Category Archives: Espionage/Intelligence

Five Books on Espionage & Intelligence

When Sonia Met Klaus at Snow Hill Station? (see below)

Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes (2020)

Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)

An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)

Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)

Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey (2019) [guest review by Denis Lenihan]

I return this month to reviewing some recently published books on espionage and intelligence, and thank Denis Lenihan, coldspur’s Commissioner for Antipodean Affairs, for making a lively and insightful contribution. Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya did not arrive in time to meet the Editor’s deadline, but, in any case, I have been engaged to write a review of it for an external publication, so I shall have to hold off for a while. (My review was submitted on October 19, has been accepted, and will be published soon.) I considered two other books that, from their titles, might have been considered worthy of consideration for a review, Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services, by Simon Ball (2020), and Radio War: The Secret Espionage War of the Radio Security Service 1938-1946 by David Abrutat (2019). Then, a few weeks ago, I came across the following comment from one of my least favourite economists, Joseph Stiglitz, in a book review in The New York Times: “As a matter of policy, I typically decline to review books that deserve to be panned. You only make enemies.”

On reflection, this seemed a tendentious and somewhat irresponsible line to take. Assuming that experts like Stiglitz are commissioned to write reviews of books, how will they know whether such volumes deserve to be panned or not until they have read them – unless they make a prejudgment based on their understanding of the author’s politics or opinions, and in ignorance of how well the book may have been written? It would be a bit late to accept the commission, read the book, decide it was dreadful, and back out of the contract. But maybe that is why book reviews are overall positive: the publisher of the review wants to encourage readers, not warn them off undeniable clunkers.

Well, I am not worried about making enemies. Heaven knows, I must have upset enough prominent historians and journalists through my writings on coldspur, and the ones who were too elevated to engage with me were never going to change anyway, so that is not a worry that concerns me. And, since I am not in this for the money, I can choose to review what I want. But the two books named above, which would seem, potentially, to play a valuable role in the history of intelligence activities were in their different ways so poor in my opinion that I decided not to waste any further time on them. Incidentally, as I revealed a few months ago, Abrutat has recently been confirmed as the new GCHQ departmental historian.

‘Dead Doubles’

Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes

The 1960-61 case of the Portland Spy Ring is, I assume, fairly well known by enthusiasts of espionage lore. A very public trial took place, and a government inquiry followed. Paul Tietjen, a Daily Mail reporter, wrote a very competent account, Soviet Spy Ring, in 1961, and a movie based on the case, Ring of Spies, appeared in 1964. References are sprinkled round various books, and the several million who read Peter Wright’s Spycatcher will have learned of some of the electronic wizardry that went on in preparation for the arrests. Late in 2019, the National Archives released a batch of files relating to the five subjects in the case, and Trevor Barnes has worked fast and diligently to produce a comprehensive account of what happened, in his recently released Dead Doubles. The title is a little unfortunate: it refers to the Soviet practice of stealing identities of children who died soon after birth, such as Konon Molody was permitted to do with Gordon Lonsdale. Yet it is not the essence of the story, and does not perform justice to the other actors in it.

In 1959, the CIA received a warning from a Polish intelligence officer who was close to defecting, Michael Goleniewski, that secrets were leaking from a top-secret naval research establishment in Portland, Dorset. When MI5 was informed, suspicion soon fell upon Harry Houghton, who maintained a relationship with Ethel Gee, an employee who had access to documents concerning development of underwater weapons technology. Houghton was trailed to London, where he had assignations with an enigmatic character called Gordon Lonsdale. By inspecting Lonsdale’s possessions, and eavesdropping on his apartment, MI5 and GCHQ were able to ascertain that Lonsdale listened to coded messages from Moscow on his wireless, and also owned one-time pads (OTPs) that were necessary for decryption – and probable encryption – of messages. He was in turn followed to a bungalow in Ruislip, where two ostensible New Zealanders, Peter and Helen Kroger, the latter a second-hand book-dealer, were living. As the KGB moved closer on Goleniewski, MI5 had to act quickly, and arrested all five miscreants, soon discovering a hidden wireless apparatus in the Ruislip basement. All five were jailed: Gordon Lonsdale turned out to be one Konon Molody, while the Krogers’ real identities were Morris and Lona Cohen, known to the FBI as dangerous Soviet agents, but lost track of. Molody and the Cohens were soon released in spy swaps.

Barnes’s story does not start well. He supplies a map –  an excellent device, since maps give substance to the dimension of space in the same way that a proper chronology provides a reliable framework for time. In his first sentence, however, he refers to ‘Fitzrovia’ in order to provide a location for ‘Great Portland Street’. But ‘Fitzrovia’ is a literary construct, not an administrative district, and his map betrays the confusion, as Fitzrovia is clumsily packed close to Marylebone, and, to make matters worse, mis-spelled as ‘FIZROVIA’. Moreover, on page 2, Barnes describes a journey from Great Portland Street to the ‘secret MI5 laboratory two miles to the west’. But this establishment does not appear on the map, and it was located two miles to the east, not to the west. Thereafter, some other important places do not appear on the map, such as the CIA’s London Office at 71 Grosvenor Street, referred to on page 15.

After this, Barnes quickly gets into his stride. He has performed all the necessary research to give the story the political and intelligence context it needs, exploiting American and Russian sources, the obvious archives at Kew, as well as the unpublished diaries of Charles Elwell, the MI5 officer on the case, and the papers of Morris Cohen at the Imperial War Museum. He understands the technological issues well, and re-presents them in a highly accessible and comprehensible way. He very rarely gives the impression of bluffing his way through a thorny controversy, although he may be a bit too trusting of that rogue, Peter Wright. (Barnes refers to Wright’s ‘Radio Operations Committee’, when the Spycatcher author wrote of a ‘Radiations Operations Committee’. I can find no trace of such an entity.) The story moves at a smooth pace, although the chronology darts around a little too much for this highly-serial reader, with the result that relevant details of some events are scattered around the text. An irritating structure of Parts and Chapters, a very sparsely populated Index, and – the bane of all inquisitive reference-followers – Endnotes that refer to Parts, but do not describe the relevant chapter or page ranges at the top of their own pages, made close analysis more difficult than it could have been. A master index of National Archives files used would have been useful, rather than having them scattered around the Endnotes. Overall, however, Dead Doubles is unmistakably an indispensable and highly valuable contribution to espionage literature.

And yet. (Coldspur regulars will know there is always an ‘and yet’.) While every aspect of the investigation, arrest and prosecution is fleshed out in gripping detail, I was looking for a deeper analysis of some of the more troubling dimensions of the case. For example, it does not help me to know that, a week before Houghton and Gee were trailed to London on the day of their arrest, the Beatles had given ‘a sensational performance in the ballroom of Litherland Hall’, or that The Avengers serial began on television the same day (January 7, 1961). What I would have liked to read, for example, was a more insightful analysis of why Houghton’s drunkenness and violent behaviour while working for the British Embassy in Warsaw resulted in his being sent home but then transferred to Portland’s Port Auxiliary Unit in 1951, rather than being fired.

It reminded me of the scandalous behaviour of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who benefitted from a series of indulgent job changes, instead of being despatched to earn their living elsewhere. What is it about the British Civil Service that causes it to think that a recruit has a job (and pension) for life? Barnes reveals some fresh information on the way that The Admiralty and MI5 had ignored a damaging report on Houghton provided in 1956 by his abused wife, which was buried, or diminished, and he concentrates on this new archival evidence, but at a cost of overlooking a more dramatic scoop.

For the charges went back farther than that. In his book, Tietjen had recorded, back in 1961, that the British Embassy in Warsaw had declared, when they sent Houghton home in October 1952, that he was ‘a security risk’. If that were true, the whole exposure could have been quashed at birth. (We must remember that Tietjen was not aware of the Goleniewski revelations, or Mrs Johnson’s testimony, when he wrote his book. Moreover, as is clear from his notations, his book was published before the Romer Report on security at Portland came out in June 1961.) It is not clear where Tietjen gained his information about the ‘security risk’ report, but it was obviously official, as Tietjen annotates his awareness of it with a Footnote: “Whether Houghton was ever reported to the Admiralty by Captain Austen as a ‘security risk’ is a matter still under investigation by a specially convened Government committee.”

Yet Barnes does not mention this report in his book: he records an interview (undated, but probably in late May 1960) that MI5 officer George Leggett and MI6’s Harold Shergold had with Captain Nigel Austen, for whom Houghton had worked in Poland, but Barnes does not cite Austen as referring to his own ‘security risk’ report on Houghton. On the contrary, Austen used the opportunity to minimise Houghton’s failings, and bolster his own image: Yes, Houghton had been drinking heavily, but Austen was quick to get rid of him; yes, Houghton did make money on the black market, but then no more than any other Embassy official; Houghton’s wife was as much to blame (‘a colourless, drab individual who disliked being in Warsaw and no doubt was partly responsible for Houghton’s conduct’) for her husband’s behaviour. And when Leggett asked Austen whether he thought Houghton was a spy, Austen suggested that Houghton’s actions never indicated any betrayal of secrets to the Poles. (p 19)

It appears as if Austen had been nobbled by this stage, and instructed that, if he wanted to keep his pension (he had retired in January 1960), he should downplay Houghton’s behaviour, and never mention the ‘security risk’ report. Yet the Admiralty had already started digging its hole. As Barnes writes: “The Admiralty had forwarded this report [UDE to Admiralty in 1956, concerning claims made by his ex-wife, now Mrs. Johnson] to MI5 with a covering note, which disclosed that Houghton had been sent home from Poland because he had become very drunk on one occasion, and ‘it was thought he might break out again and involve himself in trouble with the Poles.” (p 10)

‘On one occasion’? As Barnes adds: “According to Mrs Johnson, while in Warsaw Houghton was ‘frequently the worse for drink in public, and apt to talk loudly and indiscreetly about his work. On . . . occasions, at official parties at the embassy, Captain Austen was obliged to send Houghton home by car, he having become incapable of standing up.’” Moreover, when the MI5 officer James Craggs, ‘a sociable bachelor in his late thirties’, went into the Admiralty on May 5, 1960 to inspect the Houghton files, he apparently learned a lot. “A picture of Houghton’s life began to emerge. In December 1951 Austen had cautioned the navy clerk for heavy drinking, and the following May Austen wrote again to say that Houghton was still drinking excessively. Houghton was sent home later that year, and on his return to the UK he was posted to the UDE at Portland.” (p 12) The Admiralty was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of MI5. Certainly not just ‘one occasion’.

So where did Tietjen get his information? Did officer Craggs find out about the ‘security risk’ in his session at the Admiralty, and leak it to Tietjen? The claims that the Admiralty made were evidently untrue, according to Mrs Johnson’s testimony, but also from the Admiralty files that they must have forgotten to weed. But Craggs surely knew. And the whole problem of suitable behaviour at foreign embassies was brushed under the rug when Lord Carrington addressed the House of Commons on the Romer Report. On June 13 he spoke as follows, as Hansard reports: “1. No criticism can be made of Houghton’s appointment in 1951 as Clerk to the Naval Attaché in Warsaw. Nor can any criticism be made of want of action by the Naval Attaché or the Admiralty in the events leading up to his recall to London, before the expiration of his appointment, on account of his drinking habits. 2. Given the security criteria of the time no legitimate criticism can be made of Houghton’s subsequent appointment in 1952 to a post in the Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland which did not in itself involve access to secret material. It is regrettable however that the authorities at Portland were not informed about the reason for Houghton’s recall from Warsaw.”

So that’s all right, then. Getting continually sloshed is a hazard of working in dull Embassies behind the Iron Curtain. Black market dealings are not mentioned. Nothing is said about the lost ‘security risk’ report. Yet the Admiralty’s own evidence contradicts this smooth elision of what happened. Did Tietjen speak up after the Romer Report was issued, possibly incriminating Craggs, and was he then sworn to silence?  Moreover, a further disturbing complication has to be addressed. In an endnote, Barnes informs us that ‘Craggs’ was not the MI5 officer’s real name (it had been redacted in the archives), and Barnes, though he discovered the real name, had to conceal it, at the request of MI5, because of ‘potential distress to his family’. (Note 8, p 290) 

Apart from questioning why Barnes was negotiating with MI5 during this research, I have to ask:  what could Craggs possibly have done that would require his name to be concealed after sixty years have passed! This must be an epic scandal if today’s cadre of MI5 officers have to be warned about it. Was Craggs perhaps punished severely for leaking information from the Admiralty files to a Daily Mail journalist? Craggs’s inspection of Admiralty records, Tietjen’s knowledge of Austen’s report, Austen’s clumsy interview, the Admiralty’s claim that the report was lost, Cragg’s humiliation and excision from the record: they all point to a dishonourable leakage of information. I believe that Barnes could, and should, have paid more attention to this mystery. By highlighting the fact of his own diligent sleuthing, namely that he had discovered who the anonymous officer was, but then showing no interest in what the scandal was about, Barnes has simply drawn attention to the shenanigans. (I have communicated my thoughts to him, but he has not replied to my latest analysis.)

A related story worthy of deeper investigation is the lamentable security at the Underwater Defence Establishment (UDE) at Portland. On May 11, 1961, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan commissioned Lord Radcliffe to investigate security across all the public services, and the Romer Committee (which was inquiring into Houghton and Gee) delivered its own findings to the Cabinet Secretary on May 30. The Romer report described the lack of security-consciousness at UDE, and criticised the head of the establishment, Captain Pollock, but the outcome was feeble. As Barnes writes: “Although the Portland security officer was dismissed from his post, as a temporary civil servant his pension was not cut; and the head of UDE in 1956, Captain Pollock, who retired in 1958, submitted a robust defence. Almost a year after the Portland trial, the Admiralty decided there were simply no grounds for disciplinary action against him.” What incentive can there be for doing a job properly if the incumbent knows that the institution will always take care of its own? The analysis of the Radcliffe report warrants only two short sentences in Dead Doubles: no doubt Barnes felt it was outside his remit, but this is a subject crying out for greater analysis.

This account presents an absorbing case-study in historiography. Barnes has clearly benefitted from the support and encouragement of his mentor, Christopher Andrew (‘the godfather to this book’), and cites Andrew’s coverage of the case in his 2009 history of MI5, Defending the Realm (pp 484-488). Andrew had offered one line about the failure of MI5 to follow up on the clues provided by Houghton’s ex-wife. But Andrew was characteristically oblique in his sources, listing solely his traditional ‘Security Service Archives’, some conversations with MI5 officers, and some selective – and thus, highly questionable – references to Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. (which Andrew shamelessly lists in his Bibliography). The only specific source was an obscure article in Police Journal by Charles Elwell, one of Barnes’s key witnesses, written under the pseudonym ‘Elton’. See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0032258X7104400203 .  (I do not believe Barnes cites this, but it may have been inserted into the recently released files.)

Yet a useful file was available at the National Archives at that time. In his 2012 work, The Art of Betrayal, Gordon Corera also wrote about the Portland Spy Ring at length, and dedicated a paragraph (p 234) to the fact that Houghton’s ex-wife believed that he was in touch with Communist agents. Corera quotes the response from MI5 that her accusations were ‘nothing more than the outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife’, citing the file ADM 1/30088, which was the text of the Romer Inquiry. One can ascertain from the Kew Catalogue that this file is accompanied by ADM 116/6295-6297: they appear to have been stored for access in the 1960s, and updated with various items since. Yet these files (which Andrew could have named) are not referred to by Barnes. Instead, he uses the more comprehensive version of the Romer Inquiry issued in 2017, at CAB 301/248. I have not been able to compare the two, but it is important to recognize that the facts about MI5’s oversights in not checking out Houghton have been known for almost sixty years.

Furthermore, Chapman Pincher claimed, at the same time, that Macmillan ‘declined to publish Romer’s findings’, and that they were not published until 2007, when the Cabinet Office yielded to a Freedom of Information request from Dr Michael Goodman. That presumably relates, however, to Cabinet Office files, not Admiralty records. (Infuriatingly, the Catalogue entry for ADM 1/30088 does not give a release date.) Naturally, Pincher places all the blame on Roger Hollis, and that his ‘minimalist policy’ had allowed Houghton to continue his espionage untroubled. That was more an indictment of incompetence rather than of treachery. If Hollis had really wanted the Portland Spy Ring to remain a secret, he would surely have arranged things so that Lonsdale left town at the first available opportunity.

I believe Barnes might have plunged in more boldly on some other intelligence aspects of the case, and I highlight six here:

  1. Lonsdale’s One-Time Pads:  One of the key discoveries made when Lonsdale’s safe-deposit box was opened by MI5 was a set of three one-time pads (OTPs), vital for the decryption of incoming and outgoing messages. It seems that Helen Kroger keyed in all of Lonsdale’s messages, both the confidential ones (encyphered and typed on his typewriter), and the family ones (in manuscript) that were found in HK’s bag. One of the pads evidently referred to encyphered messages received on Lonsdale’s general-purpose wireless set, and MI5 & GCHQ were able to detect the frequency of personalized transmissions by inspecting the use of the pad. Thus the second of the three OTPs found in Lonsdale’s box must have been used for the encypherment of transmissions. Why did GCHQ/MI5 not notice or comment on how pages in this OTP had been used up, as they did with his receiver OTP? And what was the third OTP used for? Barnes does not comment.
  2. Lonsdale in Ruislip: The reason that the Krogers were able to be arrested was because Lonsdale had unwittingly led his surveillance officers to their bungalow. But why did Lonsdale have to visit them? It sounds to me like very dangerous tradecraft. He should surely have met Helen or Peter at a neutral location to pass over his documents. After all, when Lonsdale was extradited to Berlin in the swap with Greville Wynne, he told MI5 officers, as they went through Ruislip, that they had chosen that location because of the US air traffic that would mask their transmissions, so why would the three of them endangered that ruse by the possibility of Lonsdale’s leading surveillance officers to the secret place?
  3. Flash Mode: Barnes comments that the Krogers had been issued with a ‘novel’ wireless apparatus (the R-350-M) that operated in ‘flash’ mode, namely allowing keyed messages to be stored on tape, and then sent at ultra-high speeds to Moscow to avoid interception and direction-finding. If the Krogers had been using flash mode from the start, why would they have been concerned about direction-finding? The operation would have been over before GCHQ could even contact a van, if they had been able to pick up the signal (which Arthur Bonsall of GCHQ said was impossible, anyway.) Barnes refers to their previous equipment as the ‘Astra’ box, but does not describe it fully, or explain whether it was also capable of ’flash’ operation.  His reference to ‘novel’ suggests that the previous box did not have flash capabilities. This characteristic is important in the story of interception.
  4. Interception and Direction-Finding: Astonishingly, the status of GCHQ’s ability to intercept and locate illicit transmissions in 1960 appears to be markedly weaker than it was in World War II, as is shown by the testimony from Bonsall that Barnes cites. Coldspur readers will recall that Peter Wright claimed that GCHQ said that it would have been impossible for Agent Sonia to have operated undetected in the years 1941 to 1945. Yet by 1959 GCHQ admits defeat in its ability to pick up clandestine traffic targeted towards Moscow, and needs MI5 to tip it off about the places to watch! There is an untold story here about the reality and deterioration of the capabilities of the RSS (after the war The Diplomatic Wireless Service). (I have my own theories on this, which I shall explain in my culminating chapter on Sonia and Wireless Detection.)
  5. Soviet Stable of Spies: Barnes makes some highly provocative claims about the presence of unnamed Soviet spies and illegals, assertions that are dropped into the text – almost carelessly. He writes that, at the time of the arrests, GCHQ was aware of ‘radio signals transmitted by KGB illegals in the UK’. So how did they know of the existence of such? Elsewhere he refers to the ‘stable of spies’ which had issued burst signals similar to those transmitted by the Krogers? Who were these people? He also states that MI5 had no practical experience of KGB illegals. Apart from the fact that they were aware of Soviet illegals in the 1930s (Mally & co.), if GCHQ knew of them, MI5 must surely have known them, too. This is a puzzle that I do not understand, and I am anxious to know Barnes’s sources.
  6. Lonsdale’s Death: Lastly, the demise of Lonsdale. I have a particular interest in the dozens of cases of unexplained or early deaths of those who incurred the wrath of the KGB, and whom Sudoplatov’s ‘Special Tasks’ group may have pursued and annihilated. Barnes recounts Lonsdale’s death from a heart-attack in Moscow while mushroom-picking (a notoriously dangerous Russian pastime, by the way). Was this a straightforward medical incident? After all (as Barnes relates) he received death warnings, feared being shot on his return, was openly critical of Soviet society, and was given multiple injections shortly before he died. Is it not possible that his appalling tradecraft incurred the ire of KGB high-ups?

The good news is that I have presented this set of questions to Mr. Barnes himself, and he has accepted them as appropriate and thought-provoking. He has promised to inspect them more closely when he is not so busy. He must be much in demand with the attention over his book, as he well deserves to be. I look forward avidly to Barnes’s eventual response. His discomfort with Peter Wright comes through in his narrative, where he is sensibly cautious in accepting some of Wright’s claims about GCHQ’s interceptions of related messages. That is the perennial challenge for Barnes, and Andrew, and anyone else who chooses to cite Wright’s recollections from Spycatcher. Why do you accept some assertions, but discount others, and what does the inclusion of the book in your Bibliography mean?

I also wish Barnes had pushed his comprehensive reportage a bit further into analysis, and not withdrawn because of pressure from MI5, but I still encourage you to read Dead Doubles. And please send me your thoughts on the issues I have listed. In order to ensure the confidentiality of our correspondence, I do remind you all not to re-use your one-time pads (as some of you have been doing), and to ensure that your indicator groups appear in your message after my name, not before it. And, if you run out of one-time pads, we use Wisden’s Almanac, 2016 edition (not 2015!) as our reference book. Got that?  It shouldn’t be that difficult, should it?

‘Atomic Spy’

Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)

Does the world need another biography of Klaus Fuchs? I have on my shelf those by Norman Ross, Robert Chadwell Williams, and Eric Rossiter, as well as last year’s epic composition by Frank Close. Evidently, the publishers at Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, thought so, even though Close’s Trinity was published by Allen Lane, also an imprint of Penguin Random House. Presumably Ms. Greenspan knew about Frank Close’s concurrent work, and she indeed lists it in her biography. So one might expect a novel interpretation of the life of the atomic spy with divergent loyalties. The sub-title is ‘The Dark Lives of Klaus Fuchs’. Dark – as in ‘previously undisclosed’? Or as in ‘sinister’?

And what are Ms. Greenspan’s qualifications for writing about Fuchs, and what is her approach? It is not clear. She is recorded as having collaborated with her late husband, Stanley, on works of child psychiatry, and she published a book on the Life and Science of Max Born a decade ago, but I can find no record of her academic credentials. Moreover, she appeared to require large doses of help in compiling her work – not just the predictable interviews with a large range of offspring of friends and associates of Fuchs, but availing herself of an impressive list of persons who ‘agreed to interviews, tours, meetings, teas, and lunches and in every way were supportive’, from Charles and Nicola Perrin to the inevitable Nigel West and the elusive Alexander Vassiliev. How very unlike the solitary drudgery in which coldspur finds himself performing his researches! I should add, however, that while I shall probably not breakfast in Aberystwyth again, I did have a very pleasant lunch with Nigel West a few years ago, but am still awaiting Sir Christopher Andrew’s invitation to tea.

Ms. Greenspan lists a highly impressive set of international archival references, which point to a broad and deep study of the available material. Moreover, one noticeable feature of Greenspan’s detailed endnotes is the fact that she appears to have had access to some of the Fuchs files that have been withheld at Kew, such as the AB/1 series, which has been closed for access for most human beings. Her ability to inspect Rudolf Peierls’s correspondence, for instance, represents a highly controversial feather in her cap, which demands a more open explanation. Why would the relevant ministries allow an American writer to inspect such files, and why does she not explain her tactics in achieving such a coup? I was immediately intrigued to know whether her access to papers that the authorities have, in their wisdom, deemed too confidential to be exploited by the common historian, enabled her to construct some piercing breakthroughs in analysing Fuchs’s relationship with his political masters in the United Kingdom. When researching this matter with an on-line colleague, however, I was informed that she (and Frank Close) both probably benefitted from the availability of papers before the decision to withdraw them – primarily the AB 1/572-577 series of Rudolf Peierls’s correspondence. From a study of her endnotes, and those of Close (which are, incidentally, a treasure trove in their own right, which teaches more on each subsequent inspection), it would appear that Greenspan delved more widely in these particular arcana than did Close. What prompted the sudden secrecy by units of the British government over atomic research in the 1940s remains an enigma.

Greenspan’s methodical coverage of the sources is, however, not reflected in the originality of her text.  Atomic Spy is overall disappointing, and does not add much to our understanding of Fuchs’s motivations and behaviour. Nevertheless, in four aspects, I thought Greenspan provided some fresh value worth noting. She dedicates four excellent chapters on Fuchs’s experiences in Kiel and Berlin in 1932 and 1933 – a period compressed to just two pages in Close’s account – describing vividly the terrors that the Nazis imposed on opposition groups, but especially the German Communist Party. At the age of twenty-one, Klaus had taken over from his brother, Gerhard, the leadership of the Free Socialist Student Group (a cover name) in Kiel. Gerhard had escaped to Berlin, but Klaus was now a hunted man, under sentence of death. On February 28, 1933, Klaus himself escaped from Kiel, when he was number one on the list to be arrested, and moved to Berlin. Very recklessly, when Gerhard had had to go into hiding, Klaus continued to try to recruit students to the communist cause, when it was clearly a hopeless venture. The Nazis were leaving mangled bodies of communists on the streets. In mid-July, Klaus boarded a train for Aachen, Paris, and eventually Bristol.

Greenspan also sheds fresh light on the horrors of internment that Fuchs and others experienced on the S. S. Ettrick on the voyage to Canada in July 1940, the brutal way that the prisoners were treated by their guards, and the vile conditions that existed on the ship, with thirteen hundred refugees crowded into a hold with the portholes shut in conditions of unbelievable squalor. According to Fuchs, the communists did most of the work in cleaning up the vomit and excrement that swamped the place. While they were at sea, they heard that U-boats had torpedoed the sister ship, the Arandora Star. Dry land in Canada may have been a relief after ten days on the Atlantic Ocean, but conditions in the camp were also grim to start with, a freezing winter making life desperately uncomfortable. The prisoners successfully petitioned for improved conditions, and by December Fuchs was a member of one of the first lists of internees to be sent back to Britain. One can forgive him for harbouring a grudge against the treatment they received, and the frequent accusations and insults that they heard from guards and civilians that he and his fellow internees were ‘Nazis’ simply because they were Germans.

The third area where I believe that Greenspan is more perceptive than other biographers is her coverage of the conversations between Henry Arnold, the security officer at Harwell, and Klaus, in late 1949. A possible defence that Fuchs could have used at his trial was that he had been ‘induced’ by Arnold, and John Cockcroft, the director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, into confessing his espionage a spart of a deal. The concern that Fuchs’s confession might not have been truly voluntary brought MI5 to questioning whether the prosecution might fail on that account. Moreover, he had not been cautioned appropriately. Thus the written confession that he provided became extremely important.  MI5’s attorney, B. A. Hill, was comfortable, however, with the sequence of events, and moved to advise the prosecuting lawyer, Christmas Humphreys. Yet Fuchs’s decision to say nothing at his initial hearing (on February 10, 1950), and the reluctance of Derek Curtis-Bennett, who represented Fuchs at the trial that took place on March 1, to challenge the Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, on what Greenspan describes as ‘the now open secret of inducement’ is puzzling and disturbing. Curtis-Bennett, perhaps under instructions, made a very disjointed plea in Fuchs’s defence, but Fuchs had little to say when invited by Lord Goddard to speak.

Lastly, Greenspan adds some useful information about Fuchs from his time in East Germany, where he did not get the heroes’ welcome that he expected, maybe naively. The Soviets wanted no suggestion that they had acquired the atomic bomb other than from their own research and imagination. The author writes: “No celebrations and accolades welcomed him. The Russians wanted no reference to his passing them information. According to them, they had discovered the atomic secrets themselves. Russia’s denial of any connection to him made his past taboo. Even his nephew Klaus had felt the long arm of the KGB. When he applied for admission to Leipzig University in 1956, he included that his uncle had spied for Russia. University officials accused him of lying. Russia didn’t have spies. They forced him to delete the information.” But what is surprising is that Greenspan does not include the passage from the Vassilievsky Notebooks, where Sonia (Ursula Beurton, née Kuczynski) was quick to tell the authorities how ashamed she was of Fuchs’s conduct in confessing, and how, if she had been given the chance to give him a firm talking-to, the whole messy business of arrest and trial could have been avoided.

Yet the reader has to trudge through some familiar territory, well-ploughed by Close, to glean these insights. And Greenspan leaves behind a number of errors in her wake, mainly because she appears to have spent little time in the British Isles. She characterizes MI6 as ‘the military division of foreign intelligence’, represents the British intelligence establishment as ‘dominated by toffs’ from Eton or Harrow, which was certainly not the case, and introduces Edinburgh (where Fuchs returned to work under Max Born) in the following terms: “Januarys in Edinburgh are blustery and gray. The cold, raw air from the English Channel blankets the city of stone and seeps into the bones”, an observation bound to raise the hackles of even the most indulgent Caledonian. She hazards a guess that Sonia might have been in contact with Fuchs in 1949 because of ‘the proximity of Harwell to Great Rollright’, when Sonia had in fact lived closer to Harwell beforehand, and there is no evidence that she and Fuchs got together again in the UK after 1943. I would have thought that one of her many advisory readers would have shown a greater familiarity with British geography and institutions. Like many chroniclers, Greenspan is also a bit too trusting of ‘Sonya’s Report’.

The final judgments that emanate from all this teamwork are drearily mundane and misguided. She phrases her final verdict thus: “Fuchs’s actions left most people confused, but what they didn’t see was that his life, circumscribed from within, was consistent and constant to his unwavering set of ideals, he sought the betterment of mankind that transcended national boundaries. His goal became to balance world power and to prevent nuclear blackmail. As he saw it, science was his weapon in a war to protect humanity.” If this is what ‘Dark Lives’ consists of, it is very feeble, and represents the tired refrain that a traitor like Fuchs, who, like Sonia, took advantage of British citizenship, and then betrayed his adopted home, should somehow be forgiven because he was ‘sincere’. (Shortly before she died, Lorna Arnold, the official historian at AERE Harwell, gave Frank Close a similar testimony.) ‘An unwavering set of ideals’ – much the same could be said of Lenin, and Stalin, all the way to their grisly imitators such as Pol Pot, all laced with the vague narcissistic illusion that the hero of our tale had it in his hands the ability ‘to balance world power’. It is a shoddy ending to a weakly-conceived and ill-timed book.

Ms. Greenspan needed some help with her writing, as she acknowledges no less than sixteen persons who read ‘most or some of the manuscript’, a handful who helped her with German and Russian translations, another twelve who made suggestions or who provided introductions, and archivists from thirty or so libraries who pointed her in the right direction, as well as her team of agents, editors, project managers, an endnote compiler, and a copy editor. As an author who had to perform my own copy-editing with no benefit of outside readers, and was obliged to reconstruct my own text after an ‘experimental’ editor mangled my words and punctuation, who had to create all the footnotes and endnotes, create the Affinity Charts and Biographical Index, select and organize the illustrations, undertake the laborious task of constructing an index, recruit my own PR agency, and then, when a copy of Misdefending the Realm was requested for review purposes by the Times Literary Supplement, had to order a copy from amazon for the reviewer since my editor had taken off for India for a month without informing me, I was both overwhelmed and disenchanted. It is rather like comparing two expeditions to the Hindu Kush. The Zoological Society would take hampers of chutney, chocolate and champagne with them, and recruit a posse of porters and ponies to carry their provisions, while Eric Newby or Eric Shipton would go alone, with a rucksack on their backs. But it is the solo explorers who bring back the more intriguing stories.

‘An Impeccable Spy’

An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)

The only major feature wrong with this book is its title. If a spy were truly ‘impeccable’, he (or she) would be infiltrated silently into a target institution, would extract vital secrets and deliver them to his controllers without ever being detected, his achievements would never be lauded and publicized, and he would die in obscurity, his name and cryptonym forever a secret. No doubt there have been persons like that. But there would be no material to write biographies of them.

Richard Sorge (the subject of Owen Matthews’ book) was far from that model. He behaved ostentatiously, drawing attention to himself, he was caught by the Japanese, he confessed his crimes, and was eventually hanged. Up until the last day he believed that Stalin would rescue him in some exchange deal because of his dedication, and the value he had brought to his bosses. Yet that was not the way Stalin thought. Sorge was a failure because he had got himself caught. And maybe Sorge knew at heart that a return to Moscow might mean death at the hands of his employers. After all, in Stalin’s eyes, Sorge had lived too long abroad, would clearly have been subject to non-communist influences, and might disapprove of how Stalin had distorted the Bolshevik impulse. Moreover, he was half-German.  Let him swing.

Biographers of spies have to spice up their stories to attract attention, admittedly. ‘The Most Dangerous Spy in History’ (Fuchs, according to Frank Close); ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’ (Fuchs, according to Mike Rossiter); ‘Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy’ (Sonia, according to Ben Macintyre), ‘The Spy Who Changed History’ (Shumovsky, according to Lokhova), etc. etc. Matthews appears to have taken his inspiration from Kim Philby, perhaps a dubious authority in this métier. Philby is quoted on the dust-jacket as stating that Sorge’s ‘work was impeccable’, John le Carré, for good measure, classifies Sorge as ‘the best spy of all time’, and Ian Fleming is recorded on the cover as claiming that Sorge was ‘the most formidable spy in history’, all reflecting an enthusiasm for bohemianism and extravagance rather than patience and discretion.

Sorge’s life was a rambunctious and exhilarating one. He was born in 1895 in Baku, in the Russian Empire, of a German father and Russian mother. He served on the Western Front, where he became a communist. After the Russian revolution, he moved to Moscow, where he was recruited by the Comintern, and roamed around Europe on various missions, including a short stay in the United Kingdom in 1929. Shortly after that, he was instructed to join the Nazi party with cover as a journalist, and sent to Shanghai, China in 1930, to join a motley international group of ne’er-do-wells, conspirators, saboteurs, spies and activists, and among his sexual conquests were Agnes Smedley and Ursula Hamburger (Sonia). (In Agent Sonya, Ben Macintyre has written: “Exactly when Ursula Hamburger and Richard Sorge became lovers is still a matter of debate.” That may be so in London, but in the circles in which I move, the precise date of that tempestuous event has never been a topic of conversation.) On a return to Moscow in 1933, where Sorge got married, he received fresh instructions to go to Japan and organize an intelligence network, since Stalin was more concerned about the threat from the East than he was of the Nazi menace. He went there via Germany, where he was able to build links with the Nazi Party, and thereafter led a stressful double life of hobnobbing with Nazi officials while building contacts with the Japanese government, and recruiting Max Clausen to send his reports to Vladivostok by wireless. He provided much valuable information to Stalin – although some of it is overrated – but the Japanese penetrated his ring, and he was arrested on October 18, 1941, interrogated and tortured. He then confessed, and was hanged on November 7, 1944.

I was familiar with Owen Matthews from an earlier work of his, Stalin’s Children (2008), which was not literally about the Dictator’s own offspring, but consisted of an uneasy combination of private memoir and serious history. It was an affecting and occasionally moving composition, uncovering the stories of Matthews’ maternal Russian grandparents (his grandfather was killed in the purges of 1937, and his grandmother lost her mind in the Gulag), and the love-affair of his own parents. (The granting of his mother’s visa to leave for Britain was part of the deal to free the Krogers, noted above.) Yet I found it flawed, owing to some mystical nonsense about ‘blood memory’, a lot of speculation about his grandfather’s thoughts and intentions, the insertion of many now familiar stories of the Ukrainian famine and the Purges, too much shy-making information on the author’s own love-life, and an irritatingly but no doubt fashionably erratic approach to the chronology of his story. The book was 50% longer than it needed to be.

Matthews, who spoke Russian before he learned English, studied Modern History at my alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford, and then pursued a career as a journalist, working in Moscow from 1997. His account of Sorge’s life is methodical, and sensibly cautious about many of the rumours that surrounded Sorge’s career in the muddle of Shanghai and wartime Japan. (I must confess that I have not read any other of the Sorge biographies, so cannot compare.) He has had access to American, German, Russian and Japanese archival sources, with necessary assistance in translation, and professes a large and learned bibliography. There is little of the Pincherite speculation about assignments and recruitment (e.g. ‘Hollis’s position at BAT would have been of interest to the GRU’ and ‘Sorge could have encountered Hollis there [at the YMCA]’: Treachery, page 46).

Matthews does comment on the Hollis case, however, although mainly in an endnote (of which there are many rich examples). On pages 367 and 368 he spends perhaps too much space on a topic that is not germane to the Sorge story, echoing the line of the Pincherite-Wrightean clique of faux-historians. He states that ‘there is evidence that Luise Rimm [the wife of a GRU operator] had a love affair with Roger Hollis that lasted three years’, and he accuses Hollis of being deceptive about his movements in China and Moscow. He is firmly of the belief that Hollis alone was able to shield Sonia from investigation, concluding, rather lamely: “The record is clear that Hollis was that protective hand, for reasons that make no apparent sense unless he was the agent ‘Elli’ and was working, like Sonja, for the GRU”. It would have been better for Matthews to have stepped back from this particular controversy.

I found a few mistakes about personalities and organisation. Matthews introduces Peter Wright as ‘the Australian-born head of MI5 counter-intelligence’, which is wrong on two counts. And he gets a bit carried away about Shanghai in the 1920s. One sentence stands out, on pp 57-58: “In the 1920s Shanghai hosted many of the great Soviet illegals of the age – Arnold Deutsch (who went on to recruit Kim Philby), Theodore Maly (later controller of the Cambridge Five), Alexander Rado (one of the many agents who would later warn Stalin of Nazi plans to invade the Soviet Union), Otto Katz (one of the most effective recruiters of fellow-travellers to the Soviet cause from Paris to Hollywood), Leopold Trepper (founder of the Rote Kapelle spy ring inside Germany before the Second World War), as well as legendary Fourth Department illegals Ignace Poretsky and Walter Krivitsky, Ruth Werner [Sonia] and Wilhelm Pieck.” No matter that this was the decade before Sorge arrived, that not all of these characters were ’illegals’, and that none of them was mythical. Sonia did not arrive there until 1930, and Agnes Smedley would have been very upset to have been omitted from this list of desperadoes. How a lot of problems would have been forestalled if this crew had been mopped up at the time and locked away where they could do no damage!

The account of Sorge’s eventual entrapment and arrest is very dramatic, and Matthews tells it well. I was particularly interested, because of my research into Sonia’s activities, in the attempts to determine the location of Clausen’s transmitter, as one would think that the Japanese would have been ruthless and efficient in tracking down illicit transmissions. Matthews reports: “Thanks to their own radio monitoring, and after a tip-off from the military government in Korea, the Japanese authorities knew that a powerful illegal transmitter was regularly operating from various sites in the Tokyo area. An all-points bulletin was sent out to all municipal police stations, including Toriizaka, to try to spot the source of the signals. But the Japanese were never able to successfully triangulate Clausen’s radio. And happily for Sorge, the Russian military code he used proved unbreakable – though the messages were faithfully monitored and transcribed by the Japanese in an ever-thickening file of unintelligible strings of number groups.” It seems to me that because of the wavelengths that Clausen would have been using, and the peculiar shape of Japan, and its mountains, that detecting the exact location of Clausen’s transmissions (and he did sensibly move around) turned out to be impossible.

Matthews’s final judgment endorses the view that Sorge was impeccable because he was ‘brave, brilliant and relentless’, and he laments the Soviet Union’s overall indifference to him, and the fact that it engaged in ‘the ultimate betrayal of its greatest spy.’ “It was Sorge’s tragedy that his masters were venal cowards who placed their own careers before the vital interests of the country that he laid down his life to serve” is the last sentence in Mathews’ book. Well, that is one way of looking at it. But you could also say that he was just like every other Stalinist dupe: he was consumed by a dopey ideology, believed that he was one of the charmed saviours of humanity, and completely overlooked the evidence that pointed to the fact that Stalin was a monster who would show no compassion or mercy when his underlings were no longer of use to him. One of Matthews’ excellent commentaries contains the following chilling fact (p 179): Soviet military intelligence had six different heads between 1937 and 1939, five of whom would be executed. The Hall of Fame consists of the following:

            Jan Berzin, 1924-April 1935

            Semyon Uritsky, April 1935-July 1937

            Jan Berzin, July 1937-August 1937

            Alexander Nikonov, August 1937-August 1937

            Semyon Gendin, September 1937-October 1938

            Alexander Orlov, October 1938-April 1939

            Ivan Proskurov, April 1939-July 1940

            Filipp Golikov, July 1940-October 1941

Alexei Panfilov, October 1941-November 1942

Not a career to be undertaken lightly. One might wonder why Jan Berzin, the second time round, didn’t reflect on the opportunity, and select a quieter and less hazardous occupation, such as deep-sea diving. But you couldn’t do that with Stalin. Once you were in the maw, you had no control. And the same for Sorge. Despite its occasional missteps, I recommend this book highly.

‘Master of Deception’

Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)

‘Joyce Carey playing Myrtle Bagot’

Most readers will probably recall Peter Fleming as the elder brother of Ian Fleming, or the husband of Celia Johnson, whose controlled performance of thwarted passion made Brief Encounter such an iconic film. That story of how Sonia (Celia Johnson) met Klaus Fuchs (Trevor Howard) at Birmingham’s Snow Hill Station, and then how the couple had to subdue their romance for the cause of delivering atomic secrets safely to the Soviet Embassy [are you sure this is correct? Ed.], was a box-office hit in 1945, and notable for the cameo performance by Joyce Carey playing Myrtle Bagot [sic! Milicent’s sister?], an MI5 officer under cover as the restaurant owner.  Perhaps more authentically, I remember being introduced to Fleming in his travel-book, Brazilian Adventure (1933) about a poorly-organized search for Percy Fawcett, which entertained me because the author appeared to parody himself. I thus keenly consumed his One’s Company (1934) and News from Tartary (1936), in which his cover as a journalist allowed him to perform some intelligence-gathering on behalf of MI6. (There is no evidence that he had an affair with Sonia while he was in Manchukuo, and Sonia wisely decided to omit all references to any such liaison in her memoir.) His account of Hitler’s plans after the invasion of Britain, Invasion 1940, was of great historical interest to me. Finally, I enjoyed Duff Hart-Davis’s biography of Fleming, published in 1974.

Thus I jumped at the opportunity to learn more when Alan Ogden’s Master of Deception appeared last year, especially since it carried a warm endorsement from Professor Glees on the back cover. Alan Ogden was not a name I knew, but, since he has written several books about the Special Operations Executive, especially concerning activities in a region of the world that I find utterly absorbing – Transylvania, Romania, and parts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire – I thought that it was an omission that I should quickly remedy. Ogden has set himself the task of documenting Fleming’s war experiences in the Military Intelligence Directorate (MIR) and then in what Ogden calls the ‘mysterious’ D. Division, which was responsible for deception in the Far East.

Part of the problem of recording faithfully what went on in military intelligence circles is the tendency to be overwhelmed with acronyms, liaison officers, operational code-names, and a host of minor figures, the Biffies, Jumboes and Tigers who populated this realm. (Ogden recognises part of this challenge in his Preface, where he declares his aim to reduce the ‘alphabet soup’. Yet he provides no glossary of acronyms, and his Index is very weak.) Thus it requires a large amount of concentration and patience to keep up with the stream of codewords and rapidly changing military units that evolved as the war changed its shape. Another hurdle for the author to overcome, however, is more paradoxical, and more serious. Even though Fleming is characterised as the ‘Master of Deception’, his schemes and campaigns were essentially failures – not because of his lack of inventiveness, but because the enemy refused to bite, or because the battle was lost for external reasons. A campaign record of Norway, Greece, the Pacific and Burma is not the most illustrious showcase for how deception operations won the day.

I have recently studied the deception campaign supporting the Normandy landings (see http://www.coldspur.com/the-mystery-of-the-undetected-radios-part-8/ ), and it was informative to discover that much of the investment that the Allies put into the movements of dummy armies was wasted because the Germans did not have the capacity nor the imagination to interpret all the fake signals and equipment that were constructed to convince them of the existence of FUSAG. The Nazis were nowhere near to building a picture of the organisation and order of battle of the Allies to match what British and American intelligence had constructed concerning Nazi forces. Thus Germany came to be completely reliant on its crew of agents, who had either been ‘turned’ or had signed up for the Abwehr originally with the intention of working for the opposition. And British intelligence was able to manipulate the Abwehr and its successors simply because they wanted to be misled.

Whereas deception, under Lt.-Colonel Dudley Clarke’s ‘A’ Force, had been successful in Africa, it was a struggle in the war in Burma and the frontiers of Japanese-controlled territory. As Fleming himself wrote in a report: “There can be no question that the Japanese Intelligence was greatly inferior in all respects to the German and even the Italian Intelligence. The successful deception practiced on the Axis military machine in Europe was made possible by the fact that the enemy’s Intelligence staffs and services were, though gullible, well organized and reasonably influential.” As Ogden concludes, D. Division’s plans were too sophisticated: Philip Mason, head of the Conference Secretariat (SEAC), echoed Fleming’s judgment: “Deceiving the Germans had been very different; they wanted to know our plans and expected us to try and deceive them. That had been like playing chess with someone not quite as good as oneself.; with the Japanese, it was like setting up the chessboard against an adversary whose one idea was to punch you on the nose.”

Fleming was to explain failure in other ways, such as a lack of knowledge with the deception planners as to what military strategies actually were in a chaotic and dispersed region – very different from what existed in the European theatre. But a naivety about deception, and maybe an overestimation of achievement, and a lack of understanding of how controlling agents was supposed to work, were evident in other activities. Ogden reports how, in March 1943, our old coldspur friend John Marriott was sent to India to advise on how a new section should be formed to handle double-agents (a formulation that immediately highlights a problem, as you cannot be sure you have ‘double-agents’ until you have trained them, and brought them strictly under your control). Ogden reports: “Marriott’s credentials were impeccable save in one respect. He had never been to India, and knew next to nothing about its peculiarities, impediments and handicaps.” Marriott was very critical of the set-up in India, and Fleming appeared to have been rather disdainful of Marriott’s practical experience. For where were these double-agents going to come from? Who arrested them, interrogated them, and who was to ‘turn’ them, and ensure that they were loyal to you? Moreover, Fleming frequently upset the military brass with his unconventionality. One judgment recorded by Ogden is that of Colonel Bill Magan, one of the officers in the Delhi Intelligence Bureau. He found Fleming ‘an irresponsible, ambitious and irrational man who was always trying to persuade us to pass messages which we believed would “blow” the channel.’

Ogden has clearly done his homework, as is shown by the hundred or so files from the National Archives that he lists in his Sources, and whose contents are faithfully reflected in his text. But it becomes a bit of a trudge working through his story to find the nuggets. Too many multi-page reports are embedded, when they should preferably have been summarized, and the complete versions relegated to Appendices. Much detail about operations, which is surely of considerable value to the dedicated military historian, could have been left out in order to focus more tightly on the author’s main thrust, and Fleming sometimes gets lost in the caravanserai.

Yet nuggets there certainly are. I was delighted to add the following assessment to my dossier on Roger Hollis. In August 1939, Fleming was invited to submit his recommendations as to who, among associates he had known, might be useful to the war effort, and offered, among his testimonies, that Hollis ‘Did several years in China with BAT’, adding: “Though he has not been there recently, his judgement of Far Eastern affairs has always impressed me as unusually realistic. His cooperation, or even his comments, might be valuable at an early stage, particularly as he is available in London.” Nothing appeared to come from this, but the outwardly rather dim Hollis had impressed someone who knew what he was talking about, and gained a fan of note. (My dossier has also been enriched this month by one of the more memorable phrases in Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya: “He [Hollis] was a plodding, slightly droopy bureaucrat with the imaginative flair of an omelet.”)

Another gem consists of a paper that Fleming wrote in Chungking in 1942, titled ‘Total Intelligence’, which, by using the fictitious example of Ruritania in 1939, outlined how a diverse set of intelligence sources could be harnessed without consolidating the gatherers of intelligence into one massive organisation. The paper takes almost ten pages of text, and should thus likewise have been a candidate for appendicisation, but it deserves broader exposure, and is well worth reading.  I was a bit puzzled, however, by Ogden’s brief commentary on this report, where he indicates that, addressing Fleming’s criticism, SOE went out of his way to recruit business men and bankers to assist them in undermining the enemy. But SOE was a sabotage organisation, not an intelligence-gathering unit (although intelligence came its way by way of its destructive exploits), and I should have liked Ogden to explore this dilemma – one so keenly understood by MI6 – in a little more depth.

So what is the verdict on Fleming? Ogden’s assessment is a little surprising. He writes (p 274): “As the new world order unfurled, with his knowledge of and experience in dealing with Russia and China, he was eminently well qualified for a top post in either SIS or MI5.” That seems to me an errant call. Fleming had no insider reputation in the Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service, and his sudden appointment would surely have provoked resentment. Moreover, I believe he was temperamentally unsuited for roles that required tact, patience, and an ability to negotiate with Whitehall. He was an adventurer, a maverick, and would have bridled at all the protocols and formalities of communicating with career civil servants – something that Dick White was famously good at. It is not surprising that Fleming took early retirement as a gentleman farmer.

‘Master of Deception’ he may have been, but the targets of his deception frequently failed to act like English gentlemen, or perform as they were supposed to, not having installed the obvious British-like institutions. In one important passage, Fleming’s frustrations come through. As Ogden writes, of one multi-year operation that had minimal impact, the HICCOUGHS project, which planted a network of notional agents in Burma, and somehow caused them to send messages back to Delhi (p 228): “For two years, Fleming and the HICCOUGHS case attached little importance to this rather tiresome routine commitment since it was transparently flawed. ‘Why,’ asked Fleming, ‘if our agents could communicate with us by W/T, could we not communicate with them by the same means? Why, if we were forced to broadcast messages to them, did we continue to use a low-grade cipher? How was it that they were all (apparently) able to listen in twice daily at fixed times to receive a message when in most cases it affected only one of them? How was it that the Japanese Radio Security Service never obtained the slightest clue to the places and times at which they transmitted their lengthy and invaluable reports? Why, after all this talk about sabotage and subversion, did nothing ever happen?’”

This was perhaps an admission that ingenuity alone was not enough. It needed comprehensive understanding and support from the military organisation, and it required, even more, a proper assessment of the psychology of the enemy, insights into how its intelligence units thought, and a clear idea of what behavioural changes the operation was trying to achieve. Causing confusion was not enough.

‘Secret’

Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey (2019) [guest review by Denis Lenihan]

Even taking into account the generation gap, there are some remarkable similarities between Brian Toohey (born 1944) and Harry Chapman Pincher (1914-2014). Both began their journalistic careers in conventional fields, Toohey in finance, although the Australian Financial Review when he joined it in the 1970s had perhaps a somewhat broader range than now. Pincher’s field was initially defence and science on the Daily Express in the Beaverbrook days after the war. Both had the gift or the knack of attracting confidences, so that senior figures in government leaked material which they wished to see released, for varying reasons. The historian E P Thompson described Pincher as

“a kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials of MI5 and MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, Lord George-Brown, chiefs of the air staff, nuclear scientists, Lord Wigg and others, stand patiently leaking in the public interest. One can only admire their resolute attention to these distasteful duties.”

Pincher’s sources went beyond that group, taking in those who went fishing or pheasant or grouse shooting in season – cabinet ministers, industrialists, well-informed nobles – when some on Pincher’s account became much more willing to divulge secrets, or at least matters which were classified as secrets. It was not a difference that they or Pincher always recognised. Toohey’s only overseas posting was to Washington, and his social circle was more restricted; and if there were any grouse shooters among his sources, he has been careful to protect them.

While Pincher will be well-known to readers of coldspur.com some further information on Toohey might be helpful. He has written about national security policy since 1973 and is the author or co-author of four books, including Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (1989). After part of the manuscript came into the Australian (Labor) Government’s possession, it took court action which resulted in the book effectively being vetted by the Government. A sensible approach saw only one major deletion, the name of a public relations firm, an omission remedied soon after the book’s publication by another journalist who published not in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne).

Pincher became interested in spies in 1950 when he covered the trial of Klaus Fuchs, the atomic spy. Pincher informed his editor that a spy named Fuchs had been arrested, and the editor said ‘Marvellous! I’ve always wanted to get that word into a headline.’ As noted, Toohey has written about national security matters since 1973, while he was still at the AFR, perhaps more so later when he moved to the late-lamented National Times. Both believed in lunch as a setting where people talked; French was Pincher’s cuisine of choice, habitually at A L’Ecu de France in Jermyn St Piccadilly. His footnotes show that Toohey followed suit on at least one occasion, at La Bagatelle in Washington, but in New York he went to the Union Club (founded 1836), the cuisine in which was unlikely to have been French. No Canberra restaurant is mentioned. Perhaps Toohey was wise to move about. After A L’Ecu closed in the 1990s, Pincher was told by the senior director that MI5 had bugged the banquettes, including the one favoured by Pincher. A later development of the story had it that when MI5 went to remove the bugs, it found another set – put there by the KGB. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant: it’s a great story. Pincher evidently had a very good memory and drank little. After lunch he would return to his office and dictate the story without reference to documents. ‘…I have always had a golden rule’, he recorded in 2013,’ that I would never touch or look at any classified documents’. (Foreword to Christopher Moran: Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain (2013)). Toohey seems to have got documents frequently but after writing his story he would very sensibly destroy them, thus putting himself beyond the reach of his official pursuers who often took him to court.

Reading along and between the lines in Toohey’s book Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State (2019) suggests that most of his sources were public servants. As with Pincher, much public money was spent on attempting to find out who they were, evidently without success. Both lived or have lived long enough to be able to see from government files released to archives the attempts made to identify their sources. After Pincher had published in 1959 details of a cabinet decision two days after it had been made, Harold Macmillan was moved to exclaim: ‘Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher’. Pincher’s books contain the explanation for many of the characteristics of Australian government which Toohey rightly complains about: unwarranted secrecy and lies, particularly by security agencies. The UK system of government has for decades prized secrecy, very often in circumstances where it was later shown to be unnecessary and even harmful. In Treachery, Pincher is able to show that time and again MI5 in particular lied to ministers and even the Prime Minister, to the extent of being publicly reproved. In 1963 Harold Macmillan criticised Sir Roger Hollis, the Director General of MI5, in the House of Commons for keeping from him critical information during the Profumo affair.

As time goes by, more and more ludicrous examples emerge. In 1940 Neville Chamberlain while still Prime Minister commissioned Lord Hankey to investigate the efficiency of the intelligence services. His report has never been released in the United Kingdom, which had prompted much speculation about its contents. The spy John Cairncross had at the time slipped a copy to Moscow and in 2009, in its well-known role of assisting scholarship, the Soviet archives released it. Fallen upon by scholars eager to find its secrets, it turned out to be in the words of one reader ‘mostly pedestrian and superficial’.

That tradition of too much secrecy and too many lies was bequeathed to Australia and the other colonies and continues to bedevil them, as Toohey shows. He became the bete noire of Sir Arthur Tange, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, whose ‘demands to find the leakers chewed up the time of senior officials who had more important things to do than pursue often inept and always futile investigations’. Tange might usefully have followed the precedent of his UK counterpart, Sir Richard Powell, who advised his minister in 1958 with regard to Pincher that

“I believe that we must live with this man and make the best of it. We can console ourselves that his writings, although embarrassing at times to Whitehall, disclose nothing that Russian intelligence does not already know.”

Toohey’s jousts with the establishment make for enjoyable reading, and on most issues (nuclear bomb testing in Australia, ‘the depravity of nuclear war planning’ etc) he is on the side of the angels, even if sometimes he does not quote prominent supporters such as the Pope who give weight to his causes. Given that most of the Pope’s clergy and his flock do not at least in public echo his views on the bomb, Toohey’s omission is forgivable.

When he strays outside his area of expertise, however, as he does when arguing that out of the thirteen wars Australia has fought, only one (the Pacific theatre of World War II) was ‘a war of necessity for Australia’, Toohey stumbles. Some of the thirteen pre-dated the establishment of Australia in 1900, and while his argument might be true looking backwards, there was no prospect in say 1914 that Australia would not join in the defence of what was then called the mother country, especially when all her other white daughters enrolled. Toohey must also be one of the very few Australian commentators to have written about the Japanese and World War II and who have failed to mention the bombing of Darwin and the invasion of Sydney Harbour by midget submarines, both in 1942.

All this makes it very disappointing that Toohey should be so far off the mark in the very first chapter of his book (there are 60 chapters, some of them very short), which deals with ‘The Security Scandal that the US Hid from the Newborn ASIO’, as the chapter heading has it. The scandal concerned the Venona material, messages which passed between Moscow and its embassies in a number of countries, including Australia, in the 1940s, many of which were intercepted by the US or its allies (or by neutral countries such as Sweden) and some of which were able to be decoded or deciphered. On Toohey’s account, an NSA employee, William Weisband, was a KGB spy and told Moscow in 1948 about the interceptions and the encryption methods were then changed. Again on Toohey’s account, ASIO was never told about this betrayal. All these assertions are worth examining in some detail, together with Toohey’s account of what the Australian Venona material revealed.

Toohey begins by claiming that ‘the highly classified material handed over by the Australian spies was of no consequence’, in particular the two top-secret UK planning papers passed over in 1946 which showed ‘banal, often erroneous predictions’; further, the predictions were ‘fatuous’ while the other papers passed over were ‘trite’. That some of the predictions turned out to be wrong, and that some of the other material seemed to be unimportant, are hardly sufficient to dismiss them altogether. Given some indication by the Soviet Embassy in Canberra of the contents of the two top-secret reports, Moscow asked that they be sent immediately by telegram, which is a good indication of what it thought of them at the time. A more objective account of the Canberra Venona is to be found in Nigel West’s Venona (1999), where he describes one of these two documents as being ‘of immense significance’, and says that for it to have fallen into Soviet hands at that time was ‘devastating’.

In any event, Toohey fails to mention that in the estimation of the US National Security Agency which released the Venona material in the 1990s ‘More than 200 messages were decrypted and translated, these representing a fraction of the messages sent and received by the Canberra KGB residency.’ (NSA website). It is idle to suppose that those not intercepted contained no important classified material.

Toohey also misrepresents the messages sent by Moscow to the senior MI5 officer in Canberra, Semyon Makarov: ‘Moscow told Makarov not to let [Clayton, the Communist Party member who was the contact man for the spies in External Affairs] recruit new agents, not to send any document that was more than a year old, not to be overeager to achieve success and to stop obtaining information of little importance.’ What Moscow in fact said to Makarov was‘…if possible do not take any steps in the way of bringing in new agents without a decision from us’ (message of 6 October 1945); ‘you should not receive from [Clayton] and transmit by telegraph textual intelligence information that is a year old’ the implication being that it might be sent by bag (message of 17 October 1945); and that [Nosov, the TASS correspondent in Sydney] should be brought into the work ‘but do not be over-eager to achieve success to the detriment of security and maximum caution’ (message of 20 October 1945). This kind of close supervision by Moscow was not unusual, as West’s book shows.

Individual members of the External Affairs spy ring are declared to be innocent. Ric Throssell is described thus: ‘After interviewing him in 1953, ASIO concluded that he “is a loyal subject and is not a security risk in the department in which is employed” ‘. Quite true, but incomplete. After Petrov’s defection in 1954, ASIO formed the view that Throssell could not be given a security clearance for classified material, and he never was. Frances Garratt (nee Bernie) is described by Toohey as ‘working mainly on political party issues as a young secretary/typist in the Sydney office of the External Affairs minister, Bert Evatt..She insisted that she thought she was simply giving the local Communist Party some political information.’ Again, incomplete. As Robert Manne noted in The Petrov Affair (1987), the Royal Commission on Espionage found that

“While Frances Bernie had certainly broken the law – in passing official documents to Walter Clayton without authorisation – she had only admitted to doing so having been granted an immunity from prosecution.”

And according to the late Professor Des Ball, ‘In 2008, Bernie admitted that she had given Walter Seddon Clayton (code-named KLOD or CLAUDE), the organiser and co-ordinator of the KGB network, much more important information than she had previously confessed’. (‘The moles at the very heart of government’, The Australian, April 16, 2011)

The scandal referred to in the chapter heading is this. As noted, on Toohey’s account the Venona secret was betrayed to Moscow by William Weisband, a Soviet spy employed by the National Security Agency, and in 1948 the Soviet encryption systems were changed. Toohey takes up the story:

“I asked ASIO when the US informed it (or its predecessor) that Weisband had told the Soviets that Venona was able to read its messages; ASIO replied in an email on 30 June 2017: ‘The information you refer to is not drawn from ASIO records.’ ASIO also told the National Archives of Australia (NAA) that it does not hold any open period records (i.e.up to 1993) about the US notifying it that Weisband told the Soviets about Venona. The US should also have told the Defence Signals Directorate (now the Australian Signals Directorate, or ASD). When I asked ASD, via Defence, it declined to answer.”

It is worth noting here that entering ‘William Weisband’ and ‘National Security Agency’ into the Australian Archives website yields only references to public material about the Agency. Entering ‘William Weisband’ into the website of the UK National Archives yields no result; while the only two results for ‘National Security Agency’ are for files from the Prime Minister’s Office concerning the publication of material about the Agency. Toohey would presumably not argue on the basis of these results that the Agency did not tell the UK security authorities about Weisband. The strongest argument against Toohey’s claim is that entering Weisband’s name into the website of the US National Archives and Records Administration yields only scraps, and nothing connected directly to the NSA. Clearly NSA guards its records zealously, as one would expect. It was at one time so secret that its initials were said to mean ‘No Such Agency’.

In any event, ASIO did not come into existence until 1949, and on Horner’s account in Volume 1 of the history of ASIO – The Spycatchers – he and his research team ‘found files that ASIO did not even know they had.’ Relying on ASIO records, especially from the early days, is thus a chancy business.

So no scandal here – or not yet anyway.

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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 8)

A dummy tank used in Operation Bodyguard

“These got a further boost when, just after midnight on 9 June, CATO [the German codename for GARBO] spent two full hours on the air sending a long and detailed report to his spymaster, Kühlenthal. The risk of capture was enormous when an agent transmitted that long, for it gave the direction-finding vans plenty of time to locate him. But this very fact impressed the Germans with the importance of his signal.” (Hitler’s Spies, by David Kahn, p 515)

“If the receivers of this vast screed had paused to reflect, they might have registered how unlikely it was that a wireless would have been able to operate for more than two hours without detection. But they did not.” (Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre, p 324)

“Garbo still ranked high in the esteem of his controller, but if Kühlenthal had thought coolly and carefully enough, there was one aspect of that day’s exchange of signals that might have made him suspicious. Garbo had been on the air so long that he had given the British radiogoniometrical stations ample time on three occasions to obtain a fix on his position and arrest him. Why was he able to stay on the air so long? Did he have a charmed life? Or was he being allowed to transmit by the British for the purpose of deception? These were questions that Kühlenthal might well have asked himself. But instead of being suspicious, he sent a message to Berlin. In it he recommended Garbo for the Iron Cross.” (Anthony Cave-Brown, Bodyguard of Lies, pp 676-677)

“The Abwehr remained remarkably naïve in thinking that in a densely populated and spy-conscious country like England an agent would be able to set up a transmitter and antenna without attracting attention. Moreover, it seems not to have smelled a rat from the fact that some agents, notably GARBO, were able to remain on the air for very long periods without being disturbed. It did have the good sense to furnish agents sent to Britain with only low-power sets that would cause minimal interference to neighbors’ receivers and would be more difficult for the British to monitor – though they also afforded less reliable communication. Once again, GARBO was an exception. Telling the Germans that he had recruited a radio operator with a powerful transmitter, he sent his messages at 100 watts from a high-grade set. Even this did not raise the Abwehr’s suspicions.” (Thaddeus Holt, The Deceivers, pp 142-143)

“And so, with Eisenhower’s authorization, Pujol transmitted, in the words of Harris, ‘the most important report of his career’. Beginning just after midnight, the message took two hours and two minutes to transmit. This was a dangerously long time for any agent to remain on air.” (Operation Fortitude, by Joshua Levine, p 283)

“GARBO’s second transmission lasted a record 122 minutes, and hammered home his belief that the events of the past forty-eight hours represented a diversionary feint, citing his mistress ‘Dorothy Thompson’, an unconscious source in the Cabinet Office, who had mentioned a figure of seventy-five divisions in England.” (Nigel West, Codeword OVERLORD, p 274)

“The length of this message should have aroused suspicion in itself. How on earth a real secret agent could stay on the air transmitting for so long in wartime conditions was unbelievable. British SOE agents operating in Europe were told to keep transmissions to less than five minutes in order not to be detected. However, this was not questioned.” (Terry Crowdy, Deceiving Hitler, p 270)

“We are sure that we deceived the Germans and turned their weapon against themselves; can we be quite sure that they were not equally successful in turning our weapon against is? Now our double-cross agents were the straight agents of the Germans – their whole espionage system in the U.K. What did the Germans gain from this system? The answer cannot be doubtful. They gained no good from their agents, and they did take from them a very great deal of harm. It would be agreeable to be able to accept the simple explanation, to sit back in the armchair of complacency, to say that we were very clever and the Germans very stupid, and that consequently we gained both on the swings and the roundabouts as well. But that argument just won’t hold water at all.” (The Double-Cross System, by John Masterman, p 263)

“Masterman credited only his own ideas, fresh-minted like gold sovereigns entirely from his experiences on the XX Committee. The wonder of it is, with the exception of the sporadic pooh-poohing from the likes of maverick Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor and veteran counter-intelligence officer David Mure, The Double-Cross System came to be swallowed whole. Farago’s book was essentially forgotten; Masterman’s became celebrated.” (Fighting to Lose, by John Bryden, p 314)

“Yet, when all is said, one is left with a sense of astonishment that men in such responsible positions as were those who controlled the destinies of Germany during the late war, could have been so fatally misled on such slender evidence. One can only suppose that strategic deception derives its capacity for giving life to this fairy-tale world from the circumstance that it operates in a field into which the enemy can seldom effectively penetrate and where the opposing forces never meet in battle. Dangers which lurk in this terra incognita thus tend to be magnified, and such information as is gleaned to be accepted too readily at its face value. Fear of the unknown is at all times apt to breed strange fancies. Thus it is that strategic deception finds its opportunity of changing the fortunes of war.” (Fortitude, by Roger Hesketh, p 361)

“Abwehr officials, enjoying life in the oases of Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm or Istanbul, fiddling their expenses and running currency rackets on the side, felt that they were earning their keep so long as they provided some kind of information. This explains why for example Garbo was able to get away with his early fantasies, and Tricycle could run such outrageous risks.” (Michael Howard, British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, p 49)

“However, the claim that the Double Cross spies were ‘believed’ in ‘Berlin’ needs some amplification. Even if the information was swallowed by the Abwehr, that is not to say that it was believed at OKW or that it influenced overall German policy. Part of the problem is that the Abwehr was not a very efficient organisation. Nor was it involved in significant analysis of its intelligence product: on the contrary, the Ast and outstations tended to pounce on any snippet of potentially useful information and, rather than evaluate its intelligence value, pass it on to Berlin as evidence of their ‘busyness’ and as justification for their salaries and expense accounts.” (David Kenyon, Bletchley Park and D-Day, p 163)

“We have succeeded in sustaining them so well that we are receiving even at this stage . . . an average of thirty to forty reports each day from inside England, many of them radioed directly on the clandestine wireless sets we have operational in defiance of the most intricate and elaborate electronic countermeasures.” (Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, in February 1944, from Ladislas Farago’s Game of the Foxes, p 705)

“A fundamental assumption they [the Germans] made was logically simple: if they were reading parts or all of different British codes at different times, and no mention of any signal was ever found that referred to any material transmitted by the Germans in an Enigma-encoded message, then the system had to be secure.” (Christian Jennings, The Third Reich is Listening, p 261)

GARBO and D-DAY

The Story So Far

(Readers looking for a longer recap may want to inspect the concluding paragraphs of The Mystery of the Undetected Radios, Part VII)

By 1943, the Radio Security Service, adopted by SIS (MI6) in the summer of 1941, has evolved into an efficient mechanism for intercepting enemy, namely German, wireless signals from continental Europe, and passing them on to Bletchley Park for cryptanalysis. Given the absence of any transmissions indicating the presence of German spies using wireless telegraphy on British soil, the Service allows its domestic detection and location-finding capabilities to be relaxed somewhat, with the result that it operates rather sluggishly in tracking down radio usage appearing to be generated from locations in the UK, whether they are truly illicit, or simply misguided. RSS would later overstate the capabilities of its mobile location-finding units, in a fashion similar to that in which the German police units exaggerated the power and automation of its own interception and detection devices and procedures. RSS also has responsibilities for providing SIS agents, as well as the sabotage department SOE (Special Operations Executive), with equipment and communications instructions, for their excursions into mainland Europe. SOE has had a very patchy record in wireless security, but RSS’s less than prompt response to its needs provokes SOE, abetted by its collaborators, members of various governments in exile, to attempt to bypass RSS’s very protocol-oriented support. RSS has also not performed a stellar job in recommending and enforcing solid Signals Security procedures in British military units. Guy Liddell, suspicious of RSS’s effectiveness, knows that he needs wireless expertise in MI5, and is eager to replace the ambitious and manipulative Malcom Frost, who is eased out at the end of 1943. It thus takes Liddell’s initiative, working closely with the maverick RSS officer, Sclater, to draw the attention of the Wireless Board to the security oversights. Towards the end of 1943, the plans for OVERLORD, the project to ‘invade’ France on the way to ensuring Germany’s defeat, start to take shape, and policies for ensuring the secrecy of the operation’s details will affect all communications leaving the United Kingdom.

Contents:

NEPTUNE, OVERLORD, BODYGUARD & FORTITUDE

Determining Censorship Policy

The Dilemma of Wireless

Findlater Stewart, the Home Defence Security Executive, and the War Cabinet

Problems with the Poles

Guy Liddell and the RSS

‘Double’ or ‘Special’ Agents?

Special Agents at Work

The Aftermath

NEPTUNE, OVERLORD, BODYGUARD & FORTITUDE

Operation Bodyguard

My objective in this piece is to explore and analyse policy concerning wireless transmissions emanating from the British Isles during the build-up to the Normandy landings of June 1944. This aspect of the war had two sides: the initiation of signals to aid the deception campaign, and the protection of the deception campaign itself by prohibiting possibly dangerous disclosures to the enemy that would undermine the deceits of the first. It is thus beyond my scope to re-present the strategies of the campaign, and the organisations behind them, except as a general refreshment of the reader, in order to provide a solid framework, and to highlight dimensions that have been overlooked in the histories.

OVERLORD was originally the codeword given to the assault on Normandy, but in September 1943 it was repurposed and broadened to apply to the operation of the ‘primary United States British ground and air effort against the Axis in Europe’. (Note that, on Eisenhower’s urging, it was not considered an ‘invasion’, a term which would have suggested incursions into authentic enemy territory.)  NEPTUNE was the codeword used to describe the Normandy operation. BODYGUARD was the overall cover plan to deceive the enemy about the details of OVERLORD. BODYGUARD itself was broken down into FORTITUDE North and FORTITUDE South, the latter conceived as the project to suggest that the main assault would occur in the Pas de Calais as opposed to Normandy, and thus disguise NEPTUNE.

I refer the reader to six important books for greater detail on the BODYGUARD deception plan. Bodyguard of Lies, by Anthony Cave Brown (1975) is a massive, compendious volume, containing many relevant as well as irrelevant details, not all of them reliable, and the author can be annoyingly vague in his chronology. Sir Michael Howard’s British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5 (1990), part of the authorized history, contains a precise and urbane account of the deception campaign, although it is rather light on technical matters. Roger Hesketh, who was the main architect of FORTITUDE, wrote his account of the project, between 1945 and 1948, but it was not published until 2000, many years after his death in 1987, as Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign. (In his Preface to the text, Hesketh indicates that he was given permission to publish in 1976, but it did not happen.) Hesketh’s work must be regarded as the most authoritative of the books, and it includes a large number of invaluable, charts, documents and maps, but it reflects some of the secrecy provisions of its time. Joshua Levine’s Operation Fortitude (2001) is an excellent summary of the operation, lively and accurate, and contains a highly useful appendix on Acknowledgements and Sources. Nigel West delivered Codeword Overlord (2019), which sets out to cover the role and achievements of Axis espionage in preparing for the D-Day landings. Like many of West’s recent works, it is uneven, and embeds a large amount of source material in the text. Oddly, West, who provided an Introduction to Hesketh’s book, does not even mention it in his Bibliography. Finally, Thaddeus Holt’s Deceivers (2007) is perhaps the most comprehensive account of Allied military deception, an essential item in the library, very well written, and containing many facts and profiles not available elsewhere. It weighs in at a hefty 1000+ pages, but the details he provides, unlike Cave Brown’s, are all relevant.

Yet none of these volumes refers to the critical role of the Home Security Defence Executive (HSDE), chaired by Sir Findlater Stewart, in the security preparations. (Findlater Stewart receives one or two minor mentions in two of the Indexes, but on matters unrelated to the tasks of early 1944.) The HSDE was charged, however, with implementing a critical part of the censorship policy regarding BODYGUARD. The HSDE was just one of many intersecting and occasionally overlapping committees performing the planning. At the highest level, the Ops (B) section, concerned with deception under COSSAC (Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander), was absorbed into SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in January 1944, when General Eisenhower took over command, expanded, and split into two. Colonel Noel Wild headed Ops (B), with Jervis Read responsible for physical deception, while Roger Hesketh took on Special Means, whose role was to implement parts of the deception plan through controlled leakage.

In turn, Hesketh’s group itself was guided by the London Controlling Section (LCS), which was responsible for deciding the overall strategy of how misinformation should be conveyed to the enemy, and tracking its success. At this time LCS was led by Colonel John Bevan, who faced an extraordinary task of coordinating the activities of a large number of independent bodies, from GC&CS’s collection of ULTRA material to SOE’s sabotage of telephone networks in France, as well as the activities of the ‘double-agents’ within MI5. Thus at least three more bodies were involved: the W Board, which discussed high-level policy matters for the double-cross system under General Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence; the XX Committee, chaired by John Masterman, which implemented the cover-stories and activities of both real and notional agents, and created the messages that were fed to the Abwehr; and MI5’s B1A under ‘Tar’ Robertson, the group that actually managed the activities and transmissions of the agents. Lastly, the War Cabinet set up a special group, the OVERLORD Security Sub-Committee, to inspect the detailed ramifications of ensuring no unauthorised information about the landings escaped the British Isles, and this military-focussed body enjoyed a somewhat tentative liaison with the civilian-oriented HDSE through the energies of Sir Findlater Stewart.

When Bevan joined the W Board on September 23, 1943, the LCS formally took over the responsibility for general control of all deception, leaving the W Board to maintain supervision of the double-agents’ work solely. Also on the W Board was Findlater Stewart, acting generally on behalf of the Ministries, who had been invited in early 1941, and who directly represented his boss, Sir John Anderson, and the Prime Minister. The Board had met regularly for almost three years, but by September 1943, highly confident that it controlled all the German agents on UK soil, and with Bevan on board, held only one more meeting before the end of the war – on January 21, 1944. It then decided, in a general stocktaking before OVERLORD, that the XX Committee could smoothly continue to run things, but that American representation on the Committee was desirable. As for Findlater Stewart, he still had a lot of work to do.

Determining Censorship Policy

The move to tighten up security in advance of NEPTUNE took longer than might have seemed appropriate. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943 Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed on the approximate timing and location of the operation, but it needed the consent of Stalin at the Teheran Conference at the end of November, and the Soviet dictator’s commitment to mount a large scale Soviet offensive in May 1944 to divert German forces, for the details to be solidified. Thus Bevan’s preliminary thoughts on the deception plan for OVERLORD, sketched out in July, had to be continually revised. A draft version, named JAEL, was circulated, and approved, on October 23, but, after Teheran, Bevan had to work feverishly to prepare the initial version of the BODYGUARD plan which replaced JAEL, completing it on December 18. This received feedback from the Chiefs of Staff, and from Eisenhower, newly appointed Commander-in-Chief, and was presented to SHAEF in early January, and approved on January 19. Yet no sooner was this important step reached than Bevan, alongside his U.S. counterpart Bauer, was ordered to leave for Moscow to explain the plan, and convince the Soviets of its merits. Such was the suspicion of Soviet military and intelligence officers, and such was their inability to make any decision unless Stalin willed it, that approval did not arrive until March 5, when the delegates returned to London.

Yet Guy Liddell’s Diaries indicate that there had already been intense discussion about OVERLORD Security, the records of which do not seem to have made it into the HDSE files. Certainly, MI5 had been debating it back in December 1943, and Liddell refers to a Security Executive meeting held on January 26. At this stage, Findlater Stewart was trying to settle what travel bans should be put in place, and as early as February 8 Liddell was discussing with his officers Grogan and (Anthony) Blunt the implications of staggering diplomatic cables before OVERLORD. The next day, he met with Maxwell at the Home Office to discuss the prevention of the return of allied nationals to the country (because of the vetting for spies that would be required).

More surprisingly, on February 11, when reporting that the Chiefs of the General Staff had become involved, and had made representations to Churchill, Liddell refers to the formation of an OVERLORD Security Committee, and comments drily: “The committee is to consist of the Minister of Production, Minister of Aircraft Production, Home Secretary and Duncan Sandys, none of whom of course know anything about security.” This committee was in fact an offshoot of the War Cabinet, which had established a Committee on OVERLORD Preparations on February 9, part of the charter of which was ‘the detection of secret enemy wireless apparatus, and increased exertions against espionage’, perhaps suggesting that not all its members were completely au fait with the historical activities of RSS and the W Board. It quickly determined that it needed a further level of granularity to address these complex security matters. Thus the Sub-committee on OVERLORD Security was established, chaired by the Minister of Production, Oliver Lyttleton, and held its first meeting on February 18, when Liddell represented MI5. Oddly, no representative from MI6 attended. Liddell continues by describing the committee’s  charter as considering: 1) the possibility of withdrawing diplomatic communications privileges; 2) the prevention of export of newspapers; 3) more strengthened surveillance of ships and aircraft; 4) the detection of secret enemy wireless apparatus and increased precautions against espionage. Findlater Stewart is charged with collecting relevant material. In what seems to be an overload of committees, therefore, the HDSE and the War Cabinet carry on parallel discussions, with Findlater Stewart a key figure in both assemblies.

The primary outcome of this period is the resistance by the Foreign Office to any sort of ban, or even forced delay, in diplomatic cable traffic, which they believed would have harmful reciprocal consequences abroad, and hinder MI6’s ability to gather intelligence (especially from Sweden). This controversy rattled on for months [see below], with the Cabinet emerging as an ineffective mechanism for resolving the dilemma. Liddell believed that, if the Foreign Office and the Home Office (concerned about invasion of citizens’ rights) had not been so stubborn and prissy about the whole thing, the Security Executive could have resolved the issues quickly.

Thus the impression that Findlater Stewart had to wait for Bevan’s return for seeking guidance before chairing his committee to implement the appropriate security provisions is erroneous. Contrary to what the record indicates, the critical meeting on March 29 was not the first that the HDSE Committee held. Yet, when Bevan did return, he might have been surprised by the lack of progress. He quickly learned, on March 10, that the Cabinet had decided not to withdraw facilities for uncensored communications by diplomats, as it would set an uncomfortable precedent. That was at least a decision – but the wrong one. Bevan had a large amount of work to do shake people up: to make sure that the rules were articulated, that the Americans were in line, and that all agencies and organizations involved understood their roles. “Only under Bevan’s severe and cautious direction could they perform their parts in FORTITUDE with the necessary harmony”, wrote Cave Brown. Bevan clearly put some urgency into the proceedings: the pronouncements of LCS were passed on to Findlater Stewart shortly afterwards.

The history of LCS shows that security precautions were divided into eight categories, of which two, the censorship of civilian and service letters and telegrams, and the ban on privileged diplomatic mail and cipher telegrams, were those that concentrated on possible unauthorised disclosure of secrets by means other than direct personal travel. The historical account by LCS (at CAB 154/101, p 238) explains how the ban on cable traffic was imposed, but says nothing about wireless: “The eighth category, the ban on diplomatic mail and cipher telegrams was an unprecedented and extraordinary measure. As General EISENHOWER says, even the most friendly diplomats might unintentionally disclose vital information which would ultimately come to the ears of the enemy.”

What is significant is that there is no further mention of wireless traffic in the HDSE meetings. Whether this omission was due to sheer oversight, or was simply too awkward a topic to be described openly, or was simply passed on to the War Cabinet meetings, one can only surmise. When the next critical HDSE meeting took place on April 15, headlined as ‘Withdrawal of Diplomatic Privileges’, it echoed the LCS verbiage, but also, incidentally, highlighted the fact that Findlater Stewart saw that the main threat to security came from the embassies and legations of foreign governments, whether allies or not. Well educated by the W Board meeting, he did not envisage any exposure from unknown German agents working clandestinely from British soil.

The Dilemma of Wireless

It is worthwhile stepping back at this juncture to examine the dilemma that the British intelligence authorities faced. Since the primary security concern was that no confidential information about the details of the actual assault, or suggestions that the notional attack was based on the strength and movement of illusionary forces, should be allowed to leave the country, a very tight approach to personnel movement, such as a ban on leave, and on the holidays of foreign diplomats, was required, and easily implemented. Letters and cables had to be very closely censored. But what do to about the use of wireless? Officially, outside military and approved civil use (railway administration, police) the only licit radio transmissions were being made by Allied governments, namely the Americans and the Soviets, and by select governments-in-exile, the French, the Poles and the Czechs (with the latter two having their own sophisticated installations rather than just apparatus within an embassy). It was quite possible that other countries had introduced transmission equipment, although RSS would have denied that its use would have remained undetected.

Certainly all diplomatic transmissions would have been encyphered, but the extent to which the German interception authorities (primarily OKW Chi) would have been able to decrypt such messages was unknown. And, even if the loyalty and judgment of these missions could be relied upon, and the unbreakability of their cyphers trusted, there was no way of guaranteeing that a careless reference would not escape, and that a disloyal employee at the other end of the line might get his or her hands on an indiscreet message. (Eisenhower had to demote and send home one of his officers who spoke carelessly.) Thus total radio silence must have been given at least brief consideration. It was certainly enforced just before D-Day, but that concerned military silence, not a diplomatic shutdown.

Yet the whole FORTITUDE deception plan depended on wireless. The more ambitious aspect focused on the creation of dummy military signals to suggest a vast army (the notional FUSAG) being imported into Britain and moved steadily across the country to assemble in the eastern portion, indicating a northern assault on mainland Europe. Such wireless messages would have appeared as genuine to the Germans – if they had had the resources and skills to intercept and analyse them all. Thus the pretence had to be meticulously maintained right up until D-Day itself. In August 1943, the Inter-Services Security Board (ISSB) had recommended that United Kingdom communications with the outside world should be cut off completely, and Bevan had had to resist such pressure. As Howard points out, most involved in the discussion did not know about the Double-Cross System.

As it turned out, both German aerial reconnaissance and interception of dummy signals were so weak that the Allies relied more and more on the second leg of their wireless strategy – the transmissions of its special agents. Thus it would have been self-defeating for the War Cabinet to prohibit non-military traffic entirely, since the appearance of isolated, illicit signals in the ether, originating from British soil, and remaining undetected and unprosecuted, would have caused the Nazi receivers to smell an enormous rat. (One might add that it strains credibility in any case to think that the Abwehr never stopped to consider how ineffectual Britain’s radio interception service must be, compared with Germany’s own mechanisms, if it failed completely ever to interdict any of its own agents in such a relatively small and densely populated territory. And note Admiral Canaris’s comments above.) Of course, the RSS might have wanted to promote the notion that its interception and location-finding techniques were third-rate, just for that purpose. One might even surmise that Sonia’s transmissions were allowed to continue as a ruse to convince the Germans of the RSS’s frailties, in the belief that they might be picking up her messages as well as those of their own agents, and thus forming useful judgments about the deficiencies of British location-finding.

We should also recall that the adoption of wireless communications by the special agents was pursued much more aggressively by the XX Committee and B1A than it was by the Abwehr, who seemed quite content to have messages concealed in invisible ink on letters spirited out of England by convenient couriers, such as ‘friendly’ BOAC crewmen. Thus TREASURE, GARBO and BRUTUS all had to be found more powerful wireless apparatus, whether mysteriously acquired in London, from American sources, or whether smuggled in from Lisbon. The XX Committee must have anticipated the time when censorship rules would have tightened up on the use of the mails for personal correspondence, even to neutral countries in Europe, and thus make wireless connectivity a necessity.

In conclusion, therefore, no restrictions on diplomatic wireless communication could allow prohibition completely, as that would leave the special agents dangerously exposed. And that policy led to some messy compromises.

Findlater Stewart, the Home Defence Security Executive, and the War Cabinet

Sir Findlater Stewart

It appears that the War Cabinet fairly quickly accepted Findlater Stewart’s assurances about the efficacy of RSS. A minute from February 28 runs: “We have considered the possibility that illicit wireless stations might be worked in this country. The combined evidence of the Radio Security Service secret intelligence sources and the police leads to the firm conclusion that there is no illicit wireless station operating regularly in the British Isles at present. The danger remains that transmitting apparatus may be being held in readiness for the critical period immediately before the date of OVERLORD – or may be brought into the country by enemy agents. We cannot suggest any further measures to reduce this risk and reliance must therefore be placed on the ability of the Radio Security Service to detect the operation of illicit transmitters and of the Security Service to track down agents.” Thus the debate moved on to the control of licit wireless transmissions, where the HDSE and the War Cabinet had to overcome objections from the Foreign Office.

The critical meeting on ‘OVERLORD Security’ – ‘Withdrawal of Diplomatic Privileges’ was held on the morning of April 15, under Findlater Stewart’s chairmanship. This was in fact the continuation of a meeting held on March 29, which had left several items of business unfinished. That meeting, which was also led by Findlater Stewart, and attended by only a small and unauthoritative group (Herbert and Locke from Censorship, Crowe from the Foreign Office, and Liddell, Butler and Young from MI5) had considered diplomatic communications generally, and resolved to request delays in the transmission of diplomatic telegrams. After the Cabinet decision not to interfere with diplomatic cable traffic, Petrie of MI5 had written to Findlater Stewart to suggest that delays be built in to the process. A strangely worded minute (one can hardly call it a ‘resolution’) ran as follows: “THE MEETING . . . invited Mr. Crowe to take up the suggestion that diplomatic telegrams should be so delayed as to allow time for the Government Code and Cypher School to make arrangements with Postal and Telegraph Censorship for particularly dangerous telegrams to be delayed or lost; and to arrange for the Foreign Office, if they agreed, to instruct the School to work out the necessary scheme with Postal and Telegraph Censorship.”

It would be difficult to draft a less gutsy and urgent decision than this. ‘Invited’, ‘suggestion’, ‘to make arrangements’, ‘if they agreed’, ‘to instruct’, and finally, ‘particularly dangerous telegrams’! Would ‘moderately dangerous telegrams’ have been allowed through? And did GC&CS have command of all the cyphers used by foreign diplomacies? Evidently not, as the following discussion shows. It is quite extraordinary that such a wishy-washy decision should have been allowed in the minutes. One can only assume that this was some sort of gesture, and that Findlater Stewart was working behind the scenes. In any case, as the record from the LCS history concerning Eisenhower, which I reproduced above, shows, the cypher problem for cable traffic was resolved.

When the forum regathered on April 15, it contained a much expanded list of attendees. Apart from the familiar group of second-tier delegates from key ministries, with the War Office and  the Ministry of Information now complementing Censorship, the Home Office, and the Foreign Office, Vivian represented MI6, while MI5 was honoured with the presence of no less than seven officers, namely Messrs. Butler, Robertson, Sporborg, Robb, Young, Barry – and Anthony Blunt, who no doubt made careful mental notes to pass on to his ideological masters. [According to Guy Liddell, from his ‘Diaries’, Sporborg worked for SOE, not MI5.] But no Petrie, Menzies, Liddell, White, Masterman, or Bevan. And the band of second-tier officers from MI5 sat opposite a group of men from the ministries who knew nothing of Ultra or the Double-Cross System: a very large onus lay on the shoulders of Findlater Stewart.

The meeting had first to debate the recent Cabinet decision to prohibit the receipt of uncensored communications by Diplomatic Missions, while not preventing the arrival of incoming travellers. Thus a quick motion was agreed, over the objections of the Foreign Office, that ‘the free movement of foreign diplomatic representatives to this country was inconsistent with the Cabinet decision to prohibit the receipt of uncensored communications by Foreign Missions in this country’. After a brief discussion on the movement of French and other military personnel, the Committee moved to Item IX on the agenda: ‘Use of Wireless Transmitters by Poles, Czechs and the French,’ the item that LCS had, either cannily or carelessly, omitted from its list.

Sporborg of MI5/SOE stated that, “as regards the Poles and the Czechs, it has been decided after discussion with the Foreign Office –

  • that for operational reasons the transmitters operated by the Czechs and the Poles could not be closed down:
  • that shortage of operators with suitable qualifications precluded the operation of those sets by us;
  • that accordingly the Poles should be pressed to deposit their cyphers with us and to give us copies of plain language texts of all messages before transmission. The Czechs had already given us their cyphers, and like the Poles would be asked to provide plain language copies of their messages.”

Sporborg also noted that both forces would be asked not to use their transmitters for diplomatic business. Colonel Vivian added that “apart from the French Deuxième Bureau traffic which was sent by M.I.6, all French diplomatic and other civil communications were transmitted by cable. There were left only the French Service transmitters and in discussion it was suggested that the I.S.S.B. might be asked to investigate the question of controlling these.”

Again, it is difficult to make sense of this exchange. What ‘operational reasons’ (as opposed to political ones) could preclude the closing down of Czech and Polish circuits? It would surely just entail an announcement to targeted receivers, and then turning the apparatus off. And, since the alternative appeared to be having the transmitters operated by the British – entrusted with knowledge of cypher techniques, presumably – a distinct possibility of ‘closing down’ the sets must have been considered. As for Vivian’s opaque statement, the Deuxième Bureau was officially dissolved in 1940. (Yet it appears in many documents, such as Liddell’s Diaries, after that time.) It is not clear what he meant by ‘French Service transmitters’. If these were owned by the RF Section of SOE, there must surely have been an exposure, and another wishy-washy suggestion was allowed to supply the official record.

The historical account by LCS says nothing about wireless. And the authorized history does not perform justice to the serious implications of these meetings. All that Michael Howard writes about this event (while providing a very stirring account of the deception campaign itself) is the following: “ . . . and the following month not only was all travel to and from the United Kingdom banned, but the mail of all diplomatic missions was declared subject to censorship and the use of cyphers forbidden”, (p 124, using the CAB 154/101 source given above); and “All [the imaginary double agents] notionally conveyed their information to GARBO in invisible ink, to be transmitted direct to the Abwehr over his clandestine radio – the only channel open after security restrictions on outgoing mail had been imposed.” (p 121) The irony is that Howard draws attention to the inconvenience that the withdrawal of mail privileges caused LCS and B1A, but does not inspect the implications of trying to suppress potentially dangerous wireless traffic, and how they might have affected the deception project’s success.

Problems with the Poles

The Polish Government-in-Exile

Immediately after the critical April 15 meeting, the War Office began to toughen up, as the file KV 4/74 shows. The policy matter of the curtailment of diplomatic privileges was at last resolved. Findlater Stewart gave a deadline to the Cabinet on April 16, and it resolved to stop all diplomatic cables, couriers and bags, for all foreign governments except the Americans and the Russians. The ban started almost immediately, and was extended until June 20, even though the Foreign Office continued to fight it. Yet it required some delicate explaining to the second-tier allies. Moreover, the Foreign Office continued to resist it, or at least, abbreviate it. They even wanted to restore privileges on D-Day itself: as Liddell pointed out, that would have been stupid, as it would immediately have informed the enemy that the Normandy assault was the sole one, and not a feint before a more northerly attack at the Pas de Calais.

Brigadier Allen, the Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, who had been charged with following up with the ISSB on whether the British were controlling French service traffic to North Africa, drew the attention of the ISSB’s secretary to the importance of the proposed ban. The record is sketchy, but it appears the Chiefs of Staff met on April 19, at which a realisation that control over all diplomatic and military channels needed to be intensified. The Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee was instructed to ensure that this happened, and a meeting was quickly arranged between representatives of the ISSB, MI6, SOE, the Cypher Policy Board and the Inter-Service W/T Security Committee, a much more expert and muscular group than had attended Findlater Stewart’s conference.

While the exposure by French traffic was quickly dismissed, Sir Charles Portal and Sir Andrew Cunningham, the RAF and Royal Navy chiefs, urged central control by the Service Departments rather than having it divided between SHAEF and Allied Forces Headquarters, and invited the JISC committee “to frame regulations designed to prevent Allied Governments evading the restrictions imposed by the War Cabinet on diplomatic communications, by the use of service or S.O.E. ‘underground’ W/T channels for the passage of uncensored diplomatic or service messages.” This was significant for several reasons: it recognized that foreign governments might attempt to evade the restrictions, probably by trying to use service signals for diplomatic traffic; it recommended new legislation to give the prohibitions greater force; and it brought into the picture the notion of various ‘underground’ (not perhaps the best metaphor for wireless traffic), and thus semi-clandestine communications, the essence of which was barely known. This minute appeared also to reflect the input of Sir Alan Brooke, the Army Chief, but his name does not appear on the document – probably because the record shows that he was advocating for the shared SHAEF/AFHQ responsibility, and thus disagreed with his peers.

The outcome was that a letter had to be drafted for the Czechoslovak, Norwegian and Polish Commanders-in-Chief, the Belgian and Netherlands Ministers of Defence, and General Koenig, the Commander of the French Forces in the United Kingdom, outlining the new restrictions on ‘communications by diplomatic bag and cipher telegrams’ (implicitly cable and wireless). It declared that ‘you will issue instructions that no communication by wireless is to be carried out with wireless stations overseas except under the following conditions’, going on to list that cyphers would have to be deposited with the War Office, plain language copies of all telegrams to be submitted for approval first, with the possibility that some messages would be encyphered and transmitted through British signal channels. A further amendment included a ban on incoming messages, as well.

Were these ‘regulations’, or simply earnest requests? The constitutional issue was not clear, but the fact that the restrictions would be of short duration probably pushed them into the latter category. In any case, as a memorandum of April 28 makes clear, Findlater Stewart formally handed over responsibility for the control of wireless communications to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), reserving for himself the handling of ‘mail and telegrams’ (he meant ‘mail and cables’, of course). By then, the letter had been distributed, on April 19, with some special annexes for the different audiences, but the main text was essentially as the draft had been originally worded.

The Poles were the quickest to grumble, and Stanisław Mikołajczyc, the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile, wrote a long response on April 23, describing the decision as ‘a dangerous legal and political precedent’, making a special case out of Poland’s predicament, and its underground fight against the Germans. He promised to obey the rules over all, but pleaded that the Poles be allowed to maintain the secrecy of their cyphers in order to preserve the safety and security of Polish soldiers and civilians on Polish soil fighting the German. “The fact that Polish-Soviet relations remain for the time being unsatisfactory still further complicates the situation,” he added.

It is easy to have an enormous amount of sympathy for the Poles, but at the same time point out that their aspirations at this time for taking their country back were very unrealistic. After all, Great Britain had declared war on Germany because of the invasion of Poland, and the Poles had contributed significantly in the Battle of Britain and the Italian campaign, especially. The discovery by the Germans, in April 1943, of the graves of victims of the Katyn massacre had constituted a ghastly indication that the Soviets had been responsible. Yet Stalin denied responsibility, and broke off relations with the London Poles when they persisted in calling for an independent Red Cross examination. Moreover, Churchill had ignored the facts, and weaselly tried to placate both Stalin and the Poles by asking Mikołajczyc to hold his tongue. In late January, Churchill had chidden the Poles for being ‘foolish’ in magnifying the importance of the crime when the British needed Stalin’s complete cooperation to conclude the war successfully.

Yet the Poles still harboured dreams that they would be able to take back their country before the Russians got there – or even regain it with the support of the Russians, aspirations that were in April 1944 utterly unrealistic. The file at HW 34/8 contains a long series of 1942-1943 exchanges between Colonel Cepa, the Chief Signals Officer of the Polish General Staff, and RSS officers, such as Maltby and Till, over unrealistic and unauthorized demands for equipment and frequencies so that the Polish government might communicate with all its clandestine stations in Poland, and its multiple (and questionable) contacts around the world. Their tentacles spread widely, as if they were an established government: on December 9, 1943, Joe Robertson told Guy Liddell that ‘Polish W/T transmitters are as plentiful as tabby cats in the Middle East and are causing great anxiety’. They maintained underground forces in France, which required wireless contact: this was an item of great concern to Liddell. Thus the Poles ended up largely trying to bypass RSS and working behind the scenes with SOE to help attain their goals. The two groups clearly irritated each other severely: the Poles thinking RSS too protocol-oriented and unresponsive to their needs, RSS considering the Poles selfish and too ambitious, with no respect for the correct procedures in a time of many competing demands.

The outcome was that Churchill had a meeting with Mikołajczyc on April 23, and tried to heal some wounds. The memorandum of the meeting was initialled by Churchill himself, and the critical passage runs as follows: “Mr. Churchill told Mr. Mikołajczyc that he was ready to waive the demand that the Polish ciphers used for communication with the Underground Movement should be deposited with us on condition first, that the number of messages sent in these ciphers was kept down to an absolute minimum; secondly, that the en clair text of each message sent in these ciphers should be communicated to us; thirdly, that Mr. Mikołajczyc gave Mr. Churchill his personal word of honour that no messages were sent in the secret ciphers except those of which the actual text had been deposited with us, and fourthly, that the existence of this understanding between Mr. Mikołajczyc and Mr. Churchill should be kept absolutely confidential; otherwise H.M.G would be exposed to representations and reproaches from other foreign Governments in a less favourable position.”

Thus it would appear that the other governments acceded, that the Poles won an important concession, but that the British were able to censor the texts of all transmissions that emanated from British soil during the D-Day campaign. And Churchill was very concerned about the news of the Poles’ preferential treatment getting out. Yet the JIC (under its very astute Chairman, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck) thought otherwise – that the news was bound to leak out, and, citing the support of Liddell, Menzies, Cadogan at the Foreign Office and Newsam at the Home Office, it requested, on May 1, that the Prime Minister ‘should consider the withdrawal’ of his concession, and that, if impracticable, he should at least clarify to Mikołajczyc that it ‘related to messages sent to the underground movement in Poland and not to communications with other occupied or neutral countries’.

Moreover, problems were in fact nor restricted to the Poles. De Gaulle, quite predictably, made a fuss, and ‘threatened’ as late as May 29 not to leave Algiers to return to the UK unless he was allowed to use his own cyphers. The Chiefs of Staff were left to handle this possible non-problem. Churchill, equally predictably, interfered unnecessarily, and even promised both Roosevelt and de Gaulle (as Liddell recorded on May 24) that communications would open up immediately after D-Day. Churchill had already, very naively, agreed to Eisenhower’s desire to disclose the target and date of NEPTUNE to France’s General Koenig. The Prime Minister could be very inspiring and insightful, but also very infuriating, as people like Attlee and Brooke observed.

And there it stood. Britain controlled the process of wireless communication (apart from the Soviet and US Embassies) entirely during the course of the D-Day landings, with a minor exposure in Polish messages to its colleagues in Poland. The restrictions were lifted on June 20. And B1A’s special agents continued to chatter throughout this period.

Guy Liddell and the RSS

Guy Liddell

Guy Liddell, deputy director-general of MI5, had been energized by his relationship with Sclater of the RSS, and, with Malcolm Frost’s departure from MI5 in December 1943, he looked forward to an easier path in helping to clean up Barnet, the headquarters of the Radio Security Service. In the months before D-Day, Liddell was focused on two major issues concerning RSS: 1) The effectiveness of the unit’s support for MI5’s project to extend the Double-Cross System to include ‘stay-behind’ agents in France after the Normandy landings succeeded; and 2) his confidence in the ability of RSS to locate any German spies with transmitters who might have pervaded the systems designed to intercept them at the nation’s borders, and who would thus be working outside the XX System.

Overall, the first matter does not concern me here, although part of Liddell’s mission, working alongside ‘Tar’ Robertson, was to discover how RSS control of equipment, and its primary allegiance to MI6, might interfere with MI5’s management of the XX program overseas. Liddell had to deal with Richard Gambier-Parry’s technical ignorance and general disdain for MI5, on the one hand, and Felix Cowgill’s territoriality on the other (since a Double-Cross system on foreign soil would technically have fallen under MI6), but the challenges would have to have been faced after D-Day, and are thus beyond my scope of reference. In any case, the concern turned out to be a non-problem. The second matter, however, was very serious, and Liddell’s Diaries from early 1944 are bestrewn with alarming anecdotes about the frailties of RSS’s detection systems. The problems ranged from the ineffectiveness of Elms’s mobile units to the accuracy of RSS’s broader location-finding techniques.

I shall illustrate Liddell’s findings by a generous sample of extracts from his Diaries, as I do not believe they have appeared in print before. Thus, from January 26:

Sclater gave an account of the work by the vans on an American station which had been d.f.d by R.S.S. The station was at first thought to be a British military or Air Force one as it was apparently using their procedure. The vans went out to the Horsham area where they got a very strong signal which did not operate the needle. Another bearing caused them to put the Bristol van out, which luckily found its target pretty quickly. The point of this story is that it is almost impossible to say more than that a wireless transmitter is in the north or south of England. Unless you can get into the ground-wave your vans don’t operate. To get into the ground-wave you may need to be very close to their target. There is still no inter-com between the vans and they cannot operate for more than 8 hours without having to drive several hundred miles in order to recharge their batteries. Not a very good show. Sclater is going to find out who is responsible for American Army signal security.

While this may not have been a perennial problem for units that were repeatedly broadcasting from one place, it clearly would have posed a serious exposure with a highly mobile transmitting agent. Moreover, at a meeting on February 17, MI6/SIS (in the person of Valentine Vivian, it appears) had, according to Liddell, admitted some of its deficiencies, stating, in a response to a question as to how its General Search capability worked: “S.I.S. did not think that an illicit station was operating in this country but it was pointed out that their observation was subject to certain restrictions. They were looking for Abwehr procedure, whereas an agent might use British official procedure, which would be a matter for detection by Army Signals, who were ill-equipped to meet the task.” Did Vivian not know what he was talking about, or was this true? Could an agent using ‘British official procedure’ truly evade the RSS detectors, while the Army would not bother to investigate? I recall that Sonia herself was instructed to use such techniques, and such a disclosure has alarming implications.

The minutes of the War Cabinet Sub-committee on February 17 confirm, however, that what Vivian reported was accepted, as an accompanying report by Findlater Stewart displays how the vision for wireless interception embraced by Colonel Simpson in 1939 had been allowed to dissolve. (In fact, as Liddell’s Diaries show, a small working-party had met on the morning of the inaugural meeting to prepare for the discussion.) In a report attached to the minutes, Stewart wrote the following (which I believe is worth citing in full):

“As a result of their experience extending over some four years the Radio Security Service are of opinion there is no illicit wireless station being worked in this country at present. Nevertheless it must be borne in mind that by itself the watch kept by the Radio Security Service is subject to some limitations. For example, the general search is mainly directed to German Secret Service communications and if an agent were to use official British signal procedures (there has already been some attempt at this), it is not likely to be picked up by the Service, and no guarantee that such stations would be detected should be given unless the whole volume of British wireless traffic, including the immense amount of service signal traffic, were monitored. This ‘general search’, however, is not the only safeguard. The danger to security arises from the newly arrived German Agent (on the assumption that there are no free agents at present operating here), but the art of tracking aircraft has been brought to such a point that the Security Service feel that in conjunction with the watch kept by the Radio Security Service even a determined effort by the enemy to introduce agents could not succeed for more than a few days. Admittedly if the agent were lucky enough to be dropped in the right area and obtain his information almost at once serious leakage could occur. But there is no remedy for this.”

I find this very shocking. While the RSS was justifiably confident that no unidentified spies were operating as its interceptors were monitoring Abwehr communications closely, it had abandoned the mission of populating the homeland with enough detective personnel to cover all possible groundwaves. Apparently, the sense of helplessness expressed in Stewart’s final sentence triggered no dismay from those who read it, but I believe this negligence heralded the start of an alarming trend. And the substance of the message must have confirmed Liddell’s worst fears.

Liddell and Sclater intensified their attention to RSS’s activities. Sclater also referred, later in February, to the fact that RSS had picked up Polish military signals in Scotland, but the Poles had not been very helpful, the signals were very corrupt, as picked up, and it was not even certain ‘that the messages were being sent from Gt. Britain’. Liddell also discovered that RSS had been picking up messages relating to Soviet espionage in Sweden, and blew a fuse over the fact that the facts about the whole exercise had been withheld from MI5 and the Radio Security Intelligence Committee, which Dick White of MI5 chaired. Thus, when he returned from two weeks’ leave at the end of March, his chagrin was fortunately abated slightly, as the entry for April 16 records:

During my absence there have been various wireless tests. GARBO, on instructions from the Germans, has been communicating in British Army procedure. He was picked up after a certain time and after a hint had been given to Radio Security Service. He was, however, also picked up in Gibraltar, who notified the RSS about certain peculiarities in the signals. This is on the whole fairly satisfactory. TREASURE is going to start communicating blind and we shall see whether they are equally successful in her case. Tests have also been taking place to see whether spies can move freely within the fifteen-mile belt. One has been caught, but another, whose documents were by no means good, has succeeded in getting through seven or eight controls and has so far not been spotted.

This was not super-efficient, however: ‘hints’, and ‘after a certain time’. At least the British Army procedure was recognised by the RSS. (Herbert Hart later told Liddell that ‘notional’ spies dressed in American military uniforms were the only ones not to get caught.) But the feeling of calm did not last long. Two weeks later, on April 29, Liddell recorded:

The Radio Security Service has carried out an extensive test to discover the GARBO transmitter. The report on this exercise is very distressing. The GARBO camouflage plan commenced on 13 March but the Mobile Units were not told to commence their investigations till 14 April. From 13 March to 14 April GARBO’s transmitter was on the air (and the operator was listening) for a total of twenty-nine hours, and average of one hour a day. On 14 April the Mobile Units were brought into action and they reported that the GARBO transmitter operated for four hours between 14 and 19 April inclusive. In fact, it operated for over six and a half hours, and it would seem that the second frequency of the transmitter was not recorded at all. On 15 April, GARBO transmitted for two whole hours. This incident shakes my confidence completely in the power of RSS of detecting illicit wireless either in this country or anywhere else. It is disturbing since the impression was given to Findlater Stewart’s Committee and subsequently to the Cabinet that no illicit transmissions were likely to be undetected for long. Clearly, this is not the case.

The irony is, of course, that, if the Abwehr had learned about RSS’s woes, they might have understood how their agents were able to transmit undetected. Yet this was a problem MI5 had to fix, and the reputation of the XX System, and of the claim that MI5 had complete control of all possible German agents in the country, was at stake. Liddell followed up with another entry, on May 6:

I had a long talk with Sclater about the RSS exercise. Apparently the first report of Garbo’s transmitter came from Gib. This was subsequently integrated with a V.I. report. The R.S.S. fixed stations in N. Ireland and the north of Scotland took a bearing which was well wide of the mark, and although the original report came in on March 13th it was not until April 14th that sufficiently accurate bearings were obtained to warrant putting into action of the M.U.s. They were started off on an entirely inaccurate location of the target somewhere in the Guildford area. Other bearings led to greater confusion. Had it not been for the fact that the groundwave of the transmitter was then ranged with the Barnet station it is doubtful whether the transmitter would ever have been located. The final round-up was not done according to the book, i.e. by the 3 M.U.s taking bearings and gradually closing in. One M.U. got a particularly strong signal and followed it home.

By now, however, Liddell probably felt a little more confident that homeland security was tight enough. No problematic messages had been picked up by interception, and thus there were probably no clandestine agents at large, a conclusion that was reinforced by the fact that the ULTRA sources (i.e. picking up Abwehr communications about agents in the United Kingdom) still betrayed no unknown operators. Nevertheless, Liddell still harboured, as late as May 12, strong reservations about the efficacy of RSS’s operations overseas, which he shared with the philosopher Gilbert Ryle at his club. At this time, MI5 was concerned about a source named JOSEFINE, sending messages that reached the Abwehr via Stockholm. (JOSEFINE turned out to be the Swedish naval attaché in London, and his associates or successors.) But then, Liddell expressed further deep concerns, on May 27, i.e. a mere ten days before D-Day:

I had a long discussion with TAR and Victor [Rothschild] about RSS. It seemed to me that the position was eminently unsatisfactory. I could see that the picking up of an agent here was a difficult matter. If he were transmitting on ordinary H.F. at fairly frequent intervals to a fixed station on the continent in Abwehr procedure we should probably get his signals. If he were transmitting in our military procedure it was problematic whether we should get his signals. If he were transmitting in VHF it was almost certain that we should not get him. I entirely accept this as being the position but my complaint is that the problem of detecting illicit wireless from this country has never been submitted to a real body of experts, and that possibly had it been given careful study by such a body at least the present dangers might have been to some extent mitigated. Victor agreed that it might be possible to work on some automatic ether scanner which would increase the chances of picking up an agent. There might also be other possibilities, if the ground were thoroughly explored. So much for picking up the call. The next stage is to D.F. the position of the illicit transmitter. Recent experiments had shown both in the case of GARBO and in the case of an imaginery [sic] agent who was located at Whaddon, that the bearings from the fixed stations were 50-60 miles out. This being so, the margin for error on the continent would be considerably increased. We have always been given to understand that fixed stations could give a fairly accurate bearing. The effect is that unless your vans get into the ground-wave they stand very little chance of picking up the agent. The D.G. is rather anxious to take this matter up; both TAR and I are opposed to any such course. I pointed out to the D.G. that the Radio Security Committee consisted of a Chairman who knew nothing about wireless, and that he and I had no knowledge of the subject, and therefore we would all be at the mercy of Gambier-Parry who could cover us all with megacycles. The discussion would get us no where and only create bad blood. He seemed to think however that we ought to get some statement of the position particularly since I pointed out to him that if an agent were dropped we should probably pick him up in a reasonable time. The fact is that unless the aircraft tracks pin-pointed him and the police and the Home Guard did their job, we should be extremely unlikely to get our man. Technical means would give us little if any assistance. By the time a man had been located the harm would have been done.”

Some of this plaint was misguided (VHF would not have been an effective communication wavelength for a remote spy), but it shows that, despite all the self-satisfied histories that were written afterwards, RSS was in something of a shambles. Fortunately there were no ‘men’ to be got: the Abwehr had been incorporated into the SS in the spring of 1944. Canaris was dismissed, and no further wireless agents were infiltrated on to the British mainland. Liddell was probably confident, despite RSS’s complacent approach, that no unknown wireless agents were at large because intercepted ISOS messages gave no indication of such. He made one more relevant entry before D-Day, on June 3:

TAR tells me that since 12 May RSS have been picking up the signals of an agent communicating in Group 2 cypher. They have at last succeeded in getting a bearing which places the agents somewhere in Ayrshire. The vans are moving up to the Newcastle area. Two hours later, TAR told me that further bearing indicated that the agent was in Austria. So much for RSS’s powers of D.F.ing. My mind goes back to a meeting held 18 months ago when G.P. [Gambier-Parry] had the effrontery that he could D.F. a set in France down to an area of 5 sq. miles.

Did someone mishear a Scottish voice saying ‘Ayrshire’, interpreting it as ‘Austria’? We shall never know. In any case, if Liddell ever stopped to think “If we go to the utmost to ensure there are no clandestine agents reporting on the real state of things here, wouldn’t German Intelligence imagine we were doing just that?”, he never recorded such a gut-wrenching question in his Diaries.

‘Double’ or ‘Special’ Agents?

Before Bevan left London for Moscow, he attended – alongside Findlater Stewart – that last meeting of the W Board before D-Day. They heard a presentation by ‘Tar’ Robertson, who described the status of all the double agents, confirmed that he was confident that ‘the Germans believed in TRICYCE and GARBO, especially, and probably in the others’.  Robertson added that ‘the agents were ready to take their part in OVERLORD’, and offered a confidence factor of 98% that the Germans trusted the majority of agents. The concluding minute of the meeting was a recommendation by Bevan that the term ‘double agents’ be avoided in any documentation, and that they be referred to as ‘special agents’, the term that appears in the title of the KV 4/70 file.  A week later, Bevan was on his way to Moscow.

The reason that Bevan wanted them described as ‘special agents’ was presumably the fact that, if the term ‘double agent’ ever escaped, the nature of the double-cross deception would be immediately obvious. Yet ‘special agents’ was not going to become a durable term: all agents are special in some way, and the phrase did not accurately describe how they differed. Liddell continued to refer to ‘DAs’ in his Diaries, John Masterman promulgated the term ‘double agents’ in his influential Double Cross System (1972), and Michael Howard entrenched it in his authorised history of British Intelligence in the Second World War – Volume 5 (1990).

Shortly after Masterman’s book came out, Miles Copland, an ex-CIA officer, wrote The Real Spy World, a pragmatic guide to the world of espionage and counter-espionage. He debunked the notion of ‘double agents’, stating: “But even before the end of World War II the term ‘double agent’ was discontinued in favor of ‘controlled enemy agent’ in speaking of an agent who was entirely under our own control, capable of reporting to his original masters only as we allowed, so that he was entirely ‘single’ in his performance, and by no means ‘double’.” The point is a valid one: if an agent is described as a ‘double’, he or she could presumably be trying to work for both sides at once, even perhaps evolving into the status of a ‘triple agent’ (like ZIGZAG), which applies enormous psychological pressure on the subject, who will certainly lose any affiliation to either party, and end up simply trying to survive.

Yet ‘controlled enemy agent’ is, to me, also unsatisfactory. It implies that the agent’s primary allegiance is to the enemy, but that he or she has been ‘turned’ in some way. That might be descriptive of some SOE agents, who were captured, and tortured into handing over their cyphers and maybe forced to transmit under the surveillance of the Gestapo, but who never lost their commitment to the Allied cause (and may have eventually been shot, anyway). Nearly all the agents used in the Double Cross System had applied to the Abwehr under false pretences. They (e.g. BRUTUS, TREASURE, GARBO, TRICYCLE) intended to betray the Germans, and work for the Allied cause immediately they were installed. Of those who survived as recruits of B1A, only TATE had arrived as a dedicated Nazi. He was threatened (but not tortured) into coming to the conclusion that his survival relied on his operating under British control, and he soon, after living in the UK for a while, understood that the democratic cause was superior to the Nazi creed. SUMMER, on the other hand, to whom the same techniques were applied, refused to co-operate, and had to be incarcerated for the duration of the war.

Thus the closest analogy to the strategy of the special agents is what Kim Philby set out to do: infiltrate an ideological foe under subterfuge. But the analogy must not be pushed too far. Philby volunteered to work for an intelligence service of his democratic native country, with the goal of facilitating the attempts of a hostile, totalitarian system to overthrow the whole structure. The special agents were trying to subvert a different totalitarian organisation that had invaded their country (or constituted a threat, in the case of GARBO) in order that liberal democracy should prevail. There is a functional equivalence, but not a moral one, between the two examples. Philby was a spy and a traitor: he was definitely not a ‘double agent’, even though he has frequently been called that.

I leave the definitional matter unresolved for now. It will take a more authoritative writer to tidy up the debate. I note that the highly regarded Thaddeus Holt considers the debate ‘pedantic’, and he decided to fall back upon ‘double agent’ in his book, despite its misleading connotations.

Special Agents at Work

The events that led up to the controversial two-hour message transmitted by GARBO on June 9, highlighted in the several quotations that I presented at the beginning of this script, have been well described in several books, so I simply summarise here the aspects concerning wireless usage. For those readers who want to learn the details, Appendix XIII of Roger Hesketh’s Fortitude lists most of the contributions of British ‘controlled agents’ on the Fortitude South Order of Battle, and how they were reflected in German Intelligence Reports. Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross gives a lively account of the activities of the agents who communicated via wireless – via their B1A operators, in the main.

TATE (Wulf Schmidt) was the longest-serving of the special agents, but the requirement to develop a convincing ‘legend’ about him, in order to explain to the Abwehr how he had managed to survive for so long on alien territory, took him out of the mainstream. In October 1943, Robertson had expressed doubts as to how seriously the Germans were taking TATE, as they had sent him only fourteen messages over the past six months, and in December, the XX Committee even considered the possibility that he had been blown. Their ability to verify how TATE’s reports were being handled arose mainly because communications were passed to Berlin from Hamburg by a secure land-line, not by wireless (and thus not subject to RSS/GC&CS interception.) Indeed, Berlin believed that the whole ‘Lena Six’ (from the 1940-41 parachutist project, and whose activity as spies was planned to last only a few weeks before the impending German invasion!) were under control of the British, but the Abwehr, in a continuing pattern, were reluctant to give up on one of their own. The post-war interrogation of Major Boeckel, who trained the LENA agents in Hamburg, available at KV 2/1333, indicates that Berlin had doubts about TATE’s reliability, but that Boeckel ‘maintained contact despite warnings’. TATE provided one or two vital tidbits (such as Eisenhower’s arrival in January 1944), and by April, the XX Committee judged him safe again. In May, he was nominally ‘moved’ to Kent, ostensibly to help his employer’s farming friend, and messages were directed there from London, in case of precise location-finding. But TATE’s information about FUSAG ‘operations’ did not appear to have received much attention: TATE’s contribution would pick up again after D-Day.

The career of TREASURE (Lily Sergeyev, or Sergueiev) was more problematical. In September 1943 she had had to remind her handler, Kliemann, that she was trained in radio operation, and that she needed to advance from writing letters in secret ink. Kliemann then improbably ordered her to acquire an American-made Halicrafter apparatus in London, and then promised to supply her one passed to her. He let her down when she visited Madrid in November, so the XX Committee had to start applying pressure. They engineered a March 1944 visit by TREASURE to Lisbon, where she was provided with a wireless apparatus, and instructed on when and how to transmit, with an emphasis that the messages should be as short as possible. She returned to the UK; her transmitter was set up in Hampstead, and her first message sent on April 13. There was a burst of useful, activity for about a month or so, but, by May 17, a decision was made that TREASURE had to be dropped. She confessed to concealing from her B1A controllers the security check in her transmissions that she could have used to alert the Germans to the fact that she was operating under control: she was in a fit of pique over the death of her dog. Robertson fired her just after D-Day.

TRICYCLE (Dusko Popov) had formulated a role that allowed him to travel easily to Lisbon, but the Committee concluded that he need to communicate by wireless as well. Popov had engineered the escape to London of a fellow Yugoslav, the Marquis de Bona, in December 1943, who would become his authorized wireless operator, and Popov himself brought back to the UK the apparatus that de Bona (given the cryptonym FREAK) started using successfully in February. Useful information on dummy FUSAG movements was passed on for a while, but a cloud hung over the whole operation, as the XX Committee feared, quite justifiably, that TRICYCLE might have been blown because Popov’s contact within the Abwehr, Johnny Jebsen (ARTIST) knew enough about the project to betray the whole deception game. When Jebsen was arrested at the end of April, TRICYCLE and his network were closed down, with FREAK’s last transmission going out on May 16. TRICYCLE explained the termination in a letter written in secret ink on May 20, ascribing it to suspicions that had arisen over FREAK’s loyalties. Astonishingly, FREAK sent a final message by wireless on June 30, and the Germans’ petulant response indicated that they still trusted TRICYCLE. After the war, MI5 learned that Jebsen had been drugged and transported to Berlin, tortured and then killed, but said nothing.

The career of BRUTUS (Roman Czerniawski) was also dogged by controversy, as he had brought trouble on himself with the Polish government-in-exile, and the Poles had access to his cyphers. Again, fevered debate over his trustworthiness, and deliberation over what the Germans (and Russians) knew about him continued throughout 1943. His wireless traffic (which had been interrupted) restarted on August 25, but his handler in Paris, Colonel Reile, suspected that he might have been ‘turned’. Indeed, his transmitter was operated by a notional friend called CHOPIN, working from Richmond. By December 1943, confidence in the security of BRUTUS, and his acceptance by the Abwehr, had been restored: the Germans even succeeded in delivering him a new wireless set. Thereafter, BRUTUS grew to become the second most valuable member of the team of special agents. A regular stream of messages was sent, beginning in from February 1, culminating in an intense flow between June 5 and June 7, providing (primarily) important disinformation about troop movements in East Anglia.

Lastly, the performance of GARBO was the most significant – and the most controversial. According to Guy Liddell, GARBO had made his first contact with the Abwehr in Madrid in March 1943. GARBO had also claimed to have found a ‘friend’ who would operate the wireless for him. The Abwehr was so pleased that it immediately sent him new cyphers (invaluable to GC&CS), and, a month later, advised him how to simulate British Army callsigns, so as to avoid detection. A domestic crisis then occurred, which caused Harmer in MI5 to recommend BRUTUS as a more reliable vehicle than GARBO, but it passed, and, by the beginning of 1944 GARBO was using his transmitter to send more urgent – as well as more copious – messages. GARBO benefitted from a large network of fictional agents who supplied him with news from around the country, and his role in FORTITUDE culminated in the epic message of June 9 with which I introduced this piece.

The Aftermath

BODYGUARD was successful. The German High Command viewed the Normandy landings as a feint to distract attention from the major assault they saw coming in the Pas de Calais. They relied almost exclusively on the reports coming in from the special agents. They did not have the infrastructure, the attention span, or the expertise to interpret the deluge of phony signals that were generated as part of FORTITUDE NORTH, and they could not undertake proper reconnaissance flights across the English Channel to inspect any preparations for the assault that they knew was coming. Interrogations of German officers after the war confirmed that the ‘intelligence’ transmitted by the five agents listed above was passed on and accepted at the very highest levels. This phenomenon has to be analysed in two dimensions: the political and the technical.

The fact that the Abwehr (and its successor, the SS) were hoodwinked so easily by the substance of the messages was not perhaps surprising. To begin with, the Abwehr was a notoriously anti-Nazi organisation, and the role of its leader, Admiral Canaris, was highly ambiguous in his encouraging doubts about the loyalty of his agents to be squashed. He told his officer Jebsen (ARTIST) that ‘he didn’t care if every German agent in Britain was under control, so long as he could tell German High Command that he had agents in Britain reporting regularly.’ Every intelligence officer has an inclination to trust his recruits: if he tells his superiors that they are unreliable, he is effectively casting maledictions on his own abilities. Those who spoke up about their doubts, and pursued them, were moved out to the Russian front. The Double Cross System was addressing a serious need.

When the ineffectiveness and unreliability of the Abwehr itself was called into question, and the organisation was subsumed into the SS, the special agents came under the control of disciplinarians and military officers who did not really understand intelligence, were under enormous pressures, and thus had neither the time nor the expertise to attempt to assess properly the information that was being passed to them. They had experienced no personal involvement with the agents supposedly infiltrated into Britain. What intelligence they received sounded plausible, and appeared to form a pattern, so it was accepted and passed on.

Yet the technical aspects are more problematic. Given what the German agencies (the Sipo, Gestapo, and Abwehr) had invested in static and mobile radio-detection and location finding techniques (even though they overstated their capabilities), they should surely have asked themselves whether Great Britain would not have explored and refined similar technology. And they should have asked themselves why the British would not have exercised such capabilities to the utmost in order to conceal the order of battle, and assault plans, for the inevitable ‘invasion’ of continental Europe. Moreover, Britain was a densely populated island, homogeneous and certainly almost completely opposed to the Nazi regime, and infiltrated foreign agents must have had to experience a far more hostile and obstructive environment than, say, SOE agents of French nationality who were parachuted into a homeland that contained a large infrastructure of Allied sympathisers. Traces of such a debate in German intelligence are difficult to find. Canaris defended his network of Vertrauensmänner, and referred to ‘most intricate and elaborate electronic countermeasures’ in February 1944, but his motivations were suspect, and he was ousted immediately afterwards. Why was GARBO (especially) not picked up? How indeed could anyone transmit for so long, when such practices went against all good policies of clandestine wireless usage?

Even more astonishing is the apparent lack of recognition of the problem from the voluminous British archives. Admittedly, the challenge may have been of such magnitude that it was never actually mentioned, but one might expect at some stage the question to be raised: “How can we optimise wireless transmission practices so that it would be reasonable to assume that RSS would not be able to pick them up?” That would normally require making the messages as brief as possible, switching wavelengths, and changing locations – all in order to elude the resolute mobile location-finding units. That was clearly a concern in the early days of the war, with agent SNOW, when B1A even asked SNOW to inquire of his handler, Dr. Rantzau (Ritter) whether it was safe for SNOW always to transmit from the same place. Rantzau replied in the affirmative, reflecting the state-of-the-art in 1940. But progress had been made by the Germans, especially in light of the arrival of SOE wireless agents, and the XX Committee must have known this.

Yet, four years later, all that the XX Committee and B1a appeared to do was allow GARBO to emulate British military traffic. And they showed a completely cavalier attitude to the problem of time on the air by allowing GARBO to compose his ridiculously windy messages. After all, if they were sharp enough to ensure that signals emanated from a location roughly where the agent was supposed to be, in case German direction-finders were on the prowl, why would they not imagine that the Germans were contemplating the reciprocal function of RSS?  It was even more comprehensively dumb than the Abwehr’s credulous distancing from the problem.

Did MI5 try to communicate to the Abwehr the notion that RSS was useless? Guy Liddell confided his doubts about the apparently feeble tracking of GARBO only to his diary, so, unless the Abwehr had a spy in the bowels of RSS, and a method of getting information back to Germany, that would have been an impossible task. Perhaps some messages from the special agents indicating that they were close to being hunted down, but always managed to escape, would have given a measure of verisimilitude, indicating the existence of a force, but a very ineffective one. The behaviour of B1A, however, in reusing transmission sites, while paying lip-service to the location-finding capabilities of the foe, but allowing absurdly long transmissions to take place, simply denies belief. The utterly unnecessary but studied non-observance of basic protocols was highly unprofessional, and should have caused the whole scaffolding of deceit to collapse. It is extraordinary that so many historians and analysts have hinted at this debacle, but never analyzed it in detail.

In conclusion, the mystery of the Undetected Radios was not a puzzle of how they remained undetected, but of why both the Abwehr and MI5 both considered it reasonable that they could flourish unnoticed for so long, and behave so irresponsibly. Findlater Stewart’s 1946 history of RSS – which helped set the agenda for the unit during the Cold War – proves that he did not really understand the technology or the issues. What all this implies for the Communist agent Sonia’s transmissions (around which this whole investigation started) will be addressed in a final report that will constitute the concluding chapter of Sonia’s Radio and The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies?

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I recall, back in the early 1960s, seeing advertisements in the Daily Telegraph for a charity identifying itself as the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. They showed an elderly couple, a rather tweedy gentleman of military bearing, and his elegant wife, who probably had worn pearls at some stage, but could no longer afford them. (The image I show above is a similar exhibit.) These were presumably persons of good ‘breeding’ who had fallen on undeserved hard times. The organization asked the readership to contribute to the maintenance and well-being of such persons.

I found these appeals rather quaint, even then, and asked myself why ‘gentlefolk’ should have been singled out as especially worthy of any handouts. After all, such terminology had a vaguely mid-Victorian ring: I must have been thinking of Turgenev’s ‘Nest of Gentry’, which I had recently read. Moreover, were there not more meritorious examples of the struggling poor? Perhaps I had Ralph MacTell’s ‘Streets of London’ ringing in my head [No. It was not released until 1969. Ed.], although I was never able to work out why, if the bag-lady celebrated by this noted troubadour (who, like me, grew up in Croydon in the 1950s) was lonely, ‘she’s no time for talking, she just keeps right on walking’. Was she perhaps fed up with being accosted in the street by long-haired minstrels wielding guitars?

But I digress. It was more probable that I had been influenced by the lunch monitor at my school dining-table, the much-loved and now much-missed John Knightly, who would later become Captain of the School. I recall how he, with Crusader badge pinned smartly on his lapel, would admonish those of us who struggled to complete our rather gristly stew by reminding us of ‘the starving millions in China’. I felt like telling him that he could take the remnants of the lunch of one particular Distressed Fourth-Former and send them off to Chairman Mao, but somehow the moment passed without my recommendation being made.

Astonishingly, I have discovered that the DGAA endured under that name until 1989, when it was renamed as Elizabeth Finn Care, after its founder. A fascinating article about it, before the name change, appeared in the New York Times that year: https://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/02/world/london-journal-lifting-a-pinkie-for-the-upper-crust.html?smid=em-share

I thought about that institution as I was preparing this piece. I have warned readers of coldspur that I would eventually be offering an analysis of the phenomenon of Liverpool University as the Home for Distressed Spies, and here it is. It analyses the predicament that MI5 and the civil authorities found themselves in when they had clear evidence that Soviet spies were in their midst, but, because of the nature of the evidence, believed that they could not prosecute without a confession.

The accounts of the interviews, interrogations and suspicions surrounding some of the atom scientists (Pontecorvo, Peierls, Fuchs, Skinner, Skyrme, Davison) in Britain after the war display a puzzled approach to policy by the officers at the AERE (Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell) and at MI5. If such suspects were believed to have pro-Soviet sympathies, they could not be encouraged, on account of the knowledge they possessed about atomic power and weaponry, to consider escaping to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, it would have been difficult to prosecute those whose guilt was hardly in doubt (i.e. Fuchs and Pontecorvo), as it would require gaining a confession from them, and, on the other, the sensitivity of the sources (the VENONA decrypts, and a lost item of intelligence, respectively) would prohibit such evidence being used in a trial. In Fuchs’s case, some senior figures in MI5 (Percy Sillitoe, the Director-General, and Dick White, head of counter-espionage) were keen on trying to gain a confession, and prosecuting. Liddell of MI5 (Sillitoe’s deputy), in conjunction with Harwell’s chief, John Cockcroft, and Henry Arnold, the security officer, wanted to shift Fuchs and Pontecorvo quietly off to a regional university. Liverpool University loomed largest in this scenario.

I have decided to work backwards generally in this account, before advancing to the connection between the controversial role of Herbert Skinner, and how he eventually exerted an influence on the removal of the mysterious Boris Davison. I believe it will be more revealing to display gradually the undeclared knowledge that affected the decisions, misleading briefings and reports that emanated from Guy Liddell and his brother-officers at MI5, and from other civil servants at Harwell, and at the Ministry of Supply, to which AERE reported.

The Dramatis Personae (primarily in 1950, when most of the action occurs):

At the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell:

Cockcroft                    Director

Arnold                         Security officer

Skinner                        Assistant director; Head of Theoretical Physics division

Fuchs                           Scientist

Pontecorvo                  Scientist

Davison                       Scientist

Buneman                     Scientist

Flowers                       Scientist

The Men from the Ministries:

Attlee                          Prime Minister

Portal                           Controller of Production, Atomic Energy, at the Ministry of Supply

Perrin                           Deputy to Portal

Appleton                     Permanent Secretary, Department for Scientific and Industrial Research

Makins                        Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office

Bridges                        Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, and Head of Civil Service

Rowlands                    Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Supply

Cherwell                      Paymaster-General (1953)

At MI5:

Sillitoe                         Director

Liddell                        Assistant Director

White                          Head of B Division (counter-espionage)       

Hollis                           B1

Mitchell                       B1E (Hollis’s deputy)

Robertson J. C.           Head of B2

Robertson, T. A. R.     B3 (retired in 1948)   

Marriott                       B3

Serpell                         PA to Sillitoe

Skardon                       B2A

Reed                            B2A

Archer                         B2A

Collard                         C2A

Morton                        C2A

Hill                              Solicitor

Bligh                           Solicitor

At the Universities:

Mountford                  Vice-Chancellor, Liverpool University

Chadwick                    Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Oliphant                      Professor at Birmingham University

Peierls                          Professor at Birmingham University

Massey                        Professor at University College, London

Rotblat                        Professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London

Fröhlich                       Professor at Liverpool University

Frisch                          Professor at Trinity College, Cambridge

Flowers                       Researcher at Birmingham University

Pryce                           Professor at Clarendon Laboratories

The Journalists:

Pincher                        Daily Express

Stubbs-Walker            Daily Mail

Moorehead                  Daily Express

Rodin                          Sunday Express

Maule                          Empire News

West                            New York Times

De Courcy                   Intelligence Digest

Various wives, mistresses, girl-friends and spear-carriers

Contents:

  1. Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
  2. Machinations at Liverpool
  3. Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
  4. Fuchs’s Interrogations
  5. Herbert Skinner at Harwell
  6. Skinner’s Removal?
  7. Skinner’s Ventures into Journalism
  8. Boris Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
  9. Boris Davison – after Attlee
  10. Conclusions
  1. Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
Bruno Pontecorvo

Bruno Pontecorvo’s journey to Harwell was an unusual one. An Italian who worked with Joliot-Curie in Paris, he had escaped from France with his Swedish wife and their son in July 1940, in the nick of time before the Nazis overran the country. After some strenuous efforts visiting consulates and embassies to gain the necessary papers, he and his family gained a sea passage to the USA on the strength of a job offer from his Italian colleague Emilio Segrè in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In the autumn of 1942, Pontecorvo was invited by Hans Halban to interview for a position with the British nuclear physics team working in Montreal. He was approved in December 1942, and was inducted into Tube Alloys, the British atomic weapons project, in New York, the following month. He was a success in Canada, and, after Halban’s demotion and subsequent return to Europe, worked closely with Nunn May on the Zero Energy Experimental Pile (ZEEP) project. Yet, as the war came to a close, Pontecorvo began to feel the anti-communist climate in Canada and the United States oppressive to him. In late 1945, with Igor Gouzenko and Elizabeth Bentley revealing the breadth and depth of the Soviet espionage network, he was happy to receive an informal job offer from John Cockcroft, who had been appointed head of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, which was to open on January 1, 1946. Chadwick, who had led the British mission to the Manhattan Project from Washington, had imposed travel restrictions on Pontecorvo, but the Italian was able to negotiate a satisfactory deal by the end of January 1946. Despite competitive offers from several prestigious US companies, he made his decision to join Harwell.

Yet, very strangely, Pontecorvo did not start work for three more years, continuing to operate in Montreal, and even travelling to Europe in the interim. In February 1948, he became a British citizen, to assuage government concerns about aliens working on sensitive projects. On January 24, 1949, he left Chalk River in Ontario for the last time, and officially started work at Harwell on February 1. An entry in his file at The National Archives, however, indicates that he was, rather late in the day, ‘nominated for a position at Harwell’, on July 7 of that year. Astonishingly, the record indicates that Pontecorvo was ‘confirmed in his appointment as S.P.S.O. [Senior Principal Scientific Officer] and established’ only on January 2, 1950! (KV 2/1888-2, s.n. 97c.)

It was not until October 1950, when Pontecorvo disappeared with his family during a holiday on the Continent, that Liddell made his first diary entry – at least, of those that have survived redactions – concerning Pontecorvo. As the record for October 21 states: “On information that had been received xxxxxxxxx in March of this year, intimating that PONTECORVO and his wife were avowed Communists, a decision was reached, after an interrogation of PONTECORVO by Henry Arnold, when the former admitted to having Communist relations – to get rid of him and find some employment for him at Liverpool University.” Yet Liddell thus implies that he (or MI5) learned of Pontecorvo’s unreliability only in March 1950, and his memorandum reinforces the notion that it was primarily the security officer Arnold’s idea to accommodate Pontecorvo at Liverpool University, even though the news had apparently come as a surprise to Arnold back in March.

Liddell was being deliberately deceptive. As early as December 15, 1949, (see KV 2/1288, s.n. 97A, as Frank Close reports in Half-Life, his biography of Pontecorvo), the FBI sent a report to MI5, dated December 15, that identified Pontecorvo’s links to Communism. As Close writes: ‘MI5 took note. Someone highlighted the above paragraph in Pontecorvo’s file’, but Close then asserts that MI5 did nothing, as they were consumed with the Fuchs case at the time.  On February 10, 1950, however, another clearer warning arrived, when Robert Thornton of the US Atomic Energy Commission, on a visit to a Harwell conference, informed John Cockcroft that Pontecorvo and his family were Communists, repeating specifically the formal report from December. A vital conclusion must be that, if this visitor from the USA had not been invited to the conference, Cockcroft might never have learned about the project already in place to remove Pontecorvo. 

Pontecorvo had in fact left behind him a trail of hints concerning his political allegiances. He had joined the French Communist Party on August 23, 1939, the day the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed. In July 1940, MI5 knew enough about him to judge him as ‘mildly unsuitable’ for acceptance as an escapee to Britain. In September, 1942, FBI agents had inspected his house in Tulsa (while Pontecorvo was away), and discovered communist literature there. After Pontecorvo’s application to join Tube Alloys, the FBI had exchanged correspondence with British Security Control (which represented MI5 and MI6 in the United States), concerning Pontecorvo’s loyalties. The FBI was able to confirm, after Pontecorvo’s flight, that it had sent letters to BSC on March 2, 16, and 19 but, inexplicably, BSC had issued him a security clearance on March 3, and had failed to follow up.

Alarmed by Thornton’s warning (having been kept in the dark by his own security officer and MI5), Cockcroft instructed Arnold to look into the matter. Arnold accordingly spoke to Pontecorvo, elicited information from him, and was able to inform MI5, by telephone call on March 1, that Pontecorvo was ‘an active communist’. (On the same day, Collard of C2A reported that Arnold’s conversation with Pontecorvo was ‘recent’: KV 2/1887, s.n. 20A.) Yet Arnold added more. He told MI5 that Pontecorvo had recently before been offered a job at the University of Liverpool, and that Pontecorvo’s acceptance of that offer would rid Harwell of a security risk. Again, this news goes unrecorded in Liddell’s diaries at the time.

But is this not extraordinary? What does ‘recently’ mean? If Arnold learned of the Liverpool job offer from Pontecorvo himself, when had it been arranged? And was this not extremely early for Pontecorvo to be seeking employment elsewhere? Given the long gestation period preceding the confirmation of Pontecorvo’s post at Harwell, would this not have provoked some high-level discussion? After all, Pontecorvo had been ‘established’ a couple of weeks after the original warning from the FBI. And who would have made the offer? Liverpool University is associated in the archives most closely with Herbert Skinner, but, as will be shown, Skinner was not yet established in a position of authority and influence at Liverpool. He had been formally appointed, but was not yet working full-time, as he was still executing his job as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell. Some senior academic figures should surely have been involved in the decision, especially the Vice-Chancellor, Sir James Mountford.

This aspect of the case has been strangely overlooked by Pontecorvo’s biographers, Frank Close, and Simone Turchetti. Both mention the fact that Pontecorvo had first indicated the fact of the Liverpool offer to Arnold on March 1, but do not follow up why it would have been made so early in the cycle, or investigate the earlier sequence of events, or even ask why Pontecorvo was informing Arnold of the fact. Had someone revealed to Pontecorvo that incriminating stories were floating around about his political beliefs, and had officers at Liverpool University come to some sort of unofficial agreement with the authorities at the Ministry of Supply and MI5 – but not Arnold or Cockcroft – since December? It is difficult to imagine an alternative scenario. Thus it is much more likely that MI5 did act in December, when they first received the report, but made no record of the fact.

Turchetti does in fact report that, in January 1950, i.e. well before the Arnold-Cockcroft exchanges, Herbert Skinner ‘asked Pontecorvo to join him at Liverpool, believing that he was the ideal candidate to lead experimental activities’, as if this would be a normal and smooth career progression. (I shall explore Skinner’s split role between Harwell and Liverpool later.)  Turchetti does not, however, follow up on the implications of these early negotiations. For, as I suggested earlier, this would have been a very sudden transfer, given Pontecorvo’s official confirmation on the Harwell post earlier that month. Moreover, this item does not appear in the files at the National Archives. It comes from a statement made by the Vice-Chancellor at Liverpool, Sir James Mountford, which seriously undermines MI5’s claim that it was not aware of the seriousness of the exposure until February 1950.   Pontecorvo, incidentally, also had the chutzpah around this time to request a promotion at Harwell, which was promptly rejected.

  • Machinations at Liverpool
Sir James Mountford

I acquired a copy of Mountford’s statement from Liverpool University. [By courtesy of the Liverpool University Library:  255/6/5/5/6 – Notes on Bruno Pontecorvo by James Mountford.]

It was sent by the Vice-Chancellor to Professor Tilley, in September 1978. Mountford explains that, after Sir James Chadwick in the spring of 1948 vacated the physics chair to accept the Mastership of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, the university was faced with the problem of finding a suitable candidate to replace him, with the added sensitivity that, if the right person were not selected, the nuclear project might be transferred to Glasgow. The challenge required some diligent networking by the experts in this field.

The first choice for Chadwick’s replacement was Sir Harrie Massey, the Australian Professor of Applied Mathematics at University College, London, who had had a distinguished war record, working lastly on isotope separation for the Manhattan Project at the University of California.  (Mountford indicated that Massey was Professor of Physics, but he was in fact not appointed Quain Professor of Physics until 1950.) Massey ‘reluctantly’ declined the offer, so the team from Liverpool had a meeting on January 26, 1949, with Professor Oliphant of Birmingham (to whom Massey had reported at Berkeley), Chadwick, and Sir Edward Appleton, the Secretary of the Department for Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). They decided upon W. H. B. Skinner of Harwell. Herbert Skinner headed the physics section there: he also had experience on the Manhattan Project, as he had worked with Massey on isotope separation at Berkeley.

There is, oddly, no discussion by the team of Skinner’s merits, nor even the suggestion of a process for interviewing Skinner, or asking him about his plans and objectives, or whether he even wanted the job. Cockcroft does not seem to have been consulted on his willingness to release his second-in-command so soon after the latter’s appointment. This must be considered as highly provocative and controversial, given Skinner’s role as Cockcroft’s deputy, and what Mountford wrote about the importance of the position, and I shall explore the rationale in detail later in this article. The note merely states: “He accepted and took up duties formally in Oct. 1949.”  Moreover, Andrew Brown, in his biography of Joseph Rotblat, states that Rotblat had been appointed joint acting head of the physics department at Liverpool in October 1948, before resigning in March 1949. That happened to be just after the speedy decision in favour of Skinner, but Skinner does not even merit a mention in Brown’s book. * Did Rotblat perhaps think that his close friend Chadwick should have championed his cause instead of Skinner’s? Maybe he simply regarded the prospect of working under Skinner intolerable. Or perhaps he was asked to move aside to make room for a Harwell transferee?

[* Rotblat obtained a Ph.D., his second, from Liverpool in 1950. It seems that the Ph.D. was awarded after he moved to London.]

According to what Mountford claimed, Rotblat moved to St. Bartholomew’s Medical School not out of pique at Skinner’s appointment, but because of his dislike of military applications of nuclear science. Again, Mountford’s judgment (or memory) should be challenged. Rotblat had voiced his objections to the military uses of the science back in 1944, when it became apparent that the Germans would not be successful in building such a bomb. He had moved to Liverpool, which was constructing a cyclotron to aid applications for energy, was appointed Director of Research for Nuclear Physics at the university, and was Chairman of the Cyclotron Panel of the UK Nuclear Physics Committee from 1946 to 1950. He had thus had several years to have considered any objections to working there.

Irrespective of the exact circumstances concerning Rotblat’s departure, and whether he felt rebuffed, Skinner, on taking up his duties, raised the question of replacing Rotblat, and ‘the idea emerged’ of a second chair in Experimental Physics. Turchetti indicates, more boldly, that Skinner ‘dictated’ that the Faculty of Sciences agree to establish a professorship, as this would be the status that Pontecorvo demanded. Yet it is not clear where Turchetti gathered this insight, and it is not precisely dated. Mountford gives October 1949 as the time Skinner assumed his duties. Even if one considers it unlikely that a recruit not yet established would be able to make demands of that nature, if Skinner did indeed identify and recommend Pontecorvo that early, two months before the disclosures ofDecember 1949, it would have very serious implications, suggesting that MI5 and the Ministry already had reservations about the naturalised Italian. And, even in December 1949-January 1950, Skinner’s approaching Pontecorvo without informing his boss, Cockcroft, would have been highly irregular. Mountford may have been putting a positive gloss on the affair, but it now sounds as if undisclosed pressure was being applied from other quarters.

In any case (again, according to Mountford) the Faculty responded by agreeing, in principle, to approve the chair ‘if a satisfactory person were available’. The outcome was that Mountford lunched with Skinner and Pontecorvo on January 18, 1950, i.e. a month before the fateful visit of the American Thornton. Pontecorvo, according to Turchetti, was, however, not very impressed with Liverpool. (And his highly strung Swedish wife, Marianne, would have been very uncomfortable there: the wife of one of my on-line colleagues, a woman who hails from Sheffield, asserts that there was not much to choose between Moscow and Liverpool at that time.) Alan Moorehead wrote that Mrs. Pontecorvo visited the city, but was ‘worried about the cold in the north’ – so unlike her native Stockholm, one imagines. The Chairs Committee then spent three months or so collecting information about the candidate. Mountford had meanwhile spoken to Chadwick, who had doubts whether Pontecorvo could stand up to Skinner’s ‘forceful personality’. A formal interview with Pontecorvo eventually took place, but not until June 6, 1950. He did not overall impress, however, partly because of his poor English. Yet the committee overcame its reservations, and Pontecorvo would later accept the position, with January 1951 set as the date on which he would assume duties.

Mountford’s description of events as a smooth series is a travesty of what was really going on. Given what happened between January and June, Pontecorvo’s apparent freedom to accept or reject the offer in June was an unlikely outcome. First of all, in March, Pontecorvo had given Arnold the impression he had already received a firm offer, a claim belied by Mountford’s account. At this stage, Pontecorvo apparently did not respond to it, however vague and undocumented. Later that month, however, further damaging evidence against him came from Sweden via MI6 (a communication that was surely not passed on to Mountford). A letter from MI6 to the famous Sonia-watcher J.H. Marriott, in B2, dated March 2, 1950, describes Pontecorvo and his wife as ‘avowed Communists’. This revelation applied more pressure on MI5 and the Ministry of Supply to remove Pontecorvo from Harwell. The outcome was that, on April 6 (KV/2 -1887, s.n. 26) Arnold was again recommending that ‘it would be a good thing if he were able to obtain a post at one of the British universities’, even boosting the suggestion that ‘we might continue to avail ourselves of his undoubted ability as consultant in limited fields.’ The naivety displayed is amazing: Klaus Fuchs had just been sentenced to fourteen years for espionage activities.

Furthermore, Arnold added that Pontecorvo, after denying that he was a Communist, but admitting that he was assuredly a man of the Left, ‘has already toyed with the idea of an appointment in Rome University, and is at present turning over in his mind an offer which has come to him from America.’ The latter must have been an enormous bluff: given the FBI report, the United States would have been the last place to admit him for employment. This truth of his allegiance was soon confirmed, with matters became more embarrassing in July. Geoffrey Patterson in Washington then wrote to Sillitoe informing him that the FBI had learned of Pontecorvo’s working at Harwell, and had indicated that they had sent messages to Washington (and maybe London) on three occasions in 1943 describing Pontecorvo’s communist affiliations. The messages may have been destroyed, among the files of British Security Co-ordination, after the war. In Washington, as MI6’s representative, Kim Philby (of all people) could not trace them – or so he said. MI5 apparently had no record of them.

If the dons at Liverpool had been briefed on all that had happened, they presumably would have been even more reluctant to take Pontecorvo on. Yet, the more dangerous Pontecorvo seemed to be, the more MI5 wanted to plant him at Liverpool. Using FO 371/84837 and correspondence held in the Liverpool University Library, as well as the Pontecorvo papers at Churchill College, (none of which I have personally inspected), Turchetti writes: “From the spring of 1950, Skinner used his recent security investigations to put pressure on his colleague to accept the new position. He also convinced the university’s administrators of Pontecorvo’s suitability without making them aware of the ongoing inquiry.” In addition, with ammunition from Roger Makins from the Ministry of Supply, Skinner had to wear down objections from university administrators that Pontecorvo was improperly qualified to teach. Skinner was clearly receiving instructions from his political masters.

Chadwick and Cockcroft acted as referees for Pontecorvo, but they could hardly be assessed as objective, given their involvement in the plot. Chadwick pondered over whether he should confide in Mountford with the awful facts, and wrote to him that he would discuss the university’s concerns with Cockcroft, but he did not follow up. And then, when the final offer was reluctantly made on June 6, Pontecorvo vacillated, requesting another month to consider. On July 24, the day before he left on holiday, never to return, he wrote to Mountford, accepting the offer, and stating that he expected to start work after Christmas, when he would leave Harwell.

On October 23, 1950, Liddell had an interview with Prime Minister Attlee. He glossed over the FBI/BSC issue without giving it a date, and referred solely to the Swedish source of March 2 as evidence of Pontecorvo’s communism, conveniently overlooking both the events of December 1949 and February 1950. All this is confirmed by his memorandum of the meeting on file (KV 2/1887, s.n. 63A). MI5 had been attempting a reconstruction of Pontecorvo’s activities (KV 2/1288, s.n. 87C), which presumably fed Liddell’s intelligence. This account (undated, but probably in July or August 1950) omits both the warning from the FBI in December 1949 (which is confirmed elsewhere in the file), as well as the information given to Cockcroft at the beginning of March 1950. It does concentrate, however, on the information from Sweden, reporting on the discussions that occurred in the following terms: “D. At. En. [Perrin, at Department of Atomic Energy] decided not to grant PONTECORVO’s request for promotion and to encourage him to take up the post offered him at Liverpool by Professor Skinner. This was arranged only after considerable discussion.” Pontecorvo was thus allowed to leave on vacation in July without submitting his resignation or formally being taken off Harwell’s books. And he never returned.

Yet his whole saga eerily echoes what had happened in a collapsed time-frame with Klaus Fuchs.

  • Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
Klaus Fuchs

Fuchs’s path to Harwell was slightly less erratic, but also controversial. He had been recruited to Tube Alloys, the British codename for atomic weapons research, in 1941, and had moved to the USA at the end of 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project. In June 1946 he was summoned from Los Alamos to head the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell, working under Herbert Skinner. Skinner had been the first divisional head appointed at Harwell.  Fuchs was appointed chairman of the Power Steering Committee at Harwell, and Pontecorvo joined the committee later.

What is extraordinary about Fuchs’s return to the UK is that the first that MI5 learned about it was when Arnold, the security officer, wrote to MI5, in October 1946, about his suspicions that Fuchs might be a communist. He might well have gained his intelligence from Skinner himself, who had known Fuchs from the time they both worked at Bristol University in the 1930s. The political climate by this stage meant that embryonic ‘purge’ procedures (which were solidified in May 1947) would have to be applied to such figures working in sensitive posts. Frank Close, in Trinity, covers very thoroughly these remarkable few months at the end of 1946, when MI5 officers openly voiced their concerns that Fuchs might be a spy. Michael Serpell and Joe Archer (Jane Archer’s husband) were most energetic in advising that Fuchs should be kept away from any work on atomic energy or weapons research. Rudolf Peierls came under suspicion, too, but Roger Hollis countered with a strong statement that it was highly unlikely that the two were engaged in espionage, and gained support in his judgment from Dick White and Graham Mitchell.

The next three years were thus a very nervous time for MI5 and Arnold, as they kept a watch on Fuchs’s movements and associations. Yet Fuchs was placed on ‘permanent establishment’ in August 1948, and Arnold was later to claim, deceitfully, that Fuchs came under suspicion only in that year, when he was observed speaking intently to a known communist at a conference. The matter came to a head, however, in 1949, when the decipherment of VENONA transcripts led the Washington analysts to narrow down the identity of the spy CHARLES to either Fuchs or Peierls. Guy Liddell indicates that fact as early as August 9: at the end of August, the FBI formally told MI5 of its belief that the leak pointed to Fuchs (because of the visit to his sister in Boston).

MI5 immediately started making connections. It alerted MI6 to the Fuchs case, and to his Communist brother, Gerhard. (Maurice Oldfield had told Kim Philby of the discovery before the latter left London for Washington in September 1949.) MI5 identified the close relationship between the Skinners and Fuchs. A report by J. C. Robertson (B2A) of September 9 (after a meeting between Arnold, Collard, Skardon and Robertson) runs as follows: “Although FUCHS’ address has until recently been Lacies Court, Abingdon, he has in fact rarely lived there, but has chosen to sleep more often than not with his close friends the SKINNERS at Harwell. He is on more than usually intimate terms with Mrs. SKINNER. The SKINNERS will be leaving in about six months for Liverpool, where SKINNER himself is to take up the chair about to be vacated [sic!] by Sir James Chadwick. At present, SKINNER devotes his time about half and half to Liverpool and Harwell.” 

Robertson went on to write that Professor Peierls was also a regular visitor at the Skinners, and that Fuchs was in addition very friendly with Otto Frisch of Cambridge University. (Frisch, the co-author, with Rudolf Peierls, of the famous memorandum that showed the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon, had moved to Liverpool from Birmingham, where Peierls worked, and had been responsible for the development of the cyclotron developed there. Yet, after the war, he had taken up work at Harwell as head of the Nuclear Physics Division, before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1947.) At Harwell, Arnold alone was in on the investigation: Cockcroft was not to be told yet of what was going on.

This is an intriguing document, by virtue of what it hints at, and what it gets wrong. The suggestion that Fuchs is having an affair with Erna Skinner is very strong, and the mention of Herbert’s long absences in Liverpool indicates the opportunities for Fuchs and Erna to carry on their liaison. Yet the transition of the Liverpool chair remains confusing: Chadwick had moved to Cambridge in 1948; Mountford noted that Skinner had taken up his duties in October 1949, but also referred (well in retrospect) that there had been an interregnum in the Physics position for a year, from March 1948 to March 1949. Robertson indicates that the Skinners will not be moving until about March 1950. Skinner’s own file at the National Archives informs us that he did not resign from Harwell until April 14, 1950, which was a very late decision, suggesting perhaps that his preferences had lain with staying at Harwell as long as possible, and that he might even have had aspirations of restoring his career there. The files suggest that his duties at Harwell remained substantial well into 1950. A report by J. C. Robertson of B2A, dated March 9, 1950, describes Skinner as follows: ’. . . deputy to Sir John Cockcroft and who has temporarily taken over Fuchs’ post as head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell’. Skinner then continued to work in a consultative capacity at Harwell: he wrote to the incarcerated Fuchs as late as December 20, 1950 that ‘we are definitely at Liverpool but go on visits to Harwell quite often.’ How could Skinner perform that job if he was spending so much his time in Liverpool? In any case, it was an exceedingly long and drawn-out period of dual responsibilities for Skinner.

  • Fuchs’s Interrogations
Jim Skardon

Armed with their confidential VENONA intelligence, MI5 prepared for the interrogation of Fuchs, but were not initially hopeful of gaining a successful confession. Thus the thorny question of what they could collectively do to ‘eliminate’ him (in their clumsy expression) quickly arose. Fuchs might decide to flee the country, which would be disastrous, as his Moscow bosses would be able to pick his brains without any restrictions. Liddell continued the theme, showing his enthusiasm for a softer approach against his boss’s more prosecutorial instincts. Liddell doubted that interrogations would be successful in eliciting a confession from Fuchs, and, as early as October 31, 1949, he was suggesting ‘alternative employment’, though being overruled by Sillitoe. At this stage, Peierls and Fuchs were both under investigation, but Liddell was gaining confidence that Fuchs was ‘their man’. (Peierls had come under suspicion in August since he also had a sister in the United States, but he was soon eliminated from the inquiry.)

On November 28, Liddell noted that he was still thinking in terms of finding another job for Fuchs, and on December 5, he tried to convince Perrin that the chances of a conviction were remote, saying that ‘efforts should be made to explore the ground for alternative work’. At a meeting to discuss Fuchs on December 15, 1949 (see Close, p 255), Perrin ‘commented that Herbert Skinner was about to move to Liverpool University, and that a transfer of Fuchs to Liverpool might be arranged through Skinner, who would probably welcome Fuchs’ presence there.’ (Perrin was presumably unaware then of the Erna Skinner-Klaus Fuchs liaison.) It seems that the notion of parking Fuchs specifically at Liverpool University was first aired at this time.  (Note that this is exactly the same date when MI5 learned about Pontecorvo from the FBI.) When Jim Skardon managed to get Fuchs to make a partial confession on December 21, Liddell was still considering finding him ‘some job at some University compatible with his qualifications’.

After another interrogation of Fuchs, on December 30, Liddell met the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, on January 2, 1950, and informed him of MI5’s resolve to complete the interrogations. Even Lord Portal (head of Atomic Energy at the Ministry of Supply) was in general harmony, although reportedly bearing the more cautious opinion that ‘the security risk of maintaining FUCHS at Harwell could not be accepted, and that some post should be found for him at one of the Universities’. Attlee seemed ready to accept Portal’s recommendation. Yet two important players had yet to be brough into the plot: Cockcroft and Skinner.

When Cockcroft became involved, matters took an alarmingly different turn. Cockcroft asked Skinner, on January 4, whether he could find a place for Fuchs at Liverpool. This would suggest that, unless a deep feint was being played, Skinner was not aware of the clandestine efforts to dispose of Fuchs, as his depositions to Liverpool had hitherto been made with Pontecorvo in mind. Skinner must surely have been bemused, and must have asked why such a step was being considered. Cockcroft probably said more than he should have. (Cockcroft had the irritating habit of concealing his opinions in meetings with his subordinates, and then showing disappointment when his intentions were not read, but then talking too much in one-on-one conversations.) On January 10, Cockcroft met with Fuchs and Skinner, separately. Cockcroft told Fuchs ‘that he would help him find a university post and suggested that Professor Skinner might be able to take Fuchs on at Liverpool’. It also reinforces the fact that Cockcroft had not been brought into the Pontecorvo affair. Astonishingly, all the time up until March 1, Skinner was negotiating with Pontecorvo and Mountford behind Cockcroft’s back, while Cockcroft was pressing Skinner (up until Fuchs’s confession on January 24) to place Fuchs at Liverpool without bringing Skinner into the full picture.

Whether Skinner learned about Cockcroft’s offer to Fuchs from Cockcroft or Erna is not clear, but MI5 reported that Skinner learned ‘considerably more about the Fuchs affair than he is authorized to know’, and (as Close writes), ‘in consequence decided to take steps to ensure that Fuchs stayed at Harwell’. Given the circumstances, this was not surprising. Skinner already had been promoting Pontecorvo’s case, and because of Erna, would surely have preferred that Fuchs stayed at Harwell. So much for Skinner as the enabler of graceful retirement, but he had been placed in an impossible position. He had been thrust into the middle of these negotiations, perhaps reluctantly. In the course of one month (January 1950), Cockcroft applied pressure on him to accept Fuchs at Liverpool, Skinner next privately tried to talk Fuchs out of the move, and then, even before Fuchs made his confession, Skinner met with Mountford and Pontecorvo to consider a position for Pontecorvo at the University. It did not appear that his bosses at Harwell and the Ministry of Supply were behaving very sensitively to his own needs. At the same time, they were very anxious to make sure that Skinner kept to himself anything he may have learned about the predicament that Fuchs – and the authorities – were in.

Here also occurred the highly questionable incident of ‘inducement’, highlighted by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan in her recent biography of Fuchs, whereby Cockcroft essentially offered Fuchs a free pass if he co-operated, stressing that the recent appointment of Fuchs’s father to a position in East Germany made Klaus’s employment at Harwell untenable. Cockcroft also famously suggested that Adelaide University might be an alternative home, a suggestion which left Dick White and Percy Sillitoe aghast. Adelaide University happened to be the alma mater of Mark Oliphant, who had been a colleague of Peierls at Birmingham, and had also worked on isotope separation at Berkeley. (These connections go deep.) Oliphant’s biographical record suggests that he returned to Australia after the war, yet he is recorded by Mountford as attending the fateful meeting in January 1949 to decide on Skinner as Chadwick’s successor. No ground appeared to have been prepared for this idea, and the incident, while suggesting Cockcroft’s political naivety, also hints that Oliphant had been brought into the discussions some time before. MI5 struggled with the challenge of trying to coordinate the roles of Arnold, Skinner and Cockcroft, all with different needs, perspectives, and all being granted only a partial side of the story.

On January 11, Liverpool University decided to recommend the establishment of a second chair in Physics: perhaps Mountford was not yet aware that he was about to face two candidates for one position. On January 18, Skinner brought Pontecorvo up for a meeting with Mountford. Then some of the pressure was relieved. On January 24, Fuchs made a full confession to Jim Skardon, in the fourth interrogation. He was arrested on February 2, sent to trial, and sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment on March 1. For a while, Liverpool University was saved the embarrassment of being forced to accept one dangerous communist spy in its faculty. What Adelaide University thought about all this (if they were indeed consulted) is probably unrecorded.

  • Herbert Skinner at Harwell
Herbert Skinner

I wrote about Skinner’s enigmatic career in the second installment of The Mysterious Affair at Peierls. He had enjoyed a distinguished war record, both in Britain in the USA, and merited his appointment as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell, where he was apparently a very hard and productive worker. Yet he had some facets to his character and lifestyle that raised security questions – not least the fact that he had married Erna, an Austrian born in Czernowitz, who socialized with openly communist friends. (The unconventional lives and habits of the Skinners assuredly deserve some special study of their own.) Despite their background, it appears (unless some files have been withheld) that MI5 began keeping record on the pair only towards the end of 1949, even though Erna had for a while maintained frequent social contact with her Red friends, including Tatiana Malleson. The statements that Skinner made, when later questioned by MI5, that protested innocence, could be interpreted as the honest claims of a loyal civil servant, or the obvious cover of a collaborator in subversion. (That is the Moura Budberg ploy with H. G. Wells, who, when asked by ‘Aitchgee’ whether she was a spy, told him that, whether she were a spy or not, she would have to answer ‘No.’)

Moreover, Erna was carrying on an affair with Fuchs, taking advantage of Herbert’s frequent absences when he was splitting his time between Liverpool and Harwell, but also acting brazenly when her husband was around.  In the last months of 1949, the Erna-Klaus relationship was allowed to thrive. As Close writes (Trinity, p 244): “Because Erna’s husband, Herbert, was in the process of transferring from Harwell to take up a professorship at the University of Liverpool, he was frequently away from the laboratory, so there were many empty hours for Erna, which she would pass with Fuchs.” If they were not aware of it before, MI5 could not avoid the evidence when they started applying phone-taps to Fuchs’s and the Skinners’ telephones. Skinner was thus a security risk himself.

Skinner, who had known Fuchs since their Bristol days, also made some bizarre and contradictory statements about Fuchs’s allegiances, at one time, in 1952, admitting that he had known that Fuchs was an ardent communist when at Bristol, but did not think it significant ‘when he found Fuchs at Harwell’, having earlier criticised MI5 for allowing Fuchs to be recruited at the Department of Atomic Energy. On June 28, 1950, when Skardon interviewed Skinner about Fuchs, the ex-Special Branch officer reported his response as following: “Dr. Skinner was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946. Of course I asked Skinner whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this rebuff.”

Yes, that response was perhaps a bit too pat, rather like Philby’s memoranda to London from Washington, where he brought attention to Burgess’s spying paraphernalia, and later to Maclean’s possible identity as the Foreign Office spy, as a ploy to distract attention from himself. Fuchs ‘clearly a Communist’ –  that should perhaps have provoked a stronger reaction, especially with Skinner’s assumed patriotism. But his claim was certainly fallacious: Skinner’s Royal Society biography makes it clear that he was busy supervising construction at Harwell in the first half of 1946, substituting for Cockcroft, who did not arrive until June. Fuchs did not arrive until August, and Skinner must have known about his coming arrival, and even facilitated it.

In addition, early in 1951, after Skinner had moved full-time to Liverpool, Director-General Sillitoe wrote to the Chief Constable of Liverpool, asking him to keep an eye on the Skinners. A Liverpool Police Report was sent to MI5 on May 10, indicating that the Skinners had been active members of the local Communist Party ‘since they arrived in Liverpool from Harwell almost two years ago’. (The timing is awry.) Faulty record-keeping? The wrong targets? A mean-spirited slur by a rival who resented Skinner’s appointment? A reliable report on some foolish behaviour by the new Professor? Another mystery, but a pattern of duplicity and subterfuge on his part.

Skinner’s actions are frequently hard to explain. In my recent bulletin on Peierls, I reported at length on the mysterious meetings that Skinner held with Fuchs in New York in 1947, when they were attending the Disarmament Conference. This episode was described at length by the FBI, but appears to have been overlooked (if available) by all five of Fuchs’s biographers: Moss (1987), Williams (1987), Rossiter (2014), Close (2019), and Greenspan (2020). More mysteriously, Skinner’s conversations with Fuchs suggested that he had a confidential contact at MI6. Was Skinner perhaps working under cover, gathering information on Communists’ activities?

Thus it is not surprising that Skinner might not have embraced the prospect of Fuchs’s joining him (and Erna) at Liverpool once his assignments at Harwell had been cleared up. Could he not get that ‘young pup’ out of his life and his marriage? The record clearly shows that, after Skinner had been instructed by Cockcroft to show no curiosity in what was going on with the Fuchs investigation, Fuchs admitted his espionage to Erna on January 17, after which she told her husband. By January 27, Robertson is pointing out that Skinner has been told too much by Cockcroft (who was not good at handling conflict), and that Skinner has been trying to persuade Fuchs to stay at Harwell. This particular crisis was held off by the fact that Fuchs had, shortly beforehand, made his full confession to Skardon, and the strategy favoured by White and Sillitoe of proceeding to trial began to take firm shape.

The files on the Skinners at the National Archives (KV 2/2080, 2081 & 2082) reveal yet more twists, however, indicating that there were questions about Skinner much earlier, and also showing a remarkable exchange a couple of years after the Pontecorvo and Fuchs incidents, when Skinner naively exposed, to an American publication, the hollowness of the government’s policy.

  • Skinner’s Removal?
Sir James Chadwick

We have to face the possibility that Skinner’s move away from Harwell had been planned a long time before. One remarkable minute from J. C. Robertson (B2A), dated July 20, 1950, is written in response to concerns expressed from various quarters about the Skinners’ Communist friends, and includes the following statement: “We agreed that since the SKINNER’s [sic], on their own admission, have Communist friends, they may share these friends [sic] views, and that Professor SKINNER’s removal from Harwell to Liverpool University should not therefore be a ground for the Security Service ceasing to pay them attention.” ‘Removal’ is a highly pejorative term for the process of Skinner’s being appointed to replace the highly-regarded Chadwick. Was this a misunderstanding on Robertson’s part as to why Skinner was leaving? Was it simply a careless choice of words? Or did it truly reflect that the authorities had decided that Skinner was a liability two years before?

The suggestion that Skinner was ‘removed’ might cause us to reflect on the possibility that Chadwick was encouraged to take up the appointment at Cambridge in order to make room for Skinner. What is the evidence? Chadwick was assuredly an honourable and effective leader of the Tube Alloys contingent in the USA and Canada. He forged an effective partnership with the formidable General Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, but who was very wary of foreign participation in the exercise. Yet Chadwick became stressed with his role, conscience-strung by the enormity of what was being created, and not always being tough enough with potential traitors.

Chadwick had made some political slip-ups on the way. He had been criticised by Mark Oliphant for not being energetic enough in the USA,  he had provided a reference for Alan Nunn May for  a position at King’s College London just before Nunn May was arrested, and, in a statement that perturbed many, he would later openly express his approval of Nunn May’s motives, while saying he did not support what his friend did. He had also given support to the questionable Rotblat when the latter announced his bizarre plan to parachute into Poland. He had appointed another scientist with a questionable background, Herbert Fröhlich, just before his departure from Liverpool. Moreover, while he had openly supported Cockcroft’s appointment, he was not overall happy with the separation of R & D from production of nuclear energy. He and Cockcroft were both building cyclotrons, and thus rivals, but Cockcroft was gaining more funding. Rotblat told Chadwick that Harwell was offering larger salaries. The feud over budgets simmered in the two short years (1946-1948) while Chadwick was at Liverpool.

He was reluctant to leave Liverpool, Mountford reported, even though he was admittedly an exhausted figure by then. His staff did not want him to leave, either, and he maintained excellent relations with Mountford himself. By 1948, Perrin – who reported to the strict and disciplined Lord Portal at the Ministry of Supply – and MI5 were following through Prime Minster Attlee’s instructions to tighten up on communist infiltration, as the Soviet Union’s intentions in Eastern Europe became more threatening. Thus installing Cockcroft’s number two at Liverpool would have allowed the removal of a competent leader who had made an embarrassing choice of wife, place an ally of Cockcroft’s at the rival institution, and set up a function that could assimilate unwanted leftists from Harwell. Overall, Cockcroft trusted Skinner, who had worked for him very effectively on radar testing in the Orkneys at the beginning of the war, but he had to be made to understand that Skinner’s wife’s friends were a problem.

Thus, if Chadwick was pushed out to make room for Skinner, what finally prompted the authorities to eject him? It looks as if Liddell, White and Perrin were pulling the strings, not Cockcroft. Arnold, the security officer, stated in October 1951 that Fuchs’s close relationship with Erna Skinner had started at the end of 1947. November 1947 was the month that the three of them were in New York. The injurious FBI report may have been sent to MI5, but subsequently buried. Thus MI5 officers, already concerned about Fuchs’s reliability, might in early 1948 have seen Skinner as a liability as well, arranged the deal with Perrin and Oliphant, convinced Chadwick (who had, of course, moved on by then) of Skinner’s superior claim over Rotblat and Fröhlich, and set the slow train in motion. It was probably never explained to Cockcroft what exactly what was going on.

It is possible that MI5 had seen the problem of disposing of possible Soviet agents coming some time before. Chapman Pincher had announced, in the Daily Express in March 1948, that the British counter-espionage service had been investigating three communist scientists at Harwell. This triad did not include Fuchs or Pontecorvo, however, since two months later Pincher reported that all three had been fired. In a memo written in August 1953, when Skinner was in some trouble over a magazine article [see next section], R. H. Morton of C2A in MI5, having sought advice from one of MI5’s solicitors, ‘S.L.B.’ (actually B. A. Hill of Lincoln’s Inn), stated that ‘The Ministry of Supply should be asked whether Skinner was ever in a position to know during the Fuchs investigation that although we knew Fuchs was a spy, he was allowed to continue at Harwell for a time’.

This is an irritatingly vague declaration, since ‘for a time’ could mean ‘for a few weeks’ or ‘for a few years’, or anything in between.  Yet it specifically states ‘was a spy’, not ‘was under suspicion because he was a communist’. According to the released archives, that recognition did not occur until September 1949. If the solicitor and the officer were aware of the rules of the game, and the impossibility of immediate removal or prosecution, they might have been carelessly hinting at earlier undisclosed events, and that the Ministry of Supply had initiated stables-cleaning moves that took an inordinate amount of time to complete.

  • Skinner’s Ventures into Journalism
Herbert Skinner in ‘The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’

Herbert Skinner later drew a lot of unwelcome attention to himself in two articles that he wrote for publication. In August 1952, John Cockcroft invited him to review Alan Moorehead’s book, The Traitors (a volume issued as a public relations exercise by MI5) for a periodical identified as Atomic Scientists’ News (in fact, more probably the American Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). And in June 1953, Skinner published an article in the same Bulletin, titled ‘Atomic Energy in Post-War Britain’. In both pieces he betrayed knowledge that was embarrassing to MI5.

He was sagacious enough to send a draft of his book review to Henry Arnold on September 18, 1952, in particular seeking confirmation of the fact that Fuchs’s confession to Skardon occurred in two stages, and to verify his impression that the information that came from Sweden in March of 1950 applied only to Mrs. Pontecorvo. He wrote: “But I know K confessed to Erna about the Diff. Plant a day or two prior to Jan. 19th (the date when he was considered for the Royal Society. This is confidential but did you know it?)” Skinner felt that Moorehead’s account had been telescoped, and wanted to correct it. As for the communication from Sweden, Skinner based his recollection on what Cockcroft had told him, expressing the opinion that, since Pontecorvo had spent so little time in Stockholm, it was unlikely that data had been gathered about him.

The initial response from MI5 was remarkably light. Skardon (B2A) cast doubt on the earlier January 17 confession, and suggested that the claim should be followed up with Mrs. Skinner. His boss, J. C. Robertson, was however a bit more demanding, requesting, in a reply to Arnold dated September 24, that an entire paragraph, about Fuchs’s confessions, and the pointers to a leakage arriving from the USA, be removed. [The complete text of the draft review is available in KV 2/2080.] He added: “I understand that you will yourself be pointing out to SKINNER the undesirability of making any reference to the report from Stockholm which he quotes at the bottom of Page 9 of his manuscript.”

This latter observation was a bit rich and ingenuous. All that Skinner did was attempt to clarify a statement made by Moorehead about the Swedish report, and Moorehead had obviously been fed that information by MI5. Moorehead’s text (pp 184-185) runs as follows: “Indeed Pontecorvo was not persona grata any longer, for early in March a report upon him had arrived from Sweden and this report made it clear that not only Pontecorvo but Marianne as well was a Communist.” Moorehead went on to write that ‘there was nothing to support this in England or Canada [or the USA?], but it was evident that he would have to be closely watched’. Here was an implicit admission that MI5 had blown its cover by allowing Moorehead to see this information. MI5 wanted to bury all the intelligence about Pontecorvo that had come in from the USA, and Robertson clearly wanted to distract attention away from Sweden, too. The Ministry of Supply also issued a sharp admonition that the item about Sweden in Moorehead’s book should never have passed censorship. One wonders what Clement Attlee thought about this anomaly.

The outcome was that Skinner had to make a weird admission of error. First of all, he agreed that he found Moorehead’s mentioning of the Swedish reference ‘unfortunate’, but insisted that he was not in error over Erna’s distress call to him on the 17th, after Fuchs had confessed to her. This prompted Arnold to raise his game, and try to talk Skinner out of submitting the review entirely, as he was using personal information from his role at Harwell, and it would raise ‘a hornet’s nest’ of publicity. He even suggested to Skinner, after lunching with him and Erna, that his memory of dates must be at fault. Even though no statement to that effect is on file, Robertson noted on October 30 that Skinner ‘has now admitted that he may have been mistaken’. (But recall Robertson’s statement of January 27, described above, which indicated that Skinner had already tried to convince Fuchs to stay at Harwell.) Robertson added that ‘we have never been very happy about Mrs. SKINNER, who was of course FUCHS’ mistress’, but announced that MI5 no longer need to interview her about the matter. Robertson alluded to the fact that MI5’s own records pointed to the absence of any evidence of any ‘confession’ by Fuchs to Mrs. Skinner, but how such an event would even have been known about, let alone recorded, was not explained.

It appears that, after this kerfuffle, the review was not in fact published, but Cockcroft and Skinner did not learn any lessons from the exercise. In the June 1953 issue of the Bulletin appeared a piece titled ‘Atomic Energy in Postwar Britain’. The article started, rather dangerously, with the words: “I think that I, who was a Deputy Director at Harwell from 1946 to 1950, am by now sufficiently detached to write my own ideas without these being confused with the British official point of view.” Skinner went on to lament the decline in cooperation between the USA and Great Britain, although he openly attributed part of the blame to the Nunn May and Fuchs cases. But he then made an extraordinarily ingenuous and provocative statement: “It is true that we have had on our hands more than our fair share of dangerous agents who have been caught (or who are known).”

What could he have been thinking? Sure enough, the Daily Mail Science Correspondent J. Stubbs Walker picked up Skinner’s sentence in a short piece describing how Britain was attempting to convince Washington that its security measures were at least as good as America’s. Equally predictably, the MI5 solicitor B. A. Hill was rapidly introduced to the case, and, naturally, drew the conclusion that Skinner’s words implied that there were other agents known, but not yet prosecuted, at Harwell. He thus asked Arnold, in a meeting with Squadron Leader Morton (C2A), whether Skinner had read Kenneth de Courcy’s Intelligence Digest, since de Courcy (a notorious rabble-rouser who was a constant thorn in MI5’s flesh) had made a similar statement in the Digest of the preceding March that ‘there were still two professors employed at Harwell who were sending Top Secret information to the Soviet Union’.

Fortunately for his cause, Skinner had written to the Daily Mail to explain what he wrote, and how it should have been interpreted. (He assumed that Stubbs Walker must have picked up his statement from the UK publication, the Atomic Scientists’ News, which published the same text in July, but, while the archive contains all the pages of the issue of the American periodical, it does not otherwise refer to the UK publication.) “The parenthesis was simply put in to cover the case of Pontecorvo,” he wrote, “and I would like to make it clear that I have no knowledge whatever of any other agents not convicted.” It was a clumsy attempt at exculpation: the syntax of the phase ‘who are known’ clearly indicates a plurality.

Yet what was more extraordinary is that, again, Skinner had written the article at the request of the hapless Cockcroft, ‘who read the article before it was despatched’. Moreover, a copy also was sent to Lord Cherwell’s office, and an acknowledgment indicated that ‘Lord Cherwell had read the majority of the article’. Perhaps Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s wartime scientific adviser, and in 1953 Paymaster-General, now responsible for atomic matters, should have read the article from beginning to end. Perhaps he read all he was given, because Skinner was able to produce a letter from Cherwell at the end of August, indicating that he had no comments. Yet what was sent to Cherwell was a ‘draft of the first half of the paper’. The offending phrase did indeed appear near the beginning of the article: Skinner was given a slap on the wrists, and sent away. Whether Cockcroft was rebuked is unknown. A revealing note in Skinner’s file, dated June 12, 1953, reports that Cockcroft would probably be leaving Harwell soon, to replace Sir Lawrence Bragg as head of the Clarendon Laboratory.  Morton notes: “Rumours indicate Skinner in the running to replace him. Arnold considers this most undesirable ‘for obvious reasons’.” But it is an indication that Skinner still regarded his sojourn at Liverpool as temporary, and wanted to return to replace Cockcroft.

The MI5 solicitor made an unusual error of judgment himself, however. In that initial memorandum of August 12, when he had evidently discussed the matter with some MI5 officers, he included the following: “On the other hand it was not generally thought [note the bureaucratic passive voice] that when he wrote the article he was in fact quoting DE COURCY, but rather that he had in mind cases such as Boris DAVIDSON, and what he really meant to say was that there were persons at Harwell who were suspected of being enemy agents but had not yet been prosecuted, though they were suspected of acting as enemy agents.” That was an unlawyerly and clumsy construction – and it should have been DAVISON, not DAVIDSON – but the implication is undeniable. ‘Cases such as Boris DAVIDSON’ clearly indicates a nest of infiltrators. And I shall complete this analysis with a study of the Davison case.

  • Boris Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
Boris Davison in ‘Empire News’

The files on Boris Davison at the National Archives comprise nine chunky folders (KV 2/2579-1, -2 and -3, and KV 2/2580 to KV 2/2585), stretching from 1943 to 1954. They constitute an extraordinary untapped historical asset, and merit an article on their own. (Equally astonishing is that Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 has only a short paragraph – but no Index entry – on Davison, and nothing about him appears in Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, when Pincher himself was responsible, at the time, for revealing uncomfortable information on Davison’s removal in the Daily Express.) I shall therefore just sum up the story here, concentrating on the aspects of his case that relate to espionage and British universities, and how his convoluted story relates to the problems of dealing with questionable employees in confidential government work.

Davison’s pilgrimage to Harwell is even more picaresque than that of Fuchs or Pontecorvo. Boris’s great-grandfather, who was English, had gone to Russia, accompanied by his Scottish wife, in Czarist times to work as a train-driver in Leningrad. They returned to Rugby for the birth of Boris’s grandfather, James (the birth certificate alarmingly states that he was born ‘at Rugby Station’), who was taken back to Russia at the age of two months, in 1851. James married a Russian, and their child Boris was born in Gorki as a British subject, in 1885. The older Boris married a Russian, and the younger Boris was born in 1908. He studied Mathematics at Leningrad University, and graduated in 1930 with an equivalent B.SC. degree.

Davison thereupon worked for the State Hydrological Institute, but, in trying to renew his British passport, he was threatened by the NKVD. Unwilling to give up his nationality, he applied to leave for the United Kingdom in 1938, and was granted a visa. He made his journey to the UK, and succeeded, through his acquaintance with Rear-Admiral Claxton (whom he had met in the Crimea), to gain employment in 1939 at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, working on wind-tunnel calculations. A spell of tuberculosis in 1941 forced his departure from RAE, but, after a year or so in a sanatorium, Rudolf Peierls adopted him for his Tube Alloys project at Birmingham, working for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. (Avid conspiracy theorists, a group of which I am certainly not a member, might point out that Roger Hollis was also in a sanatorium during the summer of 1942, being treated for tuberculosis.) Davison joined Plazcek at Chalk River in Canada, alongside Nunn May and Pontecorvo early in 1945, and, on his return to Britain in September 1947, worked under Fuchs at Harwell, as Senior Principal Scientific Officer.

The suspicions of, and subsequent inquiries into, Fuchs and Pontecorvo provoked similar questions about Davison’s loyalties, and he was placed under intense scrutiny in 1951, after Pontecorvo’s defection. In a letter to A. H. Wilson of Birmingham University, written from an unidentifiable location (probably the British mission in New York) on May 3, 1944, Rudolf Peierls had written that Davison’s ‘best place would be at Y [almost certainly Los Alamos] provided he would be acceptable there, of which I am not yet sure.’ Davison’s records at Kew state that he was sent to Los Alamos for a short while at the beginning of 1945, but indicate that the New Mexico air had not been suitable for Davison’s tubercular condition, and he had to return to Montreal. It is more probable that Davison’s origins and career would have been regarded negatively by the Americans. (Mountain air was at that time considered beneficial for consumptives.) In his memoir, Peierls also claimed that ‘Placzek wanted Boris to accompany him to Los Alamos, but the doctors doubted whether Boris’s health would stand the altitude. He went there on a trial basis, but after a few weeks had to return to Montreal.’

In any case, Davison was considered a very valuable asset, especially by Cockcroft, who declared that Davison ‘knew more about the mathematical theory behind the Atomic Bomb than any other scientist outside America.’ Nevertheless, or possibly because of that fact, MI5’s senior officers recommended in the winter of 1950-1951 that he should be transferred ‘to a university’. They were overruled, however, by Prime Minster Clement Attlee, who decreed that he should be allow to stay in place. MI5 continued to watch Davison carefully, but when a Conservative administration returned to power in October 1951, questions were asked more vigorously, and Davison was eventually forced to leave Harwell, after some very embarrassing leaks to the Press, and some unwelcome questions from the US Embassy. Hearing about the investigations, they would no doubt have been alarmed that Davison was another who had slipped through security procedures: the Los Alamos visit becomes more relevant. Davison joined Birmingham University in September 1953, and a year later found a position in Canada, whither his wife, Olga (whom he had met and married in Canada), wanted to return. He died in 1961.

This barebones outline (derived from various records in the Davison archive) conceals a number of twists, and raises some searching questions. I have been poring over the reports, letters and memoranda in the archive, and discovered some surprising anomalies and missteps. My conclusion is that MI5’s approach to Davison was highly flawed, and I break it down as follows:

  1. Lack of rigour in tracking Davison’s establishment in the UK: MI5 never investigated how he passed through immigration, how he provided for himself in the months after he arrived in 1938, how he was able to apply successfully for a sensitive position with the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, how he was allowed to join Peierls’s project supporting Tube Alloys at Birmingham without any vetting, or how he was allowed to join the Manhattan Project in America.  He was teased at the RAE because of his poor English, and nicknamed ‘Russki’. An occasional question was posed about these unresolved questions, but it appears that the mere holding of a British passport was an adequate qualification for the authorities.
  2. Failure to join the dots: When Peierls was viewed as a possible suspect alongside Fuchs in the autumn of 1949, MI5 might have pursued the Peierls-Davison connection. Peierls claimed in his autobiography Bird of Passage that Davison’s name had been sent to him from ‘the central register’ after Davison completed his spell in a sanatorium, although the event is undated. Peierls then recruited Davison. I can find no record of any such communication. There is no evidence that Peierls was ever interviewed over Davison’s entry to the Tube Alloys project, or that MI5 explored potential commonalities in the experiences of Genia Peierls and Davison in dealing with the Soviet authorities. In Bird of Passage, Peierls completely misrepresented the authorities’ inquiry into Davison’s reliability, suggesting that it did not get under way until 1953.
  3. Ignorance of Stalin’s Methods: MI5 displayed a shocking naivety about the methods of the NKVD. Davison was a distinguished scientist, as the authorised historian of atomic energy, Margaret Gowing, and John Cockcroft both declared. Rather than allow such a person on specious ‘nationalist’ grounds to leave the country to abet the ideological enemy, Stalin would have probably confiscated his UK passport, and forced him to work for the Communist cause. MI5 had failed to listen to Krivitsky, or gather information on the experiences of other scientists ‘expelled’ from the Soviet Union. Instead they trusted Davison’s account of his ‘refusal’ to take Soviet citizenship, even though he gave conflicting accounts of what happened.
  4. Naivety over NKVD Aggression: One of the experiences related by Davison to MI5 was that, when his passport problem came up, he was asked by his NKVD interrogators to spy on his colleagues at Leningrad University. He declined on the grounds that he was too clumsy to conceal such behaviour, a response that provoked the wrath of his interrogator. Such disobedience would normally have resulted in execution or, at least, exile to Siberia. Yet Davison was ‘rewarded’ by such non-compliance by being allowed to emigrate to his grandfather’s native land, and spread the news. That sequence should have aroused MI5’s suspicions.
  5. Delayed recognition of the threats of ‘blackmail’: A refrain in the archived proceedings is that Moscow would have been alerted to Davison’s presence at Harwell by Pontecorvo’s defection in the autumn of 1950, and that only then would Davison have been possibly subject to threats. For that reason, his correspondence with his parents in the Crimea (itself a noteworthy phenomenon from the censorship angle) was studiously inspected for coded messages and secret writing. MI5 failed to recognize that the threats to his family would probably have been initiated before Davison was sent on his mission, in the manner that the Peierlses were threatened. (That is an enduring technique: it is reported as being used today by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.) Since MI5 and the Harwell management realised that Communists had been installed at Harwell for a while, it was probable that the fact of Davison’s recruitment would have reached Soviet ears already. They ignored the fact that his working closely with Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Nunn May meant he would not have needed a separate courier, but they expressed little curiosity in how he would have communicated with Moscow after Fuchs’s imprisonment.
  6. Unawareness of the role of subterfuge: MI5 spent an enormous amount of time and effort exploring Davison’s contacts and political leanings, looking for a trace of sympathy for communism that might point to his being a security risk. They even, rather improbably, cited the testimony of Klaus Fuchs from gaol, Fuchs vouching for Davison’s reliability, and quoted this item of evidence to the Americans! Yet, if Davison had been a communist, he would probably have preferred to stay in the Soviet Union, helping its cause, rather than taking on a role in provoking the revolution overseas, something for which his temperament was highly unsuited. Even if the lives of his parents had not been threatened, his most effective disguise would have been to steer clear of any communist groups or associations.
  7. Clumsy handling of their target: MI5 and Harwell – and, especially, John Cockcroft  – showed a dismal lack of imagination and tact in dealing with Davison. Cockcroft was weak, wanted to hang on to Davison because of his skills, and avoided awkward confrontational situations. They failed to develop an effective strategy in guiding Davison’s behaviour, and Cockcroft, when trying to encourage Davison to leave Harwell, even suggested that he was entitled to have a government job back after his one-year ‘sabbatical’, because of his civil servant status. Between them, Harwell and MI5 deluded themselves as to how the account of a Russian-born scientist expelled from Harwell would manage not to be re-ignited, through idle gossip, or careless bravado (as turned out to be the case).
  8. Simplistic views of loyalty: MI5’s perennial problem was that it did not trust ‘foreigners’, and had no mechanism for separating the loyal and dedicated alien from the possibly dangerous subversive, or taking seriously the possible disloyalty of a well-bred native Briton. Davison fitted in to no established category, and thus puzzled them. In his letter to Prime Minster Attlee of January 12, 1951, as Attlee was just about to make his decision as to whether Davison should remain in place, or be banished to a university, Percy Sillitoe wrote that ‘an alien or a person of alien origin has not necessarily enjoyed the upbringing which, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, normally ensures the loyalty of a British subject’, a sentiment that Attlee echoed a week later. Four months later, Burgess and Maclean defected.

MI5 were not happy with Attlee’s decision, wanting Davison safely transferred to academia. They were worried stiff that, if any action were taken, Davison ‘might do a Pontecorvo on us’, and that in that case closer cooperation with the Americans – an objective keenly sought at the time – would be killed by the Congressional committee. They thus hoped that matters would quieten down, and that Davison would behave himself. Yet a meeting held in February 1951 with the Prime Minister provoked the following minute: “Rowlands, Sillitoe and Bridges agreed there should be discussion on the proposition that Davison should be asked what his reactions would be if the Russians brought pressure on him through his parents. If approach were made, Davison would mark it as a mark of confidence in his own reliability.” What the outcome of this strange decision was is not recorded, but the threat to MI5’s peace of mind would turn out to come from friendlier quarters.

  • Boris Davison – after Attlee
Sir John Cockcroft

Attlee made his decision on February 20, 1951. Sillitoe requested a watch be kept on the Skinners in Liverpool. Meanwhile, MI5 officers had a short time to reflect on Davison’s background. Dick White wondered who the other ‘Britishers’ who were deported at the same time as Davison were, and what had happened to them. (Whether this important lead was followed up is not known: the results might have been so uncomfortable that the outcome was buried.) Yet Reed was later imaginative enough to wonder how Davison ‘was able to survive the purges and outbreaks of xenophobia’, suggesting perhaps that further lessons had been learned. “What services were rendered in exchange for immunity?”, he asked, but there the inquiry ended, for 1951 turned out to be an annus horribilis for the Security Service, as the uncovering of the Burgess & Maclean scandal showed the authorities that espionage and treachery were not simply a virus introduced by foreigners. For a while it distracted attention from the quandary of suspicions persons in place at Harwell.

By that time, however, a series of events began that showed the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. In February, Chapman Pincher had written a provocative article about Pontecorvo in the Daily Express, and on March 4 Rebecca West had published an article about Fuchs, critical of Attlee, in the New York Times. Perrin and Sillitoe agreed that a counterthrust in public relations was required, and conceived the idea of engaging the journalist Alan Moorehead to write a book that would reflect better on MI5’s performance. After some stumbles in negotiation, Moorehead was authorized to inspect some confidential information on September 24, and started work.

The year 1952 progressed relatively quietly. John Cockcroft had revealed to Skinner in early 1951 that he was considering recommending the South African Basil Schonland as his successor, and was perhaps surprised to be told by Skinner that Schonland was not up to the job. This was surely another indication that Skinner felt himself the better candidate, and wanted to return to Harwell now that Fuchs and Pontecorvo were disposed of. A possible opening for Cockcroft appeared in March 1952 at St. John’s College, Oxford, but nothing came of it. On July 29, Sillitoe announced he would retire at the end of the year. In August, Davison indicated for the first time that he wanted to leave Harwell. And in September, as I described earlier, Skinner’s controversial review of Moorehead’s finished work The Traitors came to the attention of Arnold and MI5.

While the Moorehead incident was smoothed over relatively safely, Skinner’s energies as a literary critic had more serious after-effects in 1953. First of all, Nunn May had been released in January, an event that brough fresh attention to the phenomenon of ‘atom spies’. As Guy Liddell reported on January 13, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden wanted Nunn May settled into useful employment, but the scientist was blacklisted by the universities. (After working for a scientific instruments company for a few years, Nunn May moved to the University of Ghana in 1961.) Skinner’s observation about other spies being left in place, unpunished, was a far more serious blow to MI5’s reputation, and his weak explanation that he was referring solely to Pontecorvo was not convincing. Privately, he admitted that he had indeed been referring to Davison.

What was not revealed at the time was the fact that other such agents had been named in internal documents. One of the Boris Davison files at the National Archives (KV 2/2579-1, s.n.184A) shows us that Dick White, as early as January 25, 1951, wrote that there were eighteen known employees at Harwell ‘who have some sort of a Communist suspicion attaching to them’.  Of these, five were serious. He continued: “Two of the five, SHULMAN and RIGG are being transferred from Harwell on our recommendation. In the case of a third, DARLINGTON, we may recommend transfer and so this will almost certainly be agreed. The remaining two, PAIGE and CHARLESBY, are under active investigation and if additional information tends to confirm that they have Communist sympathies we may have to recommend their transfer likewise.”

This is an extraordinary admission. I have not discovered anything elsewhere on these characters, although I notice that the first three are cited in the Kew Index as working at Harwell, as authors or co-authors of papers, in AB 15/73, AB 15/2383, AB 15/566, AB 15/586, AB 15/1661 and AB 15/1386 (N. Shulman), AB 15/1254 (M. Rigg), AB 15/5531 (M. E. Darlington). Astonishingly, all three papers are currently closed, pending review. [Moreover, during the few days in which I investigated these items, they were being maintained and their descriptions changed. The author of AB 15/24, original given as ‘Rigg’, is now given as ‘Oscar Bunnemann’ [sic], which, in the light of revelations below, poses a whole new set of questions. Can any reader shed any light on these men?] Yet it proves that Skinner was correct, and knew too much. And one another link has come to light. As early as July 12, 1948 T. A. R. Robertson had discovered that Davison and one Eltenton were in Leningrad at the same time, noting that Eltenton was already up for an ‘interview’. (The word ‘interrogated’ has been replaced with a handwritten ‘interviewed’ in the memorandum.) The story of George Eltenton, who brought some bad publicity to MI5 through his involvement in the Robert Oppenheimer case in the USA, will have to wait for another day.

The denouement was swift. Skinner was let off with a warning, but his goose was essentially cooked. On August 8, 1952, he thanked Arnold for his support, adding casually that Chapman Pincher had invited him to lunch. A few weeks later, on August 26, Pincher published his article on Davison in the Daily Express, and two days later Henry Maule’s piece in the Empire News reported how ‘poor old Boris’ had been banished to the backwaters of Birmingham University, implicitly indicating that Davison was rejoining his prior mentor and supporter Rudolf Peierls.

Yet MI5’s embarrassments were not over. On December 14, 1952, a brief column by Sidney Rodin in the Sunday Express claimed that Churchill had intervened in the decision to replace Fuchs at Harwell, and explained that Davison had been rejected because of his background, and that six others had been passed over because they were foreign-born. In place (the piece continued), the 28-year-old Brian Flowers had been appointed, and ‘for months his background was checked.’ This announcement was doubly ironic, since it turned out that the leaker to Rodin was Professor Maurice Pryce of the Clarendon Laboratories, Acting Head of the Theoretical Division at Harwell alongside Rudolf Peierls. He had admitted planting the story as a way of ’distracting attention away from the “undesirable background of the Buneman case”’. Indeed. For Flowers had for a while been having an affair with Mary, the wife of Oscar Buneman, who had been working under Fuchs at Harwell. The future Baron Flowers, who also held a post at Birmingham University, had married his paramour in 1951, and was now presumably respectable. Like Fuchs, Buneman had been imprisoned by the Gestapo, escaped to Britain, and been interned in Canada. Maybe MI5 and Arnold overlooked this rather seedy side to Flowers’ background: the episode showed at best a discreditable muddle and at worst appalling hypocrisy at work.

It was thus Birmingham, not Liverpool, that became the home of a distressed scientist, one who may never have acquired the status of an official spy, but who was perhaps a communicator of secret information under duress. A cabal of Liddell, White and Perrin had plotted, and made moves, without consulting Cockcroft or Arnold. Skinner never quite realised what was going on, failing to consider that his wife’s liaisons were a liability, and harboured unfulfillable designs about returning to Harwell to replace Cockcroft. Skinner would remain at Liverpool, unwanted by Harwell, and remaining under suspicion. The loose cannon Cockcroft did not understand why Skinner had been banished, but considered him a useful ally at Liverpool, and naively encouraged him in his literary exploits.  Fuchs was in gaol: Pontecorvo in Moscow. By the time Davison had transferred to Birmingham, in September 1953, Liddell had resigned from MI5, bitterly disappointed at being outmanoeuvred by his protégé, Dick White, for the director-generalship, and had taken up a new post – as director of security at AERE Harwell. MI5 still considered Davison on a temporary transfer ‘outhoused’ to Birmingham, but did their best to ease his relocation to Canada, perhaps masking his medical problems. Davison died in Toronto in 1961, at the young age of 52, the year after Skinner’s death. I do not know whether foul play was ever suspected.

In conclusion, it should be noted that Peierls had his vitally significant correspondence with Lord Portal in April 1951, where he responded to accusations about him, and revealed the links with the Soviet Security organs that he had kept concealed for so long. (See The Mysterious Affair at Peierls, Part 1). Had Peierls perhaps discussed the shared matter of NKVD threats to family with his protégé, and ventured to inform MI5 and the Ministry of the predicament that Davison been in? Or, more probably, had Davison confessed to MI5 about how he himself had been threatened, and, as a possible source of ‘the accusations’, drawn Peierls in? Readers should recall that the decision to interview Davison, to ask him about possible threats to his parents, in the belief that such a dialogue might increase Davison’s confidence in them, was projected to have taken place just before then. The timing is perfect: Davison might well have told his interviewers the full story, and brought Peierls into his narrative.

So many loose ends in the story are left because of the selective process of compiling the archive. In 1954, Reed of MI5 referred darkly to a confidential source who was keeping them informed of Davison’s negotiations with Canada: likewise, it could well have been Peierls. We shall probably never know exactly what happened in that 1951 spring, but Portal, previously Air Chief Marshal, was no doubt shocked by the whole business. He resigned his position at the Ministry of Supply soon afterwards: Perrin left at the same time. And if Moscow had discovered that their threats had been unmasked, or that any of their assets had behaved disloyally, Sudoplatov’s Special Tasks squad would have been ready to move.

  1. Conclusions
Dick White

What should a liberal democracy do when it discovers spies, or potential spies, working within scientific institutions carrying out highly sensitive work? Is the process of removing them quietly to an academic institution a sensible attempt at resolving an apparently intractable problem, given that trials, however open or closed, are a necessary part of the judicial procedure? Torture or oppressive measures cannot be applied to the targets, backed up by other cruel or mortal threats, as was the feature of Stalin’s Show Trials. Perhaps moving awkward employees to a quiet backwater was the most sensible practice to protect the realm without causing undue publicity?

Attlee’s unfortunately named Purge Procedure was provoked by the Nunn May conviction, and a Cabinet Committee on Subversive Activities was set up in May 1947. The topic of the Procedure, which was established in March 1948, and how it was applied, has been covered by Christopher Andrew, in Defend the Realm, pp 382-393. Yet I find this exposition starkly inadequate: it concentrates on the discovery of communists within the Civil Service, but barely touches the highly sensitive issue of possibly disloyal scientists working at a secret institution like AERE Harwell. For reasons of space and time, a proper analysis will have to be deferred until another report, and I only skim the issue here.

Professor Glees has informed me that, during an interview that Dick White gave him in the 1980s (White died in 1993), the ex-chief of MI5 and MI6 impressed upon him ‘the importance of  keeping people away from where they could do harm’, and that the execution of such a policy was a key MI5 tool. As a counterbalance, the journalist Richard Deacon informed us that, in the early 1950s, ‘gone to Ag and Fish’ (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) meant that an intelligence operative had ‘gone to ground’. That ministry was the destination for the MI6 agent Alexander Foote after he had been interrogated. Perhaps he worked alongside civil servants with communist leanings who had also been parked there.

I find that statement of policy a little disingenuous on White’s part. For it is one thing to take a discovered Communist off the fast track in some other Ministry and transfer him out to grass sorting out cod quotas with Iceland before he does any damage. And it is quite another to take a known or highly suspected spy from a secret institution like AERE Harwell, remove him completely from sensitive work, and transfer him to a university a hundred and fifty miles away. Multiple issues come into play: the processes of university councils, the creation of posts, preferential treatment over other candidates, funding, the candidates’ suitability for teaching, language problems, relocation concerns, even a wife’s preferences – and the inevitable chatter that accompanies such a disruption.

So what should the authorities have done in such cases? Civil servants were entitled to a certain measure of employment protection, and could not be fired without due cause. Being a communist was not one of those causes, and Attlee was nervous about left-wing backlash. The primary challenge to taking drastic action in the case of spies (who were frequently not open communists) thus consisted in the suitability of the evidence of guilt, however conclusive. Unless the suspect had been caught red-handed (as was Dave Springhall, although he was not an academic), or he or she could quickly be convinced to confess (as was Nunn May), the prosecution probably relied on confidential sources. In the case of Fuchs, the source was VENONA transcripts: the project was considered far too sensitive to bring up in court, and its validity as hard evidence might have been sorely tested. Even with a confession, there were risks associated. A defendant might bring up uncomfortable truths. With little imagination required, Fuchs could surely have brought up the matter of his inducement by Skardon/Cockcroft, and he could have honestly described how he had been encouraged to spy on the Americans while furthering British objectives.

Moreover, public trials would draw attention to a security service’s defects: counter-intelligence units are not praised when they haul in spies, but severely criticised for allowing them to operate in the first place. And if the suspects were British citizens, and were threatened to the extent that they felt uncomfortable, or could not maintain a living, they could not be prevented from fleeing abroad at any time (‘doing a Pontecorvo’), and had therefore to be encouraged to feel safe in the country. Thus sending such candidates to a functional Siberia, in the hope that they would become stale and valueless, yet behave properly, came to represent a popular option with the mandarins in MI5 and the Ministries. (On Khrushchev’s accession to power, Molotov was sent to be Ambassador in Mongolia, while Malenkov was despatched to run a power station in Kazakhstan. I have not been able to verify the claim that the Russians have a phrase for this – ‘being sent to Liverpool’.)

Yet it was an essentially dishonourable and shoddy business. First of all, unless the authorities were simply scared about what might happen, it rewarded criminal behaviour. It discriminated unjustly between those who did not confess and those who did (Springhall, Nunn May, Fuchs, Blake): we recall that Nunn May was blacklisted by British universities after his release, while Fuchs, with a little more resolve, might have spent a few calm years considering where he might be more content, continuing his liaison with Erna Skinner in Liverpool, or renewing his acquaintance with Grete Keilson in East Germany. The Purge Procedure allowed suspected civil servants to leave with some measure of dignity, but the method of transferring suspects to important positions at universities represented a deceitful, and possibly illegal, exploitation of academic institutions, and consisted in a disservice to undergraduates potentially taught by these characters. Moreover, there was no guarantee that such a move would have put the lid on the betrayal of secrets. The Soviets might try to extradite a suspect (Moscow thought Liverpool was useless as a home for Pontecorvo), which, if successful, would have raised even more questions.

Overall, the policy was conceived in the belief that the suspect would behave like a proper English gentleman, but that was no certainty, and there were sometimes wives to consider (such as Mrs. Pontecorvo.) Latent hypocrisy existed, in (for example) Cockcroft’s hope that Fuchs and Davison might still help the government’s cause. It was an attempt at back-stairs fixing, and the fact that it was covered-up indicated government embarrassment at the process. They displayed naivety in believing that the story would not come out. It was bound to happen, as indeed it did with Davison, although Skinner’s ‘removal’ appears to have been successfully concealed.

(I should also note that a similar process was applied to Kim Philby. He was dismissed from MI6, and made to feel distinctly uncomfortable, but allowed to pursue a journalistic career, again in the belief that his utility to his bosses in Moscow would rapidly disintegrate. Yet he had loyal friends still in the Service, and became an embarrassment. Some historians claim that Dick White allowed him to escape from Beirut as the least embarrassing option.)

What final lessons can be learned? The experiences with Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Davison (and to a lesser extent, Skinner) reinforce that fact that MI5 was hopelessly unprepared for the challenge of vetting for highly sensitive projects. Awarding scientists citizenship does not guarantee loyalty: the Official Secrets and Treachery Acts will not deter the committed spy. Stricter checks at recruitment should have been essential, although they might not have eliminated the expert dissimulator. Vetting procedures should have been defended and executed sternly, with no exceptions. Yet MI5 also showed a bewilderingly disappointing lack of insight into how the Soviet Union, and especially the NKVD/KGB, worked, which meant that they were clueless when it came to assessing an ‘émigré’ like Davison, who fitted into no known category. Until the Burgess-Maclean debacle, they continued to believe in the essential loyalty of well-educated Britons. They continued to ignore Krivitsky’s warnings and advice, and failed to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union’s domestic policies, and strategies for espionage abroad. It should instead have built up a comprehensive dossier of intelligence on the structure and methods of its ideological adversary, as did Hugh Trevor-Roper with the Abwehr, and promoted a strong message of prevention to its political masters and colleagues. That opportunity had faded when its sharpest counter-espionage officer, Jane Archer, was sidelined, and then fired, in 1940.

The events surrounding these scientists should surely provide material for a major novel or Fraynian dramatic work.  The line between inducement and threats, on the one hand, and careful psychological pressure, on the other, could have had vastly different outcomes, and could perhaps be compared to the treatment of the homosexuals Burgess and Turing, and how the former managed to get away with scandalous behaviour, while the latter was driven to suicide. Perhaps whatever strategy was tried was flawed, as it was too late by then, but dumping on universities was undistinguished and hypocritical. Demotion, removal from critical secret work, and removal of oxygen sent a signal that might have been successful with a more timid character like Davison, but it would not have worked with a showman like Pontecorvo.

This business of counter-intelligence is tough: MI5 was not a disciplined and ruthless machine, but simply another institution with its rivalries, ambitions, flaws, and politics to handle. It was poor at learning from experience, however, and sluggish in setting up policies to deal with the unexpected, instead spending vast amounts of fruitless time and effort in watching people, and opening correspondence. It thus muddled along, and found itself having to cover up for its missteps, and choosing to deceive the government and the public. For a long time, the ruse appeared to be successful. Seventy years have passed. A close and integrative, horizontal rather than vertical, inspection of the released archives, however, complemented by a careful analysis of biographical records, has allowed a more accurate account of the goings-on of 1950 to be assembled.

Primary Sources:

National Archives files on Pontecorvo, Fuchs, the Skinners, Davison: the Guy Liddell Diaries

The Mountford memoir at Liverpool University

Britain and Atomic Energy by Margaret Gowing

Half-Life by Frank Close

The Pontecorvo Affair by Simone Turchetti

Klaus Fuchs: A Biography by Norman Moss

Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy by Robert Chadwell Williams

The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter

Trinity by Frank Close

Atomic Spy by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan

Elemental Germans by Christopher Laucht

The Atom Bomb Spies by H. Montgomery Hyde

Scientist Spies by Paul Broda

Bird of Passage by Rudolf Peierls

Sir Rudolf Peierls, Correspondence, Volume 1 edited by Sabine Lee

Cockcroft and the Atom by Guy Hartcup & T E Allibone

The Neutron and the Bomb by Andrew Brown

Joseph Rotblat, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience by Andrew Brown

Churchill’s Bomb by Graham Farmelow

Defend the Realm by Christopher Andrew

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Sonia & MI6’s Hidden Hand

[This report lays out the detailed arguments behind the recent article in the ‘Mail on Sunday’ that featured research by Professor Glees and me. We claimed that MI6 had engaged upon a reckless exercise to try to manipulate Sonia as some kind of ‘double-agent’, but had been fooled completely by Sonia’s working as a courier for the atom-spy Klaus Fuchs. This piece reproduces and recapitulates some of my earlier research on Sonia, but also presents some new analysis.]

Sonia’s Home in Switzerland

Background and Sources

The story starts – probably – in the summer of 1939. One has to qualify many of the Switzerland-based events in this saga with ‘probably’ because so much of the evidence is provided by Ursula and Len Beurton themselves, who, in their testimonies to British immigration officials, told so many lies that it is difficult to trust anything they said. Moreover, Ursula (agent SONIA) then compounded the mendaciousness in her GRU-controlled memoir, Sonjas Rapport. We can recognise the first set of untruths because the statements are often self-contradictory, and easily refuted through an examination of the archival record. Many of Sonia’s claims in her book have been shown to be false by simple inspection of time and space, or by other records that have come to light that show persons she talks about were simply not where she said they were at the time, or by knowledge of the modus operandi of her employer, the GRU. Yet Sonia’s account has been cited by numerous historians as if it were a reliable version of what happened.

The primary source for assembling the story is a rich set of files at the UK National Archives – not just on Sonia, but on her family, the Kuczynskis, and her husband Len Beurton, on the senior International Brigader she recruited for her team in Switzerland, Alexander Foote, and on other Communist agents such as Oliver Green, whose exploits reflect usefully on the policies and practices of MI5. The files on the primary spy for whom Sonia acted as courier, Klaus Fuchs, are also very relevant, as are, to a lesser extent, the Diaries of Guy Liddell, the head of counter-espionage at MI5 at this time. (I have taken one hundred pages of notes from the on-line Diaries, without recording a single reference to Ursula, Kuczynski, Hamburger, or Beurton. The absence of nocturnal canine latration, whether because of redaction or by Liddell’s choice, is highly significant.) MI6 files are regrettably not available, but correspondence between, and memoranda to and from, officers of the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service are scattered among the files, as are occasional items from the Home Office and the Foreign Office. These records are complemented by a variegated set of files concerning the Radio Security Service (RSS), which was responsible for wireless interception in WWII.

More recently, some analysts have been promoting the value of files held in Russian archives, although nearly all of these derive from KGB (State Security) records rather than those of the GRU (Military Intelligence), for whom the Beurtons worked. William Tyrer and Svetlana Chervonnaya (see www.documentstalk.com ), have cited items of relevance, yet the existence of actual documents is hard to verify. What Chervonnaya shows are primarily American, not Soviet documents, and her focus is on American history. Moreover, her website appears to have fallen into disuse in recent times. The Vassiliev Papers, again focussing on KGB matters, are a highly reliable source, and show some important facts about Sonia, at a time when the KGB was exerting more control over the GRU.  They also reveal some interesting information about Sonia and her brother after they escaped to East Germany.

Solid literature on Sonia is sparse. Alexander Foote’s memoir, Handbook for Spies, brings some psychologically convincing insights into his time with Sonia in Switzerland, as well as plausible observations on Sonia’s marriage to Len, but we have to recall that the book was ghost-written by MI5’s Courtenay Young. John Green’s 2017 study of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, is a useful compendium in some ways, drawing much from Kuczynski family memoirs and interviews, and helping with a few facts, but it contains many errors, and is too adulatory of the family’s ‘fight against capitalism’, thereby side-stepping any awkward anomalies in the records. (For example, he writes of the family’s ‘overall achievements and its contribution to our humanistic legacy’, a statement straight out of the Felix Dzerzhinsky playbook.) I have started to inspect one or two books in Russian: Vladimir Lota’s book on the GRU (cited in last month’s coldspur post) provides convincing proof of the communications of the Rote Drei in Switzerland (although nothing of Sonia’s), and presents photographs of decrypted GRU telegrams. I ordered V.V. Beshanov’s book on Sonia, Superfrau iz GRU on May 3 of this year, but it has not yet arrived: I hope to be able to report on it in a later bulletin.

What is certain is that Sonia was stranded in Switzerland in the summer of 1939. She had moved from Poland, where her daughter Janina, by her lover in China, Johannes Patra, had been born in 1936, but the affair had damaged her marriage to Rudolf (Rolf) Hamburger. Sonia’s visa was due to expire at the end of September: she and Rolf had acquired Honduran passports, but they were of dubious stature. If Sonia were to be extradited to her German homeland, she would almost certainly face death as a Jew and Communist. She had recruited the International Brigaders Alexander Foote and Len Beurton as wireless operators, but they were working as spies in Germany during the summer, and were not withdrawn until just before war broke out.

Exactly what happened in those months is difficult to determine. Sonia’s account is illogical and inconsistent, and John Green skirts around that period, as if he didn’t trust her version of events, but also didn’t want to draw attention to the deceits. I gave an account in Sonia’s Radio: Part 2, but it is worth delving a little more deeply now, as the subterfuges hint strongly at strings working behind the scenes. The anomalies point strongly to the first plottings by the MI6 representative in Switzerland, Victor Farrell. What is certain is that Claude Dansey, the head of the shadow Z Organisation within MI6, and the deputy to the new Director-General, Stewart Menzies, had established its base in Geneva at the beginning of the war, and that Dansey himself was around to watch as these intrigues progressed, including Sonia’s divorce from Rolf Hamburger. Dansey did not return to Britain until November 1939.

In Handbook for Spies, Alexander Foote indicates that at this time Sonia’s husband, Rolf (identified as ‘Schultz’) was ‘incarcerated in a Chinese jail for Communist activities’. In Foote’s version of the story, therefore, Rolf never appears in Switzerland, and Foote records his visit to Sonia’s chalet, where she lived singly with her two children and the nurse. Foote then collapses the whole story of Sonia’s divorce and marriage as follows: “Sonia was increasingly dissatisfied with the life and work and wished to return [sic: she had never stayed there for long] to England. The main obstacle, apart from Moscow’s views, was of course her German passport. Therefore, in order to get British nationality, she managed to persuade Bill [Len Beurton] to agree to marry her if she could get a divorce from Schultz. She managed to obtain a divorce in the Swiss courts early in 1940, and straight away married Bill and was thus entitled to a British passport.” He adds that, throughout this whole exercise, ‘she had no intention of being unfaithful to Schultz’, but the charade of a mariage de convenance fell apart when she and Len fell in love. This is all nonsense, of course, because of her affair with Patra, and Foote’s suggestion that Sonia was feeling useless and ‘homesick’, with Moscow resisting her plans to withdraw from espionage. Sonia would have done what she was told.

Ursula Beurton (Sonia)

In Sonya’s Report, the author imaginatively has both her husband and her lover in Switzerland at the same time that summer, but the chronology is gloriously vague. “In the early summer of 1939, as the danger of war increased daily, an expired German passport was useless to an emigrant. My Honduras passport did not give me real security either. Centre asked what possibilities there might be of obtaining another passport for me. We proposed that, before Rolf left Europe, we should start divorce proceedings and I would enter into a pro-forma marriage with an Englishman.” Apart from the somewhat premature series of activities described, Jim [Foote] won the lottery, since his age was closer to Sonia’s: Rolf came to see Sonia for the last time. “When his return to China had been approved, Centre enquired whether he would be prepared to work under Ernst [Patra]. Generous and principled as he was, Rolf had a high opinion of Ernst and agreed.” The display of lofty unselfishness is comical: the notion that Soviet agents would have the freedom to accept or decline Centre’s instructions is absurd.

Sonia then compounds the unlikelihood of this domestic drama by having Ernst visit Switzerland, to see his daughter for the first and only time, and she then (apparently in about July 1939) sees off her husband and her lover from the train station in Caux. (Green informs us that Sonia and Patra did not see each other between 1935 and 1955.) Helpfully, Rolf, before he left, had written a letter to facilitate the divorce proceedings, which Sonia ‘ever since the spring’ had been trying to finalise. (So much for Sonia’s suggestion to ‘start divorce proceedings’ in early summer.) Why Rolf could not have more actively contributed by playing his part while in Switzerland is not explained. But then Foote tries to back out of the arranged marriage, claiming some difficulties with a girl in Spain, and a possible breach of promise. Why he had not thought of that earlier is likewise not explained, but Foote then recommends Len to take his place, and Len gallantly accepts the assignment, with Sonia saying that she will divorce him as soon as required. By February 1940, Sonia had collected all the documents she needed in order to marry.

When Foote was interrogated by MI5 and MI6 officers in late 1947, however, a different story emerged. In a report distributed by Percy Sillitoe (from KV 2/1613-1, pp 23-28), Foote’s first testimony claimed that Sonia’s divorce had been put through without Hamburger’s knowledge, ‘Foote providing the principal false evidence of Hamburger’s misconduct in London’. Later, however, Foote was shown information at Broadway (MI6’s head office) suggesting that Hamburger had been in Switzerland in 1939, indicating that the Security Intelligence Service was already keeping close tabs on the extended members of the Kuczynski clan. Foote was shown a photograph of Hamburger but was apparently ‘quite unable to identify it’.

When challenged later, Foote revealed even more to the MI5 officers Hemblys-Scales and Serpell, the latter writing the report: “Foote replied blandly that he had been the sole witness in the case. It was on his false testimony that Sonia obtained her divorce from Rudolf Hamburger and Foote made no bones at all about the perjury he had committed in the Swiss courts. When I asked him what was the false evidence he had produced, he said that it had been a story of Rudolf Hamburger’s adultery with one of Sonia’s sisters in a London hotel. I asked which sister was selected for this episode and Foote replied, Mrs. Lewis. After these revelations, I can no longer feel surprised at the anxiety shown by the Beurtons over the Hamburger divorce during their conversations with Mr. Skardon and myself at Great Rollright.” And, if Foote’s testimony were truthful, he would obviously have had to tell the Geneva court that he knew what Hamburger looked like. In fact, he had committed obvious perjury, as he now confessed.

Lastly, we have the records from Moscow acquired by William Tyrer, although his story contains its own contradictions. In a personal communication to me, he claimed that Sonia and her husband lived with Honduran documents after she and Rolf went to the Honduran consulate in Geneva, some time in mid-1939. Tyrer then, somewhat implausibly, suggests that, with her Swiss mission completed, she set her sights on going to Great Britain, where she would be more useful, and moreover closer to her family – but that this desire awoke only after August 1940! He then cites a reliable-sounding but undated document (Tsa MO RF, Op. 23397, delo 1, l. 33-37: The Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of RF, op. 23397, file 1, pp. 33-37) that purports to record a wireless message from Sonia to Moscow Centre in late August 1939. It is remarkable in many dimensions, not least because it suggests that the thought of divorce has only just occurred to her, directly contradicting what she wrote in her memoir, and because it also asserts that Rolf is already working in China, a fact of which Moscow Centre would clearly have been aware, if it were true, and about which it would thus not have to be informed.

The text of the message (the name of the translator is not given, but it could be Chervonnaya, since the English is choppy) runs as follows: “In case of war, I will be sent to Honduras, where I won’t be able to work on your assignments. In this connection, I have the following suggestion. The idea is, that I divorce officially with Rolf and marry “Jim” or “John”. The marriage would be fictitious, but it would help me to obtain a permanent British passport, with which I’d be able to travel around the European countries without any obstacles and would be able to go to Britain at any time.

     … At present, I am still on a firm footing in Switzerland – my husband works as an architect in China, myself with two kids, I am unable to travel to join him, because China is in war. Waiting for my husband’s arrival, I am taking a rest with the kids at a mountain resort. With the help of my father, I am maintaining ties with some officials of the League of Nations, which also helps to improve my credibility.”

Fortunately for Sonia, Moscow Centre went along with her plan. For some reason, they did not point out to Sonia that, in the event of war, she would not be able to gad around Europe purely on the basis of a British passport. But why, if she was proposing to divorce Rolf, would she lament that she was unable to join him in China? (Note that Sonia here, in September 1939, first recommends the idea of divorce, while claiming in her memoir that Rolf had left the previous month, having already agreed to it. That the divorce was ‘unofficial’ beforehand is evident.) And how would she know, having just seen Rolf off at the train-station in Caux, that he was already working there as an architect? Even more incredibly, why would she be waiting for her husband’s arrival in late August 1939, if they had agreed to split? And, if Moscow had just approved Rolf’s return to China, why would he be on his way back again?

The conclusion must be that this document is a clumsy fake, inserted into the archive at some unspecified time, and forgotten when the GRU helped Sonia write her memoir. It is much more likely that Moscow approved the divorce plans much earlier, ordered Rolf to return to China so that he was out of the way and thus could not mess up the legal process, and then engaged in orchestrating Sonia’s new British citizenship and infiltration into the United Kingdom as a courier. And it is at this stage that MI6 starts to consider the possibilities of using the opportunity to manipulate Sonia.

Step One: Facilitating Sonia’s divorce and re-marriage

The marriage certificate of Len and Ursula Beurton

There is no doubt that Alexander Foote had been recruited by MI6. The file KV 2/1613-1 specifically records how in 1947, after his desertion and return to Britain, MI5 warned Foote not to talk about his intelligence experiences, using the claim that he had been a deserter from the R.A.F. as a threat hanging over him. One does not have to buy in to the argument that he was eventually used as a medium for passing on packaged ULTRA secrets to the Soviets (as I do) to conclude that he had been infiltrated into the Swiss network in order to gain insights into its wireless techniques. Indeed, one might assume that he started passing on the practices described in Handbook for Spies to his controllers in Berne as early as 1940, when he became the leading operator for the Rote Drei.

Thus, when faced with the prospect that Sonia intended to marry Foote when she had gained her divorce, MI6 would have been appalled at the plan. It would not have helped them to have Foote repatriated to the United Kingdom as soon as he had become effective. Yet the notion of potentially manipulating Sonia was attractive: Len Beurton would be proposed as the replacement candidate to marry Sonia. Foote would then come up with a bogus explanation as to why he could not go through with the marriage, and would instead provide false evidence against Rolf Hamburger, since the Swiss courts were apparently rather sticky when it came to granting divorces against absent spouses. Whether Rolf actually provided the letter that was supposed to grease the wheels is dubious: apparently it was not enough to convince the authorities.

So how did MI6 hope to use Sonia at this stage of the war? Of course, the Soviet Union’s pact with Nazi Germany was in effect: in principle, she might have been able to inform them of strategic intelligence. Yet her utility in Britain would have been very constrained. Any activity on UK soil – including contacts with as yet undiscovered sources – would transfer to MI5’s area of responsibility, and the Security Service would therefore have to be party to the plot, and take over the supervision and surveillance of Sonia. Perhaps they thought that she would lead them to other GRU agents in Europe, and would repay her new masters for their kindness in saving her from persecution in Germany. I suspect, however, that the real agenda was to use her as some kind of ‘double agent’ *, perhaps to feed her disinformation that she would be bound to transmit to Moscow Centre, and thereby gain further insights into her encipherment techniques. When her messages were intercepted (so went the plan), the fact that she had been passed texts that she would encode would provide an excellent crib for assisting in decryption – a technique that mirrored what RSS and GC&CS were performing with transmissions performed by the Abwehr.

(* ‘Double-agent’ is not really the appropriate term, as it suggests a continuing dual role. ‘Controlled enemy agent’ is the preferred description. I shall explore this phenomenon further in the coming final chapter of ‘The Mystery of the Undetected Radios’.)

According to her marriage certificate, Sonia received her divorce on December 29, 1939 (not in October, as she for some reason told UK immigration officers later), and was married to Len Beurton on February 23, 1940. Yet one further action hints at the connivance of MI6.

The anecdote appears in both Foote’s and Sonia’s narratives, although the details and motivations differ slightly, and it involves Olga Muth, Sonia’s nanny. Muth had been hired shortly after Nina’s birth in April 1936, and accompanied Sonia to London, back to Poland, and then to Switzerland. Sonia presents Olga as becoming distraught over the prospect of being separated from Nina, Sonia’s daughter, and, in the knowledge that Sonia had a wireless transmitter, goes to the British consulate in Montreux to denounce her as a spy. Foote states that Olga was distressed by Sonia’s disloyalty to Rolf in not just marrying Len, but subsequently falling in love with him.

In Foote’s account, Olga rings up the Consulate to denounce Sonia and Len as Soviet spies, telling them where the transmitter was hidden. In both versions, her broken English was incomprehensible, and she was thus ignored. During his interrogation in London, Foote additionally claimed (KV 2/1611-1) ‘that Ursula and Beurton were considered by Moscow to have been compromised by the action of Olga Muth, and it was the basis of their return to England.’ This is quite absurd: if they had been rumbled in Switzerland by the British, they would hardly have been allowed to settle in Britain. MI5’s Serpell sagely made a note, questioning why Sonia and Len would have been denounced to the British authorities rather than the Swiss? One might thus ask: Had the whole business been a ruse concocted to suggest distancing of the Beurtons from MI6 in Switzerland?

Step Two: Providing Sonia with a Passport

Milicent Bagot

On March 11, 1940, Sonia visited the British Consulate in Geneva to apply for a British passport, based on her marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files). She records that the reaction of the Consul was ‘distinctly cool’, Victor Farrell no doubt affecting a lack of enthusiasm for the whole venture. Mr. Livingston passed her application on to the Passport Office in London, adding the annotation that the purpose of her marriage was probably to confer British nationality on her, and then he rather provocatively appended the strange observation: ‘Husband is understood to be under medical treatment, and intends to return to Switzerland after escorting the applicant to England.’ Why Beurton, if he had recovered enough to make the arduous journey across Europe to Britain in war-time, would jeopardise his health, and then want to repeat the ordeal by returning to Switzerland for medical treatment instead of seeking it in the UK, is not evident.

I have described the events that took place next in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 2, and Chapter 8, but it is worth summarizing them here. The application was processed quickly, before Milicent Bagot, who was very familiar with the Kuczynski family, could advise against it. Sonia’s brother Jürgen had actually been interned as a dangerous communist, collaborating with another noted incendiary, Hans Kahle, in organizing espionage, but was conveniently released at about the same time that Sonia’s passport application was approved, in May. Len Beurton was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and thus not a person whose re-entry was to be encouraged. Cazalet in MI5 too late pointed out the anomalies, but stated that Sonia’s passport should be issued for limited duration, and should not be used for travel.

One bizarre item in the KV 6/41 file shows that Sonia, perhaps concerned that the application was not moving fast enough, actually sent a letter to her father (addressed mystifyingly as ‘Renée’: his forenames were Robert René) requesting local pressure on the Passport Office. In this missive, she curiously refers to herself in the third person (‘Maria’), and informs her family that ‘Maria’s husband’ (aka ‘Georgie’) has just written to the Office to advance his claim. As it happened, the passport had been approved the day before: it is not clear how Len’s personal approach would have helped his suit, unless he perhaps thought that making an overt breach from his chequered past would somehow make the Passport office look on his submission with more favour. Len’s letter has not survived, but it was not necessary.

Thus it is apparent that MI6 was able to bulldoze through the application, even though Sonia was known to be one of a dangerous Communist family, with lower-level officers in MI5 speaking strongly against the award, at a time when the Soviet Union was supporting Nazi Germany in the war effort against Great Britain. It is quite extraordinary that, during a period when any German refugees were looked at with great suspicion, and as rumours of a dangerous ‘Fifth Column’ of hostile aliens were gathering momentum, MI6 would go to strenuous efforts to facilitate the entry into the United Kingdom of a known German-born revolutionary. Laconically, Sonia reported in her memoir: “In the late autumn of 1940, Centre suggested that Len and I move to England”, as if the thought had just occurred to them. (This is presumably the sentiment that Tyrer echoes in his notes.)

Step Three: Exploiting Len’s Extended Presence in Switzerland

Len Beurton

Len’s status in 1940 is a little perplexing. We know from the infamous ‘Geneva Letter’ (see The Letter from Geneva) that Farrell must have engaged him for some intelligence-gathering purposes, with the Falkenberg connection providing a vital insight into how prominent German minds against Hitler might be thinking. Yet it surely cannot have been MI6’s intention to prevent his leaving with Sonia, as it would draw undue attention to her situation, and would make her passage more hazardous. Was the statement about his returning to Switzerland a blind, when they knew that he would struggle to gain a transit visa, and might be even less welcome in the UK than Sonia was?

Sonia wrote that ‘as a former member of the International Brigade, Len could not travel through Spain and had to stay in Geneva until we [Moscow? The British Consulate?] could find a different route for him.’ Yet she presents this observation very late in the cycle, after she and Len had received instructions from Moscow towards the end of 1940. It is difficult to imagine that they could have been so uninformed at this stage. She confirmed the fact when she was interviewed by customs officials in Liverpool on February 4, 1941, saying (after lying about how long she had been in Switzerland) that her husband had been unable to leave Switzerland as he could not obtain a Spanish visa.

The untruths about Len’s poor health (and other matters) start here. There are two interrogation reports on Sonia on file: one dated February 8, from Security and Immigration, and the other February 15, from the Home Office. In the former report, she is quoted as saying that Len had been in Switzerland for about two years ‘for health reasons’. She cannot give a date for when she first met him, but claims she went to Switzerland for the last time ‘just before the outbreak of war’, and that Len had paid visits to Germany during the previous nine months in an attempt to secure money owed her. She married Beurton in February 1940, ‘having secured a divorce from her former husband’. Fortunately, Len had now recovered from his tuberculosis, but had not been able to acquire a Spanish visa necessary for reaching Portugal, because of his membership of the International Brigades. Yet, despite Len’s ‘recovery’, she still cites his ill-health as an counter to the Spanish government’s obduracy, suggesting that his inability to fight should remove their concern.

The Home Office Report gives a slightly different story. Now Sonia claims that she had been in Switzerland since February 1940, thus eliding the circumstances by which she had been able to acquire her divorce papers. She was presumably not questioned as to where she had been prior to her arrival. She again says that Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, but now embroiders the reason why she had to leave Switzerland without him – that she was, as she coyly admitted, ‘afraid to stay any longer owing to her connection with a well-known anti-Nazi family’. That family was of course the Kuczynskis, to which she was rather tightly bound, not simply ‘connected’. She does not indicate here that Len has recovered, and thus leaves the argument that he was unfit to be a fighting man in place.

The report goes on to say that the Spanish visa ‘has been refused by the Spanish authorities as he is still of military age and when it was pointed out to them that he was medically unfit they said that the grounds for refusal were that he was an engineer and therefore as valuable as a fighting man.’ It is not clear whether the officials derived this information from Sonia herself, or another source, but it does confirm that Len’s invalidity has already been raised as a reason for letting him depart. Sonia rather ingenuously concluded her statement by indicating that ‘Mr. Beurton would attempt to leave France by a cargo boat from Marseilles’. A simple cross-check between different statements to customs officials and Livingston’s passport application would have turned up an enormous contradiction about the supposed frailty of Len’s health and his desire to join his wife in England as soon as possible, as well as a cavalcade of lies about their movements in Europe. MI5 and MI6 were simply not interested

In any case, Len surely did face a challenge in trying to pass through France and Spain because of his history as an International Brigader, and this fact would consume some more of MI6’s devious energies later. Meanwhile, he made himself useful. In Handbook for Spies, Foote stated that Len gradually extricated himself from the Soviet organisation, and that contact ceased after March 1941 (when Sonia was safely ensconced in Oxfordshire). This was the period when Farrell presumably nurtured him, believing him also to be an ally, and indebted to the British authorities, and used him for intelligence-gathering purposes. Some time after his return to the United Kingdom, Len apparently tried to revive his career with MI6. In the Alexander Foote archive, in KV 2/1612-2, can be found a statement that Beurton ‘gave information about his work with KWEI, Z.156 [presumably von Falkenberg] and Rolf SUESS which was of little value, and he tried to obtain employment with British intelligence. This offer was refused, and in July 1943 he asked for help in joining the R.A.F. on the strength of “having rendered valuable assistance in Switzerland”’.

The exact sequence and timing of events is uncertain, but K 6/41 tends to undermine the ‘intelligence’ application in favour of the ‘R. A. F’ story. There, Colonel Vivian of MI6 confirms the approach, informing Shillito on August 17, 1943 that Beurton presented himself at the War Office with an introductory letter, asking for an interview with (name redacted). (But why else would Vivian have been involved?) Yet Beurton waited a long time to make this approach, as if he was not certain whether he was working for the GRU, or MI6, or both. He must have been getting rather desperate. Shillito had picked up the case again, and was busy asking questions at this time. Perhaps the combination of Farrell’s reminder in March, the imminent birth of his and Sonia’s baby, and his failure to find employment were making Len a bit desperate. MI6 in London were obviously quite aware of his services to the Swiss station, but had no wish to recruit him. If they were interested in taking him on, they would surely have acted soon after his arrival.

Step Four: Arranging the passage of Sonia and her children to Lisbon

The Grande Hotel, Estoril

Refugee literature informs us how arduous was the trek across France and Spain to the relative safety of Portugal. For a lone woman travelling with a nine-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, it must have been especially difficult. Yet Sonia’s children (Maik and Janina) almost did not make it. The original passport application had specified that Sonia wanted her children added to the passport, but it seems that this inclusion did not guarantee their ability to travel, presumably since they had been born as German citizens, and had not been naturalized. This discovery occurred very late in the day. Sonia did not notice the dilemma until shortly before she left, apparently, or may have assumed that their status as appendages to her passport gave them right of entry. Else she may have considered that perhaps the original plan was for her to travel alone, leaving the children in Len’s (or somebody else’s) care. Sonia ignores the whole issue of her children’s approval process, merely stating that she planned to leave at the end of December.

Yet KV 6/41 shows that an urgent plaintext telegram was sent from Geneva to London on November 21, 1940, reflecting the recognition that the children might be turned away on attempting to land. (The question of whether they would have got past the Embassy in Lisbon is not raised.) Extraordinarily, the cable states, even at this late stage, that the children would be accompanied by their parents [sic, plural], and throws in the name of Sonia’s father, (“Doctor Kuczynski of London University’), as if that impressive academic touch would seal the deal. Mystifyingly still, Cazalet’s response of December 10 misses the point entirely, stating that MI5 (to whom the request was addressed) ‘have no objection to the names of Mrs. Ursula BEURTON’s children being added to her passport and the children accompanying their mother to this country’. His memo to Stafford of the Passport and Permit Office, dated December 4, clearly indicates that the problem was due to the fact that they were ‘German born children’.

Once she and her children arrived in Lisbon, Sonia faced multiple challenges in planning her transit. This section of her memoir is probably one of the more reliable parts, in the bare outline of their movements. She wrote a letter to her parents in which she described the horrendous journey, the unheated bus through France, the icy cold in which they stood waiting at customs houses, alleviated by a more comfortable train ride from Barcelona to Madrid, and then a more stressful passage to Lisbon, where they arrived on December 24, 1940, with all three of them ill. The British consulate explained that Sonia was ‘about the most insignificant person on the long list’, so she moved, somewhat incongruously, to a comfortable hotel up the coast in Estoril (the ‘Grande’, “once the setting for the European aristocracy to spend its summers”), using monies from Moscow Centre’s account. “After about three weeks, the consulate informed me that we would be taken to England by ship”, she wrote. Yet the letter she wrote to her family on January 4 indicates that she already knew then that the waiting-time would be ‘about three weeks’ – not a bad prospect for someone so lowly on the pecking-order. She had been granted a Category ‘C’ endorsement (no internment required) on January 10. It appeared that MI6 had primed the consulate: Sonia gave the game away again.

Moscow also helped with the expenses involved in transporting Sonia and her family across Europe. While funding was tight in Switzerland, and caused special stresses, Foote informed his interrogators that ‘Albert’ (Radó) managed to send $3,500 to her in Portugal. This was obviously essential for Sonia’s living expenses while staying at the Grande Hotel. Sonia admitted this contribution in her memoir. Yet she was clearly indebted to MI6 for working behind the scenes to advance her priority up the queue of desperate refugees waiting to gain a spot on one of the ships bound for Liverpool. No questions were apparently asked about her source of funds or her lavish accommodation.

Step Five: Helping Sonia Settle in Britain

‘The Wake Arms’ in Epping

In two respects, MI6 helped Sonia with her accommodation and trysting arrangements in England. In one extraordinary item of testimony, Foote told his interrogators (KV 6/43-243A) that, before Sonia left Switzerland, she asked Foote to send a message to Moscow giving the address in Essex where her GRU contact was to meet. Foote’s notebook revealed that Sonia was to ‘meet with the Russians on 1st & 15th of every month at 3pm GMT at Wake Arms in Epping’. This location has an especial interest, since some of the items of correspondence intercepted at the Summertown address in September and October 1942 came from Epping. It would nevertheless not have been an easy place to travel to and from for a mother with two young children resident in Oxford. Yet Epping had its enduring attractions. In 1944, Sonia consequently decided to send Nina, aged seven, to a ‘boarding school in beautiful rural surroundings near Epping Forest’, Micha having already won a scholarship to a boarding school in Eastbourne, Sussex. Nannies and boarding-schools: those are the emblems of the truly dedicated Communist with important work to do.

What is astonishing about this item is how Sonia must have gained the intelligence. Unless the claim was a gross invention by Foote (which seems unlikely, given its detail, and the context), we have to consider the alternatives for the source of a message that was to be sent to Moscow. It therefore could not have originated from Moscow, but we also have to consider why Moscow would need this information. Did Sonia believe that Moscow would have to pass it on to her GRU contact in London, so that she and her handler could meet successfully? Surely not: Moscow was in constant touch with London. Or was she simply confirming what her GRU contact had told her already? Yet, even if she had been able to contact the GRU in London, by wireless, or possibly by coded letter to her sister or father, there would have been no need for her to inform Moscow, as her relatives must have derived the data from the local GRU residency.

Thus we have to assume that the address was given to her by Farrell in MI6. The implication that MI6 was in communication with GRU officers in London about the plan to bring Sonia to Britain, and aiding the process of setting up her treffs, is too scandalous and impossible to consider. I suggest one tentative interpretation. What probably happened is that Sonia had been able to inform Moscow that MI6 was going to recommend a suitable meeting-place (presumably with the objective of surveilling it closely), and, at the last minute before she left, it gave her the times and location for Epping. Her message thus constituted a warning to her bosses that this place was not to be used. There is no other evidence that she travelled regularly to Epping, which would have been an arduous journey from Oxford, although much easier from Hampstead, if that is where MI6 believed she would probably take up residence.

The fact that Foote had to inform Moscow of the arrangement must mean that the GRU was aware that Sonia was negotiating with MI6. That was in principle also a dangerous path, as such collaboration was severely frowned upon. In late 1943, Radó received a royal carpeting when he suggested to Moscow that he and Foote seek shelter in the British consulate in Geneva when the Gestapo started applying pressure to the Swiss, and mopped up the Rote Drei network. Sonia must have wisely told Moscow everything, and gained their approval for going along with MI6’s game, as it represented the best chance of gaining the foothold in Britain that they all desired.

The other instance where MI6 helped her was in her attempt to learn where her destination in England would be. I laid out in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 8 how she sent a desperate letter from Lisbon to her father’s address in London, which was redirected to the address in Oxford that she would later give, as her destination, to the immigration officer in Liverpool. Whether Oxford was chosen as part of a deep strategy by the GRU, as a sensible idea by MI6, or out of a firm preference from the Kucyznski family is unclear. It may well have been the latter, as Jürgen Kuczynski had expressed dismay that Sonia was coming to Britain, where she might draw undue attention by MI5 and Special Branch to his own subversive activities on behalf of the Party. The anguish in her letter shows that Sonia must have known already that she was not welcome in London, and would be directed elsewhere. Yet Sonia did learn what this address was before she arrived in Liverpool. Some emissary from MI6 must have provided this information care of the Consul in Lisbon: there is no other reasonable explanation. In Chapter 8 I put forward one speculative notion.

The voyage to Liverpool took three weeks: the Avoceta arrived on February 4. After the interrogation(s) (in which she was now able to provide a destination address), Sonia managed to find a hotel to stay in, and after an air-raid interrupted night, the next morning travelled smoothly by train to Oxford. Thereafter, her account does not ring true. She claimed that her parents were staying with friends at the Oxford address (78 Woodstock Road, as the MI5 files tell us: they followed her there), but that they had to return to London ‘because their room was needed by their friends’ relatives’. Implausibly, Sonia states that, because house-hunting in Oxford was ‘hopeless’, she tried to find something in the bombed cities, but that was impossible too. (Did she travel to Portsmouth? Coventry? Liverpool? She does not say.)  ‘At last’ she found a furnished room, but had to send the children away, as the landlady insisted on only one renter. So she found a room at the vicarage in Glympton, near Woodstock, settled down, and started her fortnightly visits to London.

If one were not aware of her brother’s objections, one night ask why on earth she didn’t move to the bosom of her family in London, so she would have grandparents to look after her children, and be able to carry on her trysts so much more easily? Apparently ‘moving in with them was out of the question’, as her parents were staying with friends in an overcrowded house’. In April 1941, she conveniently found the furnished bungalow in Kidlington, with no landlady, and the ability to keep her children with her. What she also omitted to mention, however, was that, during these hectic weeks, she was actually residing with her sister, Barbara, Mrs Taylor, at 97 Kingston Road, Oxford, as the constabulary report of February 24 informs us. Barbara’s husband, Duncan Burnett Macrae Taylor, was a trainee wireless operator in the R. A. F., and thus may well have been the officer Sonia claimed to have developed as an informer (‘James’) when she boasted of her ‘network’ in her memoir. Moreover, the report says that her parents are still living at 78 Woodstock Road. It is no wonder that Sonia fails to describe this part of her life in Oxford in any detail.

Step Six: Allowing Sonia to Carry On Unsurveilled

Kidlington Airport

What is clear from the archives is that a minimal surveillance of Sonia was undertaken, but it was of the generic kind of instructing the local constabulary ‘to keep an eye on her’, as if they might surprise her in the act of planting a bomb somewhere. It extended to intercepting her mail, but specifically did not track her movements. The problem is that much of the initiative came from younger officers, like Hugh Shillito, who were trying to do their job, but had clearly not been filled in on the bigger picture. Shillito (B.10.e) wrote to Major Ryde in Reading (the Special Branch representative) on February 7, suggesting that Sonia might want to ‘be kept under observation’. Yet he gives no indication that she is a communist, and related to subversives who have been interned. He merely states that she ‘clearly comes from an entirely different social stratum, and it appears that the marriage was one of convenience’. He says that Len’s ‘present whereabouts are unknown’. It is obvious that he has not been briefed properly, has not spoken to Milicent Bagot, has not read the immigration reports, and is completely unaware of the Communist group that Sonia was part of. He ends his request with the statement: ‘I shall be very interested to hear the result of any enquiries you may make’, but one could hardly expect Major Ryde to jump into action on the basis of this weak letter.

Shillito in fact copied his letter to the Oxford Constabulary, and Ryde did send it on to the Oxford City Police. Acting Detective-Sergeant Jevons did make enquiries, and discovered the facts about the Taylors, and also that Sonia’s father held ‘strong Communist views’, facts that he reported to Shillito on February 24. The very next day, Hyde sent a letter to Shillito, enclosing a copy of the Beurtons’ marriage certificate. This is shocking and absurd: Why did these dedicated civil servants have to educate an MI5 officer about the details of the case? I have noticed that MI5 officers often seemed remarkably ignorant of the marital status of Len and Sonia: when Sonia’s application for a passport came through in March 1940, Cazalet had even indicated that they thought Len was in Germany, in February 1940, which would have been a ridiculous supposition if he had married Sonia the previous month.

Thus Shillito appears to have been kept in the dark, deliberately. His response to Ryde of March 1 suggests that the marriage is all news to him. In any case, at that point Shillito effectively signs off, deeming no further action required, and again expresses the perennial hope that ‘an eye can be kept’ on Sonia. The file is passed to B4, as it appears to be a Communist Party matter. Thereafter, Sonia and Shillito disappear from the archival radar, the case not taking on new life until her husband’s repatriation in July 1942, by which time Shillito has been heavily involved with the business of Oliver Green, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and a spy who had been convicted and imprisoned, not for espionage, but for forging petrol coupons. In the reorganization of July 1941, after Petrie’s arrival, Shillito had been moved into the new F Division, tracking CP members, and was given a new assignment.

According to Sonia’s account, the hounds (if that is how these tentative inquisitors must be characterized) must have been called off at about the time she first met with her controller in London, in May, after several abortive attempts. She travelled up to London every couple of weeks, to speak to her father, and colleagues like Hans Kahle. She stayed with her parents, or one of her sisters, presumably leaving her children behind. She never explains how they were taken care of. It was in 1941, of course, that Peter Wright claimed that she maintained ‘a nest of spies’, something that surely should have gained the attention of any agency chartered with ‘keeping an eye on her’. As readers of these bulletins will know by now, I largely discount Wright’s allegations, although it is possible that Sonia developed contacts in important scientific research organisations in Oxford.  And yet, throughout the rest of 1941, no one apparently noticed any of her journeys and absences, or pondered how a mother was able to leave her kids behind so regularly.

The political environment changed in 1941, of course. The Battle of Britain was over; the threat of invasion receded; the search for parachuted German agents waned; Hitler turned his attention eastwards and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22. With Churchill’s immediate message of support to Stalin, and signals from the Y Board and the Foreign Office that counter-intelligence operations against the Soviet Union should be wound down, Sonia would have been seen in a different light. What possible harm could a lone and disconnected housewife perform to the cause of the war?

MI6’s need for insights into Soviet decryption techniques, however, did not go away, and GCHQ never completely abandoned its plans for attacking Soviet traffic. It was in the summer of 1941 that Sonia, having assembled her wireless transmitter at Glympton, began transmitting regularly to Moscow, and the only surviving message concerning her wireless activity (not from her directly, but from the Soviet Embassy) dates from July of this year. As I have outlined, her attempts to contact her bosses at that time were made from Kidlington, and were (apparently) never picked up. Thus it would appear that MI6 fell into a fallow period with Sonia, not certain what to do with her, and perhaps frustrated in noticing that, having installed herself as a competent wireless operator in Oxfordshire, she stubbornly refused to co-operate by sending any messages that could be intercepted.

The circumstances surrounding Sonia’s broadcasts in 1941, and the apparent failure of RSS to pick them up, are still perplexing. Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach Hamburg, or enemy wireless operators working on the Continent. Such signals should have immediately drawn attention, but they would have been harder to pick up at that wavelength, and it is probable that the Voluntary Interceptors (VIs) had not been instructed to perform General Searches in this range. We can only speculate as to how well MI6 understood the technicalities of waveband selection for the cuckoo they had transplanted into their nest, or how reluctant they would have been to divulge too much about her presence to RSS officers who were supposed to detect her.

We do know that, by early 1942, a VI picked up such a signal from the Soviet Embassy, but location-finding techniques still had great difficulty in tracking it down. It may be that, not until MI6 took over the fixed direction-finding stations from the Post Office in late 1941, and built new ones, and connected them all, was the RSS able to include in its ambit a greater range of frequencies, and pass some of them to the VIs. One RSS officer, Bob King, assured me that the complete spectrum of wavelengths was monitored, and, moreover, that Sonia’s transmissions were picked up, and instructions received to ignore them, but the dating of such events suggests they were post-war. I shall pick up this fascinating aspect of the story in the conclusion to my series The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.

The final anomalous oversight of this period was Sonia’s momentous meetings with Klaus Fuchs. Yet those encounters properly belong to the time after Beurton’s arrival back in the United Kingdom, which was an important scheme by MI6 in its own right. It would be Len’s controversial arrangements for rejoining his wife that would gain Hugh Shillito’s attention again.

Step 7: Orchestrating Len’s Repatriation

Eleanor Rathbone

One extraordinary aspect of the whole project concerning Len’s repatriation is the extreme lengths that MI6 went to. When far more-deserving candidates, such as escaped prisoners-of-war, were struggling to gain passage back to England, Beurton, a known communist, agent in a Swiss spy network, and member of an official Black List, benefitted from the provision of false papers, and the advantage of an aircraft return to Poole, Dorset instead of the dangerous and slow sea journey that most refugees had to endure. (The busy MI9 route out of Gibraltar also used aircraft.) It is difficult to imagine that MI6 would go to such extreme lengths purely because of the pressure applied by leftist friends of the Kuczynskis, and for the office of the Foreign Secretary to become involved only draws attention to the anomaly.

Readers will recall that, when Sonia arrived in Liverpool in early February 1941, one of the accounts that she gave of Len’s absence was that he had gone two years ago to Switzerland for treatment for tuberculosis, that he had recovered and was thus fit to travel, but that the failure of the Spanish to grant him a transit visa had prevented his accompanying her. (And that this intelligence was in contradiction of what the passport application from Geneva had indicated.) Unsurprisingly, the testimonies now differ. Sonia reported that Radó had applied pressure on Len, saying that his work in Switzerland was more important, and Len had been influenced by him. But when he asked Moscow what he should do, they told him to ‘do as Sonya says’ – an extremely unlikely interchange.

Foote described it differently: “Bill [Len] then pulled out of the organisation, and though he remained in Switzerland until 1942 he had no more official contact with us after March 1941. Moscow allowed him to try to make arrangements to leave at the end of 1941 and even assisted him in obtaining a British passport by getting a leading British politician to intervene on his behalf. The politician concerned acted, I am sure, quite innocently in this as worked through a number of cut-outs, and the person in question would probably have been horrified at the thought of assisting a Russian spy.” Probably a more accurate account, and a useful commentary by the MI5 ghost-writer, to be sure. Radó echoed Foote’s account in Codename Dora, indicating that ‘John’ [Len] stayed on to provide training (‘at Central’s request’) but then observed that Len was able to leave the country by the spring of 1941. Even if Radó was mistaken over the date of Len’s derparture, it strongly suggests that Len was not occupied with the Rote Drei any longer.

Sonia made much of Len’s struggles to gain any priority with the consulate in the queue of escapees trying to reach Britain, and she said she then contacted Hans Kahle, who, in turn invoked the support of Eleanor Rathbone, the left wing MP, who pleaded on the basis of Len’s eagerness to join the British Army. It might have suited MI6 to keep Len in place for a while, since he was providing useful information on anti-Nazi thinking from his association with General von Falkenhausen, but someone obviously concluded that he would be of more use back in Britain. Events then took some extraordinary turns, involving some barefaced lies that apparently did not concern the authorities, who were, after all, responsible for some of them.

For example, Sonia wrote that Rathbone must have asked a question in Parliament, along the lines of : “Why is a British citizen and anti-fascist with military experience in the Spanish Civil War, who is abroad and wants to volunteer for the British Army, not being given the support of His Majesty’s Government in order to return to his home country?” She overlooked the obvious paradox that, in order to gain a transit visa necessary for repatriation and then enlisting, Beurton had to be declared unfit for military service in Geneva. A veritable Catch22. [I cannot find, in the 1942 Hansard records, this question from the MP for the Combined Universities, but Miss Rathbone was a vigorous and regular critic of government policy.]

When Rathbone wrote to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, she explained that Beurton had gone to Switzerland before the war for health reasons, and then underwent a serious ski-ing accident that prevented him from leaving. For good measure, the International Brigade Association secretary, Mr Jack Brent, threw in (orally) that Beurton probably had tuberculosis as well, and would therefore be unfit for military service, thus undermining Rathbone’s appeal. This submission conveniently reinforced the ‘legend’ that Sonia had built up about Len’s affliction, yet rather over-egged the pudding with the details of Len’s misfortunes while ski-ing. Of course, the myth that Len was unfit for military service was necessary in an effort to convince the Vichy French and Spanish authorities that Len could not contribute to the war effort, but it rather undermined the urgency of the reasons why the British authorities would be eager to repatriate a tubercular, crippled Communist subversive. Did they perhaps not recall that Klaus Fuchs’s brother Gerhard had arrived by aeroplane in the UK from Switzerland in July 1939, but had been denied entry, and had been forced to return, because he had tuberculosis?

In any case, the Foreign Office wisely pointed out that Beurton would probably need to be pronounced unfit by an impartial medical board in order to gain transit visas from the French and Spanish authorities. On June 3, Livingston, of the Geneva consulate, informed Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that Beurton had been trying to leave for two years (some slight exaggeration), but he was able to supply the good news that, in April, the doctor attached to the French consulate had declared him unfit for military service. Thereafter, they had applied for French and Spanish visas. The Spaniards, not smelling a rat (or possibly receiving some form of encouragement), had granted the visa, but the French were still delaying things. Yet what Livingston did not state at this juncture was that Beurton had already, on March 9, been issued with a false passport in the name of John William Miller. This fellow must have been a really important asset.

The final visa was issued on July 8, Beurton left Geneva on July 13, and Livingston reported his departure on July 20. There is no record of his journey on file, but Beurton apparently was given VIP treatment, not taking the regular MI9 route for escaped POWs and agents from occupied Europe via Madrid to Gibraltar, but enjoying instead the diplomatic route, and the comfort of a quick plane from Lisbon. He arrived at Poole Airport on July 29, hale, but a little peeved that the he had to undergo an interrogation, as he felt that the authorities in Lisbon should have warned immigration about his arrival. He confidently declared that his passport was a forgery, denied that he had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, indicated that he had gone to Germany in January 1939 to retrieve property owned by Rudolf Kuczynski, and intimated that he had an affair with the latter’s daughter, Ursula. He boasted that he had survived on a $20,000 legacy that he had been carrying round in cash. Furthermore he stated that he and Ursula were married in May 1940, and that they did not leave Switzerland at the beginning of the war as they were waiting for his wife’s divorce papers to come through. He was, however, quick to mention his contact from the League of Nations, L. T. Wang.

A more incriminating farrago of lies would have been difficult to concoct. On August 5, Vesey (B4A) wrote to MI6 expressing surprise that the Passport Control Officer would have issued a false British passport to man whose history must have been known. MI6 replied to Vesey that he had been given a faked passport as he had been refused a transit visa in his own name, adding that the PCO in Geneva was ‘of course’ not aware of the ‘individual circular’ concerning Beurton, who had in the meantime approached the ‘Passport Control’ (i.e. MI6 itself) to join the Armed Forces. MI6 was meanwhile very interested in Wang and Kwei. Vesey and a representative from MI6 would interrogate Beurton in October about the questionable legacy and his actions with Sonia’s friend Marie Guinzberg at the UN in gaining a Bolivian passport. Yet interest in all these suspicious activities was buried.

Step 8: Suppressing Leads on Sonia’s and Len’s Activities

Klaus Fuchs

I have written at length on the apparent confusion surrounding MI5’s surveillance of the Kidlington and Summertown addresses, and the Beurtons’ telephone and mail (see http://www.coldspur.com/special-bulletin-response-to-denis-lenihan/, of March 19, 2020). Sonia claimed that she and Len had to move out of the Kidlington house very soon after Len’s arrival, but was fortunate in finding accommodation in the annex to the house owned by Neville Laski and his wife. Sonia was careful in picking landlords of impeccable standing: Laski was a notable jurist, and may have acted as a solicitor for MI5 at some stage. When the Beurtons moved to The Firs at Great Rollright after the war, they rented from Sir Arthur Salter, the Member of Parliament for Oxford University from 1937 to 1950.

My main conclusion was that Hugh Shillito, having been emboldened by a successful investigation of Oliver Green’s espionage activities, shifted his attention back to the Beurtons soon after Len’s arrival in July 1942, but was firmly discouraged by senior MI5 officers from pursuing the leads too energetically. For example, the apparent failure to follow up on the provocative batch of letters listed on file is perplexing. Just after the time (November 1942) when he had gained the enthusiastic support of Director-General Petrie, and his immediate supervisor Roger Hollis, for his prosecution of the Green case, Shillito made the outlandish suggestion that Sonia and Len were probably Soviet spies. Yet this was information that some senior officers did not want to hear.

It would be quite plausible that Liddell and White had been drawn into the plot by MI6 at this stage, but that Petrie and Hollis (who had replaced his former boss, John Curry, as head of F Division in November 1941), had not. F2 was responsible for ‘Communism and Left-wing Movements’, but Sonia and Len were not associated with the Party, or visibly part of any ‘movement’, so they, along with many other free-flowing communists (such as Jürgen Kuczynski and Fritz Kahle) were allowed to behave unhindered. Perhaps a case was made on those lines that the Beurtons should be ignored. As late as July 1943, however, when the very disgruntled but severely anti-communist Curry had been transferred to MI6, Shillito was still grumbling to his former director that he thought the Beurtons were Soviet agents.

Yet it is the Fuchs business that dominates this period. Sonia had been introduced to Fuchs through her brother, Jürgen. From Sonia’s account, one would get the impression that she cycled out to the Banbury area a dozen times or more, sometimes meeting Fuchs in person, sometimes leaving a message in a shared ‘letterbox’ to arrange a subsequent meeting. When Fuchs passed her a hundred-page book of blueprints, she had to travel to London to inform her handler (by a secret chalk sign) that they would meet outside Oxford, and she then had to pedal out to the junction of the A34 and the A40 to hand over the formulae and drawings. Frank Close echoes the account of these idyllic trysts, even quoting what Sonia later told the local Oxford newspapers: “During the final months of 1942, and throughout 1943, Fuchs and Sonya met at regular intervals near Banbury, always at weekends. She would come from Oxford by train in the morning, Fuchs arriving from Birmingham in the afternoon. One meeting was in Overthorpe Park, two miles east of Banbury, and within easy reach by bicycle or on foot.”

One can already see the contradictions. Did Sonia bike the whole thirty miles to Banbury, or did she take her bicycle to the train station, and then ride out to Overthorpe Park? Remember, most of these adventures would have occurred in the windy and rainy English winter of 1942-1943: moreover the Beurtons’ son, Peter, was born in September 1943, which would have hindered Sonia’s cycling excursions in the latter part of this period. Fuchs would not have been able to make regular forays to duboks in North Oxfordshire just to inform Sonia when the next meeting should be. Sonia promoted the notion that they walked around arm-in-arm, as if they were lovers, to throw off any suspicions. Yet most of this must be fantasy.

Sonia probably met Fuchs for the first time in a café near Birmingham railway station, in late summer 1942, and on that occasion they probably only checked each other out. The Vassiliev Papers record that she had reported that Fuchs had already passed papers to her by October 22 (and they also inform us that Fuchs’s previous handler, Kremer, had returned to the Soviet Union in August 1942). MI5 later claimed that such meetings occurred only every two or three months (echoing what Fuchs told them in his confession), and lasted only a few minutes, which would appear to make more sense, with Fuchs needing to be careful about absenting himself from Birmingham. If Sonia had indeed been taking her bike to Oxford station at regular intervals, surely ‘keeping an eye on her’ would have quickly led to her being stopped, and interrogated about her business? And what happened if her bicycle had broken down and she had secret plans in her basket?

Sonia’s handling of Fuchs lasted only one year. They had their infamous ‘Quebec Agreement’ meeting in mid-August 1943, and a final tryst in November. So, even allowing for MI5’s possible distortions to cover their ineptitude, she and Fuchs probably met only about three or four times before, which, logistically, makes much more sense. More poignantly, this period happened to coincide almost exactly with Len’s presence, and idleness, before being enlisted in the R. A. F. on November 18, 1943, as a trainee wireless operator. Len had expressed to Vesey, in October 1942, his annoyance at being turned down by the Air Force, whom he was keen to join, for health reasons. But his ill health was a myth. Had MI6 been working behind the scenes to disrupt his application? And what about the support of Rathbone, Cadogan and Eden for getting this man into the fight against the Nazis? Did Rathbone conveniently forget about the vociferous appeal she had made on behalf of the valiant British fighting-man?

That there might be significance behind the apparent coincidence of Fuchs’s productivity and Len’s wireless activity is too horrendous to consider, but Beurton had surely taken over the operation of the radio in Kidlington from Sonia. Was that what MI6 conceived as his role? Unless they were interested purely in improved marital relations for Sonia and Len, MI6 must have had plans for him. Yet he could not be used for intelligence purposes in the UK, and he could possibly be a danger if used in the Armed Forces, as his later problems in being accepted reveal. Farrell’s letter of March 1943 remains puzzling, but could have been a coded reminder that Len needed to re-commit to the cause of British Intelligence, and advice from his new-found ‘friend’ would be timely.

Whether Sonia actually used her apparatus to transmit from the new address in Summertown is mainly speculation. The discovery of her set in January 1943 has been analysed studiously. Certainly she claimed that she transmitted regularly, and that her children confirmed her nocturnal activities, but the evidence is sparse. GCHQ, on behalf of RSS, claimed very unscientifically to Peter Wright that she could not have transmitted undetected, but of course her messages might have been intercepted, and decisions made to leave Sonia untouched and uninterrupted. Wright himself wrote vaguely of Sonia’s lost messages, and scoured the globe for them. William Tyrer’s dossier contains a number of unverifiable, mostly undated, messages from Moscow to Sonia, but they are largely very unbusinesslike and novelettish, and mostly predate the Fuchs era or are placed after the war. If she did transmit anything from the Summertown address, it would have been relatively harmless material, and used as a distraction to draw attention away from Kidlington.

With her knowledge and experience from direction-finding in Poland, however, it would have been career suicide for her to transmit repeatedly from a single address in densely populated England, and expect not to be detected. Thus one must assume that either a) if she had been a genuine, freely-operating spy, she would not have used her apparatus (maybe surprised that the authorities did not investigate her equipment), but would have taken advantage instead of Len and the Soviet Embassy to ensure that her secrets reached Moscow; or b) if she had been aware of MI6’s attempts to control her, she would have transmitted only her variant of ‘chicken-feed’, which would be enough to keep her watchers busy, but would never reveal any information that might cast doubt on her ‘new’ loyalties, even if GC&CS were able to decipher her messages. In any case, MI6 were stuck with the cuckoo in their nest, and, at the peak of Great Britain-Soviet Union ‘co-operation’ in 1942-43, had to sit back and let things take their course. Even though the extent of Sonia’s espionage may have been overstated, she certainly duped British Intelligence in her coup with Fuchs.

Step 9: Keeping the Lid On, 1944-1946

‘The Firs’ at Great Rollright

After Fuchs’s departure for the USA in December 1943, and Len’s enlistment in the R. A. F., Sonia’s espionage activities waned. She claimed that she maintained her contacts, and continued to use her wireless, even stating that she sent her son, Micha, and daughter, Nina, to boarding-schools in Eastbourne and Epping respectively so that they would not notice her nocturnal transmissions. How the financially strained Beurtons found the money to pay for private education is never explained, although MI6 has been known to help out in this manner for well-deserving cases. Certainly Sonia helped Erich Henschke and other anti-fascists in the OSS project to drop agents into Germany, in late 1944, but since her brother Jürgen was actually engaged by the American OSS at the time, her actions would not have been regarded as suspicious.

She also had some contact with Melita Norwood (TINA) who was probably of even more use to the Soviets than was Fuchs, but this lasted only for a short time in 1945. Melita’s mother was on friendly terms with Sonia’s mother, and Sonia and Melita had met shortly after Sonia’s arrival in 1941. It would not have been efficient for Sonia, based in Oxfordshire, to have couriered for Norwood, who was, after all, a KGB agent. The Vassiliev Papers (Yellow Notebook No. 1: File 82702) tell us that, even though Norwood had been recruited by the OGPU as far back as 1935, the receipt of papers from her in June 1945 was only the second batch she handed over. Moreover, she had left her job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in 1943 to bear her child, and was out of action for over a year. Thus the claim that David Burke makes in The Spy Who Came In From the Co-Op (p 14), that Sonia ‘was Melita Norwood’s controller between 1941 and 1944’ should be quickly dismissed.

MI5, in the person of Shillito, continued to dig around, noticing the anomalies in Beurton’s sickness record.  Shillito also noted that Sonia’s first husband Rudolf had been arrested as a spy in Persia, which resuscitated his suspicions about Sonia. Sargant of O.D.3a had to respond to Air Ministry questions about Len’s dubious story concerning money and health. It was apparent that the Service was now having a difficult time keeping up consistent appearances of the plot to which it had colluded, and struggled to explain why Beurton had been given a fake passport. The rumours even reached the US Embassy, who in August 1944 were anxious to track down Rudolf Hamburger’s wife and family. Roger Hollis himself was called upon to respond to an inquiry from M. J. Lynch. In a letter dated August 10, 1944, Hollis made the best fist he could, admitting that the Beurtons had ‘communist sympathies’, and had probably been funded by the Soviets, adding, however, that MI5’s enquiries had come to nothing, and that neither Mr or Mrs Beurton had been noticed performing anything nefarious. He clearly hoped the problem would go away.

In any case, Moscow Centre at this time decided to loosen its ties with Sonia, although it articulated this message via the Embassy, which had become a much safer way of exchanging vital information by this time. One of the more convincing messages cited in William Tyrer’s dossier, dated January 15, 1945, and sent to Sklyarov in London, runs as follows:

“For your personal information. In the mountain country [Switzerland] Sonia was in contact with Albert [Rado] and his wife. The counterintelligence in your country knows about Albert’s activities in the mountain country and his work for us. There are grounds to suppose that to some degree the counterintelligence may learn about Sonia’s work during her stay in Albert’s country.

     In this connection:

     1. Any personal contact with Sonia should be ceased and not to be resumed without our authorization.

     2. To forbid Sonia to be engaged in our work. She should lead the life of a model mother, wife and housekeeper. Report on the execution. Direktor.”

Moscow was apparently alarmed by the break-up of the Swiss Ring, and the fact that Alexander Foote and Radó might have betrayed information about Sonia’s past activity. Yet there is a trace of disingenuousness here: how could they have imagined that British counter-intelligence was ignorant of Sonia’s career? Nevertheless, the pressure increased, with Gouzenko’s defection in Canada in September 1945 causing panic, and the closing down of multiple agents. The Vassiliev Notebooks (Yellow Notebook, No, 1, p 86) confirm that Moscow cut off all contact with Sonia in January 1946. When Fuchs returned to the UK in 1946, he had to seek out a new go-between. Thereafter, while Sonia was said to communicate occasionally (the language is ambiguous and puzzling), her sister Renate was used as an intermediary to get funds to her. Sonia claimed that she still used her wireless set at this time, having moved to The Firs in Great Rollright, and Bob King of the Discrimination Section of RSS reported to me that he was certain that her messages were picked up by the RSS interceptors, but buried by senior officers.

Before the dramatic defection in July 1947 of Alexander Foote, back to the British, and his subsequent interrogation by MI5, one last twist in the story occurred, revealing the awkwardnesses of MI5 officers having to explain the situation. In April 1946, the FBI, still trying to establish the whereabouts of Rudolf Hamburger, through J. Cimperman, contacted MI5 to determine whether they might approach Ursula Beurton. This time, it fell upon John Marriott (him of the XX Committee, now F2C), and he shared the remarkable information that a letter from the FBI of July 13, 1945 had referred to an address in Geneva (129 Rue de Lausanne), reportedly the address through which Hamburger could be contacted, which was the same address where Mrs. Beurton had last stayed in in Switzerland. Furthermore, she had indicated in 1941, when he arrived, that she thought her husband was still resident there.

One might imagine that an astute officer would either have concealed this information from the Americans, or, alternatively, shown great enthusiasm in following up this extraordinary coincidence. Marriott used it, however, to suggest to Cimperman that the relationships between the two men and Mrs. Beurton made it ‘undesirable’ to approach the lady. Yet he did promise to make further enquiries. The wretched Hamburger meanwhile had been taken back to Moscow from Persia, cruelly interrogated on the suspicion of being a spy, and sentenced to a long stay in a labour-camp. Peter Wright claims in Spycatcher that Hamburger had been an MI6 spy, although John Green comments that this story has never been corroborated.

Maybe foolishly (why would he think that Hamburger still had a link with Geneva?), Marriott agreed to follow up, and turned to the MI6 office responsible – Kim Philby. The same day, he wrote to Philby, explaining the situation, and asking him to make enquiries about the address, and provide, if possible, information on the whereabouts of Hamburger. Marriott revealed his discomfort about Cimperman’s approach directly to Philby, stating: “For a variety of reasons I do not feel able to comply with this request,. . .”, hinting at a tacit, awkward understanding between the two. Two weeks later, Philby, having initiated the appropriate search, responded with a very enigmatic explanation, also confirming that his contact was trying to establish whether Beurton was still living at that address. Continuing to play his role of the simpleton, he added that ‘we have no knowledge of the present whereabouts of HAMBURGER’. Marriott was soon able to enlighten Philby that Beurton was now a Guardsman with the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards in the B.A.O.R. He then sent a very useless and bland letter to Cimperman, which did nothing to shed light on the mystery of the shared address. Apparently nobody followed up with Len or Sonia to learn more about what may have been a Soviet safe-house. Philby clearly wanted to bury the story.

Step 10: Foote and Fuchs: Allowing Sonia and Len to Escape

Alexander Foote

Two challenges remained for the Beurtons – the defection of Alexander Foote, and the arrest of Klaus Fuchs.

The GRU had always harboured its suspicions about Foote’s loyalties, because of his relationship with the British consulate in Geneva, and especially when he encouraged Radó to take cover with him there in November 1943. After Foote was released from prison in November 1944, he made his way to Paris, where he made the extraordinarily bold decision to travel to Moscow to face the music, arriving in mid-January 1945. During the next couple of years, MI5 and MI6 communicated desultorily on Foote’s fate. Foote, meanwhile, was undergoing intense interrogation, and his brazenness in afforming his loyalty must have impressed the Soviets. He was sent to spy school, and on March 7, 1947, left Moscow for Berlin, with a new identity, and a mission to operate as a Soviet agent in South America. On July 2, he defected to the British authorities in Berlin. Claude Dansey did not see his hero return: he had died, discarded, disliked and dejected, on June 11.

Foote was initially interrogated by MI6, and quickly revealed, as is evident from the first Interrogation Report of July 14, that he had worked alongside ‘Sonia’ in the Rote Drei, and that ‘Sonia’ was the alias given to her by the Russian Secret Service, her real name being Ursula KUTSCINSKI’ [sic]. MI5’s Serpell (who had replaced an exasperated Shillito by then) was sent out to interrogate Foote, who immediately voiced his concerns about Sonia’s probable espionage in Britain.  Foote was brought back to the UK, under an assumed name, and arrived at Northolt on August 7. All this must have been a little embarrassing for MI6, who know saw matters spiralling out of control, with officers who had not been ‘indoctrinated’ in the case, including the new Director-General, spreading the news around. Percy Sillitoe contacted the Canadians about the Gouzenko connection; Serpell excitedly got in touch with the American Embassy. Foote, meanwhile, had a crisis of conscience: Sonia had, after all, been his collaborator and tutor, and he sent her a furtive message via Fred Ullmann, another International Brigader who had originally helped recruit him, that she and Len should be on their guard.

This news re-awakened MI5, with the familiar Marriott (now B1b) seeking information on the Beurtons’ whereabouts, since they had lost track of Len since his discharge in August 1945.  He immediately requested a Home Office Warrant check put on the Beurton’s correspondence, as it had apparently just come to his notice that they had both been Soviet spies in Switzerland during the early part of the war. Further revelations from the interrogation of Foote came to light: “Foote suggested that another symptom of SONIA’s continued link with MOSCOW after she reached England was contained in a message he had from Moscow in 1941 about the efforts to get BEURTON back to the U.K. The message said that ELEANOR RATHBONE and others were helping.”

Marriott treated the deluge of Foote’s divulgements as if they were all news to him, and wrote, apparently without irony: “It is not clear why Ursula Beurton left Switzerland as she did at the end of 1940 to proceed to this country, but on the evidence of Foote she did so with at least Russian concurrence and the possibility therefore cannot be excluded that she came here with a  mission.” (Indeed. Had he not read the files in the Registry?) On August 18, he disingenuously tried to finesse the issue by noting that ‘the circumstances of the issue of this latter passport are known to me, and are not relevant to my inquiries.’ The outcome was that Serpell, accompanied by William Skardon, went to The Firs on September 13, to interrogate Sonia and Len.

This extraordinary encounter has been thoroughly reported on, by such as Chapman Pincher and John Green. It seemed the intention of Serpell and Skardon was to put Sonia at her ease, by assuring her that they knew that she had not engaged in any espionage activity in Britain, but instead indicating that they wanted to learn more about what had happened in Switzerland. Yet Sonia had been prepared for the visit by Foote. While Serpell’s continued references to her marriage unnerved Sonia, she realised that if she stuck to her guns, and remained silent, no ill could come out of the exercise. After all, British Intelligence had as much to lose from the truth coming out as she did.

While the focus of the questions seemed to be on events in Switzerland (and Marriott’s notes had indicated that questions concerning Len Beurton’s passport were uppermost in his mind), Serpell and Skardon seemed singularly uninterested in Len, who joined the gathering later, and even indicated that he thought that he was on their side (which, of course, he had been, for a while). The behaviour of the officers in this encounter bewildered Sonia: it was as if MI5 had been trying to catch her out, but they performed with total clumsiness. Serpell and Skardon revealed events in Switzerland that could only have been communicated by Foote. Certainly, the visit confirmed that any espionage activity by her and Len would have to cease at that stage, but Moscow had already decreed that outcome. Or was it a subtle indication that MI5 knew all about her, and that she and Len should make their escape while the going was good? That is an interpretation that John Green hypothesizes. Remarkably, the Home Office Warrant letter checks on not only Sonia, but on other members of her family, were withdrawn immediately after this encounter. So life carried on smoothly for a couple of years.

The arrest of Fuchs, on February 3, 1950, was more alarming. Sonia feared that he would reveal everything under interrogation, and, indeed, as early as February 20, J. D. Robertson (B2A) remarked that Sonia might be induced to talk because of the announcement of his arrest, although it is not clear what prompted him to make that connection. Fuchs had indeed spoken of a female contact he had had encounters with in Banbury, which should have set some MI5 pulses beating faster. Sonia herself wrote that ‘when the press mentioned that Klaus had been meeting a foreign woman with black hair in Banbury I expected my arrest any day’. Frank Close, in his biography of Fuchs, Trinity, reports that ‘the files record enigmatically that she was “touch not”’, but indicates that a pencilled annotation explained that this should be “tough nut”. Quite so: I have not been able to verify this, but the message is clear.

In any case, Sonia jumped the gun, and escaped with her two youngest children to East Germany on February 27, while Fuchs’s trial was under way. The extraordinary gaffe in this exercise was that no effort at preventing her departure was made, despite the obvious recognition that MI5 had shown (such as in Robertson’s note) that she might have been connected to the case. It was obviously easier to have her out of the way. She was untouchable.  As Sonia herself wrote: “Either it was complete stupidity on the part of MI5 never to have connected me with Klaus, or they may have let me go with it, since every further discovery would have increased their disgrace.”

Sonia’s departure must have been recorded, yet many MI5 officers remained in the dark. They even expressed the desire for bringing her and Len in for questioning. Fuchs continued to reveal more. On June 16, Robertson reported that Jürgen Kuczynski was the person who had originally put Fuchs in touch with the Russians.  On June 22, a letter was sent to the GPO, requesting a Home Office Warrant for Sonia, as ‘we have recently received information which indicates that Ursula Beurton has not relinquished her connection with Soviet espionage since her arrival in the U.K.in 1941’. Even Director-General Sillitoe was on the act, asking Rutherford on July 25 about the whereabouts of Sonia and her husband. On June 27, Len Beurton, who had been recovering from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident, was also allowed to leave the country untouched. On August 22, Robertson at last learned that Sonia had flown the coop. Not until November did Fuchs, obviously having been informed that Sonia and Len had safely left the country, admit that Sonia was his contact, and on December 18 he recognized her in a photograph. All through 1950, Liddell made no comment in his diaries about the Kuczynski link – or, if he did, the passages have been redacted. When Sonia was at last identified, his chagrin, and that of all senior officers in MI5 and MI6, must have been immense.

Conclusions

Claude Dansey

What started out as an imaginative opportunity for MI6 turned into a nightmare. It enabled the entry into Britain of a spy dedicated to the communist cause, one who helped her masters acquire secrets that would have been used to destroy the pluralist democracy. No doubt encouraged by the fruitful achievements of the emerging MI5 operation of developing double-agents (at that time, SNOW), Claude Dansey, the deputy to Stewart Menzies, alighted upon the availability of Ursula Hamburger to implement a similar project for Soviet spies. He was in Switzerland from September to November 1939, as Sonia’s divorce proceedings culminated. His man, van den Heuvel, and Farrell, the Passport Control Officer who was van den Heuvel’s deputy, became the instruments to make the plan a reality. In believing that they were saving Sonia’s life by abetting her escape, MI6 succumbed to the illusion that she and Len would be permanently beholden to them.

Yet managing so-called ‘double-agents’ is a hazardous business. It requires both very tight operational security, restricting knowledge of the project to as few persons as possible, and maintaining exclusive control over the agents’ movements and communications. The handling agency can never be sure that the person assumed to having been turned has made an ideological about-face, and switched his or her loyalties. Thus, unless a very tight rein is held over the agents’ behaviour, there is always the risk that, in their communications, they will betray the fact that they are being manipulated, or even arrange unsurveilled meetings where they will be able to describe what is going on. That is why they are properly called ‘controlled enemy agents’. MI5 knew this; the Abwehr knew this; the CIA, in its enthusiasm for transplanting the Double-Cross techniques to their own theatre of operations after the war, were slow to recognize the truth. For some reason MI6 did not think through the implications of bringing Sonia and Len into their fold.

The brunt of the burden fell upon MI5, who were responsible for domestic security against subversion and espionage. And the archive shows clearly how the service was divided over how to handle Len and Sonia once they arrived in Britain. The senior officers (Liddell and White, but not the Director-General) were surely complicit with MI6 in the scheme. Junior officers and recruits (such as Shillito, Cazalet, Reed, Vesey, J. D. Robertson, Bagot, Serpell) were kept in the dark, and left to stumble around, pursuing leads, until they became too energized in their suspicions, recommended some kind of interrogation or prosecution, and had to be gently talked out of it. (At a high-level meeting on January 25, 1950 between Lord Portal, Roger Makins, Liddell and White at the Ministry of Supply, this uncomfortable truth was even admitted.) The middle ranks (such as Marriott, Hollis, and Curry) were no doubt brought, at least partially, into the subterfuge, and were delegated the unpleasant tasks of dealing with other organisations, such as the Foreign Office, MI6 and the FBI. As can be seen, primarily in Marriott’s anguished correspondence, they struggled dismally with explaining away the inexplicable. The complexities of the project and its intelligence ramifications were clearly too deep to be entrusted to the Directors-General, one a soldier (Petrie) and the other a policeman (Sillitoe), although Petrie’s anti-communist vigour would mean that he probably had to have things explained to him after the Green case.

Above all, the exercise shows how improbable the theory must be that Roger Hollis single-handedly, as a Soviet mole, managed to protect Sonia (and Len) from the attention and prosecution that they obviously deserved. This theory has taken root so deeply that new historical works and biographies regularly appear that take it for granted that the assertions of Chapman Pincher and Peter Wright should be accepted unquestionably. Hollis’s guilt is affirmed purely on the basis that he must have protected Sonia (Len is rarely mentioned). The mass of detail that shows how Sonia and Len were nurtured, supported, assisted, recruited, even lied for – and then deliberately ignored, and allowed to escape – proves that it could not have been because of Hollis’s skills in throwing a blanket of ignorance around the couple with the outcome that they were thus able to remain unmolested. Even if Hollis had possessed the power and authority to insist that they were harmless, the widespread knowledge about their background, the illicit marriage, the recruitment of Len by MI6, the phony stories about ex-husbands, tuberculosis, and ski-ing injuries, about forged passports, dubious medical certificates, and unlikely inheritances would have made his protestations a laughing-stock.

In the English edition of her memoir, Sonia wrote: “I know no Fifth Man, and I must also spoil the speculation or, as some writers state, ‘the fact’ that I ever had anything to do with the one-time director of MI5, Roger Hollis”. That may be one of the few true statements she made in her book. Later in life, however, she wryly admitted that she mused over the possibility that someone in MI5 was protecting her. Indeed, madam.

As for the GRU, Sonia’s penetration of British atomic research was a coup, although perhaps not as astounding as the mythology has made it. Fuchs was her source for only a year, and modern assessments indicate that, as far as the United Kingdom was concerned, Engelbert Broda and Melita Norwood were probably far more valuable contributors to the Soviet’s purloining of weapons secrets. Sonia’s connection with Norwood has often been overplayed. Yet Sonia’s achievements were a significant blow to the prestige of British Intelligence, which had held a worldwide reputation now revealed to be unmerited. In the first couple of decades after the war, the Soviet Union and East Germany openly denied the activities of their spies, wanting to impress their citizens that their scientific achievements were attributable to Communist ingenuity.

Only when the spy scandals were rolled out in the United States and Great Britain did the mood change to one of pride in how their intelligence services had outfoxed the West’s. Then they lauded openly the achievements of their ‘atomic spies’, promoting memoirs like Sonia’s. President Putin, relying on his public’s fragile connection with history, after a brief fling promoting Soviet spy exploits (see the case of Svetlana Lokhova and The Spy Who Changed History, at http://www.coldspur.com/four-books-on-espionage/ ) seems now to want to return to the Cold War status quo ante, reinforcing the idea that the Soviet Union’s success with nuclear weaponry owed more to Russian skills than it did to underhand espionage and the theft of the discoveries of former allies.

One has to assume that the GRU in Moscow knew exactly what was going on at the time, and took a back seat while MI6 floundered. Immediately Sonia or Len was first approached by MI6 with any sort of feeler, each would have reported it to Moscow. Thus all further moves would have been passed on as well. Anthony Blunt was keeping his bosses informed, and relayed to them the lukewarm attention that Hugh Shillito paid to CP and GRU spies. The GRU must have wondered exactly what MI6 was up to, if it believed the opposition’s service could manipulate Soviet agents with such naivety. Indeed, around this time, the GRU’s sister service, the NKGB (as the NKVD-KGB was known at that time), was so dumbfounded by the fact that British Intelligence could allow the Cambridge Ring to flourish that it issued an internal report suggesting that the whole exercise was one of disinformation. Referring to the Double-Cross (XX) Committee as one of the vital institutions involved, Elena Modrzchinskaya, the head of the Third Department of the NKGB’s First Directorate, published the report in November 1942: it took almost two years for the suspicions to be disproved, and credibility in the sources re-established.

Yet, if MI6 and MI5 showed an alarming amateurishness about the whole process, the GRU’s agents likewise put on a dismal display of tradecraft. Before placing ‘illegals’ in the western democracies, the GRU and OGPU/NKVD invested an enormous amount of time in creating solid ‘legends’ for their agents, where, supported by false passports, individuals of indeterminate central and eastern European origin were allowed to establish convincing identities and occupations in the cities from which they operated. The GRU could not have exerted any influence on the stories that Sonia and Len concocted before embarking on their journeys to Britain, yet they – especially Sonia – should have been well indoctrinated into the necessity of maintaining a coherent narrative about their previous travel, objectives, sources of funds, business activities, and disabilities.

Sonia and Len behaved, however, completely amateurishly. Their accounts to the immigration authorities were absurd. It was as if they did not even discuss what their separate stories should be if they were interrogated, and how these rigmaroles would mesh together. The resulting narrative was so ridiculous that it should immediately have been discredited, and the suspects hauled in. We now know, of course, why that did not happen. Perhaps the Soviets, and Len and Sonia in particular, were so sure of MI6’s game-plan that they felt that they did not need to bother. But that assumption would have been based on granting the fragmented and pluralistic British intelligence services a discipline and unity that may have existed in the Soviet Union, but simply was unrealistic in a democratic society.

What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp

Peter Wright

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

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

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

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

Contents:

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

Peter Wright and ‘Spycatcher’

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cable or Wireless?

Eastern Telegraph Cables: 1901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War and Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENONA & HASP

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

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

  1. The key years of 1940 (when John Tiltman received a GRU code-book from the Finns); 1945 (when the damaged Soviet codebook gained at Petsamo was acquired by the USA, and when the GRU cypher-clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in Canada); 1946 (when Meredith Gardner made the first major VENONA decryption); 1949 (when ex-Comintern wireless operator Alexander Foote revealed GRU techniques in Handbook for Spies); 1954 (when Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, Soviet cypher experts who had worked in Stockholm, defected in Australia); and 1959 (when the Swedes handed over HASP, the result of their decryption successes, to GCHQ and NSA).
  2. The GRU developed an auxiliary clandestine system to maintain secrecy. This consisted of a) an alternative method of using a secure one-time pad exploiting a reference book known to both parties (which could be used on the regular channel), and b) a separate wireless receiver-transmitter and protocols, not to be announced to the domestic authorities.
  3. In the USA and in Australia, the Soviet units used commercial cable channels almost exclusively. In Britain, all traffic was sent by wireless.

Wright on HASP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet one overlooked event was John Tiltman’s acquisition of a GRU code-book retrieved from the body of a Soviet officer in1940. On Page 372 of his history of SIS, Keith Jeffery wrote: “In January 1940 Menzies asked Carr to find out if the Finnish authorities had ‘procured any Soviet cryptographic material which could be communicated to us’. Carr immediately replied in the affirmative and it was arranged that Colonel John Tiltman of GC&CS should travel out to Finland, where he was presented by Hallamaa with a Red Army code-book taken off a dead Russian officer and which ‘bore the marks of a bullet. GC&CS noted afterwards that it had been ‘of real assistance’ to their cryptographers.” It does not seem that this contribution, which predated the official recognition of the Petsamo code-book by five years, has ever been recognized in the few accounts of VENONA decipherment that exist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J B S Haldane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salary for 7 months: 406

John:  195

?? from abroad:  116

Expenditure on apparatus (radio and microdots):  105

?? Expenditure:  55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is also noteworthy is that Wright makes no comment about Sonia’s ability to escape radio detection-finding at this stage. If Sonia, as Kremer had recorded, had been transmitting for four successive nights, and had not been detected by RSS, one might have expected him, as a senior MI5 officer, to have reflected, at least, on her success in remaining undetected. He appears, at this stage, not to subscribe to the Chapman Pincher theory that Roger Hollis was able to interfere in the process; neither does he show any awareness that the proximity of Sonia’s home near Kidlington Airport might have masked her transmissions – which would admittedly have been a remarkable insight for that time. (It is probable that Sonia, and her husband, Len Beurton, adopted call-signs and preambles that made their traffic look, superficially, like British military signals, and that, should any remote direction-finding have taken place, the traffic’s origins would have been assumed to have been Kidlington airport itself.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Remaining Questions

Two crucial questions arise out of all this analysis:

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

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

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

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

The Drought of 1942-1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘HASP’ Annotation to Soviet Messages Detected in 1942

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did Wright mangle the story so much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Sources:

Spycatcher, by Peter Wright

Venona, by Nigel West

GCHQ, by Richard Aldrich

The Code Breakers, by David Kahn

Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon

Handbook for Spies, by Alexander Foote

The Code Book, by Simon Singh

Battle of Wits, by Stephen Budiansky

Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon

Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, by Nigel West

Sekretnyi Front General’nogo Shtaba’, by Vladimir Lota

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

Defend(ing) the Realm, by Christopher Andrew

The Haunted Wood, by Allan Weinstein & Alexander Vassiliev

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

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

The Secrets of the Service, by Anthony Glees

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

Empire of Fear, by Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov

Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks

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

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

The Venona Story, by Robert L. Benson

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

The Petrov Affair, by Robert Manne

A Spy’s Revenge, by Richard V. Hall

The Spycatcher Affair, by Malcom Turnbull

Treachery, by Chapman Pincher

Dangerous to Know, by Chapman Pincher

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

The National Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special Bulletin: Sonia and the Mail on Sunday

Dateline: Sunday June 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update No. 1 (June 28)

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

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

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

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

Update No. 2 (June 29)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update No. 3 (July 7)

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

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

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

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

Late Spring Round-Up

‘Dave’ Springhall’s Headstone

Dum spiro, conspiro

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

Contents:

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

Sonia and Len Beurton

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

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

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

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

Ben Macintyre

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

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

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

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

Prodding Comrade Stalin

Neo-Keynesian Stalin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            Poor old has-beens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Stalin Means War’

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

The National Archives and Freedom of Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Frank Close at the Bodleian

Professor Frank Close

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

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

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

The BBC and Professor Andrew

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

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

Dear Xxxxxxxx,

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

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

Thank you.

Sincerely, Tony Percy.

Six days later, I received the following reply:

Good evening Mr Percy,

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

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

Regards,

Xxxxxxxx

EA to Group Managing Director.

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

Thanks for your reply, Xxxxxxxx.

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

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

Best wishes, Tony.

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

Dear Antony Percy,

Reference CAS-5759257-M8M4X9


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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Nelson
Editorial Adviser, BBC News


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

I tried one last gasp:

Dear Sarah,

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Tony Percy.

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

Nigel West’s New Publications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ismail Akhmedov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Survival of Gösta Caroli

Gosta Caroli

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

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

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

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

Dave Springhall and the GRU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am the Daughter’

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

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

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

China and the Rhineland Moment

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

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

This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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On ‘Wilmington’s Lie’

‘Wilmington’s Lie’ by David Zucchino

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

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

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

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

Next, four anecdotes . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes taken after seeing the ‘Witness’ Exhibition

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

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

            “Who am – ? . . .’

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

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

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

The Orton Plantation

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wilmington 1898 Memorial

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

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

The Wilmington Coup, 1898

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

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

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

“Proud Caucasians one and all . . .

Hear your wives and daughters call  . . .

Rise, defend their spotless virtue

With your strong and manly arms  . . .

Rise and drive this Black despoiler from your state.”

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

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

The Dawes Severalty Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special Bulletin: The Letter from Geneva

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

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

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

The Geneva Letter

An image of the document appears here:

The Letter from Geneva

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

First of all, the text:

“My dear Burton,

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

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

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

            [ ‘paragraph missing’ *  ]

            Let us hear from you some time,

                        Your sincerely, V. C. Farrell”

* British Postal Censorship

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

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

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

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

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

The Sender of the Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIS in Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Implications of the Letter

Len Beurton

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

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

“He had no proper sense of shame.

He told his friends his Christian name.”

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farrell’s Intentions: A Closer Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ursula Beurton (Sonia)

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 2)

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

Rudolf Peierls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

The Physicists

The Physics Department at Bristol

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

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

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

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott

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

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

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

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

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

Max Born

Max Born

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herbert Fröhlich

Herbert Froehlich

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

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

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

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

Herbert Skinner

Herbert Skinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Placzek

George Plazcek

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudolf Peierls

Rudolf Peierls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peierls’s Naturalization

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

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

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

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

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

19.12.38 Confirms residence at Stockport

13.5.39 Positive interviews with Peierls’s referees

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

10.10.39 Peierls and wife exempted from internment

21.2.40 Fee of £9 paid for Certification of Naturalization

23.3.40 Oath of Allegiance received from Peierls

2.4.40 Naturalization granted

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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


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