I use this bulletin to update my story of two Cambridge Spies – Donald Maclean, one of the notorious set of 1930s communists, and Willem ter Braak, a member of the Abwehr’s LENA group who underwent a mysterious death in Cambridge in April, 1941. Because of its size, and the distinct subject areas it addresses, I have decided to split this report into two sections, even though there are areas of overlap. Part 1 can be seen here.
I was delighted, towards the end of last month, to receive a message from a Mr. Jan-Willem van den Braak, who had discovered coldspur, and my article on ter Braak. His was a name I knew, since a colleague had drawn my attention to a biography of his pseudonymous namesake that Mr. van den Braak had published in Dutch, in 2017. It was titled Spion tegen Churchill; leven en dood van Jan Willem ter Braak (Spy against Churchill: the life and death of Jan Willem ter Braak), issued by the WalburgPers. Not knowing any Dutch, I was unable to use Mr. van den Braak’s work in my research, but I am now happy to report that it is being translated into English, and should be available later this year. Curious readers who use Wikipedia will find that a richer entry on ter Braak now appears at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Willem_Ter_Braak. It was written, largely, by Mr. van den Braak himself. It does, however, not explore any of the prevailing theories about ter Braak’s demise, including my analysis at coldspur.
van den Braak has been very generous in explaining to me how he came upon
Engelbertus Fukken (the real name of ter Braak), and I do not want to steal his
thunder by outlining his lines of research, and the sources he has used, or his
conclusions. Let me just say that I think he has been very diligent in tracking
down details about ter Braak’s background in the archives and libraries of The
Hague and elsewhere, as well as exploiting the records about ter Braak to be
found at the National Archives at Kew. I think I can mention that the title of
the book appears to suggest the author’s focus on the repeated claim that ter
Braak was sent over specifically to assassinate Winston Churchill, and I look
forward to seeing the evidence he presents, and reading about how he covers that
through the medium of email, Mr. van den Braak and I have explored some of the
thornier questions of the published sources of information on ter Braak, and
have discovered some new facts (or misinformation) that should be recorded as
soon as possible. Much of this debate revolves around the role that two
well-known writers on matters of espionage and counter-espionage have played in
promoting the ter Braak story, namely E. H. Cookridge and Richard Deacon. I
have already mentioned Cookridge in the first part of this month’s bulletin,
but Deacon may not be so familiar. His real name was Donald McCormick, and he
compiled a number of popular books on intelligence matters between the early
1960s and the mid-90s. As his Wikipedia entry states, however, he was ‘attracted to controversial topics on
which verifiable evidence was scarce’, and this would lead him to make some
wild claims that have to be treated with scepticism.
Donald McCormick aka Richard Deacon
What is interesting is that Mr. van den Braak was introduced to the character known as ter Braak by a letter that Deacon published (under his real name) in Het Parool in January 1978, which invited readers who knew anything about ter Braak to contact him at his home in Beckenham, Kent. Mr. van den Braak saw that request, but did not start his research until 2014. He had by then read Deacon’s History of the British Secret Service, but he had not inspected (for reasons that will soon become clear) Deacon’s British Connection, to which I drew his attention. I scanned for him several pages that included the text of the letter that Deacon wrote in 1978, and his theories about ter Braak, which included the provocative claim that ter Braak ‘was a Soviet spy masquerading as a refugee from Nazi-controlled Holland’, and that ‘he was murdered by an NKVD agent to stop him talking in the event of an arrest.’ I think it fair to say that Mr. van den Braak, while he knew about this theory from other sources, was astonished by these passages. I found the chapter quite incoherent, and regard it as quite absurd to think that ter Braak had been a Soviet spy, but I shall leave it to Mr. van den Braak’s book to explore this idea comprehensively.
The main reason that Mr. van den Braak was
taken aback was that The British
Connection had been withdrawn immediately after publication in 1979. Mr.
van den Braak was under the impression that the recall had taken place because
Deacon had named the Cambridge academic Professor Arthur Pigou as a Soviet spy,
and that his relatives had objected. This assertion was related to the
statement Deacon made in his book that Pigou and ter Braak had been seen
together in Cambridge. I responded that I was sure that the reason the book had
been withdrawn by the publisher was that Deacon had stated that Professor
Rudolf Peierls had come under suspicion in connection with the Fuchs case. (The
Pigou story is one energetically promoted in a very bizarre volume titled Hayek: A Collaborative Biography, Part III,
edited by Robert Leeson, and published in 2015, which grants Deacon an
importance far greater than he ever merited, and then proceeds to humiliate
him. The book also includes an odd and equivocal chapter by Nigel West, who
worked for Deacon as a researcher in his younger days.)
The problem was that Deacon, when making his
accusation, thought Peierls was dead, and declared him such, feeling free to
state his opinion without fear of rebuttal. (Pigou was indeed dead in 1979, and
thus no longer protected by any libel laws.) But Peierls, on the other hand,
was very much alive and kicking, and took the slur on his character very much
to heart. The book had to be pulped. I must have acquired my copy via abebooks:
it is stamped ‘Withdrawn from Bradford Archives, and Information Libraries’, so
the Municipality of Bradford must not have received the message, or chose to
ignore it. The irony was that Peierls had indeed come under suspicion, and had
been questioned by Special Branch, and I am not the only historian who thinks
he was probably guilty in abetting Fuchs’s insertion into the atomic weapons
projects, knowing his true allegiance. You can read about the whole saga (if
you have for some unaccountable reason not already done so) in Misdefending the Realm.
E. H. Cookridge aka Peter Leighton
A second area where I was able to help Mr. van
den Braak was in a significant article about ter Braak that he had come across
in his researches. It had originally been published in Reynolds News in 1946, and had then been translated into the Dutch.
This piece (according to Mr. van den Braak) suggested that ter Braak had been
sent into the United Kingdom specifically to assassinate Winston Churchill, and
had shot himself after learning that Special Branch officers were close on his
tail. (I had not read this piece when I wrote my analysis of ter Braak’s
‘suicide’ back in September 2018.) I was able to locate another manifestation
of this item, published in the Vancouver
Sun of January 18, 1947. With the heading of ‘Secrets of the Secret
Service’, it has a by-line ‘Himmler’s Ace Agent Planned to Kill Churchill’,
written by Peter Leighton. Indeed, the article claims that Dr. [sic] ter Braak was shot after he
discovered that espionage apparatus had been found in his rooms in Cambridge, indicating
that it was a self-inflicted wound. This was a story that was picked up in an
issue of After the Battle to which I
referred in September.
So who was Peter Leighton? It was one of the pseudonyms of our friend the journalist E. H. Cookridge, born Edward Spiro. Moreover, under his assumed name of Cookridge, in 1947 he published a book titled Secrets of the British Secret Service (note the echo in the Vancouver Sun article). I own this volume, also. In Chapter 18 (‘Murder Unlimited’), Cookridge reproduced the story about ter Braak, again emphasizing the Churchill mission, and the suicide of the agent after he has been discovered. Cookridge shows enough detail to indicate that he has accurate insider information (ter Braak’s forged identity-card, for example), but also a few details that show that he wanted to embroider the story (such as the fact that ter Braak had ‘a Luger pistol gripped tightly in his right hand’ – something belied by the photograph.) Mr. van den Braak has also very shrewdly pointed out to me that Cookridge, in his account of ter Braak’s parachute being found, writes that it was in a field near Amersham, when in fact it happened near Haversham. Amersham is a large well-known town, while Haversham is only a village, which all suggests that Cookridge acquired his knowledge aurally.
Another dimension to Cookridge’s drama exists, however. His section on ter Braak concludes a chapter where he explains that the Nazis’ track-record of murder outside the judicial process actually follows in the old tradition of the Vehmgericht, a centuries-old institution of sentencing and execution by private associations – a kind of ‘vigilante’ justice. (I had learned of these tribunals when reading Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen at school in 1964.) Cookridge follows this up in the following chapter, where he suggests that the spies Waelti and Druecke had been sent out to kill Rudolf Hess, and that Richter was on a mission to assassinate the exiled Czech President Beneš. I shall not debunk these theories any further than by noting that Druecke and Waelti (and their unmentioned comrade, Vera Eriksen, who escaped the death penalty) arrived in Scotland on September 30, 1940, while Hess did not make his bizarre flight to Scotland until May 10, 1941. This is perhaps the most egregious of Cookridge’s many errors.
So what is going on here? Since, in his
Preface, Cookridge thanks ‘the Foreign Office, the War Office, the Home Office
and the Lord Chief Justice’s Office for their assistance’, one has therefore to
ask: Did these agencies of government all conspire to help put out false stories
about ter Braak and others in order to improve their reputation in the public’s
eye, showing how Britain’s doughty Security Service and Special Branch saved
the lives of politicians? Or is there a measure of truth in what was leaked in
a controlled fashion through Cookridge? Certainly the National Archives reveal
none of this melodrama. If the government agencies wanted to promote a story
that boosted MI5’s and Special Branch’s effective safeguarding of the Prime
Minister’s life, would they not have created a more solid paper-trail that
confirmed the account? We still do not know where the Churchill assassination
story (which was faithfully reproduced in After
The Battle), comes from.
1947 was a good year for government-inspired
falsehoods to boost the reputation of Britain’s intelligence services. That
same year one Stanley Firmin, who described himself as ‘Correspondent of the
Daily Telegraph accredited to Scotland Yard’ wrote a wildly inaccurate book on
the exploits of British espionage and counter-espionage titled They Came to Spy. His work is graced
with a Foreword by Read-Admiral G. P. Thomson, C.B., C.B.E,, who was formerly
Britain’s Chief Press Censor. He provided an enthusiastic endorsement of the
truths that he knew Firmin was relating. One of Firmin’s revelations is the
story of the discovery of a body in a Cambridge air-raid shelter. But who was
he? “Records were searched, every line of inquiry possible was followed.
Military Intelligence had, however, to confess themselves completely baffled,”
wrote Firmin. It was one thing for maverick agents to compose romanticized and
veiled accounts of their wartime exploits, but the government’s role in such PR
exercises has not been examined deeply enough.
and Deacon were in many ways birds of a feather – journalists with an intelligence background,
boasting of solid connections in the secret world, dedicated to digging around
in mysterious cases, but not very disciplined with their sources, a bit too
credulous of stories that may have been planted on them, and not beyond adding
a bit of spice to help their books sell. So we can never be sure when they are a) mavericks
telling us the true facts, b) tools of the intelligence services, consciously
feeding us disinformation, c) dupes susceptible to theories placed elsewhere,
or d) fantasists out to exploit the public. The fact that Deacon claims that
ter Braak was a Communist out to steal secrets from the Dollis Hill Research
Station, and that Cookridge believes he was a true Nazi agent on a mission to
assassinate Churchill, might suggest that my more mundane theory, that he
became a victim of a misguided and mismanaged MI5 project to keep him under surveillance
for a while, may be a more accurate conclusion.
Mr. van den Braak has
read my analysis, and I believe respects it while not agreeing with it. I am
equally keen on reading his explanation, and I applaud his professionalism and
dedication. There are no certainties in this business, there is no room for
dogmatism. One has to remain constantly curious and open. And in our
discussions, he and I have discovered some fresh anomalies. To begin with, in
my analysis, I had stressed the coroner’s report, which stated that a bullet
had entered ter Braak’s cranium above the left
ear. Mr. van den Braak, quite correctly, points out that in the photograph the
blood oozing from his temple appears to be on the right side of his face. Of course, this does not solve anything,
but makes our belated autopsy even more problematic. Was the negative reversed?
Could a bullet enter the left side of the head, but cause more damage as it
exited the right? Did the coroner ever inspect the corpse? I would suggest that
this case cries out for more expert forensic attention – including the matter
of the type of weapon used. Cookridge also said it was a Luger: ter Braak’s
file states that it was a Browning. MI5 were very keen to point out that the
makes of ter Braak’s pistol and that of Richter’s were the same. (Jakobs had a
Mauser.) And, of course, the same questions about ter Braak’s being able to
stuff himself under a bench after
killing himself, and the contradictory information about the presence of the
gun itself (which I highlighted in September), are still unresolved.
Liddell Trips Up
Thirdly, there is the
issue of the Liddell Diaries, which have played such a significant role in my
researches. I recently encountered an item from September 5, 1945 that I had
overlooked before. (It does not appear in the published edition of the Diaries
edited by Nigel West, which are very selective, and in any case conclude on
June 1, 1945. The entry can be inspected at KV 4/466 at the National Archives,
a file that has been digitized, so it can be acquired and downloaded.) It runs
as follows: “A Major Friedrich
BUSCH who joined the Abwehr in August 1939 and worked in the air section
operating against Gt. Britain, knows a considerable amount about the agents
which the Abwehr were running to Gt. Britain and the USA. He mentions first a
Sudetenlander who was trained in Holland and was working in Einz Wi. * He
thought this man was of poor quality and ill-instructed. He was dropped but
never established communication. Busch learned later from the British Press
that he had been picked up. This may be ter Braak.”
[* Note: Einz Wi indicates the Wirtschaftliche
(Economic) section of Abwehr 1 (Eins: Foreign Intelligence.]
Now this is a very troubling and provocative
statement. Liddell must have been very familiar with the ter Braak case: he has
mentioned it in his Diary beforehand, and the circumstances of a LENA agent who
remained undetected for several months should have been a very searing
experience for him. Yet he associates the ‘Sudetenlander’ with ter Braak, when
it was well understood that ter Braak was a Dutchman, and that Richter was a
Sudetenlander who had parachuted in some weeks after ter Braak’s death.
Furthermore, there was no notice in the British press that he had been ‘picked
up’. A local story in the Cambridge press to the effect that a suicide had been
found was quickly stifled. The Guardian
of December 11, 1941, reported on Richter’s execution, but it was not until
four years after ter Braak’s death that the first story about him appeared, in
the Daily Sketch, on September 8,
1945. That brief article said he had committed suicide, not that he had been
‘picked up’. So why was Liddell deluding himself – and posterity?
We can read the record of Major Busch’s
interrogation at KV 2/229-2. Moreover, this examination took place on August 7,
1945, so it was impossible that Busch could have picked up the news of ter
Braak from the Daily Sketch. Busch
appears to have made disparate impressions upon his interrogators: one called
him ‘intelligent and extremely cooperative’; another wrote of his ‘complete
unreliability’. In 1940 he had been assigned to Abwehr Intelligenz-Luft, first
with Referat England, later with Referat Amerika. He had a somewhat jaundiced
view of espionage operations. Captain J. C. Hales wrote of his account: “It
is the story of a man trying to bring to the notice of his superiors many
inconsistencies in the reports of agents reported to be very reliable, and whom
he believed to be under control. At each step in his fight he is surrounded by
incompetence or knavery. In the end he is accused of defeatism, fails to secure
promotion, and retires in disgust. . . . He states that he wishes eventually to
write a book on: ‘How to lose a war by running controlled agents’.”
wanted to volunteer information to the allies about German agents in the UK,
and, on his contributions on the LENA spies, he was judged as being a useful
witness. Comments are recorded, both typed and in hand-written annotations from
B1A and B1B of MI5, pointing out minor corrections to his testimony, mostly
concerning the career of TATE. What are critical for the analysis are the
handwritten notes that explain some of the names behind Busch’s rather vague
identities, as it is important to establish whether these were comments made at
the time, or at some stage later, when other intelligence may have come to
light. For example, Busch is described in the report as ‘a Fishmonger by trade,
yet very shrewd’, but someone has clarified his profession: ‘Director of
wholesale firm’, and underlined the ‘yet’, adding with an exclamation mark, to
emphasize the fact that he was a successful businessman, that his shrewdness
should come as no surprise. This sounds like a very contemporaneous
Thus, when Busch refers to an unidentified ‘Sudetenlander’, someone has written in ‘probably Richter’, and made a cross-reference to an MI5 file on Praetorius. Likewise, when Busch describes TATE by the cryptonym that he used (actually redacted, but followed by ‘alias LENA(SI)’), the editor has written in ‘TATE’ in place, for guidance, with his file number given as 53776. Busch offered the following startling opinion that TATE was under the control of the British: the report runs: “Oberstltn. Von Dewitz, referat for England at the Luftwaffe Führungstab . . .. also agreed (with Busch) that TATE was controlled, but despite that view deliberately vouched for him, on the principle that it was better to have a working agent than none at all.” And, when this section completes with the statement ‘the other agents were probably all Germans with the exception of one Dutchman”, someone has written in ‘ter Braak?’. The conclusion is clear: MI5 was very aware of these identities when the interrogation report was read.
this context, Liddell’s response is astonishing. He very selectively uses this report: he is keen
to have the story of ter Braak tidily taken care of. We do not know, of course,
in exactly what form the report came to him, yet, despite having a reminder
about a Sudetenlander and a Dutchman right in front of him, he confuses the
two, and comes to a completely different conclusion from that at which his subordinate
officers arrived. What is more, he completely ignores Busch’s comments that
TATE was suspected of being a double-agent, and that Busch wanted to write a
book on the way that the war was lost by relying on spies who had been turned.
It is as if he wanted to help leave a record for posterity that ter Braak was
just another run-of-the-mill LENA spy who was quickly captured, and of course
Liddell would not want the success story of the Double-Cross Operation to be
tarnished by any suggestion that the Abwehr had seen through it all.
happen to think that this overlooked episode makes my case that ter Braak was
poorly manipulated by MI5, and constituted an embarrassing story that MI5
wanted to bury, even stronger. Moreover, it introduces a fascinating new twist
to the ‘Mystery of the Undetected Radios’. The research continues, and I look
forward to including Mr. van den Braak’s discoveries into the pot. I am also
now trying to track down some of the sources – for both Krivitsky and ter Braak
– in the papers that Deacon left behind. And that is another hunt of a very
Lastly, we have a previously unrevealed artefact to display and discuss. This month, Mr. van den Braak very enterprisingly approached McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, which is the custodian of the E. H. Cookridge Archive, about items relating to ter Braak. The Librarian not only responded promptly, but actually enclosed a PDF containing a document from the archive (see below). This could be a remarkable find, as it appears to be the transcription of a wireless message, originally sent by ter Braak in the winter of 1940-41, and then forwarded to Berlin by the Abwehr station in Hamburg. Then follows another intercepted message from Hamburg to Berlin at the end of January, reporting what the agent has told them. Might they perhaps confirm that the agent had succeeded in contacting his controllers in Hamburg, and tell us something about his activities?
no 18 from L502, November 1, 1940 at 10 pm. 2200
out} “I am now installed in my new accommodation to the south of Cambridge.
Have expended much money on costs of sickness and living.” To OKW Abwehr I
the street and the railway south of Stapleford stand light flak- and
detection-equipment. Large groups of troops to be found around here, also the
Somerset Light Infantry Camp closely guarded by Bren gun posts.”
Ast. (Abwehrstelle) Hamburg B Nr. 2887/40
27, 1941 to KW Abw. from Lena 502 (3719)
502 has to interrupt work for a while, for reasons of concealment. Equipment
has been secured via 3554.” Ast. Hamburg 247/41]
thus have to try to verify both the genuineness
of the article (i.e. whether the creator of this item was indeed the person
qualified and authorized to issue it), and its authenticity (i.e. does its content represent a true account of the
circumstances it purports to describe). And we immediately are faced with
problems. The text appears to have been written by a native German, yet it
contains multiple errors. The character ‘ß’ (EsZett) is not used consistently
(‘große’, but ‘Strasse’); the
‘1s’ and ‘7s’ are not continental; ‘Horch’ is spelled ‘Horrch’; ‘Gerät’ has an
umlaut in one place, but not in another; ‘jetzt’ appears to have been spelled
with an ‘s’, not a ‘z’; ‘augeblick’ is missing an ‘n’, etc. And why did ‘Flak’
originally appear as ‘Flack’? Is this not a clumsy giveaway, and is it perhaps
a very premature use of this WWII abbreviation (from Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone)?
The handwriting in this document is indubitably Cookridge’s: it matches his other notes in the archive. But was he inventing or copying? Maybe this was a literal transcription of the coded message: after all, ter Braak was a Dutchman, not a German, and may have made mistakes that the transcriber faithfully replicated. Was another transcriber also the translator? The script at the top, in English, is in the same hand as the body. But we should also remember that Cookridge had been born in Austria, as Edward Philo, so he would have been immersed in German script, and would not have been likely to forget the habits drilled into him. So perhaps the items were falsified by a third party, and passed on to Cookridge, who wrote them out in his own hand? It certainly looks as if these messages are authentic, as their format matches known transmissions published elsewhere, such as in John Bryden’s Fighting to Lose. (I have not yet inspected raw decrypts held at Kew.)
The content, however, is
also shady. The story of ter Braak that was published in ‘After the Battle’
gives the date of arrival as October 3, this date appearing to originate in
Cookridge’s (‘Leighton’s’) article in the Vancouver
Sun, while the National Archives files clearly indicate that he did not
land until the end of October. Cookridge may have misunderstood the time of
arrival, and embroidered his story. If we can believe what the archive tells
us, it would have been impossible for ter Braak to have acquired new accommodation,
and already spent that much money, if he had been in the country for only a day
or two. So the message looks like a pure invention, probably created by
Cookridge himself, with the lesser likelihood that an intermediary who had
received the same wrong information about ter Braak’s arrival, and tried to
embellish the story with some realistic-looking observations, had passed it on
to Cookridge. The second date, January 27, occurs just before the day that ter
Braak informed the authorities, under stress, about his new ration-card. It
thus sounds as if Cookridge’s informer knew some aspects of the case, and
Cookridge received a garbled account of what actually happened.
It is all very strange.
Why would anybody bother to create these items, if they were never used? Were
they simply produced to ‘prove’ that ter Braak had successfully deployed his
wireless equipment? In which case, if the messages were intercepted and decrypted,
why did the location-finders and the Special Branch not start combing the
rental properties in southern Cambridge? Moreover, when I asked a wise ex-RSS
officer this month about the trustworthiness of these messages, he simply
replied that ter Braak’s equipment would never have worked, as a reputedly
competent engineer’s report had shown. But is that what my contact was told, to
fob him off? The archive tells a very different story, with contributions by
other ‘competent engineers’. If ter Braak’s equipment never worked, why would
he have hauled it around in the suitcase, and concealed it in a left-luggage
Yet Mr. van den Braak and I now think that (part of) the mystery is easily explained. While Cookridge interpreted this message as being sent by ter Braak, it is actually one transmitted (under control of the XX Committee) by Gösta Caroli, aka SUMMER. SUMMER was indeed Agent 3719, the identification given. The timetable fits: SUMMER had attempted suicide on October 11, 1940, and was kept under close supervision in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire. On January 13, 1941, he assaulted (and nearly killed) his guard, and tried to escape. He was re-captured, but his role as a double-agent was over, and he had to be eliminated. Leonard Mosley claimed he was hanged in early February. (See Part 3 of ‘Undetected Radios’ for more details.) So the second message here represents the confirmation that Hamburg received from SUMMER (actually from the operator of his wireless set, as part of the Double-Cross deception) that he had to go underground, and that Agent 3554 (in fact the MI5 plant Sam McCarthy) has concealed his equipment.
is perplexing about this whole episode is that the rest of the Cookridge
Archive (something to be analysed here another day) proves that the government
in 1945 wanted to open up to the press the proceedings of the trials, in order
to boost the reputation of Britain’s intelligence services. Cookridge (and
others, such as Stanley Firmin, Donald Stokes, and Bernard Newman) must have
been briefed on the now well-known cases held in camera, but also on ter Braak,
who was of course never put on trial. Among the information the journalists may
have been given were some genuine transcripts of messages, but also some really
imaginative, fake accounts of agents’ missions, such as the assassination of Hess,
Beneš and Churchill. Much of that passed on into the lore of WWII history, but
has now slowly been dismantled owing to the releases of the MI5 files
concerning the agents themselves. Lastly, whether Cookridge received his
transcripts from official government outlets, or from a secret contact within GC&CS
(GCHQ), we face the astounding truth that he had in his hands a very early
indication of the Double-Cross system at work. The secret was strenuously
protected, and not publicly revealed until 1972. And the precise mission of ter
Braak, and whether he successfully made any transmissions, remains an unsolved
Thus we have a double Dutch Connection to be pursued: Jack Hooper, the half-Dutch disgraced SIS officer, who apparently worked for both the Abwehr and the NKVD, and is a pivotal figure in the Krivitsky-King-Maclean case; and Willem ter Braak, who has been claimed to be both a Nazi fanatic in the Abwehr, and a well-disguised NKVD spy. Could Claude Dansey possibly have been behind all this, pulling the strings? I shall have to put my best men and women on the job.
This month’s new Commonplace entries can be found here.
Alert readers will have noticed that I received important communications from Roland Philipps (the biographer of Donald Maclean) and from Jan-Willem van den Braak (the biographer of the Abwehr spy Jan Willem ter Braak), whose work is being translated from the Dutch for publication in the UK. I shall report on the outcomes of these dialogues in next month’s report.
An observation on Guy Liddell and Roger Hollis by one of my contacts in intelligence inspired me to break out in verse on the subject of MI5’s efforts to counter Soviet influences. The doggerel can be found at DiaryofaCounterEspionageOfficer.
After I had put Part 3 of this saga to bed at the end of
September, some thoughts that I had vaguely touched on in earlier episodes returned
to me with more vigour: What if the mistakes over ter Braak and the controversial
report by Walter Gill (which effectively concluded that domestic wireless
interception was not necessary) were both deliberate exercises by MI5 and its
partners? Were the plans for the double-cross operation that far advanced in
the last few months of 1940 that it was considered vital to give indications –
in the belief that the Abwehr would pick them up – that Britain’s wireless
interception policies were so weak that German agents could essentially roam at
will, and broadcast home undetected? After all, as early as September 1939, Guy
Liddell of MI5 had written that ‘it was in our interests that the Germans should
regard us as grossly inefficient in these matters’, and that ‘if they thought
our organisation was good they might well ask how it was we managed to get his
[SNOW’s] messages through’. And were the Abwehr’s planting of obviously fake
identification cards on its agents a deliberate ruse to determine how gullible
the British counter-espionage services were?
These may be utterly fanciful notions, but they have a modicum of
sense about them, as all such exploits at face value are very difficult to
explain. One has to assume that agencies like MI5 and the Abwehr were continually
thinking: how will our enemy counterpart think and act? (A British FOES
committee did in fact exist: Guy Liddell described it as ‘an inter-services
committee that tries to
put itself in the position of the enemy intelligence service’.) And, if some sensible
insight were applied, each intelligence section should have assumed that its
counterpart, because of native influences, might in some circumstances act in a
different fashion. Thus, in this instalment, I start to explore the variations
in the strategies and successes of the major European-based espionage/sabotage
organisations: SOE (Special Operations Executive), the German Abwehr, and the
network of the Soviet Union’s GRU and KGB spies, and what their controllers
should have learned from their experiences in one theatre of war to apply to
another. There is a symmetry in some of the things undertaken by each
organisation, as they strain to develop measures to confound the forces trying
to counter them. Yet one can also spot asymmetrical aspects, driven by the
idiosyncratic nature of each force, including their overall motivations and
objectives, the personnel they selected, the territorial dimensions, and the
cultural drivers behind their operations. It is hard not to suppose, however,
that the policies of each were not somehow affected by their knowledge of what
their adversaries were doing with their own offensive activities.
The focus of my research
in this series has been the detection of illicit wireless. It is worth
recording here that the primary purpose of what is commonly known as RDF (Radio
Direction-Finding, but implicitly including Location-Finding) had, before the
war, been the interception and decryption of government (e.g. military,
diplomatic and police) traffic. Initially, precise location was not as
important as content. As countries started to perform intelligent traffic
analysis, however, the origin – and mobility – of transmitting stations,
especially military units, became much more significant, often providing
intelligence even though the underlying messages could not be decrypted. Then,
as the combat started, organisations had to start to apply their knowledge to
the possible threat of illicit stations operating behind their own lines.
With all three
combatants, the techniques for long-range triangulation were well-developed by
the time war broke out, and thus could in principle be quickly adapted for
identifying illicit domestic transmissions. The paradox was that, owing to the
vagaries of the behavior of radio waves, it was often easier to pick up
transmissions originating abroad than those issuing from inside the country’s
boundaries. As I explained in Part 1 of this saga, low-powered wireless sets
operating on high-frequencies in domestic territory, designed to exploit
‘bouncing’ off the ionosphere, were often hard to detect because of the skip
zones involved, and widely dispersed human interceptors would have been needed
to pick up their ground waves. Such a set-up was possible in the United
Kingdom, but not in the expanding German Reich. Moreover, the finer granularity
required for locating individual wireless sets (at building-block or house
level) demanded new mobile equipment and techniques not explored in long-range
As I discuss the strategies and challenges of the three espionage
forces, and attempt to assess their effectiveness, I shall be considering them
under the following criteria:
How good were the directors in planning how objectives should be met, and
following up by providing the motivation, material, and structure to allow
agents to be successful?
Quality of operators:
Were agents with the appropriate profile chosen for the job in hand?
Quality of training: Did
the agents receive thorough and suitable training?
Quality of equipment:
How effective was the equipment (primarily wireless apparatus) for the location
of operation and for transmission needs? Were conditions such as local power
supply properly taken into account?
Were safe and secure operating procedures defined, and did the agents follow
Remote support: Did the
agents receive reliable and effective support from their home controllers?
Detection capabilities: How
effective were the enemy’s radio-detection and direction-finding mechanisms?
Social environment: How
hostile or sympathetic was the social environment in which they had to work?
strategy: What goals drove the counter-espionage strategy of the enemy on whose
territory the spying took place?
June 1941 constitutes the major chronological dividing-line in the
conduct of wireless espionage. (In the light of my research, I have deviated
from the temporal Phases identified in my first post in this series, which had
Phase 1 completing at the end of 1940, and Phase 2 winding down in June 1942.) The
Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union immediately changed the German attitude in
Soviet counter-espionage from one of wary passivity to aggressive pursuit. The
Russian stance in illicit communications switched from cautious dormancy to careless
urgency. For Britain, it signalled that any planned invasion of the island
nation had been postponed indefinitely: the timing coincided with the transfer
of RSS to SIS, and the implementation of the new structure in MI5 under David
Petrie. The date has less significance for SOE: it was still in an
experimental, groping stage in the summer of 1941, with only two radio-stations
established in France by that time. My analysis thus presses forward in this
dimension of espionage and sabotage to address the continued struggles of the
unit into 1942. I now summarise the activities of the three agencies in this
period before delving into more detail.
I have shown how the greatest intensity of Nazi attempts to
infiltrate British territory occurred in the autumn of 1940 (Operation LENA),
with a couple of reconnaissance landings (by Jakobs and Richter) occurring in
the spring of 1941 – i.e. before Germany’s alliance with the Soviet Union
turned into a clash. By then, with the plan to invade the United Kingdom
abandoned, and Hitler’s attention now directed to Operation Barbarossa, the
agents whom the Abwehr had apparently successfully installed in Britain took on
less importance. They appear to have been largely forgotten, or abandoned, and
it took the arrival of new ‘spies’, such as TRICYCLE, GARBO and TREASURE (whom
I shall cover in the next chapter), to re-activate the espionage – and the
Double-Cross – project. Yet using wireless was not at the forefront of the
Abwehr’s plans, and MI5, in their efforts to facilitate the passing on of fake
information, had to be very careful and imaginative when encouraging use of the
As far as Britain’s own plans for espionage and sabotage were
concerned, Churchill had in the meantime (July 1940) established the SOE as a
force to penetrate Nazi-occupied Europe, and to soften up and harass the
invader’s government of occupied territories. Yet this was not primarily an
espionage organisation, like SIS (whose network had been almost completely destroyed
at the outset of war.) It was an outfit committed to sabotage, and, while
wireless communication became a critical part of its operational
infrastructure, the technology was used more to arrange for shipments,
drop-offs, and pick-ups, and only secondarily as a mechanism for providing
intelligence. Sabotage operations also drew more obvious attention from the
enemy: furthermore, in the first two years of its existence (i.e. until the
summer of 1942), SOE was hampered by being reliant on Section VIII of SIS for
its wireless equipment, wavelengths, codes, etc. The experience in responding
to illicit SOE transmissions in France may have given the German
counter-espionage agencies a leg-up when the Soviet apparatus fired up in the
summer of 1941, but, as will be shown, the evidence for this is shaky.
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, all Soviet agents in place
in Germany were immediately activated to provide intelligence about Nazi
war-plans. Yet they had not been completely dormant before then. The situation
was in fact more complex than that. After the show-trials and purges of
1937-1938, the KGB and GRU networks had been patiently rebuilt – not just in
Germany, but across most of Western Europe. As early as May 1940, however, when
Paris fell, Moscow suspected that relations with Nazi Germany – despite the
Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact – might deteriorate, and diplomatic representatives
(e.g. Kobulov in Berlin) started building networks of informers, not only in
Germany but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Elsewhere, the Soviet Union’s
spies had long been active, such as in the origins of the famous Red Orchestra
group in Switzerland, led by SONIA (Ursula Kuczynski) and DORA, the Hungarian Sándor
Radó, who had been recruited in 1935, and moved to Switzerland in 1939. Before
1941, however, couriers, and communications through local Soviet embassies, had
been a much more convenient method of passing information than the use of
wireless transmission methods.
up to June 1941
The decision to infiltrate spies into Great Britain in late 1940
was taken at short notice, but, like many events of a time when feints and
deceptions were part of the strategy, the exact date when Admiral Canaris
initiated the LENA programme is uncertain. In 2018, Bernard O’Connor, relying
on the rather dubious transcription of Lahousen’s War Diaries claimed by
Wighton & Peis sixty years earlier, asserted that Canaris told his Abwehr
officers as early as June 22 that gathering intelligence on Britain, in
preparation for the planned invasion, was of the highest priority. That early
preparation is vaguely echoed by Niklaus Ritter in his 1972 memoir, Deckname Dr. Rantzau, where he
improbably describes being in the company of Caroli (SUMMER) and Schmidt
(TATE), ready for their departure some time in July, when they had already
completed their eight-weeks’ training. Yet Ritter’s memory was at fault: he
describes them as leaving on the same plane – something which the British
archives strongly refute, so one must question the reliability of his memory.
John Lukacs, in The Duel, represents
Admiral Raeder as still trying to talk Hitler out of invading Britain as late
as July 11, with Hitler responding in terms of wanting to make peace with the
United Kingdom. O’Connor and Ben Macintyre both refer to a conference held in
Kiel ‘some time in July’ to plan the details of the LENA operation, an event
confirmed by the Kew file on the Hamburg Abwehr officer Praetorius (KV 2/170-1),
and given precision by KV 3/76, which sets it as taking place on July 16. That
would dovetail with Ritter’s account that eight weeks of training had to be
accomplished to meet Hitler’s deadline of September 15.
Praetorius’s recollection was that the agents parachuted in at
this time would ‘only have to be of independent means for 6-8 weeks as by at
time the invasion of England was expected to be an accomplished fact.’ Yet the
chronology does not work. If a decision had been made in July, the recruitment
and training of agents was supposed to take eight weeks, and their subsequent
independent existence on British soil might have been expected to take another
six to eight weeks, the latest date for a successful invasion would have to be
placed as late as early November. While Anthony Cave-Brown gave August 1 as the
date that Hitler issued his Directive 17 to prepare for the invasion of Britain,
Operation SEELÖWE (SEALION), Churchill himself reported it as being on July 16,
with Hitler’s apparent objective of having his forces arrive four weeks later.
On September 11, however, Hitler had to delay the invasion order until
September 24, and on September 17 he ordered the indefinite adjournment of
SEALION, and formerly cancelled it on October 12. Yet the first LENA agent,
Caroli (SUMMER) did not parachute in until September 3, and his colleagues were
still arriving in early November. It sounds as if Canaris gave Hitler
unreasonably optimistic indications of the speed with which agents could be
recruited and trained: if Hitler had been able to stick to his original plan,
there would have been no planting of infiltrators in the United Kingdom,
successful or not, to assist the invasion. Yet the program unaccountably went on
after invasion plans were suspended, which would have made nonsense of the
ability of the agents to survive independently for a few weeks.
Given the haste by which recruits had to be selected, vetted, and
prepared, it is thus difficult to take seriously the claim made a few years ago
(in Monika Siedentopf’s Unternehmen
Seelöwe) that the invasion of Britain was sabotaged by Canaris and his team,
in that they selected unsuitable candidates as spies who simply let the side
down. Apart from the chronological problems listed above, however successful
the few who landed might have been in evading capture, their effect on a
planned invasion that required destroying the Royal Air Force would have been
minimal either way. But that does not mean that the Abwehr’s project was not
quixotic, or even cruel. The agents were chosen in a hurry: they were not
native Germans, but mostly citizens of bordering countries (Denmark, Sweden, the
Sudetenland – the last, of course, transferred from Czechoslovakia to the
German Empire). Some were diehard Nazis, some were lukewarm, others were
pressured into signing up by threats. The belief was that agents from outlying
countries would fade into the background more easily than native Germans: some
had spent time in the UK beforehand, but, overall, they were hopelessly
unprepared for life in the United Kingdom. And as potential observers, they
were untrained. Reports at Kew indicate that ‘though they were expected to
report on such military objectives as aerodromes, land mines and gun batteries,
on examination they showed only a vague idea of the significant points to
note.’ They had ‘only an amateur
knowledge of transmission technique.’
The main point, however, was that the spies of the LENA operation
were not expected to be operational for long, a fact that is reinforced by the
way that most of them were equipped. More than half of the eighteen (the exact number
is debatable) who landed, either by parachute or boat, between September 3 and
November 3, 1940 either carried with them a transmitter only, or no wireless
equipment at all. A transmitter might have been useful for sending a brief set
of dazzling reports about air defences, bomb damage, or weather conditions, but
without an ability to have confirmed whether one’s messages were being received
correctly, it would have been a short and demoralizing career. For those agents
being parachuted in, wireless apparatus was a significant health hazard: at
least two spies were injured by virtue of their collision with the earth when
harnessed to sets weighing twenty pounds or more. Most had not practiced a
parachute-jump before. Moreover, many were told in Hamburg that there was not
enough shock-proof material available, and thus they would be equipped with
transmitters only. If wireless sets were dropped separately, there was the risk
of the apparatus’s never being found. TATE demanded he be equipped with a
combined Transmitter/Receiver. As his Kew file reports: “His
controller, RITTER [Captain Rantzau] then informed him that arrangements were
being made for him to take with him to England a separate transmitter and
receiver and also a large transmitter (called a ‘Z.B.V.’) which would be
dropped separately and which he could destroy if the smaller sets were unbroken
MI5’s analysis of the equipment the agents were provided with would indicate that they did not have a high chance of success in trying to contact their controllers. The boat agents (Meier, Waldberg, Kieboom and Pons, who arrived on the Kent coast) were equipped with compact and light cases, one weighing 7 lb., and containing batteries and connecting wires, the other weighing only 4 lb., containing the transmitter, aerial and spare valve. (This was in dramatic contrast to the bulky devices that SOE agents were required to take to France or, say, Yugoslavia, in following years.) Yet the experts judged that such low-powered devices ‘would require exceptional conditions to work over 100 miles’, with an expected range of nearer 50 miles. * If that assessment is correct, it would show an extraordinary misjudgment by the Abwehr experts: reducing power to such a degree that transmissions would not only be undetectable locally, but would also not have enough energy to reach their intended target. This statistic is put into perspective by the fact that the distance between the port of Southampton and Cherbourg is over 100 miles, while German wireless agents were transmitting home from as far afield as New York and Brazil.
This opinion needs to be balanced against that of E. H. Cookridge, who, in his
1947 work Secrets of the British Secret
Service, described Kieboom’s equipment as ‘a masterpiece of radio
precision’, following up by claiming that ‘the transmitter allowed to send [sic] messages over a range of more than
600 miles, yet was so small that it could be hidden in two leather boxes . . .’ (see Figure below). In his Preface,
Cookridge thanked the Foreign Office, the War Office, the Home Office and the
Lord Justice’s Office for their assistance, so his book should probably be
regarded as an item of selective disclosure for propaganda purposes, perhaps
maximizing the wireless threat.]
transmitter was reported to have a much more realistic range, of up to 1200
miles. Likewise, CAROLI’s (SUMMER’s)
equipment was much heavier and more powerful, but would have a corresponding
disadvantage of requiring much more space to set up the aerial. “Aerials
provided would not be easily untangled and satisfactorily erected except in
secure privacy with plenty of space. E.g. indoor space 60 ft. long or a
secluded wood with a fairly clear space 6o ft. long with trees etc. on which to
tie the end of the aerial to a height of at least 6 ft.” How a spy in tight
wartime conditions, in densely populated England, was supposed to accomplish
such a task is not clear. A tentative conclusion by the report at KV 3/76 was
that the agents were so ill-prepared that they should perhaps be considered as
it seems that the Abwehr stations stayed observant, looking for transmissions
from the agents. The same file, K 3/76, based on interrogations of the six
prominent spies captured by September 1940, supplemented no doubt by RSS
interception and decryption of Abwehr exchanges, discloses the following: “It
appears from other sources [sic:
surely a code for Ultra decrypts] that a constant watch is kept by Hamburg, Berlin,
Paris and Cherbourg, for the reception of any wireless messages by all agents
despatched to the U.K. This is
presumably in order to make sure that messages shall not be missed through bad
atmospheric conditions.” The advantage gained by the German Reich’s territorial
extension into Northern France (which also aided triangulation for
location-detection) was counterbalanced by the fact that ENIGMA radio
communications had to be used rather than highly secure land-lines, which
allowed British Intelligence to tap into the plans and processes of the Abwehr.
Moreover, by this time, Hamburg (which would have had secure contact with
Berlin) was shifting its attention to Norway, placing the responsibility for
Britain on to Paris and Cherbourg. A dangerous increase in interceptible
traffic was caused by the fact that the Abwehrstelle
in Brussels was used as an intermediary point for traffic, with messages passed
to it from advance stations to be decrypted, and then passed on to Hamburg,
Paris, or Berlin.
Because nearly all of the spies were picked up soon after they
landed, little can be said about the adequacy of their training. Ter Braak
apparently struggled with his receiver: concealing aerials in densely-populated
Britain, with vigilant landlords and ladies, would have been a problem. TATE
had only one frequency to work on, which was effective only in daylight hours:
this inhibited his activity later. TATE admitted that he had been taught the
fundamentals of operating, but nothing about wireless theory, which would mean
he would be helpless when problems occurred. He said that he
only knew “the practical details of how to join it up, erect the aerial, and
tune the transmitter by the lamp. He thought he could spot a disconnected wire
inside, but that was about all”. As Reed of B1A reported: “He had been
instructed to join motor-cycle batteries in series, but three 6 volt batteries
would burn out his valves.” Consequently, even with MI5 assistance, TATE
struggled to make consistent contact. Reed reported, on October 1, that ‘experiments
with [TATE’s] wireless were unsuccessful due to inefficiency of aerial provided
with a set of so small an output.’ His first successful message was not sent
until October 10: he was supposed to send a postcard in invisible ink to a
contact in Lisbon if his wireless failed to work. She never received the
had quickly understood that his life depended upon abandoning his Nazi
affiliations, and following the instructions of his new captors. Unlike SUMMER,
he did not have second thoughts, and thus did not employ any security code to
indicate that he had been turned. (He claimed that the possibility of being
captured and used had never been acknowledged by his trainers, and he thus did
not have such a code.) He initially operated his set himself, and thus
displayed a consistent ‘fist’. Yet the overall message to be gained from this
exercise is that the Abwehr controllers soon lost interest. As early as
September 7, Field-Marshal Jodl told the Abwehr to open up operations against
the Soviet Union. The realization that German could not dominate the skies
above Britain, and that a winter invasion across the Channel would simply be a
recipe for failure, had by then convinced Hitler that it was time to turn his
attention to the East.
TATE’s files at the National Archives show is the enormous lengths to which MI5
and RSS went to experiment with his apparatus, attempting to make contact with
Wohldorf. While SUMMER’s set had been shown to work quite quickly, MI5 provided
their counterparts at RSS with all the details of call-signs, frequencies, and
times so that the location-finding network of interception towers at Thurso, St
Erth, Gilnakirk, Sandridge, Cupar and Bridgewater could gauge the strength of
the signal, and give back advice. Hughes (W6B) and then Reed (who was on
secondment from the BBC) had to move the set around from city to countryside,
change the length of the aerial and fine-tune its alignment, and also have the
complex instructions for TATE’s back-up set translated before they were able to
send transmissions of consistent quality. Yet they were already sensitized to
the need to avoid German direction-finding – to a degree that was unnecessarily
cautious: they believed that the transmissions could have been localized to an
actual building (e.g. Latchmere House), a degree of accuracy way beyond what
the Funkabwehr was capable of at that time.
agent SNOW (Arthur Owens) was being kept in close confinement. It should not be
forgotten that SNOW was the original Abwehr agent equipped with wireless, and
was notionally active right up until April 1941. Yet the first experiments with
wireless were haphazard: he was supplied with a clumsy and reliable transmitter
(only) in February 1939, but, since he was able to meet his handler, Ritter, in
Hamburg until war broke out, and, after that, arrange regular rendezvous in the
Netherlands and in Belgium until the Nazis overran those countries in May 1940,
the use of wireless to pass on intelligence was not so critical. Of course,
that made the task of monitoring what he said impossible, and suggestions that
SNOW had betrayed his country by revealing suitable targets for bombing (i.e.
going beyond the ‘chickenfeed’ that he passed in his encrypted messages) caused
MI5 to terminate him, and incarcerate him for the remainder of the war.
was aware of SNOW’s wireless usage from the day his set was picked up. SIS even
broke the set, and had to repair it. But SNOW did not make his first successful
transmission until late August 1939: soon afterwards, MI5, aided by his wife’s
jealous reporting of his duplicitous activity, arrested him, and then found
both his transmitter, and then a receiver, concealed at his property in
Surbiton. Under MI5’s tutelage, SNOW moved house to premises where his aerial
would not stand out so obviously, and transmitted regularly on weather and less
than critical military operations and preparation. The first Double-Cross
message was sent on September 9, but no confirmation of receipt occurred for
some weeks. At some stage in October, Maurice Burton, who had earlier checked
to verify that SNOW was transmitting as instructed, took over the operation of
the apparatus, and eventually a new afu
transmitter-receiver was delivered through a third party.
the Abwehr had been careful enough to pay attention to SNOW’s radio ‘fist’, or
whether Burton was adept enough to emulate it, is not clear. The archival
reports give every indication that Robertson and his team assumed that Ritter
must have concluded that SNOW was being controlled by MI5. Guy Liddell even
wrote, on February 2, 1941: “Another
point that occurs to me us that the Germans must now be wise to the game of
collaring an agent and forcing him to use his wireless set in our interests.
There is in fact evidence that they are doing it themselves.” Yet
the Abwehr used what SNOW fed to them concerning passports and ration cards to
supply the LENA agents, and lure them to their doom or glory. Exactly who was
deluding whom by the time SNOW was regarded as a high security risk may well
never be established. A triple agent works only for himself, trying desperately
to play one employer against the other in order to survive. Interrogators of
Ritter after the war concluded that he had realized that SNOW had been turned,
but, when Ritter wrote his memoir in 1972, he gave no suggestion that SNOW was
anything but the genuine article. Ritter believed that SNOW was being used by
MI5, but that the Abwehr had outwitted them. He certainly would not wanted to
have admitted to his bosses in Berlin at the time that he had been deluded.
Other Abwehr officers interrogated were more outspoken and direct about their
suspicions: I shall explore these in a later chapter.
and RSS gained much from these experiences. They learned about the enemy’s
equipment, and the RSS was able to test out its interception and
location-finding techniques when they applied their sensors to TATE’s
transmissions, in order to evaluate how effective they were. Yet this was a
precarious time for MI5: the seeds of the successful XX Operation were quickly
sown, but Liddell and others also came to realise that allowing ‘undetected’
radios to operate would require the existence of a ham-handed and inefficient
detection service for them to evade interception. This concern would continue
to dog MI5 throughout the war – the fear that the Germans must assume that the
wily British had better radio-detection finding equipment than appeared to be
the case, and would thus assume that their agents were not operating freely.
And, as I pointed out in my article on ter Braak, is it not somewhat ridiculous
to think that, in densely-populated Britain, with a citizenship well advised to
look out for suspicious activity, that an obvious foreigner, with accented
English, could traipse round the country picking up information, and then
return to some lodging where he managed to conceal the existence of a lengthy
aerial while sending in his reports?
the Abwehr, their LENA spies were dispensable. The espionage service did not think
they would survive long, and it had low expectations of their deliverables. As
a July 1944 report submitted jointly by MI5 and SIS declared: “According to the
calculations of one Abwehr officer, eight-five per cent of the agents dispatched
were never heard of again; ten per cent turned in information which was either
worthless or false; the remaining five per cent provided sufficient accurate
reports to justify the expense of the remainder. The first two clauses of this
sentence may have a greater validity than the last.” (The last observation was
perhaps a tacit hint of the XX Operation.)
Agent Richter may have been sent in to verify whether TATE had been
turned, but the fact that the Abwehr never learned anything from Richter did not
deter them. The Abwehr no doubt had it confirmed for them how difficult it was
to infiltrate an island nation. MI5, even at that time, took pains to ensure
that manipulated transmissions took place in locations where the spy was
supposed to be, but the state of the technology on the German side at that time
was probably inferior to that of the British: even with appropriate
triangulation, transmitters could not be ‘pinpointed’ to much less than a
circle of 20-mile radius, and there is no evidence that the Germans bothered.
Yet the awareness of RDF as a technique for counter-espionage would have
registered with them, and would come sharply into focus a few months later.
a coda, and a point to be picked up later, the British apparently recognized,
after the war, the Germans’ superior techniques in detection and
direction-finding. In his 2011 memoir of his days at Bletchley Park, Secret Days, Asa Briggs writes that GCHQ
acquired a field north of Bletchley that was later named Furzton. “A radio
direction finding system developed by the Germans was installed there. Judged
superior to all existing British systems, it consisted of an outer circle of
forty and an inner circle of thirty smaller metal masts,” he adds. Yet a search
on ‘Furzton’ fails to come up with anything else. (Google led me to Hinsley’s
and Tripp’s Codebreakers, a book I
own, but with no incidence of ‘Furzton’, which does not appear in the Index.) To
learn more, perhaps, we must wait for the Official History of GCHQ to appear
next year. The overarching conclusion must be that, after the initial
excitement in setting up W Division in MI5 in August to track illicit wireless,
the transfer of RSS to SIS, and the establishment of the XX Operation,
accompanied by the belief that all German agents had been turned, incarcerated
or executed, concern about illicit radio
transmissions, whether they came from foreign embassies, maverick civilians,
Soviet spies, or even undetected German infiltrators, the demand for
prosecution of such activity through urgent and efficient location-finding went
somewhat off the boil.
Nazis had their equivalent of Britain’s Radio Security Service, the Funkabwehr,
sometimes translated as the Radio Defence Corps. Yet the Germans came rather
later to recognize that the threat of domestic illicit wireless communications
required a more committed function. Created by Hans Kopp in 1940, the
Funkabwehr reported to the OKW, the Oberkommando
der Wehrmacht, and readers may find references to the OKW/WNV/FU, a
typically precise but wordy example of how the Germans described their units, Wehrmacht Nachrichten Verbindungen
Funküberwachung, loosely the surveillance of radio intelligence and
a good history of the Funkawehr remains to be written, as German records are
unavailable. For a detailed history of the organisation, the
Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funkabwehr
is reasonably solid, but has
a very shaky chronology, is written too much in the passive voice, and in my
judgment contains several errors. * Moreover, it is highly
dependent on a 1946 report compiled by the RSS itself, which can be seen at https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B_oIJbGCCNYeMGUxNzk0NWQtNzNhZi00YWVjLWI1NmItMzc2YWZiZGNjNjQ5,
a folder in Christos T.’s excellent website dedicated to military intelligence
matters. While this account lacks the benefit of historical distancing, and
integration of much new material, I shall not repeat here the detailed
evolution of the Funkabwehr’s capabilities.
The danger of referring to Wikipedia, or indeed any on-line source, is that the
entry may change suddenly, or even disappear. The Wikipedia entry on the
Funkabwehr has been expanded considerably since I started this article.]
and Great Britain had long maintained ‘Y’ (signals interception) capabilities,
the focus of which had been primarily diplomatic and political communications
of foreign powers, but assumed interest in military plans and operations as war
approached. Britain had listening posts throughout the empire, and Germany had
established a similar network within the German borders. The Nazi interest in
the years before the war appears to have been directed more against the Soviet
Union: by 1937, from their intercept stations at Treunbritzen, Jüterbog,
Königsberg and Breslau, they were picking up a large amount of NKVD traffic
stretching from Murmansk to Odessa. This activity no doubt continued during the
period of the Nazi-Soviet pact (August 1939to June 1941), and helped Hitler
prepare for operation Barbarossa.
Yet, as the awareness of possible clandestine wireless activity within each nation’s borders increased, approaches to the problem started to diverge. True, the general methodology and use of technology were very similar, but the geographical and political constrains led the adversaries down different paths. First, the borders in the European theatre of operations remained stable for the British: the Germans had to deal with their fast expanding occupation of new territory. While it provided for a steady increase in suitable locations for interception stations (e.g. Brest, in France), it also increased the possible quantity of subversive communications. It also put more strain on inter-unit communications, since secure landlines were no longer available, and thus exposed more secret information transfer to interception itself. Moreover, the operations were frequently taking place in environments hostile to the invaders, with the risk of sabotage, and, certainly, non-cooperation.
aspect was duplication of effort. It sometimes comes a surprise to learn how
fragmented the approach of a totalitarian nation could be to intelligence
matters. Hitler encouraged rivalries, however, and there was a large absence of
trust between organisations. In fact, the function of the Funkabwehr was split
between the OKW unit and a section of the Ordnungspolizei
(or Orpo) called the Funkabwehrdienst,
which was under the control of Heinrich Himmler. Both units were responsible
for the location and apprehension of those transmitting illicitly, but for most
of the war their missions were divided by what could seem to be an absurd and
unproductive distinction. Orpo was responsible for identifying clandestine
operations against the government and the regime, while the WNV/FU directed its
efforts against activities against the state. How they could confidently conclude
which category a transmission belonged to before analysis, or why they
discounted the fact that some factions might effectively be fighting both, has
not been explained. Britain, on the other hand, maintained a unified control
over interception, and generally benefitted from the large amount of trust that
existed between the military, the political, the interception and the
cryptographic organisations. It was not until 1943 that the Orpo and the WNV
divided their tasks more sensibly along geographic lines.
critical matter that the RSS report brings to the surface is that of distortion
of signals, and how the proximity of electrically conductive objects of
dimensions close to the length of the wave could affect both reception and
interception. What the receivers of transmissions
initiated from agents in enemy territory were interested in was content, and weakening of the signal
would affect successful reception. Communication was one-to-one: the receiving
station would be the sole unit dedicated to trying to capture a transmission. Distortion
could mean that the signal was lost completely, or fell into the skip zone. Location was not important to such
receivers: indeed, transmitters were encouraged to move around (with those
clumsy antennas – but not too far afield so as to jeopardise the signals plan) to
evade detection. Interceptors, on the
other hand, were rarely interested in content:
they probably did not have the resources or time to decrypt the messages. What
drove them was location, so that they
could quickly eliminate (or turn) the offending agent and equipment. Distortion
might not mean complete loss, as multiple detectors had to be in place to
perform the triangulation necessary, but it could mean that a faulty indication
of location was reached.
it was all a hazardous business. The presence of interfering objects
(buildings, mountains), by radiating signals in new directions, can confuse the
process of triangulation, or cause the assumed location to be challengingly
large. This distortion can also occur simply because of the erratic behavior of
the ionosphere, especially at time of sunrise and sunset. Guy Liddell reported,
on February 10, 1941 that ‘the
alleged parachutist’s [JAKOBS’s] transmitter from this country was heard again on
Sunday but turned out to be a communication between Paris and Cracow’. In
a 1944 report, written by British Intelligence to prepare its officers for the
invasion of Europe, appears the following observation: “The skip distance of
any transmitter is calculable in normal circumstances; but, occasionally, owing
to temporary changes in the atmosphere freak results may be obtained, as in the
summer of last year when the short wave transmissions of Chicago police cars
were clearly (and tiresomely) audible on the south coast of England.” (I am
confident that this pamphlet, available at Kew at WO-279-499, was written by
Hugh Trevor-Roper: he was the Abwehr expert, and the prose has a donnish flair,
and is regularly sprinkled with Latin phrases.) We should also remember that
Britain’s scheme of catching all groundwaves by the dispersion of interceptors
throughout the country could not conceivably be mirrored in Germany, let alone in
its expanded territories. The dynamics of the cat-and-mouse game played between
spies and enforcers must be evaluated in this context.
therefore, the reputation of German counter-intelligence as a ruthless and efficient
machine, which has been encouraged by war-movies, and even historians of SOE,
is certainly overstated. The Funkabwehr suffered from duplication, tensions of
centralisation and decentralisation, inadequate training, poor communications,
a shortage of qualified amateurs (unlike Britain’s Voluntary Interceptors), too
rapid job movement, insufficient mobile units, sometimes poor quality
equipment, and lack of appropriate language skills. Coordinates provided by
remote RDF were frequently too vague to ensure successful local house-hunting.
Certainly the discovery of the Soviet Rote Kapelle spy network in the summer of
1941 moved operations into a higher gear, but the organisation in France (for
instance) remained weak until as late as 1943. The RSS report assesses the
technical resources at the outbreak of the war as being ‘completely
insufficient’, given the rapidly occurring military victories and the increase
in occupied territory’. It tells a story of frequent failure, that it took
weeks or even months before a transmitter was at all precisely located. Yet the
RSS seemed also to be under the impression that the number of Allied W/T agents
was rapidly growing in 1940, an illusion that is undermined by the histories of
SOE that have appeared. The more innovative technologies and approaches of the
Funkabwehr thus occur well after the period under the microscope in this
chapter, and will be analysed in a future episode.
SOE and Wireless:
SIS organisation in Europe had been greatly weakened by
the beginning of war, and the Venlo incident on November 9, 1939 (whereby the
Abwehr captured SIS officers in Holland, and gained detailed information about the
service’s structures and personnel) crushed it. SOE was launched, with a
charter written by the dying conservative Neville Chamberlain, and under the
ministerial direction of the socialist Hugh Dalton, in July 1940. Its mission
was to perform subversion and sabotage in those countries of Europe controlled
by the Nazis. While Chamberlain declared that its operations should be tightly
woven in to the greater military strategy of the war, this facet of its
decision-making was never really clear. Was it supposed to disrupt the Germans’
efforts to produce war material? Was it designed to initiate minor diversionary
attacks that would draw a high degree of military and police resources away
from other arenas? Or was it intended to help prepare for the eventual invasion
by softening up targets, and impeding troop movements? All these goals were
troubled by the fear of what reprisals the Nazis might take on such incendiary
activity, and what effect that might have on local morale. Moreover, SOE was
always competing for resources – especially for aeroplanes and wireless
equipment – and those often unfulfilled demands, hampered by other departments
that questioned SOE’s effectiveness, meant that SOE had a very chequered
history in the first two years of its existence.
sources on SOE are fragmented. M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, originally written in 1966, and reissued in 2004, is
an ‘official’ history, part of the Government Official History Series, but, as
is clear from its title, covers France only. (In an interesting sidenote, Foot
himself, in his 1976 work, Resistance,
refers to SOE in France as a
‘quasi-official’ history.) Foot wrote another volume covering all of SOE, SOE: The Special Operations Executive
1940-1946, in 1984, but it is not an ‘official’ or even ‘authorised’
history. Its chronology is hazy, and it provides little detail on wireless
equipment and procedures. After the war, an internal history was commissioned
from an Oxford don, W. J. M. Mackenzie (who had not been employed by SOE), and
was eventually published, in 2000, as The
Secret History of SOE: The Special Operations Executive 1940-1945. In all
three books, the coverage of wireless is very sketchy until 1943, after SOE’s
own research and manufacturing facilities had been set up, and Colonel Gubbins
rather belatedly introduced more rigorous signals procedures. Various memoirs
refer to the use of wireless, but they are not always reliable. A number of files have been released to the
National Archives in recent years, but few records of SOE’s activities in the
early years appear to have survived fire, destruction or the weeders, and what
have endured are (so far as I can judge) all undigitised
This report focusses on SOE in France, as it was the earliest field
of operation, and it is here that the most pressing lessons of wireless usage
were learned. SOE had two units working in France: the F Section, which was run
as a British operation, and the RF section, which was a Gaullist unit for which
French nationals only could work. F thus depended mainly on agents of
Anglo-French nationality who spoke the language fluently. And it took many months before SOE sorted out
is mission, recruited and trained people, overcame political opposition, and
were able to start placing agents deep inside France. It had infiltrated a few
agents equipped with wireless by sea, but their communications were apparently
spotty. The first confirmed F agent to be parachuted in with a wireless set was
Georges Bégué (aka George Noble), who
arrived in unoccupied central France on the night of 5/6 May 1941.
It might be expected that the local populace would be more
supportive of parachutists sent in to hinder and harass the invader, but it was
not necessarily so. Up until Barbarossa, the French communist party had
welcomed the Nazi allies of Moscow, and rapidly had to change their stance
after June 1941. Before then, however, communists were a threat to subversive
activities as possible informers. Even in Vichy France, considered to be safer
territory, many peasants were loyal to the administration, and would betray
illicit movements to the authorities, and hence to the Germans. SOE’s policy
with wireless operators was open to criticism: it would send in a team of three
(agent, courier, and wireless operator) rather than devolving the task of
transmission and receiving to the agent him- or her-self. Frequently the operator spoke no French, and
might be idle for weeks at a time, which meant concealment and exposure were a
constant concern. Yet progress was slow. Lorain (see below) writes that there
were only two clandestine stations working in France for Section F in May 1941,
and a year later, still only seven.
Thus one has to treat Foot’s claims about the rapidity with which
the Germans developed direction-finding techniques with some skepticism. He
reports that ‘the German
wireless interception service had detected Bégué’s transmissions
almost at once, had begun to jam them within half a week.’ The Vichy police was
involved, and ‘D/F vans joined in the search’. Elsewhere, in a general
commentary, Foot writes: “The German intelligence service’s wireless
direction-finding (D/F) teams were numerous and efficient, probably better than
the British, for whom Langelaan [George Langelaan, Knights of the Floating Silk, p 220] claimed that if ever an
unidentified transmitter was heard ‘in a manner of minutes a first, rough
direction-finding operation had been accomplished.’” Again citing Langelaan, Foot
then goes on to make the following rather nonsensical observation: “If the
transmitter was anywhere in the United Kingdom, in less than an hour experts
equipped with mobile listening and measuring instruments were converging on the
region where it had been located.” Why an official historian like Foot would
rely on Langelaan as a source, when the author was an SOE agent who probably
received the information second- or third-hand, is not clear. (Admittedly, Foot
would not have been able to find reliable information in the archives, but that
is no excuse for such slipshod reporting.) From other accounts (such as
Liddell’s Diaries), it is quite clear that, during this period, the approach by
RSS to suspicious signals was much less rigorous.
for what the capabilities of the Nazi teams were, ‘converging’ might mean
location-finding rather than physical movement, but the proximity of Augsburg
and Nuremberg to each other [see below] would mean any attempt at triangulation
with Brest on sites in Britain would be a very haphazard, as well as pointless,
exercise. Nevertheless, Foot goes on to
write: “French operators in the field early discovered that a long transmission
in a large town would probably bring a detection van to the door within thirty
minutes. The Germans soon worked out a technique for establishing what part of
a town a clandestine operator was working in, by cutting off the current
sub-district and noting when the clandestine transmission was interrupted; then
they would concentrate their efforts on the sub-district affected, and hope to
track down quickly at least the block, if not the building, the set was working
his general book about SOE, Foot reinforces the message. “In towns, sensible organisers and wireless
operators took care not to see too much of each other; for the wireless
operator was always the circuit’s weakest point. The Germans, like the British,
kept a constant watch on every wireless wavelength, and it took only twenty or
thirty minutes for a team of their armed direction-finders to get within a few
yards of an operator who was fool enough to remain on the air so long. Relays
of thirty clerks with cathode-ray tubes in the Gestapo’s headquarters in the
Avenue Foch in Paris, for example, kept up a continuous watch on every
conceivable frequency. When a new set opened up, it was bound to show up on a
tube; the frequency could be read off at once. In a couple of minutes, alerted
by telephone, direction-finders at Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg were starting
to take cross-bearings; within a quarter of an hour, detector vans would be
closing in on the triangle a few miles across that the cross-bearings had
indicated. Some of SOE’s early organisers in France and Belgium insisted on
sending messages so verbose that their operators had to remain at their morse
keys for hours at a time; and, inevitably, they were caught.
It did not take long for Gubbins, as head of
operations, to spot what was wrong, or for the signals training school at Thame
Park to start to impress on operators – as Beaulieu explained to organisers –
that mortal danger lay in trying to send long messages by wireless.”
Yet all this is undated, and
perhaps an indication why this analyst is wary is that Foot immediately follows
this last passage with the following: “By
the winter of 1943-4 – hardly before time – there was an order: no wireless
telegraphy (W/T) transmission was to last longer than five minutes.” In the
context of the war, this is an enormous chronological jump. Foot lists several
other operations (Forman and Labit, DASTARD, Bloch) in the second half of 1941
that he claims were terminated because the operators stayed on the air too
long, and were trapped by the efficiency of German detection-finding. Yet it is
perhaps more likely that many of these agents were betrayed by sloppy
tradecraft, or visible behavior that prompted the interest of citizens who felt
it their duty to report such activity before they were arrested for ignoring
it. In fact Mackenzie tells us that Labit (the wireless operator) had to escape
to the Unoccupied Zone without his set, while his partner Cartigny was probably
shot. Some gave the game away by weak identity cards, or obviously wrong serial
numbers on notes, the same types of error that had bedevilled the LENA spies.
In Resistance, Foot undermines his
argument by writing: “Early in the war, the Germans worked the process [of
interception] clumsily, but by the spring of 1943 they had main intercepting
stations in Augsburg, Berlin, Brest, Nuremberg, and no doubt elsewhere.” Again,
a distressing lack of precision, and a big chronological leap.
In his largely pictorial study of the use of wireless in the French Resistance, The Clandestine Radio Operators in France (2011), Jean-Louis Perquin presents an arresting account of the German special unit ‘dedicated to the detection of clandestine emissions’, describing a complex web connected to three detection-finding centres located in Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg, and backed up goniometer trucks with equipped with the latest technology. Yet, again, chronology is vague: the text indicates that the procedure described was deployed in 1943. There is no evidence of the state-of-the-art in 1941. Perquin explains that RF agents were trained by British instructors, and also dependent on SOE equipment. “In Autumn 1941”, he writes, “following the numerous loss (sic) suffered by those specialists and considering how such losses were threatening the very existence of the networks, the SOE decided to create a security course in Grendon, Buckinghamshire.” Yet, if losses of agents were due to overlong transmission times, or failure to switch frequencies, one might think the problem could have been swiftly addressed through tighter discipline. Gubbins’s edict of winter 1943-44, after ‘it did not take him long’ to work out what was happening, simply seems absurd.
It appears that Foot and
Perquin were using the same source, but it is not clear what it is. In Resistance, Foot declares his heavy
reliance on Pierre Lorain’s Armement
Clandestin (1972), a book that also appears in Perquin’s Bibliography,
which was translated and published in English as Secret Warfare in 1983. Lorain gives a much more reasonable account
of what happened, and it is worth quoting three paragraphs in full.
“German detection methods had
made decisive progress in 2 years. In 1941 and 1942, the localization of a
clandestine station was extremely difficult. It could be carried out only if
the operator transmitted on the same days of the week, from the same site, and
on the same frequency during several consecutive hours. Direction-finding
operations were not yet automatic, and panoramic reception was non-existent.
The scanning of all usable frequencies was necessarily very slow and left substantial
In addition, during the final
approach, each Gestapo agent had to hide a heavy suitcase containing a receiver
with a loop aerial under his coat. A Tirolean cap or Basque beret tilting down
over his ear just barely hid an earphone. Their general posture aroused the
curiosity of even the most naïve of passersby.
The arrest of a radio operator
thus required long months of continual surveillance, the operation was
complicated by the fact that if a clandestine operator was spotted in the
unoccupied zone of France (controlled by Vichy), the Germans could only signal
the suspect frequency to the French radio control group at Hauterive near
Vichy. The latter promised to look into the matter, but secretly warned the
clandestine station to move as quickly as possible, and then supplied the
Germans with an almost completely false position.”
The Funkabwehr article I
referred to before contains nothing about operations in France against SOE. I
have been advised that the unit’s records reside somewhere in Moscow, so one cannot
judge how much of Lorain’s account is true. Yet it seems as if Foot’s official
history tries to deflect attention away from other systemic problems in SOE’s
deployment of wireless. (His comments above need to be transferred en bloc to the state of the game in 1943
onwards, a period I shall cover in a later article.) A careful reading of
Mackenzie would suggest that a number of severe problems affected both the F
and R/F operations in France until 1942: a lack of radio expertise for
establishing reliable wavelengths and schedules, leading to failed use;
struggles with transporting and concealing the heavy equipment; inappropriate
choices of agents who had unsuitable personalities; careless practices by the
wireless operators, who were not always trained properly; inappropriate
centralisation of transmissions because of shortage of equipment, leading to
intense and long broadcasts; betrayal by agents (such as the notorious
VICTOIRE); the unreliability of the local police in Vichy France. It was easier
for SOE to blame German direction-finding.
And it seems more probable that
other territories – and another enemy – were the arena in which the Reichssicherheitshauptamt improved its
detection capabilities. As I shall explore, the Funkabwehr was provoked into
quick reaction after Barbarossa (June 1941), as the Red Orchestra started
tuning up, primarily in Northern France and Belgium. Colonel Buckmaster, who
headed F Section, reported that, as late as August 1942, in the Occupied Zone,
he had only two wireless sets, of which one was operational, while in the
Unoccupied Zone, the numbers were six and four. In Belgium, however, the
following distressing tale emerges, as German counter-action took place. In the
First Quarter of 1941, two out of 9 sets had been captured and operated by
the Germans: the figures for the next three quarters were 5 out of 6; 8 out of 8; and 7 out of 8. I shall return to the topic of whether German RDF advanced faster in Germany, because of the activation of the Red Orchestra after Barbarossa, and explore how soon operations in France were able to take advantage of such breakthroughs. Overall, my conclusion would be that the sluggishness with which SOE mobilised its wireless communications, and the slow but steady steps by which the Funkabwehr moved into action against Communist spies in the latter half of 1941, suggests that Foot’s suggestions of hyperactive German detection-finding in 1941 are premature, and that the losses were due to other causes.
In any case we know that SOE
was inhibited by the fact that SIS controlled its cyphers and communications
until June 1942. Up until then, it had had to accept whatever equipment SIS
gave it – clumsy and heavy apparatus. As Foot writes: “Agents were not best pleased at SIS’s first
offering, a plywood box that weighed some 45 lb. (20kg), already looked
old-fashioned and contained a Mark XV two-valve transmitter fitted with a morse
key, and its power-pack, a 6-volt car battery.” Foot does not describe the
travails that agents lugging a 45-lb. suitcase around an unfamiliar terrain
must have experienced, let alone the difficulties in setting up a suitable
aerial without drawing attention to themselves.
The conclusion about SOE’s
(and specifically Gubbins’s) track-record concerning wireless up to 1942 must
be that the operation was needlessly clumsy. It cannot all be blamed on
SIS. I read A. R. B. Linderman’s Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin
Gubbins and the Origins of Special Operations Executive (2016) in the hope
of acquiring some deeper insights. Linderman informs us that a Frederick Nicholls
served under Gubbins as director of signals during World War II, but that is
the only mention that Nicholls merits in the Index, and the story is
disappointingly thin on wireless matters. Maybe the skills of Nicholls, who
‘had managed to establish wireless communications with the British Embassy in
Kabul during the Third Anglo-Afghan War’ (which occurred between May and August
1919) were stretched by the exigencies of communications in Nazi-occupied
Europe if that was his premier achievement. The clumsiness of SOE’s wireless
strategy would however endure until the end of the war, as I shall explain in a
While the Comintern and its allies had enjoyed successful
experiences with illicit wireless transmission in the 1930s, Stalin’s purges of
1937 and 1938 had required much of the Soviet Union’s networks in the West to
be rebuilt. It was not hard to find native Soviet sympathisers outside Germany,
since the propaganda of communism as the only effective bulwark against fascism
had worked effectively both on the disenchanted ‘toiling masses’ as well as on
the guilt-ridden intellectuals. Since Hitler had either executed, incarcerated
or forced into exile any members of the Party, or outspoken supporters of
communist doctrine, Germany remained a more difficult country to penetrate. But
neighbouring nations provided a rich source of potential spies and informants:
many eastern Europeans found homes in the Low Countries and France, for
instance, and were able to fade into the background without being conspicuous.
Britain had its own nests of spies, of course, both from the older universities
– who had successfully detached themselves from any association with the
Communist Party of Great Britain – as well as more traditional working-class
enthusiasts. But these eager adherents to the cause of the proletariat needed
managing, and directing in their efforts. They needed intermediaries, and they
need a mechanism for getting the fruits of their espionage back to Moscow.
Soviet espionage had three arms – the Comintern, the NKVD, and military intelligence, the GRU. David Dallin, in his epic Soviet Espionage (1955), informs us that, as early as late 1935, “Only a comparatively small Soviet apparat now remained in Germany: the greater part of the network had either been dissolved or moved abroad. The OMS had moved with the Comintern’s West European Bureau, the WED, to Copenhagen; the passport apparat had gone to the Saar, and Soviet military intelligence to Holland and France; the party leadership had migrated part to Prague and part to Paris.” Thus what survived the purges (with the GRU the most hard-hit) was still a very fragmented approach to intelligence-gathering, with no guarantee that it would be efficiently shared back in Moscow. In Volume 2 of his biography of Joseph Stalin, Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, Stephen Kotkin writes (p 496) that a dozen NKVD station chiefs abroad were arrested in 1937-1938, and that, in Berlin, ‘Stalin cleaned house, arresting nearly every NKVD operative there’. The GRU suffered even more, with 182 operational staff arrested in the same time-period. Yet the growing menace of Germany and Japan meant that, under Beria, a rapid repopulation of the networks had to be accomplished.
The International Brigades in Spain had constituted a useful
source of potential operatives, as well as an opportunity to grant new
identified to infiltrated agents, by virtue of the passports that had been
stolen from Brigade members when they entered Spain. Alexander Foote was a
famous example of such a footsoldier who was plucked from obscurity to be sent
to Switzerland to received training in wireless operation from Ursula
Kuczynski, agent SONIA. At the end of 1938, agents in their dozens started
arriving in Europe, as well as the Far East and the United States. Like the
Nazis, but with far more deliberation and craft, the Soviets chose, or allocated
citizenship to, agents who would never arouse suspicion owing to domestic
(Russian) nationality. The complex borderlands of the old Russian Empire
provided a rich environment for muddled heritage and absence of reliable
documentation, in order to allow unverifiable accounts of life-history to be
Accounts of training for wireless activity are thin on the ground.
SONIA’s memoir (which in these technical aspects is probably much more reliable
than in political observations, such as her absurd accusations of imperialistic
infiltration helping to crumble the Soviet Union) is certainly not typical. For she was respected enough to avoid the
purges, and also had had a long experience in China as a wireless operator
before being recalled to Moscow for leave and ‘discussions’ in late 1935. Her
account is unfortunately very muddled in chronology, but it is educational in
that it clearly identifies some of the problems that illegal wireless operators
would experience anywhere in Europe. After a brief interlude with her family in
London, she was then sent to Danzig, then a ‘Free City’, where she was
instructed to ‘obtain residence permits, find work to legalise our existence,
and set up our transmitter for radio contact with the Soviet Union’.
SONIA had been instructed how to build a transmitter in China, by
her lover, Ernst, and claims that she received a response from Moscow
immediately she set up her apparatus. Her task was to advise a group of
labourers undertaking occasional sabotage at a shipyard building U-Boats in
Danzig (where the Nazis were outrageously breaching the constitution that the
city had been granted), and transmit on their behalf. At one stage, she and
Rolf moved to a new house, but discovered that proximity to a power-station
made signals inaudible, and she had to take her equipment to an apartment – a
lesson that probably stood her in good stead later in England. Yet she
immediately stumbled dangerously: the apartment block she chose was the
residence of several Nazis, and one day the wife of them asked her whether the
reception on her radio had been affected by interference. Her husband had told
her he believed that someone was transmitting secretly, and was going to
arrange for the block to be surrounded. SONIA even mentions triangulation of
radio detection, which would have been a very early indication of the Nazis’
fears – and progress in allaying them.
SONIA did not take the right steps, however. She broadcast again,
from the same apartment at the same time, instead of the middle of the night
when neighbouring radios would not have been on. She should have moved to a
friend’s apartment, or returned to Warsaw. It appears that she was in awe of
doing anything without Moscow’s approval: the outcome was that she was ordered
to return to Poland as she could no longer transmit. Thus, when she met her
boss, Comrade Andrey, in Warsaw, she asked to receive further training in
wireless construction and use in Moscow. That need was reinforced by her
receiving a severe electric shock one night, burning her hand. SONIA would pay
two visits to Moscow during 1937 and 1938 (she admits that the details of each
congealed into a blur). Her return to Poland was uneventful. She had to return
to Danzig to help a comrade set up his transmitter, and admits that he was ‘slow
on the uptake’, so maybe Moscow’s selection and approval processes for its
agents were not very rigorous. Communist fervor may have been considered more
important than intelligence and the right psychological profile. SONIA felt she
was not accomplishing much: “The Danzig people had their own radio operator,
the Bulgarian comrade produced little information. I only transmitted once a
In August 1938, it was decided to send her to Switzerland, where the plan was to infiltrate agents into Germany, to make contacts at the Dornier aeroplane factory in Friedrichshafen. And that is where the story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ picks up, with her eventual successful establishment in Britain in the spring of 1941, and her activation as a wireless agent a few months later. She met up with Sándor Radó, who as agent DORA had been appointed head of the Swiss network, but had no wireless skills. In his memoir, Radó writes how Sonia visited in him in December 1939, and how the following month his radio contact with Moscow had been established. He also describes a visit in March 1940, set up by Moscow Central, by someone he knew only as KENT (see below). KENT spoke authoritatively about the necessity of secure wireless procedures, stressing the importance of changing the number and times of transmissions as often as possible ‘as the best protection against being located’. He added that operators should move around different residencies, as well. “Keep changing them if you can – but again, avoiding any kind of system. The thicker the fog, the better.” It suggests, again, that a prematurely intense fear of radio-detection capabilities existed with the Soviets, and that their listeners back in Moscow would be prepared to listen around-the-clock for their agents’ transmissions. But it was easier to preach such practices than to follow them.
The Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky also gave hints of subversive
radio activity in Central Europe. In his memoir In Stalin’s Secret Service, he related how Marguerite Browder, the
sister of the head of the US Communist Party, Earl Browder, had graduated from
the school in Moscow that specialised in wireless competency, and had then been
sent abroad as an illegal with an American passport issued in the name of Jean
Montgomery. “During 1936-1937 she worked in Central Europe where she laid the
ground for the establishment of our secret radio station,” he added, with an
unhelpful lack of precision. If we can rely on Krivitsky, shortly before his
recall to Moscow Sergei Spiegelglass, sent on a deathly mission by his OGPU
boss Yezhov, tried to get Krivitsky to assist in the assassination of his
friend and colleague Ignace Reiss. When Krivitsky demurred, he then asked
Krivitsky to hand Browder over to him, as he had an ‘important job’ for her in
France. The implication in Krivitsky’s rather fractured account is that he
managed to warn Browder of what Spiegelglass had in mind for her, and that she
was able to continue with her wireless activities.
In his biography of Kitty Harris, The Spy With Seventeen Names, Igor Damaskin informs us that the
European network was issued with much more sophisticated wireless equipment at
the end of 1936. Kitty Harris, who was Marguerite Browder’s sister-in-law, was brought
back to Moscow for retraining in January 1937. She apparently showed little
aptitude, and it was determined that ‘any more technical training would be a
waste of time. She was later assigned to be Donald Maclean’s handler in London
and Paris, where she specialised in photography.
Yet wireless usage in broader Europe at this time was sparse. It
was not necessary. Moscow had its eye on the long term. The presence of Soviet
legations or embassies in most capitals of the West provided a mechanism for
information to be collected and then sent by diplomatic bag or courier back to
Moscow. As a long-term measure, a wireless centre was set up in Brussels, where
Trepper, as the new leader of the western organisation, replacing Walter
Krivitsky, installed himself in March 1939. Yet, as Heinz Höhne tells us in Codeword Direktor, Trepper left it
dormant, concentrating first on recruiting a team of informers, and enlarging
his contacts with the world of business, the military and diplomacy. Even when
war broke out, there was no quick change of operation. Only when Nazi Germany
started its invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940 did hasty
adjustments have to be made. Even though the Soviet Union was in a
non-aggression pact with Germany, its needs for information on Germany’s plans,
and the reactions of France and Great Britain to Nazi movements, placed
increasing pressure on Trepper and his cohorts to deliver.
Communication switched to radio sets when the Germans occupied
Brussels, and the staff of the Soviet legation was withdrawn. In August, 1940,
Trepper moved with his mistress to Paris, leaving there the unreliable playboy
Sukolov-Gurevich, known as KENT, as the only agent capable of representing the
GRU network. The Sokols were then recruited as wireless operators by the Soviet
Embassy, and trained by someone called Duval. By June 1941, the Soviet Military
Attaché, Susloparov, had moved to unoccupied France, and Trepper was in Vichy
on the day that Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, in Berlin, more
urgent plans were made in April 1941 to establish direct radio contact between
the cells led by Arvid Harnack and Harro Schulze-Boysen, the Soviet spies in
the heart of the Nazi administration. (Even if Stalin did not believe the
rumours of a Nazi invasion, some of his intelligence officers were presumably
more realistic.) In late May, two transmitters were sent by diplomatic bag from
Moscow to Berlin, ‘one a small battery model and the other a large
mains-powered set portable enough when broken down to fit in a suitcase’, as
Costello and Tsarev describe. Harnack was chosen to be the operator, but
declined, delegating it eventually to an engineer named Behrens, while
Schulze-Boysen took up the challenge for his group, with much more eagerness,
selecting a factory technician called Hans Coppi.
Costello and Tsarev report further: “The Berlin groups had
established several safe locations on the upper floors of trustworthy
colleagues’ houses in the countryside outside the city where the transmitters
could be assembled and their aerials run up into the attics in order to
communicate with Moscow. The Centre arranged to keep a listening watch on set
hours and days of the month, which were multiples of the numbers four and
seven.” Coppi received training from the local NKVD office, and successful
transmissions were made in the beginning of June, and picked up and decrypted
in Moscow. The infrastructure was in place when Operation Barbarossa was
started. As Dallin records the situation: “This,
then, was the setup on the eve of the Soviet-German war: a number of espionage
agencies with radio facilities and sources of information, organized but
dormant, in Belgium and Holland; rudimentary apparats in France and Denmark; a
few trading firms established as covers in Brussels, Paris, and Geneva; a
promising start in Switzerland; and a group of enthusiastic but inexpert
operators in the German capital.”
Thus, as the wartime alliances
solidified in the summer of 1941 (with the USA to join the Allies a few months
later) mainland Europe entered its most intense couple of years of illicit
wireless transmission and detection. Many agents – as well as dedicated
wireless operators – did not have a suitable profile for the tasks at hand, and
had been sketchily trained. The equipment they used was frequently clumsy and
unreliable. The support structures behind them had not always analysed the
variables of distance, sunspots, terrain, or mechanical interference in depth
enough to define the wavelengths and times that they should best operate. They
frequently disobeyed best practices in their transmission techniques, and
ignored rules of basic spycraft. But they all probably had an exaggerated sense
of the state-of-the-art of enemy detection and direction-finding techniques at
the time, and how efficient it was, and certainly used such capabilities as an
excuse for sloppy behaviour when agents were apprehended. All this would change
very rapidly as the battle of wits intensified in the second half of 1941, when
Nazi Germany honed its capabilities in the face of the Rote Kapelle activity. The
major significant conclusion is that, as Germany intensified its capabilities for
detecting the threat of domestic (or imperial) illicit wireless, Britain
moderated its own home coverage. Through policy and organisational change, it concentrated
much more on transmissions in mainland Europe, and on the interception and
decipherment of official transmissions made by the Nazi war machine.
The final observation to be
made is to note the anomalous attitude of British Intelligence towards its Nazi
enemy during this period. While crediting an exaggerated efficiency and skill
to the Abwehr’s counter-espionage activities, in the form of effective Radio
Detection- and Location-Finding, it attributed the obvious ill-preparedness of
the agents (training, language, identification papers, etc.) it sent to Britain
to the stupidity and clumsiness of the same organisation. Yet, while priding
itself on its superiority in both regards, the British intelligence services
(in this case MI5, RSS & SOE) developed casual habits in its interception
of domestic illicit wireless, and also sent agents to the continent who were likewise
unready or unsuitable for the challenges of working in hostile territory.
(I am again grateful to Dr.
Brian Austin for giving me guidance on matters of wireless technology. Any
mistakes or misrepresentation are mine alone.)
Sources, and for further reading:
SOE in France
by M. R. D. Foot
SOE, the Special Operations Executive by M. R. D. Foot
The Secret History of SOE by William Mackenzie
M. R. D. Foot
by Terry Crowdy
by David Dallin
Codeword Direktor by
Unternehmen Seelöwe by
Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of
Special Operations Executive by
A. R. B. Linderman
Secret Warfare by
The Clandestine Radio
Operators by Jean-Louis Perquin
Wireless for the Warrior,
Volume 4 Clandestine Radio by Louis Melstee and Rudolf F.
The Third Reich is
Listening by Christian Jennings
SNOW: The Double Life of
a World War Spy by Nigel West & Madoc Roberts
by David Gordon Kirby
by Ursula Hamburger
by Sándor Radó
by John Lukacs
by Ben Macintyre
by David Kahn
Fighting to Lose
by John Bryden
by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev
Secrets of the British
Secret Service by E. H. Cookridge
Codebreakers: The Inside
Story of Bletchley Park by Alan Stripp & Harry Hinsley
Bodyguard of Lies
by Anthony Cave-Brown
by Asa Briggs
by Kenneth Macksey
The Spy With Seventeen
Names by Igor Damaskin
In Stalin’s Secret
Service by Walter Krivitsky
The Guy Liddell Diaries,
edited by Nigel West
The National Archives at Kew, London
This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.
For those of you who were intrigued by the career of Lt.-Col. Adrian Simpson a few months back, a research colleague, Dr. Giselle Jakobs, has performed some spectacular sleuthing, and uncovered a host of new facts about his life. Please see http://www.josefjakobs.info/ for her blog of December 3.
It may interest others that the yearly rainfall for the area where I live (near Wilmington, North Carolina) reached almost 102 inches on December 30. The previous record was 83.65 inches, in 1877. Our average annual rainfall is 57.61 inches. (Final year’s total came out at 102.40 inches.)
I was intending to pick up the
story of ‘The Mystery of the Undetected Radios’ this month, and had written
much of the piece by the end of November, when a startling discovery made me
decide to change my plans. An overseas contact casually referred me to a
document in the CIA archives that turned out to be the first of two articles
from the British Sunday newspaper, the Observer,
from early 1980. One sentence in this piece made me gasp with amazement, and I
immediately convinced myself that I should investigate the story, and report on
it as soon as possible. (My contact has since provided me with one or two
important documents, including a copy of the New Statesman from February 1980 that he tracked down in his local
library, and he has also offered me many encouraging words. Yet he prefers to
The sentence ran simply, as
follows: “Krivitsky, the first major Soviet defector, saw specimens of
Maclean’s handiwork in Moscow”, and it was reported by Andrew Boyle that
Goronwy Rees had said it. That was it.
Now, a casual reaction today might run as follows: “Goronwy Rees? Wasn’t he
mixed up with Guy Burgess somehow? Well, of course Rees would have been aware
that Maclean had spied for Russia. And it is common knowledge that Maclean
absconded to Moscow with Burgess, but that was all a long time ago, in 1951.
Was Maclean still alive in 1980? Oh, yes, so he was. Died in 1983. And Boyle?
Didn’t he write the book that led to the outing of Blunt? Yes, The Climate of Treason. So Boyle must
have known what was going on. As for Krivitsky, what were his dates? Okay, he
died in suspicious circumstances in 1941. But you can’t always trust what these
defectors say. So Krivitsky knew about the spies. What’s the big deal?”
Yet the potential dynamite
behind this statement could have been enough to destroy the good name of a
senior retired intelligence officer, and to drag the reputation of MI5 into the
mire. The constant challenge over Maclean (and Philby) issued to the British
intelligence services by historians has been: “Did you not receive enough hints
from Krivitsky in 1940 to identify them and haul them in?”. These two articles
offered some enticing suggestions that some information was still being withheld.
The first article appeared on
January 13, 1980, exactly forty years on from the time when Walter Krivitsky
was on his way across the Atlantic to be interrogated by officers from MI5 and
SIS. But Goronwy Rees was dead: he had died from cancer at Charing Cross
Hospital in London on December 12, 1979. Andrew Boyle had published his exposé The Climate of Treason in November 1979,
making a veiled reference, after the flight of Burgess and Maclean in 1951, and
then Philby in 1963, to the Fourth and Fifth Men in the scandal as ‘Maurice’
and ‘Basil’ respectively. Shortly after his book was published, the periodical Private Eye had revealed that Maurice
was in fact Anthony Blunt, and Margaret Thatcher had, in two separate sessions
in the House of Commons, on November 15 and 21, admitted that Blunt had been
granted a pardon sixteen years earlier in exchange for giving his interrogators
a full confession. (The authorities had no way of gauging how comprehensive the
information was that Blunt gave them: not surprisingly, he held back.) The
responses to the outing of Blunt, both from those who hounded him and those who
defended him, are not the concern of this report. Nor is the overall
embarrassment of the Security Service at the fact that the closely-guarded
secret of Blunt’s confession and pardon had been revealed. The focus is on the
secret source that Boyle dared not describe openly.
Goronwy Rees’s Quandary
Why did Rees grant Boyle such an extensive interview at this particular time – on his deathbed, when the revelations had already been published? Rees had had a chequered career, and a very troubling relationship with Guy Burgess. Burgess had recruited him as an informer in late 1937 or early 1938, when Rees was a Fellow of All Souls’ College at Oxford University, and had passed on to Burgess high-table titbits in which Burgess’s masters in Moscow were interested. Burgess had told Rees that he was working for the Comintern: we know this as Rees shared that fact with his lover, Rosamond Lehmann, and Lehmann later confirmed the story. (In an interview with John Costello, Lehmann provocatively dated the disclosure to ‘late 1936’, and declared that Rees threatened to strangle her if she mentioned it to anybody.) Burgess also confided to him at that time the name of Anthony Blunt as a fellow-conspirator: Rees described the incident in his 1972 memoir A Chapter of Accidents, but did not name the individual. (“I don’t suppose he could have named a person who could have carried more weight with me.”) When Burgess and Rees both learned, in late August 1939, of the Nazi-Soviet pact (which dashed any pretensions Communism had for being an antifascist force), however, Burgess had to claim that he had given up work for the Communists, since Rees defiantly declared he wanted nothing more to do with them. A few years later, in July 1943, Burgess was so afraid that Rees might betray him (and also Blunt, now with a critical post within MI5) that he even told his controllers he was willing to murder Rees, a suggestion that Moscow rejected as too melodramatic and dangerous.
I stay here with Rees’s
account of the saga in his memoir. Some time after the war, in July 1950, when
Burgess had been sent to Washington, Rees encountered Donald Maclean, whom he
had not seen for fifteen years. Maclean got drunk at the Gargoyle Club, and
made the famous observation to Rees: “I know all about you. You used to be one
of us, but you ratted”. Rees immediately realised that a) Maclean was surely
another spy in the Foreign Office, and b) Burgess had at some stage told
Maclean of Rees’s pivotal ‘betrayal’ of the movement in 1939. Several months
later, in May 1951, when Burgess had returned from Washington, Rees, now
Estates Bursar of All Souls, met him for a drink. He decided, however, not to mention
to Burgess the challenge he had received from Maclean. A few days later, on
Friday May 25, not many hours before the defectors took flight, Burgess called
Rees’s wife, Margie, on the telephone, and carried on a long incomprehensible
monologue with her. When Rees returned home on Sunday evening, he interpreted what
Burgess had said as some kind of warning and farewell message.
Rees’s first reaction was
dramatic. He claimed he told his wife: “He’s gone to Moscow” – perhaps not a
surprising conclusion. But he then took it upon himself to sound the alarm. He called
an unnamed ‘friend’ in SIS (MI6), saying that he thought MI5 should be told
that he had a hunch that Burgess had defected to Moscow. Was such an action
really justified? The only cause for concern was that ‘Jimmy’, Guy’s live-in
boyfriend (actually Jackie Hewitt), had also called Rees’s wife in a great
state of agitation, since Guy had not returned home on the Friday night,
something that, according to ‘Jimmy’, he had never done before. Margie Rees,
however, remarked to her husband that staying overnight with them without
telling anyone was something that Burgess had done ‘often enough’. Another
twist to the story, as told later by Miranda Carter in Anthony Blunt: His Lives (2001), is that Hewitt called Blunt first
to report Burgess’s disappearance, and then – against Blunt’s advice – called
For Rees to insert himself so
speedily in the hunt for a missing person – if indeed Guy would truly have been
considered ‘missing’ so soon – seems on reflection to have been either reckless
or the work of a busybody. Whatever Rees’s precise intentions, his contact in
SIS arranged for a meeting to be set up between Rees and MI5. That same evening,
however, according to A Chapter of
Accidents, Rees called another unnamed friend of Burgess’s, ‘who had served
in MI5 during the war’ to tell him of what he had done. This ex-officer was apparently
so troubled that he visited Rees on the Monday, trying to convince Rees that it
would be rash to disclose what he knew about Burgess, as it might all rebound
unpleasantly on him. Rees rejected his friend’s advice, and went ahead with his
meeting, convinced that now was the time to open up. He writes in his book that
appointment with MI5 occurred the next day. He then told his contact in MI5 that
he thought Burgess had gone to Moscow, and was then informed by the officer
(whom he also knew from his wartime days: one might ask why he did not contact
this officer directly in that case, rather than going through an intermediary)
that Burgess and Maclean, about to be dubbed ‘the missing diplomats’, had
absconded together. In his memoir, he claims he then experienced ‘a terrible
sinking of the heart’, and that ‘matters were even worse than I thought’.
That was in fact not how
matters evolved. What Rees did not say in his memoir was that when he had his
first meeting with the (unnamed) Guy Liddell, which was set up after a
provocative delay (i.e. not the very
next day), the latter was improbably accompanied by Anthony Blunt – the
‘ex-officer’ from the preceding paragraph. (I shall examine the whole timetable
in more detail later.) This was a somewhat inhibiting experience, since, in
Blunt’s presence, Liddell tried to ward Rees off making extravagant claims
about Guy Burgess. When this casual meeting was followed by a more formal
appointment with Liddell, Liddell was accompanied by Dick White, who was
heading the investigation into the disappearance of the Cambridge duo. Upset at
the way he was being treated by the two counter-intelligence officers, Rees
identified Blunt as a further conspirator, but Liddell and White responded
stonily, making Rees feel that he was the transgressor. They gave signs of knowing
then of Blunt’s past treachery (the evidence for which I have shown in Misdefending the Realm, but which is not
a fact that has been recognised in print elsewhere, I believe: see below). At
this stage Blunt showed all the calmness of one who knew that the authorities
were on his side.
It was not the way for Rees to
win friends and influence people. After an embarrassing flurry of media
attention in the following months of summer 1951, when he even chose to deny,
in the Daily Mail, Burgess’s possible
malfeasance, or even that his friend had been a Communist, Rees bit his tongue
for a few years. He was appointed Principal of the University College of Wales
in Aberystwyth, and then ruined his career in March 1956 by some ill-conceived
articles, published anonymously, but soon undeniably attributable to him, in The People. Spurred, and annoyed, by a
press conference given by Burgess and Maclean in Moscow, Rees had described the
treacherous behaviour of the pair, and warned of other traitors who needed to
be rooted out. The reaction was almost uniform: Rees was accused of being
disloyal to his friends, and was largely ostracised by former acquaintances. (I
have written about the bizarre exchange between him and Isaiah Berlin over the
incident in Misdefending the Realm.)
He was fired from the Principality, and surely did not lunch in Aberystwyth
again. At his death the University even refused to lower the flag to half-mast.
He struggled out of the limelight, issuing his rather sad but not completely
honest apologia in 1972, until Andrew
Boyle sought him out (according to Jenny Rees) in October 1978.
What emerges from all this is
that Rees was a psychological wreck. Having refrained from informing MI5 about
the treachery of Burgess (and Blunt) back in the thirties, partly because he
was to some extent guilty himself, but also because he did not want to snitch
on friends, it became more and more stressful to bottle things up. If he did
finally break his silence, he also feared that his interviewers might ask him:
‘Why did you not do this before?’ And if he said nothing, and the authorities
discovered from another source of his complicity in the subversion, it would be
too late to declare his knowledge of what was happening, and he would be as
guilty as his friends. This crisis contributed to his telling some untruths,
and making some rash statements that found favour with nobody. But how did he
know of Krivitsky in Moscow, and why would he make extravagant claims about
Andrew Boyle’s Quest
Andrew Boyle was best-known as
the editor of the BBC Radio 4 programme The
World at One, and had written some well-received biographies. Having
witnessed the fugitive Kim Philby follow his conspirators to Moscow in 1963, Boyle
set about discovering who the ‘Fourth and Fifth Men’ in the group were. He
stated in his Prologue to The Climate of
Treason (published in the USA as The
Fourth Man) that he had gained much of his information from CIA and FBI files
in Washington. That may have been partly
true, but it was also a feint to protect a number of retired and serving intelligence
officers in Britain who knew they were breaking the Official Secrets Act when
they divulged inside information to him. One major figure who spoke to him was
Dick White who, having headed both MI5 and SIS, and served as an intelligence
advisor to the Cabinet, had by then retired to Sussex. While Boyle minimised
the importance of the direct conversations he had had with White, he was
fascinated enough by them, after the publication of his book on the Cambridge
Five, to start to gather research for a biography of White. The project was eventually
abandoned, ostensibly because of Boyle’s illness and untimely death. Instead, the
journalist Tom Bower was given access to Boyle’s files, which resulted in his
profile of White, The Perfect English Spy,
which was published in 1995.
Boyle also understated the
contributions to his research provided by Goronwy Rees. In The Perfect English Spy, a rather undisciplined, and certainly
mistitled, compilation, Bower states that Boyle met Rees as early as May 1977,
where the academic, now a journalist, soon disclosed to him that Blunt was the
Fourth Man, a fact that Boyle managed to have confirmed by speaking to other
intelligence officers. He thus arranged a series of interviews with White, who
was writing a history of MI5 that was planned to be part of the series of
British Intelligence under the overall editorship of Professor Harry Hinsley.
In the wake of the attempts to identify Communist moles within the intelligence
services, White was trying to rebuild the reputation of MI5 and SIS by
describing its successes, primarily the wartime Double Cross Operation. After
long discussions, Boyle let drop his suspicions about Blunt, and was testily
warned by White to stay off ‘that difficult and embarrassing ground’. White
added, rather paradoxically, that he ‘knew nothing about that subject,
whatsoever’. After a few months, however, White had to change his tune, as
general media coverage, and what Boyle had uncovered, suggested to him that
journalists were better at uncovering skulduggery than were his own officers.
He decided to face the inevitable while trying to protect MI5’s reputation in
the whole sordid affair. He effectively confirmed Blunt’s treachery, and made
only trivial comments when he reviewed Boyle’s manuscript in April 1979. (For
libel reasons, the text concealed the names of Blunt and the gentleman
considered at that time to be the Fifth Man, Wilfrid Mann.)
The account by Jenny Rees,
Goronwy’s daughter, in Looking for Mr.
Nobody (1994) differs, not only chronologically. She complemented the
evidence derived from her father, not always the most reliable of witnesses,
with information gained from later publications, but still stressed her
father’s role as a collaborator with Boyle, as ‘together, they were putting
together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle’. But Boyle may not have told Rees immediately
about everything he had gathered, as Goronwy wrote a letter, a few months
before the book was published, to his friend Micky Burn (who had been a friend
of Burgess’s), saying: “He told me, among other things, that our friend AB [Blunt]
had actually confessed, but it would have caused too much of a scandal to do
anything about it. This was on the personal authority of Dick White, but please
don’t mention it . . .” Boyle may have kept that observation out of
the notes that eventually fell to Bower: it might also explain his reluctance
to conclude the biographical project, as it might have turned out to be
unfavourable. Rees was by then, however, a very sick man. He was admitted to
Charing Cross Hospital because of cancer at the beginning of November 1979, and
soon experienced an unpleasant jolt when, because of a missing line in a Daily Mail review of The Climate of Treason, the article
suggested that Rees himself had recruited Kim Philby.
After Private Eye made the identification clear, Blunt made a statement
blaming Rees for his unmasking, and then went into hiding. This is an important
fact, as the fatally ill Rees was to become a convenient dumping-ground for all
manner of accusations that must have been preying on Boyle’s mind. Prime
Minister Thatcher’s admission of Blunt’s guilt, and of his confession to the
authorities in 1964 (after a broad pointer from Michael Straight in the USA)
referred to Rees’s act of informing MI5 of Blunt’s treachery (without
identifying Rees by name), claiming that the accusation had been dismissed
because of lack of evidence. That was another lie prepared for the PM. I have
shown, in Misdefending the Realm, how
White and Liddell had assuredly had to face the truth of Blunt’s espionage when
they caught his accomplice Leo Long (arguably the Sixth Man) in the act of
purloining secrets from MI14 during the war. Moreover, Blunt’s communism had
already come under the very opaque MI5 microscope when he was recruited by
Military Intelligence in 1939, and then by MI5 in July 1940. Rees watched Mrs.
Thatcher’s announcement from his hospital bed, and derived much satisfaction from
the knowledge that the villain had been brought out into the open at last. In
the Observer the following Sunday,
Boyle acknowledged Rees’s contribution in nailing the art historian. That same
day, Rees went into a coma.
With the consideration that
the exact timing – or even genuineness – of all these events may be open to
some debate, the documentary evidence of what Boyle engineered in the winter of
1979-80 is incontrovertible. Rees came out of his coma after a week, but his
health steadily declined. Nevertheless, Boyle arranged to speak to him, and
encouraged him to contribute to a testimony that appeared as the two Observer articles. On the day he died,
December 12, Rees wrote to Jenny of the long pieces that Boyle had written
based on their recent conversations: “They will appear after Christmas, and
are, I think, very good.” It is clear that he approved of the texts, and
supported Boyle’s aims. Jenny Rees informs us, according to what her sister
Lucy told her (Jenny lived in Brittany at the time), that her father resisted
seeing Boyle at first, but Boyle was then a man on a mission, and must have
persuaded Rees to participate in creating the bizarre testimony that ended up
in the Observer.
The first of the articles,
published on January 13, can be seen at https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP90-00552R000100600022-2.pdf . Immediately, we can note a
discrepancy in the accounts: Boyle claims that, when he regained consciousness after
his coma, ‘the only visitor he asked to see was Andrew Boyle’. If Rees had
indeed had a preview of the articles, that would appear to contradict what his
daughters passed on to us. Perhaps Rees did not think that his coma was
‘consistent with his malignant condition’ (as one doctor had advised his
family) and may have been induced by a malevolent outside agent, and thus
wanted to impart extra information to Boyle in a hurry. As Boyle tells the
story, Rees was roused to anger by Blunt’s ‘disingenuous replies’ in an interview
broadcast on November 22. Yet, as Jenny rightly points out, the text that
follows does not sound like a natural conversation, especially from a dying
man. It is scripted, unnatural, with Rees melodramatically appealing to Boyle
as if in a poorly constructed novel: “You, Andrew, [who else, in a duologue?] were largely instrumental in exposing him
publicly as a Soviet spy.” What follows is a narrative about Rees’s life that
must have also been very familiar to Boyle, not meriting the dying man’s wasted
breaths. It was a show designed for the chattering classes.
And then we come to the critical
leading questions on Maclean: “Was that the only occasion on which Maclean came
into your life? Did anything occur at that time which might have alerted you to
the double life he was already leading as a Soviet agent?”, asks Boyle. Rees
has to think about this, as if it were all impromptu. He then comes up with new
details about ‘Barbara’, a mutual friend, a photographer with a studio in
Mayfair, who one day told Rees about Maclean’s skill with a camera. And
suddenly, after all those years when, in decent health, he might have
considered such details more constructively, he comes up with the linkage to
Krivitsky, and how the defector had seen, in Moscow, specimens of Maclean’s
handiwork (presumably photographs he took rather than documents with Maclean’s
signature on them, although how Krivitsky knew that Maclean had photocopied
them himself is not explained). Yet the
vital salient fact is that, according to the report on Krivitsky compiled by
Jane Archer in the spring of 1940, Krivitsky had never identified Maclean by
name, and thus had been unable to ascribe documents he had seen in Moscow to Maclean’s
doing. It was that failure by MI5 to follow up on clear hints to Maclean’s
identity that had brought a heap of justifiable criticism to the Security
Service, and especially to Guy Liddell and Dick White. To what source could
Rees (and Boyle, his stooge in this conversation) possibly have been referring?
Before I switch to exploring
Krivitsky’s role in this adventure, however, I must inspect two clearly stated
hints that appear in The Climate of
Treason, but seem to have been overlooked by everyone, including Dick White,
presumably, when he had a chance to vet the proofs. While the Archer report
(which was eventually released to the National Archives in KV2-805, and can be
read in Gary Kern’s 2004 package of documents on Soviet intelligence, Walter G. Krivitsky: MI5 Debriefing)
gives vague background hints to Maclean’s identity, Boyle went to two outside
sources for some of his information. In chapter 6 of his book, he records the verifiable
evidence that Krivitsky asserted that the second spy in the Foreign Office ‘was
a Scotsman of good family, educated at Eton and at Oxford, and an idealist who
worked for the Russians without payment’. Krivitsky was wrong about the
candidate’s precise educational background, but was giving reasonably warm
tips. Then without defining the exact source, Boyle goes on to say that the spy
‘occasionally wore a cape and dabbled in artistic circles’, as if Krivitsky had
also provided this information.
This line has been quoted also
by Robert Cecil (in his 1988 biography of Maclean, A Divided Life), merely giving a reference for it of ‘FBI’, and by Roland
Philipps (in his 2018 A Spy Named Orphan),
with Phillips giving a precise reference (WFO 65-5648 from the ‘FBI Vaults
online’), while suggesting also that Victor Mallet, the chargé d’affaires in Washington, heard of the statement. The phrase
was reputedly included in the report that Mallet, on behalf of Lord Lothian,
sent to MI5, and which prompted London to invite Krivitsky there for
discussions. The archives at Kew inform us that, after Levine’s visit on
September 3, Mallet immediately communicated with Alexander Cadogan, the
Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office, who then delegated action to
Gladwyn Jebb, the Foreign Office liaison to the intelligence services. Levine,
on the other hand, in his Plain Talk
article written in 1948, asserted that he dealt solely with Lothian until the
latter received confirmation from London a couple of weeks later that King had
been identified as a spy, and that it was only then that Lothian introduced
Mallet to him. The cables indicate otherwise. We must therefore bear in mind
that Levine’s accounts may not be completely reliable, and that he could have
been trying to elevate the role he played.
What Mallet wrote, thereafter,
in the only extant memorandum to Jebb, was a profile that indicates that lines had
been crossed somewhere: ‘a Scotsman of very good family, a well-known
painter, and perhaps also a sculptor’, in connection with someone who had
abetted in providing arms to Spain. (Despite Mallet’s belief to the contrary,
Krivitsky did know the name of his
agent who bought ‘arms for Spain’: it was Henri Pieck. And Pieck was, indeed, a painter and graphic
artist. Typical of the confusion sown was a message from Washington where a
character named ‘K’ was being interpreted as meaning ‘King’, when it in fact
meant ‘Krivitsky’.) Yet, even
though the ‘cape’ delineation is the closest indication we have of a
description from someone who actually met Maclean, it never appears in the
Archer report. There is, furthermore, no record of it in the Krivitsky files at
Kew, where the single confidential memorandum above is presented, but not the
full correspondence between Mallet and Jebb. Krivitsky presumably did not
repeat the phrase in London, or, if he did, for some reason the team overlooked
The intricacies of the
supposed statements by Krivitsky – or, more accurately, by his guide,
ghost-writer and translator Isaac Don Levine, who told officials of the British
Embassy in Washington facts without letting Krivitsky know what he was doing – and
where they were recorded, and how they have been distorted, are such that they
merit a complete blog to themselves, and I shall thus defer a full analysis for
another time. Suffice it now to clarify
five important points:
The extended communication chain of Krivitsky-Levine-Lothian-Mallet-Cadogan-Jebb-Liddell was bound to introduce some misunderstandings at some stage.
It is probable that Mallet and Jebb concealed from MI5 and SIS exactly what Mallet exchanged with Jebb in their ‘most secret’ communications;
We must remember that, when Krivitsky faced his interrogators in London, he did not know that Levine had told them anything about Soviet spies in the UK government (or, at least, that is what we have been led to believe);
Krivitsky himself behaved very deviously with his interrogators: if he had really wanted to help identify the anonymous spy in the Foreign Office, he would have provided them with clearer clues rather than the deliberately vague and misleading hints that Jane Archer extracted from him.
If Archer and her colleagues had really studied all Krivitsky’s pronouncements from articles published in the USA more thoroughly, they would have been able to apply far more pressure on him.
I thus return to the statement about the cape – the visual clue which is the closest we get to a suggestion that one of Krivitsky’s informers had actually encountered Maclean. Where did it originate? A startling item of data appears on page 460, as Note 24 to the ‘cape’ sentence (only) in Chapter 6 of A Climate of Treason. Boyle writes of the source: “FBI/CIA files, incorporating testimony of Isaac Don Levine and Walter Krivitsky. Apart from the Lothian report to the Foreign Office [sic, not to MI5], earlier evidence had been submitted on Krivitsky’s behalf by Wilfrid le Gallienne, a British diplomat *. In this evidence the unnamed ‘idealist of a good family’ had already proved his value by providing photocopies of proceedings of the Committee of Imperial Defence, seen by Krivitsky on his final visit to Moscow before defecting to the West. The photocopying was done in a Pimlico flat ” (my italics). Yet no explanatory information for this cryptic reference is provided. The apparently French connection is intriguing, since Krivitsky had, according to Kern and others, left massive amounts of testimony about his European spy network with the Sûreté in Paris before he left for the Americas in 1938. These volumes mysteriously disappeared at some stage, but is it possible that a British diplomat in the French capital had glimpsed what Krivitsky revealed of the UK group? Lastly, I remind readers that Krivitsky’s ‘final visit to Moscow’ concluded on May 22, 1937.
[* Probably Wilfred Gallienne,
1897-1956. Gallienne was born in Guernsey. Having been chargé d’affaires and consul for four years in Tallinn, Estonia, he
was appointed Ambassador on April 26, 1940. How Gallienne might have been
encountered Krivitsky is not easily explained: Kern does not mention him. After
the Soviet invasion of Estonia, Gallienne undertook a train journey from Moscow
to Tokyo in August 1940: the timing is inappropriate, the connection to
Krivitsky obscure. Gallienne was intriguingly appointed British consul in New
York in January 1941, a couple of weeks before Krivitsky’s death, but Boyle
writes of ‘earlier evidence’ suggesting, at the latest, summer 1939. Alternatively,
but less probably, Boyle could have meant Richard de Gallienne, 1866-1947,
poet, essayist and critic, who wrote from Paris to H. Montgomery Hyde in 1938,
and could have thus run across Krivitsky there. The Hyde lead is intriguing,
since he joined SIS in 1940, and then worked for British Security Coordination
in New York. He later wrote several books on intelligence. A promising letter
from Gallienne’s step-daughter, Gwen, to Montgomery Hyde, however, turns out to
be concerned with Hyde’s enthusiasm for homosexual law reform, not espionage.
(My thanks to the Record Office at Liverpool Libraries for providing a
photocopy of the letter.) A longshot could be that Boyle misinterpreted his
source, and was referring to GALLENI, the alias of the illegal Dmitri
Bystrolyotov, who almost became Maclean’s (or King’s) handler in 1936, and also
managed Henri Pieck for a while. Yet supplying motivation and opportunity for
Bystrolyotov to speak up for Krivitsky is a struggle. Whichever source is correct,
it is astonishing to me that the ‘de Gallienne’ lead was not substantiated,
verified, or followed up by anyone. A research task for another day. Lastly, I should declare an interest: I am a
descendant of the Galliennes of the Channel Islands through my maternal grandmother.
The first part of Boyle’s
explanation does not make sense. To begin with, the CIA was not created until
after the war, and it is highly unlikely that original statements made by
Krivitsky about a spy in the British Foreign Office would appear only in an FBI
file. Philipps’ citation of a detailed reference appears to be false: I have
asked the author about it, and he states that he was relying on Cecil, and
inserted it as a kind of guess by default. (Research at the National Archives
and Records Administration indicates that the record cited concerns a possible
Soviet double-agent, Nosenko.) One can find another statement about the hints
to Maclean in an article, Who Killed
Krivitsky?, by the American journalist Flora Lewis published in the Washington Post of February 13, 1966, to
commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Krivitsky’s death. (It appears as
an Appendix to Krivitsky’s In Stalin’s
Secret Service). A clipping of the article appears in the Krivitsky file at
the FBI Vault, which might explain later references. This text reads as follows:
“Krivitsky described another agent in the British Foreign Office, a dashing
Scotsman given to smoking a pipe and sometimes wearing a cape.” But no mention
of ‘dabbling in artistic circles’. (And smoking a pipe was hardly a
characteristic likely to distinguish a British civil servant from the herd in
the 1930s.) Astonishingly, Lewis provides no source for her citation, and she
includes multiple egregious errors in her account of the Krivitsky/Levine
approach to the British. (One of the few weaknesses of Kern’s book is that he
pays close attention to what she writes about Krivitsky’s death while ignoring
her very palpable errors concerning transatlantic matters.) But was there a
missing Krivitsky document to which she referred, perhaps?
This whole farrago is muddied even further by John Costello, who wrote his in-depth analysis of the whole business, The Mask of Treachery, in 1988. Costello did not help his cause by writing imprecisely about who was saying what. “He also referred to another traitor in the Foreign Office ‘whose name was Scottish and whose habits were Bohemian’”, he wrote, on page 345, as if Krivitsky had said this before the initial message arrived on Alexander Cadogan’s desk, when we know that it was Levine who provided the information. Furthermore, Costello attributed this statement in his Notes to one of the Saturday Evening Post articles from April 1939, as well as to Levine’s Stalin’s Great Secret (p 140). Yet neither source shows evidence of any such description: Jane Archer of MI5 had read the Saturday Evening Post articles that summer, and would surely have noticed such a statement, anyway. Levine’s book did not come out until 1956: it contains only 126 pages, with no mention of Krivitsky. (In Plain Talk, in November 1948, Levine did write, however, that he “learned that the second agent was of Scottish origin, with an artistic background”.) Costello then shed doubt on the case for Maclean, agreeing with the author Richard Deacon, and pointed his suspicion towards Lord Inverchapel (then Archibald Clark Kerr), who would in 1942 replace Stafford Cripps as His Majesty’s Ambassador in Moscow. Yet Kerr was posted to Iraq between 1935 and 1938.
Even if Krivitsky did not know
the name of his agent, Lewis’s phrase would suggest that he knew what the spy
looked like. And in his 1973 memoir, Eyewitness
to History, Isaac Don Levine reinforced that notion, on p 191, with the
following startling revelation: “Krivitsky could describe his appearance, he
knew something of his background, he did not know his name.” (In his 1956
evidence to Congress, Levine merely paraphrased what Krivitsky told him as
member of a Scottish family and a young intellectual communist with artistic
interests’, echoing his Plain Talk
be able to describe someone’s appearance strongly suggests that one is not
relying on second-hand impressions. Unfortunately, Levine shed no new light on
capes, pipes, artistic circles, bohemian habits, or even hints of Caledonian élan, but it is worth mentioning that,
in making the arrangements for Krivitsky’s passage to England at the end of
1939, Levine said that Krivitsky was nervous because he had travelled to the UK
once before, probably undetected, but no doubt on a false passport, and thus
might have feared being arrested. And, as I indicated above, Krivitsky told
Levine his knowledge about the spies in the Foreign Office in confidence, and
did not know that Levine had passed on the hints to the British Embassy in
Washington. One of the benefits to the British was that they were able to
impress Krivitsky with the fact that King was already behind bars when he
arrived in January 1940, and thus give the defector the impression that British
Intelligence was much smarter than he thought it was. Yet Krivitsky never told
his interrogators that he could ‘describe the spy’s appearance.’
Given this muddle, and the
absence of evidence elsewhere, the second part of Boyle’s Note has therefore to
be taken more seriously. But what was the purpose of presenting, in 1979, this
gratuitous factoid, and why could Boyle not be more explicit about the ‘de Gallienne’
informant? If the source of the original documents was not identifiable, why
was the location of their copying, but not the camera-operator, worth
mentioning? Why would Boyle refer to Pimlico as the location, but encourage
Rees to cite a studio in Mayfair? Yet the Note does suggest that someone not
only knew that Maclean had provided photocopies, but could also locate the studio
where he had performed the job. Was that a hint that the purloiner had been the
copier? If that was known, why could it not be declared openly? I shall return
to this point later.
An accurate recording of Krivitsky’s
chronology is essential for setting Boyle’s claims in a proper context. (I
shall not provide here a full summary of his life: readers can go for that to Misdefending the Realm, or, better
still, to Gary Kern’s superlative biography, A Death in Washington.) All that is necessary to know here is that
Walter Krivitsky had been head of Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU) in
western Europe, had defected in 1937 after seeing his colleague Ignace Reiss
killed by Stalin’s assassins, survived two assassination attempts in France, and
had made his way to the USA. There he struggled with residency permits,
suspiciousness on the part of the FBI because he was defector, attacks from the
right because he was a communist, and from the left because he was anti-Stalin,
and disdain from the White House because he was rocking the boat against the
USA’s future ally, for whom Roosevelt harboured some ideological sympathy. After
his intermediary Isaac Don Levine revealed to Lord Lothian, the British
ambassador in Washington, the existence of a Soviet spy named King in the
Foreign Office, and hints of a second agent there, Krivitsky was brought over
in January 1940 to London, under conditions of extreme secrecy, to be
interrogated by officers of MI5 and SIS about possible other infiltrators in
Britain’s political hallways. It was then that he gave broad tips to the
identities of Kim Philby and Donald Maclean that were not followed up.
Krivitsky died in a Washington hotel, in January 1941, almost certainly shot by
Stalin’s hitmen, in circumstances that were made to look like a suicide.
What is critical to this story is the fact that Krivitsky’s last visit to Moscow took place in May 1937: he left there for the Hague on May 22. Thus any evidence of espionage records that he described to his British interrogators must refer to a period before then. This fact is important, as Maclean’s chief courier (and soon lover) was one Kitty Harris, a Moscow agent who had travelled widely, and had even engaged in a probably bigamous marriage with the founder of the Communist Party of the USA, Earl Browder. The leading biographers of Maclean, Roland Philipps (A Spy Named Orphan, 2018) and Michael Holzman (Idealism and Espionage, 2014) both suggest that Harris and Maclean met for the first time some months after Kitty returned from Moscow after intensive training (in wireless and photography) in May 1937. Philipps sets the date as late as April 1938, indicating that Harris had spent some time in the USA: Holzman merely states ‘early 1938’. Both appear to derive their information from Igor Damaskin’s The Spy With Seventeen Names (2000), a work that the author claimed was based on reliable Soviet archives, but which, he has since admitted, contains some romantic flourishes and innovations. What neither author points out, however, is that Damaskin relates how Harris was working as a courier between London and Paris as early as 1936, before being summoned to Moscow in January 1937 for training. Thus she might well have been used as an intermediary for Maclean in this period, and the dramatic first encounter (using coded phrases) that Damaskin describes could have been an invention. Overall, Kitty Harris’s movements in the late thirties are more easily verifiable than her exploits in China the previous decade.
What Damaskin does not report,
however, is that, while in Moscow, Harris, who was an NKVD operative *, had a
meeting with Krivitsky, as they were both staying at the Savoy Hotel. In his
memoir, In Stalin’s Secret Service,
based on his 1939 Saturday Evening Post
articles, Krivitsky explained that he was looking for a woman agent for
Switzerland, and Harris was sent to him to be interviewed, as if he did not
know who she was. (“She had been described to me as the former wife of Earl
Browder . . .”) It is a rather disingenuous statement by Krivitsky, as he later
admitted, to Ruth Shipley of the State Department, that Earl Browder’s sister,
Marguerite, going under the name of Jane Montgomery, had been an agent working
for him in Berlin, while in his book he declares only that Marguerite ‘was then
in our service in Central Europe’, and that Kitty ‘spoke well’ of her. It was
this encounter that enabled him later to recognise Kitty in a photograph, but
he seemed to want to distance himself from both agents in any written account.
[ * The state intelligence
service, the future KGB, previously the OGPU, was titled the NKVD between 1934
Nevertheless, Krivitsky claimed
that he approved Kitty’s assignment to a foreign post without resolving for us
the issues of how NKVD and GRU responsibilities and agents were shared or
allocated, or why she was not suitable for Switzerland, or how the coincidence
of her ending up as the handler for Maclean occurred. The details he provided,
however, constitute reasonably solid evidence that the encounter did in fact
happen. And one can understand, perhaps, why the Moscow organs did not want to
have Krivitsky’s name soiling the heroic biography that Damaskin was
concocting. It is another reason why Damaskin’s accounts have to be taken with
some scepticism, and his assertions verified from another source, if possible.
Yet we have to remind ourselves that Krivitsky was devious too, as the ‘kriv’
origin (= ‘crooked’) of his assumed name tells us.
When Kitty Harris landed in
London in April 1938, Maclean advised her to rent an apartment where she could
perform photography, and she took up a flat in Bayswater, where, so Maclean
said, he went from his own place in Oakley Street, in Chelsea, twice a week
with papers ‘borrowed’ from the Foreign Office, to have them photocopied. Other
accounts suggest that Kitty came to his flat, and copied them there: that is
unlikely. We must draw two conclusions from this timeline: even if the district
of Pimlico, indicated by Boyle, might have been a mistake, Kitty Harris was
certainly not the agent responsible for getting documents to Moscow that
Krivitsky would have been able to see, but it is quite possible that Kitty
could have been the source of Krivitsky’s impressions of the character and
employment of Maclean if she did indeed act solely as a courier in 1936.
Maclean Delivers the Goods
1936 was a very productive
year for Maclean, although the evidence is a little contradictory. John Costello
and Oleg Tsarev, in Deadly Illusions
(1993), claim that he was ordered by his ‘illegal’ * NKVD handler Alexander Orlov
not to supply any documents in the first few months of the year, but instead
focus on finding his way properly around the Foreign Office. Orlov, when he had
to make a speedy exit from London in October 1935, had taken with him a copy of
a letter from Lord Simon congratulating Maclean on his acceptance into the
Foreign Office, something that was ‘read with glee in the Lubyanka’, according
to Costello and Tsarev. Orlov thus had to leave another renowned illegal, Arnold
Deutsch, in charge. A few months later, Orlov wrote, in a memorandum to
Slutsky, the head of the Foreign Department of the NKVD, that Maclean was ready
for ‘full activation’ on March 26. Yet the same authors report that Maclean had
already provided Deutsch with his first batch of documents in January. Maclean and
Deutsch must have ignored Orlov’s instructions.
[* ‘illegal’: an agent operating without protection of Soviet diplomatic cover, probably in the country on a false passport]
In April 1936, the Politburo decided that Orlov should be sent to Spain, and Theodore Mally, another Great Illegal, who had originally been sent to the UK, in January 1936, to handle the other spy in the Foreign Office, was appointed the chief illegal rezident in England. Deutsch thus started working for Mally. This was also the time when Kitty Harris was assigned to Mally, and started acting as a courier. Moreover, Deutsch was to meet Krivitsky for the first time, in Paris, in June 1936, so that encounter could have provided another opportunity for the achievements of their young star to be communicated and lauded. Nigel West and Tsarev, in The Crown Jewels (1998), assert that Deutsch started working for himself again at the end of August, only to be re-assigned to Mally in January 1937. It might have all been rather confusing for Maclean, and the NKVD infrastructure was not very stable, but the documents got through.
Krivitsky referred to some
important documents that he had seen on three occasions, in 1936 and 1937, in
Moscow. On the last, he had called on Slutsky (see above), who was a friend.
Slutsky, clearly well-briefed by Orlov, handed him the latest book of extracts of
information from the ‘Imperial Council’ source, which were treated with special
respect, as they dealt with vital information concerning the political
situation in Berlin. They were in fact minutes of the Committee of Imperial
Defence, and we can rely on the inspection of the same by Tsarev to understand
that Maclean had been the source of the originals that had been photocopied in
London. Security in the western department, where Maclean worked, was
notoriously lax, and Maclean was able to help himself to any number of
telegrams, reports from SIS, and transcriptions from deciphered foreign reports,
as well as to re-assure his controllers that Britain was not making
breakthroughs in cryptology against Soviet ciphers. The trove from the latter
part of 1936 was especially valuable, culminating in the delivery of the
complete minutes of the meeting of the Imperial Defence Committee of December
20, at which Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was not the only prominent
How were these documents photographed? Costello and Tsarev tell the story as follows: When Maclean handed over bundles of documents “ . . . they were then photographed in the apartment of HERTA, another codename used by the female courier PFEIL. They were returned to Maclean the next day, so he could take them back the following day. For the most secret ‘blue jackets’ containing signals intelligence which Maclean could only obtain access to during office hours, he had been given a roll-flex camera so that he could photograph them himself in situ.” Michael Holzman, using information from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service in Moscow (‘Sketches of History’), says that the documents ‘were photographed on a “flat carrier” at the NKVD residency and given back to him so that the next day he could return them to their proper places in the Foreign Office files.’ Holzman echoes the claim that Mally gave Donald a miniature camera. Thus Maclean may have been an occasional photographer, but there was no indication that he maintained his own studio.
PFEIL (German) or STRELA (Russian), in English ARROW, was the cryptonym initially given jointly to Alexander Tudor-Hart and his wife, Edith (née Suschitsky). Edith had been born in Vienna, and was a close friend of Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedmann. She was a renowned photographer, and, according to West and Tsarev, maintained a studio in Brixton, which was not really convenient for quick turn-rounds from Chelsea, but could have served as an overnight operation. Ironically, MI5 kept a constant watch on Tudor-Hart: she was implicated in the Percy Glading spy affair, since a Leica camera belonging to her had been found on Glading’s premises. MI5 interviewed her in March 1938, but again failed to join up the dots: Tudor-Hart simply denied knowing how Glading could have acquired the camera, and MI5 dropped the investigation. She was later divorced from her husband, in 1940: he had gone to Spain with the Republicans Medical Aid Committee. Tudor-Hart has obtained a somewhat mythic status among the friends of Stalin, a reputation that is probably overstated.
Philipps claims that Deutsch ‘would meet Maclean on his way home to Chelsea, take the files to his photographer and then meet Maclean again in Chelsea late in the evening so that he could give the documents back for their return to the office.’ That sounds like a dangerous routine that should have been avoided, as it was too predictable and regular, and presumably also made Maclean’s social life rather dreary. A visit to Brixton and back, including a session in the dark room, would have been well nigh impossible. The source, however, was Kim Philby in a STASI training-video, so we should not rely on that too heavily. Other accounts suggest that Maclean was encouraged to pass on documents on Fridays, so that the photographer would have more time to work on them before the next business day. Tudor-Hart was also reported to have acted as courier, taking photographs clandestinely to Copenhagen, which would indicate that dealing with the Soviet Embassy was considered too risky. Yet it would have taken Tudor-Hart out of action for long stretches, provoked suspicion as she returned through customs each time, and extended the delay after which Moscow could view the secrets. Deutsch wrote for her file that she was ‘modest, diligent, and brave’, but also rather careless, though he might have been covering up his own clumsiness in that memorandum. And, since Tudor-Hart was also a well-known photographer for children, she attracted more attention than was appropriate. (But not the scrupulous attention from MI5 that she merited.)
A study of Tudor-Hart’s files at the National Archives suggests a more complicated story, however. The address at Brixton was probably that of her husband, with whom she was not living permanently. Surveillance reports indicate that she was living alone at Haverstock Hill, in Belsize Park, NW3 (very close to the celebrated Lawn Road flats, where communists and illegals resided). There she maintained her studio, from April 1935 until at least February 1936, and probably until late 1937. For a while, in the summer of 1937, she was reported as staying with her husband in Acre Lane, Brixton – somewhat astonishingly in the company of Margaret Moxon, described as the wife of Arthur Wynn, who would later be unveiled as the leader of the ‘Oxford Ring’ of Soviet spies – and departed thence to collect her mother from Vienna. On August 27, 1937, landing from Ostend, she gave the authorities an address of 132C, Sutherland Avenue, Maida Vale, and by the following January, she was reported living at that address, with her studio moved to Duke Street, off Oxford Street. To muddy the waters even further, when a suspected communist Siegfried Baruch was interrogated on arrival in February 1938, he communicated with Tudor-Hart at an address in Halsey Street, Knightsbridge. The conclusion concerning Maclean would appear to be that the peripatetic Tudor-Hart, if she did carry out the photographing of documents during 1936, would have performed the procedure from her studio in Belsize Park, and it is highly unlikely that she moved her operation from one side of London to unfashionable Brixton. (By 1939, she had moved to 128 Alexander Road, Hampstead.)
There was, however, another
photographer working for Mally at that time, someone called Wolf Levit, and his
story really belongs to that of another spy.
The Demise of Captain King
Much has been made of the
rivalry between the Soviet GRU (Military Intelligence) and OGPU or NKVD (State
Intelligence), but Krivitsky’s close involvement in NKVD espionage operations
in Britain in the mid-1930s shows that a more cooperative atmosphere was evolving.
The frequent exchanges that he, as a GRU officer, had with NKVD agents and
illegals is explained by the MI5 report, which informs us that, under the
commission granted to him in 1935, Krivitsky was entitled to look into Mally’s
organisation. Krivitsky was based in the Hague in the Netherlands, and was also
allowed to use NKVD agents for his own operations if it was convenient. He
himself indicated that the NKVD had begun to take over the functions and
personnel of the GRU in 1935-36, and in May 1937 the Fourth Department of the
Red Army General Staff (which was the official name of the Foreign Branch of
military intelligence) was transferred to the Commissariat of Internal Affairs,
under Nikolai Yezhov. This background manoeuvring helps explain why Krivitsky
became so involved with the decisions concerning NKVD agents.
This was true in the case of John King, a clerk in the cipher department of the Foreign Office. King, who had money troubles, was recruited by the NKVD in March 1935, and quickly provided a steady stream of notes, and summaries of cables – but not yet photocopies. Moscow wanted originals, however. The NKVD infrastructure was stretched: King was handled by a Dutchman called Henri Pieck, but Pieck was under surveillance, and had to restrict his visits to the United Kingdom. In May 1935, Mally came back to London to review the situation, and recommended that King be handled by Orlov. This suggestion was rejected by Moscow Centre, as Orlov (and Deutsch) were too occupied with handling Percy Glading and the burgeoning Cambridge spies. In June, Moscow then made the superficially astonishing decision that Krivitsky should handle King, perhaps because Krivitsky actually controlled the NKVD agent Pieck, and was geographically close to him. While this was being considered, Mally returned to London to set up an apartment in Buckingham Gate, ostensibly for Pieck’s business, and rented by Pieck’s partner, Conrad Parlianti, which King then visited practically every day, taking documents for a quick turn-round of photocopying.
Mally was clearly concerned about King’s status. Because of morale problems, he could not be left unsupervised for long, and Mally doubted that Krivitsky (who at that time did not speak English, and would have had visa problems getting into the UK) would be able to take over such an important responsibility. Hence Mally went to the Hague to speak to Krivitsky in December 1935, and apparently convinced Krivitsky that he should abandon the idea of taking on the supervision of King: he, Pieck and Mally decided that this valuable spy needed to be controlled by Mally himself. Mally thus returned to London, and had his first meeting with King at the 34 Buckingham Gate apartment on January 6, 1936. What is truly significant about this episode is that Krivitsky was fully briefed on John King, his motivations, his employment, his access, and the existence of the convenient address at Buckingham Gate (which is actually in Westminster, close to the Foreign Office, on the border with Pimlico).
Yet complications ensued. MI5
learned that the Buckingham Gate address was registered in the name of Pieck’s
company. The British commercial attaché in the Hague, John Hooper, who might
have been trying to recruit Pieck to SIS, attended a house-warming party at Pieck’s
new apartment in the Hague, and revealed to Pieck that British intelligence
knew about his past. Pieck immediately let Krivitsky know of the peril they
were now in, and informed Mally that no more rendezvous could be held there. The
fact was that Pieck’s business partner Parlianti, with whom Pieck’s wife was in
love, was an informer for MI5, and Parlianti discovered the camera studio at
Buckingham Gate. As West and Tsarev relate it: “A replacement was rented and
the meetings were resumed with the previous frequency.” They do not tell us where the replacement
address was located.
Buckingham Gate may have been used as a drop-off point for some while after that, as Krivitsky told his MI5 interrogators that a young Englishman, Brian Goold-Verschoyle (who met a grisly end in the Soviet Union in 1942, murdered by the NKVD as a ‘Trotskyist’) was used to fetch packages from that location and deliver them to Mally. “If the material contained matter of urgent importance HARDT [Mally] telegraphed its contents to Moscow through the Soviet Embassy. If not, he sent it by Brian Goold-Verschoyle, or by another courier to Wolf Levit to be photographed”, ran Jane Archer’s account. Levit was apparently a GRU man, and Krivitsky had the authority to move him from Paris to London specifically to address the need for photographing King’s documents. William E. Duff, in his account of the Great Illegals, A Time For Spies (1999), locates Levit’s studio off Belsize Park in London NW3, much further away from the centre of London than Brixton, and in the opposite direction, (and, of course, close to Tudor-Hart’s studio). Duff states that Levit also acted as a courier for the photographs he took. It was not an efficient way of doing things.
The time of these Great
Illegals was winding down. Mally was appointed chief illegal resident in April
1936. He and his wife had arrived as ‘Hardts’ on their passport: MI5 noticed
their arrival with suspicion, but did nothing. Mally quickly concluded that the
volume of material coming from Maclean was so great and so important that he
needed a dedicated handler. Mally could not give him enough attention, since he
was occupied with all his other recruitment and management duties. According to
Costello and Tsarev, Moscow Centre responded promptly, saying that another famous
illegal, Dmitry Bystrolyotov, would be coming over to handle Maclean.
Bystrolyotov’s biographer, Emil Draitser, claims that the agent was sent over
to handle King, perhaps to free up Mally. Irrespective of the exact mission, however, Bystrolyotov
fell into disfavour, and was prohibited from travelling. (He later endured a
long period of torture and incarceration, but escaped a bullet in the back of
the neck.) Mally thus had to continue to handle Maclean himself. Early in 1937 the
rezident also realised that there was
a lot of overlap in the documents coming from King and Maclean, which
diminished King’s importance somewhat. Furthermore, by April 1937 Mally had
also recruited John Cairncross, so he had yet another source in the Foreign
Office. Mally was also involved in trying to set up another photography studio
in May 1937, after the credentials of the MI5 agent Olga Gray had been accepted
by the CPG, which was looking for a valuable assistant. She was encouraged to
take up an apartment in Holland Street, Kensington, and receive training in
photography from a Mr. and Mrs. Stevens – in fact the agents Willy and Mary
Brandes. Mally liked to keep his photocopying crews separated. This successful
penetration by Gray – when MI5 came very close to capturing Mally red-handed –
led to the successful arrest of Glading by MI5 and Special Branch.
Stalin’s purges were now in
full swing. In June, Mally was ordered to go to Paris to help organise the
killing of Krivitsky’s colleague and friend, Ignace Reiss, something that he
rejected, thus signing his own death-warrant. Mally was then summoned to Moscow
in July, and shot soon after. Reiss was killed, anyway. King faded from view at
this time, as he now had no contacts on whom to pass information. Left without a
Soviet handler, Guy Burgess set about recruiting further enthusiasts for the
cause, and it was soon after this, probably at the beginning of 1938, that he
encouraged Goronwy Rees to provide him with information from the All Souls High
Table, ready for the time when a new contact, Anatoly Gorsky, was sent out in
December 1938 to take over the ‘legal’ NKVD rezidentura.
Moscow Centre was convinced enough of Rees’s seriousness to grant him the
cryptonyms GROSS and FLEET, and examples of the fairly trivial information he
provided can be found in the Mitrokhin archive.
Krivitsky ignored the recall to Moscow in early October 1937, and made his escape via France, avoiding an attempt on his own life a couple of weeks later. His friend Slutsky was not so lucky, killed by cyanide poisoning in February 1938. And Krivitsky’s survival would mean that King would eventually be ‘betrayed’ by Krivitsky. When Krivitsky eventually reached the USA, and told his ghost-writer and adviser, Philip Don Levine, about the spy in the Foreign Office, Levine decide to inform Lord Lothian in the Washington Embassy, with the result that King (alongside a number of other traitors) was detained and interrogated. The incriminating evidence of payments made to him from the Narodny Bank was discovered: he initially denied that any secret documents had been photographed, but eventually confessed, and was sentenced and in jail by the time Krivitsky arrived in January 1940. Krivitsky did not mind sacrificing a mercenary: though not a Stalinist, the defector was still a communist, and did not want to make it easy for the imperialist enemy to start mopping up the networks in which so much investment had been made.
A. Kitty Harris’s studio E. Wolf Levit’s studio
B. Olga Gray’s apartment F. Tudor-Hart’s home & studio
C. Edith Tudor-Hart’s home – 1937 G. ‘Barbara’s’ studio
D. Victor Rothschild’s house H. Tudor-Hart’s studio – 1937
The Foreign Office M. Henry Pieck’s office
J. Guy Burgess’s apartment N. John King’s lodgings
K. Donald Maclean’s apartment O. Tudor-Hart’s 2nd home
L. The mysterious studio in Pimlico P. A. Tudor-Hart’s home
The Pimlico Gambit
What the events of these years tell us is that a) Donald Maclean never developed the skills to operate his own photographic studio, b) while the NKVD may have operated such studios in Brixton, Maida Vale, Mayfair, Kensington, Westminster, Bayswater and Belsize Park (and maybe elsewhere), there is no evidence that it used premises in Pimlico, and c) Maclean’s ‘handiwork’ was never manufactured in the Buckingham Gate office that was closest to the district of Pimlico. Thus we have to conjecture what Andrew Boyle had in mind when he very provocatively claimed that Maclean’s photocopying was performed ‘in a Pimlico flat’. (I note that the real Fifth Man, John Cairncross, lived in Pimlico at the time, but Maclean and Cairncross were unaware of each other’s recruitment by the Soviets.)
It seems probable that Boyle
knew far more than he was able to let on. By the time he submitted the copy for
The Climate of Treason, he must have
received some insider knowledge that Maclean’s espionage activities had been
known a long time back. Of course, it should not be discounted completely that
he was simply making an intelligent assumption about the fact that the copies
that Krivitsky saw in Moscow must have been photographed somewhere close to the
Foreign Office and Maclean’s apartment. Yet it was a worthless and
unsubstantiated squib to throw out in a well-concealed Note. If he had
something important to say, he would have brought it out in the main text. As a
footnote, however, it is highly puzzling. Were readers supposed to track down
who of the spies were known at that time, identify who lived in Pimlico, and
therefore work out for themselves who the responsible party was?
We have to accept, of course, that
the provocation must have failed, as nobody appears to have noticed it. If
Boyle had been challenged on this fact – say by White, who must have failed to
spot the reference when he reviewed the text – he might have been able to
ascribe it to vagueness, or muddled notes, as it was not specific enough to
incriminate a source for the geography. For Boyle had to be very careful: if an
ex-intelligence officer had given him information that breached the OSA, he
would have been very careful not to have endangered that person’s reputation
(and pension) by revealing any undisclosed information that could point
unfailingly to a particular source. Moreover, Boyle was surely scared. White
had given him warnings not to delve too deeply into the matter of Blunt, even.
Yet Boyle was anxious to see the story developed further, as he sensed a
And then the Blunt story
broke, thanks to Private Eye, on
November 9. That was one hurdle crossed. Margaret Thatcher made her
announcement on November 15. In the Observer
of November 18, Boyle revealed how Goronwy Rees had confirmed Blunt’s treachery
to him a couple of years earlier, and he also made the claim that ‘two dozen
and more accomplices and accessories whom MI5 claims to have neutralised’ still
remained at large, and had been responsible for protecting Burgess and Maclean.
Matters then must have moved quickly. Blunt came out of hiding on November 20,
and made a statement. Maybe another intelligence officer contacted Boyle after
the story broke, to encourage him or even give him new facts. At some stage
Boyle must have decided that he could use Rees to deflect attention away from
himself in his campaign to name the guilty persons. As indicated above, Jenny
Rees claimed (based on what her sister told her) that her father did not want
to see Boyle at first, ‘though he finally [sic]
agreed to do so’. Boyle and Rees did not have much time to share their
Maybe Rees was provoked into
helping Boyle by a strange incident. As I reported above, the day that Margaret
Thatcher made her announcement, Rees fell into a coma. Jenny’s brother Daniel
telephoned her to say that a doctor at the hospital believed he could have been
injected with insulin, and accounts of unidentified Russians loitering near the
wards of the hospital were repeated. Another doctor said that his coma could
have been ascribed to his cancer. In any case, Rees took a week to recover,
which would take the chronology up to November 22. (In November, I tried to
contact Jenny Rees, who has been very helpful to me in the past, to ask whether
her father had retained any memory of being injected by non-professional staff,
but she has not responded to my email.)
I do not believe this incident
has gained any other attention: it sounds a bit desperate for either the KGB or
MI5 to want to kill a dying man who had probably already communicated all he
knew about the case. As Rees’s other daughter, Lucy, said: “Boyle wanted to
talk to him to see what more he could find out, but Rees said he did not know
any more and there was nothing he could add.” That was probably true. Yet Boyle
must have succeeded in completing some lengthy conversations with Rees, written
them up, and given them to the dying man to approve. And that approval was
probably sought by David Astor, the editor of the Observer. Ironically, two days before Rees died on December 12,
Isaiah Berlin wrote to Margaret Thatcher to decline her offer of a life
peerage. Perhaps he recognised that it would have been unseemly for him, as one
of the closest conspirators with Burgess, to have accepted such an honour just
after Blunt had been deprived of his knighthood.
Yet, if Boyle hoped that there
would be a counter-reaction to Rees’s spurious claims about Mayfair and the
probably fictitious ‘Barbara’, with a revitalised interest in real photographic
studios, he must have been disappointed. How would the Pimlico Gambit play out?
Controversy in the ‘Observer’
I now return to the two
instalments that were published in the Observer,
on January 13 and 20, 1980, and analyse their arguments and structure in more
detail. The first article starts off by trying to change the perception that
Rees was a villain to making the case that he was a victim: “But Rees himself,
although close to Burgess, was never a spy, or a homosexual, or even a member
of the Communist Party”. This statement was certainly true about Rees’s sexual
preferences, but mendacious or irrelevant otherwise. Rees had indeed acted as a
spy, and avoiding the Communist Party was a key behaviour of the most dangerous
of Stalin’s Men and Women. Boyle then brings up the troubling matter of Rees’s
coma, even citing the ‘bizarre murder of Georgi Markov’, perhaps to suggest
that the KGB had been responsible. He specifically indicates that Rees was in
peril from ‘more dangerous intruders’ than ‘over-zealous journalists’.
Boyle then makes the point that the meeting with him was undertaken on Rees’s initiative. It may have been – or Boyle might have convinced him that this was the better way of representing for posterity what happened next. Then follows a long, and largely redundant, account of Rees’s encounters with Guy Burgess. It is stagey, artificial, and includes information which Boyle certainly knew already, or with which readers of A Chapter of Accidents would have been familiar. It has clearly been set up for the benefit of the uninformed Observer readership: Rees would not have wasted his dying breaths on such material otherwise, and would not have requested a meeting with Boyle to tell him what the author already knew.
Some of Rees’s testimony is
deceitful. He makes the ridiculous claim that ‘Burgess ‘had inexplicably turned
a political somersault, declared himself a Fascist and gone down from
Cambridge’, adding that he didn’t hear Burgess’s explanation until 1935-1936,
when he and Burgess became neighbours in London. Yet Burgess had taken his aegrotat degree at Cambridge in the
summer of 1933, and even replaced Rees on a visit to Moscow in 1934, showing
openly communist sympathies. Burgess was probably recruited officially by the
NKVD early in 1935, and took up his right-wing cover only at the end of that
year, when he started working for the Conservative MP John Macnamara, and
joined the Anglo-German Fellowship. Burgess told Rees that he was working for
the Comintern, and tried to recruit him, probably in late November 1937. Thus
Rees’s reputation as someone unreliable with the truth can be seen to be
deserved, even on his deathbed. He then makes a disparaging (for 1979) remark
about Kim Philby being another of Burgess’s sexual conquests, an assertion that
is highly unlikely. He also makes a mention of Burgess’s Chester Square flat –
in Belgravia, so not strictly Pimlico, but right next-door, in case that was
seen as a marker.
Now comes the critical, but
almost parenthetical, section. Rees happens to mention his first encounter with
Donald Maclean: ‘his air of empty superiority affronted me’. Here Boyle comes
up with the question that must have been on his mind ever since the ‘Pimlico’
reference: “Did anything occur at that time which might have alerted you to the
double life he was already leading as a Soviet agent?” After a significant
pause, Rees does not respond with any insights on Maclean’s political
affiliations or sympathies, his activities at Cambridge, his friendship with
Burgess, but a wholly irrelevant and assuredly imagined story of his and
Maclean’s ‘mutual friend’, Barbara, who was a professional photographer in
Mayfair. I repeat the section, for emphasis: “She told me one day how skilful
Donald was with a camera – so skilful that she’d no hesitation in letting him
use the studio for his own work.” (We should also recall that Rees earlier
stated that he had not seen Maclean between 1935 and 1950, so the reality of
this liaison, since Maclean did not start handing over documents until early
1936, must be highly questionable.) Rees
then makes the extraordinary conceptual leap that, because documents probably
stolen or borrowed by Maclean had found their way on to Krivitsky’s desk,
Maclean himself must have photographed them, and used the highly insecure
vehicle of a female friend’s studio to do so.
No other source indicates that
Maclean had any disposition to photography as a hobby, that he was
outstandingly skilful at it, or had his artwork displayed anywhere. As we have
seen, no evidence has yet appeared elsewhere to suggest that Maclean
photocopied any documents himself apart from the use of the miniature camera at
the Foreign Office. Since the Special Branch had not seen fit to detain Edith
Tudor-Hart when she was caught practically red-handed, it was not going to
detain Donald Maclean on the grounds that he was in unauthorised possession of
photographic paraphernalia. Moreover, why would Rees recall this incident only
now, a recollection which would undercut the claim he made that he did not
conclude that Maclean was a spy until the unpleasant encounter in 1950? And he significantly
does not mention Pimlico.
Yet a more important question
must be asked: how did Rees know that Krivitsky had seen specimens of Maclean’s
handiwork in Moscow? The information in Jane Archer’s report was tightly held
by MI5, and was not declassified until 2002. Moreover, it does not specifically
identify Maclean – the whole catastrophe of MI5’s indolence lies around the
fact that the Security Service did not follow up the obvious hints. As I have
explained in Misdefending the Realm,
Jane Archer’s report passed over the desk of Jenifer Williams (soon to be Hart)
at the Home Office in March 1940, and was certainly seen by Guy Burgess after
that, but the last thing that Burgess, who in 1943 recommended that Rees should
be killed as he was a possible threat to his safety, would have wanted to do at
that time would be to share the contents of the MI5 report with Rees.
Boyle must have known,
however. A possible circumstance – unless excavating the de Gallienne
Connection shows some fresh intelligence from Europe – was that a prominent
intelligence officer had either described or shown to him the Krivitsky report.
Yet more than that: that person might have indicated to Boyle that Krivitsky
had told one (or some) of the officers who interrogated him more than appeared
in the eventual report, presumably enough to identify surely Maclean as the
informer. Having access to the report itself was not enough. Yet an analysis of
Krivitsky’s evidence (see below) suggests that off-the-record hints were
unlikely. A more probable scenario is that Levine could have told Mallet (and
Jebb, vicariously) of some obvious pointers that were concealed from the interrogators,
but divulged elsewhere. For example, Boyle claims that Mallet (in the latter’s
own words) ‘sent to London a very detailed and secret dossier’. That dossier
has, however, not come to light. Thus, whether Krivitsky or Levine actually
provided the address of a studio in Pimlico will probably never be
ascertainable. (Liddell’s final conversation with Krivitsky before his departure
has been redacted from his Diaries.) Boyle could not divulge that person, or
the relevant nugget of information, but he presumably believed that, after the
vague hint in the book, and the much bolder statement made posthumously by his
proxy, Rees, he would be able to bring the controversy into the open.
If Krivitsky did provide the
information, who could his informer have been? Of the officers and civil
servants who interviewed Krivitsky (Vivian, Harker, Archer, Liddell, White, and
Jebb), Jebb, White and Archer were still alive in 1979. Gladwyn Jebb is an
unlikely source: he was a shifty character who displayed sympathies for Soviet
Russia, and tried to conceal his close association with Burgess in his memoirs.
I even classify him as an ‘Agent of Influence’ in Misdefending the Realm. White is, of course, even more unlikely,
since he was the person who was going to come under fire from any media
onslaught if the news got out. Jane Archer is a possible candidate. She had
singularly developed a very strong rapport with Krivitsky. Having been ousted
by Liddell from the very expert job she was doing in communist
counter-espionage, she was put on the sidelines, and eventually ended up
working for Kim Philby in SIS, before returning to MI5. Her moral code would
have prevented her from too casually breaking the OSA, but she may have been so
disgusted at the deal done with Blunt, and the cover-up after it, that she felt
obliged, after almost forty years of silence, to speak to the author when
Boyle’s book came out. That argument, however, does not explain where she
gained the information, unless Krivitsky gave it to her confidentially, or she
perhaps saw a highly secret part of the Mallet-Jebb correspondence. And there
was another example of justified righteous feminine indignation. Soon after
that, Joan Miller was so disgusted at the treatment of Blunt (she had witnessed
Blunt’s and Leo Long’s espionage at MI14 during the war) that in 1986 she
published One Girl’s War in Ireland,
a book that MI5 tried to ban.
The transcripts of interviews
that Jane Archer had with Krivitsky that appear in the Kew archive, but which
did not become part of the final report, show that Archer valiantly tried to
extract further details about the ‘Imperial Defence’ spy from Krivitsky, but he
would not budge, despite giving the appearance of struggling hard. It was
probably an act. One very significant item of evidence is the fact that, in an
interrogation of January 30, Krivitsky suggested that the ‘Imperial Council
source’ was a young man. Furthermore, “the boy obtained the
papers from his father who may probably have taken them home.” Krivitsky encouraged Jane Archer to pursue
this paternal aspect: not even Gary Kern has noticed that this was a mean
trick. For a spy whose cryptonym was in
Russian SIROTA (or, in German, WAISE), namely ORPHAN, it was a rich and
sardonic piece of irony to emphasise his active relationship with his father, a
ruse undetected by the stumbling British. (Donald’s father had died in 1932:
hence the unimaginative choice.)
and her colleagues should have been familiar with cryptonyms: the Double Cross
agents were all given them, and Archer even refers, in a memorandum of May 1939
to GROEHL (or GROLL), which was in fact the code name for Krivitsky himself. In
the interrogations, Krivitsky went so far as to provide some cryptonyms (or
‘service names’, as Archer called them), such as FRIEND for Goold-Verschoyle,
and HARDT for Maly. It seems now to be an obvious question not asked of what
label had been assigned to Maclean, given that there seems to have been an
unavoidable tendency on both sides to bestow cryptonyms that had some relevance
to the agent (e.g. TATE, because Wulf Schmidt looked like Harry Tate, TONY for
Blunt, GIRL for Burgess, and SONNY for Philby). Another later note by Archer claims that Krivitsky was
‘passionate’ to stay in touch with her, should further thoughts come to his
mind. The defector and the inquisitor may have built some rapport, but the
evidence seems to be that Krivitsky did not want to betray a dedicated
ideological spy not motivated by monetary needs, and was having some sport at
the expense of his interrogators.
Boyle then changes gears in
the first Observer article. The main
thrust now is a pointed criticism of the groups that used to gather during the
war at Victor Rothschild’s residence, at 5 Bentinck Street (in Marylebone, some
distance from Pimlico). “Among the most frequent of the casual visitors I
noticed in 1943-44 were J. D. Bernal, the scientist, John Strachey, the
politician, and Guy Liddell, a long-serving officer of MI5 whose marriage had
recently broken up and who was a colleague of Blunt’s. He was also on close
terms with Burgess.” Then Boyle makes
the highly controversial claim that this faction at Bentinck Street was
abetting Stain’s objectives in Eastern Europe: “Although many voices were
raised at that time in the clamour for a ‘Second Front Now’, Goronwy Rees
believed that the Soviet sympathisers of Bentinck Street helped to orchestrate
the discord.” He then quotes Rees’s lamenting how Blunt had betrayed the lives
of Poles, Finns and Ukrainians.
The chronology is again dubious. By 1943-44, the plans for the invasion of Normandy were well advanced. The dangers of a Soviet propaganda campaign pressing for a premature Second Front had been real back in late 1941 and 1942: it was then one of Stalin’s most urgent appeals, and was not resisted properly, but by this time it was not an issue of debate. And by incriminating such luminaries as Liddell and Rothschild in this cabal, Boyle was treading on very dangerous ground. It was one thing to accuse Liddell of having been negligent or incompetent, but quite another to suggest he had been helping the cause of a foreign power.
Yet Boyle made more focussed accusations in the second article, published on January 20, where he reproduced Rees’s further indictments of Liddell, showing how Liddell had behaved evasively when Rees informed him of the Blunt connection in 1951, and intensifying his criticisms. The sub-heading ran “How Burgess and Blunt entangled top MI5 man Guy Liddell in their treachery.” (The full article appears below.) The most damning testimony would appear to be the claim that Liddell had invited Blunt to the meeting with Rees, and essentially ganged up with the Fourth Man against the plaintiff. It should have been a decisive lead to be followed up, but it apparently was lost in the controversy over Rees’s more speculative claims.
What also hurts Rees’s
argument is that his story here changes from that in A Chapter of Accidents. Rees feels free now to name David Footman
as the SIS officer (echoed by Jenny Rees in Looking
for Mr. Nobody), someone who later also came under suspicion because of his
communist sympathies. The ex-officer from MI5 was, of course, none other than
Blunt himself, as Rees likewise revealed in the Observer: Boyle identifies him, and records that conversation. Yet
Rees’s story in 1979 changes: he oddly dates the call with Footman as happening
on the Saturday evening, and also
states that he called Blunt that same evening, and that Blunt came down to his
house, at Rees’s request, on the
Sunday, not the Monday. John Costello, somewhat improbably, has Rees, on the Sunday
afternoon telephoning Blunt to ask for his advice, since he (Rees) had still [sic] not heard from Liddell. Given what
he knew about Blunt, going to the art historian as a mentor in this situation
would appear to be downright lunacy. Blunt apparently ‘read the signs of incipient
panic’ in Rees’s voice, rushed to his house, and tried to convince him that it would
be best for the authorities to find out the truth about the absconding
In any case, we are thus left with the question as to why Rees contacted Blunt, urging a person-to-person discussion, if his intention was to denounce him to the authorities? Had he at this stage been considering solely describing the fact that Burgess had admitted his Comintern allegiance in 1937? If so, why not simply go to MI5, and leave Blunt out of it? The only possible outcomes from discussing the problem with Blunt could be either that Blunt would talk him out of saying anything about Burgess (and himself!), or that Rees would end up scaring Blunt witless, but allow him to develop a plan to protect himself. Burgess had surely told Blunt of his critical conversation with Rees, as he had indeed told Maclean. Blunt knew what Rees knew: Rosamond Lehman even thought that Blunt knew that Rees had told her everything. The fact that Blunt did not panic suggests very strongly that he knew that, despite his past transgressions, he enjoyed the patronage of the high-ups in MI5. And Rees in fact gave him a very clear warning.
Then there is the conflicting
information about the meeting with Liddell and Blunt. In his memoir, Rees said
he went up to London, ‘alarmed and despondent’, for his meeting with MI5 the following day. Yet his Observer statement runs as follows:
“What I have been wracking my brains over was the extraordinary slowness on the
part of Liddell. He let nearly ten days pass before doing anything positive. .
. . Not until the end of the following week was a move initiated.” He might
have left that detail out of his memoir because he was scared, but if he wanted
MI5 to be investigated in 1978 by reporters other than himself, he could have
left much broader hints without pointing directly at Blunt’s guilt, and
Liddell’s compliance. As it turned out, Blunt and Liddell must have strategized,
and concluded that putting on a united front was the best way to silence Rees.
Yet it was an extraordinarily stupid move by Liddell, a clear breach of
protocol, as Blunt had left MI5 in 1945. What is more extraordinary is that
none of the commentariat picked up this anomaly: Rees’s obvious inability to
tell a plain truth did not help his, or Boyle’s cause. But Boyle should have
been more careful, too.
Jenny Rees adds further
complications to the story. She advises us of a further conversation that Rees
had on the subject – in between the recognised disappearance by MI5 of the
‘diplomats’ on May 28 and his meeting with Liddell on June 7, which Rees does
not mention in his memoir or in the Observer
articles. At a party that week, he encountered an old friend, the prominent
academic and intelligence officer, Stuart Hampshire, and explained the dilemma
he had established for himself. Hampshire
admitted that he had advised Rees not to stir the pot – advice he said he
regretted much later. (Implicitly, it would appear that Hampshire knew what was
going on, even though he was also no longer employed by MI5, and was then one
of the select many who knew the secret of Blunt.) As we see, Rees rejected
Hampshire’s counsel, but assuredly went too far, as, in one further interview
with MI5, apparently implicated not only Burgess and Blunt, but also Hampshire,
the former SIS officer Professor Robin Zaehner, and even Guy Liddell himself.
The evidence from Jenny Rees is confusing: it is unlikely that Rees would have
accused Liddell in an interview where the latter was present. But it was still
an extraordinarily undisciplined and disloyal performance by Rees, seeking
advice from his old friend Hampshire and then immediately denouncing him to the
authorities. It is another example of how Rees’s erratic behaviour undermined
any serious intentions he could have had.
By the Law of Unexpected
Consequences, instead of Boyle’s receiving encouragement for his pains, and
attempt at full disclosure, he bore the brunt of a fierce backlash. He made (at
least) five major mistakes:
He loaded up the charges against Liddell with so much irrelevant and erroneous information that the strong but smaller points were overlooked. If he had concentrated on i) the Gallienne/Pimlico disclosure, and ii) Liddell’s unprofessional behaviour in drawing Blunt into his meeting with Rees, he might have achieved his goals of more serious attention to the obvious secrecy and conspiracy that cloaked the Blunt case.
While claiming that Rees should not be condemned by virtue of mere association with Burgess, he implied that Liddell was guilty for exactly the same reason – he had consorted with Burgess and company at Bentinck Street during the war. Since this was the only evidence of pro-Soviet conspiracy (as opposed to incompetence), it was very a flimsy argument.
He forgot that Rees had a reputation for being an unreliable witness. Since (for example) his facts about the chronology of his association with Burgess in the 1930s were wrong, it could have led knowledgeable readers of the account to doubt Rees’s other assertions. Readers who bothered to read A Chapter of Accidents would have found further disturbing anomalies. Rees (they would claim) was saying whatever it took to save his own reputation before he died.
Boyle underestimated the wrath of Dick White. Even though he did not mention White in the Bentinck Street Brotherhood, White had been just as frequent a visitor to Rothschild’s premises as Liddell. Thus White would have concluded that he was tarred with the same brush, and he was implicitly under attack.
He overestimated the tenacity of the British press. He left enough leads and inconsistencies in his story to provoke a dedicated sleuth, but even the ‘quality’ newspapers seemed to be more interested in dramatic headlines and hints of sleaze than following-up with simple but arduous digging-around at the coal-face.
Tom Bower wrote that White was
infuriated by the articles. Not only was his own reputation vicariously under
assault, all his efforts to try and redeem the status of the intelligence
services he had led were being quashed. While there had been an initial outrage
at the covert deal agreed with Blunt, Boyle’s attack on Liddell provoked a
recoil the other way. In the Sunday Times
of January 20, in an article by Barrie Penrose, David Leitch and Phillip
Knightley headlined ‘“A grotesque smear” say top spymasters’, Dick White was
quoted as saying, somewhat bizarrely, that ‘accusing him [Liddell] may have
possibly have been a way of deflecting accusations against others.’ Why Rees
would want to conceal the names of others on his deathbed was not explained. Then
the minor character William Skardon, who had an overrated reputation as an
interrogator, was wheeled out to give his testimony in favour of Liddell. No
notice was taken of Gallienne, or Maclean’s photography, or the Pimlico-Mayfair
discrepancy. This was not a very enterprising piece of investigative reporting
by the famed Insight team at the Sunday
Times, but it surely distracted attention away from the oversubtle
allusions made by Boyle.
A minor skirmish followed in
the pages of the New Statesman. In
the issue of February 1, one Richard Winkler rather laboriously pointed out
that much of what Rees was quoted as saying was almost an exact echo of what
had appeared in A Chapter of Accidents.
The fact that that was no doubt Boyle’s aim eluded him, and, by concentrating
on what was re-hashed, Winkler overlooked the really dramatic new material. He
did then isolate the major discrepancy in Rees’s story, that concerning the
timing of Rees’s meeting with MI5, but interpreted it as a plot by Rees and
Boyle to doctor the story to show how ‘sinister’ Liddell’s behaviour was. It
was a very obtuse performance by Winkler, who sounded as if he had a grudge
Boyle responded in a letter
published on February 15. He essentially confirmed that the statements came,
with Rees’s approval, from Rees’s memoir, but that Rees had refreshed them with
some new recollections. He then, rather clumsily, attempted to turn the tables
on Winkler by saying that it was Blunt who first pointed out the timing
discrepancy, and that the meeting could not have occurred as soon as Rees first
said it did, because of the contemporaneity of the announcement of the ‘missing
diplomats’, as if that absolved Rees of his initial carelessness. It was all
rather an inelegant and pointless spat, and added nothing to the resolution of
the mysterious references.
The hunt for Boyle’s traitors
was apparently on. The Sunday Times
did extract a confession from John Cairncross, the ‘Fifth Man’, at the end of
1979. Margaret Thatcher, however, pressed by intelligence chiefs upset about
the Blunt admission, was energised enough to cancel publication of Dick White’s
pet project, Volume 4 of the series British
Intelligence in the Second World War, which would have cast glamour on the
successes of the Double-Cross system in an official light. White, who was ‘furious’,
according to Boyle’s notes, immediately went underground, and broke all his OSA
vows by encouraging Rupert Allason (Nigel West) to use White’s knowledge, and
access to the MI5 officers involved, to write an unofficial history of MI5.
Then the investigation into Roger Hollis started, and the controlled leaks via
Victor Rothschild to Chapman Pincher about Hollis, followed by Pincher’s series
of books, and Peter Wright and Spycatcher.
Jane Archer died in 1982, a year before Donald Maclean. Volumes 4 and 5 of British Intelligence came out in 1990.
Dick White died in 1993. The journalist John Costello continued to pursue the
Liddell trail, and included a scathing indictment, in his Mask of Treachery (1988), of Liddell as the likeliest candidate for
the mysterious GRU spy within MI5, ELLI, who had been identified (but not
named) by Gouzenko in 1945. Costello succumbed to an odd and unexplained, but
fatal, bout of shellfish poisoning in 1995, at the young age of fifty-two. But
all of this is probably for another story.
It took exactly thirty-nine years from Krivitsky’s death before Rees’s hints to awareness of Maclean’s fabled career in photography were published – and then forgotten. Almost precisely thirty-nine years later, this blog resurrects the strange story of the Pimlico Gambit. Perhaps the puzzle will be resolved in the winter of 2057. The project starts now, with an investigation into (de) Gallienne and Montgomery Hyde, the constitution of the British Embassy in Paris in 1938, and a deeper analysis of the statements left behind by Krivitsky and Levine. The game’s afoot! As always, I encourage insights and leads from my readers.
and for Further Reading:
The Climate of Treason
by Andrew Boyle
A Spy Named Orphan
by Roland Phillips
Donald and Melinda
Maclean by Michael Holzman
by Boris Volodarsky
The Crown Jewels
by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev
by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev
Defence of the Realm
by Christopher Andrew
A Chapter of Accidents
by Goronwy Rees
Searching for Mr. Nobody
by Jenny Rees
by Gary Kern
A Time for Spies
by William E. Duff
The Spy With Seventeen
Names by Igor Damaskin
In Stalin’s Secret
Service by Walter Krivitsky
A Death in Washington
by Gary Kern
The Perfect English Spy
by Tom Bower
The Sword and the Shield
by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin
by Andrew Lownie
Mask of Treachery
by John Costello
Anthony Blunt: His Lives
by Miranda Carter
A Divided Life
by Robert Cecil
The Cambridge Spies
by Verne Newton
On Her Majesty’s Secret
Service by Christopher Andrew
Eyewitness to History
by Isaac Don Levine
Treason in the Blood
by Anthony Cave-Brown
by Emil Draitser
Misdefending the Realm
by Antony Percy
Archival Material from Kew (TNA), the FBI and the CIA
(Final set of the year’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)
Seasonal greetings to all my readers – especially those who joined the group this year! Among new contacts is one former officer of an intelligence service, who very kindly wrote, about ‘Sonia’s Radio’: “It’s the most impressive counter intelligence research/historiography I’ve read – the web of known and suspected affiliations is masterly.”
And now you can help spread the word! In a survey of a thousand households of recent retirees across the European Union, commissioned by the Coldspur Appreciation Society, residents were asked to list the Top Ten Items on their Bucket List. Here are the consolidated results (after some flattening of rankings according to the Ogden-Zeiss method of Flawed Preference Detection): ‘Reading “Sonia’s Radio”’ was pipped out of first place by ‘Visiting Machu Picchu’, but pushed ‘Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef’ into third position. A great outcome!
Machu Picchu (First Place)
‘Sonia’s Radio’ (Second Place)
Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef (Third Place)
So all you have to do, laid out in five easy steps:
And you will immediately have made another close friend or relative very happy!
And now to those books . . .
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre (Crown New York, 2018)
Traitor Lodger German Spy by Tony Rowland (APS Publications, 2018)
Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Little Brown & Co., 2018)
The Secret World by Christopher Andrew (Yale University Press, 2018)
The Spy and the Traitor
How well do you know your Communist defectors? For instance, can you clearly distinguish and differentiate Igor Gouzenko, Anatoly Golitsyn, Michael Goleniewski and Oleg Gordievsky? (In the spirit of 1066 and All That, the use of protractors is encouraged.) No? Well, here’s a thumbnail sketch to help you prepare for that pub quiz. Gouzenko was the cipher clerk who worked for the GRU in Ottawa, and whose revelations in 1945 led to the unmasking of the atom spies. Golitsyn defected in 1961, and provided information that led to the confirmation of Kim Philby’s treachery. Goleniewski was a Pole, reputedly a triple agent, who helped identify George Blake as a spy within SIS. And Gordievsky was the KGB officer who turned against his employers after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in 1985 was spirited out of the Soviet Union in a daring escape organised by SIS.
The highly successful journalist Ben Macintyre, author of five gripping books about espionage and sabotage, has now turned his hand to the story of Gordievsky. The tale is not new: Gordievsky wrote a memoir titled Next Stop Execution, which gives almost as much detail about his career with the KGB, as well as the climax of the book, the enterprising escape plan, and how it was executed. (In recommending The Spy and the Traitor as one of his Books of the Year, Peter Frankopan wrote recently in the Spectator: “As with his other books, Macintyre seems not only able to find amazing new material, but to write perfectly paced prose that reads like a thriller.” I agree with the second part of the statement, but not the first.)
Shortly after being posted to London in early 1985, Gordievsky, who had made his desires and loyalties clear when an officer in Copenhagen, and had later provided much valuable information to help Margaret Thatcher negotiate with Gorbachev, was recalled to Moscow, ostensibly for some kind of confirmation process for his recent promotion to rezident. Instead he was immediately interrogated and put under surveillance on suspicion of being a spy. Fortunately for him, Soviet Intelligence was at that time taking a more formal approach to the determination of guilt. Taking advantage of a scheme devised by SIS long before, Gordievsky was able to signal to British Embassy officials that he was in danger, and made his plans for escape. He took a train to Leningrad, and hitched a ride to a place near the Finnish border, where he was picked up and hidden in the boot (trunk) of a car being driven by members of the embassy. He was then smuggled into Finland – an adventure which must surely lead to a movie before long. Macintyre has complemented that account by virtue of his being able to discuss the case freely with Gordievsky’s handlers in SIS (MI6) – a disturbing venture in its own right, given the implications of the Official Secrets Act, and one that raises some troubling questions about the reliability of Macintyre’s judgments.
First of all – that title. The Spy. And the Traitor. Is Gordievsky supposed to be both? Probably not. The traitor is probably meant to indicate Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who was, somewhat remarkably, given his personality and drinking habits, the Soviet and East European Division’s chief of counter-intelligence, which allowed him to realise that an anonymous high-grade informer was being handled by the British. In order to deliver his high-expense wife the luxuries she demanded, Ames offered his services to the KGB, and was able to provide enough hints to Gordievsky’s background and movements that the Soviets concluded that the pattern of activity and geography cast a strong suspicion that Gordievsky might be the source of the leaks. Yet we should not forget that both men were traitors. I would probably be the last man to propose ‘moral equivalence’ in the actions and motivations of the two (see Misdefending the Realm, p 280, for example), but it is a matter of fact that both men were traitors to the nation they served. This is a vital point, because Gordievsky is still under a death sentence: Putin is reported to be livid with his former colleague’s treachery. An attempt has been made on Gordievsky’s life already, and he has to live in seclusion in darkest Surrey somewhere. (I know Surrey is still ‘leafy’. But do ‘dark’ portions of that county still exist?
What Macintyre does well, he does very well. He has a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, weaves the relevant background material into his ripping yarn very smoothly, and keeps the suspense up extremely capably. Yet his judgment is fallible: he gets a little too close to his subject and the SIS officers who guide him through the story, and lacks the temperament and resolve to stand back coolly from the whole operation. Gordievsky has collaborated with Christopher Andrew on a couple of books since his defection, and, as I noted in last month’s blog, these were not received with the critical acclaim that the author appears to assume. I repeat Macintyre’s assertion: “He gave lectures, listened to music, and wrote books with the historian Christopher Andrew, works of detailed scholarship [sic] that still stand as the most comprehensive accounts of Soviet intelligence to date.” Macintyre echoes Gordievsky’s claim that the spy ELLI was Leo Long, Gordievsky having claimed to have found that detail in the KGB archives. Remarkably, Christopher Andrew used Gordievsky’s statement to voice the same opinion in his authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm, as well as in other books he has written about the KGB, a mistake that has been criticised by historians ever since. (Andrew has declined to appear in forums to discuss this very controversial judgment, but Macintyre should have known about the problem.) It has been rumoured in some quarters that Gordievsky was encouraged by SIS to make the equivalence of ELLI and Long to distract attention from molehunts after more likely candidates . . . Again, Macintyre, in his enthusiasm, is reluctant to consider such matters worthy of discussion.
Then there is the case of Michael Foot. Macintyre repeats Gordievsky’s claim that the leader of the Labour Party had been a paid Soviet agent with the cryptonym BOOT (again showing the Soviet bureaucrats’ highly subtle choice of monikers to conceal the identity of their contacts). Macintyre accepts unquestioningly everything that Gordievsky says about Foot, how he was served with raw Soviet propaganda, and how he provided valuable information about Western political strategies from the Korean War onward. In recent weeks, the fortnightly magazine Private Eye has taken the cudgels up against Macintyre, coming to Foot’s defence, showing how his Tribune articles constantly criticised the Soviet Union, and thus showed that he was no friend of the Soviets. I think Private Eye may be jumping too quickly into the fray, too (Michael’s nephew, the late diehard Socialist Paul Foot, is still a much-revered figure at Gnome House). It is possible that Michael Foot conveyed an anti-Soviet stance in Tribune to cover his activities as an agent of influence, but the magazine has showed that Macintyre has tied himself in knots over the chronology of Gordievsky’s awareness of Foot’s activities. However, both Macintyre and Private Eye fail to use the diaries of Anatoly Chernyaev, the Kremlin’s liaison with the Labour Party, which have been translated and are available at the National Security Archive (see https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB192/index.htm ), and would appear to confirm Foot’s foolishness, if not malfeasance. ‘This one will run and run’, in the words of one of Private Eye’s favourite slogans.
And was Macintyre being used by his SIS friends? He carefully explains (in his Acknowledgments) that his work is not an authorised biography, and takes pains to explain that he has had ‘no access to the files of the intelligence service, which remain classified’. Yet he is naïve enough to state that the book was not aided by SIS, having shortly before expressed his huge gratitude to ‘every MI6 officer involved in the case’. If that is not ‘aid’, what is? On page 79, he writes that ‘the correspondence between SUNBEAM and C remains in the MI6 archives, proof of the personal touch on which successful spying depends.” If that is some ‘proof’ to which Macintyre can attest, has he actually inspected it? Even to know that the correspondence exists seems to me an outrageous liberty granted by SIS to the journalist. I do not understand how, given the constraints of the Official Secrets Act, SIS officers were allowed selectively to pass on confidential material to a chosen writer, and get away with it.
But perhaps I do. Macintyre is careful to conceal his contacts under aliases. Gordievsky’s main handler in London is identified as ‘James Spooner’, but Christopher Andrew, in The Secret World (see below) has identified ‘Spooner’ as John Scarlett, who later became chief of SIS. So we must interpret this joint venture between SIS and Macintyre as another in a line of valiant PR exercises by the intelligence services, which started with Alan Moorhead’s The Traitors in 1952. So long as there is a positive story to tell, which shows up the imagination and dedication of the Secret Intelligence Service in a good light, SIS will arrange for a reliable journalist/historian to tell the tale, and break its own rules in so doing. The Spy and the Traitor will be immensely successful, and like other popular retreads of Macintyre’s, will no doubt be enjoyed by millions, but his books should not be regarded as serious history, as they constitute a potpourri of fascinating facts and unreliable information. Moreover, if there is a serious reappraisal of Anglo-Soviet relations to be undertaken, it should not be at the whim of John Scarlett, allowing selective disclosure by the triumvirate of Andrew, Gordievsky and Macintyre. The material on which their statements are based should be made generally available to historians at large.
Traitor Lodger German Spy
Tony Rowland (a nom de plume, as the author wishes to stay anonymous) has chosen, for his crafting of a novel about the mysterious German agent, broadly the same archival documents on ter Braak that I used in my September analysis (see TheMysteryoftheUndetectedRadiosPart3). ‘Based on a true story’, the back cover boasts, but, as readers who have studied my explanation would probably agree, exactly what the true story was is open to a large amount of controversy. Mr. Rowland has overall ingeniously translated the fragments available at the National Archives on Engelbertus Fukken (ter Braak’s real name) into a gripping tale of treachery and murder, but, since the bare threads of the Abwehr agent’s life evading capture have been embellished by the insertion of a completely artificial and unconvincing personage of a Cambridge Professor who is (as far as I can judge) nowhere to be found in the archival records, the story unnecessarily loses its grip with reality.
That is not to say that the fiction is unenjoyable. Rowland has done his homework: he portrays Cambridge in 1940 in very convincing fashion, he is good with dialogue, he represents police procedures with authority, he understands well the political issues at home as well as the sensitive dynamics of the Abwehr, and the subversive mentality of its leaders. He presents the complex issues of wireless telegraphy soundly, and realistically brings in both Bletchley Park and the Cavendish Laboratory as possible targets of ter Braak’s mission. He very sensibly questions the denials by Abwehr officers that they could identify ter Braak, as well as the repeated claims that the arrival of the parachutist Josef Jakobs had nothing to do with ter Braak’s plight. He has done an excellent job of bringing life into the two-dimensional characters who largely people the documents released by MI5. It may be that the person-in-the-street, unfamiliar with what appears in the archives, will find Traitor Lodger German Spy an engrossing spy story and not be concerned about where the author’s imagination has run away with him.
The primary problem, as I see it, is that Rowland presents MI5 as ‘moving heaven and earth’ to find ter Braak, when it is clear from the archives, and from the way Rowland faithfully reflects that part of the story, that the Security Service attempted no such thing. Thus his fiction fails to take on with any resolve the paradox central to ter Braak’s status as a fugitive. How could an escaped German parachutist, at a time when a small densely populated country was on alert for any alien presence, and when enemy agents had been swiftly captured elsewhere, survive for so long, living among apparently unsuspicious civilians and officials? And why would he dabble with the Cambridge netherworld so dangerously, and thus draw attention to himself? Moreover, the background, personality, activities and discoveries of the person that really drives the plot, the Professor (about whom I shall write no more detail, as it would spoil the reader’s enjoyment), were to me so unconvincing as to pull the story out of its realistic framework.
Perhaps my experience in trying to analyse what the ‘true story’ about ter Braak was make me an unsuitable critic of Mr. Rowland’s experiment. To me, the questions naturally surrounding what went on in those hectic months of the winter of 1940-41 are fascinating enough without bringing in in any deus ex machina. In an email exchange, Mr. Rowland told me that he had ‘made no attempt to stick with the recorded facts, or indeed cold logic, where they don’t fit with the plot.’ That struck me as an odd argument to make: if the plot drove everything, why attempt to promote the book as being based on a true story, while emphasizing the process of researching the story in ‘the files of the National Archives at Kew, the Cambridge Archives . . .’? (Rowland appears to have overlooked the very considerable facts about ter Braak uncovered in the articles in After the Battle magazine.) He does credit, however, two writers with a significant interest in the story, a Dutch writer Jan-Willem van den Braak, and Giselle Jakobs, the granddaughter of Josef Jakobs (who was executed later in 1941) with assisting him with the results of his research. I have not read the contributions of either (apart from blogs posted on the latter’s website), but why would the author go out of his way to incorporate information from them, only to dismiss certain facts as inconvenient for his plot?
In an imagined world of fiction, the plot should derive from the convincing but probably flawed characteristics of the participants, and not be a mechanism of its own that relies on artificiality and unexplainable events. Rowland has the skills to have made this a more convincing tale. I am very supportive of efforts to bring the strange history of ter Braak into the public eye, but the bare facts as revealed by the archives provide enough opportunity for weaving an engrossing story about a brave but misguided man during a fascinating winter in history, without the introduction of unconvincing melodrama.
I do not read much fiction these days, but this title caught my eye. Kate Atkinson was not a name I knew, but her latest work was suddenly being reviewed everywhere, she was being interviewed by the New York Times, and Transcription quickly made its way into the NYT best-seller list. More relevantly, it was a novel about a period that I know fairly well – the spring and summer of 1940 when Britain came under a ‘Fifth Column’ scare. So I thought I should acquire the book, and see what was going on.
The story concerns a young lady, an orphan, who is recruited by MI5 to assist in a surveillance operation against Fascist sympathisers. After working as a transcriber of the recorded conversations that the potential traitors engage in, innocently believing they are having an exchange with a Gestapo officer under cover in Dolphin Square, Juliet Armstrong is asked to take part in a more aggressive project to entrap one of the ladies who is facilitating the illicit passing of information from the American Embassy. This leads to further complications, both romantic and political – including a murder carried out and concealed by MI5 – and an estrangement from the MI5 agent who was responsible for carrying out the deception. After the war, she is called on again to provide a safe house for a fleeing scientist from behind the Iron Curtain, and things go wrong, which lead to her being persecuted. The narrative starts with her death when hit by a car in London in 1981, and flashes back to 1940 and 1950, when she was working for the BBC.
My first, highly distracting, impression was that Ms. Atkinson overloaded her reach for historical authenticity by including too many reasonably well-known historical figures masquerading under invented names. Thus Peregrine Gibbons, the handler of agents who works from his residence in Dolphin Square, is incontrovertibly the nature-lover of ambiguous sexuality, Maxwell Knight, who, like Juliet, moves over to the BBC to work after the war. Godfrey Toby, who mysteriously ‘cuts’ Juliet after the war, is Eric Roberts, working for Knight, who pretended to be a representative of the Gestapo in encouraging the Fascist ladies. Oliver Alleyne, who is Gibbons’ boss, and who also recruits Juliet for special tasks, is presumably Guy Liddell: the name Alleyne is perhaps a deliberate echo of John Le Carré’s Percy Alleline. Miles Merton, ‘the intellectual communist’, must be based on Anthony Blunt. I glimpsed Olga Gray, and saw traces of Joan Miller (author of One Girl’s War) in Juliet. The American spy Chester Vanderkamp is indubitably the author’s name for Tyler Kent, and his partner in crime Mrs. Scaife is Anna Wolkoff of the Russian Tea Room. The introduction of a dog named Cyril who is withheld from his owner, a double-agent, clearly comes from the case-history of Anna Sergueiew. Etc. etc.
But why all the distortions? The author gets dates wrong, for instance, misrepresenting Knight’s career. She greatly overstates the function of the perceived Nazi sympathisers, a set of chattering ladies, as a ‘Fifth Column’, when it bore none of the characteristics of a force ready to take up arms in the event of an invasion. Even though Maxwell Knight’s official report on the operation (written much later) called it that, the Fifth Column menace did not rear its head until the Low Countries and France succumbed to Nazi invasion, and then blew over in a couple of months. Victor Rothschild and Anthony Blunt did not join MI5 until May of 1940. Roger Hollis was not yet a prominent officer of MI5. Ms. Atkinson anticipates the execution of German spies by about a year. The Sergueiew incident did not occur until 1943. Some of this may be deliberate – an attempt to show that the experts in counter-espionage were as deceived as anybody as to what was going on. As another MI5 officer (Hartley, who also wants to use Juliet as ‘his girl’ on a project) says: “Storm in a teacup, all that stuff about the fifth column. Bunch of frustrated housewifes, most of them. Gibbons was obsessed with them. Anyway, you were looking at the wrong people – you should have been looking at the communists, they were always the real threat.”
So what we find here is more playing fast-and-loose with historical figures. And then I found that the author is quite candid about such games. In her ‘Author’s Note’, she admits that she ‘got a lot of it wrong, on purpose’, and ‘invented what she felt like’. Her sources show all the familiar titles (although she appears not to have used Henry Hemming’s recent biography of Maxwell Knight), and she has plucked from these the anecdotes and characters that suited her. But why? What she ends up with is neither authentic documentary nor imaginative fiction. She describes the process as ‘a wrenching apart of history followed by an imaginative reconstruction.’ No, madam: this is no Wolf Hall. And the plot is no stellar composition to compensate: the character of Juliet (who is mildly interesting to begin with, although this reviewer, appropriately sensitised by the #MeToo movement, found her urgent desires to be seduced by one or more of her mentors a trifle unsavoury) dissolves into a blur. Her involvement in a murder, and MI5’s disposal of the body, is simply melodramatic. Juliet never shows the aptitude or inclination to be a spy, and simply becomes a creature of apparently unexplained events. If there were subtle hints of her eventual political convictions to be found in earlier scenes, they certainly escaped me. I had lost interest in her before the twist in her career became clear.
Is there a deeper message here? Does ‘Transcription’ have something to do with ‘Deception’ or ‘Distortion’? Are the struggles and delusions of the Security Service an allegory of some post-imperial hangover? Does the ‘transcription’ carry a genetic metaphor, reflecting some process of DNA copying? “Search me, guv!”, as Harold Pinter responded when an enthusiastic devotee asked him for confirmation as to what one of his plays meant. One critic of this ‘superb story of wartime espionage’ (Gerry Kimber, in the Times Literary Supplement) declared that ‘readers will eventually learn that nothing they encounter here can be taken at face value: in this novel the dividing line between truth and lies is only smoke and mirrors.’ But thriving on smoke and mirrors can lead to intellectual sloppiness, and allow the writer to get away with all manner of carelessness. This novel has many moments of humour, and insights into the world of 1940 Britain and 1950 BBC that I found convincing and familiar, even, but Juliet’s arch asides became tiresome after a while, and I was not convinced by the actions and motivations of anybody.
As readers of my critiques will now have concluded, I am not a fan of ‘novels’ which attempt to compensate for their lack of creativity in credible plot and characterisation by drawing on historical sources in a highly selective manner. And I do not think I am alone, as the recent controversy over the distortion of facts by Heather Morris in her best-selling The Tattooist of Auschwitz shows. The author’s editor at Harper Collins was quoted as saying: “It’s a novel so it didn’t need to be fact-checked, though a novel needs to have verisimilitude.” But then it should not emphasise the ‘true story’ aspect if it plays around with the facts, as the alert reader will question everything else. I happened to turn next for my bedtime reading to an often neglected book by John le Carré that truly covers the ‘smoke and mirrors’ theme: The Looking-Glass War (1964). In his Foreword, le Carré writes: “None of the characters, clubs, institutions nor intelligence organisations I have described here or elsewhere exists, or has existed to my knowledge in real life.” That’s more like it, guv! (Though he had to say that, as they obviously did. But that’s a story for another day.)
The Secret World
For any collector of books on intelligence, Christopher Andrew’s latest work must be a necessary addition, probably to join other serious companions on the shelf of authorised histories. Yet, if such bibliophiles are like me, there will no spare space on any of their shelves, and it will have to take its place on one of the piles on the bridge-table, or heaped on the grand piano, unless I consider reclaiming shelf-space from some valuable but less solemn volumes that will be relegated to the annex. On reflection, I do not think the last option is likely. For all its 760 pages of Text, 58 pages of Sources, and 55 pages of Notes, I doubt whether I shall be referring to The Secret World often. Weighing in at three-and-a-half-pounds, however, it will undoubtedly bust many blocks. (And maybe block a few busts on top of the piano.)
So what is it about? Its subtitle runs ‘A History of Intelligence’, but the flyleaf claims that it is ‘the first global history of espionage ever written’, which is not the same thing at all. Espionage, counter-espionage, information-gathering, propaganda, deception: all those I might include under ‘Intelligence’, but I would certainly not consider state-arranged murder of its own citizens, or covert assassinations of foreign politicians, as part of that domain. Yet, in his Introduction, Andrew provocatively claims that they are. Thus, while it may be illuminating to make comparisons between the Spanish Inquisition and Stalin’s Great Terror of 1938, I question whether the classification of mass murder of innocent persons as a matter of ‘intelligence’ reflects a solid humanitarian judgment. Simply because the institution that carried out the executions was also responsible for spying on the populace, that fact does not contribute valuably to the study of the suitable deployment of ‘intelligence’ in domestic or foreign affairs. Andrew reinforces this unhappy theme by relating, in the concluding chapter, the worldwide assassination exploits of the Israeli intelligence organisation, Mossad, and controversially appears to approve such aggression as a winning strategy of ‘the most recent of the world’s most successful intelligence agencies’ in protecting the country. While ‘intelligence’ must be largely secret, however, not all that is secret counts as intelligence. These are shifting and controversial territories to be working in, and some moral compass is required.
Andrew’s dominant message is that a professional unawareness of how intelligence has been successfully (and unsuccessfully) deployed leads to repeated mistakes. Yet, as he explains in his Introduction, the excessive secrecy that attends to its role leads to delayed recognition of such awareness and to an uninformed populace. Records are not released, and histories are written with incomplete information or concealed knowledge (e.g. by such leading lights as A. J. P. Taylor and Winston Churchill respectively), with the result that whole generations are brought up on inadequate or distorted accounts of what primarily influenced outcomes. As he says, the public was protected from knowing about Ultra and the Double-Cross system decades after the events. But he does not analyse (as an outsider) or explain (as an insider) why secrets are maintained for so long. The Double-Cross system was never going to be exploited successfully against the Soviet adversary, no matter that some had delusions that it could be. Germany was never going to gain a revanchist advantage from learning how its Enigma messages had been decrypted, and the science of cryptology moved on. The VENONA secret was maintained for fifty years, but the Soviets knew about it from their spies anyway, and had fixed any procedural problems that the project would have revealed. (Moscow frequently knew much more than Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee about what was really going on in the UK’s Secret World, a point that Andrew does not explore in depth.)
At the end of the book, Andrew returns to this important question of secrecy, dedicating a few pages to Wikileaks, making the claim that not much damage was in fact performed through this breach, and that government secrets have been betrayed for centuries. But, in that case, why has the US Government granted the highest-level security clearance to one-and-a-half million employees and consultants? How could it possibly monitor and maintain a system that pretended that it could vet and trust so many persons, and that the exposure of the secrets that had been entrusted to them would cause ‘exceptionally grave damage’? And why do MI5 and SIS display such a possessive and secret attitude to files that can have no possible bearing on today’s security challenges, and refuse to release folders that have by far outlived their shelf-life? This is the obverse of Andrew’s assertion, which he does not inspect at all. (Yet it was one that came through very clearly in his 1984 collaborative work with David Dilks, The Missing Dimension.)
Sir Christopher Andrew
The bulk of the book consists of a walk through intelligence history over the millennia, but it lacks much of a roadmap. One looks, therefore, to the final chapter for perhaps a thematic summing-up. This chapter is not titled ‘Conclusions’, however, but ‘Conclusion: Twenty-First Century Intelligence in Long-Term Perspective’. Rather than neatly integrating the lessons from the past, the section disappointingly rambles all over the place, introduces much new material, and ends with the rather plodding assertion: “The more that is discovered about the long-term history of intelligence, the more difficult it will be for both policymakers and practitioners to ignore past experiences”, as if the publication of this book will suddenly make ministers, intelligence chiefs, and watchdogs around the world all suddenly perk up when Andrew had presumably not been able to convince them beforehand of the errors of their ways. Well, maybe. Old habits die hard. And if the ‘Yoda’ (see FourBooksonEspionage) of intelligence studies cannot improve matters, who will be able to? But that is what you are paying for.
To reach that conclusion, the reader will have waded through a rich cavalcade of histories of espionage and deceit through the ages. The early parts had a little too much religion and mythology for my liking, much of the story having an anecdotal and unreliable aspect that may not bear much rigorous examination. (His narrative also served to remind me how the interminable feuds between Catholics and Protestants disproportionately influenced state policies, and how calamitous such futile religious commitments were for the peace of Europe.) Thereafter, the reader can pick up some of the lessons that recur over the centuries: the analogies between Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, for instance; the fact that despots want to be told what they have already preconceived (the difficulty of telling ‘Truth-to-Power’), disdaining intermediary intelligence-analysing bodies; and the requirement for governments to avoid proving an allegation against a foreign power by disclosing the clandestine channel through which they acquired it. (Though the existence of those hidden cameras in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Ankara had to be revealed for the greater good.)
But it would have been useful for Andrew to have identified up-front some themes that were important to the use of intelligence in strategy, and relate them to the epochs he studies. For example, how relevant today are lessons from the Second Punic War as opposed to those from WWII? What technological developments in the past fifty years have caused strategic assessment to change? In the final chapter he tries to recapitulate, by making some highly important points about the necessity for imagination when assessing the motivations and practices of the foe: these indeed point to some enduring patterns. Thus he shows how important open-ended questions for agents assessing German weapons programmes in WWII were, a lesson forgotten by the CIA sixty years later when it sought intelligence on Iraq. And he reminds us that both Stalin’s and Hitler’s obsessions, at different times of the war (Stalin’s determination to assassinate Trotsky, Hitler’s pursuit of the Final Solution) were completely misread by intelligence analysts in the West. Yet only in the last sentence of the penultimate chapter does he introduce his theory of Historical Attention-Span Deficit Disorder (HASDD), which he had briefly introduced in his Introduction. Why so late? Moreover, this is a global study: is misuse of intelligence cancelled out if it is perpetrated by adversaries, such as the West on the one side and Russia or China on the other? It is as if he (rightly) feels uncomfortable about giving advice to regimes for whose goals he does not bear any sympathy, but this matter is never explored.
By dint of this rather strange structure, Andrew does not really perform justice to the richness of lessons to be learned. Would it not have been educational, for instance, to make some comparisons between surveillance and containment activities undertaken by totalitarian regimes to further their control over perceived enemies, and those pursued in constitutional democracies? How should policies differ in peace and war, and how should they change in that time when the former drifts into the latter? What lessons should we take from the successes of state-sponsored assassination – that it works for some democracies, but not others, and is not justifiable when committed by more authoritarian states (Israel, yes, but not Russia or North Korea, perhaps)? It would have been enlightening if he had offered an analysis of how many of Israel’s 2700 targeted killings were a) strategically beneficial, and b) justifiable. Such passages really shocked this reader, who looked for more context and analysis.
It would also have been useful for him to have explored the question of political organisation of intelligence. For example, should leaders’ recognition of the strategic value of intelligence be translated into close contact with intelligence heads, or should it concentrate instead on the building of the appropriate processes and structures, and the recruitment of the right people (not potential traitors!), including enough individuals with appropriate language skills, and giving them training and a proper budget? (The former could indicate the latter has been ignored, of course. Executive politicians come and go: institutions endure.) He could have inspected successful patterns for developing mechanisms for sharing intelligence across different groups of the armed forces, and encouraging objective assessment. He could have explored cases where intelligence personnel showed imagination in not assuming that the enemy worked and thought as themselves. Britain, in the Chamberlain era, ignored nearly all these rules, and it took Churchill to make amends, such as giving the Joint Intelligence Centre some real teeth and focus, but policy towards the Soviet Union in World War II was marred by the Foreign Office’s belief that, if handled nicely, Stalin would behave like a typical English gentleman, rather than the Georgian gangster he always was. Readers will learn much more about such matters from, say, Ralph Bennett’s Behind the Battle (a work not appearing in Andrew’s Bibliography, but one which he could profitably have read) than they will from The Secret World.
Andrew’s judgments are largely unsurprising and sometimes questionable, I think, and he steps back from exploring really important topical matters, such as the use of modern technology (e.g. encryption, social media) in both subversion and counter-subversion. Neither Apple nor Facebook appears in the Index. He offers a few pages on Islamic fundamentalism, but does not discuss the critical subject of taqiyya, Islamic propaganda with a devious religious spin, or recommend how it should be countered. He represents 9/11 as a failure to combine the preparation for a threat originating on foreign soil with delivery inside the nation’s boundaries, when the plotters were in fact able to pass undetected because of woeful lack of communication and collaboration by the country’s intelligence agencies. He comes up with a knee-jerk assessment of McCarthyism that contains all the fashionably correct codewords: “The outrageous exaggerations and inventions of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s self-serving anti-Communist witch-hunt in the early 1950s made liberal opinion skeptical for the remainder of the Cold War of the reality of the Soviet intelligence offensive”, as if McCarthy had been responsible for the concealment of communists undertaken by such as the State Department. If there was a ‘reality of the Soviet intelligence offensive’, how should it have been revealed when it had already succeeded in its infiltration? Why was ‘liberal opinion’ so appeasingly indulged? How would experience have helped? Andrew ventures no opinion. He spends an enormous amount of print on Pearl Harbor, but barely scrapes the surface of the Soviet Union’s Red Orchestra and spy network in World War II, and how it affected critical negotiations between the Big Three towards the end of the conflict.
What it boils down to is that repeated patterns of activity are not really that interesting, while integrating growing knowledge of intelligence into historiography is endlessly so. That is why rewriting WWII history in the light of revealed secrets about Ultra, for example, is an ongoing task: even histories written in the 1990s were not able to take advantage of the raw decrypts that have now been released to the National Archives. He mentions this in his Introduction, but does not follow through. Instead, in order to provide some linkage with the present, Andrew has chosen to develop some leitmotifs that are entertaining, though not always revelatory. It is worth quoting a few:
“Scot was the first, and so far the only, British intelligence chief executed for treason.” (p 231)
“Before he [James II] could escape, however, he was caught by fishermen looking for fleeing Catholic priests, and suffered the humiliation of becoming the only British monarch ever to be strip-searched.” (P 250)
“Wallis was the first, and so far the only, British codebreaker to receive an award from a foreign ruler.” (P 253)
“Among the most reluctant witnesses to give evidence in the Lords against Atterbury was Edward Willes, the only codebreaker ever to appear before Parliament.” (p 274)
“His [Swift’s] Gulliver’s Travels contains the first (and so far the only) satire of codebreaking by a major British writer.” (p 275)
“So far as is known, following the failure of the Cadoudal conspiracy , no British government or government agency approved another plot to assassinate a foreign leader until the Second World War.” (P 338)
“The identity of ‘Michel’ was discovered from the handwriting and he became probably the only Russian spy ever to be sent to the guillotine.” (P 355)
“After the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin placed all the volumes in his personal archive and brooded over them for many years, making extensive annotations and occasional doodles. So far as is known, no other world leader has ever spent so much time brooding over the intelligence record of his past life.” (P 441)
“Apis and three fellow officers were shot by firing squad. He thus became the first intelligence chief [of Serbia] of the twentieth century to be executed.” (P 448)
“Thanks to the failure of the Cheka to provide security, Lenin became the first, and so far the only, head of government to be the victim of a carjack.” (P 574)
“He [Kalugin] became the first (and possibly the last) KGB officer to serve on the Columbia University Student Council.” (P 685)
Does this pattern represent a nervous tic, or does it show innovative scholarship? I leave the reader to decide. But it must be passages like this that prompted Ben Macintyre to assert, in an interview in the New York Times Book Review, that The Secret World is ‘easy to dip into’ and ‘surprisingly funny’. I did not laugh much – but then I was not dipping.
While this critic was sometimes overwhelmed by the panorama of historical figures, many of whom I had not encountered before, I must credit the tremendous scholarship that has gone into this publication. Did Andrew really compose it all himself? Can any single scholar have read all those works listed? He thanks dozens of academics in his Acknowledgements, many of whom ‘notably extended my grasp of intelligence by allowing me to supervise their PhD theses’. Yet those theses are not listed separately, and only four such writers (Gioe, Gustafson, Larsen and Lokhova, whose contribution is actually an MPhil dissertation) have their theses listed in the Bibliography. On the other hand I did notice references to Cambridge University theses by authors whose names do not appear in the Acknowledgments. Were projects delegated to different scholars? I ask simply because I do not know how the process worked, although I have read that Andrew, who said that his writing of Defend the Realm was for him a part-time occupation, did on that project have junior academics performing primary research for him in the MI5 archives.
Irrespective of how the project functioned, or whether everyone has received the credit due to them, any seams are overall well concealed, and Andrew’s copy-editor has performed a solid job in providing stylistic consistency. Some deep textual analysis might show multiple authors at work: I spotted ‘different to’ on page 346, and ‘different from’ on page 490, which would be an unusual syntactic habit by an established academic with a competency for polished prose. Occasionally, errors occur: repeated textual descriptions and references (even in the same chapter) come up quite regularly, suggesting a text that has undergone homogenization without complete cross-checking. An individual map appears twice. ‘Bagration’ (from the Index) appears as ‘Bagratian’ (in the text). Rear-Admiral Macintire appears as ‘Macintyre’ in the same line (p 633). Colonel House appears sometimes as ‘Colonel’ House, as if it were a nickname. (The author invites readers to contact him with notices of errors, but does not indicate how.)
As for sources, Andrew quotes his own works a little too much for my liking, and I found it bizarre that he, as the authorised historian of MI5, would cite Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross as a source. He stresses the importance of the American journalists Woodward and Bernstein, but fails to mention anything that Chapman Pincher wrote, or the contribution that Pincher made to drawing attention to murky secrets. On the other hand, Andrew is a bit too eager to mention his acolyte Svetlana Lokhova (see FourBooksonEspionage), who even gains credit for her entrepreneurship: “The investigation of the Kremlin plot, whose voluminous files have recently been discovered by Svetlana Lokhova, revealed a security shambles on an even larger scale.” It was not as if Ms. Lokhova had been tramping intrepidly through the Amazon jungle in search of a lost tribe: she would not have been able to ‘discover’ those voluminous files without some high-up permission and guidance. Yet Andrew has no room for Lokhova’s profile of Shumovsky, The Spy Who Changed History, which essentially glorified the Soviet Union’s purloining of American scientific secrets. Is Andrew suggesting that the lessons of HASDD be applied consistently by potential global adversaries? It is all rather uneven, and reflects very indeterminate principles.
In conclusion, I should have liked Andrew to explore this notion of HASDD in more detail, and how it relates to the defence of the constitutional democracies. After all, we should assume that his lessons are for the ‘good guys’ (the liberal democracies) rather than for the ‘bad guys’ (authoritarian or totalitarian states, or transnational terrorist organisations). Andrew does not make this explicit: he describes China’s efforts to erase any memories of Tiananmen Square, but does not offer us an opinion of whether this initiative to improve state security is commendable, or to be deplored. (Is a stable but authoritarian and expansive China better for the West than a China that starts to fragment or crumble?) Nor does he encompass the possibility, as we are frequently told these days, that the democracies may well be at risk more from the imitation of illiberal democracies, or from the sway of undemocratic superstates, than they are from ideological would-be territorial invaders, such as the Nazis and the Communists. That former warning is, presumably, the moral message he is leaving with us, rather than a sermon on how an inattention to historical precedent sometimes inhibits China’s new imperialism, or Iran’s regional ambitions.
Does this HASDD syndrome reflect a problem of structure, personnel, process, or skills? Is it the fault of the intelligence services, the politicians, (in Britain) the Joint Intelligence Committee, or some other agency? Is this a uniquely British/American condition? And, if he considers that the lore of successful spycraft is not properly understood and applied, why is he surprised, given that the security services (in the UK) were not admitted to exist until the 1990s, that the authorised history of SIS stops in 1949, that both MI5 and SIS have engaged in cover-ups to conceal their mistakes, and that they have selectively broken the Official Secrets Act by allowing journalists access to secret files in order to write publications that would act as public relations exercises? After all, the authorised histories avoid the really contentious issues that might provide learning examples for HASDD. It is no wonder that there exists a substantial amount of suspicion about the effectiveness of both institutions.
Coming closer to home (well, my spiritual home, I suppose, but I suspect I have more readers in the UK than in the USA), what needs to be done to improve British intelligence? In response to Andrew’s examples from more recent times, were the close links between Sir Richard Dearlove (head of SIS) and Anthony Blair that the author highlighted a sign of greater ministerial awareness, or of dangerous cronyism? Clement Attlee, as he points out, had frequent meetings with Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, but what Andrew does not say is that it did not help Attlee, since Sillitoe lied to his PM over the Fuchs case, in order to save the Service. How actively should the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee monitor MI5? Shouldn’t there be a vigorous filter between intelligence collection and executive action – the JIC? Andrew supports the establishment of centres for study into intelligence and security matters, but are those who teach there going to be unrestrained by pledges of secrecy? Would research carried on under their auspices address the HASDD problem? And does each faculty then become part of that inescapable irritatingly-named entity ‘the intelligence community’? Is it good or bad that members of this group might have different views on intelligence matters? If it is indeed a ‘community’, should MI5 and SIS be combined, since the Empire no longer exists, and many threats to security do not recognize national boundaries? Do retired heads of MI5 and SIS, voicing their opinions on national security on public platforms, help or hinder the task of guiding policy? These are some of the questions that it would have been useful for Andrew to address.
And, as a final thought – perhaps intelligence is sometimes overrated. In life we learn that the predatory behavior of a bully is best resisted as early as possible, as the malefactor will otherwise assume that his aggression works for him, and will repeat it. At the time of Hitler’s militarization of the Rhineland in 1936, and Stalin’s claims for possession of the Baltic States in 1941, both bullies were relatively weak, and yet they were not challenged. Is it the same with President Xi, and his demands on Taiwan, and the construction of artificial islands in the China Sea? No furtive gathering of information was necessary to divine what was happening in either of the two historical instances, yet the fear of ‘provocation’ overrode the political conviction that what deters bullies best is a quick biff on the nose – or, at least, its diplomatic equivalent. And autocrats are more transparent in that they don’t have to avoid decisions that might lose them the next election (unlike Stanley Baldwin). We can perhaps get too caught up in the fog of intelligence, and forget some simple psychological lessons.
I suppose part of the problem in taking on a task of this magnitude is the truth that Andrew has become part of the official intelligence apparatus. That leads to a paradox – a Morton’s Fork. If Andrew is indeed that firmly embedded, it must be impossible for him to analyse objectively the infrastructure to which he belongs. Yet, if he were an outsider, he would not be privy to much of the knowledge of how the apparatus works, because it is so secret, although sometimes unnecessarily so. An insider knows too much, an outsider too little. Moreover, it is difficult to write a volume that serves as both objective history as well as a tutorial on intelligence and spycraft. The Secret World is thus a compromise: a monumental and educational undertaking of great academic quality, testimony to some impressive research, but lacking a clear charter, and failing to explore ruthlessly enough the patterns of failure and success in governments’ deployment of intelligence. There is a book to be written about that latter topic, but Andrew’s is not it.
(This month’s new Commonplace entries can be found here.)
I interrupt the normal monthly schedule to present a report on MI5 structure in WWII that should not wait any longer – and probably does not merit prime billing as a monthly blog post, as it is of even more recondite interest than my normal articles. Yet it addresses a serious oversight in the authorised history of MI5, Christopher Andrew’s Defend the Realm. I thank Dr. Giselle Jakobs for her very helpful comments during the creation of this piece, and welcome comments from my readers.
I also take the opportunity to update the tale of Aberystwyth. On the night of November 4, at 9:45 PM local (East Coast) time, I received a brief email attaching a schedule for the Security Conference which starts on November 15. In it can be found my session: ‘Elusive Transmissions: The Riddle of Radio Detection in Wartime Britain’. My messages had been completely ignored, and I have had to request, very respectfully, that my presentation be removed. I apologise to the thousands of my fans who were about to flock to Gregynog Hall to listen to me. And it is probably true: ‘I shall not eat lunch in Aberystwyth again’.
B2B or not B2B
The group within MI5 that has become renowned for managing the group of German double-agents in World War II is regularly identified as ‘B1A’. Led by the charismatic figure of Tommy (‘Passion Pants’) Robertson, known as ‘Tar’, it carefully shepherded TATE, GARBO, TRICYCLE, TREASURE and others through the process of passing on carefully prepared messages, some by invisible ink, some by wireless, to the Abwehr controllers who believed they were still working for the Nazis. It maintained credible real-life experiences for them, selected a mixture of harmless facts and mendacious reports for them to pass on, and fed off the Germans’ weaknesses to convince the enemy that the major D-Day landing would take place near the Pas de Calais rather than in Normandy.
The histories and biographies mainly appear to reinforce this identity. If you read Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross (2012), you will find the following: “A live spy was more useful than a dead one, though a lot more trouble. Section B1A was launched, a new subsection of Liddell’s B Section with Tar Robertson at the helm”. The event is undated, but the text strongly indicates August 1940. Nigel West, in MI5 (1981) writes of the time of the establishment of the Twenty (XX) Committee, in early January 1941: “B1(a) continued [sic] to manage the agents on a day-to-day basis but their efforts were now combined with B1(b), a hybrid unit devoted to the art of assessment of the enemy.” And in his authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (2009 – US title), Christopher Andrew introduces B1a, ‘the double agent section of B Division’, as existing as early as May 1940, when MI5 was undertaking risky manoeuvres with agent SNOW and his Abwehr case officer, Major Ritter. Dick White’s biographer, Tom Bower, in The Perfect English Spy (1995), has Robertson’s B1(a) in existence by September 1939. Geoffrey Elliott’s biography of Robertson, Gentleman Spymaster (2011) completely avoids the issue of reporting structures before 1941.
Yet any researcher who inspects the files of these double-agents – and unturned spies – at the National Archives will soon become bewildered by the range of identifiers used by many of the participants – especially Tar Robertson. He or she may find Robertson given the tag ‘B3’ between September 1939 and September 1940. For a short while thereafter, he appears as ‘W2’. In the first half of 1941, letters and memoranda refer to him as ‘B2’. It is not until the end of July 1941 that he first appears as ‘B1A’. What is going on? And why are the histories so inattentive to this issue?
Well, one historian was careful. John Masterman, the Oxford historian who chaired the XX Committee, wrote, in a note on p100 of his history of the project, The Double Cross System, (1972): “Until Sir David Petrie’s reorganisation in 1941 the section dealing with double-cross agents was otherwise named, but for purposes of convenience it will be mentioned as B.1.a. throughout.” (Readers will notice already the discrepancies in format: B1A, B1(a), B1a, and B.1.a: I shall use the first form in all references from now on.) Masterman referred to a predecessor unit, W Branch, that had been established in July 1940, but left the rest of the puzzle unresolved. But shouldn’t we expect, from the authorised historian (Andrew) especially, that he would pay proper diligence to important issues of chronology and organisational structure, instead of skipping over the anomalies as if they didn’t matter?
At a high level, perhaps, it doesn’t matter, as the association of Robertson and B1A will be a stable linkage with which to identify MI5’s agent-handling group. But since the negotiations, rivalries, resentments and plotting that went on behind these organisational changes are an important part of the history of MI5 and its exploitation of double agents, I believe it is important to set the record straight. At the same time, I suspect the many researchers who are delving into the files that are continually being released at Kew may find a reliable guide to the evolution of Britain’s counter-espionage organisation during World War II a useful backdrop for their research.
A sceptical reader of Macintyre’s book might have asked: how was it that such an obvious unit descriptor as ‘B1A’ was unused and available when it came time to launch Robertson’s new unit? Information about MI5’s structure at the beginning of the war is very elusive, but on page 19 of my book Misdefending the Realm I reproduce a chart (found in the archives at KV 4/127) with the following observation: “Nevertheless, ‘B’ Branch still looks essentially unmanageable, with the following subsections and chiefs:
B (Investigation) Harker & Liddell;
B.1 (Internal Security in HM Forces) Alexander;
B.1a (Navy) Watson;
B.2 (Germany) Cooke;
B.2a (Nazi) Curry;
B.2b (C.E. Germany) Whyte;
B.2c (BUF, Italian Fascists) Sinclair;
B.3 (Arms Traffic) Robertson;
B.4a (Civil Security – home) Sissmore and Mr Younger;
B.4b (Civil Security – foreign) Dick White;
B.5a (Spec. Enquiries) Boddington, Badham;
B.5b (M Organisation) Knight;
B.6 (Enquiries) Hunter.”
So it is clear that a predecessor B1A unit did exist, although it had nothing to do with managing potential double agents. We can also see that Robertson is identified as B3, responsible for Arms Traffic, a function that Geoffrey Elliott assumes was to deal with the frequently clandestine way in which surplus weaponry was bought and sold to support various conflicts and insurgencies around the world, such as the Spanish Civil War.
At this stage, it may be suitable to explore exactly what this system of nomenclature meant. MI5 was composed of Branches (or Divisions), terms which in books about MI5 are used almost interchangeably. (In a Note on page 127 of his history, Christopher Andrew writes: “Within MI5 ‘branch’ and ‘division’ were often used interchangeably. In internal administrative documents ‘branch’ predominated until 1931, ‘division’ from 1931 to 1940, ‘branch’ in 1941-2 and ‘division’ from 1943 to 1950. From 1953 onwards the accepted term was ‘branch’.) Beneath these were ‘sections’, sometimes referred to as ‘sub-sections’. One can see that the organisation before WWI was very flat, with most sections occupied by only one officer. The implication, however, is that there is no direct equivalence between an officer and a code, and that a section name (e.g. B.4a) could refer to either of the officers who represented it.
When a researcher reads memoranda and letters written by and to certain officers, the equivalence between the officer and the section is frequently tenuous. Thus a letter may be identified as originating from B1A (for example, Robertson), but the response is sent, likewise, to B1A, which should presumably mean any of the officers in that section, or even whoever happened to be on duty at that time. Attempts are often made to remove the confusion by adding the name of the individual officer intended to make sure the right recipient receives the message, e.g. “B.2b (Mr Hart)”. It is not a watertight system, but it probably reflects the relative chaos in which MI5 grew, especially at the beginning of the war, when formalities, written job responsibilities and training were cast by the wayside. My view is that it was unlikely that it was a system designed to confound the Germans for reasons of security: I suspect British military, governmental and intelligence departments that had daily business with MI5 were more confused than the Abwehr. And it appears to have perplexed the authorized historian. Let us just note that each code properly defines a section, and that the section’s leader is, by default, customarily given that nomenclature.
In any case, at some stage, the mission of B3 morphed into one of interception of illicit wireless. We owe it to John Curry’s official history of MI5, The Security Service 1908-1945, published internally in 1946, and by the Public Record Office in 1999, for the information that ‘A section known as B.3., under Lt.-Colonel Simpson, C.M.G., R.E. had been established at the beginning of the war to deal with these inquiries [i.e. reports of suspicious Morse signals picked up by wireless receivers]”. I have covered the short, fascinating but enigmatic career of Lt.-Col Simpson at MI5 elsewhere on this website (MysteryofUndetectedRadios), but it is clear that Robertson was working for Simpson for the whole first year of the war, when he was handling the SNOW case. Curry refers to an unnamed section run by Lt.-Col. Hinchley-Cooke ‘which had always dealt with German espionage’, but ‘continued to be in the same isolated position which it had held for some years.’ (Isolation seems to have been a key feature of all departments.) From the chart above, we can see that this unit was B2, with Hinchley-Cooke being presented as ‘Cooke’. Curry (who at that time worked as B2A for Hinchley-Cooke) also informs us that Robertson’s involvement with wireless usage by SNOW (though not stated thus explicitly) was then leading him into attempts to ‘find a key to the Abwehr system of wireless communication’. He adds: “He [Captain Robertson] was also in charge of the section responsible for the investigation of all reports of illicit wireless transmissions and for co-ordinating the work in this connection of the police, the Radio Security Service and the G.P.O.” Robertson was clearly gaining in experience, importance, and visibility in his time at B3.
At some time in the Spring of 1940, however, there was a fallout between Simpson and MI5, and Liddell had to look for a replacement. He eventually picked Malcom Frost, who had previously worked for the BBC, and was not only a crony of Lord Swinton, who had taken overall control of MI5 after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, but also was a member of the Security Executive itself. It was at this stage that the function of the old B3 was proposed to be established at a higher level – a W (Wireless) Branch, which was the brainchild of Swinton himself. Thus Frost, an ambitious character, was initially promised that his organisation, ‘established inside the Security Service and . . . intended to deal with the interception of enemy communications for the purpose of detecting their agents’, would report at the same level as B, with initial supervision by Liddell. Liddell, who had replaced Harker as head of B Branch on June 11, was also assistant to acting director Jasper Harker, but also shared his role for an uncomfortable time with a solicitor introduced by Swinton, William Crocker. This was a desperately difficult time for Liddell.
Despite Liddell’s initial enthusiasm for Frost, the latter’s arrogance and unreliability soon undermined his standing with his new MI5 peers. Frost had been appointed head of W Branch on July 24, 1940: a month later Liddell folded the Branch, much to Frost’s disgust, into B as a conventional Section, with Robertson and his team moving with him. Andrew tells us that Crocker left in September after a row with Swinton. As the dilemma about where to place the Radio Security Service (RSS) became more urgent, Frost expressed the desire that the whole organisation should report to him, an attitude that went completely against the grain of what MI5’s senior management was thinking. By the end of November, even his ally Swinton was telling Liddell that Frost could not stay in MI5. (Yet Frost was a survivor, not leaving MI5 until January 1943.) On December 6, Liddell wrote in his Diary that Robertson had told him that working for Frost was intolerable, and Liddell was forced to move Robertson’s unit out of the W Section, and park it (including Robertson and Cholmondeley, and possibly Luke and Reed) elsewhere. In the latter months of 1940 (from early September onward), Robertson is thus identified in the archival reports as ‘W2’: another part of his career is explained.
Liddell was inhibited from making solid and durable changes to MI5’s structure at this time, since David Petrie had by then been invited to review MI5’s operation as a pending successor to Vernon Kell, Jasper Harker having being recognised as too weak a character to take over the leadership. Thus, until Petrie’s arrival in early 1941, and the restructuring that took place at the end of July of that year, Robertson’s team was placed in B2. Now B2 has always been somewhat of a murky entity: according to Curry, now that Crocker was out of the way, he himself became in September 1940 Liddell’s deputy, thus opening up a slot for Robertson at B2. (This promotion does not appear to be verifiable from any other source, so we should be wary of Curry’s claim.) Liddell reportedly arranged B Division into seven subject areas, but probably did not publicize the new organisation very aggressively, in view of Swinton looking over his shoulder. But it would explain why B2A was available at this time, as, by now, B2’s other officer had been moved into a new role. Hinchley-Cooke, who was half-German, was increasingly being used to interrogate captured agents at Latchmere House, and his legal expertise was being used more in decisions made about bringing such agents to trial, which meant he no longer led the B2 unit. The National Archives show that Hinchley-Cooke was identifiable as B13 by October 1, 1940, perhaps replacing an enigmatic ‘J R S’ whose name appears as B13 in the last months of 1939.
Dick White now appears as B2 (and occasionally B2B), so it is clear that Liddell had appointed him to take a leading role in handling German espionage. Nigel West and Christopher Andrew (who does not even recognize B2’s existence until his saga reaches 1950: B2 was re-created after the war) are oddly very parsimonious in their coverage of White in 1940 and 1941. West states, however, that ‘early in the war Liddell looked to his pre-war hands, Dick White, Tar Robertson and Jack Curry to cope with the problem of German espionage’. Dick White and Roger Hollis had both been given assistant-director rank in July 1940. According to West (and Bower), White at this time became Liddell’s deputy, although that would conflict with the story as Curry tells it. According to Curry’s account, White did not take on that role until July 1941, when Curry moved across to take over the new F Division. Bower even grants a larger part of the XX programme to White, asserting that ‘Arthur Owens [SNOW] was White’s first double-agent’. Perhaps Liddell had two deputies: that was the model in SIS, although it was a policy bound to cause resentments and uncertainty. In any case, the evidence shows that White was busily engaged with Robertson in discussing the fate of their captured agents, and arguing with Swinton (and vicariously, Churchill) why their execution was not a sensible policy.
There is some confusion about the remainder of B2. The group that was eventually known in the Petrie era as B1B, under Helenus Milmo, which at some stage brought in Herbert Hart, was responsible for ‘analyzing ISOS decrypts, Abwehr communications with the double agents and other intelligence relevant to the Double-Cross system’ (Andrew). Yet Andrew again prematurely misrepresents the B1B nomenclature as being current in August 1940, since records tell us that, in the first half of 1941, Milmo was identified as B2C (and once as B3C!), and Hart as B2B, which suggests that they were pursuing separate agendas. (What happened to B2C Sinclair is not clear, while Curry shows that B2B Whyte would later become B4A, in the ‘Country’ section.) Whether Milmo and Hart had also been in Frost’s ill-fated W Branch is uncertain: Hart did not join MI5, and sign the Official Secrets Act until July 3, 1940, so he may have been waiting in the wings until the new B2 organisation took shape a couple of months later. The main conclusion, however, is that Robertson had an identity and home as B2A in the first seven months of 1941. Another stage in his career is explained, although whether personnel in other wartime units who communicated with him, such as RSS, understood what was going on may be another question.
We have the firmest confirmation of the final order in Curry’s history, since he provides a detailed chart of the structure that Petrie imposed after his appointment as Director-General in March 1941. Yet how much the ideas were his, and how much he was swayed by Swinton, is unclear: Curry states that, on April 22, Petrie decided to ‘follow the Swinton recommendation of splitting up B Division’. The new structure was announced on July 15, and implemented on August 1. This shows White as Assistant-Director to Liddell, and in charge of B1 (titled ‘Espionage’, but, more accurately ‘Counter-Espionage’), Robertson is B1A, responsible for Special Agents, and Hart is B1B, ‘Espionage Special Sources’ – rather enigmatically suggesting that Milmo is no longer part of the picture, although archival documents show that he was still B1B in 1942. (As I have pointed out, Curry may not be 100% reliable – but he does provide more detail than Andrew or West.) B2 is now ‘Agents’ under Maxwell Knight, whose group has been generally known as the ‘M’ organisation, but which was clearly B2B in the chart I offered above. (The ‘agents’ here were mostly British citizens recruited to infiltrate subversive organisations on the mainland, previously Fascist groups, and now the Communist Party.) A large part of Knight’s group would shortly be moved away from him, and in August 1941 B2 was apparently dissolved, with Knight joining a staff unit titled ‘Agents and Press Section’ reporting directly to Harker and Petrie. A new Division, F Division, was also created at this time, initially under Curry, responsible for ‘Subversive Activities’, and it is here that Roger Hollis found his home, as F2, watching ‘Communism and Left Wing Movements’.
The main outcome of this restructuring is that Robertson found his happier and permanent home at B1A, under Dick White, and that is how we remember him. What is extraordinary in this whole saga is how unhelpful the ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ histories are in providing a comprehensive and comprehensible explanation of how the structures of MI5 evolved. One might say: if they cannot get facts like that right, how accurate is the rest of their story? I hope that this narrative helps remove the confusion, and that it will find its way into a future rewritten history of MI5. I encourage any researchers who discover facts that expand or counter any of what I have written to contact me.
Some Famous Conspiracy Theorists (Nos 17-20 in a series of 50)
A Lesson from Salisbury
As most readers familiar with the Skryalin affair will know, recently two GRU officers masquerading as tourists with an enthusiasm for Early English architecture were shown, through the means of a surveillance camera, sauntering through Salisbury. Soon after those pictures were published, I was interested to read the following statement in the New York Times: “Matthew Dean, the head of Salisbury’s City Council and owner of a local pub, the Duke of York, said he hoped it would put to rest conspiracy theories circulating about the crime.” The implied hope behind Mr. Dean’s statement was that a more convincing theory, one backed up by more solid evidence, would oust alternative explanations that lacked any real factual basis, and that tended to exploit hidden fears and motivations.
I do not know to which other theories Mr. Dean was referring (poison planted by British intelligence? release of a germ from Porton Down by a disgruntled employee?), but the obvious implication was that all ‘conspiracy theories’ are inherently false and deceptive. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is a pejorative term. Yet MI5, in trying to work out what had happened, and conjecturing that the attack was probably engineered by some part of Russian ‘intelligence’, would have had to create some kind of theory about how Novichok found its way to the back-streets of Salisbury. Whether the action of a single deranged agent (which in truth by definition could not be a conspiracy), or a deed plotted deeply in the conference-rooms of the Lubianka, any hypothesis would presumably come under the category of ‘conspiracy theory’. Yet the strong evidence that the perpetrators had been identified would in fact make this particular ‘conspiracy theory’ a winner over inferior versions. With the GRU now nailed, the conspiracy is almost certainly proven: the ‘theoretical’ aspect of it is retired. What happened next, however, was that the established facts became a conspiracy theory of their own: Marcello Foa, the new chairman of Italy’s state broadcaster RAI, was reported in the New York Times on September 28 as saying that he doubted the evidence that Moscow’s operatives poisoned Skryalin, as it was ‘too obvious’.
You can read an informative article about conspiracy theories at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory. Such theories not based on any tangible evidence are mostly the dreamchildren of the ambitious but frustrated, the third-rate who cannot gain the influence or power they think they deserve, and thus have to attribute their failure to some malign cabal. In authoritarian regimes many despots, who are classical conspiracy theorists, are paranoiac about challenges to their power, as they realise their grip on it is artificial and resented. In liberal democracies, a mistrust of the ‘authorities’ – often governmental institutions who have forgotten their sense of accountability to the public – and their apparent determination to protect institutions or persons, frequently leads to scepticism about the official line, and gullible members of the citizenry may become susceptible to dubious theories enthusiastically promoted. Fantasy drives facts, and an emotional appeal is made to baser instincts than reason. The Internet has reinforced the presence of such theories, as it is neutral, undiluted and universal.
Conspiracy and the Historians
This is especially true in the domain of intelligence and counter-intelligence, since the appeal to ‘national security’ may be overused in the process of concealing the facts. The curious public might justifiably wonder why certain information is withheld. Yet, if there is an obvious mismatch between the evidence and the outcome, the discretion will provide a void that activists will cheerfully fill. This was the point I made in my August blog, where I thought it naive of Christopher-Davenport Hines to attack the media for investigating obvious loopholes in the official stories of dubious goings-on when the intelligence services had shown such an obvious disdain for coming clean and admitting their mistakes in their accounts to the public. Thus the conspiracies entered by officers in government services, whereby they agree to keep uncomfortable facts hidden from the public, in fact exert an influence of provoking further conspiracy theories.
This dynamic can lead to tensions between the authorities and those serious analysts who, while not wanting to put the nation’s security at risk, believe a more open approach to disclosure of information is desirable. In his Introduction to Seven Spies who Changed the World (1991), Nigel West wrote: “Whilst there are plenty of conspiracy theorists perhaps a little too willing to advocate global schemes of labyrinthine complexity, often constructed on foundations of dubious evidence, there is plenty of room in our culture for due recognition to be given to what might be termed ‘the secret world’.” (That, incidentally, is the title of Sir Christopher Andrew’s recent history of intelligence.) West’s not very precisely articulated point (who was supposed to be granting the ‘due recognition’ that was not happening?) was presumably that while the public should make allowances that some degree of secrecy is needed to protect policies, practices and personnel from public scrutiny, the curious media should be encouraged to speculate. He preceded the above remarks by pointing out a quantum of double standards in the approach to historiography, some sentences that I believe are worth quoting in full.
“Security considerations are entirely valid as motives for omitting certain aspects of history from publication, but the historians who have either submitted to censorship or imposed it upon themselves can hardly blame the public for seeking to learn more about episodes and incidents that have previously been consigned, for the sake of discretion, to locked vaults. However, for them to deride those historiographers who overcome the obstacles and gain access to an ‘airport-bookstall school of history’ betrays an intellectual arrogance of breathtaking proportions.” (This is akin to the Davenport-Hines defence of ‘experts’, I believe.) He clearly moves part of the blame to those historians who have performed some sort of compromise with ‘the secret world’. But to whom could West have been referring?
He wrote this in 1991, and somewhat bizarrely, given the timing, also observed that Professors Hinsley and Howard ‘have been commissioned by the government to write official accounts of the parts played by British intelligence services during World War II’. (The first volume had appeared in 1979, and the last in 1990.) Perhaps West had not yet studied them: his criticisms seem to have been directed elsewhere. As the author of a history of MI5 (1981) that presumably fell into that ‘airport-bookstall’ school, a serious, very useful, but inevitably flawed book, West was of course not aware that Professor Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 would be appearing at the end of the following decade. Yet he still had a barb for Andrew, who may have fallen into that set ‘who have either submitted to censorship or imposed it upon themselves’. In a Note on this section of his Introduction he singles out Professors Cameron Watt and Andrew as the culprits who have unjustly scorned the popular historiographers, and gets his own back by panning Andrew’s recent Inside the KGB (1990): “The latter [Andrew] himself fell foul of his academic colleagues when he published Inside the KGB with Oleg Gordievsky without supporting documentation. It was noted that the book contained virtually no new research and depended heavily on either secondary sources or a single source without verification.” Touché! I am sure West was referring to the review by Tennant Bagley, former Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Soviet Division, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Andrew had ‘taken shortcuts in the historian’s disciplines that diminish the book’s authority’. Further: “He often leans on a single source, while overlooking more reliable ones, and by trusting earlier writers who got their information second-hand, so he has perpetuated mistakes that any knowledgeable reader will spot.” ‘Officially Unreliable’, in other words.
Sir Christopher Andrew
But this feud between the confidants on the inside and the sceptics on the outside continues. Gordievsky is very much in the news again now, because of Ben Macintyre’s controversial new biography of the KGB defector, The Spy and the Traitor, to which I shall return in a future blog. On page 319 of this work Macintyre writes, seemingly oblivious to the criticisms addressed to Andrew and Gordievsky: “He [Gordievsky] gave lectures, listened to music, and wrote books with the historian Christopher Andrew, works of detailed scholarship [sic] that still stand as the most comprehensive accounts of Soviet intelligence to date.” Macintyre appears a little too trusting of what Gordievsky and the SIS insiders who minded him chose to tell the author. Is this simply a Mutual Admiration Society, the gathering around the ‘Yoda’ of intelligence history (see my August blog), in other words a relatively benign form of conspiracy, or is it something more dangerous? The point is that the balance of secrecy has been weighted too far on the side of government bodies, and certain historians, by colluding with them, exacerbate the problem.
I believe that what West hints at concerning self-censorship is a very serious matter. For example, if a historian signs the Official Secrets Act, in my opinion he or she is compromised as a serious analyst. If an authority essentially imposes silence on certain topics as the cost of gaining secret insider information, that academic is in practice prohibited from writing or teaching authoritatively about any subject, as he or she may have to ignore evidence that could be critical to the study of that topic. (I suspect that such a person is also barred from admitting that he or she has even signed the Act.) I do not understand why any academic would consent to such a restriction, except out of gratitude that one is considered important enough to be confided in secrets that the broader world does not know about, or as a necessary preliminary in a consulting assignment. The result of such flattery is that the academic can presumably be trusted by the government authority to put a vague positive spin on the activities of the contracting department, but the inevitable outcome is that he or she becomes part of a ‘conspiracy of silence’.
And mysteries persist. Thus, when the facts appear not to match the official story, or ‘insiders’ leak accounts that contradict it, the serious objective historian, without special access to official sources (whom one should not trust, anyway), and sharing the open archives with everyone else, has to develop his or her hypotheses in an attempt to explain why the authorities would not want the details of a particular event or exploit not to become public. And I believe a serious academic fist can be made of such research without the author’s becoming a member of the ‘airport-bookstall’ school. (Oh, if only Misdefending the Realm appeared alongside Ben Macintyre’s oeuvre on airport bookstalls!) It simply requires a solid methodology, hard work, and a strong regard for chronology – laced with a careful amount of imagination. Of necessity, the theories that emanate from such work will involve the actions of multiple persons – hence a ‘conspiracy’.
I have very direct experience of this process myself. When writing my thesis on communist subversion in WWII, one episode constantly niggled at me: Why would the Foreign Office have condoned a visit by Guy Burgess and Isaiah Berlin to Moscow at a time (July 1940) when the Soviet Union was helping Nazi Germany in the war effort? I developed a hypothesis that it must have been planned as some kind of back-channel from Churchill’s administration to Stalin, but could not pinpoint why. I even ran the idea up the tentative flagpole in my original History Today article on The Undercover Egghead (see https://www.historytoday.com/antony-percy/isaiah-berlin-undercover-egghead ), but gained no shred of feedback to either encourage or squelch the notion. Given the conspiracy of silence that obnubilated Burgess and all those who were hoodwinked by him, it was very difficult to find any documentary evidence to support my idea.
It turned out that the argument of my thesis rested very heavily on this event: it was the pivot. However, as I developed the case, from a very detailed study of the chronology, and of the actions of dozens of parties at the time, it seemed to me that Churchill, in June and July 1940, at a very critical time of the war, was taking on a very cagey tactic in trying to play Hitler off Stalin while not encouraging the two dictators to gang up on the British Empire. Britain was that summer still facing an imminent invasion – long before the USA entered the hostilities – and Churchill had to use every feint, including the pretence that a peace faction still held considerable sway, to discourage Hitler from making a naval assault when the country’s defences were still weak. Yet he had to deter Stalin from concluding that Britain was finished.
When I wrote this up, my supervisor, Professor Glees, was rightly very critical and interrogatory. I had no primary evidence that this is what was happening, and I suppose my thesis was at that juncture in jeopardy. And then, a sudden bulletin from a contact in the UK arrived: the National Archives had just released (October 2015) a new file on Burgess that confirmed that he had been sent to Moscow in July 1940 to convince the Comintern to abandon its pact with Nazi Germany and join the allies (p 81 of Misdefending the Realm). In other words, Churchill had indeed intended to remind Stalin of Britain’s resolve, and to convince him to ignore rumours of the burgeoning peace movement. In the light of Burgess’s treachery revealed later, politicians and civil servants who knew about his employment by the Foreign Office at that time had covered up the facts when reporting to a sceptical House of Commons on the flight of Burgess and Maclean to the Soviet Union – a conspiracy. When I showed this to Professor Glees, he was convinced, and I could move on.
One of the warnings that Professor Glees constantly gave me was not to ‘chase hares’. While I understand what he meant by this, I disagreed with the advice to the extent that a curious historian has to ‘chase hares’, else he or she will never catch anything of interest at all. Otherwise you end up with the kind of dry-as-dust history that A. J. P. Taylor characterised as ‘what one clerk said to another’, in a famous London Review of Books review in 1982 (see https://www.lrb.co.uk/v04/n03/ajp-taylor/what-one-clerk-said-to-another ). The key is not to get obsessed with any particular lagomorph, and to call off the hunt when the prey in question begins to look like a minor species of unicorn. Burgess in Moscow (which he never reached until he fled in 1951, by the way) was one thing. On the other hand, I remember trying to pin down whether Sedlacek and Roessler, the shadowy figures in the Swiss espionage ring in WWII, were actually one and the same person (for reasons that I shall explore another time), before concluding that the evidence was too flimsy, and that I had to move on. The point is that creating ‘conspiracy theories’ that either turn out to have substance, or have to be abandoned for lack of evidence, is the meat and potatoes of historical research.
One reason why I decided to write this piece is that, in the last few years, I have been privately called out by at least two very respectable academics as being a ‘conspiracy theorist’. This happened because, in the course of email exchanges about historical figures, I had suggested that perhaps things were not as they seemed, and started to explore possible alternative explanations. I believe both persons, whose judgments I overall respect very highly, were perhaps a little too attached to the institution or personage to which or to whom they had dedicated a significant part of their professional life, and became very defensive. And I politely told them so, and said that I thought they were overreacting to private, provocative questions from a curious mind, one trying to seek the truth (or at least, the facts). They were both very reliant on the ‘authorised histories’ for their information, and, when I pointed out that these were very unreliable sources of what actually happened, one of these academics very sensibly responded: ‘But that is all we have’.
And that is the nub of what I see as a major problem. Now that the official or authorised histories have been written about MI5, SIS (although only up to 1949), Intelligence in WWII, and the Joint Intelligence Committee (Volume 1, to 1956), with one on GCHQ scheduled for next year, it leaves many observers perhaps concluding that the deed is done, that there will shortly be no more to be said. But that would be a travesty. A large volume of files is continually being released at Kew that will cause a dramatic re-assessment of what actually occurred. The preamble to the Government Official History series boasts that the aim of the volumes is ‘to produce major histories in their own right, compiled by historians eminent in the field, who are afforded free access to all relevant material in the official archives’. One of the works listed is SOE in France, by M. R. D. Foot, which was written in 1966, when he assuredly did not enjoy ‘free access’ to all the archives. Yet the work had to be revised and updated in 2006, and Professor Foot was fortunately around to perform the job. * It covers only one country, however: the others remain without an official history. Why? Similar exercises will be needed with the other histories – especially that of MI5, with which I am most familiar.
M R D Foot
[* Attentive readers will recall that I read SOE in France during the passage of Hurricane Florence. I had borrowed this volume from the University Library in Wilmington, but afterwards thought that I should read the 2004 updated edition, which I had to buy via Abebooks. In an extended Preface, Foot admits the embargo put upon him four decades ago on even mentioning SIS, and informs us that “I have been able to be more straightforward about a service from part of which part of SOE derived.”. So are there important new revelations to be made here? There is no entry for SIS, or Gambier-Parry, or Menzies, or Section VIII in the Index, and I thus have to trawl through the text looking for fresh insights. The pages have been reset: the Notes are now at the back. What a drag.]
In Search of a Forum
Thus my objectives in writing about these issues are twofold: first, to gain greater scrutiny on the more dubious claims that have established themselves in the authorised histories, and second, to create a mechanism where they may be examined in detail, and perhaps overturned, or at least clarified. How can these goals be achieved? For some time I have been looking for a forum where reputable historians and experts could discuss and explore some of the remaining conundrums of British intelligence, espionage, and counter-espionage over the past eighty years or so. I do not believe the conventional media work. The specialty intelligence journals are too exclusive and expensive, and move too slowly. History Today is very cautious about stepping into recent history, with all its controversies of interpretation. There appears to be a lack of drive in the conference business. For example, a few years ago, I was privileged to be invited to a conference on Governments-in-Exile in World War II, hosted at Lancaster House by SIS under the guise of the Foreign Office. It was an excellent event built around a fascinating, underexposed subject, with many impressive speakers from a variety of European countries. The organisers promised that proceedings of the event would be published – but nothing happened.
The Internet should provide part of the answer, but it is too chaotic, too frenzied, and too undisciplined. There are many vitally useful sites for gaining information not available elsewhere (though they need to be processed carefully), but no place where issues can be moderated and discussed seriously without a free-for-all, and insults and . . . ahem . . . a surfeit of conspiracy theories. In the broader world, cliques and mutual admiration societies exist: cults of personality grow, such as the idolizing that surrounds Sir Christopher Andrew (as I pointed out in August.). The Official Secrets Act exerts its baleful influence. Moreover, it is not always certain that historians possess a sincere desire to discover the facts. I believe that too many experts maintain entrenched positions, sometime forgetting that, since they have been fed certain lines by insiders who may have had a message to get across, the experience may not count as reliable sourcing. Some academics do not like being challenged on any published position they have held, and thus do not encourage an open, egalitarian approach to the discipline, an example of which I offer in the following anecdote.
I occasionally try to contact authors of books on intelligence that I have read, especially when I want to follow up on a point of contention. It also now serves as a way of drawing attention to coldspur and Misdefending the Realm. Sometimes I have to track such persons down through their agents. I am always careful to be polite and deferential, saying how much I enjoyed the book (even if I didn’t), as I know how tough this business of writing is, and how easily mistakes slip in. When one academic published a book on Soviet spycraft a few years ago, I wrote to ask clarification over a matter of identity, as the writer seemed to have conflated the names of two ‘illegal’ Soviet agents into one – namely Ignaty Reif and Ignace Reiss. The response was sharp, patronising, and dismissive. I was instructed to read his text more carefully. I persevered. In the end, I had to resort to pointing out the photographs of the two characters in Deadly Illusions, the book about Alexander Orlov by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, and to asking the historian whether he thought they were the same person. I could imagine the gulp at the other end of the line. The author rather grudgingly admitted that I was right, and said he would correct the error (which would not have been a simple task) in the second edition of his book. At least he responded. Not everyone does.
The perennial problem is that so many loose end and unresolved mysteries exist in the world of intelligence, and so many untruths are perpetuated by careless assimilation that a process for bringing some order to the chaos is highly desirable. Ever since I first published my blog on Officially Unreliable, I have imagined putting on a colloquium around that theme, where assembled experts would present papers that would then be discussed. These matters are complex. Competence in intelligence matters needs to be complemented by expertise in civil and constitutional law, in wireless telegraphy, and in political and military history – even in psychology. I understand that some academics would be hesitant to display their knowledge of a subject in the company of rivals, but I still thought such a forum would be of immense interest to many who study security and intelligence affairs. I thus suggested such an event to the faculty at the University of Buckingham, compiling a sample agenda with speakers, as I thought it would show thought-leadership, and add to the prestige of the department. Unfortunately, after some initial enthusiasm, the idea went nowhere, and likewise a plan for a conference in partnership with another entity also foundered.
Trouble in Aberystwyth
Gregynog Hall, Aberystwyth
With this background, in mid-August Professor Glees happened to wonder whether I would be interested in presenting at a conference on intelligence that the University of Aberystwyth is holding this November. I jumped at the opportunity: it would be a chance to get myself in front of an audience, and I could perhaps combine the trip to the UK with some opportunities with other institutions to talk about my book. I checked out the website, noticed that submissions for papers had to be in by August 25, and thus compiled a description based on some of my recent research into wireless transmission and interception that I thought would be of lively interest. (The Conference did not specify any real agenda at that time.) After a few days, I received a brief message acknowledging my submission, and requesting me to fill out a registration form (with payment).
Well, of course I was not going to register until I knew my submission had been accepted. I had explained in my covering letter the logistics problems: Aberystwyth knew where I lived, and what was involved. So I waited. And waited. About a month later, I checked the website again. The expiration date for submissions was now September 25, but there was still nothing published about conference tracks, themes, committed outside speakers, etc. I had notionally given up on the idea as a waste of time, when Professor Glees, in a solicitous email about Hurricane Florence, happened to ask me whether I would be attending the conference. I replied immediately, telling the Professor what had happened, and saying that I thought that the whole thing was a disaster.
Then a couple of days later, I received a very brief email from Aberystwyth from someone who just signed his name as ‘Gerry’, with no indication of his role at the university, saying merely: “Your paper has been accepted. Please proceed with your registration”, again providing a link to the sign-up url. My guess was that Professor Glees probably knew the people there, and had intervened on my behalf, and his contacting them had provoked this message. So I very warmly thanked ‘Gerry’, but explained again the logistics of the situation, and that I was not going to commit to attending the conference until I knew a lot more about its substance, the requirements for submitting papers, the main speakers, etc. etc. – quite natural requests by any active participant, I would have thought. I replied the same day (September 21), and immediately started contacting other institutions in the UK at which I thought I might also speak, admitting that it was very short notice, but explaining the dilemma I was in.
Two of these institutions responded immediately – enthusiastically but cautiously, given the lack of time to prepare. Six weeks later, I am still awaiting a proper response from Aberystwyth. (I received a brief acknowledgment from an administrator on October 5, who wrote that Gerry would get back to me ‘as soon as possible’. ‘You mean when he has recovered from the Eisteddfod?’ Have I walked into a David Lodge novel?) I have therefore told my other contacts that I shall not be going ahead with my visit. I know a fair amount about the conference business, having worked for Gartner Group for over twelve years, and I can confidently say that the University of Aberystwyth is the biggest shambles I have yet encountered. All they really wanted was my money – and they seem utterly unaware that I don’t even get out of bed for less than £10,000. It is all very unprofessional and discourteous, and I do not understand why anyone would attend one of its conferences unless he or she were ordered to.
Some of my friends were alarmed by my resolve. “Don’t you realise, Tony, that you’ll never eat lunch in Aberystwyth again!”, and “Won’t that scotch your chances of ever being invited to join Sir Christopher Andrew’s Cambridge Security Initiative?” And I shrugged my shoulders, saying: “If those are the sacrifices that have to be made when calling out rank incompetence, then so be it.” And I quoted to them what the great T. H. Huxley said: “Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards, if they are to be so called, which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters.” (That would be a good watchword for historians with an eye on awards and gongs.) The conference for the Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies (see https://www.aber.ac.uk/en/interpol/research/research-centres-and-institutes/ciiss/ciissconference2018/: still no agenda, as I write on October 31, for an event to be held in two weeks’ time) will have to go on without me. (Is there a conspiracy afoot?)
One last initiative I made to help publicise my cause was to write to the Press just before I published my recent piece on the faked suicide of ter Braak. I fondly imagined that, with the continued public interest in matters of espionage, occasionally highlighted by the release of new materials at the National Archives, my hitherto untold story of extrajudicial murder of an Abwehr agent engineered by MI5 during World War II might constitute a considerable scoop for one of the British dailies. I thus gave a glimpse of my findings, serially to the Times the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail, alerting them to my imminent posting, and inviting them to put together a coincident story around my publication date at the end of the month. None of the newspapers even acknowledged my email, even though they had provided an address for the public to submit stories to them. I did the same with Private Eye (knowing that it had been largely responsible for unmasking Anthony Blunt: see http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-468 ), accepting that the matter was probably not really current enough for its ambit. I did receive a courteous declinatory email from the Editor, Ian Hislop.
The Nub of the Matter
So what is the meat of all this? Are these just specialist issues of intelligence arcana? I think not. Intelligence history is of little value unless it is deeply integrated into political and military history. Stalin manipulated Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta because his spies in the UK and the USA forewarned him of their negotiating tactics over Eastern Europe. He mistrusted the commitment of his Alliance counterparts because they fed to him only a small edited sub-section of the ULTRA decrypts that his agents were sending to him through the London Embassy. The invasion of Europe could have been fatally undermined because of the reckless way that the XX Committee and B.1a in MI5 orchestrated the wireless transmissions of their Abwehr double agents. These are the kinds of question that I have been pursuing in my research, trying to gain attention to my argument that the official and unofficial histories of WWII and the Cold War need always to be re-assessed in the light of fresh developments.
I have developed a classification for such issues into seven states. These are not necessarily stages through which issues pass, but it may be that an evolution from 1 to 7 does occur in some cases. State 1: No apparent public controversy exists. The official (or ‘authorised’) explanation is broadly accepted and echoed, but questions of evidence or logic gather on the truth of the claim, and are not easily dispelled. Examples of State 1 are Churchill’s reported edict on banning any decryption of Russian signals after the Soviet Union entered the war, and the still not satisfactorily explained death of Hugh Gaitskell.
State 2: No discernible ‘official’ position exists. A matter of intelligence is covered with contradictions and paradoxes, with no distinctive theory gaining strong support. The truth may be lost in ‘the wilderness of mirrors’. An example of State 2 is the allegiance and role of the scientist Wilfrid Mann when assigned to work in the USA.
State 3: A maverick theory carrying some definite sense is postulated, but its sources are undefined or dubious: the hypothesis may be diminished because of very constrained publicity and awareness. Examples of State 3 are the possible execution of Gösta Caroli, and the claim that Michael Foot was a KGB agent of influence.
State 4: A serious debate among historians takes place, reflecting multiple views. Some sources may be verifiable, but they are frequently secondary, and carelessly repeated: questions still remain unresolved because of the lack of primary sources. Examples of State 4 are Britain’s use of the Rote Drei in Switzerland to communicate ULTRA to Stalin, and the identification of the Soviet spy with the cryptonym ELLI.
State 5: Strong support for an alternative explanation is found, but it lacks conclusive evidence, and thus cannot be accepted in official forums. An example of State 5 is the assertion that Admiral Canaris was not simply a plotter against Hitler, but was actively assisting British intelligence.
State 6: A carefully argued new explanation, backed up by solid research, receives local or peer-group acceptance, but is not broadly or officially accepted, probably owing to lack of awareness and interest, and may have segments missing. Examples of State 6 are this author’s explanation that the political objective of Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow was known and approved by leading civil servants, and my theory that Soviet agent SONIA’s arrival in the UK was orchestrated by SIS and MI5.
State 7: A simmering ‘conspiracy theory’ is resolved and accepted, becoming part of authorised history, or is at least recognized by leading established historians: sceptics, however, may turn against the establishment for making official what is still unpopular in some quarters. An example of State 7 is the confirmation through the VENONA transcripts that Alger Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent, which has provoked some leftist backlash to the effect that this is an establishment conspiracy theory, and that he was in fact innocent. An Alphabet-Sized List of Intelligence Mysteries from WWII & After
I conclude this piece by listing twenty-six conundrums that I have come across during my researches. For the sake of conciseness (at the risk of over-simplification) I restrict my description of each to 75 words. They appear in no particular order. (Readers who would like to inspect a deeper coverage of a subset of such topics might like to look at Nigel West’s Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of World War II, published in London in 1984. It appeared in the USA the following year with the title A Thread of Deceit – and the same sub-title.)
A. The cover-up over Guy Burgess: The House of Commons was misled over Guy Burgess’s career when the post-mortem into Burgess’s and Maclean’s escape occurred. Sir Patrick Reilly provided a parliamentary response which completely overlooked Burgess’s employment by the Foreign Office and D Section before and during the war, claiming that he had simply worked for the BBC. Who exactly knew about his mission to Moscow, and who ordered his activities to be hushed up? (State: 6)
B. Roessler & Sedlacek: Roessler was the shadowy figure identified as LUCY in the Swiss spy ring. But Alexander Foote wrote that LUCY was the Czech intelligence officer Sedlacek (aka Selzinger), who was issued with a British passport by SIS before he went to Switzerland. Were Roessler and Sedlacek one person? Is Roessler’s well-publicised bio, showing a life in Germany, fake? Or was Foote confused? Why was his error not corrected? Can anyone supply a photograph of Sedlacek? (State: 1)
C. ULTRA & Rote Drei: While the official line is that ULTRA was never distributed to Stalin through an Anglo-Soviet spy ring in Switzerland, too many prominent voices have claimed otherwise. It is a much more plausible explanation than that of LUCY receiving his information directly from inside German intelligence. If Foote was an agent of Dansey’s Z Organisation, the answer becomes even clearer. Why were claims from insiders so strenuously denied? (State: 4)
D. Foote & the Z Organisation: Much of the evidence points towards the fact that Alexander Foote, who had outwardly been recruited to Soviet espionage through the International Brigade in Spain, was in fact a member of Claude Dansey’s parallel intelligence structure to SIS, the Z organisation. Foote’s role as an apprentice to – and then replacement for – agent SONIA (Ursula Kuczynski) then makes much more sense, even though officers in Z denied it. Why wouldn’t they? (State: 3)
E. Double-Cross agents & the Radio Security Service: Many commentators have observed that the wireless transmission practices of several XX agents in WWII were highly reckless, and should have caused German intelligence to question the efficiency of Britain’s wireless detection mechanisms. Even if the Abwehr was tacitly sympathetic to anti-Hitler initiatives, why did the XX Committee and the London Controlling Station risk the whole plan of deceit by condoning such irresponsible behaviour? (State: 1)
F. Manipulation of agent SONIA: The ease with which agent SONIA was able to pass, in the winter of 1940-41, from Switzerland to the UK via Portugal has been overlooked. Yet a close study of the archives show that she was abetted by generous practices on behalf of SIS and MI5 (and by Foote’s perjury), which facilitated her being installed in Oxfordshire as a Soviet spy. Was this all in fact engineered by Claude Dansey of the Z Organisation? (State: 6)
G. The Identification of ELLI: ELLI was the cryptonym of a Soviet agent – probably in MI5 – disclosed by the defector Gouzenko in 1945. Various theories have been promoted as to who lay behind the name: Guy Liddell (John Costello); Roger Hollis (Chapman Pincher); and Leo Long (Christopher Andrew, the authorised historian, relying on Gordievsky). For various reasons, all are unlikely, and the answer may rely on the opening of Russian archives. When, President Putin? (State: 4)
H. Leo Long in MI14: When Joan Miller published ‘One Girl’s War’ in 1986, the British government tried to ban it. It contained an obvious pointer to the detection of Leo Long’s wartime espionage in MI14, working for Anthony Blunt. It seems obvious that MI5 tried to hush up the discovery up at that time, and Long was even recruited for intelligence work in Germany after the war. What was going on, and why has Miller’s work been overlooked? (State: 6)
I. Fuchs as British agent?: In his biography of Klaus Fuchs, ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’, Mike Rossiter tells of files he found at Kew that suggested that Fuchs was collaborating with the British government while at Los Alamos. These files were subsequently withdrawn, and other files have been withheld. Why the secrecy? It could be another reason for MI5’s considerable coyness over the Fuchs affair, but why would Fuchs have not brought it up at his trial? (State: 1)
J. Demise of Denniston: Alistair Denniston was a loyal and (mostly) effective leader of GC&CS from 1919 to 1942, yet he alone of all chiefs was not knighted, and his pension was reduced – a major humiliation. Was there a reason beyond his rather dilatory response to the organisational problems posed by the growth of the unit? The published records are contradictory: did Denniston simply rebel too outspokenly at the intrusion of military experts on his turf? (State: 1)
K. Churchill’s ban on Soviet traffic: Professor Hinsley reported on Churchill’s edict, when the Soviet Union became an ally in June 1941, that its diplomatic cable and wireless traffic should not be inspected. Uncharacteristically for Churchill, however, no minuted decision was made, and we know that work did continue, especially when Denniston’s project on ISCOT messages was set up in 1943. Was it a PR exercise by Churchill designed to gain Stalin’s attention and cooperation? (State: 1)
L. Colonel Simpson: One of the astutest contributions to Britain’s wireless interception capabilities was made by Lt.-Col. Simpson of MI5, in 1939 and 1940, when the RSS reported to Military Intelligence. Simpson wanted RSS to report to MI5, but it was wrested away from him, eventually landing with SIS, and he was quickly moved away. An internal history of MI5 says this led to a ‘Greek tragedy’. The authorised history of MI5 ignores Simpson. Why? (State: 1)
M. Wilfrid Mann: The atomic scientist Wilfrid Mann wrote a memoir titled ’Was there a Fifth Man?’, essentially denying it, and then on his deathbed admitted it was he, even as self-described ‘experts’ declared his innocence. Yet CIA agents claimed that Mann had been turned by them, after he had been assigned to work in the USA, to feed information to Donald Maclean. What is the real truth about his career and his loyalties? (State: 2)
N. Death of Gaitskell: When Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in 1956 was diagnosed as lupus, some wondered whether he had been poisoned at the Soviet Embassy, perhaps to enable Moscow’s favoured Harold Wilson to replace him. When such a plot was debunked, however, the possible poisoning was forgotten. Could Gaitskell’s presence at Kim Philby’s 1934 marriage in Vienna had something to do with it? Was Gaitskell planning to unmask him? (State: 1)
O. Ter Braak’s ‘Suicide’: The circumstances of the claimed suicide of the Abwehr spy who parachuted into Britain in early November 1940 are extremely suspicious. The archival evidence points to the fact that MI5 engineered his death after trying to surveil his espionage activities and wireless traffic. MI5 probably concluded that matters had run irretrievably out of control when ter Braak ran out of money, and was abandoned by the Abwehr. Was he then eliminated in a faked suicide? (State: 6)
P. MI5’s passivity over Gouzenko: When the information about the Soviet defector in Canada, Igor Gouzenko, was passed on to London in September 1945, the cable was routed to Kim Philby of SIS, instead of MI5, who was responsible for espionage on Canadian territory. Guy Liddell thus learned about the defection from Philby, who took control of the response, arranging for Roger Hollis to be sent to Toronto to interview Gouzenko. Why was MI5 so passive? (State: 1)
Q. Execution of Gösta Caroli?: The Swedish Abwehr agent Gösta Caroli, who had been ‘turned’ by MI5, in January 1941 reneged on his agreement, tried to throttle his guard, and to escape across the North Sea. He was captured, and incarcerated, and reputedly returned to Sweden after the war. Leonard Mosley (and others) say he was hanged to protect the XX System. His files at Kew stop abruptly. What really happened? Was he ‘bumped off’, as Liddell’s Diary strongly suggests? (State: 3)
R. Dansey & SOE: Claude Dansey, assistant chief of SIS under Menzies, was reputed (according to the witness Sir Patrick Reilly) to have schemed to undermine the efforts of SOE, and was witnessed celebrating some of its failures. Apart from a disdain for noisy sabotage projects that interfered with gaining intelligence, and his contempt for university-trained men, what else lay behind this reputation? And, as a believer in ‘turning’ agents, was he SIS’s representative on the XX Committee? (State: 1)
S. Rothschild a Soviet agent of influence: Victor Rothschild made strenuous efforts to clear his name of the accusation that he had been a Soviet spy, yet his associations with such as Burgess and Philby, and his other actions furthering the communist cause, cause such as Christopher Andrew to suggest that he was an equally dangerous agent of influence. Were he and his wife the couple given the cryptonyms DAVID and ROSA? His name is carefully redacted from many files at Kew. (State: 5)
T. Isaiah Berlin in Lisbon: Isaiah Berlin, intriguing between SIS’s Section D and the Jewish Agency, happened to be in Lisbon in January 1941 when agent SONIA was granted her visa to travel to the UK. She also learned from somebody the address in Oxford where her father was staying. Was Berlin – who had recently accompanied Guy Burgess on their abandoned mission to Moscow, and just visited Oxford – her courier? What else was he up to in Lisbon? (State: 3)
U. The sacking of Jane Archer: The only source for the October 1940 sacking of Jane Archer, MI5’s shrewdest counter-subversion officer, is from her boss, Guy Liddell, who ascribes it to her continued mocking of the acting head of MI5, Jasper Harker. But did Liddell and Archer, who then headed the team of Regional Security Liaison Officers, have a serious fall-out over double-agent policy? Archival evidence points to a very pivotal meeting just before the event. (State: 1)
V. The disappearance of Major Frost & W Section: Malcolm Frost was recruited by Guy Liddell from the BBC in the summer of 1940 to fill the radio interception vacancy created by Lt.-Col. Simpson’s departure. Frost quickly gained enemies, but was a survivor, and did not leave MI5 until November 1942. So why does the authorised history completely overlook his contribution, and his group, W Section, especially since Frost was in charge of double-agents when the Abwehr LENA operation was executed? (State: 1)
W. Michael Foot as Soviet agent of influence: In his memoir, the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky claimed that the Labour leader Michael Foot had been a Soviet agent, BOOT, something that was enthusiastically picked up by Ben Macintyre in his volume ‘The Spy and the Traitor’. Private Eye has already come to Foot’s defence, pointing to his published criticism of the Soviet regime. Was Foot an ‘agent of influence’, and did he really accept money from Soviet contacts? How reliable is Gordievsky? (State: 3)
X. Cairncross’s Confession: The Fifth Man John Cairncross managed to hoodwink both his interrogators from MI5 as well as Nigel West, the writer who collaborated on his memoir ‘The Enigma Spy’. A careful study of the chronology shows he was active much longer than he claimed. Why were the obvious anomalies in his account of the chronology and his activities not pursued more aggressively? And why was he allowed to go into exile? (State: 2)
Y. SONIA and the Quebec Agreement: It has now entered popular historical lore that one of agent SONIA’s major coups was the revelation of the Quebec Agreement to her bosses in Moscow. Yet such claims rest on an impossible sequence of events in the autumn of 1941, and, despite authoritative-sounding assertions, no conclusive evidence has emerged from the Russian archives. If the secret was revealed to the Soviets (probably in the USA), who was responsible? (State: 3)
Z. Walter Gill: Walter Gill, the Oxford don recruited to RSS, who essentially defined Britain’s policy towards interception and detection of possible German spies at the end of 1940, was mysteriously and perfunctorily sacked from RSS a few months later. Yet the delayed timing of his report (December 1940) was very odd: he made a fatal but obvious flaw in his conclusions, but the report was endorsed. Was he set up? Why was he fired? (State: 1)
This list is not inclusive, nor its artificial length constrained: items may be retired, and new ones added. I welcome feedback. But why, I wonder, is there apparently not very much interest in these matters? Is it due simply to indolence, or is it a lack of curiosity? Extrajudicial executions, poisonings, faked suicides, moles, double agents, secret organisations, unexplained slights, hidden archives, political denials – is this not all as topical as ever? I cannot believe everyone is ganging up in a dark conspiracy to silence me. Or maybe everything is as it should be, and I am simply imagining things . . . In order that these conundrums not be forgotten, I thus lay them all out on coldspur for others to pick up, just in case my body is found one misty morning under a hedge in County Ceredigion.
An Update on ter Braak
I have a professional researcher and collaborator in London, Dr. Kevin Jones (whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting) who is an expert at navigating the indexes at Kew, and who on my behalf inspects undigitised files at the National Archives, namely those that I cannot acquire and download. He has recently been delving around some of the lesser known folders that have a bearing on the ter Braak case, and I wanted to bring some aspects of these to readers’ attention to provide an update to the analysis outlined in last month’s blog.
One of the challenging dimensions of ter Braak’s life as a fugitive is the level of political compliance in the plan to let him roam, and then to eliminate him. It is clear from Swinton’s endorsement of the initiative for a speedy inquest, and his approval of the decision not to engage in recriminations over the Cambridge Police Force, that he was either party to the original decision, or had been convinced of the need for extraordinary measures when matters started to run out of control. Given the speed with which actions progressed after ter Braak’s death, it is more probable that he had approved the whole operation in advance.
But how much did Churchill know? Swinton had been brought in by Churchill to oversee MI5, and parts of SIS, after Vernon Kell had been dismissed, since Churchill was not confident in MI5’s ability to defend the country against the ‘Fifth Column’ menace that he then believed had been a prime factor in the defeat of the France and the Low Countries. Swinton had not been a universally popular choice at the House of Commons, but, when the Fifth Column ‘menace’ was shown by August 1940 to have been illusory, Swinton’s supervision of MI5, and mission to help Jasper Harker, the acting Director-General, to rebuild the service, continued, and his focus on subversion shifted to the arrival of the Abwehr agents. The files PREM 3/418/1 and 2 show records pertaining to the establishment of Swinton’s Committee, the Home Defence (Security) Executive, and correspondence on enemy agents between Swinton and the Prime Minister.
On September 10, Churchill made a request at Cabinet for a report on information obtained from enemy agents in the UK. The records show that he was informed about the declared mission of the four agents who landed in Kent (three of whom were executed) and of Gösta Caroli (who was successfully ‘turned’ – for a while). Reports from the interrogations indicated that the spies believed they were the advance guard of an invasion that was to follow in a couple of weeks. When Swinton reported, on October 4, on the spies who landed by boat in Scotland, however, he showed that Churchill already knew about ‘Agent 5 and Agent 6 who are being used successfully in deception operations already’. The list provided to Churchill has yet been found, but is highly noteworthy that it cannot be the same list that MI5 used for RSLO training (KV 4/407), since ter Braak appeared there as Agent 5, but he had not yet arrived when this memorandum was written!
Thus we have proof that Churchill knew about the emerging Double-Cross operation as early as October 1940, if not sooner. This all goes against the grain of what the authorised historians tell us. In his recent book, The Secret World, Christopher Andrew suggests that the first report given by MI5 to Churchill on the actions of the XX Committee did not occur until March 26, 1943. “It was an instant success with the Prime Minister. Churchill wrote on it in red ink: ‘deeply interesting’”, writes Andrew. This is rather hard to believe: that Churchill, with his massive interest in intelligence matters, and having been made aware of Nazi agents being used for deception in the autumn of 1940, would let the matter drop for two-and-half years.
In addition, it would seem that Swinton was passing Churchill a longer list than was being maintained by MI5. Given what I have written about overlooked spies not appearing in the official records, it would be fascinating to learn what names had been given to the Prime Minister at this stage. The archive is confoundingly sparse at this point. On October 31, Swinton advised Churchill of the arrival of the spies Lund, Edvardsen and Joost, but the narrative stops on November 2, just after ter Braak has landed. Is that significant? The search for other revealing items that might fill out this story continues.
At this stage, one can only speculate what went on between Swinton and Churchill. Since ter Braak was not a captured spy, perhaps Swinton would have interpreted his guidance literally, and decided to conceal the project from his boss. What would Churchill have thought of an armed agent running loose in the Cambridge area? Might he have approved of the plan to monitor his activities in order to learn more? Knowing his expressed desire at this time to see more spies executed, however, it is more likely that he would have cancelled the project, and have ter Braak hauled in. I just hope that some other records are found that shed light on this intriguing dynamic.
I also made some changes to the September text in the light of a re-discovery of passages in Guy Liddell’s Diaries, to which Dr. Giselle Jakobs had pointed me. I had read these a long time ago when I was not focussed on the LENA agents. They show very clearly that, just after Caroli’s recapture, Liddell discussed very seriously with his superiors (and Valentine Vivian in SIS) the possibility of ‘elimination’ or ‘bumping off’ of recalcitrant German agents. This is not the language of judicial trial and possible execution. Yet Caroli’s possible career after incarceration is plagued with contradictions, a matter to which I shall eventually have to return. In the meantime, please see Dr. Jakobs’s website at http://www.josefjakobs.info/ for a recent posting on Caroli,
Lastly (for this month, anyway!), is the fate of Jasper Harker. In last month’s blog, I had begun to cast doubt on Guy Liddell’s declared rationale for Jane Archer’s dismissal, namely that she had ridiculed Harker one time too many. Liddell reports the sacking on November 18, 1940, and, two days later, suggests that she should speak to David Petrie. Clearly, by that time Petrie has already been invited to take over the direction of MI5, so Harker’s fate was effectively sealed at that time. Ironically, Swinton was one of the few (apart from the disgraced Vernon Kell) who had supported Harker, and saw it as part of his mission to help him with the reconstruction of MI5. What PREM 3/418/1 shows is that, as early as August 29, 1940, Desmond Morton (an ex-MI5 officer, and Churchill’s right-hand man on intelligence) was telling Churchill of the multiple criticisms of Harker from within MI5, and reported that he was ‘a weak man’. Given the military circumstances, and the pressures, it seems that Swinton (whose judgment of character was not good, as is shown by his endorsements of Joseph Ball and William Crocker) was slow in realising that Harker was not up to the job, while Jane Archer – alongside multiple other officers in MI5 – had come to the conclusion much earlier that he was dragging down morale. It casts even more doubt on the reason for Archer’s forced departure, and, if a meeting with Petrie could not salvage her employment in MI5, suggests that there were deeper reasons for the parting of the ways.
This month’s new Commonplace entries can be seen here.
“Warning: Some images may cause distress” (I reproduce this warning verbatim from the folder on the Abwehr spy Willem ter Braak at the National Archives. When you read down, you will see the reason for the caution. And the analysis behind this photograph suggests some highly controversial behaviour from British counter-intelligence in WWII, explored here in depth for the first time.)
Ter Braak’s Death Certificate
It has long been an article of faith that British Intelligence controlled all the Abwehr spy networks in Britain during World War II. On July 15, 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Robertson, identified as B.1a in MI5, reported to the W Board that his organisation controlled all the active networks of spies originally deployed by the Abwehr in Britain. In his book The Double-Cross System, published in 1972, John Masterman boldly declared that ‘we actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country’. This opinion was endorsed by Sir Michael Howard in Volume 5 of the authorised History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, issued in 1990, who reported that ‘the Radio Security Service had discovered no uncontrolled agents operating’. Very soon after Robertson’s submission, Colonel J H Bevan, head of the London Controlling Section of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, attended a meeting of the XX Committee. The great deception programme could begin.
The importance of this claim has two dimensions. At the time, it was critical that no undetected network of spies could send reports back to Germany that countered the false information that was going to be transmitted by the double agents, such as a lack of substance behind the reported movements of a dummy army that would turn out to be the most critical aspect of the FORTITUDE deception campaign for the invasion of Europe. Even more critical, perhaps, it was vital that no leakage of information arrived in Germany to suggest that any spies had actually been turned. Historically, it became a matter of pride that the combination of disciplined reception procedures, rapid decisions on the viability of double agents, and interception of Abwehr radio intelligence confirming both the activities of planted agents and the acceptance of their stories, had conspired to eliminate the possibility of any agent’s survival undetected. In particular, the reputation of the Radio Security Service (RSS) for comprehensive interception of illicit transmissions was at stake. This was one of the major stories of British intelligence success in World War II.
Yet doubts occasionally surface about how watertight the processes were. It should be noted that Sir Michael Howard did not assuredly declare that no agents were operating, but merely that the RSS had not discovered any. Guy Liddell, the wartime head of counter-espionage in MI5, also suggested in the summer of 1940 that there might be a few German agents at large. It would be useful had the authorities provided a comprehensive table of all German agents captured, and what the outcome of their detention was. Howard tells us that sixteen spies were eventually executed, of whom nine met their deaths between December 1940 and December 1941. Volume 4 of the authorised history contains several Appendices that list agents and their fates, but it is not inclusive. Masterman’s Double-Cross System provided a list of thirty-nine double agents, which contains details on each agent’s method of communication, tasks undertaken, as well as the reason for the conclusion of the case, but did not identify them by name. When the magazine After the Battle, in issue Number 11 of 1976, reprinted Masterman’s list, it added some information, such as giving real names, where it could. In his history, MI5, Nigel West extended the number to list forty-seven double agents, a roster that does not include fictitious ‘notional’ agents created to add verisimilitude and vigour to a real agent’s recruitment efforts. After the Battle also offered in-depth profiles of the sixteen who were executed, a list that is confirmed exactly by West (pp 342-343), who also lists two spies executed in Gibraltar.
But were all agents truly detected? And was the outcome solely execution or being turned? The latter dilemma was a subject of intense negotiation between MI5 and Lord Swinton of the Security Executive, who represented Churchill’s preferences. In the heat of the Battle of Britain, Churchill wanted to see more spies executed, as a signal to warn others, and as a show of efficacy to the British public. MI5 was of a more cautious bent, wanting to preserve captured agents as an element to be turned, or a source of information, although it accepted that some spies would have to be executed in order to show the Germans a (partially) successful programme of arrest and conviction, as well as a degree of ruthlessness. The Abwehr would have been perplexed if none had been captured and condemned. Yet there were risks as well. Should a turned spy turn out to be unreliable, or his usefulness to be outworn, a decision on his treatment had to be made. A public trial might expose too many secrets about the process, and if the agent had misled his controllers about his sincerity, he might constitute a serious security risk even if incarcerated. A year later, MI5 had to deal with the realities of deals made, and gone sour, in the case of SUMMER (Gösta Caroli), as Hinsley explains: “In November 1941, however, in discussions held between Swinton, MI5, the DPP and the Attorney General about SUMMER and GANDER, whose careers as double-agents had come to an end, it was agreed that no question of prosecution could arise if MI5 had used an agent or given him a promise: the risk that an agent’s double-cross work would be revealed in court had to be considered; and a promise once given had to be honoured. MI5, to avoid undue publicity, should prepare a statement to be approved by the Home Office before release to the Press through the Ministry of Information.”
It can be seen that MI5 faced a wrenching choice: if a trial and possible execution were not possible, a potentially dangerous agent (especially if he had been exposed to the Double-Cross, or XX, System) would have to be incarcerated and held incommunicado in order to preserve secrecy. Thus uncertainty rests over those agents who evaded capture for any period of time, and over those whose career ended in untidy circumstances, such as Caroli, who in fact broke his side of the bargain, as I shall explain later. The history of these individuals makes the simple conclusions of most accounts of the Double-Cross operation much more complex. This chapter discusses a few of those who fall into those categories, with special attention to the puzzling case of the Dutchman ter Braak (real name Engelbertus Fukken), who was reported to have committed suicide after parachuting into the Buckinghamshire countryside and successfully evading the authorities – including RSS – in the winter of 1940-1941.
The suspicion that the authorised accounts are not complete is reinforced by the occasional comment from Guy Liddell’s Diaries. For example, on August 21, 1940, he wrote: “H. K. BRUIN came over in guise of refugee from Holland, had wireless set he had been using to communicate weather and other information to Germans. Self-confessed agent working for Dr. Rantzau. Is this a shooting case?” Liddell indicated that BRUIN had been active for a while, since one of his goals had been to alert his bosses about British troop movements into Belgium. Yet we never learn how BRUIN was detected, whether an attempt was made to turn him, or whether he simply went to trial. It is an astonishing entry that completely undermines the clean story that has been presented since. On September 14, Liddell also notes that KUHIRT and SCHROEDER are expected to arrive, but that is the only reference to them.
One major assumption that British intelligence made was that the Abwehr was exclusively responsible for placing agents in Britain. In 1981, the journalist and historian Leonard Mosley (no relation to the fascist, Oswald) published a book title The Druid, which claimed that the Sicherheitsdienst (identified by Mosley as the SS, but an abbreviation which probably indicated the German Security Service rather than the familiar SS, the Schutzstaffel, under which the Sicherheitsdienst was originally created), dismayed by the quality of intelligence it was gaining from Admiral Canaris’s Abwehr, in May 1941 parachuted in a spy with ties to Welsh nationalists who survived the war, reporting alongside the set of turned agents. Mosley had been fed with enough leads by his contacts in intelligence to believe that the story was true, but had been hushed up. Yet any substance of truth in his account was overwhelmed by the way his informers embroidered it, and by the many fanciful touches he introduced, with the result that it is very difficult to identify reliable facts among the many fictions. In his 1998 study of bogus memoirs of espionage exploits in WWII, Counterfeit Spies, Nigel West effectively demolished Mosley’s narrative, concluding that ‘most of the book can be traced to three published sources: Ladislas Farago’s The Game of the Foxes; Masterman’s The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939-45 and Popov’s Spy Counterspy.’ [Note: Mosley was an accomplished and careful historian: I have recently read his excellent 1978 biography of the Dulles siblings John Foster, Eleanor and Allen, which also happens to contain some revealing letters to the author by Kim Philby, written from Moscow, as well as Mosley’s absorbing account of the period leading up to the Second World War, On Borrowed Time, published in 1966.]
A Tale of Two Schmidts
A last misconception that has refused to die is the account that appeared in Charles Wighton’s and Gunter Peis’s Hitler’s Spies and Saboteurs, the title used when the book appeared in the USA in 1958. We should recall that this was well before the date (1972) in which any details of the Double-Cross System were made available to the public. Wighton and Peis, claiming to have had access to the diaries of the head of Abwehr Abteilung II (Sabotage and Subversion), General Irwin Lahousen, described in detail some of the exploits of Abwehr spies in Britain. Apart from a chapter that revealed an enormous amount of detail about Arthur Owens (whom we know as SNOW), the authors laid out a convincing account of how two Danish agents had been recruited by the Abwehr in the summer of 1940, and parachuted in to Wiltshire. One, Jorgen Björnson, severely damaged his ankle on landing in a tree, while his companion, Hans Schmidt, came to earth successfully, located his injured colleague, walked into Salisbury for provisions, contacted Hamburg by wireless, and arranged through the Hamburg station for SNOW to set up a sympathetic doctor to attend to Björnson’s ankle. Björnson was soon captured and incarcerated, but Schmidt roamed free, picking up intelligence in southern England. After a breather in Wales to evade the radio monitors, whom Hamburg suspected were closing in on its agent, Schmidt resumed his espionage activity, even found work on a farm, married, and had a child, and continued transmitting his information to Germany until April 1945.
This book does not appear to have been challenged by any authority at the time. After all, despite the authors’ lack of awareness of the Double-Cross project, too many facts were close to the truth, and drawing attention to the activities of these German agents might have allowed some skeletons to escape from the closet before the authorities were ready to share their secrets. Many years later, in the issue of the magazine After the Battle referred to above, the editor and sleuth Winston G. Ramsey listed They Spied on England (the original UK title of Wighton’s and Peis’s book) as a source of information, but made no mention of Björnson and Hans Schmidt – apart from a careless but understandable error of expanding on Masterman’s list of double-cross agents by identifying TATE as Hans Schmidt, when in fact it should be Wulf Schmidt. And herein lies the key to the mystery. There was only one Schmidt.
Yet the story resurfaced in 2017. Last year Bernard O’Connor published a book titled Operation LENA and Hitler’s Plots to Blow Up Britain, an account of Abwehr incursions into British and Irish – and US – territory between January 1940 and the end of the war. (Operation LENA was the name given to the undertaking to infiltrate spies and saboteurs to Britain in late 1940 to prepare for and facilitate the imminent invasion of Britain by the German forces.) This volume appears to be a very thoroughly researched book, cataloguing a series of initiatives by the Abwehr to cause havoc, or gain intelligence, in Eire and Great Britain, and it is liberally sprinkled with references to the archives. O’Connor reproduces as fact, however, the whole story of Björnson and Schmidt, commenting only that ‘these two agents are not mentioned in most accounts of the German espionage service’. The author betrays some confusion, however, by maintaining only one entry for ‘Schmidt, Hans/Wulf’, identifying him as TATE, but pointing to two separate passages in his book.
The farrago can probably be explained by the fact that several episodes in the Björnson/Schmidt saga are almost identical copies of events in the Caroli/Schmidt adventure. Both teams travelled from Hamburg to Brussels via Paris, and were delayed by the weather. Both Björnson and Caroli had a dalliance with a servant girl along the way. Björnson was incapacitated in his fall – as was Caroli, whose wireless equipment knocked him out. Hans Schmidt made his way to a nearby town, as did Wulf Schmidt. Both Schmidts arranged for SNOW to meet them, but with Wulf, it was High Wycombe, not Salisbury. (Landing in Wiltshire had been the original goal of the Caroli/Schmidt airdrop, as Nicholas Mosley reported.) SNOW arranged for a sympathetic doctor to treat both Caroli and Björnson. Caroli was arrested, as was Björnson. Both Schmidts were able to roam – apparently freely – for the remainder of the war, but they both had a clandestine meeting in London with a Japanese diplomat who provided them with more funds. The details of Hans Schmidt’s employment at a farm, and of his marriage, match Wulf’s exactly – except that Wulf had been under the control of the XX Committee.
[Note: The writer Nigel West asserts that the anecdotes about broken ankles, doctors, SNOW’s visit, etc. were invented by MI5 as a smokescreen to explain Caroli’s time of interrogation at Latchmere House.]
How this happened is easier to understand when the circumstances of the authorship are considered. ‘Charles Wighton’ never existed: it was the pen-name of one Jacques Weil, a former Swiss resistance fighter in France whose organisation was subsumed by SOE (Special Operations Executive). Under the same name, he wrote a disguised memoir of himself, titled Pin-Stripe Saboteur, in which he concealed his identity as ‘Simon’ while recounting his adventures in espionage in occupied France. (Nigel West criticises the book for suggesting that the PROSPER network in France was sacrificed for a ‘Machiavellian scheme’ to mislead the enemy about a second front, but does not indicate he knows who Wighton really was.) Gunter Peis was an Austrian journalist, who had met Lahousen after the war. Lahousen was indeed a real figure, who had very significantly provided important evidence against Goering, Ribbentrop and others at the Nuremberg Trials. He had fortuitously escaped punishment for the Stauffenberg plot on Hitler because he had been moved to the Russian Front in 1943, and been severely injured. He did indeed maintain a war diary, which was not available at the time, but, since it is now inspectable on-line, the reader can verify that its entries discuss activities at a very high level. Lahousen had far too wide an area of responsibility, in charge of sabotage (not espionage) across the whole of Europe, to know the details of operatives trained and sent out by the Hamburg Abwehrstelle.
Wighton and Peis quoted some entries from the Diaries in their story, but they can now be proved to have been faked. What seems clear is that the authors must have used the existence of the Lahousen Diaries as an alibi for a largely reliable source within British Intelligence to tell a surprising story about German espionage in Britain. The source – and Wighton/Weil admits to having a high-level friend in British Intelligence towards the end of Pin-Stripe Saboteur – must have been close enough to the action (or to classified documents) to have been able to relate a sizable amount of information that was true, but which became garbled in the transfer to the author. And if that source knew about the Double-Cross System, he or she withheld that aspect of the story because of the strict embargo that had been placed on all those involved under the Official Secrets Act. (In 1976, Peis repeated some of those initial errors in his book about TATE, The Mirrors of Deception, but he still did not have access to the unreleased files at that time.) Two major conclusions can be drawn from this exercise: i) the RSS was indeed not fooled or evaded by what turned out to be an imaginary duo of Nazi agents; and ii) unreliable sources can easily be elevated to a level of authenticity that they do not deserve once they appear alongside authoritative academic references. (See OfficiallyUnreliable for more on this topic.) O’Connor’s book should be withdrawn.
The Strange Suicide of Ter Braak
The case of J. Willem ter Braak is much more alarming, however. The archival documents on ter Braak (actually classified under his real name, Fukken) would have us believe that the Dutchman parachuted into Britain successfully, was not detected, and was thus not turned, but eventually committed suicide after some months of semi-successful espionage and wireless transmission, followed by a period of rapidly increasing desperation, as his money ran out. As will be shown, this is a highly controversial story, as, if true, it would point to massive failures in security and detection at a time when Britain was supposed to be on highest alert. Yet, if it is not true, what alternative explanation could there be?
On November 3, 1940, a German parachute was found in a field near Haversham, in Buckinghamshire, but the owner was not found, and the search was apparently abandoned after a few weeks. On April 1, 1941, the body of an illegal alien was found in an air-raid shelter in Cambridge, an apparent suicide. The narrative proposed by a superficial examination of the documents in his Kew file runs as follows: MI5 was swiftly able to match the corpse with the person who had landed five months before, and, with the aid of articles found on the agent’s body, and items (including his transceiver) found in a compartment at the Left Luggage Office at Cambridge Railway Station, was able to construct the life that ter Braak had led in the interim. Having evaded capture, he had made his way to Cambridge, acquired a rental accommodation, as well as a bare office premises, and probably broadcast to his controllers in Hamburg until his batteries ran low. He had experienced problems with his food ration cards, but local officialdom had been careless. While pretending to have to leave Cambridge, he had in fact found other rental accommodation in the city, from where he made several excursions to London and to surrounding areas. Having not heard from his Abwehr bosses (possibly because he was not able to get his receiver to work), he was running short of money, and may have asked for help by communicating via traditional mail, using invisible ink and a poste restante address. Having wrapped himself up against the cold, in order to watch for help to be parachuted in that never arrived, he felt abandoned, and shot himself in despair.
What is extraordinary is how the official line has been accepted, even after the release of the files on ter Braak from Kew. For example, the German historian Monika Siedentopf, in her 2014 work, Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sealion), offers one paragraph on ter Braak, merely echoing the conclusion of the authorised historian, Professor Hinsley. She does not appear to have read KV 2/114, the Ter Braak archive, however, as she provides no reference to it in her long list of TNA sources. It is quite extraordinary, given the length of time that this fugitive remained at large, how little attention has been given to him. (The records were declassified nineteen years ago.) Yet several aspects of the case merit very close inspection, namely: 1) MI5’s expectation that a parachutist would arrive; 2) ter Braak’s ability to escape initial attempts to capture him, and remain at large for several months; 3) the deductions made by MI5 concerning his wireless activity; 4) his struggles with his ration-book; 5) the evidence of ter Braak’s movements, and possible involvement in espionage and sabotage; 6) the reaction of MI5 when ter Braak’s body was found, and the subsequent cover-up; and 7) the highly controversial aspects of the victim’s ‘suicide’. I shall now explore each in depth.
In view of the heightened fears about invasion at the time, the recent well-publicised scare about a Fifth Column, the scars from the Battle of Britain, as well as the successful detention of several spies arriving by air and by sea, one might expect the authorities to have been better organised to handle the arrival of further enemy parachutists. Despite the Battle of Britain notionally having been won by then, Guy Liddell, head of B Branch, responsible for counter-espionage, himself wrote on November 15 of ‘one of the worst bombing raids . . . since the beginning of the war’. The procedures for communicating and following-up on such incidents of infiltration were, moreover, well documented. And yet, when the Haversham parachute was found, the local constabulary ‘forgot’ to inform the Regional Security Liaison Officer responsible. The outcome was that ter Braak managed to escape to Cambridge, about forty miles away, by November 4, and found lodgings there. One might have expected an intense manhunt to have been ordered, but the authorities remained calm. In an almost comical twist, on November 26, three weeks later, Worlledge of RSS suggested to Frost of MI5 that bloodhounds should perhaps be used to help track down the fugitive: two days later, Frost earnestly replies that they were in fact tried, without success.
Complementary to this strange behaviour are the very revealing observations made by MI5 officers. The day that ter Braak’s parachute was found (November 3) Liddell rather drily recorded the details, which merit citation in full: “An enemy parachute landing was reported today. A complete parachute with harness overalls and flying helmet was found neatly folded and placed in a hedge beside a bridle path on Hill Far [sic], Haversham, Bucks. The parachute was wet but the clothing inside dry, and it appears that it may have been dropped during the past two or three days. Inside the parachute was a paper wrapping for chocolate made in Belgium, and a packet containing a white tablet, probably concentrated food. The packet had recently been opened and contents consumed. The parachute had without doubt been used, and the parachutist landed uninjured and is still at large. There is no trace of a crashed aircraft and the parachute was undoubtedly deliberately dropped.” (This entry does not appear in the published extracts of Liddell’s Diaries edited by Nigel West, it should be noted.)
Chocolate wrapper from Brussels found in the parachute
Liddell did not record, however, how he received this news, or how he was able to conclude that the spy had not suffered any contusions in his touching the ground. The message probably came directly from T. A. (‘Tar’) Robertson, then working for Major Frost of W Branch (sometimes called Section W, which had recently been subsumed into B Division), whom the local constabulary had contacted, via the Special Branch. Readers should bear in mind that, as Masterman’s account makes clear (p 100), while the authorised history of MI5 assuredly does not, that the famed B.1a section responsible for managing double-agents, led by Robertson, was not created until June 1941, long after the last LENA agent had landed. (After a showdown with Frost, when Robertson had complained to Liddell that he could no longer work with him, Liddell made the decision on December 12 to transplant Robertson ‘and all his minions’ out of W Branch into an established unit of B Division.) Yet Liddell never questioned why the relevant RSLO (one of the Regional Security Liaison Officers, namely B Division representatives dispersed around Britain, and first in line to investigate possible spy threats) was not informed, or why the message had not arrived through the proper channels. And he never referred to the case again in his diaries until ter Braak’s body was found, an extraordinary example of ‘the dog not barking in the night-time’. Why would it not be of supreme importance to him, and for his chronicle, to record how the hunt for the fugitive progressed?
It is also noteworthy that the proceedings of meetings of the RSLOs and the Security Executive (the supervisory body installed by Churchill to manage domestic intelligence) in the period October 1940 to April 1941 focus almost exclusively on what the procedures should be for processing captured agents, not on how resources should be deployed to tracking down undetected agents whose traces of arrival have been found. It is very telling that, at a meeting a few weeks before ter Braak’s body was found, the RSLOs engineered a change in the communications procedures, which now required that the Police Constables first inform them, who would in turn let W Branch know of a suspected agent. What is also intriguing is that the notes supplied for White’s address at the meeting (on February 18) specifically refer to ‘the Haversham parachutist’, indicating that he was still at large, but nowhere does this highly provocative state of affairs appear to engage the attention of the participants.
What should have been fresh in the minds of the RSLOs, however, was the case of SUMMER (Gösta Caroli), a supposedly turned agent who had tried, on January 13, to kill his guard and flee the country, being arrested at Ely, not far from Cambridge. (I have not yet discovered any record of what they were told of the affair.) Masterman later hinted that the RSLOs must have been in the know, since he wrote that SUMMER was apprehended ‘after some anxious hours in which we had been compelled to warn the appropriate authorities over half England to set a watch for the fugitive’ – a pattern of behaviour in marked contrast to the lethargy over ter Braak. Masterman went on to write: “His escape, had it succeeded, would indeed have wrecked all our schemes, but as things were no harm was done – not even to the strangled guard, who was the richer for a stimulating experience (and a good story) at the expense of some small temporary inconvenience.” Masterman’s levity was misplaced: if the guard had indeed talked carelessly about the event, the outcome might have been just as calamitous. I shall return to SUMMER’s fate later.
A full chapter – a thesis, even – could be written on this aspect of British security measures at the time. One of the most unprofessional, almost scandalous, aspects of the affair is that the role of Malcolm Frost and W Branch has been completely excised from the authorised history, as if Robertson always worked for the not yet created B1a. Neither Malcom Frost nor W Branch (nor even the RSLO organisation) appears in the index of Sir Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, Defending the Realm. Yet, at a time (November 1940) when Frost was being scorned by such as Swinton for his ego and his ambition, and he was apparently driving Robertson to distraction, the Director of Military Intelligence, Beaumont-Nesbitt, was writing to Frost, almost as an equal, to suggest that the military authorities should be given the responsibility for handling suspected spies after their arrest. It was a very puzzling relationship.
The focus returns to Liddell, since his Diaries are such a central source of the story. In the middle of November, instead of instantly organising pursuit of the dangerous quarry, he started plans for the formation of the famous XX Committee, and then had to deal with the sacking of Jane Archer, which in his journals he ascribed to her extended derisory comments about the MI5 head-in-waiting, Jasper Harker. (In April 1940, Jane Archer had been taken out of her vital role as lead in Soviet counter-espionage to design the RSLO group, and then manage the team of RSLOs.) Yet the timetable offered by the ter Braak archive lays open a completely new interpretation. Had Jane Archer perhaps challenged Liddell’s methods of undermining her authority through Section W’s continued bypassing of the RSLOs, who seem to have respected her skills very highly? Archer knew that Liddell could not be held totally responsible for the dysfunction in MI5, as an ungainly organisation had been forced upon the service by Swinton. In August 1940, however, Frost’s W Branch had been moved under Liddell’s ‘B’ organisation, and tensions between Frost’s group and the rest of ‘B’ were slow to be resolved.
The presumed cause for Archer’s sacking comes solely from Liddell himself, but in his Diary (in a passage also not published by Nigel West) he refers to a contentious conference on October 31 between himself, Archer and Frost. It would not be surprising if the highly capable Archer, perhaps still smarting about her removal from Communist work, had in fact challenged Liddell quite robustly over the way the whole RSLO infrastructure was being undermined, and over Liddell’s inability to control Frost, and that she thus forced a rupture. The timing of this meeting occurs just before ter Braak’s arrival: if Liddell was expecting him, as he admitted, could it be that he and Archer disagreed about a level of secrecy required in dealing with the Abwehr spy, that would have entailed excluding the RSLOs? I have found no documentary evidence of this, but it seems highly possible that he could not convince her otherwise, leading to a dissension that brought on her forced resignation. Liddell may then have made recourse to an external enduring motif to explain her dismissal. In addition, Frost was certainly a problem: on December 6, Robertson declared he could no longer work for him, and Liddell, who had been so enthusiastic about his ‘man from the B.B.C.’ a few months before, must have been having second thoughts.
Thus, after the heated events of the winter, and the arrival of David Petrie (who, after a few weeks of intense analysis, was officially appointed as the new Director-General in mid-February 1941) to shake things up, it is with some degree of astonishment that the ter Braak case suddenly reappears in Liddell’s Diary. We read in his entry for April 1, 1941, that he has, the same day the body was found, already been informed of the discovery, and of the verdict of suicide (before any inquest, one should note). The local police force had very speedily undertaken their investigations, being able to inform Liddell that ‘he had lived in Cambridge for about four months’ (an incorrect calculation, as it happens), having arrived with a small suitcase and parcel. Liddell concluded his entry as follows: “On form I should say he was undoubtedly a parachutist, and probably one whom we expected at that time.” (In a more public forum, however, he was much more guarded: at a meeting with the RSLOs in Oxford a few days later, he merely commented that the person discovered was ‘probably’ the parachutist from November.)
So why would Liddell not have pointed out that fact – that ter Braak had been expected – when the parachute was found? And why might MI5 have expected his arrival? Ter Braak was, according to most accounts, not in fact linked with the Operation LENA spies (e.g. Caroli and Wulf Schmidt), so the story has been encouraged that MI5 would not have learned about his role from Caroli (SUMMER) or Wulf Schmidt (TATE). After the war, in June 1946, when MI5 interrogated Abwehr officials, and showed them ter Braak’s photograph, neither Nikolaus Ritter (head of Abwehr I in Hamburg), nor Jules Boeckel (who replaced Ritter in March 1941) could identify who he was. Ritter, who denied that ter Braak was a LENA agent perhaps a bit too assertively, said his wireless apparatus was not designed for summer use (unlike the LENA agents), and Boeckel suggested that he might have been managed by Brussels, which would make excellent sense, given the origin of the chocolate wrapping that Liddell had referred to. (Though one has to question such an obvious clue: why would an ostentatious wrapper be packed into the parachute, and were parachutes not supposed to be buried or burned on arrival, rather than being ‘neatly folded’?) Thus two scenarios present themselves: 1) The RSS had picked up Abwehr messages, with the resulting decrypts pointing to an imminent drop by the Brussels station. (I have not yet been able to inspect the detailed source records at Kew. And we recall Liddell’s comments about KUHIRT and SCHROEDER.) 2) Ter Braak was indeed a LENA agent, and Liddell had been warned of his arrival by TATE, but for some reason all the Abwehr officers after the war wanted to disown any connection with him. That would not be surprising if the Churchill assassination plot (see below) were indeed true. Abwehr officers, in any case, gained a well-deserved reputation for not speaking, under interrogation, openly and directly about their wartime experiences.
Finally, we have the evidence of Robertson. On November 15, this gallant officer had had to apologise to Michael Ryde, the RSLO in Reading, stating that the blame for the failure in communications lay with the Chief Constable of Buckinghamshire, who should have reported the matter to the RSLO rather than alerting adjacent police forces. The same day, Robertson wrote to Ronald Haylor, the RSLO for the adjacent region of Nottingham, to make a similar apology, explaining that he did not hear about the parachutist until November 3 (i.e. the same day that Liddell learned of it), but enigmatically added that he did not recommend ‘using the parachutist for our own purposes, so I think it would be advisable to lay on as wide a hunt as is possible’. Is this not an extraordinary careless way of representing MI5’s intentions, and expressing the necessity of speeding up isolation of the spy? First of all, Robertson obliquely admitted that MI5 had ulterior purposes in considering the exploitation of parachutists (for the emerging Double-Cross System), and implicitly that the RSLOs knew of this project, but at the same time indicated that efforts to track down spies could be restrained – and no doubt were being held back – in the cause of presumed monitoring of their activities. He very significantly echoed this policy when, after Jakobs had parachuted in on January 31, 1941, Liddell noted in his Diary that Robertson wanted to give him [Jakobs] a run ‘in order that we may find out exactly how much these people can ascertain if they are left to themselves’.
Yet it was a very risky and slapdash judgment to make about the potential of a double agent when MI5 had not even identified or interrogated the suspect, and did not know how dedicated a Nazi he was. As soon as every agent was captured, he or she should have been sent to Camp 020 at Latchmere House in Ham, for interrogation by Colonel R. W. G. Stevens, but such a consideration appeared far from the minds of Liddell and Robertson in this instance. On November 18, Robertson wrote two more significant letters. The first was to Colonel Wethered, the RSLO for Birmingham, following up on a telephone call with him the previous day. It is clear from this long letter that Wethered knew nothing about the parachutist before then. The RSLOs had not been informed. The same day, Robertson had an important insight, showing all the wiliness of the veteran officer’s knowledge about fugitives, and wrote to Worlledge of RSS in the following terms: “This brings one to the conclusion that the parachutist, if he is at large, must have gone to some hiding-place.” Indeed, for that is what fugitives do the world over – unless they are allowed to survive in broad daylight. Suddenly, a pattern for ter Braak’s bewildering ability to stay on the run emerges.
Ter Braak’s Wireless
What is critical to this story is the use of wireless: ter Braak had a working set, and RSS was supposed to be supremely well-equipped to deal with incidences of illicit transmissions from within the nation’s borders (see earlier Chapters 1 and 2 in this saga). Thus an inspection of what RSS and related units did or did not do, and how MI5 responded to their actions, is highly important. The analysis by MI5 officers of ter Braak’s wireless activity can be seen to take place in three stages. There is an initial assessment necessary to provide the political cover for informing the government of what happened, completed by May 1941. That is followed by a deeper internal review later that year. The last stage occurs after the war, when Abwehr officers have been interrogated about the case.
After the wireless apparatus had been discovered in the left luggage office on the day after the corpse was found, Herbert Hart (B2.b, the Oxford academic, who the following October was to marry Jenifer Fischer-Williams, the Soviet spy and probable betrayer of Walter Krivitsky to Guy Burgess), on April 11 sent it to the SIS for examination. Marriott (B2.a) recorded on May 6 that he had received the report from SIS, which had, strangely, been ‘missing’ for a while. The report included the statement that the apparatus was ‘identical in design to one taken from enemy agents off coast of Scotland, though not so complete.’ It added: ‘The separate H.T. and L.T. battery completely run down [sic], while H.T. batteries in suitcase show 195 volts instead of normal 270.’ The conclusion was that the set had been used considerably
Hart’s official May 7 report to Dick White, head of B.1, responsible for ‘Espionage’, offers a different conclusion, however: “Ter BRAAK’s wireless transmitting set has been examined and the expert opinion is that it had probably been used in the effort to establish contact, but it is impossible to say whether the effort was successful or not.” This last observation was an embellishment by Hart, as SIS ventured no opinion on that unverifiable truth. Moreover, that was not the only opinion Hart inserted. He also described the set as follows, saying that the search at Cambridge Railway Station revealed ‘a brown Moroccan leather case containing a W/T set similar in all respects to sets brought to this country by enemy agents who had been dropped by parachute and captured’. This statement is false in many respects. There had been only four admitted enemy agents who had been dropped by parachute – TATE, SUMMER, GIRAFFE (Graf) and GANDER (Geysen). The last three brought with them a device that contained a transmitter only. The SIS report referred to the three agents who had been arrested in Scotland on September 30, Drucke, Walti, and Eriksen, but they had not arrived by parachute. And there is a combination of naivety and excessive detail in Hart’s report as well. He offers a conclusion that ‘there are strong grounds for thinking that Ter BRAAK was, in fact, the parachutist whose parachute was discovered on 3.11.40 at 12.00 hrs at Hill Farm, Haversham, Bucks.’, when, as has been shown above, Liddell had come firmly to that conclusion the day that ter Braak’s body was found. Hart also provides some details about ter Braak’s ‘self-inflicted wound’ that should perhaps have been kept under wraps.
A reason that this report might have been considered unsuitable for wider dissemination is that, while White’s forwarding of it appears in the ter Braak files at TNA (KV 2/114), Hart’s report is absent. It can, however, be found in a folder concerned with ‘immobilisation and arrest of enemy agents’ (KV 4/406). Thus Hart’s misrepresentations might have been deemed unsuitable for inclusion, as they both contradicted facts elsewhere, and told too much: his memorandum somehow managed to escape to another file. Were Liddell and White withholding information from Hart, and letting him blunder on in the dark? That would be highly unlikely, given Hart’s deep involvement in the case, and the sensitivity of his mission. It seems much more probable that he was guided to write a report that emphasized the similarity between ter Braak’s case and those of other agents, and that for some reason MI5 wanted ter Braak’s possible wireless activity to be minimized. After all, it would not help much if the report – to be sent to all the RSLOs – indicated that RSS had not been succeeded in performing its job properly.
MI5 picked up the investigation again in the autumn. Hart had provided some details about ter Braak’s movements with suitcases, gathered from his landladies, that indicated that the agent had concealed the wireless set from both of them. By this time MI5 officers have started to theorise more profoundly. Now under the new leadership of Petrie, a fresh organisation is in place: head of B1.a is ‘Robertson, ‘Special Agents’, and Hart is now alongside him as B1.b ‘Espionage Special Sources’. (Dick White is now head of B.1, while Frost now reports to Liddell as head of B.3, responsible overall for ‘Communications’, which includes B.3A, ‘Censorship and Reception Analysis’, B.3B, ‘Illicit Wireless Investigation and Liaison with RSS’, and B.3C, ‘Lights and Pigeons’.) On September 10, Gwyer in B1.a issued a long report. It informs us that, during both his periods of lodging, from early November to late March, ter Braak never left his accommodation overnight. He had rented an office above the agents who had found his rental properties, but apparently visited it only two or three times, and was never seen taking a suitcase with him when he left in the mornings. Gwyer’s conclusion was that he could not accept the view (apparently promoted by Fl. Lieutenant Cholmondeley of B.2a, the officer who later cooked up the Operation Mincemeat scheme with Ewen Montagu) that ter Braak failed to communicate by wireless, pointing out that he had one aerial suitable for night-time transmission. (And the SIS report indicated that he was given two crystals, and thus had two frequencies to use, the lower one being necessary for night-time use.) “We know that he was only equipped with one aerial which was suitable for the frequency he was instructed to use at night, but we also know . . . that the only time that he was alone with his wireless set, apparently, was at night. He could not have transmitted during the day, as he could not have left lodgings with a wireless set in a suitcase without somebody noticing this fact. Equally, he could not have used his office for transmissions if he was there so infrequently.”
Gwyer owned up to a high degree of precision in his estimates. He stated that ter Braak’s batteries, ‘exhausted at time of his death’ would not have lasted more than two months, although how he came to that conclusion without knowing how frequently, or for how long, the apparatus had been used is not explained. Ter Braak was able to replace his low tension battery, but not the high tension one, and thus had to purchase an accumulator. His conclusion was that ter Braak had probably transmitted successfully up until about Christmas 1940, after which he communicated in secret ink, using a poste restante address. Gwyer assumed that he had asked for a new battery through this medium, and was expecting delivery from a new agent. When none appeared, he killed himself. Gwyer’s colleague, R. T. Reed, added that ‘contacts during the day would have been impossible, because of aerial provided and difficult to avoid suspicion or capture if seen’, but expert judgment (in the person of Dr. Brian Austin) has informed me that adapting an aerial for the night-time frequency should have been a straightforward task. In Dr. Austin’s words: “Ter Braak’s single piece of aerial wire, of some unknown length, could have been made to work at maximum efficiency on both the frequencies allocated to him.”
Perhaps ter Braak had not been properly trained for such adaptations. In his interrogation after the war, Lahousen (the officer who headed Sabotage and Subversion) criticised the Abwehr’s radio ‘expert’, Rasehorn, for being ‘not very well qualified’, asserting that ‘his wireless connexions did not work’. Thus there could have been deficiencies in understanding in both Abwehr and MI5 camps. Indeed Reed’s expertise must also be questioned. On July 24, he had written a report on wireless telegraphy which stated: “I tested the set of ter BRAAK in communication with Radlett. The aerial that he was given is satisfactory on 4508 kcs, but will not work effectively on 5435 kcs., which is his day frequency. According to the file of Ter BRAAK, it would seem that he never tried to get into communication during the night time and only tried during the day time.” Did Reed adjust the aerial? It is not clear. Yet how did anyone know about ter Braak’s failure, since other testimony points to the fact that ter Braak did not even take his set out during the day? The evidence provided elsewhere is that ter Braak could have communicated only in the night-time.
It is only at this stage that the RSS appears to become seriously involved, which is quite astonishing. Back in November 1940, RSS was certainly deploying its interception capabilities. A report from W.2 (Robertson, working for Frost, whose main interest at that time was investigating ground communications with aircraft) on November 5 declares that the unit was hunting the spy, with promising indications. “From the intercepts produced by R.S.S., it seems likely that there is at least one wireless set being operated in the country. Every effort is of course [sic] being made to locate this.” Dr. Austin has estimated that, at the frequencies used by ter Braak, a successful Direction-Finding station would have had to be as close as 6 miles away for his ground wave to be picked up – a calculation that might suggest that Lt.-Col. Simpson’s planned dispersions (see Chapter 2) were not dense enough. The nearest station appears to have been one at Steeple Bumstead, about twenty miles south of Cambridge, but, with a known enemy agent on the loose in the area, one might perhaps expect a more flexible campaign to have been undertaken to track down the suspect.
The same day (November 5), Robertson reports that all the intercepts appearing in RSS’s weekly report have been identified. And a week later, Hinchley-Cooke in B.13 receives a report from Robertson that ‘so far neither the Bucks Police nor R.S.S. have been able to find any trace of the man.’ One could reflect that the parachutist might not have considered helping the authorities by remaining in the small county of Buckinghamshire, but the current record then goes quiet. Did MI5 not really care what happened after that? So, much later, during this post mortem, when Robertson asks Hughes of B3.b (the liaison between MI5 and RSS), on September 11, 1941, to enquire of RSS ‘whether any station heard on 4508 kcs or possibly 5435, in period November 4 1940 to January 31 1941, between 2100 and 0900 GMT using a 3 letter call of the type others used having a circular code, i.e. LNP, GIK, etc’, one’s first reaction is, even if the exact frequencies and callsigns were not known then, why would such an intense action have not been performed at the time of the hunt? And why would Robertson and Hughes not ask whether any traffic had been intercepted from Hamburg during the time of ter Braak’s fugitive status?
The description of the exchange that followed deserves quoting in full. Thus Hughes to Robertson on September 14, 1941: “With regard to your note of the 11th Sept. concerning the possible workings in connection with the Cambridge ‘suicide’ case, the Controller, R.S.S. replies that they are doing what they can with extracted records, but that the original traffic of that period has been destroyed. It is not possible for RSS to keep all original logs for any great length of time as the volume would be entirely unmanageable, so I am afraid there are not likely to be any useful results of this inquiry. Is there any other line of attack you would like me to suggest to RSS? RSS are hoping to be able to make records of any QZZ traffic which they pick up during this week. Only part of the text is likely to be recorded, but I think this will be satisfactory for your purpose.” And two days later, Reed writes: “I spoke with Major Morton Evans yesterday and asked if it were possible to keep a careful radio check on the East-Anglia area. We decided that this was technically impracticable. The only line to take was that if any station was suspected of working in the East Anglia area – by the results of the direction finding stations – special attention should be paid to it. Should any such station be intercepted, Major Morton-Evans will see that this is done.”
Group of ex-RSS members and supporters, Bletchley Park, 2013 Bob King is seated, far right. Stanley Ames and Dr. Brian Austin, standing, far left.
Over the years, this puzzling interchange has tested many members of RSS. At one of the assemblies of ex-RSS interceptors and officers, at which enthusiasts also take part, in 2015, with ter Braak’s records then open at last, a group discussed how RSS could have avoided picking up his signals. After all, they should have had enough density of voluntary interceptors to simply pick up the groundwaves. Bob King, who had been working at Arkley, the location to which all logs were sent, at the time, offered the following possible reasons (which I reproduce here in their original form):
He did not transmit.
If he did his procedure was not suspicious.
His calls were very short and with a non-resonant aerial very weak.
No one was listening at the right time on the right frequency. (Not so likely).
He was heard and his logs arrived at Arkley but not fitting any group was marked in the books as ‘Suspect’ and awaiting further reports.
He was reported to Arkley, and log readers were told to ignore [signals] believing it to be an agent already covered.
What Bob King overlooked in this analysis was the detection of signals from ter Braak’s controllers in Hamburg. According to the confident doctrine of Walter Gill, whose report was written just after ter Braak arrived, the absence of agents in the UK could be determined by the fact that no incoming transmissions were intercepted by the RSS’s major stations. Yet, if ter Braak had a receiver, messages would surely have been sent to him – at least in the first few weeks. Thus, one must conclude that RSS picked up those signals (even if ter Braak was unable to), but that MI5 chose not to act on that discovery. In light of the fact that MI5’s leaders admitted that an unidentified German agent had parachuted in with a wireless apparatus of some kind, Gill’s policy appears at best bizarre, and at worst, simply irresponsible.
Interrogations with Abwehr officers after the war did not disclose much else, although now new officers in B1.a were still asking the same questions. Joan Paine of B1.a in September 1946 still acts as if she does not know whether ter Braak and the Buckinghamshire parachutist are the same person, which makes it appear as if she had been deliberately kept in the dark. Her colleague Warrec expresses the same uncertainty. But the Abwehr officers either do not know any more, or pretend they do not. Karl Krazer, of the Hamburg unit, asserted that the last LENA mission took place in September 1940, and thus ter Braak could not have been part of it. Moreover, he echoes Ritter’s claim that LENA agents all had ‘summer-time’ transmitters, unlike ter Braak, thus providing an opinion contrary to what Hart had said. Both Krazer and Richter recommended speaking to Sensburg of Brussels. The file on Sensburg is dominated by his time as head of the Athens Abwehrstelle, whither he was transferred from Brussels in May 1941. He was surely still in charge when ter Braak’s crisis occurred.
The documents also confirm that a Brussels-based agent named Fackenheim was close to being parachuted into Britain, but was confounded by the weather. Yet Fackenheim was returned to Germany in the autumn of 1940, so he could not have been around in April 1941. Sensburg also gave final instructions to Waldberg, Kieboom, Pons and Meier, who were sent to the Kent Coast by trawler early in September, all of whom except Pons being subsequently executed, so his role in handling ter Braak sounds very probable, even though Sensburg does not list ter Braak as a member of the LENA operation. (Interestingly, Jakobs and Richter, both of whom were sent out later than ter Braak, are listed as LENA agents by Sensburg, thus contradicting Krazer. Again, these Abwehr officers may not have been entirely honest.) But the opportunity to interrogate Sensburg on that matter seems to have been missed. A few extracts from ULTRA intercepts describe some of his actions, but nothing concerning spies sent to Britain. Perhaps senior MI5 officers were hoping the whole issue would die a gradual death.
Ter Braak’s Mission and Movements
So what was ter Braak doing in Cambridge? It might seem an unlikely city to conduct espionage, although several military airfields were in reasonably close reach. One theory, promoted by Winston G. Ramsey in After the Battle, suggests that the spy was sent, by SS General Walter Schreckenbach, on a special mission to assassinate Churchill, and it describes how ter Braak was trailed, his lodgings searched while he was out, and found to contain ‘a wireless transmitter, detonators, a Luger pistol, a file on Mr. Churchill’s movements and three crudely forged Dutch passports’. The writer provides no source for this fantasy, which sounds like a crudely conceived smokescreen. (The assassination plot is echoed by Charles Whiting, in his 2000 book Hitler’s Secret War, though whether he used Ramsey as a source, or shared Ramsey’s informant, is not clear. Whiting is of the school that considers that ter Braak was indeed one of Ritter’s LENA agents, while he repeats Ramsey’s more credible account of how ter Braak’s body was found. He does not list Nikolaus Ritter in his Acknowledgments, but it is evident from his text that Ritter became a friend after the war, and was a major source of his information, thus undermining Ritter’s testimony to his interrogators.) It would have been highly unlikely for the SS to select an Abwehr operative for such a scheme; it would not be good practice to try to mix sabotage/destruction with espionage (although it did sometimes happen), as sabotage is noisy, and gains attention, while espionage is quiet and clandestine. An assassin would not need a wireless, just a rapid means of escape. The pistol found by ter Braak’s body was a Browning, not a Luger. And why ter Braak would languish in Cambridge for five months if charged with such a mission cannot be answered.
Ter Braak’s passport
Another explanation, which surfaced when a flurry of memories was published in the Cambridge Evening News in January and February 1975, following the After the Battle investigations, was that ter Braak had come to blackmail prominent émigré academics living in England into cooperating with the enemy, presumably by threatening their relatives. “One person on ter Braak’s list”, the account read, “was professor of Law at Clare College, Kurt Lipstein, who had left relatives behind in Germany when he came to England in 1936”. But the leads appear not to have been followed up. A perhaps more convincing explanation was that ter Braak was guiding German aircraft to military targets in the area, and that that ‘Army Intelligence knew that signals were being given during raids and troop movements in the Cherry Hinton area’ (which was part of Cambridge). A major example provided was a raid by Dornier 17s as tanks were being unloaded in the Cambridge marshalling yard, with eleven fatalities as a result. Yet the date given was February 24, 1941, when ter Braak’s radio was supposed to be no longer working. Can we rely on that? Or was he indeed still broadcasting at that time, and was that a fact that MI5 chose to conceal when it realised it might have had blood on its hands by allowing him to remain active? Did MI5 then attempt retrospectively to ‘silence’ ter Braak from December?
The National Registration Card of ter Braak
Yet Cambridge was indeed his objective. The false and very clumsy identity-card he was provided with in Brussels (see photograph) gives a non-existent address of ‘Oxford Street, Cambridge’. It has one person’s handwriting in places where that of an official and the owner should appear. The number of the residence was entered after the name of the street, in continental style. The Christian name appeared, wrongly, before the surname, and the card was machine-folded, not hand-folded. (These failures were provocatively used at RSLO training in February 1941.) Thus we have to face the facts that the spy apparently landed on October 31 or November 1 (since enemy aircraft were spotted both those nights, and the parachute was wet from rains since) and was able to extricate himself from his parachute, conceal it neatly, pick up his two suitcases, and somehow walk the forty miles from Milton Keynes without being spotted, or gain transport from some unsuspecting or abetting agency, not reaching Cambridge until November 4. The parachute was found at noon on November 3: this was at a time when the head of counter-intelligence at MI5 declared the service was expecting him, and a ‘thorough search of all woods, buildings’ was in process and that ‘enquiries are being made at all shops, cafes, hotels, railway stations, etc.’. One report, from November 12, says that the parachute was found near the house of a man who was under suspicion, but no more is said of this gentleman, or whether he was able to help ter Braak on his journey to Cambridge. Thus we have to conclude that Ter Braak either arrived in Cambridge with at least three days’ stubble on his chin, and a wet overcoat, having slept in the open, with a suitcase on either arm, yet failed to provoke any attention, or found shelter with some sympathizer. He then successfully installed himself with Mr. and Mrs. Sennitt of 58 St Barnabas Road, Cambridge, after gaining their address from a rental agency.
Ter Braak’s movements overall were erratic, and showed no focused pattern of activity. They were partly re-creatable because the spy rather enigmatically kept all his used bus-tickets, and thus his journeys around the countryside, and once to London, could be traced. But, since he never spent a night away from Cambridge until his final foray into the night, they are not really germane to the story. MI5 knew, from interrogations of other agents, that reporting on the success of bombing-raids was a major part of their mission, so it is likely that ter Braak was involved in such activity. What is far more intriguing is how he managed to deceive the authorities for so long. Most of the recorded saga refers to his travails with his ration-book, but the failure of everyone (rental agency, or landlord and landlady) to make even a cursory inspection of his identity card, is dumbfounding. What is noteworthy about the card, apart from its obvious forgery to the eye, was the fact that it contained a serial number that had been provided to the Abwehr by SNOW, thus showing that, even if the Hamburg Abwehrstelle did not know about ter Braak, Nikolaus Ritter was clearly passing on seemingly valid numbers to be shared by the Brussels Abwehrstelle. Evidence of such cooperation could of course reinforce the theory that ter Braak was indeed one of the LENA team. Only when the Food Office in Feltham looked up the ID card number supplied by ter Braak did it realise, very tardily, that the number was one issued to a Mr. Burton. When challenged on explaining this, ter Braak panicked and left his lodgings, saying he was leaving Cambridge, but in fact he only moved to a different accommodation in the city.
What occurred with ter Braak’s National Registration Card and ration-book would come back to haunt MI5. The card found on ter Braak’s body had the number BFAB 318-1 (see image). When ter Braak’s landlord, Mr. Sennitt, dutifully went to see the Assistant Aliens Officer of the Cambridge Borough Police after ter Braak’s arrival, in order to report the Dutchman’s presence, the officer told Sennitt to get hold of a copy book and get the Dutchman to write his name, and date of arrival in it. As Hart reported: ‘the Assistant Aliens Officer concluded his remarks to Mr. Sennitt by saying: “Don’t you worry, the fellow will be along shortly soon to report himself.”’ Hart added that ‘ter Braak, of course, did nothing of the sort and nothing further was done by the Assistant Aliens Officer’. That was quite an extraordinary oversight by the Officer, but why Sennitt – or even the rental agency, Haslop & Co. – had not thought to ask for the alien’s identity papers on first encountering him, is also worthy of comment. Were all regional towns, cities and their establishments not on high alert for detection of an alien parachutist? Experiences with other dubious-looking strangers, such as the three spies who landed in Scotland by boat (Drucke, Walti, and Eriksen – see above), show that inspection of ID cards was the first task to be undertaken.
That hurdle passed, ter Braak had to provide a ration-book to his landlady, so she could buy provisions for him. Yet the forged one he supplied was seen to have expired in July 1940. Here the narrative diverges. Hart’s memorandum indicates that that fact was ‘soon’ discovered by ter Braak, although the word ‘soon’ is enigmatically written in by hand, replacing the word ‘not’, a paradox, and maybe a subconscious error, that Hart did not attempt to explain. The hidden notion may be revealed in the report by the Cambridge Borough Police, dated April 24, 1941, where the officer wrote that Mr. Sennitt agreed to visit the Food Office in Cambridge to obtain an emergency ration card, while ter Braak wrote off for a new one. Again, why no one asked how ter Braak had managed to survive beforehand with an out-of-date ration book is a question unraised by all concerned. It should be recalled that November 1940 was the peak of the Blitz, when Hitler was trying to strangle Britain to death: nearly 7,000 civilians died from German bombing that month, and offences against the use of ration-books were publicly listed to deter abuse.
Here again, Hart distorted the truth. In his memorandum, he wrote that ter Braak applied on November 28, 1940 to the Food Office appropriate to the number on his Identity Card (i.e. Feltham Food Office) for a new book, ‘explaining away the fact that his book had become out of date and had not been used on the ground that he had been living in Cafes and Hotels’. Yet the only address on the Identity card was ‘Cambridge, 7 Oxford Street’, and MI5 officer Gwyer’s report of September 10, 1941 expressed puzzlement as to how ter Braak knew to write to an office in Feltham. “He himself never visited the Food Office, his emergency cards being drawn by his landlord. It is true that the Food Office may have told the landlord which was the correct office for ter Braak to apply to, but the Police Report of April 21st states ‘so far as Mrs. Sennitt (the landlady) is aware, Braak sent the old book to either Cambridge Street Road or Terrace, London’”. The issue is mysteriously left unresolved, though later in his report Gwyer refers to Mrs. Sennitt as ‘an incompetent witness’. Mrs Sennitt persisted in questioning ter Braak each week about the receipt of his new ration book, and each time, on receiving a negative answer, she would acquire another temporary one.
Ter Braak’s application for a new ration book
I reproduce ter Braak’s application here: the date is clear; a Food Officer has entered the wording of ter Braak’s explanation for survival without a book, and also entered his National Registration number, as we can confirm. The Ration Book number is printed – CA 567132. (Hart mistakenly listed it as CA 567123, which might explain some later confusion. The Cambridge Borough Police had by April 4, 1941 verified that that number had been issued by the Feltham Food Office to one William Widhers, a civil servant employed by the Prison Commissioners. This was the same number that had been provided on August 9, 1940, to MI5, in the name of Burton, and was passed on, nominally through SNOW, as a safe number for the Abwehr to use. MI5 then tried to contact Burton to clear up the duplication, but he was away, and the error had to be ascribed to ‘mistakes by the registration authorities’.) The timing after the receipt of ter Braak’s submission is not precise in Hart’s account: he wrote that, ‘on receipt of ter Braak’s application,’ Feltham Food Office looked up the number of the ID, found that it had been issued to a Mr. Burton, and thus sent the official form R.G. 32 to ter Braak, asking for full particulars. At some stage ter Braak must have sent in his R.G. 32, as a letter from Feltham, dated January 25, asks him to confirm that he no longer wants a new book, and that the previous request was a mistake. Ter Braak’s reply of January 28, 1941 can be seen in the accompanying image. Either the Feltham office had been very sluggish in sending out the original R.G.32, or it had been very lenient in not demanding the prompt return of the form. Again, no questions appear to have been raised about the efficiency of the process, or the lack of consultation between the Feltham and Cambridge Food Offices.
One can now understand why ter Braak probably relaxed up until the end of January. He had followed the protocols, submitted his application, continued to receive temporary ration books (though to the consternation and amazement of his landlady), and could carry on with whatever he was doing. Yet the lie he gives in his letter about the Dutch Emergency Committee, and its supplying him with a new ration book ‘a few weeks ago’ with the result that he no longer needs a new one, does betray some desperation. Moreover, the normal number of weekly emergency ration books that was allowed to be issued was six: the Food Office in Cambridge had been lax enough to extend it to twelve in ter Braak’s case. Eventually its patience ran out – on January 30, just before ter Braak’s letter was received in Feltham, The Cambridge Office informed Mrs Sennitt that ter Braak was required to pay a visit to the Food Officer.
At this stage, ter Braak panicked. “He appeared agitated’, said Mrs Sennitt later. He told his landlady that he had to go to London, and would have to quit his premises. Only then did Mrs Sennitt notice his second suitcase (containing his wireless set), which he put in the taxi taking him to the railway station. Yet, by a remarkable coincidence, Mr Sennitt, who suddenly realized that he had to follow him to regain the front-door key, could not find ter Braak when he explored all the carriages in the London train waiting to leave. And a few days later, Mrs Sennitt bumped into ter Braak on the street in Cambridge, at which he explained that he had had to return for a few days.
In fact, ter Braak, again using the rental agency, had arrived the same day he left the Sennitts, on January 31, with his two suitcases, at 11 Montague Road, the residence of Miss Rosina Greenwood, to begin a new rental. Part of the arrangement was that he did not require feeding (apart from toast and tea at breakfast), so Miss Greenwood had no need to ask her new lodger for a ration book. Yet the indolence of the authorities is perplexing. Why on earth would Mr and Mrs Sennitt, who had watched a lodger with dubious papers suddenly come under close examination from the Food Office, one who apparently never followed up with the Aliens Officer, and then observed him displaying erratic and mendacious behavior in suddenly quitting his lodgings and making spurious claims about going to London, yet not boarding the train, but taking a mysterious suitcase with him which they had not seen before, not think they should perhaps report such behaviour to the authorities? Had they perhaps been primed to stay silent about the whole business?
Yet ter Braak managed to stay undetected for another two months. He continued his perambulations; he made a visit to London; in mid-March he went to Peterborough for the day. He visited his office above the agents for the last time on February 12. Obviously it was important for him to stay in Cambridge, although one might judge that he could have been safer settling down in another city, with a different Food Office. Why did he think he could remain safe? He left the house each day, but, according to Miss Greenwood, never took either of his suitcases with him. And then, according to one report, a fortnight before he left for the last time, in mid-March, he told his landlady that he would be leaving in two weeks. Gwyer’s report, however, states that he left his lodgings on March 29, without settling the bill, but taking with him nearly all his luggage, and returning the key to his landlady. He told her he would be back on April 5. Incredibly, apart from an aside where he tells us that ter Braak asked, on March 20, a fellow lodger who was employed at Lloyd’s Bank to cash some dollar notes for him (an account that is incidentally undermined by the subsequent police report which states that ter Braak asked Mr Sennit, his first landlord, to exchange some dollars, which duly occurred at Lloyd’s Bank), Hart’s memorandum just devotes one sentence to ter Braak’s time at 11 Montague Road, and does not discuss the circumstances of his departure at all.
The investigation into ter Braak’s death was beset with contradiction and controversy immediately his body was found. It was perhaps a bit hasty of Liddell to record confidently in his diary on that day, before any official police report or inquest the following assertions: “He had evidently shot himself and had been dead some 36 hours. His Dutch papers were out of order and did not show any authority to land. He had lived in Cambridge for about four months [thus echoing the erroneous Police calculation]. He had arrived about 4th November with a small suitcase and parcel.” Such a conclusion would have required the Cambridge Police to have traced ter Braak’s residence through two rentals in the space of a few hours. Yet that unit did not deliver its report on finding the body until April 4, the day of the coroner’s inquest. Amazingly, that report declares that the first landlady’s address was determined only through ascertaining that the suit that ter Braak was wearing had been bought at the Fifty Shilling Tailors in Petty Cury, and the purchaser had given his name and address of 58 Barnabas Road, Cambridge. The report continues: “Detective-Inspector Ernest Bird went with Captain Hughes and Detective Sergeant Robinson to that address, and interviewed the occupier.” The officers then had to make ‘continued enquiries’ to trace the suitcases in the Left Luggage Office, as well as tracking down and interviewing ter Braak’s second landlady. This constituted an impressive piece of work by the Cambridge constabulary, in order to be prepared for the April 4 inquest.
Liddell appeared to be on top of the case, and have paranormal insight, as he recorded the following in his April 3 entry: “There is no doubt that he was the parachutist who was reported to have come down near Bletchley. We have obtained his wireless set which was in the cloak-room of Cambridge Railway station.” It appears he had been kept informed by Robertson, who in another memorandum written on April 2, indicates that Mr. Hughes, the Regional Officer at Cambridge, had spoken to him on the telephone the previous evening, informing him that the police had spoken to the first landlady (only). Hughes called again on that morning (April 2) to let Robertson know that they had found ter Braak’s possessions at the station. But at that time they had not yet interviewed Miss Greenwood: Liddell should not have been able to know for certain that ter Braak had resided in Cambridge ‘for about four months’ as he stated in his April 1 diary entry. He clearly anticipated the error from the April 4 report.
In any case, MI5 was preparing single-mindedly for a quick and clean inquest. As early as April 2, Brigadier-General Jasper Harker, Deputy Director-General, wrote a letter to the coroner W.R. Wallis, pointing out how delicate the case was, and how grateful he was to Wallis for consenting to take the case in camera. ‘We have in our possession information which satisfies us beyond any doubt that the deceased was an enemy agent’, he wrote, an extraordinarily premature claim if it had been based on materials found on ter Braak’s body, and definitely not yet in the possession of MI5. Harker continued: “You will appreciate that it is of paramount importance that no report of any kind should be published with reference to the proceedings before you”, adding that the Home Office had approved MI5’s request for secrecy. All went off very smoothly. Dixon was able to report to Dick White that ‘I am pleased to say that the Coroner’s inquest went off very successfully, Brigadier Harker’s letter helping in no small degree.” The target of Jane Archer’s lampoonery had come through.
Yet the facts of the death should have provoked some deep questions. The police report said that the body had first been found by an electrician who had entered the air-raid shelter to complete electric installation at 11 am on the 1st April. “He had at once telephoned the police. Nothing had been disturbed by him.” Police photographers then took pictures of the body, which was then removed: a list of possessions found on the body was made. Yet when After the Battle published the results of its investigation in 1976, it told how its researcher had interviewed Mrs. Alice Stutley, who had been Air Raid Shelter Marshal for her area in 1941. She told her interviewer that she had been walking her dog in the park, Christ’s Pieces, where six air-raid shelters stood. At about 9 a.m. a small boy came up to her and said that there was a dead man in the second shelter. She at first took the observation as an April Fool’s Day joke, but, when the lad persisted, inspected the site herself, confirmed that a corpse was there, and informed the police, who likewise thought she was jesting. When he finally agreed, she showed him the body. She heard nothing more until that evening, when she received a knock on the door, and two unidentified men asked her if she was the one who had found the body. ‘When she said she was they warned her in no uncertain terms to keep it to herself and not to say a word to anybody”.
Christ’s Pieces, Cambridge
Yet they were too late. Apparently, the next day the Cambridge News contained details of the discovery (according to After the Battle), but they were withdrawn after an urgent call from the Ministry of Information, the government department responsible for censorship. In the 1974 interview, Mrs Stutley told the investigator that the fact that the name of the dead man was ter Braak and that he was a German spy was ‘common knowledge amongst the older residents of the area’. And small boys talk.
But now we come to the most arresting part of the story. I present the photographs of the corpse here – the pictures that the authorities might cause ‘some distress’. In his words, Mrs Stutley also told the investigator the following: “She found the body of a man, dressed in a dark overcoat, horn-rim glasses and black homberg (sic) hat, wedged tightly underneath one of the fixed slatted seats. She could see no pistol but it was evident that he had been shot in the head.” Unless Mrs Stutley had some strangely defective vision, which allowed her to see accurately the details of ter Braak’s body but not the weapon a foot in front of it, or had some inexplicable reason to lie, her evidence would suggest that the weapon was not present when she inspected the corpse, but must have been later planted next to it.
Ter Braak’s Corpse
Apart from that, one cannot look at the sad photograph without thinking: how could a man who committed suicide manage to wedge himself underneath a seat after he shot himself? And, as the police report informs us, ‘a bullet wound was traced above the left ear’. Even an amateur criminologist could point out that, in order for a suicide to shoot himself in the left side of his temple, he would have to be left-handed. Was that so? Did a graphologist ever study the writing in his letter to the Feltham Food Office (shown below), or ask his landladies whether they noted how he wrote? To me, the slant of the words in his letter suggests the script of a right-hander, but should that not have received expert analysis? Was the weapon inspected for any fingerprints? The report tells us that it was a Browning Automatic Revolver, No 468225, Calibre 7F/M55. Did the bullet-hole match the calibre of the pistol? And was the weapon traceable? It certainly looks like a Browning High Power, manufactured in Belgium under German control from 1940: did MI5 record whether such a device was found on other agents? As I noted earlier, the report on Gösta Caroli tells us that he carried an unnamed German revolver, and the After the Battle story, in its more fanciful exposé of ter Braak’s room being searched, relates that a Luger was found in his possessions. Whatever the real facts were, the whole process of the post-mortem shows an extraordinary slackness and naivety. Perhaps the authorities though they would get away with it, as they believed the photographs would never come to light, and that they had instantly hushed the source of any dissent and rumour that might shed light on the true circumstances of ter Braak’s death.
Ter Braak’s Letter to Feltham Food Office
Certainly, there were circumstances that might have led ter Braak to consider suicide: he was running out of money, the Food Office was tightening up on his papers, and he may have felt abandoned if and when he ventured out at night to make contact with someone who could provide him with money, and no help came. Why did he cover himself in newspapers, no doubt to keep warm, if he had already considered killing himself as an option? Did he consider all hope gone when he failed to make contact with another parachutist? That seems unlikely, as none was scheduled to help him: Richter was dropped later to verify whether TATE had been turned, not to help ter Braak. Did he receive guidance to make a rendez-vous with SNOW, perhaps, and was then ambushed? Was another agent actually scheduled to parachute in, like Fackenheim, but was frustrated by the weather? These questions may remain unanswerable unless further documents are released.
Yet indications that the death was not actually a suicide can be seen in later memoranda concerning the case. On September 11, 1941, while Robertson was charged in carrying out a deeper investigation, he sent a message to Hughes of B.3.b (responsible for liaison with RSS) that included the sentence that I quoted earlier: “This investigation is in connection with the Cambridge ‘suicide’ and while I believe you may have had some general enquiries made I think that these new suggestions may narrow down our field of search considerably and prove more fruitful.” The appearance of the word ‘suicide’ in quotation-marks is a clear expression that the word should not be taken literally. Three days later, Hughes echoes and reinforces the notion, showing that he is another in the know: “With regard to your note of the 11th Sept. concerning the possible workings in connection with the Cambridge ‘suicide’ case, the Controller, R.S.S. replies that they are doing what they can with extracted records, but that the original traffic of that period has been destroyed.” But the coroner had given his verdict. Why should the MI5 officers question it? The weeders of the archive were as careless as Robertson and Hughes were in their missives.
Thus, if ter Braak was not a suicide, who was responsible? Was he murdered by a person or persons unknown, with MI5 deciding that it would be too dangerous to bring his case into the open? The reactions of Liddell and others after the incident suggest not. The only other explanation is that MI5 engineered an extrajudicial killing since it had no reasonable alternative.
“It is not altogether fanciful to speculate how much more happy and more useful his career might have been if he [ter Braak] could have fallen into the hands of the Security Service and become a double agent.” (Sir John Masterman, in The Double-Cross System, Chapter 3)
A possible sequence of events leading to such a decision could run as follows. When it learned of the imminent arrival of another agent, MI5, instead of making the immediate step of preparing to arrest him, and interrogate him in order to determine whether he could be turned, or would have to be executed, decided on a new ploy. It would watch the agent’s actions and movements, to try to discover exactly what his mission was, the substance of the messages he passed back to Germany, and whether he had any contacts in the country. It is possible that this strategy was promoted by Frost, opposed by Archer and perhaps Robertson, but gained a measure of support from Liddell, who managed to sell the proposal upwards to Harker and Swinton. This strategy meant that a select number of agencies (one or two RSLOs, Police, rental office, landlords, Food Offices, etc.) would have to be brought into the subterfuge. No doubt ter Braak’s messages were picked up by RSS, and analysed, but a stop was put on them. For a while, the project progressed smoothly. But then matters started to get out of control. The spy’s wireless stopped functioning. The problems with the ration cards began to extend to a broader base of officials, which meant that it was becoming increasingly difficult to allow him to survive unchallenged. Bombing casualties could perhaps be attributed to him. Yet there was also pressure from the RSLOs for more disclosure, and greater control. How would they react if they learned that they had not been taken into their bosses’ confidence, and that MI5 senior officers had tried to deceive them? So something had be done with ter Braak. But what?
It was too late to try to turn him, as, even if he had become compliant, the Abwehr would wonder why an agent who was desperately running out of battery power and money had suddenly come to life again. MI5 could not now arrange a trial, as it would bring the spotlight on to the circumstances as to how the country’s security defences had failed by allowing a parachutist to evade dragnets, identity checks, ration-book requirements, and police surveillance for so many months. When the story got out, it would make MI5 a laughing-stock, and heads would surely roll. So the obvious answer was to eliminate ter Braak. Masterman’s observation (above) now appears cynical rather than sympathetic.
There could have been a precedent for such an action a short time before. As I outlined above, Gösta Caroli (SUMMER) tried to strangle his minder on January 13, 1941, and then attempted an escape with a canoe on a motor-cycle towards the North Sea. He was soon captured, but he had clearly broken his commitments, and would have been a constant danger because of what he knew and where his true allegiances still lay. (He had attempted suicide on October 11, 1940.) The conventional story is that Caroli was incarcerated (at Huntercombe, 020R, a reserve camp for Latchmere House), and then repatriated to Sweden after the war. Yet this account is suspiciously contradictory, as Nigel West, in Seven Spies Who Changed the World, tells us that Caroli was interned at Camp WX on the isle of Man. Elsewhere, West writes in MI5: “SUMMER was deported to Sweden at the end of hostilities and found a job in an agricultural seed firm near Malmo. His health deteriorated gradually and he died in 1975, having spent his final ten years in a wheelchair.” Yet Hinsley’s official history has no trace of SUMMER after his arrest, and his file at TNA stops abruptly at the same point. If the Double-Cross System had to remain a secret until 1972, why would the British have allowed a renegade from it to return to his homeland to talk about it?
The prolonged incarceration and repatriation might well be a ‘legend’ created by MI5, especially given the confusion that MI5 officers may have generated through the conflicting accounts that they leaked to journalists and historians. For other writers point to a more grisly end. In his book The Druid, Nicholas Mosley presents the following commentary: “He [Cassio = SUMMER = Caroli] was indeed dead, but not by suicide. After his capture, the English had put him on trial for espionage and at Birmingham prison, in the first week of February, 1941, he had been hanged. Every old lag in the jail was talking about it. It was one of the executions the British had carefully not made public, in case someone in Germany wondered exactly what had happened to Cassio between his landing in Britain and his death four months later. But you couldn’t stop warders and released prisoners from talking.” And, in a more serious work, Time-Life’s The Secret War (1981), the author, Francis Russell, writes: ‘For his effort, Summer met the traditional fate of the spy – execution’. Unfortunately, it is not clear what the source for this claim is: Russell acknowledges a number of distinguished intelligence experts who assisted him, but none of his statements is individually attributed. (The Swedish biographers of TATE, Tommy Jonason & Simon Olsson, attribute to Nigel West the fact that Caroli was imprisoned at Huntercombe after the Isle of Man, but West in fact makes no such claim, as I have recently discovered, having acquired the book. Mysteriously, given their nationality, Jonason and Olsson offer no details of Caroli’s supposed return to Sweden, listing in their Bibliography only an unpublished manuscript by themselves on the short-lived double agent. Their only photographs of him are sourced to a Claes Caroli, but are from Gösta’s pre-arrest period.)
Hinsley does indeed refer to SUMMER in terms suggesting he was still alive in November 1941, when Swinton, the chief of the Security Executive, held discussions with MI5, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Attorney-General, on what should be done with double-agents whose career had come to an end, specifically about SUMMER and GANDER. But that minute should perhaps not be trusted: it was fearfully late to be discussing what to do with SUMMER when he had tried to abscond to Germany ten months beforehand: he was either incarcerated or dead by then. Ironically, in March 1941, MI5 recorded the opinion that executions were wasteful, and that ‘intelligence should have precedence over blood-letting’. Hinsley notes that MI5 was ‘also fearful of the damage to security that might follow from the fact that, as was inevitable when a spy was put on trial, the Press demanded maximum publicity about the case’.
What represent solid evidence to support the idea that Caroli could have been murdered are entries from Liddell’s Diary. On January 16, 1941 (i.e. immediately after Caroli’s desperate escape attempt, which Liddell recorded graphically the day that it occurred), Liddell noted: “We had a long discussion this morning about SUMMER’s future and that of the other people with whom he has been associated. We have all come to the conclusion that somehow or other SUMMER must be eliminated.” And on February 3, he added, concerning how parachutists should be handled: “It was agreed that V.V. [Valentine Vivian, of SIS] and I should make representations to Swinton that bumping off should be the exception rather than the rule.” This crude language, not suggestive of a formal trial and sentencing, indicates that an exception had probably already been made. A week later, he discussed the matter with the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Davidson, who appeared to support the notion that a case for ‘bumping off’ agents should be prepared by Liddell and Vivian. The archives show that executions would be the order of the day if an invasion occurred, but these are the clearest indications that extrajudicial killing was considered acceptable when captured spies could not yet be considered part of an enemy military force.
And is it possible that MI5 was influenced by the case of Krivitsky, the Soviet defector whom Liddell and others had interrogated just a year beforehand? On February 10, just as the whole ter Braak saga was winding down to its embarrassing conclusion, Krivitsky was found dead in a Washington hotel, very probably a victim of a murder by Stalin’s Special Tasks force made to look like a suicide. If these were extraordinary times, and the risks to the security and success of the whole Double-Cross operation could be multiplied by careless talk from a bitter ex-double agent in prison, maybe the ‘wet business’ (mokrie dyela) of the NKVD should be imitated. For MI5 had indeed dug itself a large hole in its management of ter Braak, and an obvious ‘suicide’, and quick and secret inquest would be the cleanest solution to its quandary.
Lastly, MI5 had some unfinished business to attend to. It had to account for the intolerable leaks in security that had allowed ter Braak to remain undetected, and ensure the correct disciplinary action was undertaken, and it had to make discrete arrangements for the disposal of ter Braak’s body. Lord Swinton wanted a full inquiry. But this was obviously a time for mercy. On May 7, 1941, Dick White, on behalf of B.2, drafted a letter to be sent to the RSLOs that drew attention to the lessons learned from the exercise, and identified the failings of the Cambridge officer involved. Liddell approved it, but added that he was very anxious that the RSLOs ‘should not make use of it in such a way as to pillory the Cambridge police’. David Petrie reinforced this motion of tolerance, and wrote a letter to Swinton, in which he explained that it was ‘the human element’ that failed, and repeated the need not to ‘pillory’ the Cambridge police. The eventual cover memorandum clearly put the blame ‘almost wholly on the slackness of the Assistant Aliens Officer’ but the clause that ‘It is not, however desired that the conduct of the Cambridge Police should be singled out for condemnation’ was underlined in the letter. Thus the unfortunate office – who must surely have been receiving guidance from his superiors – was not unjustly dealt with, and the much greater failings of the security infrastructure, including the bewildering inefficiency of the RSS to detect illicit wireless signals, were conveniently overlooked.
As for the disposal of ter Braak, the archive is silent after the inquest, but investigative journalism thirty-three years later, as reported in After the Battle, unveiled an eerie tale of switched bodies and curious reporters trying to chase down the burial. In summary, John O’Hannan, a funeral director at the time, was asked by the police to move the body from the shelter, and sworn to silence, but he believed that one of his assistants informed the Press, whose members pestered him. Instructed to bury the body in an unmarked grave when the Coroner’s certificate was issued, he switched the body with that of another suicide in order to distract reporters, and moved the corpse to the church at Great Shelford, three miles south of Cambridge, where he had made arrangements with the vicar. “At 9:00 a.m. on April 7, Ter Braak was buried, attended only by the Vicar, the gravedigger, Mr Duisly the clerk and Mr. O’Hannan.” Recently, the town of Great Shelford has researched ter Braak’s death, and given him public recognition. (see https://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/nazi-spy-who-getting-gravestone-13257650)
Ter Braak’s Grave at Great Shelford
In summary, MI5’s collusion in ter Braak’s fate can be described as follows:
Liddell betrayed the fact that he knew of ter Braak’s impending arrival
A probable clash between Archer and Liddell over policy was concealed
Robertson disclosed the fact that ter Braak was being considered for XX work
The procedures for informing RSLOs were bypassed
Ter Braak, unlike other agents, was not pursued vigorously
Ter Braak’s identity card was not checked
Ter Braak’s transmissions were ignored
MI5 officers made imaginative assessments of ter Braak’s radio usage
Ter Braak’s problems with ration cards were suppressed
MI5 did not discuss ter Braak’s fugitive problems with RSLOs
Ter Braak’s suspicious movements were ignored
The finding of ter Braak’s corpse was mismanaged and its state misrepresented
Liddell accepted too hastily the report of suicide
The Cambridge Police Report was anticipated by Liddell and Harker
MI5 showed secretive and inappropriate haste over the inquest
MI5 tried to silence news reports
The authorities showed indulgence over serious breaches of security protocol
Petrie and Swinton tried to draw attention away from the errors of Cambridge Police
Robertson and others referred elliptically to a ‘suicide’
Hart was encouraged to write a mendacious report
MI5’s problem was that it conceived, despite opposition, an imaginative but risky plan, and then failed to think through the consequences. If it tried to manipulate and monitor an enemy agent, what happened when that agent outlived his usefulness? Great Britain was not a totalitarian state, with arbitrary powers of arrest and execution: the rule of law applied. At the time, one can understand, perhaps, why its officers felt ashamed at such a lapse in ‘fair play’ in dealing so savagely with a dangerous element whom they had toyed with. Hence the enormous cover-up. Yet, in looking back from seventy-seven years ahead, one could wonder what other choice they had. The deed paled in comparison with what the NKVD and Gestapo were doing at the time – or even with the murders and executions that some SOE agents would soon be performing in France.
The confidentiality of the Double-Cross System – even though MI5’s officers did not then understand how vital it would turn out to be for the winning of the war – would surely have been at stake if it had ever become public that Britain’s Security Service had actually acted as a puppet-master for German spies airlifted into Britain. If they had simply recommended to Special Branch that ter Braak be arrested, even if he were eventually executed, it would have been impossible to keep the lid on the whole exercise. Yet the notion of extrajudicial – even legal – execution, was apparently such an anathema to the culture of Britain’s counterespionage officers (despite Liddell’s casual aside about a ‘shooting-case’) that they must have had some deep misgivings over the whole episode. Liddell’s admissions in his Diaries show that such decisions were not taken lightly, and required approval at higher levels. They learned their lesson, however: no more monitored agents were allowed to roam at large, and the next two who arrived, Jakobs (who parachuted in on January 31, 1941) and Richter (May 13), went fairly promptly to the firing-range and the gallows respectively.
The Abwehr’s lack of interest in the ter Braak case is puzzling. No doubt the news of the ‘suicide’ reached it in some way at the time, as Ritter and Co. would have needed to know of a convincing explanation as to why their agent had stopped communicating, but did not appear to have been arrested. Maybe SNOW was able to pass on a ‘rumour’. Yet why, after the war, Abwehr officers claimed no knowledge of who he was, both Ritter in Hamburg and Sensburg in Brussels, even though ter Braak was given an identity card number provided by SNOW, and the obvious (too obvious?) evidence of activity in Brussels was provided with the parachute paraphernalia, remains a conundrum. Perhaps ter Braak really had been on a mission of such dastardliness that the interrogated officers believed it might hurt their chances if they admitted to knowledge of it. On the other hand, their interrogators did not really press them on the subject. That question may have to remain a mystery.
As for the RSS, it was vindicated. No doubt it did pick up all the signals that ter Braak sent before his batteries ran out, but, when they were sent to the headquarters at Arkley, the monitors were guided not to be concerned about them, to the extent of using direction-finding equipment to locate them precisely, or even sending out sniffer-vans. The messages themselves, however, were no doubt closely inspected, and probably deciphered, since ter Braak would have been using a cipher-wheel similar to that issued to TATE. At the same time, the fact that an Abwehr agent had been able to evade British detection-finding equipment for many weeks would have been a convenient message for MI5 to have acknowledged by its counterparts as it tried to maintain the illusion of a flawed system of radio interception in the country. And that, of course, is the most significant underlying discovery of this whole research exercise, the saga of the ‘Mystery of the Undetected Radios’.
So was this irregular outcome the ‘Greek tragedy’ hinted at in Curry’s report at the end of the war? Probably not. It all happened before the transfer of RSS to SIS, and, if there had been an aberrant directive to Arkley on the investigation of illicit domestic traffic, it would have been engineered by MI5. The reporting structure of RSS was at that time irrelevant. SIS can in no way be held responsible for what happened, unless a malign influence on MI5’s policy towards foreign agents was somehow exercised by such as Claude Dansey. (We should perhaps recall that Dansey had, with MI5’s connivance, recently engineered Soviet spy SONIA’s British citizenship and passport, giving her the right to leave Switzerland and enter the UK as an observed agent.) Such a hypothesis, however, would push speculation too far into undocumented conspiracy theory. We are left, however, with the bewildering story of Malcolm Frost’s being airbrushed out of history, like one of Stalin’s commissars.
Finally, the archive itself. For those researchers who claim that archives alone can tell us what really happened, this exercise has an ambiguous message. The whole ter Braak/Fukken dossier has an unreal air about it, as if it had been carefully selected and crafted to display a solid and incontrovertible story. Superficially, it does just that, with the memoranda about missed opportunities, and flawed systems, and inattentive watchdogs, and all-too-human failure, embellished by realistic accounts of inquests, exchanges with bureaucrats, photographs of a corpse, and statements by experts into subjects such as wireless messaging. Yet a deeper inspection reveals all the contradictions, anomalies and misrepresentations that are bound to occur when a broad conspiracy is under way, and too many persons are involved. Maybe we should treat the release of the whole file as a challenge by MI5 and the Home Office, and whatever other authorities were involved. Maybe they intended to say: “Look. Enough time has passed. The clues are here. Work out what really happened. Revealing the secret really no longer affects the security of the country, or the reputation of MI5. All the participants are now dead. Go ahead.”
A Very Principled Boy by Mark A. Bradley (Basic Books, 2014, pp 348)
The Spy Who Changed History by Svetlana Lokhova (William Collins, 2018, pp 476)
A Spy Named Orphan by Roland Philipps (Norton & Company [in USA], 2018, pp 440)
Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines (William Collins, 2018, pp 642)
A Very Principled Boy
By now, many readers may have been sated by stories of the Cambridge Spies, but may not be aware that Oxford University was determined not be outdone in infamy. Despite the observations of Professor Trevor-Roper, who, with an air almost of regret, asserted that his university had not produced any Soviet agents of its own, Oxford certainly had solid claims to a comparable Comintern-spawned ring. When MI5 and SIS in the 1960s, after the confessions of Anthony Blunt, performed their internal investigation into further penetration of the services by Soviet spies, they discovered that Arthur Wynn was probably responsible for recruiting at Oxford a number of agents in the 1930s, including Christopher Hill and Jenifer Hart (née Fischer-Williams). After Bernard Floud and Phoebe Pool (independently) committed suicide, however, the mandarins decided that they should perhaps let any other sleeping dogs lie, lest any action provoke an epidemic of self-destruction that might have challenged even the considerable skills of Chief Inspector Morse.
Yet another furtive element had existed in the nest on the Isis – Rhodes Scholars. It surprises me that so many paragons of the USA educational system, chosen for their all-round excellence, whether they brought the virus of Communist idealism with them across the Atlantic, or became infected with it by their colleagues and acquaintances at places like the Oxford Labour Club and October Club, turned out to be such bad apples. The group included Daniel Boorstin, Peter Rhodes, Donald Wheeler, and the New Zealander Ian Milner. But the most renowned individual – and the one who did the most damage – was Duncan Lee, the subject of this book. Its title derives from an assessment of Lee by a Yale professor: ‘a thorough gentleman, earnest, high-minded, tactful, clean, and honorable, and a man of unusual intellectual power and promise’. Lee also happened to attend my alma mater, the college of Christ Church, and thus I have a particular interest in him.
The author of A Very Principled Boy, Mark A. Bradley, was a Rhodes scholar himself, and his conclusion is that Lee, whose family was related to the famous Confederate general, had leftist tendencies, but was converted to a commitment to the Communist cause by his wife, Isabelle Gibb (known as Ishbel), whom he met at a dance in Oxford in May 1936. Lee had a conventional upbringing to prepare him for committing to a Great Cause: he was born in China, of earnest Episcopalian missionaries, Edmund and Lucy, and he admired his parents’ dedicated but fruitless attempts at converting the natives to Christianity. The family moved back to the United States in 1927, where, after a stellar academic career at boarding-schools, Duncan was accepted by Yale in 1931. He read widely and had deep thoughts, but remained unpoliticized, concentrating more on awards and honours, with the result that he was selected for a Rhodes scholarship in January 1935.
At Oxford, he met the already radicalized Ishbel in May 1936: they were engaged by August, and shocked his parents by their obvious cohabitation when Lucy and Edmund visited that summer. The couple visited Germany that autumn, and made the pilgrimage to the Soviet Union the following year. By then Ishbel had converted Duncan to the communist cause, and they were able to close their eyes to Stalin’s Great Terror. When they returned to Oxford, Duncan shocked his parents by telling them that he and Isabel were planning to join the Communist Party. After their marriage in May 1938, the Lees moved to the United States, where their subversive activities were reported to the FBI, who did nothing. Duncan then took up an honest communist job working as a lawyer on Wall Street. One of the partners of the firm was William Donovan, who was in April 1942 invited by Roosevelt to set up the OSS, the equivalent of Britain’s SIS. Lee moved to the OSS as Donovan’s assistant, at about the same time he was recruited, via Joseph Golos and Mary Price, to become a spy for the Soviet Union.
What distinguished Lee’s espionage was that he never handed over any physical document. Everything he gave to Mary, and her successor, Elizabeth Bentley (after Price had a health breakdown) was passed over orally. So when Bentley, in her famous 1945 confession to the FBI, identified Lee as a prime informant, he buckled down and denied everything. And even when the VENONA project, the decryptions of which revealed secret cable communications between the Washington outstation and Moscow Centre, confirmed that Lee was a prominent Soviet agent, the FBI could not afford to unveil such a sensitive source. Lee brazened it out, but it cost him his marriage (the FBI made it difficult for him to rejoin his wife and family in Bermuda), and his clean conscience. Yet he had betrayed some of the most significant secrets of World War II, those that condemned eastern Europe to Soviet domination. Lee remarried, moved to Canada, and died in 1988 after leaving a testimony for his children that portrayed himself as a victim.
Hadley tells all this in a very cool and professional way. He has delved into all the appropriate sources and archives. His judgments are sound. His conclusion on Lee’s motivations and make-up could stand as a classic assessment of many others of his tribe: “Although there is no evidence that the CIA’s psychiatrists ever studied Lee’s background, his personality reflected several of the basic traits that they have seen in others who have stolen their country’s secrets. Most spies have the ability to exhibit a sham, superficial loyalty. As narcissists who believe themselves destined to play a special role in history, they have already led lives full of mini-defections before they finally cross into full-blown betrayal. Perhaps most importantly, they are capable of ignoring the devil in themselves while condemning it in others. This permits them to deflect guilt, blame, and responsibility.” And further: “Lee’s multiple sexual affairs, or ‘mini-defections’, his compartmented personality, his violation of his government’s and mentor’s trust, his prodigious ability to lie, his belief that his hour had come when Mary Price recruited him to spy for the Soviets, his wallowing in victimhood, and his cruel attacks on Bentley underscore how accurately the CIA’s profile fits. To unleash these traits and commit espionage, Lee needed only a great cause, access to classified information, and a permissive environment.”
And what happened to the redoubtable Ishbel, who put Duncan on his perfidious track? She returned to Oxford with their four children, and then moved to Edinburgh, where she married John Petrie (who, so far as I can tell, was not closely related to David Petrie, the wartime head of MI5). To her dying day, she refused to acknowledge that Duncan had been involved in espionage. A retired CIA officer interviewed her in 1989, but drew a complete blank. In 1997, she published a brief memoir titled Not a Bowl of Cherries, emblazoned with a drawing of Christ Church’s Tom Tower on its cover, and a blurb that merely states that she was divorced from her American lawyer husband. “Duncan felt the charges made by Elizabeth Bentley very keenly, and not only because he had to answer them before a Committee of Congress and two grand juries in 1947 and 1954,’, she writes, adding: “Needless to say the charges were never substantiated.” The VENONA transcripts had been published two years before, but that did not cause the lady to even flutter. “Mainly, though, the whole crazy scene was so unlike Duncan’s style and unlike anything he had ever experienced,” was her only comment. She died in 2005. The capacity of Lenin’s and Stalin’s useful idiots for selective self-delusion and mendacity is unlimited.
Ishbel Petrie’s ‘Not a Bowl of Cherries’
The Spy Who Changed History
Let me get the ridiculous title out of the way first. This book is clearly not to be confused with Mike Rossiter’s 2014 book about Klaus Fuchs, The Spy Who Changed the World, or with Nigel West’s 1991 compendium Seven Spies Who Changed the World, a select group that excludes all of the Cambridge Spies, no doubt to their evident chagrin had they all survived long enough to learn about it. * Now, a Great Spy might make History, but he or she cannot change History, because History is integral and unvariable, and any self-respecting spy who didn’t believe that he or she was in truth having an effect on the course of history was obviously in the wrong job, and should have been working for Facebook helping to spot harmful fake news posts. The other alarming item about the choice of titles is that this book is subtitled The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Won the Race for America’s Top Secrets, which should set off warning signals among those of us who were not aware that the project to engage in massive plundering of industrial secrets in order to be prepared to destroy the owner of such technology was actually a race to be won. What other competitors were there in this race, one wonders, and why should such sordid endeavours be sanctified with such puffery?
(* I have since discovered that Anthony Blunt is one of the featured spies in West’s book. October 1, 2018)
Next, the author. Svetlana Lokhova is described as ‘a By-Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and was ‘until recently a Fellow of the Cambridge Security Initiative jointly chaired by the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and Professor Christopher Andrew, former official historian of MI5’. So her association with those names should obviously add some gloss to that rather enigmatic introduction, right? Or was her fellowship rescinded? Her website biography claims as one of her accomplishments that she ‘identified the Sixth Man, Cedric Belfrage’, which is hardly a newsworthy achievement, and should pose questions about her credentials, and what the depth of her reading has been. Yet the unfortunate author has since had to deny suggestions that she was too closely involved with the disgraced Trump official General Michael Flynn (see https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-39863781), in a tale that is echoed somewhat by the case of another young Russian academic, this time in the USA, Sara Butina. Apparently the author had to flee, with her baby, to a retreat 600 miles from London to escape all the adverse publicity. I would not bring this up unless her work had not irritated me as a piece of inappropriate Russian propaganda: I tried to contact Ms. Lokhova via her website, but she has not granted me the favour of a reply.
So who was this epoch-making spy? His name was Stanislav Shumovsky, and Lokhova has a very innovative tale to tell. She had been given exclusive access to NKVD files (an alarming signal, in fact, which historians should be wary of) and has thus been able to disclose information unavailable to western analysts. Shumovsky was a Pole, born in 1902, whose career in flying was cut short by a crash. He then developed such depth of expertise as an aeronautical technician that he was selected to be enrolled at Harvard in 1931, with the cryptonym BLERIOT, after his hero. This was before the USA had officially recognized the Soviet Union, so trade between the two countries was impossible. The Russians, however, had their eye more on stealing industrial secrets than on paying for them. At Harvard, Shumovsky was taught by the aviation expert Jerome Hunsaker, and set about recruiting agents to the cause. He exploited mainly Jews, the offspring of parents who had escaped from pre-revolutionary Russia, but an Englishman, Norman Leslie Haight, was also in his network. In the year 1933, when the much better-known Gaik Ovakimian came to the US to be Shumovsky’s boss, Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union, which opened up dealings quite considerably, and made institutions and corporations more positive about the country. In 1939, 18,000 pages of technical documents, 487 sets of designs, and 54 samples of new technology were shipped back to Moscow, in areas such as wind-tunnel design, high-altitude flying, and bomb-loading. Shumovsky travelled thousands of miles inspecting manufacturing plants to learn from American techniques. He arranged for Semyonov and other scientists, who would later work on the ENORMOZ atomic-bomb project, to be enrolled at MIT, which was now considered a finishing-school for ‘legal’ Soviet spies, and returned to Moscow in 1939. The capstone of his efforts was probably the unveiling of the Soviet Union’s most advanced strategic bomber in 1947.
Not only did I find all this activity distasteful, I also thought Lokhova’s treatment of it betrayed too much of a celebratory attitude towards the achievements of Comrade Stalin. There was an obtuseness about Lenin and Stalin in failing to understand that the creativity of the American free-enterprise system was what allowed so many inventions to be pursued, and yet Lokhova echoes such hypocrisy in comments such as the following: “Despite being a lifelong and dedicated Communist, he [Shumovsky] had come to respect American scientists and entrepreneurs for their extraordinary achievements in his beloved field of aviation. He had worked in the heart of capitalism and seen the rewards on offer for a successful entrepreneur like Donald Douglas, but was never tempted to defect; he was too aware of the inequalities and injustices of capitalism. All the American technological treasures he acquired were the tools needed to defend his people from a merciless invader.” She goes on to praise Shumovsky’s ‘remarkable’ skills, as he was able to exploit the disenchanted, the greedy and the idealistic – all in a cause of ugly Stalin totalitarianism that she never actually admits, as she glorifies the Soviet Union’s ability to wage war – one that Stalin thought was inevitable, even if the Americans did not.
She is also rather scathing about Western histories of intelligence, suggesting that they are ‘biased’, since they rely primarily on open western sources, or accounts from journalists and defectors. According to the author, the accounts of such as Elizabeth Bentley and Harry Gold were ‘problematic’: the results of the VENONA project have long been ‘unreliable’. You mean that they have failed to exploit those famously open archives of the Kremlin, Ms. Lokhova, and that we should be looking to the official Russian state-sponsored publications for the unvarnished truth? Given that President Putin decided to close the KGB archives after an exciting decade when western historians were allowed to gain a glimpse of what the secret police had recorded, one must view Ms. Lokhova’s access with some suspicion. I have written elsewhere (see SoniaandtheQuebecAgreement) about the highly dubious way in which Russian archives have been selectively revealed to compliant historians.
As an example, the author reveals, on page 389, that the nuclear scientist Igor Kurchatov ‘responded enthusiastically’ when Stalin made the decision on 27 September, 1942 to restart research on the atomic bomb. Kurchatov was then put in charge of the project, and became an eager consumer of all the pillaged information that Ovakimian and his agents provided for him. He provided long lists of further secrets needed, as evidenced, apparently, from Kurchatov’s letters to Molotov. Lokhova informs us that Kurchatov’s note to Stalin on accepting the challenge ‘testified not only how deep was the penetration of British laboratories in Cambridge, Birmingham and Liverpool, as well as the Chicago Metals Lab . . .’. Such a revelation should cause some flutters in English academic coops, as Kurchatov was later received and remembered with much fondness by British scientists. As Dr. Brian Austin writes, in his biography of Basil Schonland: “ . . . it was actually this giant of a man’s [Kurchatov’s] wholeheartedness and bonhomie that had endeared him to so many at Harwell . . .” (see below).The role of Fuchs and Peierls at Birmingham has been well publicised, of course, but such statements about Kurchatov’s knowledge of deeper and broader espionage merit further evidence, which Lokhova does not provide. Her source (given only as ‘USSR’s Atomic Project Documents and Materials, Moscow Naeuka, 1998’) can therefore not implicitly be relied on. She reproduces a couple of pages of VENONA transcripts identifying Shumovsky (unreliable? – see above), but offers us no NKVD documents.
Dr. Schonland, assistant director of AERE, Harwell, and Professor Igor Kurchatov, before the latter’s lecture at Harwell on April 25, 1956. The congeniality of the occasion is perhaps surprising, given that the body of the SIS diver ‘Buster’ Crabb had been found six days earlier near the S.S. Ordzhonikidze, on which vessel Kurchatov had arrived with Bulganin and Khrushchev, and that Khrushchev was at the same time threatening to drop H-Bombs on West Germany. (photograph courtesy of Dr. Brian Austin)
In a somewhat fawning review of Sir Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence in this month’s Literary Review, Professor Michael Goodman (who is on the Advisory Board of the Cambridge Security Initiative – not a connection he declares in his piece) refers to the historian as ‘the doyen of the academic study of intelligence on the UK . . . [who] has really made the field his own’, and ‘the great Yoda [who he? Ed.] of intelligence studies in the UK’. He added that ‘there are few academics working on intelligence in the UK who cannot trace the origins of their work back to him’. Well, I am not sure that that is a healthy state of affairs, and I don’t count myself in that number, but Ms. Lokhova surely does. In her Acknowledgements, Ms. Lokhova says that she owes ‘an enormous debt to Professor Sir Christopher Andrew for introducing me to the fascinating study of intelligence history . . . Over the many years it has taken me to complete this work, Chris [sic] has been unstinting in his support and praise for my work.” Now that the text has appeared, I am not sure that the high-sounding Cambridge Security Initiative would still want its name associated with this book. Maybe that is why Ms. Lokhova is no longer a Fellow of the Initiative. ‘Former people’ – ‘byvshie lyudi’: that is what they were called in Stalin’s Russia.
Sir Christopher Andrew
Thus, for all its breakthrough revelations, it is difficult to accept Lokhova’s work completely seriously. The Spy Who Changed History fits in well with President Putin’s desire to reinvigorate Mother Russia and to bring alive again the heroic nature of the communist era. We all know that he regarded the dismantling of the Soviet Union as one of the most tragic events of the century, and Ms. Lokhova’s work falls uneasily on the wrong side of the propaganda campaign to further that goal. Maybe the most important lesson we should take from her book is that today the Chinese may have similar designs on Western technology as the Soviets did in the 1930s and 1940s.
A Spy Named Orphan
Of the Cambridge Five (or was it Thirteen? One struggles to remember . . . ), Donald Maclean was perhaps the most enigmatic. Burgess was brazen and undisciplined; Cairncross cerebral and reclusive; Blunt artificial and aloof; Philby calculating and ruthless. But none of them was tortured so severely by his traitorous activity as was Maclean, given the cryptonym ‘SIROTA’, Orphan, because of his famous father, who died in 1932. He was, in Civil Service parlance, ‘very able’ – a high-flyer expected to go far. He was also, when he was not drinking, a hard and productive worker, but the fact that he was at the same time toiling so industriously for a foreign power anguished him. At one stage, he wanted to get out, but his handlers would not let him as he was too valuable – unlike Blunt, who was able to persuade the boys from Moscow that he would be of little use to them after the war. And then, when in 1951 Maclean escaped with Burgess (to be followed later by Philby), he alone adapted successfully to life under the Communist state. He became a well-respected analyst of international affairs, whose reports were regarded seriously in the West. A famous photograph shows him at Burgess’s funeral – austere, almost pious, as if he were an acolyte at some papal ceremony, which in one sense I suppose he was.
At Guy Burgess’s Funeral
Yet do we need another biography of him? What more is there to tell? Robert Cecil gave us his personal, sometimes fond, but not uncritical portrait of Maclean in 1988, in his A Divided Life. Michael Holzman, of a more leftist persuasion, offered a summary that exploited much new material in his 2014 work Donald and Melinda Maclean: Idealism and Espionage, including an analysis of his published work from the Soviet Union, but it was not generally available, being self-published. And there have been dozens of related works that have picked at Maclean’s boyhood, his indoctrination at Gresham’s School, Holt, and at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and traced his turbulent career in the Foreign Office, and the highly dubious circumstances of his escape with Burgess in 1951. ‘The Enigma of Donald Maclean’ is how Roland Phipps subtitles his work, incidentally reinforcing the Maclean puzzling persona. So perhaps readers should look forward to an unravelling of the riddle, and an explanation of why such an otherwise sensible boy was taken in by all the nonsense of the Communist utopia?
Roland Philipps (whose first book this is) has solid qualifications. He claims two relevant grandfathers – Roger Makins, the last Foreign Office man to see Maclean in 1951, and the unreconstructed Communist Wogan Philipps. He is a publisher with the right contacts: his ‘matchless friend and brilliant author’ Ben Macintyre encouraged him to write the book. (How come Benny Boy never urged me on? Do not write in. I think I know the answer . . .) Philipps has enjoyed access to the full Philip Toynbee and Alan Maclean papers, and help from all manner of archival resources in the UK, as well as an impressive list of experts in the field. Thus we learn details about Maclean’s life and career that have not been revealed elsewhere. I should add, however, that the author had not then had the benefit of reading Misdefending the Realm: else his Chapter 5, ‘Homer’, that covers Maclean’s relationship with Isaiah Berlin in Washington would have been a tad sharper and more insightful. (I have brought this point to Mr. Philipps’ attention, and he graciously acknowledged my message.)
I noticed a few false notes and errors. When Philipps writes on page 133: “Yet none of the Five was passing on information that would harm British interests, which therefore meant they could not be real traitors to their country . . .”, it is not clear whether he is representing Moscow’s opinion, or his own. His reference to ‘the rabid witch-hunts of the McCarthy era’, on page 284, has too much of the unthinking leftist sloganeering about it. He misrepresents some details in the Krivitsky affair. Yet it his conclusion that is the most disappointing. It runs: “Donald Maclean’s conscience was inspired by his Victorian, church-going parents, and then was forged in the godless atmosphere of the General Strike, the Depression and the rise of fascism. He was dedicated to the pursuit of peace and justice for the largest number, the humanism referred to by Izvestia. His conscience and the fulfilment of the secret life enabled him to maintain his core beliefs through the purges and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and when many others fell away he continued to work for what he still believed in resistance to the capitalist hegemony and atomic might of his wife’s country. There is purity about this consistency that makes his collapse into alcoholism in Cairo and afterwards all the more painful.”
I don’t think this is good enough. (And it sounds rather like an obituary in Pravda.) The same could be said of Duncan Lee and his ‘Victorian, church-going parents’, but what about all those other young men growing up in the 1930s who had moralising parents or difficult fathers but who were not attracted to the plodding deceits of communism, and instead saw through Stalin and his communist edifice as a destroyer of millions rather than as a ‘pursuer of peace and justice for the largest number’? A ‘purity about his consistency’? To praise a stubborn commitment to evil in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is in fact loathsome and soul-destroying and averse to those principles one claimed to cherish is simply perverse. Moreover, Philipps quotes without comment Maclean’s best man, Mark Culme-Seymour, who had felt ‘betrayed by a man he had loved and trusted’, and had the effrontery to write to Alan Maclean, Donald’s brother, that Maclean ‘was a victim of our times and I will cling on to the idea that he was a noble victim, no matter how profoundly misguided’. Victimisation – the scourge of 21st century denial of responsibility (and remember Duncan Lee above). For Philipps to record this observation without comment shows simply bad taste. And his epitaph, on depicting Donald and his father lying side-by-side in graves in Penn, Buckinghamshire, is the equivocal and rather distressing statement: “. . . the remains of two men with the same name, both men of their times, of high ideals, optimism and strong consciences. Men with similar but differing beliefs and truths to which they remained firm, perhaps too doggedly firm.” The old thread of moral equivalence.
Thus A Spy Named Orphan is an intriguing and comprehensive – almost ‘definitive’ – account of a spy who, even he did not make Nigel West’s Top Seven, was one of the most significant betrayers of Western security. Yet we are no nearer to knowing exactly why he chose that path. Maybe it was something in the water at Gresham’s School, Holt, but more likely it was due to a mentor who encouraged what Robert Cecil called ‘Gresham’s radical heritage’ under its headmaster J. R. Eccles. Certainly that tradition allowed not only Maclean, but also such (temporary or permanent) subversives as James Klugmann, Bernard Floud, Roger and Brian Simon, Cedric Belfrage, Stephen Spender, Christopher Strachey and W. H. Auden to flourish and reinforce each other, with Tom Wintringham leading the way a decade before. One master whom the author identifies as wielding such an influence was Frank McEachran, who (as Philipps tells us) has also been claimed as a model for Hector in Alan Bennett’s History Boys. McEachran gains a short vignette in A Spy Named Orphan as ‘the Svengali-like teacher’, who, though ‘not a Marxist himself’, urged Maclean and Klugmann ‘to read Marx, and imbibe the core ideas on the state, class struggle and historical materialism’. Ah yes. I recognize those ‘academic Marxists’ (or non-Marxists), who are supposed to be quite harmless, but encourage their pupils to swallow at the pump of Marx’s banalities. That’s what the War Office and MI5 concluded about Anthony Blunt when they allowed him back into intelligence – not practical or dangerous at all. So another armchair revolutionary, McEachran, caught his ‘victims’ [!] at a most impressionable age, and they were hooked.
Frank McEachran and his ‘Cauldron of Spells’
Richard Davenport-Hines may have wondered why the Times Literary Supplement review of Enemies Within had to be shared with some upstart he had never heard of. Ben Macintyre perhaps, but Antony Percy? After all, R D-H has written one-hundred-and-sixty entries for The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, while I have written only one. And he is a Major League historian, and biographer of such subjects as W. H. Auden, Maynard Keynes and Harold MacMillan, while I am a latecomer who have never even been put on a shortlist for a possible interview by Melvyn Bragg. On the other hand, I was greatly honoured to have Misdefending the Realm appear alongside Enemies Within in Mark Seaman’s review of May 27. And I have coldspur, while Mr. Davenport-Hines does not.
So why has Mr. Davenport-Hines turned his attention to the world of espionage? As an expert analyst on social trends (look to his book on the Profumo era, for example), he brings a depth of knowledge of social climes, and a capability for narrative strength, to this intriguing topic. The flyer is promising: “With its vast scope, ambition and scholarship, Enemies Within charts how the undermining of authority, the rejection of expertise and the suspicion of educational advantages began, and how these have transformed the social and political agenda of modern Britain.” It sets out to challenge ‘entrenched assumptions about abused trust, corruption and Establishment coverups’. If indeed Davenport-Hines can explain why the Cambridge Five betrayed their country (a task that has apparently fallen beyond the capabilities of other biographers), and how it was that they managed to provoke such a passive response from the authorities, his massive work would indeed have to be compulsory reading.
But it is a heady programme. First of all, while he brings several new facts to the table, it is not clear who his audience is. While his research into some new areas (such as the Rhodes scholars) make this an indispensable book for the dedicated student of espionage history, the latter will be very familiar with most of the accounts of the nefariousness of the 1950s and 1960s. On the other hand, such masses of detail may overwhelm the more casual reader, who will no doubt be familiar with much of the story, but become confused by the mass of names and events. A long preliminary discussion over Soviet history really does not belong here, and adds little. If his case for a fresh analysis of political dynamics in Britain is to hold water, it is critical that any major new lessons that Davenport-Hines derives from his material can clearly be ascribed to a pattern of particular incidents. Yet, as he declared in his Introduction, the author does not really believe in the truth that the wills and actions of individuals can exert a powerful effect on history.
Davenport-Hines lays out some early guidelines that point to the nature of his argument: “Historians fumble their catches when they study individuals’ motives and individuals’ ideas rather than the institutions in which people work, respond, find motivation and develop their ideas.” “One aim of this book is to rebut the Titus Oates commentators who have commandeered the history of communist espionage in twentieth-century Britain.” “The key to understanding the successes of Moscow’s penetration agents in government ministries, the failures to detect them swiftly and the counter-espionage mistakes in handling them lies in sex discrimination rather than class discrimination.” Are these a priori impulses, or a posteriori conclusions? One’s immediate reaction might be to challenge all of these assertions: that individuals can exercise no individual choice but are driven by workplace factors, that a free market in espionage history has somehow been made an oligopoly (pace Sir Christopher Andrew’s dominance), and that the fashionable theme of sex discrimination has suddenly become a retrospective critical factor for assessing British political structures and why cover-ups were engaged in. So how does Davenport-Hines go about it?
The author develops his theme by covering a vast and rich array of incidents, but it is not clear which episodes support which aspect of his argument. As he tells it, overall, MI5 performed an honourable and professional job in countering the Communist subversion. The criticism that the intelligence services were guilty of aristocratic in-breeding, or homosexual camaraderie, is quite misplaced: the symptoms of failure were more male chauvinism, since female expertise was discarded or overlooked. The blame for misrepresenting what happened lies with the gutter press, with irresponsible journalist and writers, and an ill-educated Labour Party. The Cambridge spies did far more harm in eroding trust between civil servants than they did in betraying secrets. Yet even worse were the journalists. “The mole-hunters of the 1980s were foul-minded, mercenary and pernicious. Their besmirching of individuals and institutions changed the political culture and electoral moods of Britain far beyond any achievement of Moscow agents or agencies,” he writes, as if the Press had invented the whole story. The spies, he claims, could not be prosecuted because conviction would have been difficult without a confession, the evidence against them (such as in VENONA transcriptions) being too sensitive to be used in court. (But he also admits that a prosecution of Burgess would have released too many embarrassing secrets about his past career in diplomacy.) Finally, the recent loss of trust in ‘experts’ has opened the debate to untutored discussion.
This seems to me a strange line to take, and it is not helped by Davenport-Hines’s approach. The problem is that he really shows no methodology in his use of sources, making no distinction as to why some are reliable and some not, with the result that (for instance) he is taken in by a letter to one of the authorized historians of intelligence, Sir Michael Howard, who wrote an absurd letter to the Times after the Blunt fiasco claiming that inactivity was justified as Blunt had been useful as an asset in MI5’s hands. Davenport-Hines largely accepts the official histories on trust, when they need to be treated with a high degree of scepticism: he refers to Sir Christopher Andrew ‘whose painstaking research and careful conclusions belied the conspiracy theorists’. Yet, for all the diligence of the undertaking, the authorised history of MI5 is inadequate: a selective, censored and far from definitive work, and its sources cannot be verified. Davenport-Hines tends to accept unquestioningly the pronouncements of the Great and the Good (such as Gladwyn Jebb on Laurence Grand), is too quick to come to the defence of officers like the hapless Dick White against his justified critics, or the ‘luckless’ (rather than incompetent) Robert Armstrong, and is too hasty in backing the opinions of his fellow-academic Hugh Trevor-Roper. His opinion on the amount of harm perpetrated by the spies would appear to run counter to that of another well-respected ‘expert’, Nigel West, who wrote, in The Crown Jewels: “Undoubtedly, the damage inflicted by Philby, Burgess, and Blunt can only be described as colossal, and on a much greater scale than has ever been officially admitted.”
In addition, I noticed multiple minor but important errors (for example, over Fitzroy Maclean, Kitty Harris’s birthplace, the identification of ELLI, Liddell’s handling of Burgess, Petrie’s accession as head of MI5, the identities of Joe and Jane Archer, and the ‘turning’ of Wilfrid Mann). He denies the existence of an Oxford ring of spies, and judges the confessed traitor Jenifer Hart to be innocent. He is very contradictory about the role of religion in the 1930s. He makes the extraordinary claim (p 442) that the spies were relics of the 1941-45 period, when the Soviet Union was an ally, although they had been infiltrated long before. And the case for anti-feminism is weakly made, coming in almost as an afterthought. “My belief is that the dynamics of departments in government ministries and agency were gender-bound more than class-bound”, he writes, but that is rather like criticising Trollope for not writing about the ‘LBGQT community’. If there were a case to be made there, it would be over the sidelining of MI5’s sharpest counter-espionage officer, Jane Archer. Davenport-Hines picks up the fact that she was not forced to retire when she married (at the outbreak of war), but he does not develop the theme to support his argument. And how would ‘feminine’ influence have changed things? Would it have made vetting more rigorous, a pattern he would appear to disdain? Which characteristics of the ’gentler sex’ would he have preferred to have seen holding sway in the Civil Service? Those of Jenifer Hart or Ellen Wilkinson? Or those of Margaret Thatcher – or even Rosa Klebb? He does not tell us.
Yet my main cavil with the book is the fact that the author turns the undermining of civil institutions, which was undeniably effected by the actions of the Cambridge spies, into a free pass for the intelligence services and the politicians themselves, as if they were merely victims, and responded only as they could, given the constraints. On page 368, he writes that trust is one of the elements that distinguished liberal democracies from despotisms. But if a certain trust has been shown to be broken, it should be reviewed. Since the objective of the spies was to erode the whole blooming edifice of a liberal democracy, the fact that the civilities of political trust were fractured first should hardly have come as a surprise. That was why we had a Security Service in the first place. The fact was, however, that MI5 received solid leads about the deep insertion of Soviet spies from Krivitsky, but lacked the guts and insight to pursue them single-mindedly. As an institution, it never planned what it would do if it found such traitors in its midst, so it was in ‘react mode’ every time another ghastly truth came out. Davenport-Hines says that he prefers the level of trust that existed before positive vetting arrived in 1951 to ‘Gestapo methods, Stalinist purges, American loyalty tests or HUAC scapegoating’, as if there were no less draconian alternatives. But the careless way that the threat was managed could have paved the way for such totalitarian horrors.
MI5 (and SIS) should not have trusted anyone for sensitive work in intelligence simply because that person came with a good reputation. In a pluralist democracy, trust has to be earned and protected: reputation is everything. As a result, rather than facing the facts, the two intelligence services indulged in an operation of continuous cover-up, over Fuchs (when the survival of MI5 was at stake), over Burgess’s and Maclean’s career, over Blunt, over Cairncross, and even over Philby, for whom SIS had no realistic strategy. They did encourage the prosecution of outsiders (like Fuchs, and Nunn May, and Blake), but not those native Englishmen whom they had recruited themselves. Their selectivity therefore looked hypocritical. Out of this desire to protect the institution there came a great betrayal of trust to the British public, whom the authorities thought inferior and not deserving of openness. The result was that a natural void occurred for the inquiring newshounds and journalists, who smelled that the facts were not being told. The indomitable Chapman Pincher, for one, was fed both truths and lies by his informers, and it often suited the authorities to have the waters permanently muddied. The official histories came too late, and tried to finesse the problems.
I believe it is also very dangerous to draw simple sociological conclusions over such a large sweep of history. When, for my doctoral thesis, I was studying MI5 over a period of just two years (1939-41), I was exposed to multiple dynamics in organizational frameworks, managerial conflicts, personal relationships and affiliations, and individual ambitions, betrayals and mis-steps, all in an environment of rapidly shifting political fortunes and alliances. In that context I felt comfortable making judgments about the wisdom or foolishness of decisions taken or not taken. To analyse a period of sixty years, and replace one grand theme of misplaced Establishment loyalty with one that identifies failures ascribed to gender-bound, as opposed to class-bound, weaknesses, does not move the debate forward constructively. The psychology of each mole gets smothered in the sociological generalisations, and the personal contributions of different political and intelligence leaders become homogenized. “Institutional life, not parental influence, made Blunt, Burgess, Maclean and Philby what they were. They disliked the bullying, discomfort, injustice and surveillance of their schooling,” Davenport-Hines writes with apparent authority, ignoring the fact that a far greater majority of young adults were subjected to the same disciplines, but did not become traitors. Kim Philby himself warned of the danger of ‘long-range psychology’.
I suppose it all comes down to this matter of trust. Davenport-Hines wants the judgments of the experts (like him) to be trusted. He is a believer in epistocracy – government by the knowledgeable. But this is the world of espionage and intelligence. You cannot trust the memoirs of those who took part, whether spies or intelligence officers. You cannot trust the experts, especially not the authorised historians. You cannot trust the politicians. You cannot trust the scoop-seeking journalists. You cannot even trust the original documents – the archives – as they have been doctored and weeded, and maybe even deliberately planted with disinformation. Davenport-Hines does not explain why he trusts some sources, but not others, and also appears to be of the opinion that the Great British Public should not be trusted with the facts about the security services which should be accountable to it. Thus he has compiled a fascinatingly rich and enjoyable romp through a century of subversion and counter-intelligence, but, since the reader cannot rely on the sources of his judgments, he or she has to parse very carefully any claim he makes. Enemies Within is a very impressive achievement, but it is very difficult to interpret with confidence a canvas this large because of the multiple distortions of reality that are woven into the fabric in every sector. The problem is that the experts very quickly come to resemble the Establishment, and, as another famous political critic wrote of related goings-on: “ . . . already it was impossible to say which was which”.
When I set about my research into the puzzle of the apparent failure of the British Radio-Direction Finding mechanisms to detect the German agents incorporated in the Double-Cross System, I thought it would turn out to be a relatively straightforward case of guile – foolish, perhaps, and lucky – but still a feint. Yet my readings led me to conclude that here was a multi-dimensional enigma, involving the following conundrums: the bizarre and humbling treatment of Gill, after he made a breakthrough analysis; Gill’s mistake over the assumption that Hitler’s agents all had receivers as well as transmitters; the mystery of Lt.-Col. Simpson, who made a significant impact, but was almost completely removed from the records; the deceptions of Dick White about the timetable of the Double Cross System; the misrepresentations of Guy Liddell about his organisation; the official exaggeration of the Abwehr strategy, and finessing of some technical aspects of their agents’ method of operating; the contradictory representations, by various ‘experts’, of the state-of-the-art of wireless direction-finding; and the scanty coverage of the topic by the authorised historians.
Yet perhaps the most extraordinary finding was the almost apocalyptic observation that appeared in John Curry’s confidential history of MI5 compiled at the end of the war, asserting that the decisions made about the responsibility for the Radio Security Service (RSS) had caused a tragedy of Greek proportions to take place. This judgment was made when the war had recently been won, and the activities of the Double Cross Committee, in exploiting the agents under its control to promote the message that a dummy army (FUSAG) was assembled to invade the Pas de Calais, had been a primary contributor to the success. Was Curry hinting at the Cold War, and the betrayal of Eastern Europe by the Allies? Was he suggesting that British Intelligence had abdicated its responsibility for monitoring illicit Soviet transmissions? Did a careless decision not to deploy the RSS with the correct discipline allow the Soviets to transmit undetected, or did a careful decision to soft-pedal RSS in order to allow the spies to be surveilled open up a different exposure? Or was he simply lamenting the handing-over of control of RSS to SIS, with the struggle over the release of ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material implying a colossal failure in joint intelligence? Given the political climate at the time, it is difficult to posit any other scenario beyond these. And, in fact, archival documents that have recently come to my attention firmly suggest that it was complacency about German agents that led to carelessness over other threats.
In my May blog, I had referred, in passing, to three documents written by the enigmatic Lt.-Col. Simpson that I believed were no longer extant. In June, through the agency of Dr. Brian Austin, I managed to contact a wartime RSS operator, one Bob King (who can be found in Pidgeon: see below) now in his nineties, who passed on to me a few files. One, though undated and unauthored, was surely an early draft of a contribution by John Curry of MI5 to his 1946 history of the institution (as the style was unmistakeable), but included comments that did not find their way into the eventual published version. The second was the 1938 report by Simpson on the threats constituted by the use of low-powered and miniaturized wireless transmitters in time of war, and what infrastructure, technology and organisation would be required to take on and eliminate such a menace. The discovery of this document is as if one of the lost plays of Aristophanes had suddenly been found. Likewise, I had not been able to locate this report from the Index of the National Archives at Kew, but, if any of Simpson’s contributions have been made publicly available, it astounds me that no historian appears to have grasped the significance of both these pieces. Another absorbing item is a report by an engineer who worked on a secret wireless interception project under the Metropolitan Police. I have no doubts whatever as to the authenticity of these documents, and shall use them (and others) to update the story in this entry. Moreover, in an email communication, Bob King assured me that Sonia’s illicit messages were picked up by the RSS, but the unit was told to ignore them. This nugget of information has enormous significance, and I shall address it in a future episode.
I had originally intended that this chapter would move the whole story – including progress in wireless transmission and detection techniques made by British, Soviet and German espionage and counter-espionage agencies – up to June 1942. The discovery of these new sources, however, means that this piece is dedicated to a deeper analysis of the evolution of RSS leading up to its transfer to SIS in the spring of 1941, and the immediate decisions made in the months afterwards. I shall return to a full discussion of Phase 2 (January 1941 to June 1942) in a couple of months’ time.
RSS finds its Home
For my research on the RSS as displayed in ‘Sonia’s Radio’, I had relied primarily on the Introduction to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Secret World, subtitled Behind the Curtain of British Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War, written by its Editor, Edward Harrison, for much of my information on the evolution of the Radio Security Service in the first two years of the war. That was complemented by a revealing chapter in Nigel West’s GCHQ, although West probably ascribes too much importance to the role of Lord Sandhurst, since West enjoyed exclusive access to the Sandhurst papers, and relied on them for much of his narrative. I found valuable, but mainly anecdotal, evidence in Geoffrey Pidgeon’s The Secret Wireless War, some rather fragmented accounts in Frank Birch’s often inscrutable Official History of British Sigint (which frequently reads as if it had been poorly translated from a foreign language, probably German), and some revealing but often imprecise material in Professor Hinsley’s official history of British Intelligence in the Second World War. Philip Davies’s MI6 and the Machinery of Spying is overall very thorough and contains good corrective analysis. But Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 is very disappointing in its coverage, considering that it is the authorised history, and that RSS was an integral part of SIS after the spring of 1941. I had inspected some of the source material at the National Archives on a visit in 2017, but, since little of it has been digitised, I have not been able to analyse any other since, apart from a few pieces shared by other researchers.
I recently discovered (thanks to Stan Ames, an RSS enthusiast) a longer paper published by Harrison, which appeared in the English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV, no. 506, dated January 13, 2009. It is titled ‘British Radio Security and Intelligence, 1939-1943’, and provides a very comprehensive account of this critical era in wireless and intelligence. Harrison, who suggests that his contribution ‘fills the gap’ in offering an academic article ‘dedicated to the organisation’ of RSS, generally provides an insightful guide to the literature, and skilfully exploits a broad number of sources. He crisply explains the evolution of RSS, taking the line that MI8 tried to find it a home in MI5; that MI5 resisted, because of issues of overstretch and competence; how Walter Gill, introduced to the unit late in 1939, brought to it new skills in discrimination (isolating and organising signals of relevance from among a vast noise in the ether); how Gill’s findings shifted efforts towards Abwehr signals abroad rather than illicit transmissions from the UK; and how, because of this geographical re-focusing, with the approval of the imminently-to-be-appointed chief of MI5, David Petrie, RSS was handed over to SIS early in 1941, with official approval occurring in May. He then relates the continuing battles between MI5 and SIS – primarily through the personalities of Guy Liddell, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Maurice Cowgill – over the availability of ISOS decrypts that MI5 thought were critical for the smooth running of the Double-Cross system. It is a masterful and highly valuable contribution to the history.
Yet Harrison’s story does, I believe, not perform full justice to RSS, or describe accurately the manoeuvrings that went on behind the scenes to determine the control of RSS. It is a more a study of the relationships and tensions between MI5 and SIS than of the machinery and contributions of RSS itself, and Harrison is perhaps a touch too respectful of Trevor-Roper’s role, describing him as ‘the intellectual inspiration of RSS’. Moreover, Harrison largely ignores some of the figures who participated. He says nothing about Lord Sandhurst, who was appointed to RSS, and played some role in recruiting or training the Volunteer Interceptor force in the first months of the war. (As indicated above, this may have been a sagacious choice, as Sandhurst’s involvement remains somewhat controversial.) Harrison does not mention, however, the greater contribution of Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson, who wrote the seminal paper that defined the structures, technology and organisation that he felt were vital for protecting the nation’s defences. Harrison seems to be unaware of SIS’s own clandestine interception capabilities constructed in cooperation with the Metropolitan Police, documented by Kenworthy, and chronicled in the National Archives, which throw a bizarre light on the whole issue of MI5/SIS territorial control. He rather bizarrely devotes a section to Malcom Frost’s late efforts to increase the efficiency of the mobile detection units without offering an explanation of what illicit operators they were supposed to be pursuing. He mentions Richard Gambier-Parry, who headed SIS’s Section VIII, under which RSS resided, only in passing. He offers a restrained analysis of John Curry’s highly provocative assessment of the ‘Greek tragedy’ that resulted from SIS’s takeover of RSS, an opinion that Curry himself appeared to abjure elsewhere.
Moreover, Harrison brings to the surface a number of anomalies and paradoxes that are not satisfactorily addressed in his paper, and I have to backtrack a little to the topics I introduced in the first chapter of this saga to refresh the story. I should point out that I am not attempting to offer a comprehensive account of RSS’s history, but to focus on the questions highly relevant to radio interception and direction-finding policies in WWII. Who drove the takeover of RSS by SIS? Why were domestic interception and detection so casually executed? Why were Sonia’s radio transmissions overlooked? Why did British intelligence believe it could convince the Abwehr that the Double Cross agents had not been detectable?
The Strange Decline of Lt.-Col. Simpson
Simpson’s Report: First Page
Now that one of Simpson’s papers has come to light, one can understand his considerable strengths, as well as what probably caused him to fall into disfavour. (If not familiar with him, readers should inspect Chapter 1 of this saga first.) His October 1938 report to the Director of Security Service at the War Office, titled ‘Illicit W/T Communication’, is a masterful explanation of the way developments in wireless technology could allow a nest of foreign spies to remain undetected in Britain. He pointed out that low-power transmitters would be able to broadcast to receiving stations overseas (in Germany) while remaining difficult to detect locally via normal ground waves. He recommended the establishment of three fixed Direction-Finding (DF) stations, each complemented by a pair of portable (i.e. mobile) stations, that in turn would be supported by a set of hand apparatuses that could be used for house-to-house search. Landlines to connect the DF stations would be essential, and a line would also link the main DF station with the fixed Interception station. The project was to be enabled by the recruitment of ‘some 50 or 60 picked amateurs out of the 4,000 now existing in this country’; Simpson did add, however, that he believed that the creation of such an organisation was already under way.
Lt.-Colonel Simpson’s Plan for Interception, 1938
Simpson expressed concern about the suitability of the G.P.O., the institution currently chartered with executing MI5’s requirements in this area, since it had a more regulatory and bureaucratic approach to the issue of frequency usage. ‘Our objective’ (which should probably not be interpreted as ‘MI5’s objective’, but as a national interest), he said, is to prevent any unauthorised transmissions, not just investigate them after they had happened. That is why he focused on developing a more elite, professional staff from among all the amateurs who held experimental licenses. He did add, however, the intriguing comment that one of the objectives would be to ‘locate the source of transmission with the least possible delay, but not necessarily stop it’, hinting at the notion of possible control of alien broadcasts, but in fact suggesting a desire to distort the suspected propaganda signals to make them unintelligible. His final appeal was for centralised control over the whole process of interception, direction-finding, and message gathering, and that, when the collection ‘of a certain class of highly confidential intelligence’ had been made, it would be conveyed to the appropriate department ‘to take the necessary executive action’. Lastly, he nominated three very distinguished names to serve on a Technical Advisory Committee, Dr. James Robinson, Director of Wireless Research at the Air Ministry, Captain Round, an expert in DF and interception work, and Mr. K. Tremellen, ‘the greatest practical authority alive on the subject of short-wave communication’. Strangely, none of these names appears in the authorised histories.
Some of Simpson’s ideas would be echoed later (e.g. the need for unification of resources, the professionalisation of voluntary interceptors), but his recommendations were perhaps influenced by two notions that were gradually becoming obsolete: i) a too technical approach that emphasised that the problem was one simply of interception and location, not foreshadowing the technique of traffic analysis, and the way in which that process, alongside (even partial) decryption, fed back into the act of discrimination, and ii) the belief, perhaps encouraged by WWI memories of German spy threats, that the country was riddled with German agents, equipped with wireless, who were ready to spring into action. What is also significant that he articulated the mission as ‘closing . . . all illicit channels of communication with the enemy in time of war, and of locating sources of political propaganda in time of peace’. What he did not include was the need to protect the realm from hostile (not necessarily declared enemy) communications designed to help subvert the country – i.e. transmissions by Communist spies, whether in time of peace or war. This must have been a failure of knowledge or imagination, and it is astonishing that, since he was offering his report on behalf of MI5, he was allowed to make his submission to the Director of Security Service at the War Office without this oversight being pointed out.
John Bryden, in Fighting to Lose, suggests that MI5 rejected his ideas there and then, ‘being firmly of the view that German agents would only be using the mails or couriers to send in their reports’, and that the matter was turned back to the War Office. But that does not make sense. The source that Bryden provides for this explanation (Curry) does not give that as the reason: Curry blamed it on the administrative burden and financial commitments required. Moreover, despite the fact that the War Office approved Simpson’s recommendation that the RSS unit be set up, it did not endorse his ideas of ‘unified control’, and when MI5 declined to become involved, Simpson stayed on as the Security Service’s expert. He was surely happy to see his recommendations accepted, no matter where the unit reported. (His perspective on MI5 ownership is a little ambiguous: at one stage in his report he refers to ‘our’ DF or interception stations, but then goes on to write that they would be used ‘in conjunction with M.I.5.’ It appears he had an open mind on the command structure.) Bryden and Curry do agree, however, that the founding of MI1(g) was attributable to MI5’s lack of eagerness to take charge. Accordingly, RSS started collaborating with the Post Office in March 1939, with MI5 demoted to the sidelines, waiting for results.
Simpson may have been somewhat deflated, but thus hung around in MI5 (though without warm recognition from Liddell, his boss in MI5’s Counter-Espionage B Division). The fragment from Curry indicates that he was vigorously promoting his original vision of unified control, and stressing the importance of the Post Office in harnessing the appropriate resources to tackle the threat of illicit transmissions by supplying suitable personnel, and moving to build the new facilities required. Indeed, Curry reports that Simpson was the main muscle behind the establishment of the Voluntary Interceptor system: a recognition that other commentators have overlooked. As B3b, he was actively supplying the liaison between MI5 that was later mirrored in SIS’s Section V. As MI5’s representative on the Technical Committee on Leakage of Information (TCLI) that the War Office set up in October, 1939, he was quick (in February 1940) to try to persuade the Ministry of Home Security to bring pressure on to the GPO. He attended the critical meeting on March 20 at Bletchley Park after which GC&CS agreed to set up the ISOS decryption unit. Yet his stubbornness in believing that a domestic German menace was being overlooked (when none existed) must have clashed with the messages coming from RSS. His emphasis on the need for widely dispersed Voluntary Interceptors to pick up illicit ground signals turned out to be something of a luxury, although the wide dissemination of interceptors greatly aided the ability of the unit to avoid omissions provoked by the whimsicality of ‘skip zones’ and the presence of thunderstorms. His expressed frustrations with the GPO’s lack of urgency in constructing new DF and Interception stations was probably on target, but his insistence that the detection of illicit wireless was ‘extremely unsatisfactory’ was not.
Maybe the SNOW affair changed Liddell’s mind somewhat. Simpson’s ideas must have had a slight resurgence with the ‘Fifth Column’ scare in the summer of 1940, but Liddell’s entering discussions with ‘the BBC man’ Malcolm Frost in May 1940 suggests that Simpson was no longer around. (Frost had been the BBC representative on the TCLI, and thus presumably had caught Liddell’s eye as a possible replacement for Simpson.) Indeed, the system of Regional Security Liaison Officers that MI5 set up by Guy Liddell in June 1940, specifically to address the threat of illicit wireless (and which was headed by Jane Archer, mysteriously sidelined from her expert role in tracking Communist subversion) mapped very closely to Simpson’s areas of demarcation. But when that was shown to be a false alarm, his whole infrastructure was seen to be somewhat redundant, especially in the light of the lessons being learned by Gill and Trevor-Roper in the RSS organisation. Interceptors were needed in large numbers, but did not have to be located so evenly around the country in order to pick up ground waves. Simpson’s attendance at the meeting at Bletchley Park where the revelations about the discovery of Abwehr traffic were made is the last reference that Liddell makes to him in his Diaries.
Still, Simpson’s omission from the record books (outside Curry) is extremely puzzling, and some of his contribution remains uncredited. For example, his report clearly refers to the 4,000 amateurs known to the Post Office who had the potential of providing the elite force that Simpson needed. Yet most histories and memoirs attribute the imaginative idea to Lord Sandhurst, who was reportedly recruited by RSS at the outbreak of war to develop a professional force of interceptors to replace the largely part-time group assembled by Colonel Worlledge. Sandhurst, who had also been instructed to liaise with R. L. Hughes of MI5 (who, Curry informs us was B3b, responsible for liaison with the RSS and the BBC, and thus working directly for Simpson at that time), soon approached Arthur Watts, the President of the Radio Society of Great Britain. Watts had ‘several thousand’ members who were radio hams, so Sandhurst then began to select the most suitable for training. Thus Simpson’s contribution is overlooked: Davies, like Harrison, remarkably makes no mention of wireless expertise in MI5 before Frost. Simpson will turn up again in this account, when I write about the negotiations to find RSS a suitable home, but the verdict on his contribution must be that he was technically correct, but strategically wrong. He brilliantly assessed the state of the art of short-wave wireless telegraphy, and its potential subversive use, but he was caught up in the tide of searching for a phantom menace – the German W/T agents installed in the English countryside – and failed to gain the confidence of his colleagues in MI5. The irony was that the flock of interceptors he identified to protect the nation did not need to be precisely dispersed to detect ground waves, as there were no illicit operators at large at that time, but the volume and placement of such individuals did turn out to be essential to pick up the mass of signals originating from overseas.
The Rise and Fall of Walter Gill
Walter Gill, on the other hand, was (in a specialised sense) technically wrong, but strategically correct. It still comes as a surprise to some observers that nearly all the Abwehr agents infiltrated by air or sea in 1940 were equipped only with a transmitter, and not with a combined transmitter-receiver, or with a separate receiver. Operating ‘blind’, without any confirmation that one’s message was being received at all, or perhaps not clearly enough (and thus needed to be re-sent) would appear to reflect a less than serious objective by the perpetrators of the scheme. And that is one interpretation that can be cast on the German planning, as I have suggested. (Preparations for sending agents into Britain did not begin until July 1940.) Yet that phenomenon is confirmed by the archival reports, as well as by the memoirs of some of the members of RSS. While Gill showed great insight over the question of the source of beams guiding German aircraft, his thesis, that if the supposed German agents could hear their controllers’ signals, then so should the operators in RSS have been able to, and that there were therefore none operating, was based on a false assumption. The focus on enemy signals originating abroad, and the eventual deciphering of many of them (ULTRA), was, however, a major contributor to the success of the war.
Gill’s policy must come under continual scrutiny, however. I have recently read accounts of two Abwehr agents who parachuted on to English soil before the main wave (Operation LENA) that arrived in early September 1940. Each of this pair was reported to have brought a working transmitter/receiver unit and successfully exchanged messages with his controller. Such transmissions were presumably not detected by RSS, since Gill claimed the unit had not identified any unexplained outgoing Abwehr signals. Such agents might therefore have been able to transmit undetected for some time, contrary to the accounts that the authorised and semi-official historians would have us believe. I shall investigate such adventures in my next chapter, to judge whether this was all an elaborate hoax. It should perhaps also be noted that Gill came to his breakthrough conclusion about the absence of German agents in Britain in December 1939, when SNOW was, almost certainly, the only wireless operator recruited by the Abwehr. His report, however, was not written until November, 1940, when the experience of Operation LENA, under which a dozen or more spies landed on British soil, would have sharpened sensitivities in MI5. Indeed, as early as July 13, 1940, Liddell felt compelled to record in his diary the following: “While I feel it is likely that there are a few German agents here, possibly transmitting by wireless, I do not envisage anything in the nature of large bodies of individuals going out to stab us in the back as soon as the Germans invade this country.” That observation indicates that the Gill doctrine had not been accepted wholesale at that time, and Liddell did not have complete trust in the energies of RSS.
I have little here to add to my account of Gill’s demise that I described two months ago, but the account that Hugh Trevor-Roper gave of Gill’s departure is somewhat paradoxical. Trevor-Roper was known for his caustic dismissals of many of those he encountered in wartime, especially the blimpish characters he considered to be his intellectual inferiors, but he clearly had some admiration and affection for Gill. Gill had been a lecturer on electricity at Oxford University, and a successful Bursar at Merton College, although Trevor-Roper had diminished his overall academic qualifications by writing that he ‘could only by a charitable laxity of definition be included among the educated’, a harsh and inaccurate judgment (as revealed in Dr. Austin’s detailed profile of him), which sheds more light on Trevor-Roper’s arrogance than on Gill’s cultural accomplishments. Yet they worked well together as a team. Trevor-Roper, however, when commenting on Gill’s clumsy and harsh dismissal and demotion, could only comment (in Sideways into SIS) as follows: “The real genius of the affair, Major Gill, was also deliberately overlooked. Left to find other employment, he became a radar officer and an expert on captured German equipment. Under the new regime, his name was never mentioned.”
Was there a reason for Trevor-Roper’s coyness over Gill’s treatment, which he also characterised simply as ‘rather shabby’? After all, Gill had been fired without even a formal notification, and then demoted from Major to Captain. Major Cowgill, the offended SIS officer (who had joined SIS only in March 1939, so did not enjoy a reputation of any sort), had repeatedly called for Trevor-Roper, who had been just as complicit in the affair as Gill, to be court-martialled. Yet Trevor-Roper escaped unscathed, even though the head of RSS, Colonel Worlledge, lost his job as well. It is surprising that Trevor-Roper did not provide a more comprehensive coverage of the whole business. In fact he concluded that Cowgill in fact ‘had every right to explode’, as Worlledge had revealed secrets concerning intelligence and security ‘not only to his official contacts in the Armed Services intelligence departments . . . but also (horror of horrors!) to the civilians of the Post Office.’ Perhaps Gill and Worlledge were punished because, as military veterans from WWI, they should have known better. In fact, as will be shown, it was a bit more complicated than that.
One last mysterious incident concerns Gill’s reappearance in April 1942. Despite what Trevor-Roper wrote over fifty years later, Gill’s name was apparently mentioned again, because (as Harrison reports) Trevor-Roper was in contact by letter with F. E. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), who was Churchill’s scientific adviser, at a time when Trevor-Roper, disenchanted again with his work in SIS, was looking for other opportunities. As Adam’s Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper makes clear, he was highly frustrated over the failure of RSS management (Maltby and Gambier-Parry) to keep technical policy aligned with intelligence aims. He had earlier rather indiscreetly criticised the leaders of RSS, specifically Gambier-Parry, and now told Lindemann that Menzies (chief of SIS) had called him in, and then accused him (Trevor-Roper) ‘of having supplied facts to Gill which he had supplied to you and you to Swinton’. Is that ‘he’ Menzies or Gill? Unlikely the former, as Trevor-Roper would presumably not have been party to information passed by Menzies to Lindemann: Menzies would in that case have been concerned about a breach of security elsewhere.
So if it was Gill supplying facts to Lindemann that got back to Menzies via Swinton of the Security Executive, what could those facts have been about, and on what basis were Gill and Trevor-Roper still in communication over important matters if Gill was by then working in a completely unrelated sphere of the war effort? And why would Gill want to leak secrets to Lindemann? It may be relevant that, at exactly this time, as Dr. Austin informs us, Gill joined the Army Operational Research Group, where he was responsible for investigating advanced aspects of Army field communications, but no details of the exchange have come to light. It sounds very much as if Gill and Trevor-Roper had stayed in touch, as ex-colleagues who had collaborated very productively on the matter of intelligent signals analysis, and that Gill was a man whose reputation had been restored, and had connections with influential persons. Another interesting twist to the story (as related by Sisman) is that when Trevor-Roper made a trip to Ireland in early 1942, i.e. just before the contact with Gill, Colonel Worlledge invited him to his home, Glenwilliam Castle, where ‘over a convivial dinner each outlined to the other what he knew of the takeover of RSS by SIS’. The existence of this conversation hints at untold scheming and plotting. Vivian of SIS was later to use this incident to make the astonishing claim that Trevor-Roper had gone to Dublin to betray the Ultra secret to the Germans, and that he had been ‘motivated by resentment against SIS for its treatment of Worlledge, and of Gill in particular.’ (Vivian was by now unstable: Liddell reports that he suffered a nervous breakdown in June 1942.) Trevor-Roper’s published account of Gill’s dismissal was clearly much more muted than this: he was surely concealing something of substance, but it may have no important connection with the fate and mission of RSS.
Gill’s major contribution to the debate about RSS’s future was his November 19, 1940, paper on the Organisation of RSS. Curry represented the arguments therein (the whole Theseus episode, after which focus was shifted to interception of overseas transmissions) as a clinching argument for RSS’s ‘vitality and value’, and for moving it into MI5, but that judgment appears weak and woolly. The timing of this report suggests it was produced under some pressure, but Gill’s account expresses no concern about the current organisation, or the allocation of work between RSS & GC&CS, and it concludes simply with a modest request for more resources. Yet the report includes a very telling statement concerning Direction Finding: “Any of the residue [i.e. the messages remaining after known ones had been identified] found by D.F. to be outside the country could for the above purpose have been neglected [but were not].” RSS was successful in tracking those same messages, but, by implication, some unknown messages did originate inside the country. Gill gave, however, no indication of how these were investigated, a statement that should have alarmed MI5’s officers. If anything, the case as he made it was an argument against moving the unit to MI5, contrary to what Curry claimed. As we shall see, the question of territory and ownership would play a strong role in the decision, and MI5, even if the service had an outspoken champion, was on its weakest footing at this stage. The transfer to MI5 of course did not happen, but it did provoke a major debate about where RSS should report. Had Gill performed his job, and was thus no longer needed? Or was his demise just an accident of politics? That question may be unanswerable.
Kenworthy and the Secret Interception Unit
SIS was a notoriously secret organisation, but even it had clandestine corners that were not apparently known to all its officers, or even its authorised historian. In Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 the author informed us that the strategic split between the responsibilities of MI5 and MI6 (SIS) was made on October 1, 1931, when the semi-autonomous unit of the Special Branch, SS1, which consisted of the familiar Guy Liddell and his colleague Hugh Miller, experts in counter-subversion, was peeled off from the Metropolitan Police and handed over to MI5. SIS was also stripped of its domestic intelligence network, the ‘Casuals’, which was causing an embarrassment. This decision apparently simplified and clarified the missions for MI5 and SIS to handle subversion in the Empire and in foreign countries, respectively. “Thus . . . the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service took on their modern form and distinct spheres of responsibility which were to survive for at least the next eight years”, Jeffery wrote, with a high degree of authority (p 236).
Yet it was not quite like that. The reader will learn, from Nigel West’s 1986 book, GCHQ, that in 1930, a Commander Kenworthy reported ‘an illicit Comintern circuit operating between a site just outside Moscow and a terraced house in a suburb of London’. (The Moscow location was verified by direction-finders located in Palestine’s Sarafand, in India, and in London, thereby showing that widely dispersed location-finders working in harness could place remote transmitters with an accuracy that could not always be exercised in more confined areas. Such phenomena perplexed security officers like Liddell.) West added that Kenworthy was ‘the controller of the Home Office intercept station at Grove Park, Camberwell’. It might surprise some that the Home Office was involved with interception. Indeed, in West’s later book (2005) on this Comintern project, MASK, the author informs us that ‘GC&CS’s [sic] monitoring station at Grove Park, Camberwell, headed by Commander Kenworthy, first began intercepting Wheeton’s signals in February 1934 . . .’. Aided by the revelation by an MI5 mole of the cipher used, the codebreakers Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman were able to read the traffic until January 1937. By employing the full force of the direction-finding equipment of the Army (Fort Bridgewoods), Navy (Flowerdown) and Air Force (Waddington), the team of technicians were able to locate the members of a worldwide Comintern ring.
The intercept station, however, was not run consciously by the Home Office or by GC&CS. It was run clandestinely by the Metropolitan Police. We owe it to a memorandum by Kenworthy himself, available at HW 3/81 at the National Archives, for a richer account of how Special Branch, assisted by both SIS and MI5, kept a watch on traffic that the armed forces declined to surveille. Supported by secret funds, an interception unit was encouraged by its experience in the General Strike (1926) to seek support from SIS in trying to detect foreign diplomatic stations which did not have ‘Berne List’ status (the latter presumably representing official frequencies allocated by international agreement). Kenworthy made it clear that Admiral Sinclair, the chief of SIS, was intimately familiar with what was going on. Remarkably, Kenworthy indicated that the expertise in interception gained by his unit entitled him to attend Y [= Signals Interception] Committee meetings, where the Services ‘looked to him for guidance’. He described his success in locating the illicit Comintern operator in Wimbledon, also showing that he and his colleague Lambert developed a portable direction-finding piece of apparatus that was critical for their mission.
What is intriguing is that The Metropolitan Police was the institution responsible for tracking the increasing volume of diplomatic traffic that appeared in the 1930s. “The Services were however disinclined to intercept Diplomatic (Commercial) Wireless to any extent as it would lead to a curtailment of the examination of their particular Service channels of Foreign Countries, as it became more and more important that encouragement should be given to Police by S.I.S”, Kenworthy wrote. Soon SIS was funding the exercise, as it was difficult to account for the expenses internally, and not long thereafter the new Receiving Station at Denmark Hill was constructed. Some official funding was approved, and made public, in 1938, but SIS maintained a controlling interest in the project. (At the base of one of his many organisational charts, Birch lists the Police Y Station at Denmark Hill as being controlled by the Foreign Office, i.e. SIS’s sponsor!) Now the interest of GC&CS (which reported to Admiral Sinclair, SIS’s chief) was piqued. In 1939 it decided that Commercial traffic should be intercepted as well, requiring a workload that Denmark Hill could not handle. “G.C. & C.S. realised that more facilities were required but unfortunately they had to cloak their activities and could not openly control wireless stations.” Everything that was going on was contrary to the rules of the protocol-oriented GPO. The outcome was that a new interception station was set up at Sandridge, near St. Albans, ‘specially for G.C. & C. S.’. Finally, to tidy up the picture, GC&CS took over the complete Police signals intelligence capability between November 1939 and January 1940, as the summary of the relevant files at the National Archives website informs us. (Regrettably, I have not yet been able to inspect the complete file.)
This whole chapter in British signals intelligence contains some remarkable ironies. The first is that the task of intercepting commercial and diplomatic traffic had devolved to a clandestine unit of Scotland Yard, a fact that appears to have been overlooked by all historians except Frank Birch. (HW 3/81 was not declassified until 2004: Andrew and Jeffery would have had access to it anyway, but chose not to use it.) The second is that SIS was involved in intercepting traffic occurring within the territorial boundaries of the UK, which flagrantly broke the rules that had been set up in 1931 guiding the missions of the two intelligence services. Since one of the main planks of the argument for placing, in early 1941, RSS under SIS’s aegis was the fact that RSS, after the beginning of the war, changed its focus from domestic to international interception, the episode sheds fresh light on the sincerity and professionalism of Sinclair and Menzies. The third irony is that MI5 knew all about this incursion on its turf, but apparently did not raise any protest: Curry mentions, without judgment, that ‘a certain amount of interception work was being done by M.I.6’, referring to the illicit set operated by the Russians. (One of Kenworthy’s paragraphs reads: “A conference took place with S.I.S. and M.I.5. The latter pointed out that strictly speaking the G.P.O. as the Communication Authority were the Department who should tackle these sorts of jobs but for reasons best known to S.I.S. and M.I.5. G.P.O. were not considered a very secure body.”) In early 1941, the Security Service, already weak in its drive and leadership, would have been on insecure footing had it tried to play the territorial card.
The fourth irony is that GC&CS was allowed to enter the interception game at the beginning of the war (the transfer presumably muscled through quickly by Menzies) at a time when Commander Denniston was making vigorous representations about interceptors invading his own domain of cryptography, an action that led to Worlledge and Gill losing their jobs. Denniston was extremely possessive about GC&CS’s ownership of cryptanalysis, even though he and others (according to Birch) accepted that ‘Y generally involved interception, traffic analysis and ‘low-level cryptanalysis’. But Hinsley also records that, in the summer of 1940, Denniston opposed the demand from MI8 (RSS) that its Traffic Analysis staff of 70 officers be transferred to GC&CS (on the basis that Traffic Analysis and cryptanalysis should be done in the same place), on the grounds that ‘his establishment should continue to be a cryptanalytical centre’ (only).
Kenworthy thus moved to GC&CS, worked there during the war, when it became GCHQ, and retired in 1957. Though working for Bletchley Park, he was stationed at Knockholt, where he led the project to intercept German Teleprinter Communications. This was the very important ‘Fish’ set of non-Morse messages, and Kenworthy wrote a report on that activity in 1946. But of enduring interest to this area of research is his achievement in developing, so early, effective handheld location-finding equipment. I have not yet been able to trace the extent to which his inventions passed on to the GPO in wartime, apart from a brief mention by Curry, who stated that Kenworthy’s portable D-F set was tested by MI5, and that ‘some interesting Mobile Unit operations were carried out on connection with this case [the detection of the Comintern transmissions]’. I thus have not been able to determine whether the apparent dilatoriness of the GPO – so frequently demeaned by intelligence officers – was caused by inadequate technology or by official edict.
The Transfer to SIS
So was the transfer of RSS to SIS a smooth operation, or was it bedevilled with conflict and controversy? One can learn little from the authorised histories. The History of British Intelligence in the Second World War contains some errors, as well as some very puzzling observations that do not always make sense. Christopher Andrew does not mention the episode at all, or even the mission that MI5 shared with MI8/RSS. You will not find Lt.-Colonel Simpson, Malcolm Frost, the RSS, or even Section B3, in his Index. Keith Jeffery devotes just two sentences of his equally massive book to the adoption by Section VIII of RSS, indicating simply that it occurred ‘on Petrie’s recommendation’. He has nothing to say about Trevor-Roper, and Cowgill receives just a cursory mention. Geoffrey Pidgeon records the event as follows: “In January 1941, Swinton recommended that RSS be handed over to SIS, but this met with fierce opposition throughout the upper echelons of MI5, resulting in a battle that reached the highest levels”. However, since Pidgeon (like many commentators) appeared to be under the impression that RSS had been run hitherto by MI5, his account may have been coloured. Nigel West, in his 1985 history, MI5, represents the struggle as one more between Menzies, the SIS chief, and Worlledge of RSS than a conflict between SIS and MI5, although West’s somewhat haphazard chronology of events means it is difficult to follow his narrative. He does, however, make the provocative claim that the change-over ‘was, in effect, “C”s (i.e. Menzies’s) final consolidation of his grasp on signals interception, and was only achieved after a closely-fought struggle with MI5’s ‘old guard’, but this interesting thread is not picked up or developed in his history, MI6, which came out two years later. Since Menzies did not assume his leadership of SIS until November 1939, and did not enjoy a reputation as a deep thinker or strategist, West’s opinion comes over as rather startling. I shall return to it later.
So what does the evidence indicate? Birch suggests that several agencies had had their eyes on the prize of domestic interception, namely MI1b, MI5, SIS, the armed services, the police and the Post Office, before the 1938 decision that the War Office should be in charge, and the establishment of RSS. MI5 had a natural interest, because of the mission it shared with the unit, but, as has been explained, was reluctant to plunge in. Lt.-Col. Simpson must have grown frustrated, because he expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs on September 15, 1939, and, according to Curry ‘suggested that the assistance of Colonel xxxxxxxx [name redacted] (an M.I.6. officer) should be sought’. Now, there were not many established Colonels in SIS at that time. Sinclair, mortally ill, was an Admiral, and Colonel Dansey was absent in Switzerland between September and November 1939. Unless Simpson intended to invoke Dansey, not knowing he was abroad, that left Colonel Menzies, head of Section II (military) and Sinclair’s deputy, Colonel Vivian, head of Section V (counter-espionage). Another officer, however, had been promoted to Colonel earlier that year – Richard Gambier-Parry, head of the Communications unit, Section VIII. There is no doubt, given the length of the name redacted, that it is he whom Simpson approached, and the significance of this connection will be explored later. It is not clear why Simpson decided to voice his frustrations at this time, apart from the fact that war had recently been declared. Was he annoyed at the pace of RSS hiring? Or at the shift to tracking overseas transmissions? Or at MI5’s continued reticence to grab the bull by the horns? The fragment from Curry’s report indicates that his ideas had moved on to consider broader issues of signals security, but his plans at that time encompassed a leading role for MI5 as the hub of a wireless intelligence organisation that it must have been reluctant to assume. Perhaps Gambier-Parry was an old ally, and this was a move to invite SIS to step in. But Simpson might have upset his bosses in MI5 during the process.
RSS was in fact moving along reasonably well: the GPO must have been propelled into action, though perhaps reluctantly. It did not think its mission was to build interception stations that would be focusing on detecting traffic originating from overseas. Three new Direction-Finding stations had been set up, and arrangements had been made in August for linking them with telephone lines. Lord Sandhurst was turning the corps of radio amateurs into a more professional body, though perhaps not as quickly as Simpson would have liked. As Nigel West writes: “The operators had to be skilled, discreet and dedicated, so the recruitment process was necessarily slow. By Christmas 1939, the Home South Region boasted only seven VIs (Voluntary Interceptors) on its roll.” Within three months, RSS had recruited fifty VIs, who were tracking 600 sources – all on the other side of the Channel. West reports that the Home South section had produced 1,932 logs by the end of the year, a figure that grew to 3,052 by March 1940. And, by that time, Gill and Trevor-Roper had cracked the Abwehr hand-cipher, and Bletchley Park had agreed to set up a special-purpose cryptographic unit to handle the traffic. RSS’s reputation was on the rise, but its role probably not broadly understood.
At the same time, fierce arguments over policy and organisation were being discussed by members of the Y Committee, which broadly was responsible for interception, traffic analysis, and low-grade cryptography. There were disagreements about the degree to which the needs of the three Services should be shared, or kept separate, but there was also questioning as to why SIS (whose head, Menzies, chaired the meetings) should control proceedings. It took an appeal to Lord Hankey, the ultimate committee man, for a solution, which involved a stronger Y Committee with a full-time chairman, and supporting clerical staff. Frank Birch suggests some of the confusion when he indicates that the news about the interception and decryption of Abwehr traffic in Europe, and the establishment of GC&CS’s ISOS group appeared to come as some surprise to the committee. ‘Officially, all this was no one’s concern’, he wrote, but in May 1940 the Committee gave formal recognition to the extension of RSS’s responsibility to provide preliminary investigation of these groups of signals. Seven months into the war, the Committee was still in reactive mode, instead of setting policy. The full Committee met for the first time not until January 1, 1941.
In the summer of 1940, after Simpson’s departure, Liddell also found a new candidate to lead B3b (Simpson’s unit), one Maurice Frost of the BBC, whom Swinton encouraged Liddell to hire. After initial good impressions, Frost was signed up, and in June 1940, Liddell reported plans for Frost to set up a new branch (the W Branch), instead of reporting to Liddell in B. The decision was made in July, and ‘Tar’ Robertson (who was handling SNOW) was deputed to work for him. But Liddell had to backtrack, and in August the W unit was folded back into B Branch, much to Frost’s annoyance. (Curry’s report states that Frost was Director of the W Division at this time ‘which comprised B.3’. It is probable that Liddell’s journal is more accurate than Curry’s memory on this matter. MI5 was also notoriously inconsistent in its naming conventions for Branches and Divisions.) Yet Frost was beginning to get under everybody’s skin by this time. Robertson declared he could not work under him, and even Lord Swinton, who had supported Frost’s recruitment, said in late November 1940 that Frost could not stay in MI5. His ambition and untrustworthiness had become intolerable: moreover, he probably did not possess the appropriate skills for such a job. His interest was more in establishing a service to monitor foreign broadcasts.
Matters appeared to come to a disruptive head in September. According to Hinsley, the War Office concluded that its own interception capabilities (of German Air Force Enigma traffic) were not keeping up with GC&CS’s capacity to absorb it. Thus, on Winston’s Churchill’s bidding, Hankey ordered a transfer of an unspecified number of ‘operators’ from RSS to the Services, ‘overruling RSS’s protests’. This was probably a gross misjudgement: the failure to detect the enemy’s movements in the Nazis’ overrun of Europe in the summer of 1940 was due more to an incapacity to analyse and integrate intelligence properly than a paucity of intercepts. That was the insight that Gill and Trevor-Roper had arrived at. Moreover, the War Office was responsible for MI8, which was where the unit reported. RSS received intercepts from its team of VIs, the permanent stations managed by the Post Office, as well the Armed Forces, the BBC and the cable companies, so simply shifting operators around was not likely to fix the poorly identified problem. Somehow the discoveries that Gill and Trevor-Roper had made about Abwehr communications with agents as the German war machine moved across Europe in the summer of 1940 should have made it to the General Staff, but there was no mechanism for that to happen.
By now, however, MI8 was feeling the pressure. On October 9 it pushed MI5 to take over the RSS unit en bloc, as it needed to concentrate on military matters, clearly not understanding that the work that RSS was doing was much more closely related to the theatre of war than the stated mission of detecting illicit domestic transmissions. But, of course, MI5 did know. Moreover, Brigadier Allen (MI5’s assistant director) went on record as saying that the service was being asked to take over an organisation that was breaking down. MI5 thus still demurred, because of cost and complexity, and because it understood that the current concentration on Abwehr traffic in Europe (and beyond) made the procedural case for the responsibility’s belonging to the Security Service completely tenuous. MI8 and MI5 were at cross-purposes. No doubt the secret but successful execution of an unchartered mission had to be revealed. The publication of Gill’s report in November 1940 thus brought the achievements of RSS into the open, perhaps preventing any further poaching by the Military, but inevitably driving the unit further away from MI5.
MI5 was also experiencing considerable turmoil at the time: even as Vivian of SIS was reminding MI5 officers (via Jasper Harker) of the correct procedures for communicating with SIS, Liddell was lobbying for Vivian to head MI5, so confusing was the current leadership. Lord Swinton, who headed the Security Executive set up by Churchill, had made life difficult for acting Director-General Jasper Harker, and had inserted William Crocker as an awkward co-head of B Division with Liddell. On December 3, 1940, Churchill’s security adviser, Desmond Morton, had told the Premier that MI5 was ‘close to collapse’, but the previous month the Lord President of the Council, John Anderson, had already brought in David Petrie to review its operation. Petrie had in fact been offered the job of Director-General, but declined to accept until he had performed a proper survey of the operation. He did not complete his report until February 13, 1941, but by January 30 he had already recommended to Swinton that SIS take over RSS. Where is the evidence of the struggle of ‘MI5’s old guard’, identified by West? It seems they put up no fight at all.
Yet the same day that Petrie arrived in MI5 to perform his investigation (January 1), Swinton approached the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General F. H. N. Davidson to discuss the future of RSS. In an exchange that underlined what critical observers might say about the oxymoron of ‘military intelligence’, Davidson was reported to respond that he found RSS and related matters ‘very interesting, very complicated, and a strain on one’s brain’. Maybe this ‘very model of a modern major-general’ was simply overwhelmed, since he had assumed his new post only the previous month. Harrison, having inspected the Davidson papers, observes that Davidson noted in his diary that Swinton was ‘not satisfied that it [RSS] was doing its stuff’. Whether Swinton understood what RSS’s ‘stuff’ was, or consulted Lt.-Colonel Simpson, as a possibly sharper analyst of RSS’s failings, is not recorded. Davidson’s overall contribution is ambiguous: Cavendish-Bentinck, a normally good judge of character, who was the highly successful Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for most of the war, recorded that Davidson was ‘a very mediocre officer, with a permanent desire to make our reports fit in with the views of the CIGS [Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff].’ On the other hand, the official history of the JIC makes it clear that Davidson sensibly pressed, in January 1941, for a more integrated view of intelligence to assist the war effort – although he did not include MI5 or SIS in his choice of contributors to the process.
When Worlledge opposed the transfer on February 14 (’vigorously’, as Davies informs us), he also cast aspersions on SIS’s administrative skills, as well as making tactless criticisms of Gambier-Parry’s technical abilities, a mis-step that would later cost him his job. Why Worlledge was so set against SIS’s taking over RSS is puzzling, since it should have been clear to him that MI5 was even less endowed with managerial and technical talent than SIS. Hinsley writes that ‘the MI8 Colonel in any case fervently believed that the Services should control Sigint in time of war’. Was Worlledge perhaps aware of the Metropolitan Police unit, and its mobile detection exercises over the Comintern spies, and harboured some doubts about SIS’s interception policy and strategy?
Maybe Davidson was a fast learner, and had quickly unravelled the complications of RSS. The next day, he questioned Petrie’s decision, pointing out that ‘MI6 is concerned with the transmitting of signals and not their interception or location’, a claim that, as has been shown above, merely indicated that the Director of Military Intelligence did not know the full story of what was going on in the world of interception. Yet Davidson’s preference appeared to be to keep RSS under MI8 control rather than pass it to MI5, echoing his clearly diminished regard for the civilian services. Swinton coolly demolished Davidson’s objections, drawing on his position as supremo of both Intelligence Services to ensure that matters would work out fine, that the necessary committees would be in place to handle overlaps and conflicts, and that more professional training of RSS personnel would address his colleague’s concerns. Davidson was subdued, but not eliminated as a threat. Nigel West informs us that Davidson would later cross swords with Menzies, as he was not happy about the civilian nature of GC&CS, and wanted to wrest control back to the War Office. He believed the Office had not gained the results from interception which it merited for the investment it had made.
Yet another extraordinary step occurred before the eventual decision was made. According to Curry: “Early in 1941 it was suggested that an independent adviser, Mr. Kirke of the B.B.C., should carry out an investigation into R.S.S. organisation from the technical point of view and make recommendations for its future running by M.I.5.” The passive voice disguises an unlikely initiative: that the opinion of a BBC manager, supposedly independent of Frost and his objectives, might have been considered a fair judge of the best home for RSS, with the outcome of the investigation apparently pre-determined, and when in the past year the unit had moved well away from its mission of tracking voice broadcasting, and Frost himself had fallen out of favour, is simply shocking. Unsurprisingly, ‘this proposal aroused considerable opposition’. Curry nevertheless noted that ‘although it was partially carried out’, it resulted in meetings between the Director-General of the Security Service and representatives of SIS. Unsurprisingly, Petrie’s recommendation held. Liddell reported in his diary entry for March 6 that Gambier-Parry of SIS was taking over RSS, and the formal transfer occurred the next day.
The Aftermath: RSS under Gambier-Parry
RSS was indeed transferred to the control of Colonel Gambier-Parry in Section VIII of SIS. Gambier-Parry was a larger-than-life character who had been recruited by Sinclair in 1938 to fix the ailing communications systems of SIS and its satellites overseas. Gambier-Parry was an expert on radio: he had worked for the BBC, and for Philco, an American radio company. He had a reputation for being able to get things done, while showing a disdain for any bureaucrats who placed constraints on his will. From most accounts of those who worked for him, he was a popular figure who brought much energy and understanding to the complex challenges facing SIS. He thus embarked on a crash programme of building transmitter-receivers for the locations on the Continent, establishing broadcasting stations in safe places on the UK mainland, and devising the protocols to allow them to communicate securely.
Section VIII was certainly not in the business of interception – overtly, at least. Yet an enigmatic comment by Keith Jeffery in his history of SIS hints at a perhaps clandestine programme that has otherwise escaped the analysts. When Maurice Hankey performed his investigation into SIS at the beginning of 1940, one of the officers he interviewed was Rear-Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, seeking his views on the effectiveness of the Secret Intelligence Service. Godfrey was less than enthusiastic about GC&CS, though Jeffery then wrote: “But for Godfrey ‘the one really bright spot’ was the ‘” Y’ side”, in particular the intercepted signals and call signs, which the Admiralty found of the greatest possible use. All praise for this state of affairs’, he added, ‘was due to Colonel Gambier-Parry’. Now Admiral Godfrey was no slouch: he was a well-respected intelligence officer (celebrated for being Ian Fleming’s boss and mentor), and had even been a candidate to replace Admiral Sinclair as head of SIS. It is thus highly unlikely that he would have misunderstood someone else’s contribution as that of Gambier-Parry. This insight therefore does appear to confirm what Nigel West alluded to, namely SIS’s deeper involvement with interception than the authorised histories are prepared to admit.
Guy Liddell knew in March that Gambier-Parry would be taking over RSS, and he was initially optimistic about the changeover, although he recorded in his diary his concern that RSS might now concentrate on ISOS messages solely, to the detriment of MI5’s total interests. Swinton informed the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Alexander Cadogan on March 10, and on March 16 a meeting was held between representatives of MI5, RSS and SIS to discuss responsibilities. Liddell’s diary entry shows that Gambier-Parry was already putting his stamp on the organisation: “It was agreed that G.P. should set up two Y. masts and retain a limited number of skilled V.I.s. At present there were some 450, many of whom were useless and could be returned to store. He would have expert personnel with his Y. masts who would know the ether and be in a position to eliminate anything but the suspicious traffic. Any communication thought to be peculiar would be sent to the W. Analysis Committee and would be co-related and distributed by Cowgill’s organisation. G.P.s organisation would only be responsible for sifting in the first instance genuine traffic from the suspicious.” It seems clear that Gambier-Parry believed the interceptors themselves were capable of deciding what should be investigated, and would be authorized to do so.
In a significant move, Felix Cowgill had replaced Valentine Vivian as head of Section V in January. It was Cowgill who had objected so strongly to Worlledge’s initiative over the Morocco revelation, and for some reason he was given the task of developing a charter for the new RSS. Liddell again wrote an ominous comment on the proposal in his entry for April 10: “It seems to lay far too much emphasis on the interception of the Group traffic and to neglect the possibility of illicit transmissions in this country. We are replying in this sense.” Was someone guiding the novice Cowgill on this issue? Liddell reinforced his concerns in a conversation with Gambier-Parry on May 1, when he urged that he did not want transmissions from the UK ignored. Gambier-Parry gave a very revealing response, echoing the Gill doctrine that traffic had to be two-way, and arguing that ‘thus we have good chance of picking up traffic from abroad’. Gambier-Parry thus appeared to be set out in an unnecessarily dogmatic vein, parroting a policy that he had not crafted himself. Why would he not show greater sensitivity to his customer’s needs? Since the source of previously unidentified short-wave signals could not easily be located, why would Gambier-Parry promote a policy of diminishing efforts at direction-finding on the mainland? It was another indication that, despite the experience from the MASK exercise, non-Abwehr traffic was not going to be considered seriously. Meanwhile, the highly security-conscious Cowgill was already tightening up on the distribution of ISOS material.
The official handover occurred in early May. Gambier-Parry moved swiftly, installing a long-time friend, Major E. H. Maltby, as Controller of RSS. Liddell reported that Army Signals was taking over the responsibilities of the sniffer vans. A new interception station was set up at Hanslope Park, and some select VIs were recruited to become part of a more professional Royal Signals cadre there. Gambier-Parry dismissed Gill in an unprofessional manner, but Worlledge, contrary to some reports, was not fired immediately. He was instead effectively demoted, to work under Cowgill of Section V. Worlledge did not last long there: Dick White reported later that he resigned that summer on a matter of policy. He might have found working for Cowgill intolerable, but it is also quite possible, given his outspoken comments the previous December, that he did maintain grave concerns about the way interception policy was being diverted away from the mission that he had been attempting to execute. As for Trevor-Roper, he escaped dismissal – no doubt because he and Gambier-Parry had enjoyed hunting together with the Whaddon hounds before the war. “In the world of neurotic policemen and timid placemen who rule the secret service, he moves like Falstaff, or some figure from Balzac, if not Rabelais”, wrote the Oxford don of his comic-opera friend. Adam Sisman goes on to record that, after his appointment as head of Section VIII, “Gambier-Parry had seized an opportunity to establish his headquarters at Whaddon Hall, which was not far from Bletchley. There he lived like a colonial governor, with a fleet of camouflaged Packards at his disposal.”
Whaddon Hall in wartime
On May 20, Liddell chaired the first meeting of the Joint Wireless Committee, attended also by Malty, White, Cowgill and Frost. This was a series of fortnightly gatherings that would eventually create deep rifts between the two security services. The first resolution at this meeting ran as follows: “It was agreed that it was the function of the committee to coordinate the mutual interests of S.I.S. and the Security Service in the Radio Security Section [sic: according to Trevor-Roper, ‘Section’ was a temporary name soon abandoned]. It should lay down general directions for the operation of R.S.S. and decide priorities of service to be supplied by R.S.S. to S.I.S. and the Security Services.” It was also resolved to invite Mr. Strachey from GC&CS to become a member, and Captain Trevor-Roper was appointed Secretary. On the provocative and controversial matter of detecting domestic illicit transmissions, the minute for Item 4 read as follows: “It was agreed to proceed with a limited policy of ‘snifting’ in cases where intelligence information gave rise to a reasonable belief that an illicit transmitter existed at any known location in the British Isles. All Sections of the Security Service should be informed of the facilities available but demands should be strictly allotted to those important cases where the position of a wireless set by any individual was considered a genuine possibility. Major Frost would consult with Mr Dick White on the importance of the cases submitted, and the priority to be given to them.” The bland implication here is that some examples of illicit transmissions would be ‘unimportant’. But who would be the judge of that unless the incident were properly investigated?
That same week, at the end of May 1941, agent Sonia of Soviet Military Intelligence sent, from her lodgings in Oxfordshire, her first wireless message from British territory to her masters in Moscow.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
So what evidence is there for Nigel West’s claim about SIS’s long-term ambitions to gain control over interception, and that Gambier-Parry’s Communications Section may have been assisting in its objectives? We have the clandestine operation that uncovered the Comintern spies, sponsored by SIS. Lt.-Colonel Simpson may inadvertently have helped the SIS’s cause when he brought Gambier-Parry into the picture in September 1939. That may have provoked SIS into moving on the Denmark Hill operation: the unit was transferred to GC&CS as the disputes over RSS’s future heated up in the winter of 1939-1940. We have the evidence of Admiral Godfrey, who appreciated Gambier-Parry’s valuable contribution to interception and traffic analysis in early 1940. Worlledge is outspoken on his concerns over Gambier-Parry’s and SIS’s suitability for tackling the interception problem thoroughly, and resigns on a point of policy. And SIS’s charter for RSS is oddly delegated to Major Cowgill, who is a relative newcomer to the business, has had no involvement in telecommunications, and does not work for Gambier-Parry. Moreover, Cowgill has recently taken over from Colonel Vivian, who was always bitter enemies with a man who is now his rival as second-in-command at SIS, Colonel Dansey. Dansey will be familiar to readers of Sonia’s Radio, and the most perspicacious of you will recall, from Part 9, that I pointed out an exchange of opinions between Dansey and Gambier-Parry in 1943, which showed conclusively that Dansey maintained a very active interest in clandestine wireless communications. As the saga enters the phase where SIS is in control of RSS, Liddell is soon seen to harbour grave concerns about the purity of SIS’s intentions, and Gambier-Parry gives the impression of voicing a dangerous policy crafted by someone else. But why would SIS set out so obstructively, not accepting MI5’s requirements, or attending to their legitimate concerns?
An observer might ask at this stage: why did the JIC not take a firmer interest in all these negotiations? The committee was in fact still finding its feet after a revitalisation arising from Churchill’s accession to the premiership. MI5 and SIS were not even admitted to the committee until mid-1940, and were normally represented by Brigadiers Allen and Menzies, respectively, who might not have known exactly what was going on, or may not have been certain how much they should disclose. After all, Cavendish-Bentinck, even as Chairman of the JIC, did not know about ULTRA at this time. Yet Hinsley records that the first attempt during the war to involve the JIC in the discussion of Sigint policy and organisation foundered on Menzies’s opposition. This is an extraordinary assertion, given that Menzies, as a newcomer, presumably could not have had much clout, and he would not have been able to display his ULTRA card. As I have shown, the Y Committee, which determined interception priorities, was likewise undergoing a high degree of turmoil at the time. The whole dispersal of policy and practice for interception and intelligence gathering seems a glorious muddle, and then one remembers that glorious muddling-through is the modus operandi of liberal democracies, and the reason they thrive. Halfway through this chapter of RSS’s wartime translocation, the Conservative administration of Chamberlain had been replaced by Churchill’s coalition, with new ministers, new ideas, new appointments. There was in fact a great deal of trust and creative, open discussion between the departments, unlike the fiercely competitive agencies in Hitler’s Germany, or those cowed into indecision under Stalin, with both intelligence groups mainly telling their respective dictators what they wanted to hear.
And, finally, what about the ‘Greek tragedy’ alluded to by John Curry? We recall that this judgment appeared in the official internal history completed by Curry in 1946. Yet in his draft chapter on Illicit Interception dated October 22, 1945, Curry (who was a rather cautious and neurotic individual, as Liddell’s Diaries inform us) came to a very different conclusion. “It is nevertheless true to say that the benefits derived as a result of R.S.S. being under the control, first of the War Office, and secondly of M.I.6. were considerable and the results achieved and the benefits to intelligence work were immense. However, one is left with the feeling that had M.I.5 accepted responsibility for the organisation in 1938 a great deal of the trouble which ultimately arose between R.S.S. and M.I.5. and the ultimate change of command in 1941, would never have arisen and indeed the organisation detecting illicit wireless transmissions would have been just as good, if not better, than the one that ultimately emerged.”
That is a weak and fudgy statement that sounds as if Curry was trying to please too many audiences. Why those multiple ‘ultimates’? Is Curry referring to friction between RSS and MI5 before the ‘ultimate change of command’, or that which occurred afterwards? Was his subjective and unanalytical ‘feeling’ shared by other officers? Why did Curry alone believe that MI5 would have found the right talent and skills to sort out RSS’s house, when its own organisation was in such a mess, and short of managerial talent, and Simpson had resigned? If the SIS control turned out to be a disaster, why did he not say so?
I suspect that the ‘Greek tragedy’ conclusion may have been inserted by Petrie himself. Harrison implies (tacitly) that it might have been the Director-General who doctored Curry’s official history, since he disagreed with Curry’s conclusions, and wanted a firmer statement made on Cowgill’s obstinacies. Harrison, by the way, clearly identifies the ‘Greek tragedy’ as the withholding of ISOS material in April 1942 by Cowgill. Yet that was an Act III episode that was overcome before the finale. I have pointed out before how the circumstances of Petrie’s retirement are finessed by Andrew: I suspect Petrie had discovered some of the nasty smells that derived from a flawed interception policy when he retired in 1946. It is possible that he then realised that a deal between SIS and MI5 had already been in the works when his opinion was sought, one that effectively hamstrung him in his effort to protect the nation from the malign efforts of Soviet spies. Ensuring that his opinion of the whole affair was recorded for posterity was his swan-song.
(I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Austin, for his very helpful comments during the evolution of this article, and to Stan Ames and Bob King for their research contributions and insights. The conclusions made in it, and any errors therein, are mine alone.)
A few months ago, I noticed an advertisement that Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, had placed in the New York Times. The appearance reminded me of an approach I had made to the airline over forty-five years ago, in England, when, obviously with not enough serious things to do at the time, and maybe overtaken by some temporary lovelorn Weltschmerz, I had written a letter to its Publicity Manager, suggesting a slogan that it might profitably use to help promote its brand.
Miraculously, this letter recently came to light as I was sorting out some old files. I keep telling my wife, Sylvia, that she need not worry about the clutter that I have accumulated and taken with me over the years – from England to Connecticut, to New Jersey and to Pennsylvania, and then back to Connecticut before our retirement transplantation to North Carolina in 2001. The University of Eastern Montana has generously committed to purchasing the whole Percy archive, so that it will eventually be boxed up and sent to the Ethel Hays Memorial Library in Billings for careful and patient inspection by students of mid-twentieth century social life in suburban Surrey, England.
I reproduce the letter here:
Letter to Aeroflot, March 1972
I notice that you have started advertising on London buses. I have for some time thought that a good slogan for Aeroflot would be: ‘Happiness is just an Ilyushin’, which is a pretty awful pun, but a fairly Russian sentiment. E.G.
. . .В себя ли заглянешь, там прошлого нет и следа;
И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно . . . (Lermontov)
Yours faithfully, R. A. Percy”
[Dimitri Obolensky, in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, translates this fragment of an untitled poem as follows: “If you look within yourself, there is not a trace of the past there; the joys and the torments – everything there is worthless . . .”]
I am not sure why Aeroflot was advertising on London Transport vehicles at the time, since the Man on the Clapham Omnibus was probably not considering then a holiday in Sochi or Stalingrad, and anyone who did not have to use the airline would surely choose the western equivalent. Nevertheless, I thought my sally quite witty at the time, though I did not receive the favour of a reply. Did homo sovieticus, with his known frail sense of humour, not deem my proposal worthy of merit? After all, humour was a dangerous commodity in Soviet times: repeating a joke about Stalin might get you denounced by a work colleague or neighbour and sent to the Gulag, while Stalin himself derived his variety of laughs from ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak late at night, and forcing his drinking-pals on the Politburo to watch him.
I think it unlikely that the state-controlled entity would have hired a Briton as its publicity manager, but of course it may not have had a publicity manager at all. Maybe my letter did not reach the right person, or maybe it did, but he or she could not be bothered to reply to some eccentric Briton. Or maybe the letter was taken seriously, but then the manager thought about Jimmy Ruffin’s massive 1966 hit What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQywZYoGB1g) , and considered that its vibrant phrase ‘Happiness is just an illusion/filled with darkness and confusion’ might not communicate the appropriate atmosphere as Aeroflot’s passengers prepared to board the 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Minsk. We shall never know.
The Stalin-Class S. S. Baltika
My first real encounter with homo sovieticus had occurred when I was a member of a school party to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. As we went through customs after disembarking from the good ship Baltika, I recall the officer asking me, in all seriousness, whether I was bringing in ‘veppons’ with me. After verifying what he had asked, I was able to deny such an attempt at contrabandage. I had conceived of no plans to abet an armed uprising in the Land of the Proletariat, as I thought it might deleteriously affect my prospects of taking up the place offered me at Christ Church, Oxford, the following October. Moreover, it seemed a rather pointless question to pose, as I am sure the commissars would have inspected all baggage anyway, but perhaps they would have doubled my sentence if they had caught me lying to them, as well as smuggling in arms. Yet it showed the absurd protocol-oriented thinking of the security organs: ‘Be sure to ask members of English school groups whether they are smuggling in weapons to assist a Troyskyist insurrection against the glorious motherland’.
At least it was not as naïve as the question that the US customs officer asked me, when I visited that country for the first time about eleven years later: ‘Do you have any intentions to overthrow the government of the United States?’. Did he really expect a straight answer? When H. G. Wells asked his mistress, Moura Budberg, whether she was a spy, she told him very precisely that, whether she was a spy or not, the answer would have to be ‘No’. That’s what spies do: lies and subterfuge. If I really did have plans for subversion in the United States, the first thing I would have done when I eventually immigrated here would be to plant a large Stars and Stripes on my front lawn, and wear one of those little pins that US politicians choose to place in their lapels, in the manner that Guy Burgess always sported his Old Etonian tie, to prove their patriotism. So the answer in Washington, as in Leningrad, was ‘No’. That was, incidentally, what Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote to his parents in July 1940 that Americans were ‘open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances’. These same people who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, and Alger Hiss for perjury, would have to work to convict Tony Percy for the lesser charge of deceiving a customs official.
H.G. Wells, Maxim Gorky & Moura Budberg
I did not manage to speak to many homines sovietici during my time in the Soviet Union, but I did have one or two furtive meetings with a young man who was obviously dead scared of the KGB, but even keener to acquire nylon shirts and ballpoint pens from me, which I handed over at a night-time assignation in some park in Leningrad. That was clearly very foolish on my part, but it gave me an early indication that, despite the several decades of Leninist, Stalinist, Khruschevian and Brezhnevian indoctrination and oppression, the Communist Experiment had not succeeded in eliminating the free human spirit completely. Moreover, despite the ‘command economy’, the Soviets could not provide its citizens with even basic goods. When the Soviet troops invaded eastern Europe in 1944, among other violations, they cleared the shelves, grabbed watches, and marvelled at flush toilets that worked. As Clive James wrote in his essay on Coco Chanel: “It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.”
Piata-Victoriei Square, Bucharest
My only other direct experience with life behind the Iron Curtain was in Bucharest, in 1980. In an assignment on which I now look back on with some shame, I was chartered with flying to Romania to install a software package that turned out to be for the benefit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, probably for the Securitate. I changed planes in Zürich, and took a TAROM flight (not in an Ilyushin, I think, but in a BAC-111) to reach Ceausescu’s version of a workers’ paradise. The flight crew was surly, for they had surely glimpsed the delights of Zürich once more, but knew that they were trapped in Romania, and had probably been spied upon as they walked round one of the most glittering of the foreign cities. And yet: I had been briefed beforehand to bring in some good whisky and a stack of ‘male magazines’ to please my contacts among the party loyalists. This time, I was able to bypass customs as a VIP: my host escorted me past the lines directly to the car waiting for us, where I was driven to my hotel, and handed over my copies of The Cricketer and Church Times for the enjoyment of the Romanian nomenklatura. I spent the Sunday walking around the city. The population was mostly cowed and nervous: there was a crude attempt to entrap me in the main square. During my project, I was able to watch at close hand the dynamics of the work environment in the Ministry, where the leader (obviously a carefully selected Party apparatchik) was quick to quash any independence of thought, or attempts at humour, in the cadre that he managed. A true homo sovieticus daciensis.
The fantasy that occupied Lenin’s mind was that a new breed of mankind could be created, based on solid proletariat lineage, and communist instruction. The New Man would be obedient, loyal, malleable, unimaginative, unselfish, unthinking. Universal literacy meant universal indoctrination. The assumption was accompanied by the belief that, while such characteristics could be inculcated in captive youth, inherited traits of the ‘bourgeoisie’ would have to be eradicated. The easiest way of achieving that was to kill them off, if they did not escape first. There were almost as many executions in the Red Terror of 1918 as there had been death sentences in Russian courts between 1815 and 1917, as Stephen Kotkin reminds us in Volume 1 of his epic new biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin also recounts the following: “Still, Lenin personally also forced through the deportation in fall 1922 of theologians, linguists, historians, mathematicians, and other intellectuals on two chartered German ships, dubbed the Philosophers’ Steamers. GPU notes on them recorded ‘knows a foreign language,’ ‘uses irony’.” Irony was not an attribute that homo sovieticus could easily deploy. What was going on had nevertheless been clear to some right from the start. In its issue of June 2, 2018, the Spectator magazine reprinted an item from ‘News of the Week’ a century ago, where Lenin and Trotsky were called out as charlatans and despots, and the revolution a cruel sham.
The trouble was that, once all the persons with education or talent had been eliminated or exiled, there were left only hooligans, psychopaths, or clodpolls to run the country. Kotkin again: “A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’” This hatred of any intellectual pretensions – and thus presumptions about independent thinking – would lead straight to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with their execution of persons wearing eyeglasses, as they latter could obviously read, and thus might harbour ideas subversive to agrarian levelling.
Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, crystallized the issue in his memoir Next Stop Execution. “Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” [The author acknowledged the ungrammatical plural form he used.] Thus Gordievsky classified both the common citizenry intimidated into submission and the apparatchiks themselves as homines sovietici. He also pointed out that what he found refreshing in English people generally was their capability for spontaneity, their discretion, their politeness, all qualities that had been practically eliminated in Russia under Communism. He may have been moving in sequestered circles, but the message is clear.
I sometimes reflect on what the life of a Soviet citizen, living perhaps from around 1922 to 1985, must have been like, if he or she survived that long. Growing up among famine and terror, informing against family members, with relatives perhaps disappearing into the Gulag because of the whisperings of a jealous neighbor, or the repeating of a dubious joke against Stalin, witnessing the show-trials and their ghastly verdicts, surviving the Nazi invasion and the horrors of serving in the Soviet armed forces, and then dealing with the long post-war deprivation and propaganda, dying before the curtain was pulled back, and the whole horrible mess was shown to be rotten. Yet some citizens had been taken in: they believed that all the suffering was worthwhile in the cause of Communism. In Secondhand Time, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich offers searing portraits of such persons, as well as of those few who kept their independence of thought alive. Some beaten down by the oppression, some claiming that those who challenged Stalin were guilty, some merely accepting that it was a society based upon murder, some who willingly made all the sacrifices called for. Perhaps it was a close-run thing: the Communist Experiment, which cast its shadow over all of Eastern Europe after the battle against Fascism was won, almost succeeded in snuffing out the light.
(Incidentally, in connection with this, I recommend Omer Bartov’s searing Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, published this year. Its title is unfortunate, as it is not about genocide. It tells of the citizens of a town in Galicia in the twentieth century, eventually caught between the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It shows how individuals of any background, whether they were Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Jews, when provoked by pernicious demagogues or poisonous dogmas, could all behave cruelly to betray or murder people – neighbours – who had formerly been harmless to them. All it took was being taken in by the rants of perceived victimhood and revenge, or believing that they might thus be able to save their own skins for a little longer by denouncing or eliminating someone else.)
I was prompted to write this piece, and dredge out some old memories, by my reading of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War a few months ago. In many ways, this is an extraordinary book, broad in its compass, and reflecting some deep and insightful research. But I think it is also a very immoral work. It starts off by suggesting, in hoary Leninist terminology, that the battle was between ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ – a false contrast, as it was essentially between totalitarianism and liberal, pluralist democracy. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.) Westad goes on to suggest that the Cold War’s intensity could have been averted if the West had cooperated with the Soviet Union more – a position that ranks of sheer appeasement, and neglects the lessons of ‘cooperation’ that dramatically failed in World War II. (see http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/) But what really inflamed me was the following sentence: “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” On reading that, I felt like hurling the volume from a high window upon the place beneath, being stopped solely by the fact that it was a library book, and that it might also have fallen on one of the peasants tending to the estate, or even damaged the azaleas.
‘Some people opposed the . . . rule’? Is that what the Gulag and the Great Terror and the Ukrainian Famine were about, and the samizdat literature of the refuseniks, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many many more? Did these people protest noisily in the streets, and then go home to their private dwellings, resume their work, perhaps writing letters to the editors of progressive magazines about the ‘wicked Tories’ (sorry, I mean ‘Communists’)? How on earth could a respectable academic be so tone-deaf to the sufferings and struggles of the twentieth century? Only if he himself had been indoctrinated and propagandized by the left-wing cant that declares that Stalin was misunderstood, that he had to eliminate real enemies of his revolution, that the problem with Communism was not its goals but its execution, that capitalism is essentially bad, and must be dismantled in the name of Equality, and all that has been gradually built with liberal democracy should be abandoned. Roland Philipps, who recently published a biography of Donald Maclean (‘A Spy Named Orphan’), and who boasts both the diplomat Roger Makins (the last mandarin to see Maclean before he absconded to Moscow) and Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips (who served as an ambulance-driver with the Republicans in Spain) as his grandfathers, asked Wogan, shortly before he died in 1993, where he stood on the durability of Communism. “He said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again, and next time be successful.” Ah, me. Wogan Phillips, like Donald Maclean, was a classic homo sovieticus to the end.
Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips
As we consider the popularity of such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it is as if all the horrors of socialism have been forgotten. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a full-page report on the disaster of Venezuela without mentioning the word ‘socialism’ once: it was apparently Chávez’s and Maduro’s ‘populism’ that put them in power. A generation is growing up in China that will not remember Tiananmen Square, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will not be found in the history books. Maybe there is an analogy to the fashion that, as a schoolboy, I was given a rosy view of the British Empire, and was not told of the 1943 famine in India, or the post-war atrocities in Kenya. But I soon concluded that imperialism was an expensive, immoral and pointless anachronism, and had no interlocking relationship with liberal democracy, or even capitalism, despite what the Marxists said. This endemic blindness to history is ten times worse.
So why did my generation of teachers not point out the horrors of communism? Was it because they had participated in WWII, and still saw the Soviet Union as a gallant ally against Hitler? Were they really taken in by the marxisant nonsense that emerged from the Left Bank and the London School of Economics? Or were they simply trying to ratchet down the hostility of the Cold War, out of sympathy for the long-suffering Soviet citizenry? I cannot recall a single mentor of mine who called out the giant prison-camp for what it really was. Not the historians, not the Russian teachers. The latter may have been a bit too enamoured with the culture to make the necessary distinction. Even Ronald Hingley, one of my dons at Oxford, who was banned from ever revisiting the Soviet Union after his criticisms of it, did not encourage debate. I had to sort it out myself, and from reading works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, under the snooker-table in my library rests a complete set of the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century, issued in 96 weekly parts in the 1960s. (Yes, you Billings librarians: soon they too shall be yours.) In part 37, that glittering historian, TV showman, hypocrite and Soviet stooge A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” For a whole generation, perhaps, the rot started here. That’s what we mostly heard in the 1960s. But Lenin was vicious, and terror was his avowed method of domination.
President Putin is now trying to restore Stalin’s reputation, as a generation that witnessed the horrors of his dictatorship is now disappearing. So is Putin then a homo sovieticus? Well, I’d say ‘No’. Maybe he was once, but he is more a secret policeman who enjoys power. The appellation should be used more to describe those cowed and indoctrinated by the regime rather than those who command it. Putin’s restoration of Stalin is more a call to national pride than a desire to re-implement the totalitarian state. Communism is over in Russia: mostly they accept that the Great Experiment failed, and they don’t want to try it again. More like state capitalism on Chinese lines, with similar tight media and information control, but with less entrepreneurialism. As several observers have noted, Putin is more of a fascist now than a communist, and fascism is not an international movement. Maybe there was a chance for the West to reach out (‘cooperate’!) after the fall of communism, but the extension of NATO to the Baltic States was what probably pushed Putin over the edge. The Crimea and Ukraine have different histories from those in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and I would doubt whether Putin has designs on re-invading what Kotkin calls Russia’s ‘limitrophe’ again. He is happier selectively cosying up to individual nations of Europe, especially to those countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and now maybe Italy and Austria, and even Turkey) whose current leaders express sympathy for his type of nationalism, while trying to undermine the structure of the European Union itself, and the NATO alliance.
So whom to fear now – outside Islamoterrorism? Maybe homo europaensis? I suspect that the affection that many Remainers have for the European Union is the fact that it is a softer version of the Socialist State, taking care of us all, trying to achieve ‘stability’ by paying lip-service to global capitalism while trying to rein it in at the same time, and handing out other people’s money to good causes. And it is that same unresponsive and self-regarding bureaucracy that antagonizes the Brexiteers, infuriated at losing democratic control to a body that really does not allow any contrariness in its hallways. (Where is the Opposition Party in Brussels?) I did not vote in the Referendum, but, if I had known then of all the legal complexities, I might have voted ‘Remain’, and fought for reform from inside. But my instincts were for ‘Leave’. If the European Project means tighter integration, political and economic, then the UK would do best to get out as soon as possible, a conclusion other countries may come to. The more oppressive and inflexible the European Union’s demands are (to discourage any other defectors), the more vigorously should the UK push against its increasing stranglehold. That does not mean goodbye to Goethe and Verdi, or those comforting ’cultural exchanges’, but it does require a bold stance on trade agreements, and limitations on migration of labour. We should beware of all high-faluting political projects that are experimental, and which remove the responsibility of politicians to their local constituents, as real human beings will be used (and maybe destroyed) in the process. A journalist in the New York Times wrote a few weeks ago that he was ‘passionate’ about the European Union. That is a dangerous sign: never become passionate over mega-political institutions. No Communist Experiment. No New Deal. No Great Society. No European Project. (And, of course, no Third Reich or Cultural Revolution.) Better simply to embrace the glorious muddle that is liberal democracy, and continue to try to make it work. Clive James again: “It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.” (I wish I had been aware of that quotation earlier: I would have used it as one of the headliners to Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.)
I close with a riposte to A. J. P. Taylor, extracted from one of the great books of the twentieth century, The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of the best pieces from Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple columns in the Daily Telegraph, from 1955 to 1980. These pieces are magnificent, daft, absurd, hilarious, and even prescient, where Life can be seen to imitate Art, as Wharton dismantles all the clichéd cant of the times, and anticipates many of the self-appointed spokespersons of loony causes and champions of exaggerated entitlement and victimisation who followed in the decades to come. Occasionally he is simply serious, in an old-fashioned way, as (for example) where he takes down the unflinching leftist Professor G. D. H. Cole, who in 1956 was trying to rally the comrades by reminding them that ‘while much has been done badly in the Soviet Union, the Soviet worker enjoys in most matters an immensely enlarged freedom’, adding that ‘to throw away Socialism because it can be “perverted” to serve totalitarian ends is to throw out the baby with the dirty bath-water’. Writes Wharton:
“This is familiar and most manifest nonsense. What has gone ‘amiss’ in Socialist countries is no mere chance disfigurement, like a false moustache scrawled by a madman on a masterpiece. It is Socialism itself, taken to its logical conclusion.
The death of freedom, the enslavement of the masses, the withering of art and culture, the restless, ruthless hunt for scapegoats, the aggressive folie de grandeur of Socialist dictators – these are no mere ‘perversions’ of Socialism. They are Socialism unperverted, an integral and predictable part of any truly Socialist system.
We are not faced here with so much dirty bath-water surrounding a perfectly healthy, wholesome Socialist baby. The dirty bathwater is Socialism, and the baby was drowned in it at birth.”