s unconstitutional abdication in favour of his brother, Archduke Michael, Beevor writes: “The first thing the reluctant Tsar insisted on dropping was the standard formula: ‘We by God’s mercy, Mikhail II, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias’”. Beevor vaguely notes Donald Crawford and Richard Pipes as his sources. The mystery remains unsolved.

Hingley and Chekhov

No matter. I reflected further on Hingley. I remember his telling me that he had been educated at Kingswood School, in Bath, and that he was a contemporary of C. W. C. (‘Bill’) Edge, who was a history teacher at Whitgift throughout my time there. (They both left Kingswood in 1937: Hingley won an open scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford.) I happened to think that Edge was an appalling history master, but I know that my friend Nigel Platts (who studied History at Oriel College, and went up to Oxford a year before me), thought highly of him. Many teachers at Whitgift were very effective in leading small, well-motivated classes, but often struggled with a larger, diverse set of pupils, and Edge was perhaps one of those. Hingley’s reputation as an historian and translator was secure, however. He edited the standard edition of Chekhov’s works known as The Oxford Chekhov, and it is those editions that I want to turn to next in this bulletin.

Olga Knipper & Anton Chekhov

I had coincidentally been re-reading Hingley’s translations of Chekhov’s plays, in the Oxford University Press paperback editions, earlier this year, perhaps triggered by my reading of Paustovsky, who covered the same era in Ukraine and Crimea about which Chekhov wrote. And I had been thinking how these dramas were presented to us callow schoolboys in the early 1960s. (I was not aware at the time that Chekhov’s wife, the actress Olga Knipper, had died in 1959, only a couple of years before I started learning Russian, fifty-five years after her husband. She had acted the role of Masha in Three Sisters: moreover, Masha was based on the character of Chekhov’s sister, Masha, who died in 1957. Quite extraordinary.) The translations we used at school had been the Penguin editions by Elisabeta Fen, and I recall being rather surprised that they were described by the playwright as ‘comedies’, as I did not at the time find much humour in them. Was that a fault in Chekhov’s conception, a failing in the translator, a misunderstanding by directors of his plays, a deficiency in the schoolmaster who guided us through them, Martin Clay, or was it due to an immaturity in the heads of us fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds?

When I re-read, as a seventy-five-year-old, the Hingley versions of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard (which I had read in 1967, since they still hold my pencilled annotations), I decided that all except the first explanation were true. I had seen a few productions of the plays in London during those late 1960s and early 1970s which tended to reinforce the notion that there were not many laughs to be found in Chekhov’s drama. I believe this misunderstanding had several roots: the plays were ‘classics’, after all, and ‘classics’ were supposed to be serious, earnest. And there existed the mythology about the Russians – they were a gloomy people, with a mystical and mysterious soul, and oppressed by all manner of existential and religious demons. Russia in the 1890s was not a period for comedy.

This mythology has endured. William Boyd, writing about the novelist William Gerhardie in The Spectator World of August 2022, refers to Gerhardie’s ‘Chekhovian outlook’ that reflects his conception of the ‘humorous tragedy’ of the human condition, and Boyd takes time to remind his readers that Chekhov ‘famously subtitled The Cherry Orchard “a comedy”’, as if the playwright’s intentions had been deceptive and subversive. Yet I doubt whether Chekhov would have acknowledged that his plays were about ‘the human condition’, whatever that meant. He would have found it all frightfully pompous.

William Gerhardie

(I went back to Gerhardie’s book on Chekhov, written in 1923 as an outgrowth of his B. Litt. thesis at Oxford. It spends much more time on Chekhov’s stories, and his notebook, than it does on the plays. I found it insightful, but a bit too flowery and abstract for me – which it probably was for Hingley, too. I recall Hingley talking disparagingly about critics who try to generalize their opinions by referring presumptuously to the manner in which ‘we’ react, and it could well have been Gerhardie he had in mind, since he makes many such declarations. While I detected much metaphysical nonsense in Gerhardie’s work, also, it does contain some choice phrases, such as: “But if pressed to do so, I would rather say that Chekhov’s outlook in a nutshell was that he thoroughly distrusted nutshells.”)

Hingley himself offered an explanation of the comedic aspect in his Introduction to his translations (The Oxford Chekhov, Volume 3), when he wrote:

The fact is that you find as much humour in Chekhov’s plays as you are qualified by your own sense of humour, or assisted by skilled interpretation, to find. The plays, like many of the stories, are built on tension between the humorous and the serious, so that it is not really possible to assess the extent to which they are serious – quite apart from the fact that ‘humorous’ and ‘serious’ are not concepts which necessarily exclude each other.

Martin Clay

I do not think that Martin Clay, who taught us Russian and German, really understood this distinction. He was a forbidding and strict individual. That discipline was reasonably effective when he was teaching Russian grammar, although his techniques sometimes left something to be desired. When pushing his pupils on translation, he would sometimes urge them to make a stab at some elusive word: ‘Save Your Life!’ was a frequent invitation for inspiration. When one of my classmates struggled with the word ‘ploog’ (meaning ‘plough’), and, when forced to save his life with a guess, came up with ‘plug’, he was immediately humiliated by being told ‘Don’t make stupid guesses!’. His life was presumably not spared. Thus were adolescents encouraged to learn in 1961.

And Clay’s querulousness let him down in more subtle environments. I recall composing a short story, in Russian, on a journey into space – a theme he had set us – and I decided to place my narrative in some future time when space travel was so routine that the craft was able to alight on the wrong planet, to the relative dismay of the crew, as if, on a day-trip, they had landed up in Eastbourne instead of Brighton. I was quite pleased with my confection, but when the stories were returned in class, Clay accused me of being ‘frivolous’, and reamed me out, as if I had personally insulted him. I am not sure what the punishment would have been, but, fortunately, he decided to pass my work by his colleague Tom Savage, like him a graduate of the JSSL, for a second opinion. Clay then had to back down, since Savage (who I knew disliked me) found the theme quite amusing and inventive.

Whitgift School (with cricket pavilion at lower right)

It was not that Clay could not enjoy any jokes, but you had to be careful not to smirk at any of his more extreme utterances. When he arrived at Whitgift to teach us Russian in 1961, he was not immediately allocated a permanent classroom, and we had to walk down to the cricket pavilion for our lessons with him. On one memorable occasion he reported to us on the lack of progress towards a regular and durable home: “Space has not yet materialized”, a paradoxical and highly philosophical observation that I found supremely amusing. I had to suppress my smile, as Clay would not have relished the explanation for my mirth. I didn’t think of it at the time, but it occurs to me now that it was something that Solyony in The Three Sisters might have said.

Humour in Chekhov

I privately found some of the situations and lines in Uncle Vanya (our set A-Level text) quite amusing. When, in Act Four, Marina informs the audience, with a sigh, that ‘I haven’t tasted noodles for ages, old sinner that I am’, the juxtaposition of sinning with such a bland food as noodles (not that I knew what they were in 1961) made me laugh out loud, and I recall regaling the members of the Percy family with the anecdote at dinner-time that day – to be met with rather an awkward silence. But perhaps I was not supposed to find that funny, and it was my sense of humour that was at fault. These were fin de siècle Russians, after all, and Sin, and the role of noodles in their diet, what with all those strange Orthodox Church practices, was perhaps part of a ritual that I did not understand.

Moreover, much of the plots of Chekhov’s plays revolve around jealousy, unhappy marriages, adultery, infidelity, and thwarted passion. This was not a subject for humour for many schoolmasters, who would have found it difficult to discuss such matters with adolescents. (I have written beforehand about the embarrassing details of Gretchen’s seduction by Faust in Goethe’s great work, and how John Chester was very uncomfortable talking about the circumstances and outcomes.) Poor Martin Clay was betrayed (like the schoolmaster Kulygin in Three Sisters) when his wife ran off with another master, and thus tensions between spouses might have been something he wanted to avoid discussing in class.

And what did we youngsters know about such things? How could we possibly write essays about these dramatic situations, given our inexperience? When Vanya declares his love for Helen Serebryakov, the Professor’s wife, I probably imagined that was how Russians actually behaved all the time – rather like the French, I suppose – while we English would behave much more staidly. Our view of romantic affairs would be sustained more by the very suppressed passions of Brief Encounter, or the later image of Lady Antonia Fraser being captivated by Harold Pinter at a party, and mildly requesting of him ‘Must you go?’. Thus there was a tendency to interpret all the ambiguous statements of the cast in Uncle Vanya as serious reflections of the Russian character, and not as symptoms of comedic conflict.

Antonia Fraser & Harold Pinter

The critical emphasis that Clay encouraged consequently focused on those great Russian themes: ‘the superfluous man’ (lishny chelovek), as in Lermontov and Turgenev; ‘laughter through tears’ (smekh skvyoz slyezi), as in Gogol; ‘the tortured Russian soul’, as in Dostoevsky; ‘the sweep of historical fate’, as in Tolstoy, since the landowning class awaits the apocalypse; the untranslatable concept of ‘poshlost’ (a mixture of smugness and condescending vulgarity); or even on what was supposed to be Chekhov’s unique contribution, the creation of mood (nastroyenie), via such devices as distant breaking strings that may have been indicative of untold mining disasters. This was presumably what the examiners wanted their entrants to be taught about, and that is therefore what we learned to regurgitate. (I suspect that today Astrov’s plea for preserving the forests would be adopted as an early Save the Planet campaign.) Such interpretations were consonant with some early stagings of the dramas. Chekhov was distraught when he discovered that the director Stanislavsky had decided, in his absence, that his last play, The Cherry Orchard, should be presented as a tragedy.

It was Ronald Hingley who drew my attention to all the humour in the plays, and, when I recently re-read them after more than a fifty-year gap, I found fresh evidence. Chekhov was a doctor, but it does not stop him being satirical about his profession. This characteristic derived from his own career as a doctor: in 1886 he wrote a letter describing a wedding where he was going to be best man: ‘a doctor is marrying a priest’s daughter – a combination of killer and undertaker’. And he occasionally betrayed the fact that he was not averse to the occasional quack remedy himself, as when he advised his sister, Masha, in 1898, in response to her recurring headaches ‘to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, fish, to take aspirin, then subcutaneous arsenic, potassium iodate and electric shocks, and if that doesn’t help, then wait for old age, when all this will pass and new diseases will start’ (Rayfield, p 464). The evidently durable Masha survived afflictions far worse through the Revolution, the Civil War, the Purges, World War II, and the generic horrors of Communism.

In the first minute of Uncle Vanya we are introduced to Astrov, clearly identified as a doctor by Marina, and the second thing he says is: ‘No, it’s not every day I drink vodka’ – the vodka-doctor presumably being the Russian equivalent of Graham Greene’s whisky priest. Dr Dorn, in The Seagull, a womanizer but a sympathetic character, casually suggests valerian drops as a remedy for any ailment that his friends undergo. In Three Sisters, Chebutykin confesses that ‘they think I’m a doctor and can cure diseases, but I know absolutely nothing’. He had been responsible for the death of a patient a few days before, and now copies out remedies from a newspaper article. Donald Rayfield wrote that The Cherry Orchard ‘is the progenitor of modern drama from Artaud to Pinter’. The plays also reveal a road that leads to ‘Doc’ Morrissey of Sunshine Desserts in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

Reginald Perrin and Doc Morrisey

Another classic is the exchange between Chebutykin and Solyony in Act 2 of Three Sisters, where they have a pointless debate about the essence of two Caucasian dishes (a dialogue that raises some interesting aspects of translation, as I shall explain below). They talk at utter cross-purposes, apparently because of a misunderstanding over similar-sounding words. But the tenor and effect are exactly like Monty Python’s Argument Clinic. And I offer another example: the masterly transition from the end of Act 1 to the start of Act 2 in Three Sisters, where the beguiling and adored Natasha suddenly appears as an exploitative termagant, is hilarious.

I could cite more but the point is that the plays are strewn with self-absorbed characters who simply do not listen to what others are saying to them. Chekhov loves to show the delusional facets of mediocre people who try to convince themselves that they are original or interesting, in order to provide themselves some sense of self-worth. These characters frequently display eternal facets of behaviour that are instantly recognizable in any era or location: the passive/aggressive emotional manipulation by Arkadina of her son, Konstantin, in The Seagull; the grouchy victimhood of the indulged Professor Serebryakov and the vanity and frustrated ambitions of Voinitsky in Uncle Vanya. On reading Donald Rayfield’s outstanding 1997 biography of Chekhov, I realized how much of such behaviour had originated from Chekhov’s observation of his close family and friends, especially his self-pitying father, Pavel, and his selfish oldest brother, Aleksandr.

One would not be able to detect what a bohemian, even bawdy, life the young Chekhov led from his more restrained publications, and for a long time the seamier aspects of his life were withheld, thus contributing to the notion that the writer was a sober and earnest gentleman who needed to be taken very seriously. (What is remarkable is that the four great plays were written when Chekhov suffered regularly from haemorrhaging of the lungs, the symptoms of tuberculosis that he knew would kill him before long. It is breathtaking to consider the equanimity and humour with which he endured the last few years of his life.) For example, when I first encountered Voinitsky’s declaration that he ‘could have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky’ I took it all rather literally, deeming his presumptions legitimate: it needed a few more years for me to perceive the absurdity of such claims. After all, Chekhov might have thought that Schopenhauer was a frightful charlatan or a windbag, and who would have wanted to live the life of Dostoevsky, what with that mock execution, and those gambling obsessions?

I believe part of the problem with Chekhov’s stage humour is that the rest of the cast does not seem to be encouraged to break out into guffaws when the more absurd speeches are made, and the lack of reaction tends to diminish the level of humour in the audience’s eyes and ears. That is one reason why actors have complained that the dramas do not lend themselves to proper ensemble acting. (Gerhardie wrote: “The company on the stage, as indeed in life, is to all purposes an ensemble of solitary souls.”) The cast members must wonder what what they should be doing when (for instance) Gayev makes his speech honouring the bookcase in The Cherry Orchard. At my first reading I must have thought to myself: ‘That is what Russians do. They address inanimate objects in emotional terms’. But even in rural Russia in 1900, any normal acquaintances of Gayev would have interrupted the fellow after a few words in the hope of being spared any further embarrassments, or at least rolled their eyes, shaken their heads, thrown their hands up in the air, or gesticulated to him to stop.

Hingley and Translation

Hingley set much store in the art of translation, a topic that still fascinates me. He took a class in Russian prose, and we used his book Soviet Prose, which included some rather dire extracts from ‘socialist realist’ writers. Tackling these pieces presented the familiar challenge of trying to find the correct English words to represent characteristics and events that were relatively contemporaneous, but still far removed from familiar 1960s Britain. Yet, with Chekhov’s settings, the problem was far more intense. How faithful should a translator be to the original? What manner of the English vernacular should be applied to the speeches of a variety of Russians in the 1890s? Should a translator try to be very faithful to the idioms and references of the time and place? Should the leading characters perhaps talk like Galsworthian land-owners and gentlefolk? Or should the exchanges be packaged up – a little distorted, possibly – for a modern audience?

Hingley explained his approach in his Introduction to Volume 3. He set out to produce versions for the stage – a goal that might appear to be obvious – but added that his versions were intended for reading as well as acting. Yet, since his opinion was that the best stage version ‘must automatically be the best version for reading purposes as well’, his distinction could be seen as superfluous. He went on to write:

An attempt has been made to use modern English which is lively without being slangy. Above all, an effort has been made to avoid the kind of unthinking ‘translationese ’ which has so often in the past imparted to translated Russian a distinctive, somehow ‘doughy’ style of its own with little relation to anything present in the original Russian.

Now I might challenge Hingley a bit on his terminology. It puts me off a bit that the two key words in this second sentence are both encapsulated in inverted commas, as if they are not real terms. Why are there not proper English words to describe what he wants to communicate, and, if they are not proper English words, how is the reader supposed to interpret them? The word ‘translationese’ does not appear in my Chambers Dictionary, but on-line dictionaries define it ‘as an over-literal approach to translation’ and state that the term originated in the early 20th century, so Hingley could presumably have used it without quotation marks. And, admittedly, he gives examples: the Russian verb ‘filosoftsvovat’’ is used much more freely and vaguely than a native English speaker would deploy ‘to philosophize’ (perhaps ‘shoot the breeze’?), and Hingley does not always translate ‘dusha’ as soul, given that the word (according to his estimation) ‘is now almost confined to theological contexts’. One could confidently conclude that Hingley was not a fan of Arthur Conley.

Arthur Conley & Sweet Soul Music

But ‘doughy’? The word means ‘pallid’ or ‘pasty’, but I would assume that Hingley was suggesting more ‘lumpy’, or ‘indigestible’ even. I think I know what he meant – where the language neither reflects an accurate rendering of the original, nor sounds like the idiom or register of what any normal person would naturally express. And this is a very important point. He goes on to explain how Chekhov uses French forms of address ‘to create an antipathetic, vulgar, “genteel” [those quotation marks again!] (or one might wish to say “pseudo-genteel” effect), a system that will not work in an English setting.’ He follows up with:

It would be a mistake for an actress to pronounce these French sentences with a good Parisian accent. On the English stage they would probably sound best spoken in some suburban English accent, which, however, like everything else with Chekhov, should not be overdone.

And here we meet the challenge of ‘modernity’. What made sense in 1964 might not be appropriate in 2022. What, after all, is a ‘suburban’ accent today, when estuarine vowels and consonants can be heard all day on the BBC World News? (Come back, Alvar Lidell.) There is a risk of all the prejudices about ‘Received Pronunciation’ coming to the surface. Yet Hingley overall does an excellent job of rendering Chekhov’s lines in a natural and colloquial idiom that has lasted well the past sixty years. And his pupil, Michael Frayn, produced translations for all the plays in the 1980s that appeared to have goals similar to Hingley’s. In his Introduction to The Cherry Orchard (commissioned for Peter Hall’s production), Frayn wrote:

I have tried to observe two basic principles. The first is that a proper line of dialogue is what that particular character would have said at that particular moment if he had been a native English-speaker; this sometimes involves a quite different construction. The other is that, in a text intended for production, like this one, every line must be as immediately comprehensible in English as it was in the original; there are no footnotes on the stage.

Michael Frayn

But one might well ask: “What is a native English-speaker in this context?”. Frayn’s translation of Three Sisters was also commissioned, by Caspar Wrede, for production in Manchester, and his principles thus still applied, but what native English-speakers declare their passionate yearnings for returning to Moscow?

I do want to record two important statements made by Hingley and Frayn about the art of translating Chekhov. Hingley wrote:

A tendency to repeat words or phrases is a feature of conversational Russian shared by English, but not to the same extent. Thus, Chekhov’s characters, in moments of frustration, often say Я не могу, не могу [ya ne mogu, ne mogu] (literally, ‘I cannot, I cannot’). Once again the mechanical reproduction in English of a feature of the Russian is not necessarily always consistent with the spirit of the original though there are of course occasions when it is. For example, the above phrase is probably better rendered as something like ‘I can’t stand it, I tell you, rather than by ‘I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it’.

And Frayn:

Another considerable problem for the translator is finding consistent equivalents for the many recurring words and phrases. The hardest – and most ubiquitous – is vsyo ravno and its variants, which I have rendered as ‘It doesn’t matter’. ‘It’s all the same’ would be closer, but is less capable of being adapted to all the different situations in which it occurs. The effect of repetition must, I think, in a play where it is used so consciously, take precedence over exactitude.

(I immediately thought of Gilda Radner, and her trope of ‘Never mind’, on Saturday Night Live. Does it take a certain generation – and domicile – to appreciate that?)

Comparisons

It is instructive to compare the translations of Fen (1954), Hingley (1964), and Frayn (1987). This could be the subject of a thesis, but I shall cite a couple of examples. In the first scene of Uncle Vanya, where Astrov is complaining about his life, he speaks of the eccentricities of people around him:

(Fen) “This sort of life drags you down. You’re surrounded by queer people – they’re a queer lot, all of them, and after you’ve lived with them for a year or two, you gradually become queer yourself, without noticing it.”

(Hingley) “It gets you down, this life does. You’re surrounded by the oddest people, because that’s what they all are – odd. Spend a couple of years among them, and you gradually turn into a freak yourself, and don’t even notice it.”

(Frayn) “It drags its feet, this life of ours. You’re surrounded by cranks and crackbrains – there’s something odd about the lot of them. Live with them for a few years and gradually, without noticing it, you start getting a bit odd yourself.”

First, it is obvious that Hingley and Frayn wanted to move away from the associations of ‘queer’, the meaning of which had taken a new departure. Hingley also transforms the formal prose of Fen into a more colloquial format, as does Frayn, but then they both introduce sharper slants on the notion of ‘oddness’ – Hingley deploying ‘freak’ (which is surely a bit of an exaggeration), and Frayn using two more extreme nouns, ‘crank’, and ‘crackbrain’, both of which seem inappropriate to me. A ‘crank’ is normally someone with distorted and irrational opinions, while ‘crackbrain’ which goes back to the sixteenth century, suggests insanity. Chekhov was merely suggesting eccentricity, I believe: ‘crackpot’ might be better than ‘crackbrain’. These versions may not be ‘doughy’, but I do not believe they are faithful to the original. Ironically, in Act 2, when Astrov declares that there is not anything odd about him, Fen uses ‘crank’, Hingley deploys ‘freak’, and Frayn returns to simply ‘oddness’. Amazingly, Frayn omits completely some passages that present linguistic challenges, such as the speech impediments of Astrov’s assistant. Hingley is the obvious winner, to me.

Another testing passage appears in Act II of Three Sisters, where Chebutykin and Solyony debate the relative merits of Caucasian food. The joke revolves around the supposed similarities between the words ‘chehartma’ (a meat dish) and ‘cheremsha’ (a kind of onion). It is not a very elegant exchange: Chebutykin is made to spell out for the audience what chehartma is, while it is difficult to see how Solyony could mishear what Chebutykin says (unless he is being deliberately obtuse). But it is a prime example of Chekhov characters speaking at cross-purposes.

Fen is faithful to the original, using the Russian terms. Hingley tries to anglicize the exchange by replacing the foods with ‘escalope’ and ‘shallot’, which is a fairly clever transposition of meat and onions (but might ‘scallions’ have been a better fit?). Frayn reverts to the native Russian of ‘chehartmá’ and ‘cheremshá’, and adds for our benefit the fact that the latter is known as ‘ramson’, which appears to be botanically accurate, but is an extraneous and unnatural insertion that draws the translator into a tangled metaverse. Why would a Russian character translate the native Russian word into English, even if he was supposed to be ‘a native English speaker’? If that is the principle the translator is heeding, the Hingley approach of attempted naturalisation, and not trying to explain too much, is preferable.

One aspect of this process which may have been overlooked is that, in the attempt to render the complete playscript colloquial, the translators do not pay enough attention to the unique registers of each individual speaker (a technique I have complimented John le Carré on). The speech mannerisms of the minor characters in Chekhov are well-defined, but the major characters tend to be more homogeneous – at least in translation. I have not studied the Russian text closely enough to determine whether Chekhov invested much effort into providing distinct speech patterns. For instance, the language of the upstart peasant businessman Lopakhin, in The Cherry Orchard, sounds just like that of his landowning colleagues. (One might have expected him perhaps to have had a ‘suburban’ accent –  ‘Del Boy’ Lopakhin, perhaps.) Whether it is truly so in the original, I cannot yet say.

Tarara-boom-de-ay!

Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Ay!

Lastly, the intriguing matter of ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’, the refrain sung by Chebutykin in Three Sisters, as a mere mannerism, or perhaps as a gentle commentary on the absurdity of what is going on. The song, with its suggestive lyrics, dates from 1891, and became popular throughout Europe, even in Russia, but the American originally published version presents the famous line solely as a refrain, with no balancing lyrics.

Constance Garnett leaves the refrain unimproved. Fen represents it as follows: “Tarara-boom-di-ay . . . . I’m sitting on a tomb-di-ay. . . .”, with a rather morbid reference. Hingley, however, introduces a completely different idea: “Tararaboomdeay, let’s have a tune today”, while Frayn presents it as “Ta-ra . . . ra . . . boom-de-ay. . . . Sit in my room all day. . .” Lastly, at the conclusion of his book, Gerhardie describes the scene as follows:

Only a few minutes earlier the old army doctor has been singing softly to himself the well-worn refrain, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay; this is our washing day’ – a trashy tune; which only throws into relief the mood of the three sisters, the most searching of which the human heart is capable.  

[Eh?? Hingley would have red-pencilled that last clause.]

So what is going on here? How can these experts be all over the place so haphazardly?

What Chekhov wrote was: “ Tara…ra…bumbia. . . Cizhu na tumbe ya . . . “, but it is not clear whether that is his invention, or whether the song became Russified that way. The second part means, literally, ‘I sit on a bollard’ (i.e. not a ‘tomb’, which is how Elizabeth Fen chose to translate ‘toomba’: she must have fallen in love with the rhyme. Martin Clay would presumably have rebuked her for making a stupid guess.) But where the others get their ideas from is not clear – and how could they claim that their versions were faithful to the original?

I suspect that several parodies, or imitations, were going round over the decades. I recall Martin Clay reciting to us that the second part of the refrain went: ‘I washed my socks today’, which sounds like some barrack-room jingle dreamed up by overworked JSSL pupils at Caterham-on-the-Hill perhaps, although it echoes Gerhardie’s creation from the 1920s. But why not come up with something that resembles the original? My mind went immediately to George Formby and Leaning on a Lamp-post, since perhaps Chekhov’s idea was perhaps that boulevardiers would sit on a bollard and watch all the girls go by.

Yet Chekhov might have wanted to suggest that it was the singing of the refrain by an alluring woman that fascinated him. The fact that it had a connotation of the original sexual attraction for him is shown by a letter he wrote to Leontiev Shcheglov in December 1896, after Shcheglov had advised him to get married. Chekhov specified that his future wife should be ‘a blue-eyed actress singing Tara-ra-boom-de-ay’ (Rayfield, p 410). The writer was apparently irresistible to women, with his quizzical, humorous and ambiguous manner, but he led a dissolute bachelor life, and treated all his admirers very badly. He was eventually tamed and charmed by Olga Knipper (who reportedly had ‘small eyes and a large jowl’), and married her. I thus look out eagerly for a new translation that does justice to the matter. But where are you, Ronald Hingley, when we need you and your insights?

(New Commonplace entries viewable here.)

Postscript: November 20, 2022

I have since read Donald Rayfield’s ‘Understanding Chekhov’, and find that he writes (on page 214, in his chapter on ‘Three Sisters’) the following:

“The third English (or American) element which had already served Chekhov as a leitmotiv in the story ‘Big Volodia and Little Volodia’ was the music-hall song ‘Tarara-boom-deay’, which spread from America in 1891 to all Europe in countless variations. In English (and in French) its verses were sung by a louche schoolgirl (‘Not too shy and not too bold, Just the sort for sport I’m told’), while an enthusiastic male chorus sings ‘Tarara-boom-deay’. In Chekhov’s work the refrain became a euphemism for sexual intercourse. In Russian versions the text was sadder. The main verse might be the story of a man fallen into depravity and the chorus a bitter lament. The song, however, was orchestrated and became an artillery regimental march. Undoubtedly, the officers of Chekhov’s fictional battery, as they leave the northern town where they have enchanted, and disenchanted, the three sisters, march out to the tune of ‘Tarara-boom-deay’, the very song that Dr Chebutykin sings (as all Chekhovian males sing songs) to heighten the distress of the heroine to whom it applies.” Rayfield points out that Chebutykin sings the refrain at the death of Tuzenbach from a duel, thus increasing Irina’s distress.

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The Demise of PROSPER

Major Francis Suttill, aka ‘Prosper’
  • The Story So Far
  • Morgan and Operation COCKADE
  • COCKADE and the Historians
  • Prosper’s Torment
  • Betrayal
  • The Dangle
  • SOE’s Strategy & The Chiefs of Staff
  • The Aftermath, and Conclusions

The Story So Far

(see also http://www.coldspur.com/bridgehead-revisited-three-months-in-1943/ and http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/)

The French operations of SOE in the first half of 1943 have been beset by confusion and contradictory instructions. The Chiefs of Staff have dithered between acknowledging that a serious assault on Normandy cannot take place until 1944, while maintaining vain hopes that some minimal attack may be made in later in 1943, if only to distract German forces from the Russian front. Winston Churchill has continued to promote the cause of striking a bridgehead in Normandy. Both British and American Chiefs of Staff have lost focus on what SOE should be doing to support these muddled policies. SOE itself has received new orders which reduce France to a lesser priority than Yugoslavia and Italy, and emphasize sabotage rather than providing weapons to secret armies. Yet in the first few months of 1943, the parachuting in of weaponry to potential guerrilla forces in France has increased markedly, even while SOE officers are being warned that the important PROSPER circuit has been infiltrated by Abwehr spies. These officers are also aware that Henri Déricourt, an organizer of landing-sites in France, has been in touch with Sicherheitsdienst officers in Paris. Lt.-General Frederick Morgan, aka COSSAC (Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander, this Commander in fact not yet having been appointed), has received bizarre instructions from the Chiefs of Staff, and has started planning diversionary campaigns for Northern Europe, under the umbrella codename of COCKADE. Francis Suttill, the leader of the PROSPER circuit, makes two visits to Britain, the first at the end of May, and a second shorter one in early June. The guidance and instructions that he receives during these two visits will turn out to have tragic consequences.

In this report, I address the following research questions:

  • In what manner was the proposal for COCKADE approved?
  • What effect did its approval have on Suttill’s behaviour and eventual demise?
  • Why were the infiltrated circuits not closed down immediately German infiltration had been detected?
  • How did the decision affect SOE? Why did arms shipments to France continue to increase after the 1943 assault was called off?
  • What did the Chiefs of Staff know about the LCS/SOE rogue deception plan?

And the overarching question remains: Why has the Foreign Office behaved so obstructively in withholding information about the PROSPER case?

Morgan and Operation COCKADE

The TRIDENT Conference

While discussions between John Bevan, the Controlling Officer, and the Joint Planning Staff had been going on for some weeks, on June 3 Lt.-General Morgan completed his draft of Operation COCKADE, the deception scheme designed with a view ‘to pinning the enemy in the West, and keeping alive the expectation of large-scale cross-Channel operations in 1943’. General L. C. Hollis circulated it to the Chiefs of Staff two days later, this group having just returned from the TRIDENT conferences in Washington, D.C.  COCKADE itself consisted of three subsidiary operations, STARKEY, WADHAM and TINDALL, all of which were designed to culminate in September of 1943. STARKEY is the most relevant to this story: WADHAM was entirely a deceptive operation designed to convince the Germans of an American landing in Brittany in September, while TINDALL represented a distraction in Norway. It is thus worth reproducing STARKEY’s description here:

            An amphibious feint to force the GAF [German Air Force] to engage in intensive fighting over a period of about 14 days, by building up a threat of an imminent large-scale landing in the PAS DE CALAIS area. The culminating date should be between 8th and 14th September.

The first startling aspect of STARKEY was that it involved some real assaults, not just rumours. Morgan’s instructions had specifically called for the German Air Force to be brought into battle. Yet such ‘feints’ designed to engage the G.A.F. (‘intensive fighting’) were necessarily dangerous, since, if the latter responded to the bait, lives might have been lost, and the political backlash when the attack turned out to be half-hearted could have been disastrous. (Morgan drew attention to such ‘undesirable repercussions’ in the last paragraph of his submission, but recommended that considerations of them not influence the decision.)  The second important dimension was the location of the threatened large-scale landing, namely in the Pas de Calais area, away from the coasts of Normandy where the 1944 entry would take place, but on a heavily-defended area where the German response would be expected to be very robust.

Operation STARKEY

The proposal for STARKEY is very odd. Its objective is implicitly declared to be ‘to present a realistic picture of an imminent large-scale landing’. Morgan’s reasoning seems to be that the German Air Force would be brought to battle only ‘by the threat of an imminent invasion of the Continent’, since its forces were severely depleted. “To give our fighters the greatest advantage the threat must be mounted against the PAS DE CALAIS”, he added. Yet, since that area was so strongly defended, the operation would require heavy involvement of the Royal Navy, the RAF, as well as the US 8th Air Force, and would constitute a diversion from strategic heavy bombing efforts. Why would those forces commit so readily to something that was only a feint? If the objective had been to destroy what remained of the GAF, and it were accompanied by a high degree of confidence, Morgan’s plan might have received vigorous enthusiasm from his military colleagues. Yet he bizarrely refers merely to the chance of succeeding ‘to draw the GAF’, and that ‘14 days intensive fighting is probably the maximum that we can reasonably maintain’. Was Morgan recommending an air battle that the Allies could well lose, or was he just rather casually indicating that the threat of invasion would not be taken seriously without such a provocation?

Apart from the fact that the feint itself was an illusion, as it did include a real desire to engage the enemy, the focus on the Pas de Calais was itself very risky. Morgan himself admitted that it was a very well-defended region. Would the Germans take hints of an attack in that area seriously?  It should be recalled that they had successfully obliterated the Dieppe Raid the previous year. Yet the overall desire ‘to keep the enemy pinned throughout the summer’, as Morgan later qualified the objective, thus hoping to improve the chances of the advance on Sicily, and providing help to Stalin in the East, dominated the plan. After all, these were the express instructions issued by the Chiefs of Staff back on April 26. Moreover, part of it mysteriously suggested that, should the GAF be beaten and a rapid seizure of the Pas de Calais achieved, that would signal a possible ‘complete German collapse or withdrawal’.

Yet this naïve thinking about targets constituted a fatal flaw. The detailed text of the COCKADE plan included some puzzling sentences concerning the choice of the Pas de Calais. Having explained how heavily fortified the area was, and the most strongly defended, Morgan described the level of bombardment that would be required ‘over a limited period’ (a very unmilitary, evasive and indefinite bureaucratic phrase) to give the impression that a large-scale landing was imminent. But then, amazingly, Morgan went on to write:

            Port capacities in the PAS DE CALAIS are insufficient, even when undamaged, to supply a force of more than about nine divisions. We cannot therefore expect the GERMANS seriously to believe that invasion of the Continent is intended if we leave our deception plan to this area, and certainly we shall not contain all his reserves, if they are badly wanted elsewhere. At the same time the paucity of landing craft (actual or dummy) available in this country . . . . will make it clear to him that simultaneous cross-Channel operations in more than one sector are not feasible. We must therefore lead him to suppose that a major part of our plan is a long sea voyage ship to shore operation partly from this country but mainly from the USA.

Surprisingly, given the short timetable involved, the minutes of the War Cabinet show no further discussion of COCKADE for a while. Indeed, on June 17, Morgan moved on to the real and authentic 1944 Operation, apologizing to the Chiefs of Staff for the delay in submitting his initial plans for OVERLORD, and added they would be available on July 15. The next reference to COCKADE appears in a note by General Hollis on June 23, where he presents a response from Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers of the US Army, and Commanding General of ETOUSA (European Theater of Operations, United States Army), in which Devers agrees generally with the conclusions of the Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting of June 21 concerning COCKADE. Then, rather incidentally, the matter of COCKADE is brought to the Prime Minister’s attention by General Hollis on June 23, where we learn obliquely that the War Cabinet has approved the operation. (Churchill would of course have been briefed on the plan before the War Cabinet set eyes on it. The official minutes for the meeting at which the approval was made do not appear in the official series.) It is in fact Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, who is responding to Churchill’s request for information on raids (Mountbatten’s bailiwick), whereupon Mountbatten refers to concurrent raids being undertaken as part of COCKADE. Thus the fact of the War Cabinet’s decision on COCKADE appears only as Annex 2 to Mountbatten’s note.

Yet valuable details about the negotiations can be found elsewhere. It is in the War Office archives (WO 106/4223) where a fuller account of some of the discussions that took place earlier in the month appears, and some highly important observations are evident. For example, as early as April 29, Sir Alan Brooke had voiced his disagreement that the news of the setting up of expeditionary forces ‘should be allowed to leak out through the channels at the disposal of the Controlling Officer’. Yet that recommendation does not appear in the report as listed, and must have derived from discussions. This cryptic statement presumably means that he disapproved of a policy of using ‘double agents’ through Bevan’s TWIST committee, although he did not explain why he was sceptical about that channel, nor did he offer an alternative.

Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound

A discussion took place at the Chiefs’ meeting on June 8, just after the return from Washington, when it was resolved to discuss the plan with Morgan while the Joint Planning Staff performed its detailed analysis, and then to meet with Morgan again. Morgan started off by stating that it might be difficult to bring the GAF into battle, and that ‘in order to provide a sufficiently convincing display of force, that battleships for bombarding the German coast artillery had been included for use in the later stage of the plan’. This worried Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, who urged ‘very careful considerations’ before the employment of battleships in the Channel could be sanctioned. Likewise, Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, could not agree to a major diversion of bombers to meet Morgan’s requirements.

Air Marshall Charles Portal

Later, a discussion concerning, rather archly, ‘Control of Patriot Organisations’, followed. The meeting recognized the importance of preventing premature risings in the occupied countries ‘and it was generally agreed [not unanimously?] that all patriot organisations must be warned that there must be no general rising without our definite instructions.’ Morgan was invited to consult with S.O.E. on this matter. On these, and other topics (such as the shortage of landing-craft) the Joint Planning Staff was instructed to report.

Further doubts surfaced the following day. A significant commentary – presented anonymously, from the War Office – appears, dated June 9. The note encourages the more detailed analysis being performed by the Joint Planning Staff, but ‘ventilates’ for the preliminary discussion the following two important points: 

            Air Battle: One of the main advantages, which it is hoped to attain is a profitable air battle. Is the Chief of Staff convinced that we can be sure of obtaining this advantage?

            Political Repercussions: We shall eventually find ourselves in a position where German propaganda can represent that an attempted invasion has been repelled. Premature rising by Resistance Groups on the Continent may be difficult to avoid and their action might be detrimental to success on a later occasion.

Having received an individual invitation to do so, John Bevan, Controlling Officer of the London Controlling Section, responded to Morgan’s plan, and his memorandum was presented to the Chiefs of Staff on June 11. His opinions were strangely meek and uncritical, but then he was after all the architect of the plans, since their conception had antedated Morgan’s appointment. He appeared to approve of STARKEY and WADHAM, but pointed out that the Germans were unlikely to believe that the Allies could carry off three such operations simultaneously in September. His comments were mainly directed at TINDALL, and the chances of the Germans transferring forces hardened by cold weather to the Russian front. He completed his report by suggesting that, after the operation had been called off, it should be described as a ‘dress rehearsal’ rather than a feint, in order to protect ‘secret sources’, presumably the network of ‘double agents’ passing on intelligence about the operation to their Abwehr controllers. In his diaries, Alan Brooke records that Morgan came to see him on June 17 ‘to discuss various minor difficulties he has come up against’. What they were is not said, but Bevan presumably wanted Brooke on his side at the coming meeting.

The Chiefs of Staff took note of Bevan’s memorandum, but accepted his recommendation about publicity. In any case, on June 21, the Joint Planning Staff (JPS) issued its comprehensive Draft Report. In its introduction, it somewhat surprisingly expressed confidence in the plan’s conception, but added, rather weakly, the opinion that it ‘should succeed in pinning German forces in the west’, and that ‘it may also provoke an air battle and will provide most valuable experience’. It moved quickly over WADHAM and TINDALL and focused on STARKEY, where it boldly pointed out that:

11. The object of the plan, as stated, is to convince the enemy that a large scale landing in the Pas de Calais area is imminent and to bring the German Air Force to battle,

12. There is no intention of converting STARKEY into an actual landing if sudden German disintegration appears to be imminent. Entirely separate plans are being made for the possibility of an emergency return to the Continent.

The planning of Operation STARKEY is accordingly being limited to purely deceptive measures involving no plans for a re-entry to the Continent.

These were very significant reminders to the Chiefs of the Casablanca resolutions, and the seriousness with which they were taken is shown by the fact that the recommendation of ‘should therefore’ in the printed text has been emended to ‘is accordingly being’ in manuscript, reflecting that the Chiefs had endorsed this particular observation.

The JPS also highlighted the political repercussions, and, in consequence, a vital paragraph soon appeared in the protocols, running as follows:

            The reactions to these operations of the inhabitants of the occupied territories will require to be controlled by the issue in advance of the most careful directions. The Political Warfare and Special Operations Executives have therefore been instructed to prepare detailed plans setting out the measures which should be adopted in order to prevent any premature rising by the patriot armies.

This is also a very important statement. While the plan had explicitly excluded any role for ‘patriot armies’ in the STARKEY operation, the JPS implicitly ordains that SOE agents should in no manner encourage French resistance members to expect or support any invasion in 1943. (Given the confirmed policy that invasion could not occur until summer 1944, ‘premature’ presumably meant any time before then.) As far as the build-up of arms, and exhortations over the wireless were concerned, however, all this well-intended foresight was too little, too late, and appears to have been expressed in complete ignorance of what was happening on the ground. In France, many ‘patriot armies’ had been supplied, and were eagerly expecting the invasion.

The War Office records include the minutes of the decisive meeting that took place on June 21. There were several caveats: Mountbatten agreed with Pound on the battleship issue; Portal appeared to have succumbed half-heartedly to the demand for bomber support; Brooke raised an important point about the repercussions from bombing targets in France, and possible civilian deaths. Some awkward questions were deferred, but the plans were essentially approved.

The argument behind the whole COCKADE plan thus appeared to be:

  1. We shall launch an unserious attack on the Pas de Calais.
  2. We hope to engage the GAF, but have a slim chance of destroying it.
  3. The Pas de Calais is the best defended area of the French coastline.
  4. The area is not large enough to support an invasion-capable force.
  5. The Germans will not take this attack seriously.
  6. We hope to supplement the air attack with bombardments by battleships (if the Royal Navy agrees).
  7. We are, however, not confident that a presence of battleships will be useful.
  8. We shall thus pretend to launch an assault on Normandy as well, with an even flimsier feint.
  9. We shall augment this with the pretence of the unlikely arrival of a fleet from the USA.
  10. In this way the Germans will be convinced that a massive assault is imminent.

It does not take the brain of a military strategist to conclude that this was an absurd proposition. Why on earth would the Germans be taken in by it, especially as Allied forces were amassed in the Mediterranean in preparation for an assault on Sicily or the Balkans? Was German intelligence so bad that the Wehrmacht would take seriously the threat of a major assault across the Channel as well? Even on August 7, the Chiefs of Staff were discussing what reduction of German forces would be necessary to make a 1944 cross-Channel operation possible. Moreover, Churchill, responding to Stalin’s querulous complaint about the further deferral of the assault, wrote to him on June 18 about the futility of wasting vast numbers of military personnel:

            It would be no help to Russia if we threw away a hundred thousand men in a disastrous cross-Channel attack such as would, in my opinion, certainly occur if we tried under present conditions and with forces too weak to exploit any success that might be gained at very heavy cost.

That opinion should have put the kibosh on any notion of exploiting ‘German disintegration’.

What is more, the COCKADE plan is evasive and uncomfortable about the use of propaganda, misinformation and leakage to abet the project, especially when it relates to SOE and MI6 networks in France. Yet, at the time they considered the COCKADE plan, the Chiefs of Staff must have known about the recent increase in shipments of arms to France, and the campaigns already organized by the PWE to encourage the notion of an imminent invasion. If that activity ceased, the Nazis would conclude that the military movements were indeed a sham. But if they continued, in order to bolster the credibility of the feint, the Germans would take a very serious interest in infiltrating the networks in an effort to learn more about the date and place of the opening of the ‘Second Front’. That outcome could only be disastrous – in various ways. Therein lay the extreme moral dilemma: deceptions can exploit ambiguity about the location of a surprise attack, but they cannot dice with the actual existence or nonexistence of such events.

And the outcome of the assault could also have been catastrophic. What were the chances of success of any bridgehead, if substantial German forces were maintained in France (hardly ‘pinned’, it should be stated)? The continued presence of such strength was, after all, the objective of the Allies, and the outcome might be that a weakly supported bridgehead would have to face a vigorous backlash, and probably be destroyed or expelled. As further evidence of muddled thinking, just a week before, at the TRIDENT Conference in Washington, Sir Alan Brooke, in apparent defiance of CASABLANCA resolutions, had enigmatically stated that the ‘dispersal of German forces is just what we require for a cross-channel operation and we should do everything in our power to aggravate it’ – exactly the opposite of what was then planned. Strategic thinking was all over the place: it was a mess.

About this time the whole flimsy infrastructure fell apart. On June 24 Francis Suttill (Prosper) was arrested in Paris, and soon afterwards, he and Gilbert Norman, in a sad effort to save lives (but not their own), encouraged their networks to reveal where their weapons, smuggled in by SOE, were hidden.

COCKADE and the Historians

The coverage of the early days of COCKADE by the prominent historians has been spotty. Michael Howard, in Volume 5 of British Intelligence in the Second World War, records the drawing up of COCKADE plans, but leaves its timing (June 3) to an Endnote. He then haphazardly goes on to describe how resources (‘double agents’ of B1A) were enlisted to communicate aspects of COCKADE: “From the beginning of May, a stream of messages passed through more than a dozen sources, reporting rumours, government announcements and regulations and observed troop movements.” That is a clumsy and obvious anachronism: such events may well have been going on, but they were in support of other initiatives (or put in process by premature anticipation of COCKADE, as I showed in my analysis of XX Committee minutes), and not activated as a formal response to an inchoate and unapproved COCKADE. Howard then swiftly moves on to the preparations for late summer, and reports how the Germans did not rise to the bait, the OKW failing to be deceived as to Allied intentions. Nevertheless, he relates how von Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief West, anxiously watched air-drops to resistance movements in France. That was on August 31, however, when the mop-up of the PROSPER network had been under way for some time. Even when STARKEY had been called off, von Rundstedt reputedly feared a major landing as late as November 1943. Yet no forces were transferred to prepare for any such threat. In fact, the opposite occurred.

Roger Hesketh’s’ Fortitude’

In his insider history of FORTITUDE, Roger Hesketh gives scant attention to COCKADE. He dubs STARKEY an obvious failure, as it did not succeed in engaging the German Air Force. Moreover, he points out the fallacies in drawing the enemy’s attention to its most sensitive spot – the Pas de Calais. He drily added: “To conduct and publicise a large-scale exercise against an objective that one really intended to attack during the following year would hardly suggest a convincing grasp of the principle of surprise.” In Operation Fortitude, Joshua Levine likewise classifies COCKADE as a failure, but submits that the exercise offered useful experience for the double-cross system, and, rather weakly, that it gave the planners ‘the opportunity to consider the logistics of a cross-channel operation in advance of OVERLORD’. On the other hand, the only mention of COCKADE or STARKEY in M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France is an (unindexed) amendment he made in 2004, when he had to concede that SOE agents were exceptionally used for purposes of deception in the promotion of STARKEY. This is a very telling addition that Foot slipped past the Foreign Office censors.

Anthony Cave-Brown

It was Anthony Cave-Brown, in his monumental Bodyguard of Lies, who actually moved closest to the truth, although his rather chaotic approach to chronology and his tendency to add irrelevant detail subtract from the clarity of his thesis. As with the other authors, he mixes up pre-COCKADE planning with the events in July and August. Using American archival sources that came to light in 1972, however, he is able to show that SOE agents were used in July and August, right through to the conclusion of STARKEY on September 9, 1943, to mislead the French patriot armies about the imminent invasion – a probable source for Foot’s amendment. In this way he is able to counter the claim that Bevan’s wartime deputy Sir Ronald Wingate made in 1969 that there was no connection between the LCS and SOE. The tension is clear: the Foreign Office wanted to bury the notion that SOE had been acting contrary to official policy, but the facts had come out.

Moreover, Cave-Brown lists the exploitation of the media that occurred, mainly in August 1943, to project the certainty of a coming invasion. The United Press put out a bulletin that informed the world of a move by the Allies in Italy and France ‘within the next month’, and even the BBC, on August 17, broadcast an ambiguous message that must have been interpreted by Frenchmen and Frenchwomen to mean that they should prepare for the imminent assault. As Cave-Brown writes: “The Associated Press and Reuters picked up this broadcast and made it world news.” All this activity by SOE and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) caused major concerns for Bevan and his team at the LCS. Such efforts were of course in defiance of the careful edict issued by the Chiefs of Staff about avoiding premature action by patriot forces. Matters were out of control.

Cave-Brown also points out that COCKADE was a failure because Hitler was convinced that the Allies were bluffing, and actually withdrew over two-thirds of his army from the West.

            Between April and December 1943, a total of twenty-seven divisions of the thirty-six in the western command were pulled out for service in Russia, Sicily, Italy and the Balkans – a compliment to A-Force’s Zeppelin operations on the Mediterranean at the expense of LCS’s Cockade operations in London.

Thus the aims of COCKADE were directly confounded by the clumsiness of the plan. Moreover, the withdrawal of these German divisions could ironically have allowed the Allies (in Cave-Brown’s opinion) to have ‘walked ashore’ in Brittany in the summer of 1943, virtually unopposed – a theory that demanded analysis in depth elsewhere. For example, Walter Scott Dunn, in Second Front Now, was one who claimed that the reduction in strength of the German Western Army in the autumn of 1943 could have permitted an Allied assault to take place if the Combined Chiefs of Staff had taken the possibility seriously.

Yet Cave-Brown massively mixes up the timetable when he moves to Prosper’s arrest, the subsequent mopping up of his networks, and the confiscation of arms, making the same mistake that others have made – that the events leading to the betrayal of Prosper were part of the COCKADE/STARKEY deception plan. As he writes (p 338: his sources are not identified, and the details are unreliable):

            Moreover, the SOE/PWE plan for Starkey made provision for deliberately misinforming F section agents in the field; even before that plan had been approved by the Chiefs of Staff and become fully operational in mid-July 1943, certain key F section agents were flown to London for “invasion” briefings, and others sent to France with instructions to carry out “pre-invasion” activities. They were to be informed, at the proper moment, that Starkey was only a rehearsal; but by then, for some of them – including Prosper – it would be too late.

While it is true that John Bevan, in early May, collaborated with Morgan on the first drafts of the COCKADE plan (as I reported in April), Bevan exploited the presence of a real (but insubstantial) attack on the Pas de Calais planned for September as an arrow in the quiver of the rogue operation that was already under way with Prosper’s network.

What everyone failed to note was that, when Suttill arrived in London in May for his briefings, the notion of an invasion in the summer of 1943 was still boiling in some quarters – and that excited him. But when he came back for the express meetings in early June, after Churchill’s return, and when Morgan had just prepared his COCKADE plans, Suttill learned how matters had changed. He was either told the truth, namely that the new programme involved a massive feint, and that he was being asked to support that activity by continuing to ready his circuits for something that had to be described as real, or he was deceived into thinking that an invasion was still on the cards, but had been deferred until September. It was almost certainly the latter, as if the authorities had set out to manipulate him and his circuits, they would not want to run the risk of his undermining the whole project. And, if they had the nurtured the evil objective of having Suttill reveal the date only under torture, the extraction of the truth under pressure would have been even more convincing. What they probably told him was thus not a total lie. In any case, he was devastated.

Prosper’s Torment

As I described in my April posting (http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/) , the various accounts of Francis Suttill’s reactions to what he was told in London are all flawed because they deal inconclusively with the contradictions in his arrival and departure dates. (I presented then an original theory that Suttill made two visits to the UK, in late May and early June, a hypothesis that neatly resolves all the contradictions in the various accounts.) Thus all the hints and attributions that appear in the works of Foot, Fuller, Marshall, Cookridge, Suttill and Marnham have to be re-interpreted in the light of Visit 1 (where Suttill is encouraged to believe that a real assault is imminent) and of Visit 2 (where he is made aware of the COCKADE plan that refers to some form of attack in September, and learns of the need to restrain his forces until then).

For example: When Cookridge writes that “Suttill had also arranged at Baker Street for the pace of arms and explosive deliveries to be stepped up” (not that that was in his power), it indicates clearly that the meetings must have occurred at the end of May, when Suttill’s enthusiasm was bolstered by the increased activity, and hopes of an early invasion. Since Marshall (relying very much on what Henry Sporborg told him) imagines there was only one visit, and concentrates on the post-COCKADE briefing, he asserts that the visit was not initiated by Suttill’s request, but that he was called back to London specifically by Churchill, even though Churchill was not in London at the end of May. “Could the great network hold out until July?”, he imagines Suttill thinking before the invitation. Marnham, echoing Suttill Jr., obviously cannot explain the call from Churchill, and declares that Suttill requested the May visit himself, because he was concerned about security, and needed to talk to his bosses about it.

Further: When Marshall, in turn citing Fuller, reports that Suttill informed Jean Worms (the leader of a sub-circuit called JUGGLER) that ‘they would have to hold out until September’ (p 178), that statement confirms that the discussion must have taken after his second visit: not only that, he gives the impression that a real invasion will be occurring in that month, confirming that the STARKEY plan (or a part of it) has been explained to him. (We cannot confidently tell whether that is how the COCKADE operation was described to Suttill, or whether he decided to misrepresent reality in the cause of the greater deception.) Marshall had earlier (p 161) asserted that Suttill had been ‘knocked sideways’ by the news that the invasion would not take place until the first week of September. Again, it is not clear whether this was the impression given to Marshall by Sporborg, who would have known at that time (unlike Buckmaster) that it was untrue, but may have also represented the facts to Suttill dishonestly.

When Marnham writes (p 116) that rumours started in the Sologne at the end of May that an invasion was imminent, the author accurately echoes what Cookridge wrote, while providing an accurate date for Suttill’s first return from London. Yet, a couple of pages later, when Marnham describes Suttill as returning from London, with the belief that an invasion was imminent, and on June 13 refusing to pay heed to Culioli’s requests that parachute drops be stopped, the chronology does not allow him to point out that this occurred after the second visit, when Suttill was aware that the invasion was no longer imminent. (Marnham has recently communicated to me his agreement with my hypothesis that there were two visits.) Suttill’s actions here suggest that he was putting his whole weight behind the rogue LCS deception plan.

On the other hand, when Francis Suttill Jr, describes his father’s decision that the area behind the Normandy coast was ‘one of the areas where arms were most needed to support an invasion’, but that the drops (on June 10) took place further south because of the presence of German troops in the area (pp 176-177), the author simply reflects a total ignorance of the circumstances by which arms were still being flown in in contravention of the new COCKADE policy. Earlier (p 161), Suttill had introduced a drop near Mantes on June 16/17 where ‘some of the material was destined for the communists . . . .; the rest was hidden for the group to use in the expected invasion’, he likewise is completely tone-deaf about the political climate and machinations. He bases his dismissal of his father’s briefing by Churchill purely on the fact that Churchill was not in the UK at the end of May, and ignores the evidence of a June encounter.

It is thus impossible to determine with complete assurance what went through Suttill’s mind, whether he was given the full and accurate account of the STARKEY deception plan, and thus decided that he should be responsible for possible sacrifices to aid the deception, or whether he was misled into thinking that it would culminate in an invasion in September that could be supported by resistance forces, and was therefore justified in keeping his networks on the alert. What his cited statements do confirm, however, is that he believed an invasion was imminent when he returned at the end of May. The overwhelming evidence from the arms build-up in the spring, and the continued shipments into June and beyond after the COCKADE plan had been approved, suggests that he was a victim of the unsanctioned cowboy deception effort being masterminded by LCS, with the complicity of senior SOE officers.

Yvonne Rudellat

Irrespective of both visits, Suttill was doomed. I can add little to the story of how Pierre Culioli and Yvonne Rudellat were trapped by the Sicherheitsdienst at a checkpoint, where the Germans discovered hand-written names and addresses being carried, and crystals to be passed to wireless operators. Careless talk and casual meetings led to the inveiglement of Suttill after Norman and Borrel had been arrested. Readers can turn to the works of Foot, Marshall and Marnham to learn the details. When Gilbert Norman was shown copies of private letters that Déricourt had carried back and forth between France and the UK, he gave up. He was impersonated in his role as wireless operator, and brought to despair when London rebuked him (in fact his ghost operator) for not performing the necessary security check to indicate that he was not transmitting under duress. He and Suttill then made a deal with their captors that, in exchange for the lives of their agents and collaborators, they would reveal the locations of the arms-dumps. The deal was not honoured. Scores of resistance workers were quickly executed, as were Suttill, Norman, Borrel and others, later, in 1944.

Betrayal

Henri Frager

Suttill believed that there was at least one traitor in his midst: after all, that is why he sought the recall in late May. His colleague Henri Frager, who was being manipulated by the deceptive Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr, had been complaining about Déricourt, and these criticisms had resonated with Suttill, who recalled Déricourt’s overall casualness in his operations, as well as his unjustified interest in the private lives of his contacts and passengers. Just before he was arrested, Suttill confided these fears to Madame Balachowsky, who, with her husband, a distinguished biology professor, had organized a circuit in the Versailles area. He also mentioned to her that he believed that the Germans had an agent in Baker Street.

When the initial investigations by MI5 into Déricourt’s possible unreliability took place in November 1943, a curious flashback to July took place. In one of the Déricourt files at the National Archives (KV 2/1131, p 16) appears an extract from notes that a Miss Torr had taken on July 9, during a study of GILBERT (Déricourt) and ‘the PROSPER circuit and its connections’. It runs as follows:

            The arrests in this circuit started  . . . . .  in April (1943)  . . . .  When PROSPER went back to France at the end of May, he found the security of his circuits further compromised by two things  . . . . . secondly GILBERT (see below) had had a good deal of trouble, partly through being too well known in his former identity, partly through the indiscretions of HERVE, trained by us but sent out by the D/F section on a special mission. GILBERT went south to lie low, and for a while everything went well.

This is an extraordinary entry, as much for what it does not say as for what it reveals – and for its timing. The ellipses clearly refer to some embarrassing information. The arrests of April were of the Tambour sisters by the Gestapo: Suttill foolishly tried, through an intermediary, to pay a ransom for their release, but was shockingly hoodwinked. The first of the items excised from Torr’s report may have been the suspicions that Pierre Culioli was indulging in Black Market transactions, or it may have been the fact that Edward Wilkinson was arrested on June 6, and that subsequent German raids ‘led to the recall of Heslop a few weeks later’ (as Francis Suttill, Jr. records). In any case, there was enough serious concern about infiltration and betrayal to demand protective action.

How HERVE contributed to Déricourt’s problems is elusive. (I have not yet been able to establish who he was. Buckmaster refers to an agent Hervé in They Fought Alone.) Elsewhere in the file, it is reported that, after his return to France on May 5, Déricourt found his security endangered by the fact that his colleagues were far too careless in their social gatherings in Paris, and that his real identity was known to too many people. The note continues:

            When he was finally asked by someone at a bar if he had had a good Easter in London, he felt it was time to take steps, and therefore he went down to Marseilles, partly to see someone we wished him to exfiltrate, and partly to lie low. Here he came up against the Luftflotte, and owing to their attentions, had to go about with some of his old friends and make a show of being friendly with the people who put had put up his name to the Luftflotte.

This was an obvious lie that Déricourt used to suggest that these encounters were the first that he had with the German authorities.

The note then goes on to say that Déricourt ‘came back to Paris to help organize the June Lysander operations’, without offering any dates. Suttill’s son remarks, however, that, on the same night (June 20) that his father spoke to Madame Balachowsky about his concerns, ‘a Lysander operation organized by Déricourt failed because he did not appear, nor had he collected the two passengers who were booked to return to London, Richard Heslop and an evading RAF officer’. Using the file HS 6/440, and quoting the testimony of Jacques Weil, Suttill Jr. states that Déricourt had been arrested for a short time before Prosper’s arrest, and concludes:

            It is also possible that he may have been warned by the Germans about something that was planned that night not far from the landing grounds he was proposing to use at Pocé-sur-Cisse, near Amboise’.

A cool analysis might suggest that, with these exposures well-known, the senior officers of SOE should immediately have taken precautionary measures to inoculate against further infiltration, such as sealing off circuits, stopping meetings and the sharing of resources, terminating flights and shipments for a while, and ensuring the general quiescence of all network activity until the hubbub appeared to have subsided, and a full investigation had been completed at Baker Street. Yet, as has been made clear, nothing of the sort took place. In fact, when Déricourt sent a letter to F Section at this time, explaining his contacts with the Germans at the Luftflotte, Nicolas Bodington (Buckmaster’s number 2) on June 21 made his infamous annotation, available on Déricourt’s file: “We know he is in touch with the Germans and also how and why.” Robert Marshall crucially reported on what he was told by Harry Sporborg on March 21, 1983:

            There existed a standing instruction (though SOE tended to think of it as more of an understanding) that when it was known that one of their networks had been penetrated, then the LCS had to be informed (usually through MI5), ‘so that the network in question might be exploited as quickly as possible for deception purposes’. In this case the information had travelled in the opposite direction and the LCS was simply informing the SOE that the decision to exploit PROSPER had already been taken. Neither Colonel Buckmaster nor any of the other F Section officers was ever informed of this decision. (All The King’s Men, p 162)

After three days of intense interrogations of Suttill, Norman and Borrel, on June 28 Kieffer of the Sicherheitsdienst presented his prisoners with photocopies of correspondence carried on flights organized by Déricourt, identified as deriving from the agent known as BOE/48. The manner of their betrayal became obvious to the three.

The Dangle

From any perspective, contact by an agent of officer of SOE with a member of one of the enemy’s intelligence or security services should have been regarded as highly dangerous and irregular. Thus it is difficult to conclude that the decision to encourage or allow Déricourt to maintain his contact with Boemelburg was either innocent, or propelled by serious policies of tradecraft. Yet the possibility that Déricourt was somehow able to mislead the Sicherheitsdienst to the advantage of SOE’s objectives in landing agents and supplies has been allowed to remain in the air. When M. R. D. Foot wrote about the events, he referred with minimal commentary to Déricourt’s testimony of February 11, 1944, under interrogation:

            German intelligence services did better out of intercepted reports from the field, which they certainly saw, and saw by Déricourt’s agency. When challenged on this point, he made the evasive reply that even if he had made correspondence available to the Gestapo, it would have been worth it for the sake of conducting his air operations unhindered. (SOE in France, p 270)

This must be one of the most outrageous statements ever made about the history of SOE, implying that, for some reason, if the Sicherheitsdienst turned a blind eye to the arrivals and departures taking place under their nose, they would ignore the implications, and forget about the possible threat to the Nazi occupation of France in the form of saboteurs and secret armies. And yet, this was presumably the mindset of Buckmaster and Bodington, who repeatedly came to Déricourt’s defence, and expressed their regard for him and his work. With Buckmaster, it was out of ignorance and naivety: with Bodington, duplicity and conspiracy. (The renowned and very security-conscious SOE agent Francis Cammaerts said that Bodington ‘had created  a lot of death’ in France.) Even after MI5 and SOE learned, through interrogations in early 1945, about the purloining of courier mail, they both continued stoutly to defend Déricourt.

Thus one returns to the overarching question concerning the motives and behaviour of Boyle (responsible for Security), Gubbins (responsible for all of western Europe), Dansey (Assistant Chief of MI6), and Bevan (head of the London Controlling Section): what were they possibly thinking by allowing Déricourt to consort with the Nazis, and why on earth did they believe that the Sicherheitsdienst would be fooled by any ploy that they concocted? After all, Déricourt had been spirited out of France to Great Britain, and had soon returned under control of a British Intelligence Service. The Nazis would be naturally very suspicious, even brutal. If SOE/MI6 believed that, since they had employed him, when he was out of their sight he was controlled by them, they were under a delusion. Similarly, if they believed that Déricourt could act as a useful transmitter of disinformation to the Germans without damaging the integrity of their networks, they were similarly massively mistaken. It is very difficult to conclude other than their motivations concerning the safety and security of PROSPER and other circuits were dishonourable.

The obvious question must be asked: If the objective was to ‘pin’ German forces in NW France in September, why was Déricourt not used simply to pass on by word of mouth the date of the phony STARKEY attack? What was his role? The answer is that he was engaged well before the COCKADE operation was conceived, and thus was deployed for more devious ends. Déricourt was not told of the details of STARKEY: he was a lowly air movements officer, and would have been such an obvious plant that the Germans would not have trusted what he said, or expected him to be able to gain such secrets. It would all have been too clumsy and transparent.

On the other hand, a whole subcurrent of suggestions (for example, from Rymills) has flowed that Dansey had been trying to infiltrate the Sicherheitsdienst for a couple of years, and that Déricourt was his latest candidate. Marshall is one of those observers who suggest that Déricourt was installed in France to gain intelligence on the working of Boemelburg’s organisation, presumably to help safeguard MI6’s agents in France, but such a dangerous game would have been hardly worth the candle. In any case, given Déricourt’s background, as someone who had passed through Britain’s security apparatus, the Germans would have been very cautious before exposing any valuable information to him.

The essence was that Déricourt had not been a Vertrauensmann, sent to Britain to infiltrate British intelligence by convincing the British authorities of his loyalties, with the goal of then being sent on a mission to France. If SOE’s intentions were devious but benign, the only way that Déricourt would have been able to survive would be by claiming he was a Nazi sympathizer, after which the Sicherheitsdienst would have made demands on him that would have threatened the circuits. And that is what happened: he volunteered a level of cooperation to the Gestapo, subsequently being given his BOE/48 appellation. Boemelburg must have wondered why, if Déricourt were willing to reveal details of SOE landings and take-offs, he would behave so indiscreetly over his contacts with the Germans, which (as is clear) were being communicated back to London. They were nevertheless happy to take the obvious facts and exploit them, as the process carried no risks for them, but would have been suspicious of any more covert messages. As Rymills wrote, questioning the account of Déricourt’s actions by the Sicherheitsdienst officer Goetz:

            However intelligent or unintelligent one believes Boemelburg might have been, it does not ring true that he would have accepted Déricourt’s account of his visit to London under British Intelligence auspices without demur. Anyone who confessed to the head of an enemy’s counter-intelligence that he had been recruited and trained by British Intelligence before being parachuted back into France as their Air Movements Officer would most certainly have been subjected to a rigorous interrogation in depth lasting a considerable period of time. Apparently, he did not even spend three days in the German equivalent of the London Holding Centre. Would anyone with one iota of common sense believe a story about London seething with communists? Could it possibly have been a simple as that? If it were, Déricourt was taking a gigantic risk – literally putting his head in the lion’s mouth.

The nature of the leakage was probably more subtle. Suttill knew the date of the invasion, but would probably reveal it only under torture – which is what happened. And, as has been suggested by Frank Rymills (see http://www.coldspur.com/dericourts-double-act/ ), some of the letters that Déricourt allowed the Gestapo to photocopy may have been forged by MI6 specialists, and carried revealing messages about the circumstances of the planned invasion. Déricourt was the courier and purloiner for these deeds: the events occurred at the same time as the famous MINCEMEAT deception operation of early May 1943. The Germans were much more likely to be taken in by well-crafted forgeries than obvious disinformation. As Marshall writes (p 190):

            From all the interrogations and written material that had been gathered, Boemelburg was sufficiently confident to send a report during the third week of July to Kopkow in Berlin that stated the invasion would fall at the Pas-de-Calais during the first week of September.

In one respect, therefore, the ruse had been successful. The Sicherheitsdienst passed on the planned date of STARKEY to von Rundstedt and Army Group West.

SOE’s Strategy & the Chiefs of Staff

What was going through the minds of Hambro and Gubbins, if, indeed, they were in control of SOE’s destiny? Marshall (in the anecdote cited above) indicates that the fact that COCKADE was a deception plan, and that the decision had been made to exploit PROSPER, was communicated to SOE ‘about the time’ that Suttill met Churchill, namely in early June. Yet the TWIST Committee’s conspiracies, and the increase in shipments of arms and supplies to France, had been going on for months already. Déricourt was already some kind of ‘agent in place’, in contact with Boemelburg, All this suggests that the maverick project to promote the notion that a real assault on the North-West French coastline was planned for 1943 – probably because Churchill devoutly hoped it to be true when the Committee was set up towards the end of 1942 – was very much alive and kicking, and that the notion implicit in STARKEY that the feint could conceivably be turned into a reality allowed the TWIST activity to gain fresh wings without flying completely in the face of military strategy.

A more resolute Hambro and Gubbins could have stood up to the COCKADE presentation, and said: ‘Enough!’, especially as the details of the plan did not then allow for, or encourage, the idea of subterranean work by SOE to further the work of the deception. In principle, their circuits could have been protected until the time of the real invasion. They could have insisted that the military aspects of the plan be pursued as specified, without any hints of assistance and preparation across the Channel, or, better still, they could have advised that a poorly conceived project like COCKADE should be abandoned immediately, as it would jeopardize assets needed for OVERLORD the following year. They then should have called for a suspension of arms shipments to France.

Yet, with the pressure for COCKADE to be launched, the SOE leaders were hoist with their own petard: movements were already in place for providing weapons and ammunition to an evolving patriot army, and, if that process suddenly ground to a halt, the illusion of an assault in September would have evaporated completely. If there had been no predecessor introduction of arms, the Germans might not have been suspicious. So Hambro and Gubbins had to buckle under, and hope that the inevitable sacrifices would not be too costly.

The Chiefs of Staff must have known what was going on, even though the outward manifestations of their thinking suggest otherwise. The early minutes studiously avoid any discussion of the possibility of SOE’s defying the established rules to support patriot armies in France (no longer a top tier target country) prematurely. In his diaries, General Sir Alan Brooke very carefully stressed that, if any impulses for carrying out an invasion in 1943 were still detectable, they came from his American counterparts (Marshall and King), and he earnestly repeated his assertion that such ideas issued from those who had not studied and imbibed the Casablanca strategy that outlined why southern Europe had to be engaged first. Yet one activity must have been known to the Chiefs: the increased use of aircraft to fulfil SOE’s greater demand for drops. Given the previous fervent opposition by Air Marshall Harris to the diversion of planes from its bombing missions over Germany, and the reliable evidence of the increase in shipments in the spring of 1943, it is impossible to imagine that this change of policy was somehow kept concealed from the eyes and ears of the Chiefs of Staff.

One might conclude that, at some stage, the Chiefs came to the conclusion that the presence of substantial SOE networks in France, and their connections with armed resistance groups, instead of being a hazard that had to be controlled, could instead become the main source of rumours of the invasion, a much stronger factor than all the dummy operations in the Channel. At the end of June (as I described above), the PWE and SOE had been invited to suggest what actions they might take to forestall any premature risings. This led to some very controversial exchanges.

SOE and the PWE are on record as approving the COCKADE plan. On July 18, General Hollis introduced to the War Cabinet Chiefs of Staff Committee a paper, dated July 8, developed by PWE, with SOE’s ‘full consultation’, that outlined the plans to deal with some of the less desirable fallouts from the STARKEY Operation. The brief is given as:

  • To counter the repercussions of STARKEY upon the patriot armies in Europe,
  • To counteract the effects of the enemy’s counter-propaganda presenting the outcome of STARKEY as a failure to invade.

The report constitutes a very bizarre approach to STARKEY, as it manifestly assumes that the effort will be entirely a feint, with no references to an engagement with the GAF, or to the following-up with possible beachheads to take advantage of a German disintegration. On the contrary, the paper reminds readers that ‘the operations contemplated include no physical landings’. Thus it is a recipe for dealing with the disappointments when STARKEY is shown to be a blank.

A quick explanation of the political problem is set up, but with very woolly terminology. The anonymous author observes that ‘the expectation of early liberation is at present the main sustaining factor in resistance’, but he does not make any distinctions between groups dedicated to sabotage, and the misty ‘patriot armies’ that are supposed to be waiting in the wings. In any case, these bodies (the author states) will be in for a major disappointment as winter approaches. The argument takes a strange turn, presenting the fact that, since there will be no landings, there will be no obvious cue for uprisings that would then have to be stifled, and further states that ‘it is to our advantage’ that:

             . . . the Occupied Peoples of the West, while prepared for the intervention which the operations imply and for active co-operation in such intervention, would naturally prefer that their own countries should not be devastated by the final battles.

This seems to me to be an utterly irrelevant, illogical and unsubstantiated hypothesis. It is not clear who ‘these Occupied Peoples of the West’ are, but if pains must be taken not to subdue the enthusiasm of potential ‘patriot armies’, what were the latter expecting would happen in the ensuing invasion? That the major battles would all take place in other countries, and that the Nazis would fold? Then why were the French being supplied with so much weaponry? The author is surely delusional. Yet he goes on to say that ‘the peoples of the West’ will overcome their dismay that COCKADE was only a diversion because they will learn that HUSKY is giving encouraging results.

The paper then goes on to outline what PWE and SOE should do, namely engage in a communication and propaganda exercise to convince the patriot armies to stay their hand until they receive the order from London to start the uprising. The report includes the following startling paragraphs:

            15. It is suggested, however, that the P.W.E./S.O.E. has a positive contribution to make to the success of COCKADE itself.

            16. the object would be:

To assist the deception by producing the symptoms of underground activity, prior to D day, which the enemy would naturally look for as one preliminary of a real invasion.

It goes in to give examples of operations ‘on a scale sufficient to disturb the enemy, but would be so devised so not to provoke premature uprisings or to squander any stratagems or devices needed in connection with a real invasion ’such as printed instructions on how to use small arms, and broadcasts by ‘Western European Radio Services’ on how the civilian population could make itself into ‘useful auxiliaries’.

This seems to me to be utterly cynical. During a period immediately after the arrests of Suttill, Norman and Borrell, and the betrayal of arms and ammunitions dumps, when news of the crackdown by the Gestapo was being sent to London by multiple wireless operators (including over Norman’s hijacked transmitter), the PWE and SOE contrived to recommend coolly the creation of ‘the symptoms of underground activity’. This suggestion was made at exactly the time that SOE and MI5 were performing a careful inquiry into the penetrations and arrests. [N.B. The news was not confined to SOE.] Either the spokesperson was completely ignorant of what was going on (highly unlikely) or he was wilfully using STARKEY as an opportunity to provide an alibi for the collapse of the networks.

Furthermore, for the seven days leading up to D-day (actually the September 1943 date for STARKEY), the units suggested that leaflets should be dropped addressed to ‘the patriots’, telling them that the forthcoming activity was only a rehearsal. Astonishingly, the author then suggests that the B.B.C. should be brought in ‘as an unconscious agent of deception’, encouraging the notion that a coming assault were real until the broadcasting service, like the press, would be informed that the operations were only a rehearsal. This initiative was a gross departure from policy, since the B.B.C. had carefully protected a reputation for not indulging in black propaganda, and instead acted as a reliable source for news of the realities of war throughout Europe.

A final plea (before outlining a brief plan as to how the PWE and SOE should play a role in this deception) is made for a concerted effort to enforce the idea that patriot armies should be subject to the control of the Allied High Command, but it is worded in such an unspecific and flowery way that it should have been sent back for re-drafting:

            We should, from now on, even more systematically build up the concept of the peoples of Occupied Europe forming a series of armies subject to the strictest discipline derived from the Allied High Command in London.

Build a ‘concept’? To what avail? How would ‘peoples’ form a ‘series of armies’? How would discipline be enforced – for example, with the Communist groups, or even with de Gaulle’s loyalists? The paper seeks to maintain that, only through the communications of the Prime Minister and others to the ‘contact points’ established within western Europe, and ‘upon the evidence of the genuineness of our D day instructions, will depend the favourable or unfavourable reaction to COCKADE’.

If the Chiefs of Staff had spent any serious time reviewing this nonsense, they should have immediately cancelled the whole COCKADE operation, as its rationale and objectives were surely nullified by the probable embarrassing fallout. In any event, their concerns should have been heightened by an ancillary move that occurred soon afterwards. As Robert Marshall reported, on July 26, Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6, sent a note to the Chiefs of Staff, via Sir Charles Portal, that claimed that SOE in France was essentially out of control, and that SOE should be brought under MI6’s management. Of course, this was an utterly cynical move as well, since Dansey had been responsible for infiltrating Déricourt into the SOE organisation. But Gubbins could hardly accuse the vice-chief of MI6 of being ultimately responsible, since he would then have to admit how woefully negligent he had himself been in exercising proper security procedures in his units.

Instead, Gubbins read the note, was highly embarrassed, and tried to counter that the groups under his control ‘had not been penetrated by the enemy to any serious extent’, rather naively implying that they had of course been penetrated, and that he was confident that the degree of such was minor. He shamelessly tried to conceal the full extent of the damage from his masters, but failed to make his case.  On August 1, the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee recorded their opinion that SOE had been ‘less than frank in their reports about their situation in France’.

SOE was in trouble. Yet STARKEY was not cancelled, and the propaganda campaign continued. Gubbins ploughed on, recommending increasing aid to the French field to the maximum, and noting that ‘the suffering of heavy casualties is inevitable’. And then Hambro, Gubbins’ boss, had to respond to a negative memorandum from Portal about diverting bombers to support SOE’s operations. In a long letter to the Chiefs of Staff dated July 26, Hambro essentially cooked his own goose, since he showed that he was not familiar with official strategy, and that he was also not in control of the (largely phantom) armies whose strength he had exaggerated. He made a plea for more air support, claiming that maintenance of the effort was essential if SOE were to fulfil its mission. He added, however, two damning paragraphs highlighting relevant factors, which merit being quoted in full:

  • The recent increase in our operations has, as may be expected, resulted in an increase of enemy activities to counter them and a consequent higher wastage rate among our men in the field. The maintenance of our organisations at their present strength and day to day activity therefore requires an increase in our present effort.
  • People on the Continent are certain that the Allies will invade in 1943. This feeling will be confirmed by the recent developments in ITALY. Daily reports from the field reiterate that people of occupied countries are relying upon the Allies returning to the Continent in the Autumn of 1943.

If the Allies do not return to North-west Europe, there will be a serious fall in morale, and, consequently, in the strength of the Resistance movements, which depend very greatly for their vigour upon the existence of a morale which gives the will to resist. The only way of countering the deterioration will be by showing the people of occupied countries that the Allies have not failed them. This cannot be done by propaganda and broadcast alone, but requires to be backed up by a steady flow of greatly increased deliveries of arms and other essentials.

Hambro was not helped by the propaganda campaign behind COCKADE, but he showed an alarmingly naïve understanding of the military climate, and the realities of SOE operations. His statements about the possibility of a widespread return to the Continent in 1943 were absurd and irresponsible, given the Casablanca decisions, and what the resistance in (for example) Norway was being told.. He simplistically grouped together a large number of disparate nations and their populations (‘People on the Continent’), as if generalisations about their predicament, their hopes and expectations could sensibly be made. Every country was different – a truth with which Hambro was not familiar. He proved that his organisation could not control the aspirations and activities of the groups who were in fact dependent upon SOE, and he showed that the tail was actually wagging the dog. He tried to finesse the matter of ‘wastage rates’ in his field agents without admitting the gross penetration by the Germans that had occurred. In all, he tried to preach to the Chiefs of Staff that they should endorse policies they had already rejected. It was no surprise that he lost his job a month or so later.

The Aftermath, and Conclusions

This chapter essentially closes with the arrest of Francis Suttill (Prosper). Yet there is much more to the story. In late July, Bodington paid a surprise visit to Paris to investigate what had happened to Prosper’s network. It was an extraordinarily rash and stupid decision: he was watched by the Sicherheitsdienst, but was allowed to return home unmolested. The assault aspect of COCKADE turned out to be an abject failure, as the Wehrmacht ignored any rumours, or feints to engage the GAF. (Brooke does not mention it in his diaries.) Even the continued activity of SOE in France, designed to keep many Wehrmacht divisions ‘pinned’, did not prevent the release of troops to the Balkan and Russian Fronts. Arms drops to French resistance workers continued. The Nazis seized more arms caches, and arrested and executed more agents and resistance workers. Déricourt came under fresh suspicion in the autumn of 1943, and was eventually ordered back to the UK, and interrogated at great length. After the war, he was put on trial by a military court in Paris, but Bodington exonerated him. SOE, having been rebuked, came under the control of the military men late in 1943. OVERLORD was, of course, successful, in June 1944, and was abetted in some notable incidents by patriot armies.

I recommend readers turn to Marnham, especially, for the dénouement of Déricourt’s story. Chapter 20 of War in the Shadows, ‘Colonel Dansey’s Private War’, gives an excellent account of the self-delusion and distortion that surrounds the case of his treachery. Yet that may not be enough. I point out again that I believe that Marnham’s account is flawed because of some key misunderstandings or oversights. Déricourt was not a Sicherheitsdienst officer who was ‘turned’ at the Royal Patriotic School in Wandsworth; he was an amoral individual who ingratiated himself with the Nazis by criticizing ‘communist-ridden’ London. The shipments of weaponry in the spring of 1943 were not in early anticipation of the COCKADE plan, but the result of a rogue LCS operation that had been going on for months. COCKADE was essentially the child of Bevan, who passed it on to Morgan. Francis Suttill crucially made two visits back to the UK in late May and early June, which fact has enormous implications for the ensuing events. The SOE tried to deceive the Chiefs of Staff over the penetration of its circuits. These ‘lapses’ do not undermine the strong case that Marnham makes about the tragic manipulation by SOE & MI6 of the doomed French circuits, but it does mean his story is inadequate. And there may be more to be unravelled. At some stage I may want to return to the enormous archival material that consists of the files on Déricourt as well as those on Hugo Bleicher, and other German intelligence officers. Yet it will be an exhausting and challenging task, trying to reconcile the testimonies of so many liars and deceivers.

I believe there is a serious need for a fresh authoritative and integrative assessment of SOE’s role in the events of 1943 and 1944. Olivier Wieviorka’s 2019 work The Resistance in Western Europe, 1940-45 is a valiant contribution, but he skates over the complexities a little too easily, with the result that he comes out with summarizations such as: “The statistics confirm that, before 1944, the British authorities did not believe it useful to arm the internal resistance”, an assertion that is both frustratingly vague but also easily contradicted. (Some of the less convincing conclusions may be attributable to an unpolished translation.)

Halik Kochanski’s epic new work Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945, covers a vast expanse of territory in a integrative approach to international resistance, but it therefore cannot really do justice to every individual situation. Some of her chapters are masterpieces of synthesis, but many of her stories are re-treads of familiar material. Moreover, she relies almost exclusively on secondary sources, and treats all as equally reliable. Kochanski nevertheless offers a very competent synopsis of the downfall of the Prosper circuit, and the ripple effect it had on other networks. She mentions Déricourt’s treachery, but does not analyse it in depth, however, merely drawing attention to the contradictions in Buckmaster’s two books. She classifies All the King’s Men as ‘conspiracy theory’, and praises unduly Francis Suttill’s Shadows in the Fog, as if it were the last word on the subject. She does not appear to have read War in the Shadows, and her account lacks any inspection of the historical backdrop. Operation COCKADE does not appear in her Index. In addition, her chronology is occasionally hazy, and she is vague about the intelligence organizations. She does not distinguish between the Abwehr and the Sicherheitsdienst, and misrepresents SOE’s leadership.

David Stafford’s 1980 work Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945 is still the most thorough and scholarly account of the War Cabinet debates over the role of SOE that I have found, but it needs refreshing. His Chapter 5, ‘A Year of Troubles’ delves deeply into the various committee records, and describes well the cognitive dissonance that he frequently perceived in the musings and decisions of the Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Intelligence Committee, but the author casts his net too closely. Stafford resolutely refuses to believe that any manipulation or treachery could have taken place by SOE in the demise of the French networks, displaying too much his trust in the integrity of the leaders he admires. COCKADE is never inspected in his analysis, and STARKEY appears only in one short clause. He focuses too much on official British government sources. He has thus found no evidence to support the charges of betrayal, stating that it appears ‘a far-fetched and highly improbable notion’ because of the risks it would have involved for the 1944 landings, thus perhaps displaying a little too much reliance on the sagacity of the decision-makers. He knows nothing of the TWIST Committee. Moreover, his chronology for 1943 is all over the place, and he fails to point out the contradictions in such phenomena as Selborne insisting that the constant distribution of arms (that were not supposed to be used at the time) was necessary to maintain the morale of patriot forces.

The minutes of the War Cabinet, with their omissions and elisions, are not a reliable guide to how the Chiefs of Staff debated these thorny issues. One could easily gain the impression that the Chiefs had a short attention span, did not really understand what SOE was up to, and found the whole business of clandestine activity, double agents, subterfuge and unofficial armies all very unorthodox and unmilitary, and thus irrelevant. Yet I suspect that they did have a good idea of what was happening, but did little about it because of the sway of their leader. The whole saga has Churchill’s brushwork on it –  from the enthusiasm about SOE’s sabotage activity, through the romantic attraction of dirty tricks, to the love of haphazard tactical impulses that drove Brooke to distraction. Churchill plotted with Bevan and Dansey; Gubbins was his favourite; and the notion that he engineered the activities of the TWIST Committee behind the backs of the XX Committee is utterly plausible. His bringing Suttill back to the UK for urgent private consultations is completely in character. And the whole melodrama was driven by the fact that Churchill had made a fatal private commitment to Stalin about the ‘Second Front’, and he was absurdly in awe of the Generalissimo.

A paper-trail that comprehensively explains the events of summer 1943 will probably never be found, so we must rely instead on steadily improving hypotheses. I believe that the plotting by Claude Dansey to undermine, if not destroy, SOE coincided with Winston Churchill’s desire to show Joseph Stalin that a substantial offensive effort was to be undertaken in North-West France in 1943, and the initiatives converged in the secret processes of John Bevan’s TWIST Committee. Thereafter, the monster took on a life of its own, and was impossible to control. The real project to supply more arms to the French Resistance suddenly came face-to-face with an official Chiefs of Staff/COSSAC deception plan, which specifically forbad premature use of ‘patriot armies’. The Chiefs however then realized that the agencies of SOE could provide a more telling indication of a coming invasion than any movements of phony troops and war-craft could. The directors of SOE fell into a trap, and, knowing they had Churchill’s backing, made the impermissible mistake of trying to deceive their bosses. Churchill did not punish Dansey for his chicanery, nor Bevan for his secrecy, and he overlooked Gubbins’ appalling supervision of SOE, since he had supported the Prime Minister’s whims. Gubbins’ career was thus saved. But it was all a very dishonourable episode in the conduct of the war.

Gubbins’ embarrassment in this saga is particularly poignant. Two months ago, I explained why I thought his reputation has been grossly exaggerated. After the war, Gubbins tried to put the blame for the destruction of the PROSPER network on Dansey. As Lynne Olson reports in Last Hope Island, quoting Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography of Stewart Menzies, “C”, Gubbins told William Stephenson, who had headed British Security Control in New York, that Dansey had betrayed a number of his [presumably, Gubbins’] key agents in France. This opinion was conveniently echoed by Gubbins’ deputy, Harry Sporborg, the witness who provided so much testimony to Robert Marshall:

            Make no mistake about it. MI6 would never have hesitated to use us or our agencies to advance their schemes, even if that mean the sacrifice of some of our people.

Such dissembling is highly disingenuous. (By then Dansey was dead.) Gubbins was supposed to be a tough, military man. Was he suggesting that he could be outwitted and undermined by the rather effete Claude Dansey? No, Gubbins knew exactly what was going on, and could have been forthright enough to pull the plug at any time, had he been paying attention, and taken the time to think through the implications. Whatever Dansey’s motivations and machinations were, Gubbins behaved equally as irresponsibly. The cynical treatment of the French partisans was, moreover, replicated exactly in Greece at the same time, in an attempt – a successful one, admittedly –  to convince the Germans that an attack was coming through the Balkans rather than through Sicily.

Some analysts might conclude that the sacrifice of the PROSPER network was justified if it helped Stalin’s cause, and discouraged him from making another pact with the Nazis. But that would constitute another colossal misjudgment of the dictator’s attitude and intentions: he would not have cared less about the attempts by western politicians to appease him, and considered their approaches contemptuous. He learned from his spies what their games were, and he would do exactly as he pleased to further his own ambitions for power and survival. He was able to manipulate Churchill and Roosevelt with devastating results for eastern Europe.

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Summer 2022 Round-Up

The Ultimate Fridge Magnet

I ♥ Coldspur Fridge Magnet

I received the above item in the mail a few weeks ago – completely out of the blue. It arrived from Greece, and the envelope included a packing-slip that informed me that the item had been bought from Mundus Souvenirs on Amazon Marketplace, and that the buyer’s name was ‘David’. The condition of the item was described as ‘New’, so I was happy that I was not the beneficiary of a re-tread. But who could the semi-anonymous donor be?

I know of only three ‘Davids’ who are aware of coldspur, and also have my home address. None of them is renowned for wearing his heart on his sleeve, but maybe each does adorn it on his refrigerator. It was a superbly innovative and generous gesture, and I determined to get to the bottom of it.

Maybe coincidentally, I happened to hear from David Puttock soon after. David lives in Hamilton, Ontario. We go back a long way: we studied together in the Sixth Modern at Whitgift, and we both went on to read German and Russian at Oxford, David at New College, I at Christ Church. We have met only once since 1968 – at a Gartner Group conference in Toronto ca. 1990, but have maintained a sporadic email correspondence, and the exchange of Christmas cards (heathen that I am), since his retirement. And, indeed, when I asked him about the magnet, he admitted that he was the benefactor.

David told me that he found the item by googling ‘coldspur’, and that the amazon link appeared on the first page of the selection. When I performed that function, however, amazon was nowhere to be seen, but my site gratifyingly appeared before the township of Coldspur, Kansas. The magnet was probably intended for the good citizens of that community, who may think they have stumbled into an alternative universe if they mistakenly look up www.coldspur.com. In any case, those coldspur enthusiasts who feel an urge to have their ardour more durably expressed know where to go. I vaguely thought of buying a stock of magnets, and making an arrangement with Mundus to send them out to well-deserving readers of coldspur, those who post congratulatory or innovative posts in response to my bulletins, but it all sounded a bit too complicated. For about $8.00, you can buy your own. (The SKU is mgnaplilo103600_1, in case you have difficulty. See
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08RZBNVJ3?ref_=cm_sw_r_ud_dp_F2MAMV1SC49R799FBKWJ
.) Lastly, I am of course delighted with the magnet, as my enthusiasm for coldspur is boundless. But what about David? Did he purchase one for himself at the same time, for proud display to his friends on the Puttock refrigerator? I hope so.

Contents:

Introduction

Sonia and The Professor

Operation PARAVANE

The Coldspur Archive

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

An Update on Paul Dukes

The PROSPER Disaster

2022 Reading:

            General

            Spy Fiction

            ‘The Art of Resistance’

            ‘The Inhuman Land’

            ‘Secret Service in the Cold War’

            ‘A Woman of No Importance’

Language Corner

Bridge Corner

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

Introduction

Since I spent two weeks in Los Altos, California, in June, staying with our son and his family (whom we had not seen for two-and-a half-years), my research has been somewhat lagging. So I thought for my July bulletin I would perform a mid-year round-up instead. Not that there is much new material to report, but I usually find a few points of interest when I carry out this exercise. Moreover, the exercise of writing it all up helps to clarify my opinions on these research topics, and acts as a kind of journal and memoir should posterity (i.e. my grand-daughters) ever want to track down what was really going on.

I suppose that I must record a certain disappointment that my research in the first half of the year has resulted in a resounding tinkle. I would have thought that the disclosures that Henri Déricourt had definitely been recruited before he arrived on British shores in 1942, that SOE was harbouring a dangerously vulnerable cipher officer in George Graham when it set up its mission in Moscow and Kuibyshev in 1941 and 1942, and that Graham was later driven to madness, that M. R. D. Foot’s history of SOE in France is evasive and unscholarly, since Francis Suttill almost certainly made two visits to the United Kingdom in the months of May and June of 1943, shortly before he was arrested, that Peter Wright behaved in a scandalously irresponsible and mendacious manner when he claimed that Volkov’s hints in 1945 pointed to Hollis rather than to Philby, and that Colin Gubbins was not the innovative hero that his biographers have made him out to be, might have provoked some rapt attention in the world of spy-watching and intelligence connoisseurship. While I have received several private messages of support and approval, I have seen no public recognition – nor any challenge to my theories expressed. If I cannot receive due publicity for my pains, I would rather have someone step up and protest that my theories are hogwash, so that I could at least engage in a serious discussion about these outstanding puzzles.

If I were resident in the United Kingdom, I would eagerly take up any invitation offered to me to speak at any historical society that showed an interest in my subjects of study. I have undertaken a few such activities in the United States, but the good citizens of Brunswick County, while listening politely, are overall not particularly interested in predominantly British spy exploits of the 1940-1970 era.

Sonia and The Professor

Flyer for On-Line Talk by Glees & Marnham

Thus it was with considerable excitement that I heard from Professor Glees a few months ago that he had agreed to speak to an historical interest group in Oxfordshire (the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum) about Agent Sonya (or Sonia), as I imagined this would generate some interest in coldspur. When I looked at the promotional material, however, I was slightly perturbed by the rather two-edged endorsement of my research. While Professor Glees spoke glowingly of my investigations, his overall message was that I was in reality a side-show to his own endeavours. “This is not just my story, it is his.” Considering that, according to my analysis, Glees has not written a word about Ursula Kuczynski since his book in 1986, I considered this observation rather troublesome. I was further dismayed when I listened to and watched the recording of his presentation. Coldspur gained only one mumbled acknowledgment. While the promotional material for the talk highlighted Ben Macintyre’s biography Agent Sonya as a teaser, Glees ignored completely my careful review of the book, which demolishes most of the falsehoods that Macintyre promulgated about his subject.

Furthermore, I believe that Glees grossly misrepresented my researches, and dug himself a hole when attempting to answer a question as to whether Sonya had been a ‘double agent’. Glees seems to be under the impression that it is he alone who has revealed that Sonya had been ‘recruited’ by MI6, but that her intentions may not have been entirely honourable. (“I made it very clear that the archival research aka ‘the trees’ was yours, not mine, & the thought that Sonya was an SIS agent aka ‘the wood’ was mine,” he wrote to me afterwards.) He appeared to be unaware of what I had published on coldspur back in 2017, when I showed that MI6 had been fooled by Sonya when she agreed to their terms in order to be exfiltrated from Switzerland, and her life effectively saved. She had no intention at all of serving British Intelligence loyally, and would have had to contact her Moscow masters in order to gain approval for the scheme of her marriage to Beurton, the resultant adoption of UK citizenship, and her subsequent escape to England. The fact that she then became a courier for Klaus Fuchs proves that she never intended to be of any useful service for Menzies and his pals, who were grossly hoodwinked. I do not know where Glees derived the illusion that it was he who prised out these discoveries.

When I gently protested to Glees about his misrepresentations, and his failure to give credit to my discoveries and analysis on coldspur, he was very patronising and dismissive, exaggerating his own ability to see ‘the woods’, and suggesting that I had been concentrating on ‘the trees’, while at the same time he compounded his forgetfulness (or inattention) over what I had written. In a responding email he wrote: “As I explained the release of KV 6/41 a few years ago, found by you, dissected by you, and read by me, thanks to you and esp[ecially] the Farrell letter which I ‘decoded’ to you, if you recall, & was imo [in my opinion] key to solving the riddle. You’ll remember that I put this to you, along with the notion that the simple fact this file from 1941 existed, showed that MI5 were aware of Sonya’s existence in Oxford.”  

But that is absurd. Glees did not ‘decode’ the letter for me. My researches in 2017 showed quite clearly that MI5 was aware of Sonya’s presence in Oxford at that time. Glees’s ignorance is dumbfounding. I did indeed introduce him to the file KV 6/41, which Glees appears to believe constitutes an exclusive exposure of Sonya’s activities. But it stands out because it is the only digitized file on the Kuczynskis: I had inspected the others at Kew several years ago, and published my analysis of them. I tried to explain to Glees that these other files revealed much of her goings-on in Oxfordshire, but he did not want to listen. I am confident that he has not looked at these files (although I have shared my notes on them with him).

And his claim that he alone can see the ‘big picture’ (he is a ‘woodsman’, while I am only a ‘trees’ man’) is insulting and patently absurd. His distinction between different aspects of the forest was nevertheless exceedingly murky: in his talk he made some bizarre assertions that Sonya must have developed some useful contacts within the Oxford intelligentsia, without offering a shred of evidence (‘the trees’, about which matters he was punctilious when he was my doctoral supervisor).

He then accused me of behaving like M. R. D. Foot (the historian of SOE) wanting to stake proprietary claims about a sphere of research, and trying to prohibit anyone else from stepping on his turf. After saying that “No one will want to engage with someone who fires off furious emails at the drop of a hat”, he wrote:

You know I’m one of the biggest admirers of your work & have always made others aware of it. It’s easy to be cross & resentful, as MRD Foot, for example, excelled in being (an academic version of ‘outraged of Tonbridge Wells’) but much better to be charitable, particularly where you ought to be as here. You’re really way off beam here. Few people have done more to bring your work to the attention of others but at the end of the day it was I, and not you, who were giving this talk.

I graciously accept the compliment inherent in this, but on this public occasion Glees did all he could not to bring my work to the attention of others. Second, my email was not ‘furious’: it was regretful and calm, and tried to discuss real issues  – which Glees side-stepped. (I could make the email available to anyone who is interested.) His reaction merely points to his own prickliness and egotism. Moreover, I am not sure where ‘charity’ comes in. Am I really supposed to be grateful for Glees for mangling my research. and failing to give me proper credit? And perhaps I should be pleased to be compared with M. R. D. Foot, a famous ‘authorized’ historian?Yet I could really not harbour any such protective ambition, as I was communicating through a solitary private email from 4,000 miles away! And then Glees tripped himself up over the absurd ‘double agent’ business. It appears that the professor has not bothered to read my research carefully, and does not understand the distinctions between penetration agents, traitors, and double agents. I have thus ignored his lectures to me. Some woodsman; some lumber.

It is all rather sad. I do not understand why an academic of Glees’s reputation would want to engage in such petty practices, and try to distort my researches in such a non-collegial manner. (I have indeed helped him on several matters when he has sought my advice.) Yet, in a way, I do understand. I have seen enough of the goings-on at the University of Buckingham to be able to write a David Lodge-type novel about the pettiness and jealousies of provincial English university life. I have described some of those exploits on coldspur already: I shall refrain from writing up the whole absurd business until another time (I would hardly want to lower myself precipitately to that level, would I?), as I presently have more important fish to fry. When I have run out of other research matters, I may return to the shenanigans at the University of Buckingham.

Yes, I admit this is all rather petty on my part, too. It was just the Soldiers of Oxfordshire museum, not an invitation on In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg. But, if ‘one of my biggest admirers’ can get things so wrong, what is he doing the rest of the time? I wanted to set the record straight. Besides, it is quite fun to bring the Prof down a peg or two.

And then, by one of those extraordinary coincidences that crop up more frequently than they should, I read these words in the July Literary Review, by the biographer Frances Wilson: 

. . . . most memoirs, if not loaded guns, are written for the purpose of retribution and revenge. This is by no means a criticism: retribution and revenge are strong reasons for writing a book. You want to put the record straight, to tell your side of things, to correct a wrong. Even the mildest-mannered memoirs have reprisal at their hearts.

Thank you, Ms. Wilson.

Operation PARAVANE

I have not yet received anything substantial on the piece compiled by Nigel Austin and me, The Airmen Who Died Twice. That does not surprise me much, as the PARAVANE operation is a little-known episode, a side road to the main WW2 excursion. Yet the posting of my bulletin on June 3 placed an important marker for the story, and immediately made a synopsis available worldwide as a reference point for anyone who might be trawling on the Web for information on PARAVANE.

I shall not reveal here the astonishing denouement of this extraordinary series of incidents, but one aspect of the exploit merits some attention. And that is the uncharacteristically cooperative behaviour of the Soviet Air Force. It was only at the end of August 1944 that RAF Bomber Command concluded that an attempt to use the new ‘Tallboy’ bomb in a direct raid from Scotland was not feasible because of fuel capacity, and considered using a base in the northern Soviet Union, near Murmansk, as an intermediate destination after the raid at Alta Fjord. That Air Marshall Harris could take for granted at this late stage that the Soviets would agree to such an initiative indicates that negotiations for such must have been in place for some time, as the Russians were extremely wary of allowing foreigners on Soviet soil. Any such move would have had to be approved by Stalin, and recent events at Poltava and Warsaw had indicated that the Soviet military command was keen to obstruct any such cooperative operations.

For the relationships between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union were indeed at their lowest ebb at this time. (See http://www.coldspur.com/war-in-1944-howards-folly ) Stalin, having encouraged the Warsaw Uprising over the radio, then refused permission for air support operations by the western Allies to the Poles to be launched from Soviet territory, the missions having to be directed from the UK, and from Brindisi in Italy, and back. It was at the end of August, when the PARAVANE operation was being planned, that Churchill pleaded with Stalin to allow Soviet airfields to be used to support the Warsaw rebels, but Stalin was obdurate, and Roosevelt would not join Churchill in his appeal. Soviet forces waited the other side of the Vistula river until the uprising was quashed by the Nazis, at enormous loss of life.

Moreover, a precedent for the use of Soviet airbases had recently occurred in Operation FRANTIC, where the Soviets granted rights to the USA Air Force to conduct bombing-raids on German territory between June and September 1944. I have recently read books by Glenn Infield (The Poltava Affair) and Sergii Plokhy (Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front) which tell the sad story of how the Americans were misused by the Soviets, especially when, on June 21, Soviet air defences failed to prevent a highly destructive raid at Poltava by German airplanes, all of which escaped intact. By then, in any case, with the Soviet land forces moving close to Germany, the value of the base had sharply diminished.

Thus when Bomber Command had a further change of plan, and was apparently able to decide, on September 4, without further consultations with the Soviet Air Force, that the aircraft of the PARAVANE operation would better land in Soviet territory, and preferably at an airfield further away from German airbases than Murmansk, and thus less likely to be strafed, it was extraordinary (in my opinion) how smoothly and quickly the negotiations continued. In a matter of days, Yagodnik had been identified as suitable, and made available, but a week later, an even bolder version was aired. The new plan – to have the squadrons fly directly to the Archangel area, and rest and refuel, before launching the attack on the Tirpitz, and then return to that airbase – was likewise immediately approved by the Soviets. I believe that the groundwork must have been prepared some time before, and that the Number 30 Military Mission to Moscow (Air Section), which had been boosted in the summer of 1944, must have presented a case for the usage of airfields well before early September.

The fact is that Stalin was extremely wary of any Soviet citizens’ being exposed to foreign influences, and the NKGB and SMERSH were trained to consider all such persons on their soil as spies. While the cause of protecting convoys to Murmansk was no doubt genuine, it was becoming less important by this stage of the war, and Stalin must have had ulterior motives (such as the acquisition of the latest military technology) in granting such rights to the British squadrons. The Foreign Office, in its misguided belief that ‘cooperation’ with the Soviet Union would lead to harmonious relationships when the war ended (an echo of the attitude taken by President Roosevelt and his sidekick Harry Hopkins), was quick to see this offer as a sign of Soviet goodwill – a ridiculous mistake. I have started to investigate the 30 Mission records for further clues, as the RAF records are disappointingly vague.

I was able to make email contact with Professor Plokhy, and asked him whether he had any insights into the complementary PARAVANE operation. Unfortunately he did not, but he directed me to someone who, he thought, would be able to help, a Liudmila Novikova, in St. Petersburg, an expert (so Plokhy said) on British units in the Soviet Union. I was unable to gain any response from her; perhaps I went straight into her spam folder, or maybe she has uprooted because of the recent turmoil. Does anyone know her?

Lastly, one correspondent, having read the PARAVANE piece, drew my attention to another mysterious aircraft accident of 1944, in Newquay, Cornwall, the details of which have ever since lain in obscurity. The informant was Mark Cimperman, the son of the FBI’s wartime representative in London during the war, Frank Cimperman (who appears frequently in Guy Liddell’s Diaries). I tracked down the event at http://wartimeheritage.com/storyarchive2/storymysteryflight.htm , and was astonished at the eerie characteristics that patterned those concerning the crash at Nesbyen a few months later. Mark told me that the researcher for the story, David Fowkes, had written to the Cimpermans, believing that Frank might have known something about the accident. Sadly, Cimperman had died of cancer in 1968 at the age of sixty.

The Coldspur Archive

As part of my project to preserve the coldspur archive, I made contact in early May with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, and eventually received a very courteous response from Dr. Anatol Shmelev, a research fellow and Robert Conquest curator of the Russia and Eurasia Collection. Over email, he had advised me to seek out a smaller university as a destination for my book collection, as he believed there would be too many overlaps with what the Institution held for Hoover to be an appropriate donee. I have thus since attempted to contact the Librarians at a couple of other universities, but have received no response to my approaches. I arranged, however, to have a meeting with Dr. Shmelev, during my visit to the area, and it turned out that he and his family live a few minutes away from our son in Los Altos.

On June 11 I thus enjoyed a very pleasant lunch with Anatol and his wife, Julia, who was born in St. Petersburg, and who acted as research assistant to Robert Conquest in the latter years of his life. Robert Conquest was someone I admired greatly (another significant writer whose hand I hoped to shake, but he was too infirm by the time I wrote to him just before his death): his Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow made a deep impression on me, as they must have done on many students of Russian history. He was also a close friend of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, two more of my enthusiasms, although their private correspondence betrays opinions that are highly inappropriate in today’s sensitive times. It was a privilege, nevertheless, to meet two academics who had worked so closely with Conquest.

Anatol gave me some further tips about finding a home for my books, suggesting that I seek the support of members of the history faculties at such universities rather than the librarians/archivists themselves. We had a lively and fascinating discussion about many topics of Russian literature and history, and intelligence matters, as well as regretting the obvious fact that many book collections are simply pulped when the cream has been skimmed off them. I would hate to see that happen to mine, but that is presumably what everyone says. I did also immediately order Shmelev’s recent book, on Russia’s path immediately after the Revolution, In the Wake of Empire. I expected it to be a fascinating companion to Antony Beevor’s volume Russia, Revolution, and Civil War, 1917-1921, which has received excellent reviews in the British press already, but will not be available in the USA until September.

‘In the Wake of Empire’ by Anatol Shmelev

Indeed, Shmelev’s book was absorbing – quite brilliant. The author had access to a large trove of correspondence between the exiled Russian diplomats and their military counterparts, such as Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin, and has exploited them to show the futility of a fractured opposition to the Bolsheviks. I had not understood all the dimensions of the conflict, what with outlying nations of the old Russia straining for independence, the struggles between those wanting to restore the old land-owning aristocracy, or even an emperor, and those who accepted that land reforms and a more democratic constitution were absolutely essential in order to give credibility and authority to any future regime. The challenge for pluralist political entities to counter effectively a determined and single-minded dictatorial force was brought home to me by the fact that not only did the Whites disagree among themselves, the Allies all had diverse interests, as did the borderland national territories of old Imperial Russia, and, even within one nation’s administration, the British War Office disagreed with the Foreign Office on policy, and within the Foreign Office itself, factions had sharply divided views on what the representation and constitution of the future Russian governing body should be. Eventually, Communist Might meant Right. Shmelev’s judgments are sure – authoritative without being dogmatic – and shed much light on the tortured dynamics of the civil war. I shall defer a full discussion until later, when I have read Beevor’s book.

Incidentally, Dr. Shmelev also wrote a book on Russian émigrés, titled Tracking a Diaspora:
Émigrés from Russia and Eastern Europe in the Repositories
, and I believe that the story of Serge Leontiev (aka George Graham) and his forbears, friends, and associates will be of interest to him.

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

This book, by Jan-Willem van den Braak, is now available – both in the UK and the USA – and I encourage coldspur readers to acquire it. It constitutes a very valuable addition to the chronicle of the Abwehr spies sent to the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1940, its subject, ter Braak, managing mysteriously to remain undetected for several months before committing suicide, or so the story goes. (I did supply an Afterword for the book, which I would not have done had I not thought that the author had carried out a stellar piece of research. In that piece I voice an alternative theory about the spy’s demise.) I have not seen any reviews of the work yet, but I know these things take time.

An Update on Paul Dukes

In my piece on George Graham, I had expressed some puzzlement over the behaviour of Paul Dukes in the 1930s, finding the official biographical records somewhat wanting. And then, while I was researching the Volkov business, I discovered that Keith Jeffery, in his Postscript for the new paperback edition of his history of MI6, had inserted some new analysis of Dukes’s activity at this time.

The essence of the account is that MI6 did attempt to exploit Dukes’s plans, in May 1934, to take a predominantly Russian troupe of ballet-dancers to Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union. When Admiral Sinclair, the head of MI6, heard about this, he sent Harold Gibson to Vienna to discuss how Dukes might help develop intelligence sources in the U.S.S.R., since MI6’s sources there were practically non-existent (if, indeed, there were any at all). Yet the project soon foundered. Illness and disappointing box-office returns meant that the company never reached further than Italy, and, twelve months later, Dukes was in such bad favour that Sinclair told Monty Chidson, head of station in Bucharest (who asserted that Dukes was involved in arms dealing with Sofia) that he was to have nothing to do with Dukes.

MI6 belatedly realized that Dukes was a faded product: he had mixed too closely with White Russian emigrants (very true), and he would now constitute quite a security risk. Valentine Vivian issued him some advice before Dukes left London in August 1934, warning him to minimize his risks, but then minuted that the characteristics that had helped him become a valuable agent in 1919 would work against him now. Later, MI5 apparently took an interest in him, for Vivian posted another memorandum in February 1940, where he was forced to concede that Dukes’s finances were considered to be ‘catastrophic’, and that his sense of balance was considered by some to be ‘deficient’. Perhaps that was intelligence-speak that he was losing his marbles. Vivian went on to write: “His temperament is essentially artistic, and while his knowledge of things and people is encyclopaedic, his tastes rather run towards the eccentric and he would not be acceptable to those who look for a uniform service mentality”. In other words, no bohemians wanted.

The evidence I collected for my piece suggests that Dukes was trying to rehabilitate himself for a foray into the Soviet Union after these setbacks (John Stonehouse-like faked death, pro-Soviet writings), but it is not clear why anyone would have been sponsoring his intelligence-gathering aspirations. And, if he did now have an official assessment as being a loony and a spendthrift, why would anyone have listened to him when he came to recommend Serge Leontiev/George Graham as cipher-clerk for George’s Hill’s mission to Moscow? Sinclair was dead by then, but what was Valentine Vivian thinking? It is all very odd.

And then I alighted on another odd reference to Dukes while checking something in Michael Smith’s Station X (about Bletchley Park). While discussing the imaginary British spy Boniface (who was used as an alibi for Enigma decryption sources) Smith quotes R. V. Jones, who reported something he had been told:

            Gilbert Frankau, the novelist, who held a wartime post in intelligence, told me that he had deduced that the agent who could so effectively get into German headquarters must be Sir Paul Dukes, the legendary agent who had penetrated the Red Army so successfully after the Russian Revolution.

This statement does not appear in Most Secret War, so probably comes from an article that Jones supplied to the journal Intelligence and National Security in 1994. I note that appalling use of ‘legendary’ again, presumably not meaning that Dukes was a mythical being, but that many tales were told about his exploits, and that a good proportion of them were tall. The irony here was that, instead of Dukes being able to infiltrate the Nazi command, he had, through his recommendation of George Graham, unwittingly enabled the Soviets to break into the supposedly clandestine exchanges of MI6 and the Foreign Office.

The PROSPER Disaster

As I was starting to write this piece, the thickness of the fog that surrounds the relationship between the Allies in the UK and French resistance during World War II was brought home to me. I was reading a review of Graham Robb’s France: An Adventure History in the Wall Street Journal when I encountered the following sentence: “Rather, he notes the Allies’ fatally tepid support of the Resistance and turns a sad gaze on the reprisals that tainted every corner of the mountains with ‘some ineradicable act of cruelty’.” The impression – and I suppose that it is Robb’s, but one endorsed by the reviewer –  is that a potentially decisive opportunity was lost by the Allied armies (or SOE and OSS) in not supporting an extensive secret army that was simply waiting in the wings for a chance to make vigorous assaults on the German occupiers. Yet the story in fact played out on the following lines: initial experimental attempts to infiltrate agents; some vastly exaggerated claims about the size of secret armies; struggles to get the RAF to ship arms and equipment; betrayals to the Germans; stepped up shipments with the false promise of an early Allied assault; disillusionment and multiple arrests; a recalibration in the months before the Normandy landings; some vicious attacks and reprisals by the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht; a few spectacular successes in support of the Allied armies. And then de Gaulle attacked anyone who had co-operated with the Allies and tried to perpetuate the myth that the French exclusively had liberated themselves. Thus the representation of Allied strategy as being a failure to support the Resistance is both a distortion and an oversimplification of what actually happened.

I have still to post the concluding segment to my analysis of the betrayal of the PROSPER circuit. This will involve a close inspection of the minutes of the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff in June and July of 1943, as well as a closer study of the Bodington and Déricourt files. I do not intend to reproduce simply what has been published before, but I believe the current accounts are deficient in different ways. Robert Marshall’s All The King’s Men is on the money, but it is a little too hectic, and relies too much on oral testimony that cannot be verified. M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France is packed with detail, but is fatally flawed by the constraints laid upon him and is still rooted in a 1960s perspective, which means that he evades the strategic issues. His Chapter XIV, Strategic Balance Sheet, completely ignores the premature attempts in 1943 to arm resistance forces with promises of an imminent arrival of Allied forces. (Moreover, the text of that summarization remained unchanged in 2004, nearly forty years after it first appeared – an extraordinary gesture of disdain towards all who had written about SOE in the interim.) Francis Suttill’s Prosper is driven by a need to track down all the details of his father’s circuit, but it is error-strewn, and he ignores the evidence in front of him in his eagerness to discount any conspiracy behind his father’s demise. Patrick Marnham’s War in the Shadows is very sound overall, but choppy: Marnham misrepresents some of the key events of 1942 and 1943, in my opinion, and weakens his case by introducing the Jean Moulin side-plot.

I therefore judge that my account of the saga needs a tidy conclusion, and I suspect that the evidence from the archives will embellish the assertion confidently made by Marnham and Marshall that the French Resistance was willfully misled as to the imminence of an Allied re-entry to the French mainland in the summer of 1943. I believe that my hypothesis that Suttill made two trips to England in May and June 1943 (see http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/) contributes to a clearer picture of his motivations and disappointments. My next report on this saga will appear at the end of August.

It is a continuing research question of mine: what strategy was SOE executing when it tried to ship weapons to sometimes unidentifiable teams of resistance members in 1942 and 1943? According to their own records, at least 50% of arms were lost or fell into the hands of the Nazis. The submissions of SOE to the Chiefs of Staff about the potential of ‘secret armies’ showed that they had been completely misled by the claims of some of their agents. Furthermore, they showed a dismal lack of understanding of what would be required to store and maintain weaponry in good condition, and to train guerrilla forces in how to deploy it. Supplemented by some further reading of memoirs and biographies, such as in my study of Colin Gubbins last month, and the new biography of Virginia Hall (see below), I plan to provide soon a more detailed exposition of the controversial events of the spring and summer of 1943. Moreover, I have ordered a copy of Halik Kochanski’s Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-1945, in the hope that its 932 pages may reveal some fresh insights on the events of 1943 that the primary histories (including Olivier Wieworka’s recent The Resistance in Western Europe: 1940-1945) have in my opinion severely mismanaged.

P.S. As I was putting the finishing touches to this piece, I came across the following sentences in The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War (2020), by Scott Anderson (p 294):

            In most Nazi-occupied countries of Western Europe, whatever partisan formations existed only became a factor on the battlefield when the arrival of Allied armies was imminent. Nowhere was this truer than with that most vaunted of partisan forces, the French Resistance. Despite the popular notion of a France united in undermining the rule of their German conquerors, in reality, the Resistance was little more than an intermittent and low-grade pest to the Nazis until their numbers suddenly swelled in June 1944.

Precisely! This was the colossal mess that Gubbins presided over, and which M. R. D. Foot, either through lack of imagination, or by intimidation, failed to reveal in SOE in France.

2022 Reading

As I peruse the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books, I am constantly reminded of the earnest volumes that are issued by the University Presses. Should I be reading The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food, or Legacies of the Drunken Master: Politics of the Body in Hong Kong Fu Comedy Films, or Harry Potter and the Other: Race, Justice and Difference in the Wizarding World (all titles advertised in the June 17 issue of the TLS)? Probably not: life is too short. And sometimes I can’t help feeling that my speculative second book, The Unauthorized but Authoritative History of MI5 (affectionately known as TUBA), might have a better chance of commercial success than some of these rather dire works. And then the reviewers! Most of them are able to boast what their last published book is, but occasionally one is signalled by such phrases as ‘she is currently working on a collection of essays’. It all sounds rather drear, like those American waitpersons who approach you to ask whether you have ‘finished working on your meal’ so that they might take the plate away. But my work is fun (mostly). And I don’t have to consider the dreadful chore of dealing with publishers and editors: I just post my current essay on coldspur, and move on to the next one.

On reviewing my spreadsheet of Books Read for the year so far, I note that it consists mainly of volumes related to my researches, of which more later. Yet I do try to relax with lighter works in between. I started reading the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor: I was not very impressed with the short stories in You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There or the somewhat clumsy A Game of Hide and Seek, but enjoyed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and the well-drawn A View of the Harbour. And I am a keen reader of memoirs and biographies, The new edition of Konstantin Paustovsky’s Story of a Life, in a fluid and sparkling translation by Douglas Smith, gained some excellent reviews: I had let this work pass me by when it came out many decades ago. The reviews were merited: it is a beautifully written memoir of a vanished world, Paustovsky showing an ability to recall smells, sights, sounds, persons, conversations and situations without becoming over-lyrical or extravagant. As a picture of life before the revolution in eastern Europe (mainly in Ukraine), it is probably unmatched. For the short time about which he writes after the revolution, as in the escape from Odessa (Odesa), it lacks the irony and incisiveness of Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), whose Memories I read last year, but gives a very insightful picture of the rapid disillusionment that followed the drama and expectations of 1917.  Paustovsky was a survivor in Stalin’s prison-camp: when many of his contemporaries were oppressed or even murdered, he managed to outlive the dictator (1892-1968), so must have had to compromise to be allowed to continue writing and avoid persecution.

Spy Fiction

I have also dabbled in a genre that is called ‘spy fiction’, and has received much media attention of late. I read Gard Sveen’s The Last Pilgrim because it is a book about the Norwegian resistance, and includes in its cast a real person, Kai Holst, who was of interest to me because of his strange death in 1945 soon after the Swedes received secret cipher material from the Abwehr. Holst was a Norwegian resistance fighter, resident in Stockholm, who died in mysterious circumstances in June 1945. Some writers have suggested that he was murdered because he knew too much about Operation Claw, a venture whereby the Americans and the Swedes gained vital intelligence material on Soviet ciphers from the Germans, something that would have embarrassed the Swedish government because of its claimed neutrality. The file at Kew, FO 371/48073 (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C2805368) was supposed to be released under the 75-year rule in 2020, but is still marked as being retained by the Foreign Office. As for the book, it won several awards, but I found it rather laborious and repetitive, and the mixing of real and fictitious persons and events irritating.

And then there was Mick Herron. I read a few reviews of his Slow Horses, and decided that I ought to give him a try, and have since also read Dead Lions, Real Tigers, and Spook Street, volumes in his series concerning Slough House, an imagined dumping-ground for MI5 officers and personnel who committed some career-breaking faux pas during the cause of duty, and have been exiled to this dumpy office in London. The books are hilarious. Slough House is managed by a very sharp but foul-mannered slob, Jackson Lamb, who makes Horace Rumpole look like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Herron captures the essence of his characters with wickedly humorous speech patterns and dialogue, and his prose has a Wodehousian creativity and zaniness about it. I found the larger-scale plots a bit absurd (for instance, could there really have been a colony of communist sleeper agents of influence in the British countryside in the 1990s?), but they were not damaging enough to spoil the rollicking fun. I see that a TV series has been made of Slow Horses: I have not seen it yet, but Aunt Edna would probably not approve of the language (although these days, of course, Aunt Edna probably swears like a trooper).

One important point occurred to me as I read Herron’s books. The plots of spy fiction these days have to be dependent upon, and coherent with, the technology of its time, yet that technology is constantly changing. I vaguely recall reading a thriller by Charles Cummings a decade or so ago, sprinkled with Nokia mobile phones, VCRs, payphones, and SCART connections, all of which immediately date it, but also drove the plot. (I am constantly amused that my 2011 edition of Chambers Dictionary includes an entry for ActiveX.) Between the time an author starts writing his text and the date of the book’s publication, much of the technology must change radically. Herron sensibly does not identify many products so specifically, but such features as Google, (which was there in Cummings’ world of 2010), YouTube, and the dark web are prominent in his plot, and Twitter appears in Spook Street. Yet there must still be risks: I was astonished how Herron allows so many mobile phone-calls between different members of MI5 to be carried on in unencrypted mode. Was nobody listening? And how come no one seems to use their phone-camera? Pinpointing current technologies, and lavishly exploiting them, give verisimilitude  – but also raise questions of accuracy and authenticity. And future novels involving flashbacks will have to be very precise about the technical context of the time. (‘Snapchat was not around in 2010!’) That was not a problem faced by Arthur Conan Doyle, or Eric Ambler – or even John le Carré.

I also picked up, on an impulse, An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford, who is described as ‘the publishing director and cofounder of Kill Your Darlings, and, more alarmingly, as having ‘a PhD in creating writing from the University of Queensland’. I am not sure how Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Charles Dickens managed to be successful without some degree in Creative Writing, but then I am an old fuddy-duddy. The plot sounded intriguing, however: “In 1939, with an Oxford degree in hand and war looming, Evelyn finds herself recruited into an elite MI5 counterintelligence unit” (as opposed to those non-elite Slough House-type backwaters, I suppose).

I soon discovered that the book was originally published in Australia with the title The Imitator, so I suppose the reworked version was superior, as I doubt whether my eye would have been caught by the rather drab earlier headliner. And it turned out to be well-written, although it did carry that annoying post-modern trick of jumping around in chronology all the time, rather than approaching events in an orderly serial manner. (Is that what your Doctors of Creative Writing tell you to do? Do you get extra credits for displaying this habit?) I thus quickly entered the spirit of the plot, and started to acclimatize myself to the carefully placed markers of London in 1940, and the offices of MI5 at Wormwood Scrubs, as Evelyn Varley is recruited to help out with deciphering work.

A flicker of recognition then slowly dawned upon me, however. Evelyn Varley was a thinly-veiled representation of Joan Miller, author of One Woman’s War; Bennett White, her boss, was clearly the MI5 officer Maxwell Knight; Nina Ivanov was undoubtedly Anna Wolkoff. The whole story was a re-play of the Tyler Kent story, where the American cipher clerk stole copies of documents from the US Embassy in order to have them passed to the Germans. It reminded me of another clumsy effort at faction, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, about which I wrote a few years ago. I really do not see the point of these ‘novels’: the authors take some characters from history, and then massage events and names to make it appear as if they have created a convincing psychological study. I quickly lost interest.

Ms. Starford admits her ruse in her ‘Reading Group Guide’, where she is also vain enough to offer some ‘Questions for Discussion’. She proudly describes her research activities (including a generous acknowledgment of Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5), and how she decided to ‘create’ Evelyn from the scraps of Miller’s memoir, and even manages to bring in ‘Brexit, the rise of far-right populism in Australia and abroad, and the ascent of Trump’ as a relevant backdrop to her writing, and even claiming that the fear and anxiety that those phenomena provoked found its way into her characters. What nonsense! And how pretentious to offer a review of her own book as collateral!

Moreover, she also offers an ‘Author’s Note’ to explain her deceptions, writing that she ‘tried to remain as faithful as possible to the history of these events’, but then declares that she had to make some ‘adjustments’ in order to provide a convincing story. She then lists a catalogue of her chronological changes to events that explicitly undermines the integrity of her story. All utterly unnecessary and distracting. In sum, I do not know why such works are attempted or encouraged. Either perform some innovative research to uncover the true facts about events, or use your imagination to create a convincing artificial world. These factional books are not for me.

The only interesting item I derived from the book is the statement from Stanford that Joan Miller ‘died in a mysterious car crash in the 1980s not long after she had published a memoir about her time in MI5’. Readers of Misdefending the Realm will recall my analysis of why MI5 tried to get her book banned, but this was the first I had heard about a suspicious car-crash. Sounds like an echo of the demise of Tomás Harris, or the accident involving George Graham’s son.

The Art of Resistance

‘The Art of Resistance’ by Justus Rosenberg

I have also read some remarkable books peripheral to my main course of research. Justus Rosenberg published his memoir The Art of Resistance in 2020, and in an epilogue wrote:

I will not write here of my extensive travels in the Soviet Union and its satellites during the Cold War, in Cuba just after the revolution, in the People’s Republic of China, of my visit with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or of the interesting material I found about me in my FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. Nor will I explore my years of teaching at Swarthmore, the New School for Social Research, and Bard College. I hope to deal with all these things in future memoirs.

The main problem with this plan was that Rosenberg was ninety-seven years old when he completed his memoir, and died in September 2021 at the age of 100. If his follow-up had been as action-packed and insightful as The Art of Resistance, it would have constituted another extraordinary work. Rosenberg’ s life was of interest to me mainly because of his experiences with the French Resistance in World War II. Born in Danzig in a secular Jewish family, Rosenberg managed to conceal his ‘race’ from the Germans when he escaped to France, where he eventually linked up with the American Varian Fry. After the latter had to return to the United States in some disgrace in 1941, Rosenberg worked in various roles for the French Resistance, achieved a miraculous escape from a prison hospital by simulating the symptoms of peritonitis (although I wondered whether he had in fact swallowed those special SOE pills that triggered the symptoms of typhoid), and ended the war by joining the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He then gained a visa to the United States, where he enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor of literature.

I found Rosenberg an exceptionally level-headed and unmelodramatic chronicler, as well as a brave man. He was clearly a very smart and practical thinker, and was not caught up with the rhetoric of any ideology or religion. He has some illuminating things to say about Varian Fry (whose contribution to the escape of many European intellectuals has been over-romanticized), and scatters his memoir with many incisive vignettes and anecdotes. On two elements, I question him. He is one of those many who errantly contrast Soviet communism and ‘American capitalism’ as rival ideologies, when (as I pointed out in Misdefending the Realm) that it is a false contrast, since capitalism is neither a totalitarian ideology nor a political system, but an approach to the creation of wealth, and the comparison should be made between totalitarian communism and various forms of constitutional, pluralist democracy, whether presidential or parliamentary.

And I found him very loose on the practices of armed French resistance. He lists various categories: ‘partisans’, ‘freedom fighters’, ‘maquisards’, ‘guerrillas’, ‘underground armies’, ‘resistance fighters’, ‘saboteurs’, without explaining what characterized each. He recognizes the differences required in occasional guerrilla raids and the full engagement of an occupying army, and describes the rigorous training that was required to bring a raggle-taggle band up to proper military strength. Yet he also relates how ‘the French Underground Army’, described as ‘Resistance fighters waiting to join the Allied forces’ suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Vercors mountains, when a large section was annihilated by a glider-led force of 12,000 SS paratroopers. This vexed issue of the remote management of insurrectionist forces is a perennial interest of mine, as I believe that proper justice has not been performed to the topic in the writings about SOE and OSS in France. A book titled The Art of Resistance disappoints when it covers authoritatively such matters as the practices of secrecy, clandestine communications, and the isolation of networks, but does not explore what the implications of providing weapons to ‘secret armies’ were, and how such tasks should have been executed.

The Inhuman Land

‘The Inhuman Land’ by Jozef Czapski

Another valuable work was Jozef Czapski’s The Inhuman Land. I found that I had a copy of the 1951 edition on my bookshelf – a volume that I had never got round to reading. It has recently been resuscitated by New York Review Books, with an introduction by Timothy Snyder, but my edition (according to the price on abebooks) is now something of a rarity. Czapski’s book is vital, since, with the post-war knowledge that the NKVD had in the spring of 1940 slaughtered twenty-thousand Polish officers (of whom 4,421 were executed in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk), the author, who had managed to avoid the killings, described his attempts to discover what had happened as he worked as propaganda minister for General Anders’ emerging Polish Army, gathered in the Soviet Union.

The evil of the NKVD’s massacre was compounded when the Soviet Union tried to transfer the blame to the Nazis, who had themselves uncovered the graves in April 1943. When the Polish government-in-exile requested that the International Red Cross investigate the incident, Stalin broke off relations with the Poles. What made the whole business even more sordid was the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt, while privately acknowledging the Soviet guilt, did not dare challenge Stalin on the matter, fearful that they might lose his support, and that he might even abandon them in some fresh deal with the Germans. It was an abject display of appeasement.

What is remarkable about Czapski’s work is the fact that he was essentially allowed a free hand, from inside the Soviet Union, to investigate what had happened to so many of Poland’s elite force, who appeared to have disappeared from the face of the earth. He maintained a file of all missing officers, and was allowed even to make inquiries of the NKVD, when a careless and grudging admission that ‘mistakes were made’ led him first to conclude the awful truth. The other side of this effort was that he also learned at first hand a lot about the hideous cruelty of Communism from all manner of oppressed tribal people, forcibly migrated national groups, common citizens who had been split apart from lost family members, or dispossessed because of dekulakization, or who had simply witnessed the barbaric cruelty of the Soviet organs. And that he was able to commit it all to memory, or write and conceal encrypted notes, which allowed him to tell the whole grisly story after the war. The Inhuman Land was first published in French in 1949.

Amazingly, Czapski, born in 1896, died as late as 1993. I regret coming round to his work so late in life. One of the many whose hand I should simply like to have shaken before they died. Like Gregor van Rezzori (1914-1998), or Robert Conquest (1917-2015), or the recently encountered Justus Rosenberg, all long-lived witnesses to such chaotic times, who wrote about them so poignantly.

Secret Service in the Cold War

‘Secret Service in the Cold War’ by John and Myles Sanderson

Readers may recall that I noted, in my recent study of the Volkov affair, the existence of the interpreter Sudakov at the Ankara consulate in 1945. “The name of ‘Sudakov’ is an intriguing one.  In An SIS Officer in the Balkans (2020), John B. Sanderson and Myles Sanderson write: “The First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Ankara was a Brigadier General Sudin, in charge of “illegal residents” (spies), within Turkey, some of whom were Bulgarians. Penkovsky was a friend of Sudakov’s (Sudin’s alias) and would have passed over to his SIS handlers useful intelligence on Bulgarian espionage in Turkey, picked up in conversation with his high-ranking friend.”

From the sources given by Myles Sanderson, it did not appear that any fresh light would be shed on the character of Sudakov, but I acquired the book, of which the full title is Secret Service in the Cold War: An SIS Officer in the Balkans. It is a compilation by the subject’s son, using unpublished memoirs of his father, and supplemented by some lengthy description of Cold War politics. It is an unusual, and overall praiseworthy study, as it tries to provide a thorough political background to all the espionage and counter-intelligence activities going on throughout John B. Sanderson’ s career. Yet, as time marches on, the contribution that Sanderson Senior made to counter-intelligence activity becomes very thin and strained, and thus the focus of the book likewise becomes very fuzzy.

The good points: as a general compendium of significant historical events, and the intelligence activity behind them, the book is probably unmatched, as many of the reviews posted on amazon confirm. Nearly all general histories of the winding-down of WWII, and the onset of the Cold War, do not do justice to the contribution made by Stalin’s agents to the ability of the Soviet Union to manipulate and outwit the democracies, especially Great Britain and the United States. Studies of intelligence and espionage are normally so wound up in the intricacies of spycraft and treachery that they do not pay enough attention to the political results of such activities. The second major quality of the book is the insight that it gives on the exploits of John B. Sanderson in his early career, culminating in a valiant role at the battle of Sangshak in Burma in 1944. He then served as a military intelligence officer in Eastern Europe, primarily in Bulgaria (Bulgarian being a language he had learned), when the show trials were held.

Yet the lack of discrimination in using sources drags the book down. Myles Sanderson (who seems not to be a qualified historian) has assimilated a vast number of books – many of which were new to me – but uses them in a completely unselective way. If Peter Wright (for example) states something he thinks might be relevant, he quotes it, and that goes for countless other references. Thus a large number of misunderstandings and errors have crept into his text, such as an endorsement of Wright’s fresh interpretation of Volkov’s letter, a reference to the perpetuation of SOE beyond 1946, the claim that Britain had a crew of agents working inside the Kremlin, and a simplification of GCHQ’s successes in ‘finally cracking the Soviet ciphers’ in 1976.

And a major question must revolve around the fact of whether Sanderson was an MI6 officer or not. His son even claims that his father was about to replace Philby as liaison officer with the CIA in Washington, and could even have risen to be chief of the Secret Intelligence Service – quite an astonishing assertion. Yet Sanderson pêre was a military attaché, and there is no clear evidence that he was ever strictly employed by MI6, as opposed to being someone who provided them with intelligence occasionally. Stephen Dorrill (who wrote a long, unauthorized history of MI6) expressed strenuous doubts about Sanderson’s affiliation in a brief review in 2019, and I had a similar reaction, based on the evidence shown in this book.

Sanderson was a military attaché in the key years after WWII, and that role itself induces some degree of amazement from me. What on earth would a military attaché be doing in a capital such as Sofia, except trying to gain intelligence about Bulgarian and Soviet intentions clandestinely? Such figures seemed to spend a lot of time at cocktail parties, where they would mingle with their counterparts from other western countries, and even banter with the opposition. Sanderson relates an incident where Sanderson suggests to a Soviet officer that he ‘come over to our side’, and the latter indicates that, despite his obvious criticism of communism, his life is too comfortable to be disrupted. And then, during that second tour of Sofia in 1961, Sanderson is caught photographing aircraft at an airfield outside Sofia. After claiming diplomatic immunity, he makes a quick escape across country so that he can evade the indignity of being expelled, something that he suspects would have damaged his career irretrievably. Astonishingly, he receives no reprimand on his file for behaving so stupidly. But maybe that was because it was not a surprise? Did his bosses expect him to gain such intelligence by using a camera himself, or should he have tried to use an agent? If he blew it, then he blew it, and should have been rebuked. On the other hand, might expulsion have been a point of pride in a Foreign Office career? The episode is all rather absurd.

In summary, Secret Service in the Cold War will be a rattling good educational read for the novice who is rather confused about the significance of various espionage stories during the post-war years, and how they related to each other, but will be somewhat irritating compilation for the more sophisticated reader, who will demand greater discipline, and an evident methodology in the exploitation of all the rich sources that Myles Sanderson has mined.

Lastly, I was going through the War Diaries of the 30 (Military) Mission to Moscow for 1943 and 1944 (to be found at WO 178/27 at Kew) when my eye alighted on the entry for June 8, 1943:

            General Martel [head of the Mission] and Colonel Turner met General Dubinin and Colonel Sudakov, who appears to be Dubinin’s P.A. for the present discussions.

Could it be the same man? A promotion from Colonel to Brigadier by 1945 makes sense.

A Woman of No Importance

‘A Woman of No Importance’ by Sonia Purnell

Sonia Purnell’s 2019 biography of the SOE-OSS agent Virginia Hall, A Woman of No Importance (which I read in the 2020 Penguin edition) arrived with an impressive set of blurbs from such as Clare Mulley and Sarah Helm, as well as a number of prestigious media outlets, even selected as ‘Best Book of the Year’ by the Spectator, the Times, and others. Were such encomia merited? I was keen to investigate.

Notwithstanding its bizarre title, the book is indeed very well written, and reflects a thorough exploration of many obscure sources on Hall’s life. It offers a very sympathetic – even hagiographic – version of the life and career of the American socialite who transformed herself (even with a partially amputated leg) into an effective recruiter and in some ways leader of guerrilla groups in southern France, working initially for SOE and then, in 1944, for the American OSS. Purnell has collected some startling information about the odious Abbé Alesch, who infiltrated F Section’s circuits on behalf of the Abwehr (and was executed in 1949), that I do not believe has been published before. (Alesch has no entry in M. R. D. Foot’s Index to SOE in France.) She describes the escape at Mauzac (engineered by Hall), and the maquisard attacks at Le Puy with great verve. The account of Hall’s escape across the Pyrenees is breathtaking. Purnell has a fascinating light to show on the relationship of Nicolas Bodington (familiar to readers of this site because of his dealings with Déricourt) with Hall. He in fact recruited her, and thus followed her progress with great interest, which must cause a re-assessment of Bodington to be made. She offers some tantalizing suggestions that the Germans may have been tipped off about Sicily (cf. Operation Mincemeat!) and about the Dieppe Raid, both stories that I need to investigate more deeply. All in all, a biography of Hall was earnestly required, and this work will fulfill that function – to some degree.

But is it a wholly reliable account? I have several reservations. I could not detect any methodology behind Purnell’s analysis of sources: she is a bit too keen to trust anything that she reads in official archives, and is caught out particularly when she quotes Maurice Buckmaster, both from his memoir and from his in-house history, which works reflect a lot of wish-fulfillment and outright deceit. It is as if the book had been compiled from a cuttings library of anything that mentioned ‘Virginia Hall’, and was then transformed into a Ben Macintyre-like adventure. The author treats SOE very superficially, neglecting even to identify officers when there is no enigma behind their identity. She overlooks the tensions between MI5, MI6 and SOE – maybe not the book she wanted to write – but in that way she drastically oversimplifies the politics that were driving subversive activities in France. She dismisses Britain’s Intelligent Services generally as being populated by ‘posh boys’ – far from the truth. She continually misuses the term ‘double agents’ when she intends to describe traitorous spies in the pay of the Germans, infiltrators, or penetration agents. She has swallowed verbatim too much mythology about German radio-detection techniques, and recounts some bizarre stories about guerrilla teams intercepting Nazi wireless messages – an assertion that cries out for stronger evidence. Her coverage of Hall’s activity under OSS, and the manner in which OSS exploited SOE resources, when SOE make remarks about her performance, is muddled. She breezes past the destruction of the Prosper circuit without any indication that she understands the way it was betrayed.

Furthermore, her narrative reflects a lot of contradictions. Even though Purnell describes Hall as continually ‘recruiting, training and arming’ guerrilla groups, it is not clear what expertise she really had. She did not go through comprehensive SOE training, and seemed to derive her expertise solely from reading the SOE Handbook, so it is unlikely that teams of raw recruits would be able to become proper saboteurs under her direction, especially given her gender. Indeed, elsewhere, Purnell reports Hall as waiting intently for experienced SOE trainers to supplement her meager knowledge. In some places, she insists that guerrilla groups had to work in isolation: at others, she indicates that they should have been more coordinated. Moreover, M. R. D. Foot plays down her role in direct operations, representing her more as a liaison officer, a role that involved a lot of travelling, but nothing too arduous or dangerous. He claims that her cover remained intact, ‘mainly because friends at Lyons police station took care not to inquire too closely into her doings’.

The coverage of the supply of arms is bewildering. Purnell observes that, as early as late 1942, the secret armies were being provided with the munitions for the Allied assault – but D-Day did not happen until almost two years later. By then, according to her, some arms had started to rot, and were frequently discarded, or even thrown into rivers in despair, contradicting the blithe statements from Buckmaster that Purnell cites. She encapsulates the activity in early 1943 in a weakly casual way (“Parachute drops of arms and explosives were generally being stepped up when clear skies and light winds permitted”), showing that she has not internalized the complexities of the situation. This topic cries out for a more close-grained analysis. Purnell moreover never resolves the ongoing question as to how closely sabotage activities were directed by SOE in London. Hall herself was admittedly undisciplined, frequently made her own decisions without approval from Baker Street, and herself complained about the wastage and unauthorized sabotage that was frequently undertaken. Foot writes that she had ‘an imperturbable temper’.

Purnell scatters her text with multiple examples of shoddy tradecraft, from ruinous meetings like that at the Villa des Bois and excessively prolonged wireless time on air, through careless and disastrous carrying of papers that revealed names and addresses of contacts, the casual mixing of circuits against instructions, the issuance of false banknotes with consecutive serial numbers, to the failure to deal with traitors ruthlessly. These patterns receive no analysis from the author, who also provocatively claims that Hall’s name was given to the Gestapo by MI6, but does not explore the implications and reasons for such a dramatic and severely troublesome move. The source for this story is probably a mysterious footnote 68 to Chapter XI of Foot’s SOE in France, where he archly reports, on Hall’s second mission in 1944: “It was not known in SOE that her real name and her role on her first mission had been communicated to the Germans late in 1943 in the course of a wireless game played by another British secret service.” (Foot chose not to identify MI6, even in 2004, unless he was simply lazy: the footnote remained unchanged after forty years.) Foot gives the impression that Hall had been re-accepted by SOE as a wireless operator at this time, since they had disqualified her as a courier, but he seems to be unaware that it was OSS who had signed her up for the second mission.

Perhaps Alesch was a figure in this dastardly MI6 plot, the details of which are probably hidden in some dusty file, and cry out for further investigation. (Was Bodington perhaps a common element in this sickly charade?) Hall herself was fooled by Alesch, even though he was reported to have come from an MI6 cell, and had not been vetted. He caused immense harm: Hall was identified, and could have been arrested by the Abwehr. The unit held off, hoping to entrap more members of the Resistance, and Hall narrowly escaped the Gestapo entry into Lyon, and consequently made her escape over the Pyrenees. Many arms-drops were carelessly carried out and equipment lost; money was handed out indiscriminately to groups who were fighting rival resistance groups as much as the Germans. Too many loose ends and unsubstantiated claims.

On one important event Purnell appears to venture a challenging opinion. When Paul Vomécourt (Lucas) discovered, in January 1942, that his wireless operator Mathilde Carré (‘La Chatte’) had become the lover of the Abwehr officer Hugo Bleicher, and betrayed dozens of her comrades, Vomécourt decided to try to play her back in the hope of deceiving the Germans. Purnell writes: “At this point, Lucas should have eliminated la Chatte, gone into hiding, and immediately contacted Virginia to let her know she was at best compromised, at worst about to be arrested.” Such an action would have reflected Gubbins’ rules (as I explained last month), and sealed the circuit from any further contamination. It is not immediately clear how Purnell derived this standpoint other than reflecting proper SOE policy.

But, of course, SOE policies were not carried out in a disciplined fashion. And Bernard Cowburn, who was an integral member of the ensuing deception concluded after the war that the attempted ‘triple-agent’ play had been successful. He considered (in his 1960 memoir No Cloak, No Dagger) that the ruse had prevented the Germans from exercising a ‘North Pole’ scheme against the French, in the manner they had exploited the Dutch, and wrote that he thought that Lucas had handled the situation in the ‘best possible way’. Cowburn met Bleicher after the war, and recorded:

            He then looked at me almost pleadingly, and suddenly asked, ‘Tell me, I beg of you  . . . La Chatte  . . . is it true she was double-crossing me?’ This proved beyond a doubt that our manœuvre had succeeded and that for once the Germans had been properly fooled.

Yet I believe that is naïve. For Bleicher to have imagined that his mistress’s act against him was a double-cross without considering the nature of the deaths that she had incurred beforehand, was simply vain and amoral. He was probably more concerned about the shallowness of their affair. Cowburn, moreover, appeared not be aware of the more drastic ramifications of Carré’s treachery.

I think Purnell’s judgment is spot-on, although she probably derived her response from what M. R. D. Foot wrote about the incident: “The correct course for him to take was to vanish at once, not even pausing to assassinate her if her death was going to complicate her escape.” When Vomécourt eventually escaped to England, he had to be rebuked by Gubbins when he suggested that he and Carré return to France, to rescue what was left of the circuit, and also assassinate Bleicher. Gubbins put his foot down, and forbad such exploits: Carré was incarcerated for the rest of the war, then sent to Paris, where she was tried, sentenced to death, and then reprieved. She died in 2007, at the age of ninety-eight. A case-study in treachery: all a very messy business, with several lessons on how to deal with traitors, and on the perils of playing with such in the guise of thinking they can be ‘turned’ at will.

None of this sub-plot detracts from the bravery of Hall, but it does undermine the hyperbolic claims made about the contribution to the overall war success of Purnell’s subject, described in the book’s blurb as ‘the American Spy Who Changed the Course of the War’, a completely unwarranted assertion. Purnell is relentless in promoting Hall’s skills and achievements, but a less breathless assessment is called for. It appears that the author had too many sous-chefs, who may not have been rigorous practitioners themselves, assisting her researches. To write with depth and authority in this realm, you have to immerse yourself, work close to the coalface, get your hands dirty, and not rely on too many intermediaries. I do not believe that Purnell has done that.

Lastly, I note that a movie on Hall’s life is now under way, perhaps to accompany a hypothetical one on Agent Sonya, ‘the Soviet Spy Who Changed the Course of the Cold War.’ Oh, lackaday! ‘A Woman of No Importance’ is a significant contribution to the history of French resistance in WWII, but it should not be regarded as a definitive account, and needs to be integrated with and checked against more serious histories.

P.S. I should have made room to discuss Stephen Tyas’s SS-Major Horst Kopkow. I have read some clunkers on intelligence matters over the past couple of years, but this book, about the notorious Gestapo officer who engineered the sham deal with Suttill and Norman, and provided testimony that sent Kieffer to the gallows, is excellent. A must-read.

Language Corner

Regular readers of coldspur will be familiar with my high sensitivity to incorrect spelling and grammar, especially when such solecisms are committed by professional writers and broadcasters. My biggest gripe is with those who cannot deploy ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’ properly, and end up with such monstrosities as ‘between you and I’, and ‘he gave it to my wife and I’. I almost threw Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (all twelve volumes) across the room because of his clumsy and excessive use of the reflexive ‘myself’ when he couldn’t work out whether he should have been using ‘I’ or ‘me’. I decry the decline of the subjunctive in conditional clauses, and, as a devoted student of German verb conjugation, get annoyed by any evident confusion over lie/lay/lain and lay/laid/laid.

Some of my objections are directed at the careless use of vocabulary that reflects lazy thinking, or politically correct viewpoints, such as Nobel Prize winning economists who use ‘plutocrat’ when they mean ‘rich people’ (Yes, Krugman P. at the back there, I am talking to you!), or the New York Times journalists who describe some region as ‘impoverished’, when they simply mean ‘poor’. (‘Impoverished’ implies that the region was at some time wealthy, but then was denuded by some oppressor, which is presumably the sub-marxist impression that the writers want to bequeath.)

My continuous and long-standing beef, however, is with the New York Times, and its inability to instruct its journalists to understand and use properly singular and plural forms of Latin words, even though the correct usage appears in its Style Guide. (I have been told as much.) This defect is shown mostly in the use of ‘bacterium ’and ‘bacteria’: dozens of articles over the years have deployed ‘bacteria’ with a singular verb, and I have collected the messages that I have sent to the editors in a single document, inspectable at NYTBacteria. I have surely not captured all the incidences during this period, since I must have overlooked many, and some I ignored because I forgot to write, but I believe the collection is rich enough. And now it is on-line, and the editors at the paper can use it as a teaching-tool. Bravo! (I would get out more, but my piles of books on intelligence are blocking the exit-doors.)

Bridge Corner 

With the COVID epidemic ebbing, I have resumed playing face-to-face duplicate bridge, and normally play three times a week. It is an absorbing pastime, where the rewards are finding out how well you and you partner handle deals that will be played by all the other pairs of the same orientation during the session. Thus all the East-Wests compete against each other, as do all the North-Souths. The goal is to get a ‘top’ score on each hand, and minimize the disasters. One recent hand has absorbed me recently. I picked up as East:

(Spades):  ♠ A K 10 9 6

(Hearts) ♥ A 6 3 2

(Diamonds) ♦ 8 3

(Clubs) ♣ 9 4

My partner, West, opened the bidding with 1 D; I responded 1 S; the opposition was silent; he replied 2S (showing 4 spades and regular opening values); and I jumped to 4S (a game contract that delivers extra points if made during the play), as I had 5 excellent Spades, and an outside Ace.

South led the King of Hearts, and West laid done his hand as Dummy, showing me the following cards:

♠ Q J 5 4

♥ 8

♦ K J 6 5

♣ A K 6 5

This was fine, but then every other pair would probably bid game, and thus face the same challenge. It looks fairly straightforward, as there is no side-suit that can be developed after trumps are drawn: win the Ace of H, draw trumps, hoping they split 2-2, take the Club winners, and trump Clubs and Hearts in both hands leaving a Heart loser, and the Diamonds to guess. (Who has the Ace? Who has the Queen?)

I thought I saw a superior play that would ‘guarantee’ 11 tricks, and maybe make 12, by exploiting my higher-value trumps, and get rid of that last pesky Heart loser, if Spades did indeed split 2-2. (And, if they don’t, I would at least match the less enterprising pairs). Thus I imagined 11 tricks: 2 Clubs, 1 Heart, 3 Spades in dummy, and 5 in hand, with a Diamond still to come as a possible twelfth. Win the Ace of Hearts, and trump a Heart. Play the Ace, then the King of Clubs, and trump the 5 of Clubs with the 9 of Spades (in case Clubs split 5-2), trump another Heart, play the last Club and trump with the 10, and lead the last Heart, trumping with the Queen. Lead the last spade to the Ace, and hope to draw the last two trumps with the King. Then see what the opponents do when I have to break Diamonds. I’ll hold on to my last trump just in case the owner of the Ace leads a Club or a Heart. (Defenders do not always keep count of the number of cards played in each suit.) South probably has two Diamonds and a Heart left, but probably not the Ace of Diamonds, as he or she might have bid over my 1 Spade with all those Hearts and the Ace of Diamonds. North probably holds two Diamonds and a Club: if he or she has Ace and Queen of Diamonds, it doesn’t matter, and just 11 tricks make (and all the ’conventional’ pairs will make only ten tricks). If South has the Ace of Diamonds, he or she will probably go up with it on the Diamond lead, and I am home and dry. If not, I have to play the Jack from dummy, losing to the Ace. I then make 12 tricks.

But I never got there! The Spades did indeed split 2-2, but the Clubs split 6-1, and South was able to trump the King of Clubs before I got going. Thus I had to guess the Diamonds properly in order to even make the game (10 tricks). Seven of the other pairs all made 11 tricks the obvious way (presumably), and must all have guessed the Diamonds correctly. Thus my partner and I received only 1 point, while seven pairs got 5 points each. A certain ‘Top’ was converted to a near ‘Bottom’ in an instant. The ninth pair made only nine tricks: presumably their East (a good player), played the same line as I chose, but mis-guessed the Diamonds. So much for enterprise and imagination. Those cursed computer-arranged hands!

The full deal:

                                                            North

                                                            ♠ 8 3

                                                            ♥ 7 5 4

                                                            ♦ A 4

                                                            ♣ Q J 10 8 3 2

West    ♠ Q J 5 4                                                                      East     ♠ A K 10 9 6

♥ 8                                                                                           ♥ A 6 3 2

♦ K J 6 5                                                                                  ♦ 8 3

♣ A K 6 5                                                                                ♣ 9 4

                                                            South                          

                                                            ♠ 7 2

                                                            ♥ K Q J 10 9

                                                            ♦ Q 10 9 7 2

                                                            ♣ 7

Such is the endless fascination (and frustration) of bridge. (‘A Bridge Too Far’? Do not worry: this column will not be repeated unless I receive overwhelming demand.)

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Gubbins’ Turn

Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins

(A reappraisal of the achievements of Colin Gubbins at SOE)

Primary Books Reviewed:

Foreign Fields, by Peter Wilkinson

Setting Europe Ablaze, by Douglas Dodds-Parker

Gubbins & SOE, by Peter Wilkinson and Joan Astley

Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, by A. D. B. Linderman

SOE’s Mastermind, by Brian Lett

Secondary Books Used:

SOE in France, by M. R. D. Foot

The Secret History of SOE, by William Mackenzie

Secret War, by Nigel West

Special Operations Executive: a new instrument of war, edited by Mark Seaman

Most Secret War, by R. V. Jones

Undercover: The Men and Women of the SOE, by Patrick Howarth

Baker Street Irregular, by Bickham Sweet-Escott

Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks

Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson

A Life in Secrets, by Sarah Helm

Setting the Med Ablaze, by Peter Dixon

Churchill & Secret Service, by David Stafford

Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, by David Stafford

All the King’s Men, by Robert Marshall

When I was an analyst at the Gartner Group in the 1990s, I frequently hosted visits by software companies, both established and embryonic, who were eager to explain their story and gain our attention. For a while, a group of vendors of object-oriented database management systems, all of whom were completely deluded about the market opportunity that awaited them, were regular supplicants. For some reason the boards of these emergent and struggling companies believed that what they needed to turn their fortunes around was seasoned management with experience in technology, and some of them would seek out IBM executives to come in and run the show for them. Apart from introducing a severe culture clash, such persons had, I discovered, little insight into the challenges they faced.

I recall very clearly one such individual, then the recently-appointed CEO, who introduced himself at the meeting by giving a little potted résumé of his career. Hoping to make an impression that he was a regular guy and a good-timer, he explained that IBM had sent him to Japan to set up a systems integration business there, and he described his achievements in the following terms: “I don’t think we got much done, but we had a lot of fun.” I interpreted that to mean that he and his colleagues must have spent a lot of time drinking in Tokyo bars. His bosses back home no doubt ascribed his lack of success to circumstances beyond his control.

‘Foreign Fields’ by Peter Wilkinson

I thought of that Big-Bluer when I was reading Peter Wilkinson’s memoir of his days with SOE, Foreign Fields. In one sense there is no comparison. SOE officers frequently demonstrated great bravery in conditions of extreme hardship, and many lost their lives in the cause. Yet I also gained the idea that some of the projects that were undertaken – and Wilkinson’s in particular – were ill-conceived from the start, with no clear objectives, and a haphazard approach to planning them. Meanwhile, wherever Wilkinson landed up, at some embassy or outstation, there always seemed to be an ample supply of liquor and wine available, since including crates of the stuff in the various shipments that went in seemed to be a high priority in keeping up morale, even if the locals were starving.

For example, Wilkinson informs us that, on August 25, 1939 (before SOE was created, of course) he left for Warsaw as a member of the MI(R) component of No.4 Military Mission, under Colin Gubbins. What happened next was that the mission underwent a tortuous journey via Marseille to Alexandria in Egypt, where they managed to gain a flight to Bucharest in Rumania, and eventually crossed over the Polish border. All was mayhem, they couldn’t answer the Poles’ questions about British commitments in the coming war, and then, after some hair-raising adventures, had to beat a hasty retreat as the Russians advanced. They managed to reach Bucharest again, where they took their solace in traipsing round the bars, getting sozzled, and enjoyed the company of some amusing girls. Never does Wilkinson explain whether the mission accomplished anything, although he does note that the War Office was not very impressed with his report on the affair.

Later on in the war, Wilkinson was appointed head of Operation Clowder, the objective of which was to gain an entry into southern Austria by engaging the help of Communist guerrillas in Croatia and Slovenia. This was another ill-advised mission, actually encouraged by the Communist spy in SOE Cairo, James Klugmann, who claimed that the Slovene partisans had links with the Austrian Freedom Front in Carinthia and Styria. Of course, Wilkinson did not know of Klugmann’s loyalties. The Operation turned out to be a disaster: the weather was dreadful; the Austrian prisoners-of-war that SOE recruited were unreliable; the Slovene partisans had territorial war-goals at odds with what the British planned; the Germans became very active, and British agents were very conspicuous; radio communications were difficult; there was a shortage of aircraft and crews to support the mission; delivering arms was hazardous as many of the local population were scared of reprisals; the spirit of resistance did not exist in Austria as it did, say, in France; etc. etc.  Moreover, since the Allies took so long to break through the Axis defences in Italy while the Red Army drove on, the confidence of the partisans in Allied competence fell rapidly.

Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard

The outcome was that Wilkinson’s close friend Major Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard, who stubbornly insisted on staying on for reasons of honour and ‘saving face’ (and should have been overruled) lost his life – probably killed by the partisans he thought he was helping. Hesketh-Prichard was a brilliant mathematician, a first-class wireless technician, and a brave but sometimes reckless officer. Little has been written about him in the SOE histories: one has to resort to such books as R.V. Jones’s Most Secret War, and Patrick Howarth’s Undercover: The Men and Women of the SOE, to learn more about his accomplishments. Wilkinson tells here how he secured Hesketh-Prichard’s employment as an instructor at one of SOE’s schools in Scotland, and then put him in charge of the Czech Section ‘which at that time consisted of one elderly officer’. He and Wilkinson were responsible for training the assassins of Heydrich, and Wilkinson describes the tests they carried out on percussion grenades at Aston House, near Stevenage, in preparation for the attack in Prague. Wilkinson presents the operation as a success without referring to its grisly aftermath of reprisals. The pair are for some reason not mentioned in Callum McDonald’s The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich or Captain Moravec’s Master of Spies. (The full account of their contribution can be found in HS 4/29 at Kew.) The loss of Hesketh-Prichard was a blot on SOE’s escutcheon.

Elsewhere, Wilkinson does not offer a very positive picture of SOE management. For example, he informs his readers that he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and ‘in addition to the Polish and Czech sections, I was given the Germans and Austrian section to supervise’, adding that ‘I found this embarrassing for I knew very little about Germany and nothing whatever about Austria which I had only once visited as a tourist’. Nor was he temperamentally suited to the job: “By the summer of 1942 I was feeling stale, frustrated, and fed up with Central Europe”. His boss, Colin Gubbins, who normally receives hagiographic treatment, was perhaps not the deep thinker for which he is often presented. “Colin Gubbins gave a good but somewhat superficial lecture on the principles of guerrilla warfare . . .” When Wilkinson returned to London in the spring of 1944, he noted that Gubbins (who had taken over control of SOE from Hambro the previous September) had tried to turn what was essentially a civilian institution into a military one, and Wilkinson did not find the culture changes ‘congenial’. Perhaps that was more a criticism of his own facility for boredom at a desk-job. Yes, surely it was difficult to find the right people – one thinks of the hapless Buckmaster, of whose appointment Gubbins said ‘there was no one else’ – but that constraint should have provoked some careful leadership and guidance, conditioned what exploits were attempted, and how they were executed.

Yet Wilkinson was deputized in that spring of 1944 to work with the Poles in a distinctly shabby affair, where he was pushed by Gubbins to pretend that British forces would soon be undertaking a full-scale invasion of Poland. But no one was prepared to tell the Polish Home Army the truth. Lynne Olson describes Gubbins as not being manful enough to acknowledge the facts, letting his romantic attachment to the Polish cause affect his judgment.

Wilkinson was an odd fish. One of his startling comments, apparently declared without irony is: “Rather in the same spirit of desperation, on my last visit to Naples, I had agreed to get married”, and his wife (Theresa Villiers) had to put up with quite a handful. He admitted that he was ‘the rottenest fiancé imaginable’. He writes engagingly, but loosely. His chronology is imprecise, and he is partial to the meaningless phrase ‘for the foreseeable future’. In an unindexed reference to ‘Jedburghs’ (p 128) he claims credit for coming up with the idea of teams of three inserted behind enemy lines to co-ordinate resistance work, a fact partially confirmed by Will Irwin, who, in his history The Jedburghs (2005), also gives credit to Robin Brook. Other sources indicate that it was a shared SOE/OSS notion, and that Wilkinson was responsible for coming up with the name, with Gubbins’ suggestion of’ ‘Jumpers’ being replaced.

He must have been an agreeable companion (‘someone to go tiger-shooting with’, as they used to say in the old Daily Telegraph obituaries). He makes one or two outlandish comments that he contradicts in his biography of Gubbins. All in all, he was a typical product of the inter-war public school (in his case, Rugby) – intrepid, amusing, entrepreneurial, carefree, reckless, an independent spirit, along the lines of the Fleming brothers and Fitzroy Maclean. Whether SOE should have been in the hands of such fellows is another testing question – but then so is that of whether ‘Setting Europe Ablaze’ was what most citizens of occupied Europe wanted during the long years when they were under the Nazi yoke.

Douglas Dodds-Parker was a few years older than Wilkinson, and had been educated at Winchester. For a while he followed in the footsteps of Wilkinson, who displays a certain smugness in describing his dealings with the older officer. Maybe Wilkinson had some regrets at not being sent to Winchester. He had been a pupil at Scaitliffe, considered a preparatory institution for Eton and Winchester, and its headmaster, Ronald Vickers, expressed disappointment when Wilkinson’s mother ‘on the advice of her Edinburgh physician who considered Winchester unhealthy, decided to send me to Rugby instead.’ Thus, after voicing his delight at being promoted to acting major at the age of twenty-five, Wilkinson boasts how he spent ‘three most agreeable months of the war’ in Paris, since, ‘on my major’s pay, I could live extravagantly well in Paris while keeping on my rooms in Clarges Street for my visits to London’. Dodds-Parker replaced him as GSO3 in MI(R), but Wilkinson soon sent him urgent instructions to move to the Middle East to set up a supply base in Egypt. Some time later (the dates are annoyingly vague), Wilkinson was promising Dodds-Parker, who had spent time working with Abyssinian guerrillas, that he would arrange for him to be sent back to London. I found the continual competitive race for medals and promotions between such persons rather unseemly.

‘Setting Europe Ablaze’ by Douglas Dodds-Parker

In his own memoir, Setting Europe Ablaze, Dodds-Parker turns out to be a more reflective and mature judge of the military situation, and of SOE in particular. He records Wilkinson’s introduction to him, how they discussed matters at Wilkinson’s club, and the rather brusque orders that Wilkinson gave him. Yet he gives the impression that in May 1941 it was Gubbins who summoned Peter Fleming from Greece, Wilkinson from Crete, and himself from Ethiopia, with Dodds-Parker chartered with the difficult task of organizing SOE’s air and sea transport into and out of enemy-occupied Western Europe. Thereafter, Dodds-Parker, for the remainder of the war, served under another Wykehamist, Colonel Dick Barry. Thus, while Wilkinson was struggling in his role trying to direct the Central European sections, Dodds-Parker had a chance to observe multiple aspects of SOE operations at close quarters, and engage in very sensitive negotiations with the RAF, before he was posted in late 1942 to Operations Officer for the ‘Massingham’ SOE unit in Algeria.

While recollections in tranquility, from 1983, might appear wiser than contemporaneous opinions, Dodds-Parker presents some insightful conclusions from his time at Baker Street in 1941 and 1942. He admitted how the opportunities for sabotage and subversion were soon realized as being more useful than the creation of ‘secret armies’. He explained how Communists who had engaged in the Spanish Civil War contributed considerably to the SOE handbook on guerrilla warfare. He pointed out the precariousness of the position of Gubbins, being considered too political by the military professionals, and too amateurish by the diplomats. He made the shrewd observation that the communist groups with whom SOE had been co-operating became much more aggressive in their plans for post-war political control after the Soviets expelled the Germans from Stalingrad in October 1942, and even claimed that his Polish contacts had convinced him at this time of Stalin’s imperialist ambitions for Eastern Europe after the war.

Dodds-Parker’s regard for Gubbins was exuberant: ‘a born leader of men – and women’; ‘his energy, physical and mental, was boundless’; ‘an inspiring leader, as brave as Wingate, and endowed with the additional ability to maintain an atmosphere of friendly respect and loyalty with his subordinates and superiors’; ‘among the many Allied leaders I had been privileged to observe, I came to regard him in his way, for imagination, courage and energy, as being in the highest class.’ Gubbins loyally supported him in all he did, and promoted him to full Colonel at the young age of 35. They both had strong affiliations for and links with the Poles, which may have affected their priorities with SOE. (Gubbins drew many of his conclusions about planning for guerrilla warfare in Europe from the pre-war preparations of the Poles, but they were not representative of other countries in Europe under German occupation.) Dodd-Parker’s summary of SOE’s track record in the war thus comes across as rather excessive, with the notable success of the arming of French resistance in 1944 masking the disasters in the Netherlands and France in 1943.

The precise role that Dodds-Parker played as Operations Officer for ‘Massingham’ is indistinct. As he wrote, he had ‘wide but undefined duties’, Massingham being chartered with establishing ‘a base for later operations northwards, into France and Corsica and possibly into Italy, whose secret police, the OVRA, were the most effective of any in Europe’. I am not sure what the NKVD –  or even the Gestapo –  would have thought of that assessment, but it pointed to the challenges that Dodds-Parker faced as the Allied armies made their crablike approach to Italy. He was appointed number 2 to the American Colonel Eddy of OSS, but the terms of reference that Gubbins read out to him on that occasion are not explained. Dodds-Parker turned out to be an excellent negotiator, however, which was a useful experience for his career as a Conservative politician after the war.

His final assessment of Gubbins, when SOE was dismantled after the war, and its chief ‘retired’ with no job offer, since his military career had effectively been suspended in Norway in 1940, was ambiguous, and maybe ill-judged: “Gubbins held a unique personal position, respected in private by many political and military leaders as secondary only to Churchill and Eden in helpful understanding of their difficulties. This did not endear him to some of his military colleagues, nor did politicians and diplomats always welcome his, and thus my lesser, interventions in political decisions and diplomatic exchanges.” Elevating to such a podium the vain and ineffectual Eden, whose continuous emphasis on ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union exasperated many military men, was a strange stance to take. (In fact, as Wilkinson wrote in his Introduction to his and Ashley’s biography of Gubbins – see below – Gubbins took a dislike to Eden because of his condescending manner and antipathy to SOE.) Moreover, why were such regards held ‘in private’, and how did Dodds-Parker learn about them if they were not public? Such judgments cry out for more detail, to help explain the peculiar insights that Gubbins was able to impart, but that is not Dodds-Parker’s forte.

I have three biographical books on Gubbins on one of my tables (the shelves in my library having been filled long ago.) In chronological order they are Gubbins & SOE by Peter Wilkinson and Joan Astley (1993), an American volume, Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (2016) by A. D. B. Linderman, and SOE’s Mastermind by Brian Lett (2016). Unfortunately none of them performs a thorough job of analyzing Gubbins’ career and achievements, all authors being too much in awe of their subject.

‘Gubbins & SOE’ by Peter Wilkinson & Joan Bright Astley

Peter Wilkinson was joined by Joan Bright Astley in putting the biography together. She was a woman with whom I was not familiar, but I have learned that she was a personal assistant to Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s staff adviser, and also arranged something called the Secret Information Centre, which was apparently a necessary repository of intelligence for senior officers. She was another Gubbins enthusiast (like Ismay), and rather romantically was recorded as saying: “He had just enough of the buccaneer in him to make lesser men underrate his gifts of leadership, courage and integrity . . .  He was a man-at-arms, a campaigner, the fires banked up inside him as glowing as those round which his Celtic ancestors had gathered between forays from glen and brae.” Utter tosh, of course.

In the Acknowledgements, the authors explain disarmingly, and somewhat alarmingly, that their book ‘has no academic pretensions’, and any claims to scholarship are instantly undermined when they write, after paying homage to Michael Foot and David Stafford: “Special thanks are also owed to Christopher Woods, until recently the Foreign Office Adviser on SOE. At the time of writing the authors had no access to SOE’s secret papers; and it was only thanks to Mr Woods’ tireless research that it proved possible to recreate events which happened half a century ago.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. We all know now what those tireless endeavours by Foreign Office advisers tended to come up with.

Thus an eminently readable, but obviously sanitized, account of Gubbins’s career has been put together. You will find no entry for ‘Dericourt’ or ‘Suttill’ in the Index (although the ‘PROSPER’ circuit receives two brief mentions), since discussions of those two individuals would inevitably detract from the positive aura the authors wish to promote. Inevitably, the events of 1942 and 1943 are represented in much of a muddle, with erroneous dates, and dubious claims made. Gubbins is presented, at the time Mockler-Ferryman (‘still relatively inexperienced in clandestine techniques’) was introduced to set up ‘a new directorate responsible for operations in Western Europe, and for liaison with COSSAC’, as not having confidence in the professionalism of some of the individual country officers.

The fact that many circuits were believed to have been penetrated by the Germans, required, according to the authors, ‘Gubbins’ personal attention and decision’. But what the Chief of SOE Operations did about it is not stated: the record suggests he either did nothing, or was complicit in woeful mismanagement. Leo Marks recounted how Gubbins, on learning about the dire problems in the Netherlands, promised an investigation, but then stalled, and demanded that Marks say nothing to other country section heads, with the result that the Prosper disaster followed. Marks was horrified, and believed that Gubbins engaged in the cover-up since he was terrified of Dansey and MI6 learning about the security breaches and German penetration.

Moreover, the record is shockingly erratic. I pointed out earlier that Wilkinson contradicted himself across his writings. Here, he writes: “It was no secret in Baker Street that the British planners had tacitly accepted as long ago as October, 1942, that there was no prospect of undertaking a major cross-Channel invasion in 1943. Consequently SOE’s French sections were counting on at least twelve months in which to lay their plans.” Yet in his personal memoir, which appeared just four years later, he wrote: “In the autumn of 1942, our plans were based on the assumption that an invasion of the Continent would take place in the summer of 1943 and would trigger a wave of spontaneous insurgency in occupied Europe.” That is presumably what is meant by ‘lack of academic pretensions’. At this stage, the careful reader might opt to give up on the work as a serious study, and classify it as an item of Foreign Office propaganda.

Since these examples are typical of the lack of scholarship applied, it is difficult to know which are the true assessments of the authors, and what is the spin imparted by the SOE Adviser. Several muddled judgments are made, in a background of erratic chronology, and the passive voice is used too frequently. Critical paragraphs (such as on the SOE mission to Moscow) are presented with questionable logic, but without any sources given. Thus the appointment of Captain Richard Truskowski to the 1941 SOE mission is explained as reflecting Gubbins’ hope that the Soviets would allow RAF flights to Poland to refuel on Soviet territory before returning, but why Gubbins’ opinions in this matter were dominant, or in what way anyone felt the reactionary Truskowski might help the cause by his presence in Moscow, is left unexamined. It is all very unsatisfactory.

Yet what is noteworthy is that a more sceptical undercurrent, expressing some doubts about SOE’s overall mission, and Gubbins’ ability to execute it, can be detected in the text. Thus we learn that: Gubbins’ decision to move to SOE was surprising because he had little confidence in sabotage and subversion (p 76); his arrival (as a regular soldier) was regarded with disdain by the country heads (p 78); Dalton’s belief that Occupied Europe was ‘smouldering with resistance’ was false, as most people wanted to be left in peace (p 79); Gubbins aggressively promoted the use of patriot armies at a time that was premature (p 100); Gubbins was ignorant of the problems with agents in the Netherlands in early 1942, and even expressed his satisfaction with affairs (p 105); Gubbins’ sense that his organization in France was unprepared for invasion in 1942 led him to approve several ill-considered operations (p 109); the assassination of Darlan was severely mismanaged, and Gubbins had to spend too much time on the clean-up (p 118); Gubbins deemed German penetration of his networks in 1943 ‘ an acceptable risk’, but such situations required his personal involvement and decisions (without any declaration of what they were) (p 123); Gubbins found the guerrilla adventures in the Balkans more interesting than the clandestine activities in North-west Europe for which he was directly responsible, with the implicit neglect of the latter (p 133); when challenged over the Netherlands fiasco, Gubbins did not become directly involved, but sent Sporborg to sort it out (p 154); Gubbins was lax in communicating the decisions of the Chiefs of Staff to his country heads (p 203); and Gubbins spent a disproportionate amount of time on Polish and Czech affairs (p 226).

Whichever way you look at it, this was not a stellar performance.

If a reader expected at the close of the book a balanced assessment of Gubbins’ overall contribution, however, he or she would be disappointed. The authors describe how, when SOE was disbanded and handed over to MI6, Gubbins prepared a paper that tabulated SOE’s string of successes – not just in sabotage, but also in political operations, which was a dubious claim to make – and outlined a completely unrealistic set of proposals for maintaining a dormant SOE organization ‘ready to spring into action on the outbreak of the third world war’, an event that Gubbins clearly expected. Predictably enough, the new Labour government, and a more cool-headed Sir Alexander Cadogan, quickly dampened any such plans, and Gubbins was forced to retire. What final assessment of Gubbins’ contribution that was prepared had to wait for his eulogy in 1976, when Wilkinson addressed the gathering at St. Martin-in-the-Fields as follows:

. . . Of the decisive importance of Colin Gubbins’ personal contribution to the allied victory, there can be no question. His name is honoured officially in many lands. For in the dark hours it was his duty to fan the spark and keep alive the flame of freedom. It was his exertions that gave hope to thousands of patriots in occupied countries all over the world. These men and women are unlikely to forget him.

This was arguably a suitably positive encomium at his death, but surely over-the-top. Almost all those ‘patriots’ seeking freedom could never have known his name, and not all had undivided admiration for what SOE had done. A more balanced accounting was certainly called for.

‘Rediscovering Irregular Warfare’ by A. R. B. Linderman

A. D. B. Linderman’s Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive is not that book. Based on his doctoral thesis at Texas A & M University, and published in 2016, Linderman’s work provides a useful integration of the history of guerrilla activity in the twentieth century, but greatly overstates Gubbins’ contribution to its theory and practice, and fails to address the multiple contradictions and paradoxes in his prosecution of subversive activities. The thesis was originally titled ‘Reclaiming the ungentlemanly arts: the global origins of SOE and OSS’, but either the author or his editors must have concluded that a tighter focus on Gubbins, and the personalization of the story, were more appropriate.

And, indeed, the credits do redound heavily on Gubbins. I was not encouraged when, after reading Linderman’s list of academics who had given him expert advice (are drafts of doctoral theses really passed around to members of other universities before being reviewed by the candidate’s committee?), I read that ‘this work relies heavily on the pioneering research of M. R. D. Foot and the impressive work of Peter Wilkinson and Joan Bright Astley’. This was a surprising admission, given the very exhaustive primary and secondary sources that the author lists in his Bibliography. His overall thesis is that Gubbins deployed his considerable experience in Russia (during the Revolution), in India, and in Ireland to develop a solid blueprint for how guerrilla warfare should be undertaken.

One might ask how relevant these experiences were. Foot wrote that Gubbins’ service ‘on the losing side’ in the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21, as well as his few months’ time in Russia in 1919 caused him to be ‘impressed by the weakness of formed bodies of troops faced by a hostile population that was stiffened by a few resolute gunmen, and determined to exploit these impressions against the next enemy’. But leading an alien and probably weakly motivated expeditionary force to support the Whites against fierce Communist forces in a civil war in the expanses of northern Russia can hardly be compared with being part of a brigade trying to maintain order in a tight colonial territory, and being attacked by civilians, as was the case in County Kildare. Moreover, when it set its mind to it, the Wehrmacht, as ‘formed bodies of troops’ was occasionally able to wreak horrible destruction on a hostile population stiffened by many resolute gunmen in central France in 1944.

Yet SOE rarely engaged in managing guerrilla warfare –  or when it did, it executed it disastrously, as in the ploy to encourage uprisings in France in 1943. The main role for SOE was sabotage, an activity in which Gubbins was clearly not so interested as he was in the possibility of patriot armies supporting regular troops, which phenomenon did not become realizable until the Normandy assaults in June 1944. Moreover, other sources indicate that much of the guerrilla army playbook was derived from practitioners with experience in the Spanish Civil War, where Gubbins was not a witness. Linderman highlights Gubbins’ creation, in response to a call by J.C. F. Holland of MI(R) in May of 1939, of two short pamphlets titled ‘The Art of Guerrilla Warfare’ and the ‘Partisan Leader’s Handbook’. Linderman makes the elevated claim that these two brief items are ‘the essential links in the intellectual history of SOE’s doctrine’.

Yet he goes on to write:

For unknown reasons, Gubbins’ works are general guides and not country-specific; as a result, they are some of the broadest doctrinal statements of the war, focused not on a particular aspect or location but irregular warfare writ large.

This is, to me, a fairly withering criticism. I recall Wilkinson’s statement that Gubbins’ lectures were ‘superficial’. And the failure to create country-specific policies for sabotage and guerrilla action was probably the biggest failing of SOE, since the characteristics of each territory under the Nazis (area, terrain, distance from the UK, accommodation with the Nazis, strength of communist groups, temperament of the populace, stance of government-in-exile, etc. etc.) demanded a highly-tailored approach. The struggles with defining such would have made a far more provocative and interesting thesis, since the country heads resisted interference from their superiors, but were not necessarily adept in forging the appropriate policies. Those ‘unknown reasons’ would have been a suitable case for treatment.

Bickham Sweet-Escott

In his 1965 memoir, Baker Street Irregular, Bickham Sweet-Escott (who held a variety of jobs with SOE) pointed directly at this dilemma. “Colin Gubbins’s appointment to us was primarily to take over liaison with the secret armies which the Poles and Czechs had been preparing . . .”, he wrote, indicating that SOE’s long-term objective had to be ‘to assist or create in western Europe – in France, Belgium, Holland and Norway, and if possible elsewhere – organizations similar to the secret armies which we believed [my italics] to exist in Poland and Czechoslovakia’. So maybe these secret armies did not exist, and Poland and Czechoslovakia were out of reach by the allotted aircraft, anyway. Thus, like the drunkard looking for his keys under the lamppost, SOE switched attention to France and the Low Countries, because they were accessible, and convinced themselves of the policy that, given that the allied forces would not be returning to the continent soon, such secret armies could in the meantime ‘be used to sabotage the war effort and thereby to improve the morale of the local population’. But this was in early 1941 – over three years to hold out until D-Day.

(Incidentally, Sweet-Escott also held Gubbins’ leadership in high regard, writing:

             . . . he was man of immense energy and vitality with a quick wit, and an imagination and grasp of principle are in a professional soldier. He enjoyed life to the full; he never forgot a face or a name, and he had a gift for inspiring confidence in those working under him. He was in fact a born leader of men.

That suggest that he also came under Gubbins’ spell, and was perhaps willing to overlook his boss’s failings. Ironically, Sweet-Escott discovered that his estimation of Gubbins had been stolen from his manuscript, word for word, by Hugh Dalton in his memoir The Fateful Years.)

Thus, in his quest to apotheosize, Linderman bypasses some of the more controversial aspects of Gubbins’ leadership. He skips over the events of France in 1943 completely: no mention of PROSPER and Dericourt appears in his work. Nor does he explore Gubbins’ extraordinary wooing of the NKVD, and the PICKAXE projects, where SOE helped land Communist agents in Allied countries. The objectives of these persons were to foment Communist takeovers after the war, an activity that would have shocked the relevant governments-in-exile. Fortunately the outcomes of these exploits were normally disastrous, but the operation displayed extraordinarily bad judgment by Gubbins, who was notoriously opposed to Communism, and (as I showed earlier), was earnestly preparing for World War III when SOE was disbanded.

Some quotations support the idea that Gubbins had not developed a subtle enough perspective on how subversive elements should be managed. From his SOE Handbook:

In every community will be found certain individuals so debased that for greed or gain they will sell even their own countrymen. Against this contingency close watch must be set, and wherever proof is obtained of such perfidy, the traitor must be killed without hesitation or delay. By such justifiably ruthless actions others who might be tempted to follow suit will be finally deterred.

And Linderman adds: “To further heighten such deterrence, Gubbins advised that the local population should be convinced that the enemy would soon be expelled, at which time support for the resistance would be rewarded, but collaboration with the occupiers ‘ruthlessly punished’.” It was easy for him to impose such lofty – or heartless – conditions on a subdued populace, but the local inhabitants had to deal with the threats of reprisals and torture, and the promises that ‘the enemy would soon be expelled’ turned out to be a tragic deception in France in 1943.

Gubbins had to amend his ideas, certainly over the topic of reprisals, which became an awkward reminder of Nazi terror. He had to revise his 1939 opinion that ‘guerilla warfare was something that a regular army has most to dread’. Linderman cites W. J. M. Mackenzie’s view that ‘General Gubbins’s recollection is that this [the question of reprisals] was deliberately omitted, as a point passed by in silence’. But it was then that he countered the paradox that bedevilled the supply to secret armies: if he recognized the dangers of reprisals and premature activity (as Linderman states) how could SOE keep up morale, and how exposed would its supply of arms become? Linderman refers to this historical tension, but does not crisply dispense with it.

Gubbins became SOE chief in September 1943, after political battles had caused Hambro’s resignation. The discovery of the disasters in France, and the clandestine use of SOE resources in deception through the TWIST Committee, may have forced the issue, although Gubbins managed to avoid most of the blame. In July 1943, Stewart Menzies had attempted to undermine SOE by sending a memo to the War Cabinet that claimed that SOE had no proper control of its affairs in France. As Robert Marshall wrote, in All The King’s Men:

On 1 August, a Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee pronounced that on the basis of Memo CX108 and despite Gubbins’ protestations, they were forced to the view that SOE had been less than frank in their reports about the situation in France. Moreover, because the JIC had been obliged to learn the truth from MI6, they felt doubly disappointed with SOE, who had a responsibility to keep them and the Chiefs of Staff informed.

Hambro took the rap, and Gubbins, probably because of his close relationship with Hastings Ismay, survived. SOE then came under greater military control, a symbiosis that Gubbins had endorsed all along. In Linderman’s words: “This left Gubbins, a man who had argued since his GS(R) days that irregular forces need to be closely coordinated with regular operations, the most senior SOE officer.” In Setting the Med Ablaze, Peter Dixon reinforces this opinion, stating that Gubbins’ early experiences with the Brandon mission in North Africa in early 1943 had convinced him that ‘irregular forces must be integrated into the regular chain of command’. But then why did Gubbins then increase the shipments of arms to French ‘irregulars’ so irresponsibly for the remainder of 1943? And when Gubbins replaced Hambro, he concluded that efforts had to be more closely co-ordinated with governments-in-exile, and shifted his attention to creating more of a paramilitary organization, but it was too late by then. It was all a rather reactive strategy. After all, relations with the Belgian government-in-exile had been so acrimonious that they were broken off in 1942.

‘SOE’s Mastermind’ by Brian Lett

The title of the last book on Gubbins that I review here, SOE’s Mastermind, does not suggest that it is going to act as any corrective. And, indeed, the book is another flattering account, promoted as ‘an authorized biography of Major General Sir Colin Gubbins, KCMG, DSO, MC’, intimating that the Gubbins family was involved. Major Gordon Lett, the father of the author, Brian Lett, served in SOE, and the younger Lett approached Gubbins’ grandson, Michael, with the concern that he might be competing over a new biography. The result was that Michael happily abandoned his own plans, and co-operated with ‘an experienced author’. SOE’s Mastermind thus presents a lot of fresh information about Gubbin’s personal life, but has little new to say about his career in SOE.

The book is divided into two parts. The first section describes, in twelve chapters, Gubbins’ life and experiences before he joined SOE. As Lett puts it: “The author has endeavoured in Part 1 of this book to detail the qualities and experiences that equipped him so well for the role. Part 2 sets out to give the reader some idea of the organization that Gubbins commanded, and the contribution that he made to its success.” Lett presents some fascinating accounts of Gubbins’ military career, especially as it related to dealing with guerrilla warfare. It is pertinent that his three main exposures were on the counter-insurgency side, in Russia in 1918, against the Bolsheviks, in Ireland in 1920-1921, against the IRA, and in India, from 1923 to 1930, against the Indian Congress Party. His lessons for guerrillas were all developed from the side of suppressing them.

Each period in Gubbins’ military career is thus presented however as a positive influence, and ideas are attributed to him even though the evidence of his contribution as a ‘mastermind’ is scanty, with some lip-service made to the fact that not all these ideas were appropriate. You could not support guerrilla armies where there was no place for them to hide, for instance (such as in the Netherlands). Lett echoes the point made by others that Gubbins was not sensitive enough to the danger of reprisals when he set out how secret armies should behave under occupation.

The Wedding of John Tiltman & Tempe Monica Robinson, Simla, April 7, 1927 (Photo reproduced with the kind permission of John Tiltman’s family)

Lett also adds some useful anecdotes about Gubbins’ personality and character in his pre-WWII years. In India, he joined the Freemasons (a membership he tried to play down in conversations with M. R. D. Foot). He also developed some important relationships, one of which is overlooked by Lett. (I insert it here for the historical record.) Gubbins acted as best man at the wedding of his friend John Tiltman, the future famous cryptologist at the Government Code and Cypher School, in Simla on April 7, 1927. Brian Lett describes the two years that Gubbins spent at Simla decrypting Soviet signals, but does not refer to the close friendship he had with the very significant Tiltman. (As I noted this fact, I recalled that Bernard Montgomery had acted as best man at the wedding of St. John Philby, in Rawalpindi in September 1910. There must be other similar connections to follow up, I am sure.)

The second Part of the book constitutes mostly a series of descriptions of the most famous of SOE’s exploits, interspersed with too much of what Gubbins himself said about them, such as his delivery of a lecture to the Cambridge University Officers Training Corps in October 1962, where he oversimplified the process of building up ‘secret armies’. There is little crucial exploration of the precise contribution that Gubbins made to the success of the major projects that Lett describes at some length, such as Operation Anthropoid (the plot to kill Heydrich) and Operation Gunnerside (the plan to destroy the Germans’ heavy-water supply in Norway). These exploits have been well-described elsewhere, and Lett’s analysis brings nothing new to the table. He even presents the burden of the horrors of the reprisals that took place in Czechoslovakia as somehow enhancing Gubbins’ status, since he was strong enough to be able to ‘stand back and appreciate the whole picture’. That could be said to be an opinion that stepped just over the borderline of good taste. Lett repeats this sentiment when he concludes his analysis of the twenty-six civilian losses in Norway resulting from the sinking of the ferry carrying the heavy water.

In this scenario, there are no real failures, and, like Linderman, Lett completely ignores the Nordpol fiasco in the Netherlands, and the betrayal of the Prosper network in France. (This is a recurring oversight: the compilation edited by Mark Seaman, Special Operations Executive: a new instrument of war, published in 2006, completely ignores the operations in France, and Gubbins receives little attention overall.) SOE is represented as playing a crucial part in the victory in Italy (where Lett’s father is featured strongly as part of Mission Blundell Violet), while the more problematic episodes involving Peter Wilkinson and Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard with the partisans in Croatia and Slovenia (as described above) receive no treatment at all. The book winds down abruptly without any summarization or assessment of what justifies Gubbins’ sobriquet of ‘mastermind’, or a serious evaluation of how SOE had contributed to the Allies’ victory, the author transferring quickly into the subject’s retirement years. It all consists of a very shallow and disappointing work.

Lynne Olson has described how Gubbins in 1949 gave evidence to a commission that was investigating the Nordpol disaster, and how he dishonestly claimed that SOE in London bore no responsibility for the Abwehr’s ability to round up agents and send controlled messages back to England to encourage further personnel to be despatched. Even M. R. D. Foot admits the incompetence, the truth of which was reinforced by such as Leo Marks. Other witnesses, such as William Stephenson (to Anthony Cave-Brown), and Sporborg (to Robert Marshall) attest that Gubbins believed that his networks had been betrayed by Dansey. Yet that was a disingenuous claim by the SOE chief: all evidence suggests that Gubbins must have been aware of the whole Déricourt fiasco, and went along with the plan. The fact that he was out of the country (in Algeria) for some of the critical time in early 1943 is no excuse.

The inevitable conclusion from reading these books could be that SOE had an impossible role, and that Gubbins was under enormous political pressure to deliver. Some critics, such as John Keegan and Douglas Porch, have underlined its several disasters. Others have claimed that, for the expense and loss of life, SOE was a much more profitable undertaking than was Harris’s Bomber Command, with its deluge of raids on Germany that so frequently missed their targets, while consuming so much energy, fuel, and lives. Gubbins’ role in the execution of SOE’s mission demands a very careful analysis that has not yet been engaged upon, so far as I can judge. The thorough documentation of those daring raids needs to be complemented by critical accounts of the less reputable exploits that ended in failure.

Gubbins was probably more complex than his biographers have described him. Like many military men, he concealed his emotions. He was crushed by the death of his son in Italy in 1944, and it brought home to him how every death in war represents an almost unbearable local tragedy. Yet he could be quite ruthless: he once said, when asked about the possibly unnecessary deaths of SOE officers in Europe that they had known when they signed up what the risks were. In A Life in Secrets, Sarah Helm quotes his statement about probable losses in France:

            Strategically France is by far the most important country in the Western Theatre of War. I think therefore that SOE should regard this theatre as one in which the suffering of heavy casualties is inevitable.  But it will yield the highest possible dividends. I would therefore increase to the maximum  . . . SOE aid to the French field from now on and maintain it until D-Day.

The possibility of arrest and execution was one thing, however: the conscious betrayal by the placement of a traitor and the dissemination of false promises about an imminent invasion, which must be held at Gubbins’ door, were a completely different phenomenon. That he commanded great loyalty is true, but he could be harsh and demeaning to those who challenged him, as Leo Marks testified in Between Silk and Cyanide.  The Free French politician Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie dubbed Gubbins ‘the mysterious manipulator of the initials SOE’. Patrick Howarth thought that, in a world dominated by rank, Gubbins (like Selborne and Hambro) lacked the deviousness required to achieve political goals. That straight-shooting lack of deviousness may have contributed to his blindness over the hazards of treachery and double-dealing.

M. R. D. Foot offered a flowery and unsubstantiated appraisal of Gubbins in SOE in France:

His influence soon percolated all round the SOE pyramid, affecting colleagues, staff subordinates, and agents alike. Through the months of worst disaster, through the fog of battle, through all the complexities of a large, confused, impromptu organization, he pursued steadily the course that he and Holland had dreamed of long ago in Dublin, and had worked out months before the war. He combined a Scottish highlander’s insight [eh?] with a regular officer’s tenacity, a keen brain, and much diplomatic and intelligent experience, and before SOE was two years old an incomparably well placed observer described him as a linchpin.

The reputation of SOE and Gubbins was also bolstered by General Eisenhower, who in his memoirs issued a generous appraisal of SOE’s contribution to winning the war that has been frequently quoted by the SOE champions. Yet one has to consider the overall track-record, not just the guerrilla activity that SOE arranged after the Normandy landings. SOE worried the Norwegians, upset the Belgians, betrayed the Dutch, sacrificed the French, mortified the Czechs, misled the Poles, was abused by the Soviets, and fooled by the Germans. SOE in Baker Street lost control of Yugoslavia to Cairo: Nigel West writes that far more Yugoslavs were killed with SOE weaponry than German or Italian troops. Thousands of innocent lives were overall lost. Was the human sacrifice worth the few spectacular sabotage successes?

Gubbins’ career at SOE should better be analyzed as a case-study in leadership and management. For his direct and second-level reports, he had to recruit overall trustworthy figures who were all novices at the game, while some even lacked the motivation. The selection of Buckmaster was a case in point: mustard keen, but incompetent, and hopelessly out of his depth. In that environment, according to Situational Leadership principles, careful close-handling and coaching was necessary to guide the country section leaders in strategy and operations. There is no evidence that Gubbins gave them that advice and direction: he let the ‘chaps’ get on with it, sometimes with disastrous results. He frequently delegated (e.g. to Sporborg, over the Netherlands) when he should have become directly involved. Even Wilkinson describes the events of November 1943 as ‘a major crisis which might have been thought to demand Gubbins’ instant return’.

Much more attention was paid to the training of the agents themselves, what with all the detailed classroom studies on good tradecraft, and the physical tests in the highlands of Scotland, such as at Arisaig. That is where the important lessons of security and isolation, and discipline and mental and physical toughness, were instilled. Agents should have been well-prepared for the ardours of the field, but, again, many mistakes in selection and deployment were made, such as the approval of the unsuitable Noor Inayat Khan as a wireless operator, the unauthorized contacts among cells, and the calamitous failure to acknowledge security checks in agents’ messages.

But were the lessons themselves reasonable? Gubbins’ ideas were perhaps a bit too inflexible, and sometimes out of touch, while those that were important were frequently neglected. In his pamphlet, he had insisted that traitors be executed immediately, but when Mathilde Carré (la Chatte) was arrested and then became the mistress of Abwehr Officer Bleicher, Pierre de Vomécourt, instead of killing her, tried to manipulate her as a ‘triple agent’ [erroneous term], with disastrous consequences. Gubbins had surely not anticipated that his first traitor would be a woman. Gubbins had also preached that no paper records should be carried by agents, and contacts’ names and addresses committed to memory, but that was either too much of a hurdle for many operatives, or else they merely got careless. Wireless operators stayed on-line for far too long, thus exposing themselves to radio detection-finding: the pressure of communicating volumes was too great. The insertion of agents into hostile territory, where identity and ration cards were essential for surviving was very different from the subsistence of communist partisans in their homeland, as Gubbins had witnessed in Russia.

Thus the elevation of Gubbins’ frequently half-baked ideas and occasionally disastrous supervision of events to a level of innovative heroism, no matter how inspiring a leader of men he was, represents a missed opportunity in the writing of history and biography. Gubbins was brave, inspiring, imaginative and energetic. Yet he was also two-dimensional, ruthless, evasive and sometimes irresponsible – a military man out of his depth in the complexities of subversion and dissimulation. This piece is a study of the existing literature, and does not claim to be an original analysis of all the material. A fresh approach would undoubtedly be highly desirable. I am not looking for a hatchet-job, like Richard Aldington’s biography of T. E. Lawrence, or even the ‘harsh, aggressive and uncompromising’ terms (the author’s words) of Andrew Roberts’ Eminent Churchillians. Maybe more along the lines of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s recent study of Winston Churchill, Churchill’s Shadow, something uncluttered by Foreign Office advisers, or self-appointed champions of SOE. Our war heroes are allowed to have flaws, and to have made serious mistakes.

(This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)

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Special Bulletin: The Airmen Who Died Twice

Operation PARAVANE

Over the past few months I have been collaborating with a researcher in the UK over a WWII mystery. Nigel Austin, who had been investigating the puzzle, found me on coldspur, and contacted me. We quickly determined that our knowledge was complementary, and that we could work together remotely. Now, having almost exhausted our research sources, we are ready to start telling our story.

The piece below serves as an introduction to our planned article, as well as a teaser. We present it here with two goals in mind: 1) to seek any insights on the operation that coldspur readers may have; and 2) to ask whether any reader has suggestions, or better still, contacts with any magazine or periodical that would be keen to publish our final piece. Please write to me at antonypercy@aol.com if you have any contributions or ideas.

‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ by Nigel Austin and Antony Percy

On September 11, 1944, two squadrons of Lancasters, Numbers 617 and 9, left Bardney and Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire to fly to Yagodnik airfield in the north-west of the Soviet Union, near Archangelsk. Some aircraft stopped at Lossiemouth in Scotland for refuelling. Their mission was to use Yagodnik as a staging-post, for further refuelling, and then attack the German battleship Tirpitz, berthed in Alta Fjord in northern Norway. This fresh operation, named PARAVANE, had been conceived as a way to exploit the ‘Tallboy’ bomb that had proved its efficacy against U-Boat pens along the Normandy coast, as part of the preparation for D-Day.

The closer proximity of Yagodnik to Alta Fjord, and the desire to attack from the south-east with an element of surprise, made the location doubly attractive. Despite recent spats between the Allies over the US airbase in Poltava, and Stalin’s refusal to assist the Polish Uprising, Bomber Command had gained Stalin’s agreement to the operation at short notice. The Soviet leader presumably believed that the destruction of the Tirpitz would lead to the greater safety of the Arctic convoys, but he probably also had an eye out for gathering secrets of advanced British technology.

The journey to Yagodnik was not without peril. Communications with the Soviets were fragile, because of problems with radio frequencies and callsigns. The weather was poor. The outcome was that several of the Lancasters lost their way, and crash-landed just before running out of fuel. No deaths occurred, but some of the aircraft were thus unavailable for the attack, and could not be repaired in time for the return flight to Scotland. On September 15 the raids took place. The outcome was indistinct: smoke flares meant that the target was swiftly obscured, and damage could not accurately be assessed by photographic sorties. Yet all planes managed to return safely to Yagodnik.

With a smaller number of planes available to carry home the total number of crew-members, each plane that returned to Scotland on September 16 had to take on additional passengers beyond the standard crew-number of seven. At about 5:15 pm the first group of sixteen Lancaster bombers, with a total of a hundred and thirty-one crew, took off over a two-hour period to return to the UK, over the airspace of neutral Sweden, avoiding occupied Norway. Leading the group, Wing Commander Tait confirmed his safe return to the UK at 1:39 am on September 17, after a fair-weather flight. All the other planes returned safely, except the Lancaster piloted by Frank Levy, PB416.

For some reason PB416 took a path further north and west than the defined route across neutral Sweden and the Skagerrak. At 01.21 am on September 17 an acknowledgement for a location was received at RAF Dyce Aberdeen from Frank Levy’s Lancaster. The coordinates confirmed “a fix in position 60°50’N 009°45’E”. These bearings convert to a site near the village of Oystogo in rural Etnedal, South Norway – a remote grassy valley by a river, surrounded by steeply wooded terrain. It is fifty-five miles from the mountain at Saupeset, near Nesbyen, where PB416 crashed later that night. There were no survivors. Ten casualties were recorded, marked at the crash-site by ten nails on a simple cross, and later by their ten names inscribed on a memorial panel. Identifiable solely by their ID-tags, the bodies were buried in a mass grave. They were subsequently exhumed and re-interred. Ten white grave stones stand today in Nesbyen churchyard.

“These graves tell about freedom, they tell about young men fighting for their country and Europe against the Nazi tyranny”, Wing Commander Iverson eulogized on a visit to Nesbyen in 1987. “It is still a mystery how this could have happened”. Tony Iverson’s ‘mystery’ has generated much speculation since the crash. Why was a Lancaster, from an elite RAF Squadron, without bombs, alone, three hundred and thirty miles adrift from the rest of the Squadron over occupied Norway? Was it due to mechanical problems, a lack of fuel, pilot error, or bad weather? If the plane was lost, why did it report its location without mention of any of the above issues?

The RAF Flight Loss card for PB416 from 1944 bizarrely shows nine airmen. Among those identified as casualties were Squadron Leader Wyness and Flight Lieutenant Williams, who were ‘guests’ on PB416. Yet a few weeks later, on October 7, these same two officers were brought down during a raid on the Swiss-German border, at the Kembs barrier, and summarily executed. This article analyses the mystery of the airmen who died twice, and suggests why the Royal Air Force and the War Graves Commission have attempted to cover up the facts of this embarrassing disaster for nearly eighty years.

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